High Level Blogging Tips for Newbies

I am on a mission to play more of the newer free-to-play MMO offerings on the market, and so tonight I am installing Everquest 2! Are you playing EQ2? Would you recommend your server? I’d love to hear newbie suggestions!

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There is a theme going on in my feed reader this morning, and that theme is the Newbie Blogger Initiative! Apparently May is for encouraging folks to take that step from reader to blogger, which is an excellent goal.

For more information about NBI, check out the official forums. In the meantime, here are a few random high level blogging tips that I find helpful, and perhaps you will too:

Edit. Between writing the first word and about 15 minutes after I hit the “publish” button I will edit out between 25-50% of a post. You may not need to do so much (I tend to ramble) but trust me that people are more likely to enjoy a tight 650 words than a meandering 1000.

You don’t have to know everything. There is nothing wrong with putting yourself out there and being wrong! We’re (generally) gaming enthusiasts, not serious developers or industry experts. It’s okay to make guesses and create off-the-cuff gaming theories and have strong opinions about HOW BLIZZARD’S LFD SYSTEM WAS THE WORST THING EVER ARRRGH. However, a little humility goes a long way, so also don’t be afraid of admitting when you were wrong about something.

There’s nothing wrong with having a strong opinion. I am a big fan of speaking firmly and plainly when it’s called for. I usually try to be polite, but if we all thought the same thing all the time then there would be no need for blogs. I love posts where people have a strong, possibly dissident, opinion and they carefully explain it to me.

Blog community drama is a poor topic. We humans sure do love to form little communities and then fight each other within them. If you come across some cross-blog battle, resist the urge to post directly about how “X said Y and they’re a bad person”. It has a tendency to get ugly very quickly, and most importantly it’ll be inscrutable and boring to any reader who isn’t following the drama along. If it’s something you feel really strongly about, try writing about the issue itself and not the people involved.

Have fun and try new things. While Herding Cats has been fortunate enough to find an audience and I certainly don’t want to alienate those folks (you!), it’s also my writing playground. I wanna try writing short posts every day for a while? Okay! Hey, let’s practice writing technical guides. You know what would be fun? A podcast. It’s your site, so don’t be shy about trying new things if you want to.

In short, Liore’s secret to blogging: be honest, be humble, be opinionated, have fun. And, um, edit. A lot.

A Dumb Article About Smart Games

Earlier today The Brainy Gamer took a well-placed swing at an insufferable article in The Atlantic Monthly with the insufferable Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid. The article starts out with a sideways insult (“video games are juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy”) and doesn’t get much better.

One of my pet peeves is anti-intellectualism, and I’ve been known to rail at length against the attitude that ignorance is cool. But, ye gods, Mr. Blow comes across as a huge wanker. During the course of the article Blow manages to “accidentally” play poignant moments from an audiobook of Thoreau’s Walden (while decrying Anna Karenina as trash, natch), tries really hard to enigmatically break into tai chi, and talks about how his latest game is filled audio of himself narrating his “deepest secrets” about being ignored in grade school. Seriously, dude? Gimme a break.

Of course, that’s just me getting in a few verbal blows on some jerk in a magazine, which is satisfying if not entirely mature or topical. The real problem of the article is that it’s a complete dismissal of the entire video game industry. Taylor Clark, the author, even starts a page by saying:

“There’s no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb.”

Oh god, SO PRECIOUS. The second sentence just screams, “video games are for dumb man nerds” which is both rude and also shows a disturbing lack of comprehension about the current video game market. More importantly, though, the author has tried to slip two arguments through that first sentence as though they are common wisdom: that video games are dumb, and that it “needs to be said”.

The Brainy Gamer suggests addressing the first argument by creating a Smart Game Catalog, which is a great idea. There are plenty of games that have tickled my thinkin’ bits, and certainly more than the “handful” implied in this article. Want some examples? Plants vs. Zombies, SpaceChem, hardcore speed runs in Kingdom of Loathing (I have never done so much paper planning for one hour of play), Atom Zombie Smashers, Machinarium, Portal.

Seems like there are plenty of “smart” games to me. So wait, is Clark (and Blow) instead arguing that video games should be literary masterpieces? If he’s looking for story-telling prowess he should check in with the Mass Effect trilogy (ending aside, a magical story), interesting non-American offerings such as Deadly Premonition, and truly unique interactive story experiences like Yumi Nikki and more recently Journey.

