Community Spotlight #4: Keen of Keen and Graev’s Gaming Blog

When I first started writing this blog, I had a plan to interview my favorite bloggers. Partly I wanted to do this because it would make for good reading, but mostly it was because I always find myself wanting to ask specific questions of those I read the most. I’ll also often wonder about who the *person* is writing the blog and where they’re coming from and bringing in with them. And so, the Community Spotlight segment was born. Somewhere along the line it got put by the side, but I always wanted to bring it back.

Today is that day with what is, in my opinion, an excellent interview with Keen from Keen and Graev’s Gaming Blog. Keen was one of the first bloggers I ever read getting into MMOs and he’s been in my RSS reader ever since. Always opinionated and articulate, his posts are always an entertaining read no matter what side of the issue you fall on. I’d like to thank Keen again for sitting down for the interview and for being so open with his responses. It was fun to do and I think it makes for an excellent return to an old favorite of a feature.

Enjoy the interview!

GbN: Let’s get right into it. You’ve been an MMO blogger for some time. I know you’ve documented some of your history on the blog, but for those who haven’t seen it, take us back. How did you get involved with blogging and did you ever expect to be received in such as way as you’ve been?

Keen: In 2007 I went on a trip with a lot of downtime in the Hotel and found myself spending most of it browsing the internet.  At this time I had actually never once – ever- read a blog. Admittedly, I didn’t even know what they were or why anyone would write one.  Graev was with me and we were both sitting on the couch talking about video games when I realized that what we were saying felt pretty unique.  We had been doing this ‘gaming discourse’ for years.  I was writing for IGN at the time and I realized that it would not take much for us to start a blog and just transfer exactly what we’re thinking, unedited, from our thoughts to the screen.

When I wrote the first entry, that very night in the hotel, Graev told me no one would ever read it.  I believed him, but I knew that what we had to say must interest or be useful to someone out there.  From there the whole process ignited and before I knew it the blog was quite popular.

GbN: Over the years, you’ve done a lot to try to expand your blog and interact with your community. What does the blog represent to you? Is it some place just to share your thoughts or is it more than that, and are there any things you’d like to do that you perhaps haven’t or would like to take up again?

Keen: The blog is first and foremost a place where Graev and I speak our minds about gaming, share our thoughts and insights, and simply divulge our perspective to anyone interested.  We do this whenever we have something to say.  This happens regularly for me and less often for Graev but regardless of who posts, it’s still the product of our private discussions about gaming.

Over the years we have tried many things.  We’ve done comics and podcasts several times and those were always well received.  It started to take time though and that’s a valuable commodity.  Since neither have us have once made a dime from the blog, we simply had to scale it back and just write.  It was clear that we needed something else though because a community was forming around us.  We created a forum which is now extremely active — more so than the blog — where people come and chat about games.  We’ve also turned into a ‘guild’ or ‘clan’ community and have had “Keen and Graev’s Gaming Community” guilds like “Happy Fun Guyz” and “Haven”.

We have a few plans that are in the works.  Whether or not anything comes of them will probably be left up in the air for now.  The one thing that I will divulge is that we’re stepping up our efforts to Livestream and record footage of the games we’re playing.  This is especially interesting given that we are Alpha and Beta testing several titles people would be… how should I say it… ecstatic to watch when we’re allowed to share footage.

GbN: Followers of your blog can definitely attest to your love of the virtual world concept versus quest-centric, theme park model currently dominating the industry. As the industry has moved away from its roots, do you feel this has changed what we perceive an MMO to be? Essentially, are we aiming at the same core ideals today as we did when Everquest and Ultima were the big games on the block?

Keen: The core ideals have been abandoned.  I am very blunt about this and often it is mistaken for elitism.  Games are not what they used to be and are in fact moving backwards.  The games we see today are so underdeveloped conceptually that they represent works that should have been precursors to the originals. It’s like Star Wars.  We had episodes 4, 5, and 6 for years and now we’re getting episodes 1, 2, and 3.  The fallacy here is that not only have these games been made which are inferior to the originals, but they’re now being heralded as a step “forward” when they lack crucial ideals that define them as a MMORPG.  It’s a step back and then a step in the wrong direction, so much so that we are quickly diverging to a path that will lead us off a cliff.

GbN: Following up on that, I’m curious, do you feel that shift is a good thing or bad for the genre? We’ve obviously made strides since the first MMOs came to pass, but I’m wondering if it’s all for the better. As a side point, is there anything you wish carried through from those times that didn’t or, perhaps, is there anything you wish we would have left behind?

Keen: Asking me this question is like asking me to write you a novel, which I very well could since this subject would easily span hundreds of pages of fleshed out.  Short version: It’s bad for the genre.  It’s bad for gaming in general.  You can already see the effects out there.  How many game companies now want to make MMO’s?  Lots.  How many are making true MMO’s? Almost none of them when you look at the numbers.  The lines are being purposely blurred to accommodate this idea that every game is a MMO.

