Trade Chats: Interview With Tamarind

Trade Chats have been a little quiet recently. Wait, what? I hear you cry. Trade chat is never quiet! Well, in game it might go on murmuring nonsensical things deep into the night, but here Trade Chat is a bit more respectable: it’s the feature where we chat to bloggers, and other likely suspects.

Our trade chats return with a vengeance today. We’ve cornered Tamarind of Righteous Orbs and asked him to do the thing he does so very well on his own blog: talk.

Tamarind’s writing style is like no other out there. Yes he goes on tangents at any opportunity (which are usually hilarious). Yes, it’s long (the interview, like his posts, is pushing novella status), and yes he swears (it’s not much but be warned if you’re sensitive about language). With all of that, he’s one of our most unique bloggers who says what he wants, and when you read him – and you can’t help but keep reading his long posts – you get a feeling he’s very much pouring himself into the post, talking straight to you from the heart.

The interview’s behind a cut because of its length. But I strongly recommend reading it all: we cover his writing style, his opinion of what’s to come in WoW, his opinion of gamers as a culture, and more besides. Without further ado.. Tamarind…

Q: You’ve told us a hilarious post-patch tale of a Naxx PUG (which has made me want to try disc right *now*) and how they just didn’t get your new role. What do you think the future of PUGs looks like – will people learn what other classes do afresh, or will that knowledge just stay among tight guild groups?

Tamarind: I don’t think one slightly silly encounter can be counted as evidence that pugs are doomed, doomed, doooomed! The thing about pugs is they’re comprised of people and consequently they’re incredibly unpredictable, for good or ill. But I actually think pugging is important – WoW is a social space, after all, an MMO, not a single player game, and I think if you spend too much time cosily ensconced in your guild you forget that are things to be learned out there and start convincing yourself that it’s not safe to go outside in case the scary pugs get you. I mean, yes, we all have the occasional shitty or otherwise absurd pug, but I’ve had some good pugs as well and met some very decent people.

And by spending all your time in what you essentially turn into a gated community, you started to get a slightly distorted impression of the game. I mean lots of people were quite condemnatory about that pug but I think it’s easy to forget that other classes can seem pretty esoteric and the way the big jigsaw of WoW fits together is something that’s pretty much a mystery until you go out and do Actual Research, and I’m not sure Actual Research is something it’s fair to expect from people. As I think I said in the post one of the weird things about WoW is how much essential knowledge ends up coming from outside the game itself. Of course this perhaps a wider, and reasonably well-documented, problem in the game itself.

I honestly think it was pretty silly of them but I don’t necessarily think it was idiocy beyond all reason. I mean, imagine you’re in a random pug, and maybe you don’t have all that much raid experience, maybe you’ve always played a certain class, and suddenly, I don’t know, a hunter rolls on what looks like a tanking gun or you get a resto shaman wanting a trinket with hit on it or you’ve got a DK arguing apparently coherently for spellpower – what are you going to do? I mean actually the line between knowing your class really well and not knowing your class at all is very very thin. There are often plausible reasons for doing seemingly implausible things. Calli wrote a post not so long ago about the response of a pug when he needed on cloth gloves for his ele shaman – and, of course, sometimes you just get a drooling idiot on the team. The point is, unless you’re actually up to your knees in slobber, how do you tell?

Q: You say the levelling game is a stupid amount of fun post patch for you. A lot of people are saying it’s far too facerolly now and are hoping Blizz’ll stitch a bandaid to it. What made it less fun pre-patch for you, and more fun now?

Tamarind: I’m actually a bit embarrassed about this – I hadn’t really read much commentary on post-patch levelling so when my rogue started scything through enemies like a little unkillable God of death, I naturally assumed it was because I was awesome.

I would agree with the majority, however, that the game is slightly too easy to be interesting at the moment. Shintar wrote a rather good post on the subject here –  but I would also say that I generally don’t look for challenge in the levelling game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those “the game begins at 80” types, I love levelling and doing quests and exploring Azeroth, and I believe it has an awful lot of offer players – new and old – but I also think that we find our most satisfying challenges in dungeons, in raiding, and in achievements. I mean, although I’ll happily throw myself at a raid boss for three hours straight and although I can remember taking six hours to 3-man Mara once (back in the day, y’know, when you actually had to walk there, three miles both ways, in the snow) I’d honestly freak out if I spent more than ten minutes pitting myself against a single quest. That would be uninteresting, I think for most sane people. I mean there are much better sources for single-player challenges, MMOs excel at the interface between human interaction and game mechanics.

In short (hah), there’s a difference between being difficult and being challenging – I don’t think making mobs harder to kill, for example, makes the levelling game more challenging, it just makes it take longer.

