Blogging Cowboys of the Modern Age

Modern cowboys ride spaceships...

Lately, the MMO “blogosphere” (if it actually exists) has been asking one question.

Where have all the blogging cowboys gone?

The answer’s obvious, isn’t it?

Some grew up and got older and prioritized other things to do with their time than write blog posts – like start a family, begin a new job, play non-MMO games, continue playing MMOs but not bother to chronicle or document it.

The others, well, they haven’t gone anywhere.

But as both the genre and the blog authors get older, interests have diverged, with a myriad variety of games to sate them.

Take a look at the sidebars of the two blogs I check out (MMO Gypsy and Inventory Full)  in lieu of Google Reader to see recent updates of other blogs (I’d love to do the same but default WordPress is crummy) and just scan the subject matter.

Bloggers are talking about WoW, TSW, GW2, Eve, SWTOR, Rift, LOTRO, Firefall, World of Tanks, Civilization, Minecraft, Sims 3, Planescape: Torment, etc.

I scan a good number of these because I’m an inveterate and totally unchoosy game sampler. I own or have played a good number of these, thus understanding the specific jargon used and have a moderate amount of interest in checking out how others are getting along in them.

But to be honest, my greatest attention and most in-depth read throughs are of my immediate game of choice, which firmly ensconces me in a teeny tiny community of three “regulars” – Ravious and Bhagpuss my other partners in wall-of-text-crime, and I’m beginning to worry that Bhagpuss is losing interest in GW2, which is going to leave Ravious and me in a lonely little echo chamber.

Semi-periodic updates and comments by Syp, Syl, Paeroka, Kichwas, J3w3l, Rakuno, Tremayne, Valourborn, Lothirieth, João Carlos, Ursan, and any others I unfortunately missed, let me know there is a mini-community of irregulars who still dabble with GW2 and/or are interested in reading about other people writing about it.

As part of a wider MMO blog community, I lurk around and read and idly comment on a whole bunch of other blogs from time to time: in no particular order, Rowan Blaze, Stubborn, Klepsacovic, Telwyn, Liore, Azuriel, MMOgamerchick, TeshRohanPsychochild, Tobold, Spinks, Saylah, and of course, Wilhelm Arcturus, who got this round’s topic discussion ball rolling.

And if you look at any of the latter blogs, you will see that they too have their own mini game specific communities of TSW people, or Eve Online players, or WoW stalwarts with whom they interact and whose paths I would rarely cross, being not a current player of any of those games.

In the so-called previous heyday, there was mostly only one game to talk about. World of Warcraft. Then later, the “generally understood” peak was the hype surrounding Warhammer when everyone leapt on the blog bandwagon.

Nowadays, you might say that MMO blogs have lost focus, or diversified, depending on how kindly or unkindly you wish to term it.

Personally, I think it’s just an unavoidable symptom of the genre maturing and more games being developed for different niches of MMO players. Progression raiders and sandbox PvPers and themepark achiever tourists all move in separate circles.

As the genre matures, commercialization takes over. News sites like Massively aggregate content and develop their own community. MMOs themselves create forum boards and form their own community nuclei.

And as the younger generation muscles in on older veterans’ territory, they bring with them their Youtube videos and their social media like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, et. al. all of which form different communities to compete with the blogging one for audience attention.

The community I frequent right now  (GW2 Reddit, GW2 forums, Tarnished Coast forums) will not be the same one as an Eve player, or a lost soul looking for the next MMO to satisfy them (Massively’s full of those.)

And that’s as it should be.

Blogging is only one niche of many. But it has a function that is hard to replace by other competitors. It serves as a repository of independent voices – subjective opinion and editorial, personal feedback and reaction, game design analysis, pretty screenshots and commentary.

A post takes less time to consume than a video, there’ll always be room for blogs, if people care to visit and write them.

In short, if you want a blogging community, it behooves you to form your own. Go visit and bookmark your favorite sites to read and leave a comment here and there. Develop your own circle and fellowship.

Some blogging cowboys have settled down, perhaps started families, and become townsmen and farmers and merchants and businessmen.

A few others have hung up their hats, having gotten tired of the existing trail, but still are itching to become pioneers, looking forward to the next gold rush.

