Commercialisation, and the appeal of an amateur fanbase

A lot of gamers will tell you that the opposite of pro is noob. It’s one opposite, I guess, but back in the meatworld the most common opposite of professional is amateur.

Amateur means a lot of things. It can mean bad (amateurish isn’t usually good), it can mean hobbyist, it can mean idealistic. For example, the Olympics is intended for amateur sportspeople, on paper at least. This idea that amateurs were purer hobbyists who did their sport/ game/ profession for the love of it, untainted by filthy lucre is starting to look rather old fashioned now.

So why talk about amateurs? In the wake of the EVE addon changes (which I wrote about yesterday, along with lots of other bloggers), I think there’s a backlash from a lot of people who just don’t like the idea of having their favourite game’s ecosystem commercialised. The amateur way is the purer fanbase, playing and making guides, websites, addons for the sheer love of the game.

The roots of the MMO hobby that I personally love come directly from amateur gamers. MUDs were originally based on  open sourced code, created and staffed by people who just loved them as a hobby. Things have moved on since then, become more commercialised, better in some ways and worse in others. The community itself hasn’t much changed, although it has grown a great deal. Yet the games themselves were once LOVED by their creators and their players, not consumed.

It may be that the majority of gamers would slaver over a more commercial ecosystem. They love wowhead, curse, EVEMon, and all the slew of professional quality player tools that have become available and would happily buy and use more if they existed. I do wonder though what gets lost in the transition.

Yet I think of the fan run scifi conventions I’ve been to compared to commercial conventions. I have seen good quality versions of both, but the fan conventions had more soul and connected with attendees on a much wider range of levels. People ran sessions based on what they personally thought would be fun and interesting, rather than on how many bums they could get on seats. It felt so much easier to connect personally with both other fans and people running the convention (who are of course also other fans), the power differential between producers and consumers just wasn’t there …

It’s on my mind at the moment since Arb and I are off to Comic Con in a few weeks time, which is easily going to be the largest commercial convention I have ever seen. I think it will be brilliant. There will be sessions that no fan convention could ever in a million years hope to match. But it doesn’t affect how much I want to get to Eastercon next year, which I think will feel more like ‘home’ (actually George R R Martin is scheduled to be at both, and lots of authors seem to enjoy the fan convention scene.)

It came from the PUG: You can tell someone is a noob if ….

I always think it’s quite nice if people want to give tips to other players, as long as their information is basically correct.

But one I thing I have noticed in low level instances with alts this week is that as soon as anyone does so, the rest of the group immediately starts treating the other person as a new player. (ie. they’ll all talk to you as if you were a three year old and try to hold your hand through the instance.)

So for example, I was healing on a low level shaman and picked up an agility dagger that dropped in an instance, for my levelling spec. No one else in the group wanted it. Immediately the rest of the group asked why I’d needed it and (when I explained) jumped to explain that enhancement shaman should be looking for slow weapons and not daggers.

Sometimes a gal just wants an upgrade to her levelling gear, and not a lecture on how the offspec should be min/maxed at endgame! Just saying. But it’s hard to really convey that without sounding mean minded about people who are  just trying to help.

I wouldn’t mind but because they’d all evidently classified me as a noob, they were also giving me healing tips (which I really didn’t need, you can heal low level instances on a resto shaman by throwing earth shield on someone and going off to get some tea.)

Group 2: Raid mark roulette

In challenging instances, the group leader can help players out a lot by good use of marking.

Marks can be used to indicate the kill order for an assist train, to pick out which mobs should be targeted for different types of crowd control, and to make sure everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and in which order.

In fact, there seem to be some generally accepted uses of marks. People often use the skull to indicate “Please kill this one first, ps. that means max single target dps, not AE to boost your numbers please.”

But I was in a random group last week where the tank carefully marked every mob, using different symbols each time, and there was never any discussion of what the marks meant. This actually worked better than you’d expect since the group was fairly together. Everyone who was able to CC picked a mark and did it and people held back on dps until they could see what was going on and which mob the tank had picked up.