I wish that the idea of a virtual world would be kept along with the sense and ideal that what you’re doing should be meaningful.  That’s been set aside for something I wish would be shunned: Accessibility. It’s a cancer for this particular type of game.  One or two games offering a more accessible experience are fine.  However, now that we’ve seen a startling response to it, most companies feel that’s the direction they should head.  They are wrong and if they don’t wise up they will crash the industry.

GbN: Okay, moving beyond things past. In this last year and the one to come, we’re seeing a lot of MMORPGs come out that really challenge what we accept as part of the genre. Vindictus, Global Agenda, and the late APB come to mind, with games like Black Prophecy and Jumpgate Evolution on the horizon. Is this expansion of the genre a good thing or does it dilute the core of what makes an MMO an MMO?

Keen: Let me correct you.  APB, Global agenda, and Vindictus are not MMO’s.  They are multiplayer games.  This goes back to what I was saying along the lines of every game being a MMO.  They are NOT MMO’s and they’re diluting the industry by being associated with it.  If Global Agenda is a MMO then so are Diablo, Call of Duty, and Team Fortress 2.  Jumpgate Evolution is going through ridiculous amounts of redesign and I have no clue where it will end up.  When I was given a private demo at E3 2008 it was an entirely different game.    I haven’t followed Black Prophecy enough, which is already a sign of “iffy” things to come.

GbN: On that same token, there seems to be this idea that fantasy is dead. You’ve said you don’t agree with that. In your opinion, what is the state of fantasy in the MMO genre and how can we revitalize– or maintain– the concept to keep it fresh for new generations of gamers?

Keen: Fantasy is the strongest of all the genres and its growing faster than any other.   We have TERA and RIFT which both seem to be on the top of the list.  Cataclysm is releasing.  38 Studios is creating a Fantasy title.   These are BIG titles compared to Black Prophecy, Jumpgate, and the like.  Now, Fantasy may be hitting a bit of a dry patch.  We’re not seeing a lot of innovative ways of representing the theme anymore.  The solution?  A Fantasy Sandbox title.  I have the plans for one written down that would revitalize three parts of the industry: Sandbox, Social dynamics, and true Virtual World MMORPG feel.  Now if only I had some money to make it.

GbN: Let’s talk about something a little more divisive among the community: PvP. Several games have come out in the last couple of years promising to provide the definitive PvP experience to their players. Nearly all of these games have performed under what we’d have thought pre-release. Is this simply a matter of quality or is it related to something else? I’m curious to know if you believe a PvP-centric MMO is truly viable post-WoW world and how you feel a game with such a focus should be approached to avoid the fate of its predecessors.

Keen: Designing your game to be a “PvP Game” is the wrong approach, and that’s why most are “failing” today.  You need to design PvP around your game, not your game around the PvP.  That also means you can’t leave PvP as an afterthought either.  There are two definitive successes that come to mind: UO and DAOC.  Neither of which were solely designed as PvP games, yet both maintain a strong sense of having PvP woven into the reason behind playing.  In UO, a sandbox, it was part of that experience of living in a very open environment where anything goes.  In DAOC it was because of the three way realm war and the desire to participate in a meaningful territory struggle for the glory of your realm.

PvP is very viable post-WoW.  Remake DAOC and UO and they would sell millions.  Make a game that respects the ideals in both and you’ll sell millions.  Ignore the ideals and people will quickly ignore you and your game.  We have Warhammer and Darkfall as shining examples of what not to do.

GbN: Related to that, the under-performing of new games isn’t limited to PvP titles; PvE games have been falling into similar states of quiet progression, as well. Yet, even these hover between 100k-300k subscriptions, typically. In your opinion, what is the mark of a “successful” game and why haven’t we seen more break the million subscriber mark without entering the F2P market? Is there any validity of the idea of a true competitor to WoW or is it wisest for new games to compete for second place over market dominance?

Keen: Actually, I think they hover between 50k-100k these days; it’s bad.  The problem goes right back to what I spoke about earlier and what I wrote about recently on my blog.  Current developers are either stupid, held back (by some mystical force) or they lack the talent necessary.  I told you straight up that I know (and would bank my reputation on it) that if a game like DAOC or UO released today it would do well.  Let’s look at some of the “Successful” titles pre-WoW:  UO, EverQuest, DAOC, and SWG.  No game has released since then with the same scope, social complexity, and mechanics depth.

“We need to move forward!!!” <— That is the most ignorant statement anyone can make when used as an excuse for why we do not see games like the aforementioned pre-wow successes.  You do not — let me emphasize DO NOT — move forward by ignoring what defined the genre in the first place.  We do need to move forward, but we need to start from the right place.  It’s tough, but if you’re not willing to make the game right then please do not make it at all.