Others have become spacemen or conspiracy theorists.

But they all still have interesting stories to tell, if you care to stop by and listen.

GW2/IF: Back on the Narrative Hunt – Emily Short and Fractured Fairy Tales

The terse, evocative beauty of words...

One of the things I started missing while enjoying Guild Wars 2 was narrative. Huh? Doesn’t GW2 have narrative?

Well, yes, and while I don’t mind the later personal story as much as some, and I appreciate the branching choices involved in creating that personal story, one of the things I did feel about it was that it was very… fractured. You’re not meant to go on it non-stop, you’re encouraged to take time out for hearts and DEs and what-have-you.

As a result, I feel a little less story continuity than say, in GW1, where you get to go on a nonstop story mission ride until you get bored, then you go off looking for trouble with side quests and back alley zone exploration and vanquishing. It’s nice enough, for what it is, and I appreciate seeing some of my chosen allies along for the ride in the higher level stuff (though I really miss my first NPC companion Maverick, whom we never see again past level 30.)

Ditto the dungeon stories. I did them completely out of level order and it’s a bit… hard to put them back together in any semblance of plot order. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Destiny’s Edge fights and squabbles a lot in the earlier dungeons, then they kiss (ok, not really) and make up and learn their lessons in the later dungeons, in time for the final big fight.

The world stories are okay, when you talk with the NPCs, it’s pretty entertaining, but there’s not much of a “me” story when wandering the world. Or rather, nothing terribly interesting to relate.

Who wants to hear the story of me following a trail of mithril ores until I got to a cypress tree, slaughtering drakes and wolves and polar bears along the way, until I found an orichalcum ore, yay, then I saw a rich mithril vein and had to figure out how to get to it, and it was guarded by a veteran something or order, and hey, there’s a cave there I never saw, so I went down it and saw stuff, and oooh, a chest, and oh darn, wasn’t I meant to be completing this zone, except by now the vista I was wandering to is somewhere southeast of here instead of northwest so I guess it’s time to head back in that direc…eep, a DE just exploded on me, ok, fightfightfight, and now this escort DE wants me to go that way (looks longingly at the vista)… oh screw it, the vista is always going to be there, trots off after the mass of people following the NPCs…

I guess it’s a narrative, and it’s a player-engendered one, which is sorta kinda sandboxy but not quite, but it’s also the same as what most people are doing, just not in that precise order. It’s a bit more meta-gamey than roleplay-ey, I guess.

There’s perhaps more unique diversity of experience in more sandbox games like Eve, where folks can be isolated in one tiny corner of the universe and have their own special adventures brought on by their self-chosen goals, but for myself, I’ve never really liked the idea of being just a small insignificant cog in some vast machinery understanding only a little part of the overall big puzzle. Fun for a little while, maybe, but I don’t have the patience long term for it.

No, the kind of narrative that will offset the lack of it in GW2 nicely would be short, bite-sized stories where I can take on a role and immerse in a world given to me by the author, and make meaningful choices to drive the story forward, and possibly have it branch out into significantly different endings and consequences based on what I chose to do.

That kind of narrative is best found in interactive fiction (IF) games.

And since GW2 does so wonderfully visually, the perfect yet different complement is literary elegance.

Every year, around this time, I start getting an itch for IF, because of the anticipation of Ifcomp, a yearly competition of interaction fiction (or text-adventure games) where you get to play a bunch of them for two hours and vote on your favorites. I’m about two weeks early, as the voting starts October 1st and authors are just submitting their games in September.

So I decided to check out a bunch of games I haven’t played, and my go-to author for IF is Emily Short, a true master of this medium.

If you haven’t played text-adventure games in a long time, or at all, do give them a try. It’s moved on quite a bit since the stilted unfriendly two word parsers which make trying to solve the game an exercise in authorial mind-reading and walkthrough following. The best of the lot are very well-written, technically clever and conjure up fantastic worlds and characters and dialogue in text.

