Monday, December 1, 2008

Blogs are irrelevant and subjective

One interesting subject from the open Sunday thread was why some people react so strongly when they read somebody praising a different game, or even start shouting "conspiracy!" when they read some less than raving report on their favorite game. And I think one anonymous commenter got a step closer to the answer by asking about the influence of blogs. It seems logical that if somebody believes that blogs wield a huge influence in the decision of people what to play, or even on the developers of those games, they would feel threatened if a blogger writes negatively about their favorite game, or positively about a different game. But I do think that would overestimate the influence of blogs. In reality blogs have no, or very, very little, influence on developers and players. They are just a reflection of the subjective opinions of one or few people.

The reason why I can state the lack of influence with some certainty is simple math. I'm proud to have a "popular" blog, but popular still means only 5,000 visitors a day, of which 55% come here from some search engine, 25% following some link, and only 20% by either typing the URL of my blog, or having me bookmarked. So I maybe have 1,000 regular readers. Most of them are of the "I read what Tobold has to say, but I sometimes disagree" type, which is how it should be. But even if I could influence all 1,000 of them to lets say switch from one game to another, the impact on the subscription numbers of a major MMORPG would be minimal. 99% of WoW players have never even heard of me.

Not only is there a lack of influence, but also there is no conspiracy or hidden agenda. I'm just a regular MMORPG player, with certain preferences. Just like everyone else, I get excited about new games, like some games more than others, and inside one game have features I like and others I dislike. I generally prefer PvE over PvP, and if I PvP I prefer the "carebear" sort. I like storytelling and variety of gameplay, and dislike grinds. I prefer content to be accessible to casual players, and don't like exclusive content for a small elite. Besides games, I have an interest in economics, so you'll often find me discussing game economics, both the real world economics of business models, and the virtual economics of tradeskills and auction houses. None of this is secret in any way, and since it is inevitable that I repeat myself in 5 years of blogging, you can find ample evidence of these preference all over this blog.

Currently I am very much excited and happy about the Wrath of the Lich King expansion of World of Warcraft, because it very much corresponds to my personal preferences: As always in WoW, it is mostly PvE, with some carebear PvP. It has better storytelling and more varied gameplay than the previous expansion. And it promises to be more accessible and less elite in the endgame. A near-perfect match. But I'm not vain or stupid enough to believe that the Blizzard developers read what I wrote on this blog and created the expansion to fit my personal preferences. What I do believe (and again I only have indirect evidence) is that The Burning Crusade was not quite as big a success as Blizzard had hoped. It sold a lot of copies early, but then relatively quickly lost players. I do believe that the reason for that decline was that the players reached level 70 and because raiding was relatively difficult never even got started in the raiding circuit. I think Blizzard got that message through various exit interviews from people canceling their accounts, and is trying to do better this time. My personal agenda just happens to coincide with what a large number of casual players prefers, it isn't as if they were in any way influenced by me. And Blizzard is influenced by profits and subscription numbers, not by what anyone says about their game on any blog or forum.

Another evidence for the lack of influence of bloggers on players and developers is that people who take the time to discuss games on the internet are already a minority among players in general. By definition they are less casual, because it takes an above average interest in a game to not only play it, but also to want to talk about it when not playing it. I believe, without having proof for it, that the people who discuss games on the internet on average have somewhat different, less casual, interests than players who don't. Thus aspects of gameplay which require more dedication, for example hardcore PvP or raiding, are more popular on blogs and game forums than they are in the games themselves. I think developers don't listen too closely to what people say on forums and blogs, because they know that doing so would risk to miss the interests of the silent majority.

While it is obviously hard to judge oneself correctly, I would say that overall I'm a rather rational type. I try to avoid posting obvious falsehoods, and I usually do see both the good and bad sides of any given game or feature. But that doesn't make the content of this blog completely fair and balanced. Blogs, by their very nature, aren't even supposed to be objective. The word "blog" comes from "weblog", and that is what this is: A log of my thoughts, a kind of public diary. Objectivity isn't even a stated goal of that, I write my subjective feelings on games, features, or sometimes even non-game issues. And, being personal and subjective, my attitude towards one game can, and frequently does, change over time. If you read my archives, you will find that I never liked The Burning Crusade very much, and during that time wrote a lot of negative stuff about World of Warcraft, including an "I quit" post, taking an extensive leave from the game. You will also find some very positive coverage of WAR from the late beta and early release days, until the preponderance of scenarios ruined that game for me. And then there are lots of games that get no or very little coverage from this blog at all, because they are simply not on my radar.

If somebody expects me to cover and praise every existing game equally, he simply is at the wrong spot. Being personal this blog reports on the games I play, with a subjective slant towards the games I like. I am certainly trying to be balanced and fair, but there simply aren't any game review sites that praise all games equally, because frankly that wouldn't be of much use to anyone. The very act of reviewing a game introduces subjectivity. Besides reviews and personal opinions this blog has some "MMO news coverage", but that very often consists of links to the totally subjective reviews and personal opinions of other bloggers, with my subjective comments thrown in. Game companies are private enterprises, and there is a lot of interesting data they have and don't publish. Thus subjects like subscription numbers or future strategy of a game are surrounded by a lot of speculation, some circumstantial evidence, and very few absolute truths. But the fun is in the speculation and discussion, nobody should expect the same level of proof from a blog post than what would be required in a criminal justice court.

So, in summary, I do think that some people overestimate the influence of blogs. And some people have trouble making the distinction between a blog and the Washington Post. It is obviously hard to convince these people that I'm neither out to influence the MMORPG world, nor am I likely to do that. So the best advice I can offer is that if you believe so strongly that a single person with a blog hosted for free can influence both developers and players, then you should go and make your own blog. If it's so easy to move millions of subscribers to one's preferred game, and change the way in which future games are designed, why don't you go out and do it?

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