But it did make me wonder at why anyone would think that marks explained themselves. (Maybe they should actually give us more explanatory marks than green triangle and purple diamond ….)

My adventures at eastercon: admissions of a convention noob

So, last weekend was the big adventure. I went to Eastercon, held this year at a hotel near Heathrow, which was my first experience of a SF convention. It wasn’t a lone expedition; I went with my sister and our respective partners for moral support. This is one of the larger UK SF conventions (from what I understand), and had about 1250 attendees – just so you get an idea of the scale. It is fan run, which means that the panels and events reflect what the fans are interested in and also what people were able and willing to organise.

If you have read Larisa’s poignant memories of her years of con attendance, you may wonder (as I did) whether she was looking back with rose coloured glasses. And even if she was right in all respects, had the conventions moved on? It took about 2 seconds from walking through the front door of the hotel into the reception area for me to understand that some things will NEVER change.

Two things that caught my eye immediately:

  • Lots of women around! (I’ve been to gaming conventions where the men: women ratio is about 10:1. This was closer to 1:1.)
  • It was all very well organised (again, comparing with gaming conventions). We queued briefly at reception, picked up our delegate badges and goodie bags (free mug! free easter egg! and a couple of books and more assorted useful con information … ) Even in retrospect, every part of the con I saw was very well organised. Panels started on time (give or take the odd 5 minutes), people were where they were supposed to be, sound/lighting was fine.

The whole convention and the other attendees were terrifically friendly. I was impressed at the range and variety of the panels – there were some on hard science, some litcrit type panels on speculative fiction, some about writing and getting published, a couple on games, some on social media,  some fun geek-oriented crafty activities, some family based sessions, film screenings. Plus people wandering around in a wide variety of costumes, cabaret, and a solid set from Mitch Benn.

And a room full of board games too. It shows what the atmosphere was like that when we sat down to play a game, friendly people asked politely if they could join in as they wandered through. (Again, this does not really happen at gaming conventions, oddly enough.)

It’s not often that you are torn between the possibility of watching the first episode of the new Doctor Who in a large screening room with 200+ other fans or going to a panel on ‘The Occult in Modern Urban Fantasy.’ One day, there will be cloning so we can do all of them at once …

Another highlight for me was the video game charades session, where we were wisely advised to form into teams with a variety of age groups represented. I don’t know who had more fun, the under tens who had a ball miming out Lego Star Wars or our husbands acting out Tron. I just know that it was a room full of video game geeks of all ages … and laughter. And it makes me think about how rarely I do get to hang out with mixed age groups. It’s a shame in many ways that it has become so taboo to hang out socially with kids (unless they are relatives) or with older people, because it can be a very positive experience all around.

I thoroughly enjoyed the more serious panels that I attended as well. People were generally well behaved, very engaged, and there were some animated, interesting discussions. As a fan, it’s also a privilege to be able to talk to authors you admire, or hear them discussing their writing and how they work in panels or interviews. I thought Iain Banks was an awesome writer before this weekend, I still think that but I also now think he’s a dude. And Arb did tweet me at least once to let me know that someone we were chatting to in a panel/ event had won a Nebula award (so congrats!)

I get the feeling that the local writer community is very supportive of the con scene – because I don’t really know that you’ll get enough sales from 1250 people to make it worth giving up a weekend otherwise.

It is glaring to me that the con fanbase is very predominantly white in the UK (not sure about the rest of the world), and the programming reflects that. There were panels on feminist issues, disability issues (disability in comic book villains), gay and alternative sexuality issues. But nothing on race.

To Sum Up

We had a brilliant time. The con was a friendly, supportive, fun atmosphere full of fellow geeks who were also having a good time. And some very hard working fans who made the whole thing run so smoothly (so props to you all, and thank you very much.) I do understand now why people say that going to a SF con feels like coming home. Also, if someone offers you some 100% cocoa chocolate, only take a very small piece.

We already booked our spots for 2012!

Bad-o-phobia

I was reading a thread on rpg.net recently where someone wanted to try WAR and was looking for tips to avoid being bad. (It’s double amusing because WAR isn’t the sort of game where anyone would really care as long as you’re putting some welly into it.)