I first fell in love with Emily Short’s work playing Metamorphoses, which I don’t really recommend to start with for IF newbies, but heartily do for those used to the genre. It’s mysterious, literary, figurative, symbolic, and very very well-coded. The puzzles involve transforming objects into different materials (hence the name of the game) and there are alternative solutions for each puzzle and stuff reacts in a way very consistent with the materials they are made of. It’s very impressive for what it sets out to achieve, and demonstrate what IF can do successfully.

Instead, for newbies, I’d suggest something I just tried a couple days ago and found quite doable. Bronze, part of her Fractured Fairy Tales series, is a story of Beauty and the Beast. It’s notable for having a novice mode, which explicitly helps out those new to the entire genre. It’s anything but a simple story, though, as you explore through the Beast’s castle, you will learn more of the history of its inhabitants and form your own opinions and emotions up to the point of the ending(s) where one can choose to have vengeance on or save certain characters (for whatever reasons or morals or ethics guide your hand.)

For the ultimate in super-short entertainment, A Day for Fresh Sushi is what is known in IF as a “one-room” puzzle, apparently solvable in three moves. As far as I understand it, this was a speed IF, coded in two hours, so it’s not as comprehensively parser foolproof as most of Emily Short’s other works but it’s amusing five minute entertainment to read the snark of the titular evil talking fish character while you’re trying to feed him. Low investment entertainment, worth trying, just don’t expect anything resembling perfection, but pretty funny.

Eg.

>x fish

Even if you had had no prior experience with him, you would be able to see at a glance that this is an evil fish. From his sharkish nose to his razor fins, every inch of his compact body exudes hatred and danger.

The fish notices your gaze; makes a pathetic mime of trying to find little flakes of remaining food amongst the gravel.

Best of Three is a very interesting simulation of a conversation, as a girl meeting someone you once had a crush on in high school, realistic to the point of awkwardness. It’s amazing how differently you can choose to react. I spent one game just gabbering on about anything under the sun, barely shutting up once. And another where I was silent through most of it, leaving the old flame doing most of the awkward filling in of the gaps until he eventually gives up and takes his leave. And I don’t think I’ve seen all the possible endings yet.

Bee is also realistically interesting. It’s different from the others in that it’s not in Inform format, but in a web form called Varytales. You play a girl who sets out to win the National Spelling Bee, but will lose, someday, somehow. But the reasons and motivations for the above are what is really important here. (It’s got a lot of resonance with my previous post on thinking about why we game. And what we consider winning and success.) There are some major major themes running through this story, about home-schooling, about parents, about work and play – friends, homework, school and siblings. How you define success, and how you define learning. Oh, science and religion. Big themes. Very worth a read. Or two.

(And it’s in web format, so you just click, rather than typing, if you’re scared of the IF parser.)

For those not impressed by overly flowery words, I’d recommend something not-Emily Short, but hilariously funny. Lost Pig, in which you play an orc, who has lost a pig and must find it. If you get through this one without laughing or liking it, you are beyond saving.

Eg.

Pig lost! Boss say that it Grunk fault. Say Grunk forget about closing gate. Maybe boss right. Grunk not remember forgetting, but maybe Grunk just forget. Boss say Grunk go find pig, bring it back. Him say, if Grunk not bring back pig, not bring back Grunk either. Grunk like working at pig farm, so now Grunk need find pig.

The whole thing is written from Grunk’s POV. It’s crazy fun.

There are a lot more good ones that Emily Short (and others, not mentioned here) have written, Galatea, Flashpoint, Savor-Faire, City of Secrets, etc. that I’ve played ages past before, but I mainly wanted to cover the four less-known ones I just played, Bronze, Sushi, Bee and Bestof3, in this post. The other two are classics that have etched themselves into my brain and must recommend.

And how do you play IF, you may ask?

Well, in all the games I just linked, in the top right hand corner, there is a little button that reads, “Play Online” which you can just click and the game will start and you don’t have to do any more worrying than that.

If you’re more of a hardcore fanatic and develop a taste for this sort of thing, there are interpreters and clients that you can download (click on “Show Me How”), and the game files from that archive, and then you can play the things offline. Z-Code and Inform games run off something called Frotz, there’s a bunch of variants.

