Ask Mo: The real value of MMO interviews

    
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MOP reader Avaera recently sent in a question that I thought would be fun to address here in my poor neglected Ask Mo column. (Truth, most of the questions folks ask that would go here get answered on the podcast instead! But this one, I thought, deserved more depth.)

“I absolutely love when I have the chance to read interviews with the people responsible for designing our favourite games because I always come away having learned something and seeing these worlds in a completely different way,” he writes. But then he wondered why we don’t do more than we already do. “Is this because there is shaky ethical ground around the quid-pro-quo for dev access, or the perceived danger of self-promotion? Is it something that is very difficult to do via online means only? Is there any chance this kind of thing could be more of a regular column?”

No chance. There’s nothing “regular” about interviews. Let’s talk shop!

I know that Avaera, being a long-time reader and supporter of the site, knows we do and enjoy doing interviews. Fewer than we did with thrice the budget and staff on Old Massively, of course. Fewer than we did when genuine MMORPGs were coming out faster than we could count them. But I do still love doing them, especially when we can meet with the developers face to face. Our coverage at the five conventions we’ve gone to this year so far produced dozens of interesting interviews, and we’ve done more besides that too of course, plus we bring devs on our streams from time to time.

But no glamour yet.

But those are just the ones you see, the ones that make it over all the fences and into the wild. The majority of interviews we send out don’t get published, for a multitude of reasons. A lot of times developers just flat-out don’t answer questions. They decide they are better off not being transparent at all, or they’re concerned about how talking to the press (in lieu of just pretending to be “transparent” internally to superfans) would come across. Or they aren’t allowed to answer because it would botch marketing plans. Or the answer is bad and they know it’s bad so they’re better off staying silent. Or they prefer to stay in control of any messaging they do (the better to delete it later). Or they offer us an interview, but change their mind once they see we’re not pitching softballs. Realistically, we’re not going to bother asking easy questions; if questions are worth asking, they are going to pose a challenge, otherwise it’s something the devs would gladly post without prompting. When they decide to hide out and hope we go away, it’s a waste of our time.

And sometimes if they do answer, they skip questions. Or they edit the questions. Or they delete some of them in the return email, hoping we won’t notice. Or they dodge a question and try to talk about something different. Or they turn their answer into an advertisement. Or they return their answers so long past when they were relevant that there’s no point to running them. Or their answers are such obvious untruths/spin that I don’t feel comfortable giving them a platform. Or they get sent around to four different people for approval until they’re watered down and useless. Or they’re passed down to lower-level employees who couldn’t conceivably know the real answers, a big scoop of dodge with plausible deniability sprinkles on top!

Heck, people are people – video games aren’t some haven from the kind of petty crap you see going on in politics or entertainment. MMO interviews in particular see more shenanigans because of the “live service” nature of the game. Last year, within a week of each other, I had two studios blow off my questions maliciously: One then bragged on Reddit about refusing to talk to the press, while the other intentionally scooped the report I’d courteously asked for comment on by publishing a hasty late-night community update instead. (Studios that do this do not get my courtesy heads-up again.) I’ve even had studios take my questions and post them, and the answers, verbatim on their forums, without responding to me or even asking my permission to reproduce my text. Likewise, I’ve had studios promise us an exclusive interview, only to find out that was a bald-faced lie, that it wasn’t actually exclusive at all, and some other site got to publish first, making ours a colossal waste of time.

And I bet some of you remember the time we called one studio out on these kinds of repeated shenanigans, posting for our readers the questions it was refusing to answer, only to find ourselves virtually blacklisted by said studio. Which, incidentally, no longer exists.

On the opposite end of it all are the folks who will talk until your ears bleed, but it’s all off the record or unpublishable, so it’s something you have to forget you knew. (They tell us so we can’t ethically speculate, which is annoying. As I’ve said on the podcast, sometimes the things we’re not talking about are akin to our very own warrant canary.) Or they’ll give you something you can’t run with until a broader press release embargo anyway, and then you may as well have not bothered. One studio (which I’m personally fond of regardless) is notorious for granting detailed interviews but then cluelessly putting out all of the information from the preview well before lifting the press embargo. (I do appreciate those studios that give us inside scoops, I do, but if I can’t use it, why do it? Do they think we do this just to be the first to know? Because… my personal elucidation is not why I do this!)

I’ll never say I’ve seen it all because as soon as I do, somebody will surprise me with something even worse, but I’ve seen a lot. There are some lovely folks in games PR whom I genuinely enjoy working with, and then there are the people you get warned to stay far away from on your first day of work. It’s all part of the job, whether it should be or not, and it’s not something I suspect the average gamer or blog reader knows (or cares, or even should care) about, but I feel as if you need to understand it to really understand why in an industry favoring enthusiast press, interviews are not necessarily a good model for the kind of writing we seek to do here.