Of course, there are plenty of dumb games. My response to that is: so what? Does this really “need to be said”? I doubt anyone with a genuine interest in games will be surprised to hear that they are not necessarily always high art. Does the existence of superhero comic books invalidate the art of Walden? Does the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey mean that the entire book industry is dumb?

By my definition games are supposed to be a form of play or sport that we find fun, whether smart or not. Way to smash open the entire industry with the unbidden revelation that people relax and waste time with.. time wasters. You just blew the elf ears right off of my head!

In short I, um, really didn’t like this article. The whole “video games are for manchildren” thesis is not only coming to us straight from 1990, but it’s also an incredibly simplistic (and, I would argue, privileged) approach that ignores other fascinating conundrums in modern gaming. I suppose none of those topics would have made Clark and Blow feel so clever, though.

My Ex-Guild Leader Shame Cycle

Way back in the day, maybe at the end of TBC, the cats were raiding 12 hours a week. It seemed pretty easy to pull off at the time. Early on in WotLK we decided that the content was easier and less time was needed, so we dropped to 9 hours a week. Near the end of WotLK, as people lost interest in WoW, we dropped a day and went down to 6 hours a week. That dropped again in SWTOR. The content was casual, and so were we, at a robust 4 hours a week over two days. I usually attended at least one of those days.

And yet I find myself now coming up with excuses to avoid group content. Is my life actually so action packed that I can’t spare a couple of hours? Of course not. So what’s the deal?

I’ve written before about how the year-long doldrums at the end of WoW’s WotLK expansion and my own hyper-sensitivity combined to change Liore from overly protective guild leader to angry attendance rage monster. Even though I haven’t really managed a raid group in 18 months (dear Gab and Corr, I don’t know if you read this but you are both the bestest) the mere hint of having to do so brings on the sense of an impending panic attack. While I enjoy doing the group content itself, I seriously cannot mentally handle anything that even vaguely looks like responsibility for the group.

Yes, in my ideal world I would log on whenever I want and have a selection of awesome people online to do group content with if I felt like it, with no other expectations. Oh, and they would also be good players who like a challenge! Unfortunately as someone who was once very involved in creating exactly this scenario, I know that it is damn unlikely to happen coincidentally. It takes quite a bit of effort to recruit said awesome people, to find ways to peaceably and politely identify the best players in the bunch, to create a community that encourages people to log on outside of scheduled events.

Seriously, just writing that paragraph made me almost break out into hives. My dilemma is this: knowing intimately how much thought and effort is required to run a good guild, how can I expect someone else to take on all that work while I just log in when the mood strikes me and soak up all the benefits? I don’t begrudge others taking that advantage, but somehow as someone who I know CAN organize such a volunteer group it seems selfish for me to not do it. And yet.. I don’t want to do it.

No one wants to run the Cats like a serious guild anyway, I don’t think. I could check out another guild for a game while still being part of the Cats’ social scene, which would be perfectly reasonable, but again is it fair to expect someone else to do all the work to make my playtime more fun? Isn’t that abdicating my own responsibility, even if I don’t really want it?

When I sit down to play SWTOR I think about how raid attendance has been dropping off and I really should do some team-building and cheerleading but I just don’t like the game as much as others do and I’m sorry. When I sit down to play RIFT or WoW I feel guilty for not playing SWTOR, and I’m sorry. I have this group of smart, awesome players who right now are sort of aimless but I could probably sort and recruit them into a reliable group with more of a focus on group content and events but then I don’t and people wander off and I’m sorry. Lately after work I seem to just endlessly surf social networks and cat gifs until bedtime, hiding from my virtual life.

The other day in IRC a guildie made a joke about how control of the Cats would have to be pried from my cold, dead hands, and although he meant well I felt pretty stung. I don’t want it! Take it. Take it. Take it and build something amazing that we can all enjoy so I’ll stop berating myself for not wanting to do it.

Turns Out My Line in the Sand is HERE (GW2, etc)

I know it’s only April, but if I had to name the big theme for the gaming industry in 2012 I’d say it’s the rapidly developing animosity between players and developers/distributors. Seen from one side, it’s honest working man David vs. bad business practices Goliath. From the other, it’s entitled gamers vs. art and market realities. I’m usually pretty firmly in the former camp, as can be attested to by the quasi-socialist rants I keep posting on other people’s blogs (sorry, Azuriel) about personal purchasing power and not puttin’ up with crap from The Man. However, to be completely honest I haven’t actually followed any of my own advice.. until now.

