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No Endgame For MMO Devs

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Sanya Weathers's MMO Underbelly: No Endgame For MMO Devs

A look at the cult of game developer celebrity and why no one person can ever be credited or blamed for all that goes right or wrong with an MMO.

Whenever human beings gather, you will find them indulging in a favorite hobby: Humbling the mighty. The only thing we love more than being fans of someone is tearing that someone to shreds. Especially on the internet.

In video games, particularly MMOs, the phenomenon is such a regular occurrence that we should expect to see it once a year like some kind of unholy groundhog day. In the past few years, we’ve seen it happen to Jeff Anderson, Brad McQuaid, Bill Roper, Richard Garriott, and Mark Jacobs, among others. All five of those guys were strongly associated with their studios. All five were hit professionally, for varying reasons with varying degrees of culpability, and then shredded by the chattering classes with a savagery normally exhibited by feral cats and Walmart shoppers going after flatscreen TVs.

But these are MMO people, and there’s no such thing as a final chapter in an MMO. Jeff and Bill are already back in action. Brad has launched a blog, en route to his comeback. Richard Garriott has several new hobbies. Mark is not the type to sit quietly and fade away.

So, what creates these dramas with their multiple acts?

The MMO industry is very, very small. Once you are in, and once you’ve gotten past the entry level part of your career, you know everyone else. Literally. That list up there? I used to work for Mark, I currently work for Jeff, I met Bill on several occasions (and liked him enormously), and I’ve shaken hands with Brad in passing but was too nervous to say much on account of the rant site about his game that I ran for a couple years. I’ve never met Richard Garriott, but many of my friends have worked with him. You see what I mean? And I’m not all that social. I rarely went to the Secret Parties or the private suite events. I’ve always preferred player events, and hanging out in a corner with a handful of friends.

Are the big names in MMOs “celebrities”? Celebrity has always been the means by which Americans like to sell things, whether we’re talking about products, lifestyles, or dreams. Game companies, especially the ones that started in the 90s, tended to be run by people that dreamed big, talked big, and had the ability to sweep people up into their visions. They had to be, if they were going to get out of their basements (more on that in a bit). Give people like that access to an internet-sized audiences, have those people build products they desperately want you to buy, and you get the game industry version of celebrity.

Unlike some people, designers don't get their own photo-stalkers.

It isn’t like real celebrity, though. No one wants your autograph, no one takes pictures of you at the grocery store, and no one cares when you screw around on your spouse with a coed at a bar, with the possible exceptions of the spouse and the coed. (Mind you, when a studio employee screws around with customers, the community person cares. Cares a LOT. The community person is the one that has to deal with everyone whining that you nerfed a PBAE because the lead dungeon designer was shtupping the server’s big raid leader. It’s even better when the frisky gentleman wasn’t even the real lead dungeon designer, but said so to get the girl into the sack. And by “better” I mean AAAAARGH I HATE YOU SO MUCH.)

"Thou art mortal, damnit!"

Anyway, even fake celebrity is like a drug for some people. Combined with the heady thrill of creating worlds that people live in more enthusiastically than they live in the physical world, and the resulting feeling of being, well, a god? It can go to the brain and cut off the blood supply. Early Roman emperors supposedly paid someone to ride around town perched nearby just to mutter “Remember thou art mortal, Caesar.” Yeah, didn’t work then, either.

What makes fake celebrity even harder to deal with in MMO games is that our industry is still very young in many ways. We lack… perspective. The ”veterans” are in their late thirties, and our “wizened ancients” are around the half century mark. All of these old timers (unless they changed careers and came to an already-successful company at an older age) started working in basements, living rooms, and abandoned warehouses near the BDSM prostitute district in L.A.

Companies were small, quarters were cramped, and the hours were long. But I can verify that it’s fun. Everyone at a small company knows everyone else, and the teams work and socialize together. And no one is too important to get their hands dirty. I once hung out with a guy who worked at EA back in the 80s when everyone from the founders to the cube drones helped mail games to customers. Yep, EA had giant envelope stuffing parties. They were just a little publisher, promoting games for home computers at a time when most people didn’t have a home computer.

Once you’ve been part of a team like that, it’s hard to imagine anyone on the team trying to destroy you in the name of their own advancement and success. When you pride yourself on your judgment, because it was that judgment that made you rich and an internet celebrity, you don’t see it coming when someone you raised up cuts you down. Everyone needs someone to trust, and trusting the wrong people has been the downfall of more than one MMO career.

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Sanya Weathers