The Soapbox: On armchair development

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|09.27.11

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The Soapbox: On armchair development
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

A couple of weeks ago I penned a Soapbox that, to put it mildly, elicited passionate responses. While a few people sided with me in my belief that MMO combat is silly and sucky, the cries of the masses drowned us out with variations on "you know nothing, Jon Snow" and "go back to consoles, you inexperienced newb!"

Some of the responses got me to thinking about game design in general and about game designers and their cult celebrity status in particular. When you cut through the anonymous insults and keyboard courage, most of my would-be critics were actually right about one thing: I'm not a game "developer." You know what's funny, though? That doesn't make a lick of difference when it comes to the ability to talk intelligently about games and game design.

Eyeball closeup
I put developer in quotes up there because the heated responses on display the other week led me to wonder what exactly a game developer is, and it also led me to examine the resumes of some of the leading MMO devs to see what compels fans to place them on an intellectual pedestal. You know the pedestal I mean. "Well [developer A] knows a lot more than you!" Or my favorite: "Make your own MMO, punkface!!!11!" This last one is particularly interesting because it's telling a critic to do something that the teller believes impossible. Is it really, though?

Boat plansThe terminology problem

So what is a game "developer?" A coder? A project manager? A 3-D artist? An "idea man" who snags some sort of nebulous producer credit while scratching Mr. Bigglesworth behind the ears?

There's no clear definition, and the word developer has even been attached to community managers who develop little aside from thick skin, or writers who may not know an if-then statement from ancient Sanskrit.

That's not to disparage these folk -- most are likely paying their dues and looking upward -- but the point is that the term "developer" is incredibly broad and therefore useless as a measuring stick for game and design knowledge.

Developer duties and expertise depend largely on the size and scope of a project, and here at Massively we talk to a huge range of devs that includes do-everything indie maestros like Michael Dunham of Origins fame to corporate managers like SOE's John Smedley, who presides over a vast colony of worker bees buzzing around several multi-million dollar MMORPGs.

Is there a particular educational path or skill set most conducive to becoming a game "developer?" Not really. Again, the term -- and more importantly, the knowledge required -- is so malleable that it could encompass everything from programming courses to a marketing or finance degree to a high school diploma and a visionary design document.

Aircraft plansThe common (wo)man

The point I'm getting around to is this: Developers are ordinary people just like you and I, and there's no genius-level MMO design curriculum through which you must pass to become one.

Sure, some developers are astronauts. Others are former internet game critics like BioWare's Daniel Erickson or Funcom's Craig Morrison. Similar examples can be found a little closer to home, as Turbine's Sera Brennan and Kyle Horner, NCsoft's Adrian Bott, and SOE's Michael Zenke were all gracing the pages of Massively before they landed dev gigs.

To put it bluntly, if you play a lot of games and have a dash of creativity to go along with your people skills, you can be a game developer.

An anecdote

The subject of "experts," expertise, and experience always brings me back to something my grandfather said when I was a kid. He never went to college, never had any sort of degree, and never had a fancy title on a business card.

He did have a 3,000-square-foot mountainside home that he built himself, from the foundation to the final shingle. He also built (and later, flew) an aircraft from a pile of scrap metal in his basement.

He traveled the world, mentored hundreds of combat pilots, turned an overgrown stretch of Appalachian real estate into fertile farmland, and did dozens of other things that some folks might assume is beyond the reach of the so-called common man. When I asked him where he learned to do all the stuff he did in his life -- and who taught him -- he laughed.

Son, he said, the only thing you need to be taught is how to read. If you can read about it, you can do it, and don't let anyone tell you different.

So don't make the mistake of thinking that MMOs are limited to the ideas being advanced by the current dev generation. It's a big industry (and getting bigger), and it's not nearly as exclusive as you might think. If you're dissatisfied, or you simply feel you could do better, be a developer yourself and don't believe for a minute that your ideas are too crazy or too unrealistic. More than that, though, don't listen to self-styled experts who toe the line and celebrate the status quo.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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