I bought the Day 1 DLC for Mass Effect 3 even though I do not in the least accept the argument that DLCs are created in some magical free time when otherwise talented video game professionals would be put out on the streets. (I was literally told by a fellow who works for a known MMO company that denying the legitimacy of Day 1 DLCs is condemning small children to starvation. Why do I hate ART and BABIES?) Despite my misgivings, I am stupid for Shepard and there was no way I was going to miss out on an arguably critical piece of lore like meeting a Prothean, so I held my nose and bought the DLC.

So anyway, now I find myself staring at the Guild Wars 2 pre-purchase website. Not pre-order — pre-purchase. Blizzard really formalized the idea of selling MMO beta access with their Annual Pass, and Arenanet has run with it and decided that only people who pay for the game in its entirety right now will have beta access. This is a game, by the way, that is already years over their first admittedly optimistic estimated release date (they’ve had a “playable demo” at the last three PAX Primes I’ve attended), and in fact there still has been no indication of when players can expect to actually play the thing.

To be fair it would be incredibly surprising if Arenanet were to disappear with everyone’s pre-purchase money, and common sense says that the game will be on the shelves before the end of the year. However, I really do not like the new business practice of selling “beta” access. (I put that in scare quotes because if I’m paying for it, it’s not really just bug testing.)

What am I buying by giving Arenanet my money an estimated six months in advance (and that might be a generous estimate)? Broken down to its purest economic logic, that $60 could be sitting in my bank account accruing interest instead of doing the same for Arenanet. And let’s face it, it’s not like some indie Kickstarter* where they need the money to even create the game.

I have frequently joked with friends that all MMOs that are under development are amazing while all released MMOs are trash, and I’m sure distributors have taken notice of that hype cycle. Why NOT try and get our money now, when the future is filled with promise and Reddit hasn’t yet turned on you like an army of angry, neckbeard-ed howler monkeys? Hell, The Secret World is letting people buy Lifetime Memberships now, and even the gaming press hasn’t seen half of that game.

I regret my decision to buy the ME3 DLC. I liked the content but I really should not support bad business practices, and with that in mind I’m not going to pre-purchase Guild Wars 2. I feel it just opens the door to routinely selling beta access as a game perk, I don’t want to encourage companies soliciting full retail or subscription payments before even having a release date, and I think we gaming types should be more demanding about trying before we do any buying.

I am just as notoriously bad as any gamer about following through on my purchasing threats, but it seems I really do have a line in the sand and today.. today I’m not crossing it.

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* Speaking of indie Kickstarters, the folks at Glass Bottom Games would like our help in creating an anti-gravity racing game for desktop computers. I know a few good folks at GBG, and I loved Wipeout way back when, so now I’m letting you know.

How to Not Be a Jerk (politics-y)

The inspiration for this post came from two other posts that I don’t even want to link to, because giving them hits seems wrong. One was a post by an MMO blogger about how all feminists are part of a cult of angry man-haters (and the ensuing comments about how much people hate those crazy bitches). The second was a post by a video game correspondant for a well-known news site who wrote that “geeky” women shouldn’t try and stand out in a crowd or they’re just fake geeks doing it for male attention.

Seriously, what the hell people?

If you read this weblog with any regularity you know I’m a feminist and I’m not afraid to drop 600 words of social justice theory on you at the slightest provocation, but that’s not what I’m gonna do right now. Instead, I wanna talk about the main way I personally try to be more understanding about the world, instead of just getting upset and writing crazy insular posts about how everyone who I don’t like is a slut.

Are you ready? Here it is: My experiences are not everyone else’s experiences.

Pretty much my favorite phrase in the whole world of rhetoric is “anecdotes are not data”. My personal experiences and stories other people have told me during my life and shit I see on television does not equal the entirety of human experience.

For example, I have never been harassed in a scary, overtly sexual manner in an MMO. I’ve had some people try to good naturedly push the line, but never out of anger or as a power play. One of the big arguments against the original plan for RealID was that using real names on the official forum would expose people who were victims of stalking and other scary sexualized harassment. If I’ve never been harassed in that way, does that mean I didn’t support people who objected to RealID for that reason? Does that mean I think Apple Cider’s story of harassment isn’t real or significant? Of course not!

I was the guild leader and occasional raid leader for a heroic raiding guild for quite some time. Thanks to recruitment methods and just guild culture out of the hundreds of people I’ve recruited over the years only 2 or 3 at the most ever had a problem with having a woman as “the boss”. Does that mean that women raid guild leaders are a common occurrence, or never experience any struggles with being respected? No, of course not — hardcore raiding is infamous for its general “get back in the kitchen” culture. It may not have held back my raiding experience, but that doesn’t mean no one else has ever found themselves in the position of not being listened to or being marginalized in a raid group because they’re a woman.

