Saturday, February 18, 2017

Triple Threat: Smed, Domino, Dociu

For many years one of the things I found most confusing about the MMO scene and the people who follow it was the way individual game developers would sometimes be talked and written about as though they were rock stars. It seemed to me as peculiar as if the owner of a refrigerator were to praise the vision and skill of the factory worker who put the parts together.

It seems odd, my attitude, in retrospect. Not only did I come to MMO "fandom" fresh from a couple of decades reading comics, during which time I attended conventions, presented panels, interviewed artists and writers and wrote extensively for fanzines, but also I played video games throughout the 1980s.

Those were the days when the typical media representation of a video game creator was either a precocious social outcast coding his way (and it was always a "he") to a million from his teenage bedroom or an eccentric, bearded quasi-hippy expressing the kind of offbeat individuality more usually found in second division provincial prog rock.

The twin ideas, then, that a collective, commercial enterprise could be driven by the vision of individuals and that video games were a form of personal, creative expression, should have been well established in my worldview. Nevertheless, by the time I came to understand that MMOs weren't simply the inevitable byproduct of technological progress but something made by humans, those logical links seemed to have fractured.

It used to annoy me quite a lot when, on forums I frequented, people would refer to developers, designers or producers by name, according them the kind of stature, respect or admiration that a music fan might routinely give to a favorite songwriter or instrumentalist. It seemed deeply inappropriate, uncomfortable, embarrassing. To be frank, I thought it was gauche.

Over time, as I became embedded more and more deeply in the MMO milieu, some of the discomfort faded. I became familiar first with the names and later with their achievements. I began to develop some knowledge and even understanding of the history of the medium and the form and with this context the constant name-checking began to feel less like bizarre affectation and more like technical jargon.

Although I adopted, almost by osmosis, the coloration of the environment within which I now moved I still struggled badly with the overwrought emotional intensity that sometimes came with that territory. I was comfortable with reference but not with deference. I recognized that the games were made and that named individuals made them but still it seemed to me that this was a technical rather than an artistic achievement and should be addressed accordingly.

This persisted for a long, long time. It can't be that many years ago, certainly in the life of this blog, when I first came across "Developer Appreciation Week" and felt my hackles rise. Why I might have reacted that way, only five or six years ago, somewhat mystifies me now.

Over the intervening years I have, at last and not before time, come to share most of the opinions and attitudes towards the people who make these games and this hobby possible expressed so well by Rowan in his opening paragraph here. While I, too, may criticize as much, or more, than I praise, even that criticism comes, these days, with full recognition and understanding that everything we see, hear and do in our MMOs derives directly from the imagination, effort and endeavor of named individuals.

All of which is a very long preamble to contextualize my reaction to a trio of apparently unrelated news items from the past week.

First there was the announcement that John "Smed" Smedley, last seen going down with the good ship "Hero's Song" as captain of the doomed PixelMage Games, had bobbed up, not clinging to the wreckage but safe on board a much larger vessel, indeed back in the Captain's chair, at Amazon Games.

Second came the departure of Daniel Dociu, GW2's art director and the man who "has been defining the art direction for ArenaNet since 2003". Shamefully, until I read the news that he was leaving, I could not have named the man whose influence and oversight led to what I have frequently referred to as the jewel in ArenaNet's crown, its ineffably confident, secure and professional visual style.

Thirdly, freighted with the most emotional heft by far, came the news that Emily "Domino" Taylor is leaving Daybreak Games. Domino is not only my personal pick for the most consistently reliable MMO developer with whose work I am directly familiar but also the one who is most clearly emblematic of what I believe a developer should be.

Her work is not just sprightly, lively and fun but also logical, coherent and constructive. In two lengthy stints, first with SOE and then with DBG, she both created a wealth of excellent content herself and inspired an extended period in which development around her appeared to take a healthy, positive direction.

Also she once posted a comment on this blog, which, apart from being pleasing for my ego, demonstrates a degree of involvement with the wider hobby that exemplifies why my own attitudes towards the people who make it all possible have changed so much over time. We really are all in this together.

What these three personnel changes mean for the industry as a whole and the MMOs I play in particular is not yet clear. That. naturally, won't deter me from speculating.

As far as impact on existing games goes, probably the move that will impact players the least is Daniel Dociu's departure. The look and feel of GW2 is by now surely too established to change significantly. What's more, Daniel is succeeded in post by his son, Horia, who has himself been working on the same team for as long as his father. I would expect business as usual to be the watchword there.

Domino has left Norrath before. Based on previous evidence I wouldn't expect to see any radical change of direction in EQ2 either. Last time crafting, Domino's prime, although not sole, area of influence, carried on by and large along the same heading. You don't just slot in another visionary of Domino's class, though, and while it was steady sailing without her last time the difference when she returned was immediate and marked. She will be missed but how much depends on who replaces her and what resources they are given to empower their own vision.