We’re not breaking the million mark, or coming ANYWHERE close, because players subconsciously (even when they claim otherwise) recognize a lack of substance.  Even having not played the original greats, they know something is mission.  New MMO players must be really confused.  It’s like reading The Two Towers before Fellowship of the Ring.  It’s that feeling that something must have come first and that this must be based upon something but it’s not clear.

GbN: I’d like to take a second to talk about Darkfall. I played with you during those early months of European release and I think we all had a great time setting out. You made no secret of the fact that you enjoyed it but felt like they missed out. The game, while doing well, has settled into its niche. What could a game like Darkfall have done better, what did they do right, and what lessons can future games of that vein take away?

Keen: Darkfall was just under-funded to be honest.  Had they had money and a real testing cycle they would have realized quicker that the skill system was broken at the most basic level.  Serious other mechanics were busted as well.  Combat wasn’t tight, the lack of content both player and developer driven was sparse, and the world was without a soul.  It looked nice on paper, but without the ability to truly test these things it’s no wonder it all turned out just shy of ‘right’.  Had they gotten those things ‘right’ then they would have been able to polish the game.  Polish isn’t to be scoffed at.  Shame on you who undervalue it.

Darkfall succeeded in creating an atmosphere where players, under the right circumstances, could rely upon each other.  This is why my guild had so much fun and why, even today, we reminisce about how wonderful our time spent playing was despite how bad the game turned out.  That’s something that needs to be duplicated, but in a game that’s fun.

GbN: You’re playing WoW at the moment, this having been this first serious play-through since before the Burning Crusade expansion. There’s no arguing that the game is a hit, yet many players take issue with the repetitive and even defeatist nature of its endgame. In the past, you’ve spoken about your disdain for the raiding treadmill. I’m wondering, having experienced it first hand both in Vanilla WoW and WotLK WoW, have your feelings changed at all? Do you think Blizzard has made any progress in evolving its endgame from those early iterations on the Everquest raid model?

Keen: It really is still a repetitive and self-defeating end-game.  The only difference being that now more people can experience it too!  My feelings have not changed.  I still love the encounters.  I love the challenge of completing them and doing it with friends.  I hate the amount of time that it takes and how it wears players down.  That said, I’m glad I do not play WoW for the end-game anymore.  I play because I enjoy how polished they’ve made it.  I love the lore.  I’m a fan of Blizzard at heart.  However, give me something better to play and I’m gone.  There won’t be one for at least six months.

GbN: While we’re on the topic of WoW, this is a question I like to ask all of our Community Spotlight guests: With WoW such an undeniable force for such a long period of time, do you feel the game is an asset or a hinderance to the industry? Are they opening more doors or preventing other studios from taking the risks it takes to advance into the next generation of MMOs?

Keen: Neither.  It’s an anomaly.  They are neither opening or closing doors for other developers.  It’s the other developers who have control over those doors and whether or not they open them or not is up to them.  NO GAME deserves as much attention as WoW gets.  WoW hasn’t done enough to deserve the attention.  It may deserve the players, but it doesn’t deserve how much people talk about it and how much other developers focus on it.  It’s time to get over it, folks.

GbN: As we round the corners of the interview, let’s move away from games. As a reader, I’m always curious to know a little bit more about the person behind the keyboard. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you bring with you into your blog. What do you do outside of gaming and blogging?

Keen: I’m a reasonable person more than anything.  I know that I have extremely opinionated views, but I’m also not adverse to changing them instantly if I feel that it is warranted.  That’s something I feel translates very well into the blog.  I may love a game one day but hate it the next — usually I communicate why.  I may hate a game but grow to love it.  I always hope that whether or not my readers agree with that that they can glean something from what I have written to help them in their own decisions.

GbN: You’ve revealed on your site that you’re currently going to college. First off, kudos on that. Now then, tell us, what are you studying and where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Keen: Business Management with my emphasis in Marketing is the direction I’m headed.  In ten years my dream job would probably be working in some capacity in the gaming industry.  Whether or not I use my degree, I know this industry well and I feel at home in it.  Since we rarely get our dream jobs, I still enjoy the idea of working with people and communicating ideas.  I tend to understand why people like things and that has helped me a lot in marketing.  If I can do something along those lines, I’ll be happy.

GbN: Great. Before we let you go, Keen, tell us one thing we would never guess about you. What’s a hidden fact that nobody online knows?

Keen: This is a tough one since I am such an open book these days.  Perhaps most do not know that I play the Oboe and Clarinet and love classical music.  That ‘music’ on the radio today?  Noise. 😉

GbN: Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. It was a pleasure doing it and getting the chance to know you better.

Keen: You are most welcome.


For our previous Community Spotlight segments, please click here.

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