And there’s an app in the iStore called Frotz which works for iPad and iPhone, more or less. This is my preference these days, as it’s more portable than sitting in front of a desktop (which dangles Steam and other MMOs oh so temptingly.) It has a bit of a tendency to crash or stall in mysterious fashion with bigger, more sophisticated games on my ancient iPad 1, at which point, I just switch to online play versions, but works all right for 75% of the games I’ve tried.

The basic conventions for IF are as follows:

EXAMINE everything. Just type ‘x’ followed by a noun. Eg. ‘x cat’ ‘x cupboard’ ‘x drawer’ etc.

Moving is usually via compass directions. North, south, etc, and shortened to N, E, S, W, NE, SW, NW, SE, etc. and there ‘s occasionally up and down, in and out.

To see what you’re carrying, INVENTORY or ‘i’

From there, just try anything and everything. Push, pull, touch, feel, hit, kill, whatever verbs shake your boat. And you can always try HELP or HINTS if the game provides for it.

Glitch: The Dangers of Self-Righteous Groupthink

It was hard to find a screenshot to represent mobbing, as in bullying. Here, have one of a crowded Glitch room instead.

Today, I witnessed a mob in Glitch.

No, not an NPC mob(ile), but a lynch mob.

Figuratively speaking anyway, before someone comes down on me for being disrespectful of true lynchings where people lost their lives. But as in bullying or mobbing as defined by Wikipedia, verbally, over the public Global channel.

And shamefully, directed at a self-professed kid.

It all started when some Glitch player came onto Global, asking if anyone could give them some items. (Aha! Begging behavior, any MMO player probably has Kid Alert bells ringing by now.)

Somehow as multiple conversations were going on at the same time, that same Glitch player, in the course of joining in the conversation and attempting to brag a little (BEEP! Kid alert, arrogant bragging!) revealed themselves to be just under the legal age for Glitch. (Glitch’s Terms of Service unequivocally deny anyone under 14 years of age from playing the browser MMO.)

The multiple conversations were immediately derailed as a couple of established Glitchen jumped on the fact of that player’s age, lol’ed and jeered a little, told him about the TOS violation, and over the course of 10 minutes or so, declared they were reporting him, brandished it around like a threat, yelled at him to log off, spoke about him as if he wasn’t there, “watched” him stay online (the term “stalking” comes to mind, but that might be a little extreme), told him that they were watching him stay online, and demanded he log off right this instance.

In fact, one or two went as far as to switch over to the Live Help channel to see if any Staff were present so they could tattle about him to them.

Faced with that sort of harassment, the poor kid eventually gave in and did as he was told.

I can’t help but feel sorry for him.

Perhaps I should have said something at the time, but it’s always been my habit to stay silent and off any group chat channels, I prefer to watch from afar like a cultural anthropologist. Putting in my input there and then would disrupt the social phenomenon *wry grin*.

I was heartily tempted to send the guy a private tell to ask him not to take the harsh words and “outcasting” to heart, but I admit it, I was afraid for my own toon.

Because hell, I’d know what I would have done at that age of 13, just shy two months of 14 (or so he claimed.) Log off that character and make a new one and come right back and this time, shut the fuck up so that any self-righteous bastards wouldn’t have a clue. Very very tempted to tell him this, but you know, this stuff could be logged and monitored like probably all chat channels are in an MMO, and theoretically, he was indeed in the wrong for breaking the TOS, and I didn’t want my toon (with lots of time invested in it) associated with any of the uproar.

(Out of ignorance, no doubt, who reads those TOSes anyway, right?)

And because I’m also afraid of needy kids. You know the kind, show them a bit of kindness and leeway and they’ve stuck on you like a leech, begging you to “help” them with… everything.

Despite all that though, I don’t think it excuses the behavior of those players who essentially lynched the poor chap off the game.

I wonder what kind of impression he would have left with, regarding the players of said game.

Part of my empathy, I guess, is because I faced similar abuse from an A Tale in the Desert player once when I had just started messing about with the beta on a trial account. No, I wasn’t underage, but a trial account has connotations of ‘noobness’ and a veteran player got very mad at an ignorant faux pas of mine (I built a compound too near to theirs, but it looked pretty far to me at the time) and pretty much chased me off their land with a verbal shotgun and made me feel very very unwelcome. Gee, if this was the kind of insular reception new players got, I told myself, they could take their silly old game and stuff it. (It wasn’t, and I eventually tried again elsewhere, with a different name and account, but I was /this/ close to walking off for good.)

