Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

One shot: Mike Schramm

Posted by Randolph Carter on August 10, 2009

MMO community connection:

mikeschramm.com | WoW.com | WoW Insider Show

When did you first start blogging? Would you mind taking us up to present with all of your blogging projects?

That’s a long list. I first started writing online with a review site that I put together with a few of my friends, where we’d review anything and everything, from games to movies to food. After a while, my friends stopped doing it, but I was still interested in it, so I switched over to my own site, mikeschramm.com. But I used clips from there to get a job at a newspaper here in Chicago, and then used that reputation to work at a PR firm, and then expanded that into my current freelance status. Right now, I blog and write for whoever will take me, but the majority of my work comes from a few blogs with AOL, including WoW.com, Joystiq, and TUAW. And I still blog for myself about just random things at mikeschramm.com, as well as working on a podcast over there called The Modern World, about technology, modern society, and whatever else I find interesting.

It appears you’re no stranger to podcasting either. Would you care to discuss all the the projects you’ve been involved in here as well?

Right. Well The Modern World is a pretty new invention, just something to keep me busy with all of the interesting stuff I hear about from elsewhere on the Internet. A friend of mine named Luke Lindberg and I used to do a podcast called Happy Time, which more or less just ended up being something for our friends to listen to — we did 25 episodes of it, and then found we didn’t really have the time in common to do it regularly any more. More recently I’ve been involved in podcasting on most of the blogs I’ve worked for, so I developed and co-host the WoW.com podcast (called The WoW Insider Show), and I will often show up and sometimes host on the TUAW podcast (called the TUAW Talkcast, as they run the podcast through talkshoe.com). Other than that, I enjoy showing up as a guest on other shows, and have recently worked with a radio station here in Chicago to provide them with some videogame-related interviews.

And so, where do you find the time to do all of this and I assume live a life along with it?

Good question. I don’t know where I find the time — for better or worse, I’m the kind of person that isn’t ever satisfied with just sitting there. If I find myself with regular free time, I usually plan something else or try to take on another project that I’ve been meaning to do. In the long run, it’s probably a bad idea — I often find myself committed to what’s probably more than I can handle, and there are many days when I work late nights and have to get up the next morning to do something else. But on the other hand, I’m most happy when I’m busy. And I do really try to balance things out, scheduling in some actual game playing (rather than just writing or podcasting about games), or getting out of the house to exercise or go out with friends.

What was your introduction to MMOs and what was that experience like?

My first MMO was actually Dark Age of Camelot. It was a strange experience — I was instantly hooked, both overwhelmed with how big the game world was (and how many different things you could do with one character), and astounded by the fact that just walking around in the game could lead you to see and interact with other people playing right alongside you. It was a little awkward, both because the game had major issues (this was back when, after each fight, you had to sit and wait for your health and mana to regen, remember), and because the people I played with were almost just as confused about what they were doing as I was. But I got the idea of it, the idea of interacting in a game world with all these other people, and I was sold on that right away.

Can you recall that first MMO “wow!” moment?

The first real “wow!” moment was probably in one of Dark Age’s battlegrounds (at least I think that’s what they were called, I can’t remember all that terminology any more). There was a center keep that you had to claim, and I was in there with a random group of people and suddenly just took charge of the group — I started assigning people to targets and telling people when to push forward and when to stick together and heal up. And people actually listened to me, and within a matter of minutes, we had actually conquered the battleground, all because we’d worked together as a team and stuck to a strategy. That was pretty amazing to me — after the battle was done, I had to stand up and go out into my apartment’s kitchen just to tell my roommate what happened. He didn’t exactly understand (“There’s this castle, see? And we worked together to take it over!”), but it was pretty thrilling for me, having worked together and accomplished something as a team.

Of course, nowadays, almost every game has some form of online co-op, and you can play with people all over the world, doing almost anything you want. But before DAoC, it had basically been Counterstrike and Quake for me — team deathmatch was the most complicated that team gameplay had gotten. Joining up with a bunch of people and using all of these spells and skills to conquer a castle was a big deal.

At your peak, how much time per week would you say you spent playing? How about now?

I get distracted pretty easily, so I tend to visit MMOs in cycles. If I’m not really into them for whatever reason, I probably only play about four or five hours a week, usually just a few daily quests, an auction house check, or an instance run grabbed on the weekend. But every couple of months, I hit on something that really interests me (either a new content patch, or a big milestone for one of my characters), and then I really get back into it and play obsessively. At that point, I’m maybe playing about twenty hours a week, maybe a few hours a night and then lots of hours on the weekends. But it’s very cyclical — even when I’m really into it, and grinding out the levels or getting all of the pieces together for something that I really want to craft, there’s no guarantee that a week or two later, I won’t have found something else to play and obsess about, and at that point the MMO goes on the back burner in terms of playtime.

