Welcome to the second edition of our Community Spotlight segment. This week is somewhat of a special treat for me and I hope for you too. Over this last week, I was able to pin down Tobold of Tobold’s Gaming Blog to answer a few questions with me. If you have any doubts about who Tobold is, I’d have to assume that you’re new to the blog scene. This kindly gentleman has been helped begin the MMO blogging trend and currently runs one of the most widely read MMO blogs on the internet. Though, if you were to ask him, he’d respond in his typically humble fashion.
We sit down and talk a little bit about WoW, MMO gaming, geese, and ice cream. Enjoy!
Chris: Hi Tobold and thanks for doing the interview. To begin, can you tell us a little bit about who you and what your blog is about?
Tobold: My blog is about MMORPGs from a player’s perspective. I am specifically interested in questions of the consequences of game design on the behavior of players, how incentives modify what players in a virtual world do. The blog also contains some virtual world economic posts, and the occasional post about the real world. Finally I’m interested in the subject of blogging itself, so there are some introspective posts on the blog about the blog.
Chris: As a reader of the site, I know you’re a big World of Warcraft. What’s kept you playing through the years?
Tobold: I’ve been trying to answer that question for WoW and every other game for years, but there is no simple answer. I think it has a lot to do with a virtual “to do” list, logging on and having some goal in the game: Reaching the next level, getting a new piece of gear, beating some dungeon, mastering a new tradeskill. While all these goals are in a way trivial, games like World of Warcraft work by immediatedly rewarding you for achieving them. I think the sense of achievement and constant rewards is what keeps us playing for years, even if our intellect tells us that we are just collecting pixels.
Chris: How do you feel about the pace at which new content gets added to the game? Does it concern you that other development companies seeming to be setting a higher standard compared to Blizzard’s current rate?
Tobold: I do think that Blizzard is slow, compared to the competition, in the pace at which they add new content. That leads to noticeable dips in player activity between expansions. On the other hand, the quality of the added content, especially in the case of expansions, is usually quite high. Blizzard earns $500 million per year as profit, but it is hard for me to say whether they do not reinvest more into the game because they really couldn’t produce high quality content faster if they hired more people, or whether they deliberately choose to use World of Warcraft as a cash cow to finance development of other games.
Chris: There was a definitive shift in the focus from “hardcore” to “casual” with the transition from TBC to WotLK. How do you feel about the movement we’ve witnessed? Taken as a whole, do you feel this move was well done, taken too far, not enough?
Tobold: I did like the direction. Especially I think that it is important that there is an endgame available for the majority of players, thus in the case of World of Warcraft the move to an entry level raid dungeon which was doable by average guilds full of average players was certainly a good idea. What was unfortunate was that WotLK at release did not have a lot of raid content. So instead of having some entry level raid content for the average player, and some elite raid content for the most dedicated, Blizzard created the impression that you could have either one or the other, making the hardcore raiders rather unhappy in the process. Ulduar should certainly have been available right at release of WotLK.
Chris: Following that up, do you feel that all content should be available to everyone? Is there any value in limiting certain achievements (certain high end raids, not literal achievements) to only those who can put in more time/effort?
Tobold: I think that all content *modes* should be available to at least the majority of players. That does not mean that every player should be able to kill the hardest boss of the last raid dungeon on hard mode. But the average players certainly should be able to gather his friends in a casual guild and be able to do entry-level raiding. Experienced raiders are notoriously unwilling to take new players under their wings and teach them how to raid, thus it is important that the game itself offers the new players a chance to learn raiding with training wheels on. Having said that, raiding by definition requires a larger group of people to do something together online for more than a few minutes. There will always be some people who for personal reason will never be able to find the time to raid.
Chris: If there’s one thing even detractors can’t attack, it’s WoW is considered a success. Yet, this far out of the gate, do you still expect to see WoW grow and expand or do you feel we’ve seen somewhat of a leveling off of the playerbase (expansion booms aside)?
Tobold: Everybody is always looking at the totally misleading number of 11 million players, or argue that we should count only the about 5 million subscribers with a monthly fee. What most people forget is that the apparent “leveling off of the playerbase” is a dynamic process. World of Warcraft regularly hits the list of top 10 bestselling PC games, so the 11 million players today are not the same as the 11 million players last year. There is a huge pool of ex-WoW-players, which might be even larger than the number of current subscribers. In a way, WoW is always growing, there are new players every day, playing World of Warcraft for the first time. To maximize the number of subscribers, Blizzard at the same time needs to keep current players happy, get ex-players to resubscribe, and entice new players to try the game. I do think we will hear a new player number record after the release of Cataclysm, say 12 million or 13, but I don’t think WoW can still double their numbers. However it might be possible for Blizzard to get over 20 million players for WoW and their next MMORPG combined, due to the large pool of ex-players I mentioned. The market size is bigger than most people think.