And yet, like Avaera, I really love a great interview when we can throw hardballs and the studio hits them back just as hard and I feel like we all really learned something: It’s those amazing perfect golden interviews that keep you in the game, keep you thinking that this time it will be different! Seriously, the best compliments I get amount to, damn Bree, those were rough questions! Good job, devs, y’all survived Bree’s gauntlet! There are some devs notorious for being willing to sit for these – Mark Jacobs comes to mind – and Neowiz has surprised and impressed me several times lately with a similar approach to interviews, including the one earlier this week. Naoki Yoshida would walk through fire to answer Eliot’s questions. Larry and MJ have gotten great material from the BioWare and Funcom devs (in fact, all the pics in this piece are from companies I am complimenting here!). And so on.

But dang, when I know that more often than not, interviews go literally nowhere, I have a hard time justifying asking writers to spend time on them that they may not get paid for, or justifying spending company money to pay them to do work we’ll probably never get to publish. That’s just our reality, and while Major Network Newspapers can afford spec time on salaried journalists, we’re still a scrappy indie MMO blog getting by on ad revenue and Patreon, and I don’t want to spend your money on wholly predictable kill fees. This is, incidentally, why many of our non-con interviews are done by me or another flat-rater, since we can better absorb the loss, but the site is nearly always better off spending that research and writing time on editorials and news instead (and yes, it’s a lot of research time if you want the interviews to be any good!).

In fact, this has been my position for as long as I’ve run the site. We have to focus on the content and coverage that is truly within our control. We can’t force studios to answer our questions; no journalist can. And some interviews are fun, but they aren’t actually our most useful tool. “The real role bloggers have in holding studios accountable for their games is in penning honest opinion pieces, not conducting interviews,” I opined in my first Ask Massively as Editor-in-Chief six years ago. “Developers and their PR handlers might control interviews, but we control editorials.”

But then, every once in a while, there’s that one interview…

Are video games doomed? What do MMORPGs look like from space? Did free-to-play ruin everything? Will people ever stop talking about Star Wars Galaxies? Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and mascot Mo as they answer your letters to the editor right here in Ask Mo.
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Winter

We need new shirts! Mine have reached the point of retiring *sad face*! Also great read and confirms what I’ve suspected about interviews and why they aren’t “regular”.

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Utakata

Seems like interviewing studios is its own special kind of Hell for the most part. /sigh

…the good things is, I never judge this e-publication on interviews you guys do or lack there of. It’s not really what makes this site work. Rather reporting on the things as it happens…MOP has never afraid to shy away from the meaty to the ridiculous. All I can say is keep up the good work! And let the interviews happen as they happen and when appropriate. :)

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Maggie May

Thank you for that insight, the developers you mentioned as providing relevant interviews are the ones most interesting to read. Unfortunately a lot of them are constrained by their positions or company policy which is too bad.

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luxundae

Neat, thanks, Bree! I had never thought about the economics of attempting to do interviews vs other sorts of content. Shows what I know about the industry (not much at all!) :) Thanks for pulling back the curtain a little.

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rafael12104

Hmm. Well, I’m smiling ear to ear. You see, this is why I come here.

Relevance. It is so important and IMO the impetuous and justification for publishing any interview. Thank you, Bree and MOP. Thank you for weeding through it all and giving us interviews that are significantly relevant.

Now, we may not always agree on what is relevant, but at the very least MOP isn’t rubber-stamping PR as “in-depth” or jumping on the bandwagon of popular opinion.

Yes. Neowiz surprised and impressed me as well. They have taken a lot of shit over the last few months, and rightly so, but when facing Bree’s questions, which btw were the relevant questions any MMORPG player would have, they didn’t duck or spin or end the interview early. They didn’t bullshit their way out.

Night and day from how IGN interviews Bungie, wouldn’t you say? The questions and answers both!

And it was MOP insisting on covering what is significant, in asking the tough questions, and then deciding how to present the information to its readers that made it worthwhile for fans, critics and Neowiz.

It pisses me off that that other more “mainstream” (for lack of a better word) video game news sites don’t handle their responsibilities as journalists with the MOP approach. Often, they are influenced by the big ad contributors. Oh, they say they are not, but look at their interviews. It’s like watching a game of softball or reading a PR statement!

So, thanks for this article. It clarified what I think most of us suspected but never asked. And I hope you know that it’s not just the MOP faithful that feel this way. There are other so-called influencers that come here to get credible information including your interviews. I’m sure you know a few of them.

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Avaera

As others have already said, some fascinating insights here! Thank you for sharing some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that you have to try and deal with. One thing I always respect about MassivelyOP is your willingness to be so brutally honest and ultimately ethical about how the site is run – I suspect it’s not at all common, unfortunately!