And I’m thinking, wait up. First you are bad, then you learn the game, then you become good. That’s how things work. You can’t go start a new game and immediately not be bad and make newbie mistakes, unless it’s really close to other games you already know.

So what precisely is this difficulty with going through the normal learning phases? Is it really worth spending hours sorting through forums (with the associated forum whines) just to avoid the possibility of making the occasional non-optimal choice in a game? Especially these days when games fall over themselves to make all choices reversible later on if you change your mind.

I can understand doing a bit of research to figure out what class you want to play. But then again, why not just play it for a bit and if you don’t like it then swap?

I see three main reasons for players to take this route.

  1. The first is because of normal human tendency to dislike risk and to shun new things. Many people are not confident in their ability to learn.
  2. The second is because designers have made the learning curve so potentially painful for MMOs that experienced players just don’t want to do it. Yes, they want to actually avoid playing the game – and I say that because I think the learning phases, the laughing at your own inevitable mistakes and improving, can be the most fun parts of an MMO.
  3. The third is because the game is full of other real people who may not have any tolerance for newbie mistakes any more. So if a new player wants to play with them, it makes sense for them to skip as much of the noob experience as possible.

1. I don’t want to have to be a noob again

You’d be amazed at how many people stay in bad situations purely because they are afraid of change. It isn’t just sticking with an MMO when you know you are already bored and burned out. People stick with miserable jobs, doomed relationships, horrible houses, and so on. There’s even a saying ‘better the devil you know’ – which means it’s better to stick with a bad situation than take a chance on something new which might turn out to be worse.

So the more research a player does in advance about a new game, the less risk there is in starting again (theoretically). I don’t think you can really learn everything about how a game plays just by reading bboard posts, but some of the risk of picking a horrible class and speccing it really badly can be reduced.

This tendency is more marked in people who see themselves as being among the elite in whatever game they are currently playing. Their self image is simply not someone who makes noob mistakes (even though they probably once did). They are a ‘pro’, they enjoy playing with other people who take their gaming seriously and don’t want to take any chances that may make it harder for them to hook up with a hardcore guild in the new game.

The funny thing about this is that if you are a keen gamer, it will show in many many ways regardless of whether or not you make noob mistakes in character speccing. Other seasoned gamers will recognise you as a fellow. It really isn’t anything to worry about. But people are protective of their status and worry about how they will be perceived.

In addition to that, lots of people HATE asking other people for help or advice. They see their role as being the person to give advice, not take it. So they’d much rather learn about the new game from reading bbposts than from asking people on channels or in guilds. In some cases, this fear of showing weakness by asking for advice is almost pathological.

If the game itself had a way to offer advice, that would be even better. If they could learn everything they needed to know to be pro organically while playing, I suspect this rush for the bboards would be less intense.

2. Fool me once, shame on you

Remember the first MMO you played? If you were like me, you picked a character because it looked cool and sounded fun. You played around. You explored. You roleplayed. You did lots of random stuff because it seemed fun. You picked talents that seemed either interesting or useful to the way you were playing at the time.

And later you found that you were pretty gimped compared to hardcore players who researched like crazy, who focussed on levelling fast to the exclusion of all else, and who often acted like arses? Anyone who wants to know if the genre is horribly broken could do worse than starting with why this has to be the case.

We have learned that fooling around, having fun, learning the game as it presents itself and not worrying about the game mechanics will bite you in the butt later on. So it’s a logical step to say ‘If I want to have fun in endgame, I need to do some dull research now’ – a simple transfer of fun now to fun later. This is by far the worst thing about MMOs right now in my opinion, and games like Free Realms do a lot to break the cycle. Because they offer a wide variety of fun now, in ways that won’t impact what you do later at all.

So there’s a lack of trust between players and developers. It’s like saying ‘we don’t trust you not to switch and bait between levelling and endgame so we’ll just start by researching what we need for endgame and not bother with whatever distractions you have put in.’ I blame WoW for a lot of this type of viewpoint, but other games are hardly blameless either.

