Ask Mo: Jobs in the MMO industry, jobs in MMOs
Today, we're reintroducing our general MMO advice column, here named Ask Mo: the column where you ask Mo questions, and he... lets me answer them for him because he doesn't talk, see. That's his thing. The first question is an oldie but goodie that arrived in our inbox recently:
I have always been a huge fan of MMOs, since the original days of EverQuest. I grew up, went to college and eventually got into the video game industry proper where I worked in QA. I have recently had to leave the industry to do what's best for my family, but my passion goes unfulfilled: I never got to work on an MMO. I am limited in that I cannot leave my current location, but I still want to try to work with the MMO industry. My skill set largely revolves around project management and people management, so I don't know what I could work toward doing in the MMO world. What I was hoping for was perhaps to glean some of your great knowledge of the MMO circles to perhaps provide some direction, some hope that I may still be able to get there some day.
Flee, flee for your lives!
Seriously, I love MMOs, and I love devs and players and games, but this is not a good industry right now. The recession and recovery has been very bad for us. (Unless you're a Guild Wars 2 columnist at MOP. Then you're virtually assured a position at ArenaNet eventually. I'm kidding. Mostly.)
The hard reality is that location is extremely important to the larger MMO studios (and even to some of the indies; consider that City State Entertainment only recently began taking on select remote employees). There are studios willing to hire contracted writing, community, and QA folks from afar -- ArenaNet and BioWare have both been known to do that, for example -- but those are usually short-term contracts that do not lead to long-term employment. They're great for extra cash in hard times and look good on a resume, but they are not a career. This limits you if you're unable to move to an online gaming mecca like San Francisco, LA, Seattle, San Diego, Austin, or DC. And please note that with the exception of Austin, all of the places I just named are extremely expensive to live in, so even moving there and landing an entry-level on-location job may or may not be a ticket to the monies.
Of course, that's mostly for writing, producing, design, community, and QA roles, and those who can move and can afford the expense of living in high COL city should know that companies like Blizzard and Riot are nearly always hiring customer service and QA folks if you just want to get your foot in the door. Programmers, on the other hand, are in significantly higher demand. Artists and modellers are, too, of course, though those jobs are less likely to outlast the game's launch. If you're a programmer, you can make so much more money without the crunch hours and layoff cycle working in a non-gaming industry. And frankly, you should.
For the community and human resources roles you're looking at, you can often get noticed and picked up as a blogger or YouTuber, but that's a crapshoot, and frankly it's harder to get a paid gig as a blogger than at a game studio these days.
If moving is out of the question and you really just want to work on an MMO, you could always consider donating your time to an indie studio. Games like The Repopulation and City of Titans are by gamers, for gamers, and a lot of them are always looking for help, sometimes in return for profit sharing. It may not be glamorous or lucrative, but it looks a hell of a lot better on a resume than nothing in these lean times.
The next question is job-related too, in a slightly different way. It's from long-time reader Avaera, and I'm embarrassed to say I've pulled it out of our email bin from last May:
Where did all the community jobs go? My first introduction to an immersive online world was a little known 3-D chatroom of the late '90s called Cybertown, and I remember the most engaging thing about it was earning in-game currency by getting a job as a welcomer of new players to your virtual neighbourhood or as a block deputy organising events and moderating your street's bulletin board or dozens of other community-focused jobs.
Similarly, the most immersive games I've ever played were three text MUDs (Aetolia, Imperian, and Lusternia), and these have roles you can take on as newbie mentors for new recruits to your class, PvP champions for guildmembers who were responsible for warping in to rescue a weaker player if they were ganked, treasurers for managing city finances, diplomats for negotiating trade/conflict deals with other nations, events managers for guilds, and city-wide activities or political decision-makers responsible for maintaining/changing the cultural direction of an organisation. All of these had tangible systems and mechanical rewards built into the game experience, and you felt as though you were doing something involving other players that was more than just hunter-gathering for yourself. Almost every major MMO I've found has craft skills as the only real jobs available (aside from everyone being a mercenary), and they aren't real roles in an interactive community, no more than a resource node or NPC merchant is. Can you recommend any lesser-known worlds that have these missing community jobs, or have they all disappeared entirely?
It's strange how shifting from text-based imagining to graphical virtual worlds has limited our creativity and our options, but it's happened all the same. In fact, I remember it happening in real time, as I once obsessed over the MUD Castle Marrach when EverQuest was in its heyday. EverQuest was so stifling and one-note compared to the playstyle freedom I'd known in Ultima Online, and I actually went looking for that feeling backward technologically to MUDs. Few MMORPGs have done better even since, so you're not alone.
Of course, MMORPGs really can't functionally do all of the things MUDs could do, and those that can certainly can't do it as cheaply. There are older games that provide some of what you're looking for; Ultima Online, for example, still has a counselor program, an event GM program, and player systems for city mayors and governance. There are sunsetted games that provide some of what you're looking for too, like Star Wars Galaxies' politicians and entertainers and industrial mavens and Vanguard's diplomats (don't even start me on the magnificent wonder of creativity we lost when Glitch sunsetted). Some modern games provide player councils, like EVE Online's CSM, or judicial systems where players are judge and jury, like ArcheAge. Asheron's Call, now maintenance-moded, still has a monarchy system that grants leadership experience to those who mentor newbies.
But finding them all in one game is virtually impossible. Our reality is that most modern MMOs are combat sims with some extra trappings, not world sims with combat added in. We're not in an age when virtual worlds are being crafted at all, let alone explored to their fullest potential, and most -- not all, but most -- of the "sandboxes" on the market or on the way are blank slate MMOs, emptyboxes, rather than the heirs to MUDs and their everythingbox design-all-the-things mentality. And even some of the devs who made those once-great virtual worlds still haven't acknowledged or internalized that and why a lot of gamers really do want to be Uncle Owen.
From personal experience, I can still recommend Ultima Online; there are few other games with deep-sea sunken-treasure fishing, glassblowing, true gardening with crossbreeding and mutations, and a political system (and it's getting an expansion this year!). If I were looking anew, however, I'd set sail for a game like Wakfu, which includes player government and environment control, or Mabinogi, which features (among other more typical accoutrements) an aging mechanic, commercing skill, and musical composition system. Those MUD-like MMOs with depth and flavor beyond combat grinds are out there; they're just vastly overlooked.
They're also old hat to Avaera, I expect, so if any of you readers have more obscure suggestions, I'd love to hear them.