I had a really good discussion in IRC this morning with a guildie about PVP in MMOs. He was explaining that what he’d really like to see is PvP where no advantages are granted for the time invested — basically a Team Fortress 2 mini-game in an MMO. And to be honest, my very first response was to get my back up. MMOs are all about time investment! I like to invest in my character and be an achiever! What is this “everyone is a winner” crap!

But.. hang on. My guildie said he’d like it to be an option, not the final word in online PvP. Okay, so maybe a game could cater to both of us. (In fact, I believe GW2 will do this, but that is for another post.) But.. well, now that I think about it, why would it have to cater to both of us to be acceptable? There are a ton of MMOs that grant superiority based on the time invested. Why couldn’t there be one game that just has “casual”, TF2-style PvP? Must every game cater to my whims?

Of course not. Despite my bad attitude and PvP experience I am in fact not the final arbiter of what a “real PvPer” is, just as being a woman or a geek does not make me a final arbiter of what a “real woman” is or a “real geek girl”.

Take a step back, everyone. Are you assuming that your life experiences are the same as everyone else’s? Or that yours are more “correct” for some reason? Perspective is your friend. Go get some.

Game Journalism and ME3: are games art or commerce?

(note: no spoilers in this post)

“Some people have argued that in Mass Effect 3, BioWare has delivered something different from what it promised. This is irrelevant. In its role as both an art object and a consumer product, Mass Effect 3 remains the property of its maker. As a final product, it is the expression of those who created it, and its sole objective is to be consumed–not re-created–by its audience.” – Laura Parker, GameSpot

“There are some things that don’t make a ton of sense—can someone explain the actions of the Normandy in those final moments?—but many of the complaints about the game’s ending ring false, and show more about video game fans than they do Bioware.” – Ben Kuchera, Penny Arcade

In my opinion the most interesting aspect of the whole Mass Effect 3 ending has been the line it has drawn between (many) game journalists and (many) players. A lot of players are angry about the ending, even raising almost $70,000 for charity in an attempt to get the attention of Bioware. The response from a number of the popular gaming news sites, however, has essentially been to tell players to settle down and stop whining. It’s a fascinating divide.

Are the professionals right? Honestly, it’s hard for me to tell as I’m one of the people who are dissatisfied with the ending. I wouldn’t have complained if I stumbled into a traditional happy ending, but I don’t think I’m unable to accept sadness or dark themes. And there are some definite weird plot holes in the final moments that even the pros agree were poorly realized.

On the other hand, as usual the internet has managed to take everything to extremes. There’s telling people that you don’t like the end of ME3, and then there’s filing a complaint about it with the FTC or threatening Bioware employees with violence. I have no truck with those people, though, and neither do most gamers.

However, the repeated argument that games are untouchable art and players are just entitled whiners is, in my opinion, ivory tower nonsense. It reminds me a lot of the response of game developers and publishers in the face of criticism about DLCs: both groups are telling consumers that they should stop worrying their pretty little heads about the details and just keep consuming. We bought a game, not the right to an opinion, apparently. If we are upset about the ending it’s because we just can’t understand it.

I am happy to argue in favor of video games being art as much as a television show could be art, but what the journalists who use this argument ignore is that the most artful game available for sale in the world is still very much a good in an extremely active market. (Oddly enough the only news site that seemed to understand this was Forbes. Yes, I’m linking to Forbes.) These journalists apparently think that players are sullying up the genre with our coarse insistence on making a game a consumer product, but that shows remarkably little understanding of real world context.

We buy games. Can you review the Mona Lisa on Amazon? Has there ever been a multi-million dollar advertising campaign for Rodin’s The Thinker? I will agree that games are an art form completely independent from their critical success and perceived commercial value when Michaelangelo tries to sell us a Sistine Chapel DLC.

What these big news sites have written off with a wave of the hand as “entitlement” is in most cases actually just being an empowered consumer.

Is the ending of Mass Effect 3 automatically terrible because a lot of players say it is? No. Popular does not equal correct. However, it’s foolish for professional gaming journalists to write off player opinion because we apparently just don’t appreciate good art. In this day and age games are a commodity, albeit an artful commodity, and trying to pretend otherwise just alienates players and makes you look out of touch.

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