Have you ever experienced burnout in WoW? If so, how have you dealt with that?

I don’t know that I’ve experienced “burnout” — I’ve never played so much that I don’t want to play any more. Usually, it’s a factor of time (work picks up and I don’t have any time to play) or getting distracted into something else (a new console game or a new project that I’m really into). I think WoW in particular (and the MMO genre in general) is so big, though, that it’s really tough to get burned out on it. Even if you’re burned out on raiding, then PvP can be a nice change from that, and if you’re burned out playing one class, there are many more to try out and level up, and if you’re burned out on fighting, then cooking or fishing or any of the professions might interest you. And by the time you’ve done all of that and conquered everything in the game, then odds are that a new patch has come out and added in more content, or changed a bunch of the things you thought you knew. It’s tough to burn out on a game that’s so complex — behind every corner, there’s another mechanic to get invested in and max out.

Do you tend to supplement your MMO gaming with other PC, console, or tabletop games?

Yes, all of the above. I’m always interested in new games — I have an Xbox and a Wii, and I’m usually playing one or two of the latest games on each. Lately, it’s mostly MMOs on the PC for me, though I’ve really enjoyed Demigod lately, and Civ always has a place on my harddrive. And yes, I like tabletop gaming as well — my D&D group has fallen off lately, but I have a few boardgaming friends who are always aiming to try out new things they’ve found on Boardgamegeek, or just play a good old Settlers game.

Do you see blogging as just a hobby or perhaps something more?

At this point, blogging is really my job, though I’ve always maintained that I’m a writer rather than a blogger. I’m not into the whole blogger/journalist comparison at all — I believe that each site, each outlet has its own voice and audience, and that when you sit down to write words for a specific audience, you’re talking to them, not succumbing to some role that’s been traditionally laid out for you. People argue whether bloggers are formal or informal, or whether there’s some objectivity they don’t have to follow that journalists do. But I don’t think that’s a valid or worthwhile comparison — when you’re talking to an audience, they expect certain things of you (formality, objectivity, the ability to be clear and concise, and so on), and it’s your job to meet those expectations.

Not to mention that “blogging” comes from the original term “weblog,” which was actually just a list of links to interesting sites on the Internet, with little or no commentary at all. So yes, I’d say blogging is more than a hobby, but really it’s all just writing. Other than the medium, I don’t think there’s any major difference between what writers are doing right now or at any other time in human history — you consider your audience, and you try to say things that are interesting and applicable and true and important to them. If you can pull that off, you’re doing it right.

Do you have a schedule or some sort of routine you try and follow when blogging and podcasting?

I get up, I find things to write about, I eat breakfast, and then I write about most of them. I take a break for lunch (and go work out if I have the time), and then I come back for more writing. On good, easy days, I am done by dinner, and can find some other useful way to enjoy my evening (usually doing my own personal writing and/or extra podcasting), and on busy days, I spend even more time writing after dinner. That’s really general — it seems more varied and interesting than that as I’m doing it.

Would you say there is some grind involved in all of this? If so, what is it and how do you tend to cope with it?

Well there’s really a grind to everything we do: I always say that even the guy whose job it is to test rollercoasters gets up in the morning and says, “Aww man, I can’t believe I have to ride the Batman ride again.” No matter how enjoyable your job is, it’s still work. But my job is really enjoyable, and that makes all of the little job things that everyone deals with that much easier to handle.

Plus, if things just aren’t working for the day, that’s when it’s time to go for a walk or get some exercise. Getting away and coming back to things later usually helps.

By contrast, what do you find pleasurable about blogging and podcasting?

Well obviously that I get to tell people what I think. There’s never any guarantee they’ll listen or care, but as you can probably tell from how long this interview has become already, I get a lot of pleasure out of just speaking my mind. That, and more often than not, people send along good feedback. Not necessarily positive feedback, but even the well-constructed criticism is kind of fun to get — it means people are at least consuming and digesting what you’re putting out there.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable moment from your blogging or podcasting past?

We’ve had quite a few meetups with the various sites now, and every one of them has been a real pleasure. I probably freak out readers who come, because I’m almost more interested than they are in what they have to say — I always actively ask them how they use the sites, what they think of what we’re doing, and if there are things we could do better. I’m always amazed, too, by the different types of people who read our work. And the quality of who they are — you might not be able to tell from our comments section all of the time, but in my experience, our readers are the cream of the crop in terms of how extraordinarily nice and intelligent they are. They come from all different jobs and backgrounds, but everyone I’ve met, to a person, always seems to know very well what they’re doing and who they are.