I figured that most of the successful interviews that I do see on the site here were through long-form email format, which have the benefit of giving the recipient time to think about their responses (and I guess the necessary approval from their PR teams/corporate overseers).

Couple of follow up questions though:
1. Have you had any positive experiences in offering live and on-the-record interviews instead? Perhaps via IM or chat conversations, or even phone/podcast visits, where the ability to dodge and weave is still present, but at least a lot more transparently received. Are people just unwilling to risk it?
2. While I get that devs involved in marketing a live game are pretty hard to pin down for honest and newsworthy insights, what do you think of the value of profiling and interviewing former devs of both successful and unsuccessful MMOs; community managers and guild leaders; notable commentators and streamers; news-making individuals (notorious or otherwise) or even just random players? Put another way, what are your thoughts on profiles of people who might not be able to address directly the design or implementation of our games, but rather speak about the impact of them at a personal level?

Justin Olivetti
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Justin Olivetti

As Bree said, the fact that most podcast interviews with mid- to large-size studios come with a PR person on the horn is limiting and often chafes me the wrong way. I’m speaking for myself here, but I severely dislike handlers, especially the ones who keep their clients on a short leash and expect us to spit out safe talking points and nothing else during the conversation.

Another slight peeve? Interviews with studios where they treat us as though we’d never seen a video game before or understand how the genre works. Having a dev breathe down your neck during a demo telling you that you press “W” to go forward always makes me throw down the “I know the basics, can we skip past that and get to the interesting conversation bits?” card.

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styopa

“most of the questions folks ask that would go here get answered on the podcast instead”

That’s too bad. Maybe it’s only me, but if I actually want to get information, I *really hate* the linear ‘podcast’ format.

Who wants to listen to what’s basically a half hour (or whatever) voicemail? (Apparently a lot of people, I get it.)

I’d much rather have it transcribed to a web page of text that I can a) peruse anywhere – not just where I have the capability to stick earbuds in, b) consume at my own speed instead of at the one-dimensional progression of a linear recording where there’s not even chapter or subject headers I can jump to and c) most importantly to skip all the blathering chitchat, get the info I need & move on.

I listened to cassette tapes when I was punk kid. 40 years later in the internet era, I’m mystified that people LIKE & (apparently) WANT this brutally analogue, truncated experience?

EDIT: this article, for example was great. Thanks!

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Namtubb

I enjoy podcasts ’cause they give me a way to enjoy something audio-based while doing something else on the side, like playing a grindy mmo.
With MOP’s podcast in particular it’s enjoyable because Justin, Bree and the once-in-awhile guest(s) speak like humans, full of their own opinions and vulnerabilities. If Bree laughing at Justin’s silliness felt more like an ‘Applause’ sign being held up instead of her genuinely finding him funny, you’d best believe I wouldn’t be listening to that phoniness!
Also, me thinks by being a podcast it provides a better atmosphere for discussing personal subjects, which also makes it a great avenue for reader/listener questions.

Justin Olivetti
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Justin Olivetti

Usually I’m a prancing jester who tries to distract Bree’s rants with my japes.

Justin Olivetti
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Justin Olivetti

The podcast is for people who enjoy the human aspect of voice and dialogue. We generally don’t deliver any new news in it, but instead it’s a good platform to chew over the previous week’s news, talk about our own experiences, and discuss whatever listeners want us to.

I enjoy podcasts for when I *can’t* read but am doing something fairly brainless, like cooking or driving. They entertain me, make me feel connected to the hosts, and skew more toward opinions.

MOP pretty much has all of the major formats — video, audio, and especially print — covered, allowing you to engage in whatever pleases you best. We’ve never positioned the podcast as being a substitute for reading the site, but instead a weekly supplement for those who can’t get enough!

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Paragon Lost

I figured on a lot of this, but still learned some insights that I didn’t know. Always learning something. Honestly at times I feel it’s just not even worth pursuing for you all.

I feel that developers need to start earning your and our trust, that they need to go the extra mile due to the years of on going shenanigans, lies and half truths meant to obfuscate information for their own gain. Ethics on their part? Not often. The City State Games type of companies have been far to rare in my opinion.

It needs to be more the norm and not the rarefied exception to the norm. Seriously, look at how we all react to Mark Jacobs around here. We’re so damn happy to have someone playing us fair that we’re like a bunch of puppies leaping around someone holding treats. No dig at him intended but it’s so rare that we are overly excited by how he operates when it should just be business as usual.

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Hirku

That was a great read, thank you!

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Sean Barfoot

A fascinating insight into life behind the scenes. Thanks Bree.

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Sean Barfoot

Oh and just to add, great job with the new layout and bug fixes too.