The other thing I’m really loving about levelling post-patch is the way talents are working. I might not be entirely sold on the trees yet, but I do think it’s massively important to start the game with some sort of signature ability for your class. Otherwise you could be just any old doofus in ill-fitting trousers. I remember rolling up my first paladin, all excited to be a shiny, broad-shouldered warrior of the light, only to discover my primary means of dealing damage to my enemies was … wait for it … auto-attack. And my enhancement shaman stalled at level 23 pre-patch because I had no sense of what being an enhancement shaman meant (to be fair, neither do most enhancement shamans). Instead I had a mish-mash of incoherent abilities, none of which feel especially important or exciting, and half my talents either buffed something I didn’t have yet or were so mind bogglingly dull (1% increase to int, oh be still my beating heart). In pre-patch Azeroth I’d have had to have blundered my way to level 40 before I got the keys to my class: dual wielding.

Of course, now that I’ve been given dual wielding on a silver platter I guess I have to stop making excuses and actually finish Call of Water, which has been another major sticking point. I had no idea water could possibly be so difficult to call – fire and earth were fine, and perfectly happy to be called without undue pain or loss of sanity, but I guess water is like a cat and it’s sitting there, glaring at me, being all: “you want me? Come and get me bitch.”

I think there’s a sort of prevailing myth about RPG design that you have to start out as a total scrub. And, sometimes, yes, that can be effective – like in the Elder Scrolls games the progression from clueless nobody to magic-using-sword-wielding-lock-picking-head-of-every-guild-going-richest-dude-in-Tamriel-bad-ass is actually the best part of the experience. But sometimes it seems to me that games start you off as somebody who can’t take on a domestic cat without dying simply because that’s the convention, not because it fits the game. Yes, improvement is part of the pleasure but there’s no reason that journey has to be from “how did you even find your way out of your mother” incompetence to badass. It could just as effectively be from quite good to badass. Or from badass to EVEN MORE BADASS.

One of the coolest about a game like Arkham Asylum (yes, I know it’s not an RPG but it has elements) is that the game lets you feel like the goddamn Batman from the get go. And there’s an old, flawed but fantastic game by the now defunct Troika called Bloodlines in which you play a vampire. And although you level up your vampire awesomeness throughout the game, from the very beginning you get an ability that lets you use a point of blood to immediately set all your physical skills to maximum for a short period – the point being that if you’re playing a sneaky social type you can still burn a point of blood to kick the crap out of passing humans, which any vampire worth a damn should be able to do. By contrast, I remember playing Alpha Protocol (a mistake on its own terms, by the way) in which you start the game as an uber-spy, yet you’re still this klutz who can’t sneak down a corridor without alerting every guard in a five mile radius or fire a gun with his hands shaking. It’s like the game is conspiring to make you feel as unlike a spy as humanly possible. And not feeling remotely like the thing you’re meant to be playing strikes me as a pretty major failure on the part of a game.

WoW is a bit like this in many ways because you’re already a warrior of the Horde or the Alliance at the time you start the game. I’m not trying to say you should leap straight to level 80, do not pass go, do not collect 200 gold, it’s just that if you’re one of Azeroth’s 12 million best hopes for the future and all you can do is auto-attack pigs to death you feel a bit pathetic. I think it’s perfectly possible to keep the sense of progression and the pleasures of embarking on a levelling journey without making the player totally suck – it just takes a bit more imagination on the part of the design team, and I think (I hope!) Blizzard have finally got there.

The point is that if you wanted to play a shadow priest pre-patch you’d have to create a character who some day, if he worked very hard and ate all his greens, might become a shadow priest. Now when you roll a shadow priest, you get to play one almost immediately.

Sorry, that was very long-winded answer…but I guess you were sort of anticipating that….

Q: You kicked off a guild for bloggers and blog readers alike a few months ago – Single Abstract Noun on Argent Dawn. How’s it going, and what’s its future look like?

Tamarind: Currently it’s pretty quiet, honestly, because it’s difficult to actually do anything in the game with Cataclysm imminent. I mean, levelling is a bust because we’re all excited to see the new world and gearing a fresh 80 is an exercise in futility considering we’ve all done current raid content to death and there’s going to be a massive gear reset anyway.

But I love SAN; it has the dubious honour of being the only guild I haven’t accidentally blown up. When it first started it was honestly intimidatingly large and you could lose hours just reading guild chat – now it’s a bit smaller and consequently more intimate, and the people who have stuck around have essentially made it into a fantastic community of their own. One of the things that’s great about SAN is that it just works – people get on with things, the guild bank gets tidied, people look out for each other, deal with hacking incidents, and there’s very little drama. It was very important to me that SAN did develop its own identity, it wasn’t just meant to be, y’know, Tam’s Guild, ego-gratifying though that would have been!