Are you pleased with how your work has been received in the blogosphere?

This will be a “yes, but” answer: Yes. But then again, we’re not really writing for the blogosphere, we’re writing for the people who are reading the blogosphere. Some might say that’s the same crowd, but I don’t think it necessarily is. A well-known blogger who’s very vocal about one part of our sites will not necessarily agree with the majority of our audience, and in fact that’s usually what makes them a well-known blogger, in that they have their own long-held opinions and are good at putting them into words. In general, especially with WoW.com and the WoW community, I’m very pleased with how we’ve worked with those bloggers and how we, as one of the largest sites out there, have been able to go above and beyond even what Blizzard has done in terms of connecting — in that community, we’re almost taking the place of an official blog in terms of spotlighting content and reporting on what’s happening around the blogosphere. So yes, I am pleased with how the blogosphere has received my work, but then again, I wrote it for the audience, not necessarily for them. And obviously, they’re a part of it, but they’re definitely not the whole thing or even the majority.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you do anything different?

I can’t think of anything I’d do differently. That’s not to say that I haven’t made mistakes, I’ve made plenty, but all of the mistakes I’ve made have been pretty helpful. Making a big mistake is like having a big alarm go off in your head, and it alerts you to something you really shouldn’t have done. Sure, if I’d done things differently, I might be able to silence that alarm, but then who knows if whatever it was warning me about would have gone unchecked?

Actually, thinking about it, I never did go to my high school prom. I probably should have done that — I think it would have been embarrassing (the same reason I didn’t bother to go in the first place), but I probably should have done it anyway.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to try their hand at blogging and/or podcasting?

Don’t worry about getting an audience — the first thing I learned when I got on the radio was that no matter how much I bugged them and emailed them and reminded them, my friends and family really didn’t tune in to listen to me. Some of them did, but I learned right away that you can’t count on an audience, no matter how close they are to you. You just have to do good work, and do it for a long time, and then an audience will eventually come. Worrying about your hits or about whether an audience is watching or not will only drive you nuts. It takes a long time on even the best projects to build up a significant audience, so you just have to trust in the work you’re doing, keep it consistent and strong, and eventually all of the other things will take care of themselves.

Can you picture a future where you will hang up your keyboard and microphone and no longer blog or podcast?

One of my goals is to start writing books, so if by some weird stroke of the infinite, I’m blessed enough to become a published author and get a publishing deal where I no longer have to work on daily content, then I might back off of the daily posting and go back to three or four days a week. But no, I’m a writer, and writers write, and that’s what I expect to do for a long time. I love to podcast, too, so I’m as likely to quit that (even if I ever quit getting paid for it) as I am eating.

You wake up to a world where you are the head of a company developing an MMO. You have unlimited funds and resources available to you. Please describe the kind of game you would make.

Oh man. This I have to think about.

*After about a day of thinking.* Try this on for size: the biggest draw, to my mind, of an MMO is just the sheer amount of things to do in it. So I’d try to put together an MMO like Spore (but, you know, good, of course), in that each stage of the game has its own fully-formed game system. When you start out, you’re just a soldier — you can tour the countryside fighting monsters or other enemies, and claiming ground for your “nation.” Or you can be a farmer, taking ownership of some of that claimed ground, and producing crops and resources from it, in a sort of a Harvest Moon-style system. Once you’ve made enough money farming, you can become a merchant, buying and trading and traveling, moving virtual goods around the kingdom (very EVE Online, lots of spreadsheets, etc.). And merchants can use that money to sponsor bureaucrats, who get a big picture view in a kind of Civ-style game of what lands soldiers have recently conquered, what kinds of farms and mines and buildings should go where in the kingdom, and where more forces are needed to fight other player kingdoms. Bureaucrats build farms on land recently claimed by soldiers, which farmers can then move into and cultivate, making money for merchants who can then sponsor more powers for bureaucrats and keep the nation growing.

Of course, some automation will be needed (you can, for example, install an NPC farmer in an unused farm), but there will always be a cost associated with that, because the ideal will always be to have a player (or a player character) running and managing a resource. And of course, everything has to be interesting and polished — maybe the whole world can be wrapped in a kind of a magical fantasy/industrial age setting (I believe there are some online games that do this kind of thing already, but we’d be talking full graphical treatment here, not a browser-based stats game). It’d be extremely tough to balance and keep every part of the game interesting, but you said unlimited funds and resources.

Anyway, you asked. I probably won’t ever get to play that game (until Sid Meier releases an MMO), but maybe I can dream.

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