I feel that I take a halfway road here. I do usually start with messing around, try a few alts, see how things go. But if I get more serious about the game I will go and research. It’s self preservation. The more time you put in, the less risk you are willing to take that you will have to start from the beginning all over again. It’s not so much an issue of wasting time – all gaming is time-wasting – as not wanting to sink a load of effort into a character and then have to throw it away and start again.

3. I want to play with other people… but not noobs

Some players don’t mind the newbie experience but what they really want is to avoid other noobs. They want to be able to play with the more experienced gamers as soon as possible in the new game and think that’ll be easier to do if they do all the research first. They don’t want to risk being laughed down and treated as if they were ‘just like all the other noobs.’

I find this hatred of noobs to be terribly unhealthy for the genre. But some games have toned down the issues. I doubt most players in CoH or WAR care if you are a noob as long as you are on their team and making an honest effort. But this is because they aren’t particularly difficult games so having an inexperienced player along for the ride won’t hinder everyone else too much.

But especially if you are coming from a game that is very fault intolerant, it’s not surprising players might assume that people in the new game would be the same. Players in older games like WoW can be extremely poisonous in their hatred of noobs (I say noobs rather than new players because it’s the lack of tolerance for people who are still learning the game that marks it out.) They don’t want inexperienced players in their groups, their guilds, or their raids. This is partly because raids in particular are not tuned to allow much leeway for inexperienced players.

You can of course avoid these people. The games are massive, there are plenty of people who really don’t care, and it isn’t that difficult to find them. Some guilds are happy to teach newbies who want to learn. Others are at least casual friendly. But they’re unlikely to satisfy a very achievement-focussed player. Especially if their self image is wrapped up in how pro they are in their MMO of choice.

I realise of course it’s no shame to be bad, but it’s no great honour either!

It simply isn’t possible to jump straight into a new game and immediately be as good as people who have been playing it for over a year. But it is possible to avoid a lot of noob mistakes if you spend time doing research.

I find that I can live with making mistakes if I have fun doing it. I’m confident in my ability to learn new things, and I enjoy doing that by actually trying them (learning by doing) and seeing for myself what does or doesn’t work. But then again, that’s why I’m an engineer …

For someone who prefers learning by studying theories or written guides, spending some time on the bboards can be just as fun and productive. Although games in general do favour the ‘try it and see’ approach.

But in either case, if a lot of people try to avoid the noob experience and the noobs in general, it doesn’t bode well for the future of the genre. It’s no surprise that new games become easier to learn and foster more interaction between new and experienced players. In fact, I hope that they do.

Are you afraid of being bad when you try a new game?

We need words for this: 15 MMO concepts that need labels

Language is a wonderful and everchanging thing. In a week that sees ‘noob’ added to the dictionary, I feel that MMOs still have more to contribute to the evolution of the English language.

Here’s a few suggestions for objects, feelings, or situations where current vocabulary doesn’t quite cut it. We need new words for these:

  1. Travelling halfway around the world to a group or instance before suddenly realising that you left some critical item in your bank.
  2. The feeling you get when you respec from tanking/healing to dps,  and you hit things and they fall over and you can’t stop giggling.
  3. The guy who always goes afk just before a boss pull. (note: noob may cover this one.)
  4. The sensation of wondering whether something you just discovered was meant to be there or is just a bug.
  5. In-game fishing zen.
  6. When one more person signs up than the group size will allow. It doesn’t matter what game you are playing or what the actual groupsize is.
  7. The screenshot that you take after a first kill.
  8. Realising that someone just signed up for your raid who you said you’d never group with again — but you need them to make up the numbers.
  9. The types of strange conversation that go on in your game’s main chat channel (if it has one). eg. Trade chat, Barrens chat (for the dinos)
  10. Someone who has been playing a game since the first day it went live.
  11. Very militaristic guilds, especially when the officers have delusions of grandeur.
  12. The kind of RP server which isn’t really very different from a regular server except that some of the names are better.
  13. The sinking feeling when a friend rerolls the same class/role as you and you know you’ll be fighting for group spots with them later.
  14. People who only log on to do dailies.
  15. Extended discussions in guild about what type of DKP system to use.

Feel free to suggest more!