I think with Cataclysm’s changes to the old world there’ll be an increased focus on, and interest in levelling, and that will likely bring quite a few people out of the wood work and revitalise SAN a bit, because I honestly can’t imagine a better atmosphere for levelling and hanging out than SAN. I’m not sure what The Future more generally holds for the guild. I’m pretty sure it’s not going anywhere and I guess people will take it in whatever direction they choose.

Q: Your writing style is incredibly engaging. I mean, your posts are long but they’re so well written i just keep reading, and that seems to be the consensus of a lot of people who read you. What’s your writing background – how did you get to this style?

Tamarind: Thank you for the kind words about my writing.

I really have no idea where it came from though. The way I write the blog hasn’t really been the result of any conscious decisions or thought processes, it’s just the style that seems to have naturally evolved from me sitting a computer, staring at an open Word document and whacking my fingers rapidly against the keyboard.

In terms of my writing background, I suppose I’ve been writing in one form or another all my life – usually, admittedly, for a specific audience and in an academic context, but I’ve also done some freelance journalism here and there, and some more creative things. I was honestly surprised to discover how much I enjoy blogging, which I started on a total whim. I think I’m often very constrained in my writing by my sense of audience – which is, you know, a good thing, or at the very least a necessary thing. I know it’s a lovely idea that creativity just flows uninhibitedly from kind of inner fountain but even fiction – at least fiction that is designed to be publishable – must be written with an eye to an audience, otherwise you’re not respecting that audience.

Writing stuff, when you get right down to it, no matter how much you love the process, is basically hard graft.

So I find the fact I can just write as I please while blogging utterly delightful, and it’s a freedom I’ve very rarely experienced. There are lots of excellent guides out there in the blogosphere about giving good blog, which only serve to emphasise that I’m basically Doin It Wrong. I sometimes wonder if it makes me a selfish blogger, in that I’d rather indulge myself in writing than think about my readers. But please don’t think that I don’t think about them at all – I’m enduringly thrilled and grateful that people wade through my ramblings, and find amusement or interest in them. But I guess in writing the way I do – which, if I have made decisions about, they have been largely unconscious – I’m just being uninhibitedly myself. I don’t STFU in person either.

Q: You also speak your mind strongly and your posts creep towards being very long. Then there’s your regularly use of some, ah, ripe language, which I don’t see often on… well, any other blog. Have you had any incidents where those traits have sparked complaints, arguments or just plain stopped people reading? If so how, and did you think they had a point or were they just trollin’?

Tamarind: I think I’m way less foul-mouthed than my co-blogger Chas – he certainly never hesitates to call a spade a fucking digging implement. Incidentally, when I mentioned to him in passing that I was having trouble answering this question, he suggested I answer like this:

Fuck that.

I suppose it sounds blisteringly clueless to say I genuinely wasn’t aware I had a reputation for being especially foul-mouthed. Perhaps it’s a consequence of having spent too much time around Restoration poets – who really are the masters of using obscenity with flair – that I’m completely de-sensitised to bad language.

At the risk of coming across like a 16 year old trying to defend his right to say fuck at the dinner table, I guess I see cussing as just another, err, possibility embedded in language. Of course like any other rhetorical device it can be over used and rhetoric should never take the place of substance but sometimes a bit of strategic swearing is the most effective way to get a point across.

I do, however, try to avoid conspicuously controversial terms – I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used the ‘c’ word on the blog. I personally don’t have any problem with it (again, perhaps over-exposure to the Earl of Rochester at an impressionable age accounts for this) but quite a lot of people, usually women, really really do. And if the words you have chosen are interfering with your ability to communicate then, well, you’re not communicating are you, and thus you have defeated your purpose? I enjoy a bit of swearing – I think it can be amusing and effective, but I don’t want to actually upset or offend people.

I also wonder if it might be a bit of a cultural thing – perhaps the English are inherently more obscene that Americans. And, no, I’m not serious.

In terms of complaints, I’ve had very few (to my face at least) but then I think blogs are very much a consumer market. If you don’t like what someone is saying – or how they are saying it – then the best thing to do is to stop reading. And from the other side of it, the relationship between blogging for an audience and blogging for yourself is complex – I mean obviously I don’t want to drive readers away and I’m bloody grateful to have them, but equally, as I said above, I really do love the freedom of writing whatever, and however, I choose.

Q: A little while ago you wrote about the widespread view that gamers are sad, strange loosers, and that we as gamers propogate that view. You came to the conclusion that gaming might acquire more respecability if we all could be more comfortable with games being fun, and by extension the idea of ‘having fun’. How do you see this shift happening, and would any other changes need to happen alongside it?