And part of me can’t help but think about the other MMOs I’ve played and how more accepting other players are of kids in their game. On my old MUD, one of my best friends and guildmates was a mom who’d let her 8-year old son play from time to time. She’d let us know, oh, he’s on my char now, and we’d take care not to say overly adult stuff on our chat channels, watch him zip erratically from place to place with good humor, and as he got older, 11-12-ish, even praise him to the high heavens when he’d sit and take over for his mom on the equivalent of a raid. He basically just needed to watch his hp and hit a ‘heal’ macro to keep his character alive and hit another skill to do damage – he did pretty good, actually. I’ve never played World of Warcraft to such a hardcore extent, but I’m willing to wager that similar things happen there.

In City of Heroes, you could sometimes tell that you were playing with an underage kid (beyond just suspecting it based on their behavior and typing/speech patterns.) Once or twice, I’ve seen weirdly hopping characters just bounding around shooting grey con mobs and moving in erratic fashion, and on their bios would be a notification, like “This is an X years of age kid playing, all his tells are turned off, he will not respond, etc” and you just grin and leave ‘em alone – or you watch for a while because it’s obvious they’re having such unadulterated glee and fun and it’s so refreshing to see. Or you get the parent who tells you outright that they’re letting the kid steer for a while in missions, no one I’ve teamed with has minded, a couple good players can easily cover for one or two less-than-optimal performers, etc.

Then there’s the “Is this really an issue?” issue. I don’t remember precisely, but when I was 13, I’m almost sure I was off dialing into free BBSes unsupervised and playing door games.  Like urm, Legend of the Red Dragon, which, hem, included the opportunity to flirt, marry and have sex with certain NPCs. Of course, I was smart (and paranoid) enough to know not to reveal any personal information, be it age or home address, to anyone.

Which, given the ubiquity of social media sharing these days and the revealed ‘stupidity’ of the self-professed kids in freely sharing their personal details and information, may be asking a bit much of all of them. Sadly. Which is why I guess things like COPPA turn up to protect them from themselves.

It’s interesting to see how different MMOs handle the ‘child’ issue. I actually Googled up WoW’s and LOTRO’s Terms of Service to see how they deal with it. World of Warcraft asks account holders in their TOS to agree that they are legally an adult in their country of residence., which covers the varying age of majority for different countries (normally 18-21), and they can then, at their discretion, authorize a minor for whom they are a parent/guardian to play, with the license granted to them.

Lord of the Ring’s TOS doesn’t specifically mention anything, but a quick forums search reveals that one has to be apparently 13+ to create the account, and it is permissable for a parent to use their own personal information to sign up for an account for a minor under that age and thus authorize them to play.

I couldn’t find anything in Puzzle Pirates’ TOS, but apparently, age limit for most of their servers is 13+ and they have a Family Ocean with no age limit where they’ve removed poker games and so on.

It’s kinda curious that Glitch has a zero tolerance 14+ years of age limit, when most other places have it at 13+, and make no allowance for play with parental supervision. Very odd. Perhaps they just don’t want any legal trouble and are playing it very very safe.

Still, the whole incident leaves me with a bit of an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

I keep thinking of the Edmund Burke attribution. Paraphrasing, “The only thing necessary for evil to prevail (or triumph, depending on which quote website you ask) is for good men to do nothing.”

Should I have spoken up and said something? Was I guilty of passive evil, of allowing something that I thought wrong (the rampant bullying), to continue unchallenged?

Then again, the players who perpetuated the wrong were perhaps thinking the very same thing. There was a TOS violation, and they could not help themselves but to call it out and call it loudly, to the point that they perhaps indulged in groupthink and the self-righteousness of their cause, and decided to enact vigilante justice.

Perhaps, the Glitch Staff on the Live Help channel said it best. “If you find someone violating the TOS, please report him and let the GMs/staff deal with the issue and move on.”

No need to drag it out and have a pitched battle on public chat channels.