Chris: If you could choose two things you wish Blizzard would take from WoW and put into their next MMO, what would they be? Two things you wish they’d leave behind?
Tobold: Things to keep should definitely be the quality of content, and the game being playable by a wide range of players, from ultra-casual to hardcore. What they should leave behind is the harsh transition between a solo leveling game and a raid endgame, by making grouping more popular during the leveling phase, and offering challenging solo content a the level cap. They should also leave behind, or rather relax, their idea of players needing directed gameplay. I think guiding new players at the start of the game is a good idea, but towards the end of the game the guiding of players through scripts should be gradually replaced by introducing more and more ways for players to interact with each other, leading to spontaneous player-created content through human interaction.
Chris: Does the future of MMO gaming lie in big developers, like Blizzard, or indie companies? And, along with that, the community seems torn on the impact of WoW on the wider genre. Do you feel that WoW is pushing the industry forward or holding it back from innovating?
Tobold: I think the future lies in the interplay between both. Indie companies often are more nimble, and willing to take risk on innovative ideas. But then they don’t have the budget to make big, polished games. So it often is the big companies to take up the ideas of the indie companies and polish them to great games. I think World of Warcraft is pushing the industry forward, because it clearly demonstrated the amount of money you can make if you get it right. Good ideas alone don’t make great games, you need to have a budget behind that.
Chris: Moving away from WoW, tell us a little bit about your MMO history. When did it start and what kept you going back then?
Tobold: The first game I played which could be called a “MMO” game was an LPMUD in the early 90’s, on my university’s mainframe. My first graphical MMO was Ultima Online, in 2000, but I quickly switched to Everquest and played that for nearly 2 years. Then I drifted between various games a while, until getting into the WoW beta in September 2004. Now I’m alternating between WoW and other games that come out.
Chris: When do you feel you hit your “peak” for investment into the genre? How much were you playing compared to how much you play now?
Tobold: I never had a “peak” where I would pull all-nighters or something. But in WoW I had two periods where I was more into raiding, one during WoW 1.0, where I got up to the end boss of BWL, and one during early WotLK, both periods with multiple raid nights per week, playing until midnight. But when I raided that much, I was playing less on alts etc., so I think my my playing hours are rather steady overall, at about 20 hours per week.
Chris: If you could use one word to describe the MMO community as a whole, what would it be?
Tobold: Widespread. I don’t even think there is such a thing as a MMO community as a whole, there are a lot of MMO players with very different play styles never talking to each other.
Chris: I understand you’re big on privacy. With that in mind, can you tell us a little bit about the man behind the blog? Wife, kids, dogs, geese?
Tobold: I do have a wife, who plays WoW as well, and who gives me a good insight into the mind of the ultra-casual player, never grouping, and not really participating in the endgame of WoW. I don’t have kids, dogs, or geese, which allows me to play a good number of hours of MMORPGs without neglecting my job or family. I think I achieved a good balance between my various activities and responsabilities, and that is something which is important to me.
Chris: If there was one thing you wish people coming to your blog would know, or keep in mind, what would that be?
Tobold: I wish some people would remember that I am only human, and so is everybody else on my blog. I think some people take the discussion of games far too seriously, and consider any opinion other than their own as blasphemy towards their pseudo-religious cult following some game or other. I get most annoyed by people who have a strong sense of entitlement, and start to protest loudly when I’m not producing the kind of content they are looking for.
Chris: Tell us something unique about yourself readers of your blog may not know.
Tobold: As a child, I once visited a gold mine where as a tourist attraction you could pan some gold like people did centuries ago. So you could say I started gold farming early.
Chris: Finally, on the subject of ice cream. Love it, hate it, and which flavor would you choose to obliterate from the Earth?
Tobold: I love ice cream, and I would obliterate stracciatella ice cream, and any other ice cream that has chunks which don’t melt on your tongue. An ice cream should be smooth!
From all of us here at Game by Night, thanks Tobold for doing the interview with us. If you haven’t yet, drop on over and tell him hi!
Thoughts, suggestions, questions for future spotlights? Maybe you’d like to be spotlighted here on a not-too-distant Tuesday. If so, drop me a line at Chris -at- GamebyNight -dot- com!