Tamarind: Honestly, I was just sort of thinking aloud, or rather, in text. I don’t have a secret plan to fight inflation. I think it’s a huge issue, and muddled up with all kinds of social factors, such as where we find, and measure, value. We spent a bit of time, in that post, feeding a passing troll – largely because his arguments are the sort of arguments that are widely unchallenged when it comes to assessing the value of time spent playing video games i.e. that if we weren’t playing video-games we’d be doing something “more worthwhile”.

I’m using scare quotes because worthwhile is a very flexible concept – yes, if you learn to play the violin the by-product will be you’ve learned to play the violin but that doesn’t automatically make that time more valuable than time spent another way. If anything playing the violin in a mediocre fashion is a great social ill and should be stamped out. I know this because I lived next to someone who played the violin in a mediocre fashion and at best it sounded like someone playing the violin in a mediocre fashion and at worst it sounded like somebody was skinning a cat with a cheese grater. What I’m trying to say here is that: the things we do in the spaces we designate “leisure spaces” will vary from person to person and are equally valuable, or if you prefer, value-less. The point is we have chosen to do those things to gain the benefits of leisure: fun, relaxation, socialisation. It doesn’t matter if that involves shooting imaginary people in the head with an imaginary gun, reading Proust or doing the foxtrot. If you had fun, that’s the thing that matters.

However, I do keep coming back to the thought that gamers have to stop tearing ourselves apart if we want to get any sort of acceptance from non gamers. The charitable way of looking at it, I suppose, is that we’re so used to having other groups looking down on it, and designating us as losers and rejects, that we’re essentially trapped in an abuse cycle which obliges us to find our own internal groups to look down on and call “other”. Maybe I’m just being naïve and all hobby groups do this to the same extent, and perhaps it simply doesn’t matter if you’re not constantly being told you’re wasting your time. But it’s the equivalent of a bookclub reading Anna Karenina sneering at a bookclub reading The Time Traveller’s Wife. Obviously there are always going to be individuals who’ll latch onto any excuse, from what you read to the colour of your skin, to convince themselves they’re better than you but it’s strange to see it unquestioningly sanctioned within a group. There’s an XKCD strip, actually, called Aversion Fads and sometimes I think WoW is the designated Aversion Fad for gamers.

I mean, a week or so ago I was reading RPS (because, seriously, who doesn’t, it’s awesome) and I ran across their news items on the Cataclysm trailer. All fair, so far, but underneath the trailer is a smug little observation and a link to what appears to be a ToC-5man “how to” video, claiming it’s an “actual WoW boss fight video.” There’s a later edit because they were contacted by a video game journalist who apparently actually plays the fucking game, suggesting an alternative and much more representative video they could use to demonstrate what raiding is like in WoW (it’s the Heigan dance).

I very nearly blogged about it but I was too weary of this sort of crap to bother. And, actually, you know what, I was actually kind of hurt. I know that’s a deeply pathetic thing to say, and I shouldn’t take a random post by a games journalist in any way personally, but it’s genuinely a bit of a shock to the system when you realise that respect is travelling in one direction only. The thing is, RPS is a great site, and it has four very passionate, committed and fair minded writers; and its remit is to cover “all of PC gaming, rather than just one of the weird and wonderful niches”. Apparently that should read “all of PC gaming, rather than just one of the weird and wonderful niches, and not World of Warcraft because that’s a stupid game for stupid people.”

The whole piece was unbelievably cheap. Smith is absolutely entitled not to like WoW, and not to like the trailer, but it’s the fact that in his non-too-subtle attempt to communicate his contempt for the game and everyone who plays it he must have actually trawled the internet specifically for the most boring video of the most boring fight he could find. I mean if you just randomly do a youtube search for “wow fight” the second hit you get is a 25-man Illidan take down. Finding something that looked shit must have taken real effort, and was such a pathetically petty act I actually can’t be arsed to write more about it.

But even our journalists, and the good ones, are reinforcing the stereotypes. I mean, the people who play WoW must be total total losers, right, because even other gamers look down on them.  You’re not going to validate the worth of other games by condemning WoW. You’re just going to make yourself look like an arse.

Q: So, you talk about WoW and seem devoted to it but I’m curious – have you tried any other MMOs? If so, what, and what brought you back to WoW?

Tamarind: Nope, I’m completely WoW-monogamous. I simply don’t have time for another MMO in my life, and I honestly don’t know what would make me want to leave Azeroth. It’s not just the game, it’s the friends I’ve met here, and the experiences I’ve had. Leaving WoW would be like moving to a new city. Of course I could do it, but I love where I am, and I’d be leaving a lot behind that mattered to me.