Smed, of course, doesn't leave a game behind him from which he could be missed. Hero's Song crashed and burned. The MassivelyOP thread following the announcement is filled with conspiracy theories pondering the timing and the provenance of that simple, uncomfortable fact. Not to mention how very closely the staff of Smedley's new San Diego operation reassembles that of Pixel Games. Oh well, at least everyone got their money back. Somehow.

Looking to the future, the prospects for us as players and the three developers (if we can call Smed that) seem more vague. There seems to be no information available yet about where Daniel Dociu might go or what he might do. All that's said is that he's leaving ArenaNet. He's 59. He might be taking early retirement. He might be ill. He might be changing career paths.

Dociu certainly has no shortage of options. To quote his own biographical details, "Daniel is a prolific freelance artist, contributing to numerous publications, advertising, film and world wide educational and public speaking engagements. With his skill and talent any MMO would be lucky to nab him but I'll be quite surprised if any does. Even Amazon.

Domino already has a new job. She's just not ready to tell us what it is. Unless she's remote-working it won't be Amazon for her, either: "it feels like time to return home to Canada, and remember what shoveling snow is like" she commented with typical whimsy. With her management background it could easily be any kind of supervisory position but her heart always seems to be set in gaming so it would be a surprise to see her re-appear in an unrelated industry. Does Canada have any MMO developers though?

All of which just leaves Smed, who one Massively commenter memorably described as a cross between a cat and a cockroach because he always falls on his feet and would probably survive a nuclear war. I savored that comment because otherwise it's disturbing the way the tone of the comments on Massively have veered of late towards some kind of rehabilitation for Smedley.

The previous knee-jerk reaction that could be relied on to paint the industry veteran as some kind of mustachio-twirling villain from a Victorian melodrama is being replaced by an equally un-nuanced picture of Smed as The Old Lion brought down by hyenas. To me he seems more and more like a management executive who, whether by inclination or imperative, has donned the clothes of a creative. He reminds me a little of the great Rock Managers of yore - Peter Grant or Colonel Tom Parker or, perhaps most tellingly of all, Malcolm McLaren.

What games Amazon want or expect him to make we have no idea. It would seem odd if it was anything entirely different from the games he's famous for but whether it will be something old-time MMO players will want to acknowledge or own as an MMO I wouldn't be so sure. Early talk of "an ambitious new project that taps into the power of the AWS Cloud and Twitch to connect players around the globe in a thrilling new game world" suggest something most people reading this probably will only download out of curiosity.

Whatever the future holds for these three significant players in the field I wish them all well. Even Smed, although where he's concerned I mostly hope Amazon keep him the hell away from any MMO I'm trying to play. Oh well, I guess if anyone has the infrastructure to shrug off a DDOS attack it would be Amazon.

Video games in general and MMOs in particular are strange. Here we are, talking about these people and the impact their job changes may have on our entertainment and yet the youngest of the three, Domino, must be in her early 40s, while Smed is in his late 40s and Daniel Dociu almost 60. The average age of the people who make our MMOs seems out of kilter with what I see in other media I consume, where the drive and innovation comes mostly from people twenty or thirty years younger.

If there's to be a real step-change in MMOs I'm not sure it can ever come from giant corporations like Amazon or industry veterans like Smed. While I'll watch what they do with interest it won't be with any great expectation. When change comes it will be sudden and from a direction no-one's looking.

Or we can hope so, at least.


  1. My issue with the cult of personality that can spring up around MMO developers is that it usually leads to one person being blamed for everything that goes wrong in a game, despite the fact that there are dozens if not hundreds of people who work on these things. If I had a nickel for every time a WoW player demanded Ghostcrawler be fired, I could pay my sub for years to come.

    As for the specific developers discussed here, the only one I have anything approaching an opinion of is Domino. I remember seeing her talking with the other players in Landmark general chat a few months ago and thinking that was a very cool thing for a developer to do, so my impression of her is vague but warm. Also a series of undoubtedly coincidental but consistently good experiences with the name have given me a knee-jerk positive reaction to anyone named Emily.

    Given she's coming up here to Canada, I would assume she'd most likely end up at Bioware or Ubisoft. Bioware's MMO is developed in the States, but she could always end up working on one of their other games, and Ubisoft has many games that are at least in the same general ballpark as MMOs, so I'm sure they could find a use for her talents.

    1. I didn't realize Ubisoft were Canadian. I thought they were French. Maybe they're French-Canadian...wait a mo, here's wikipedia to the rescue...

      "In March 1986, five brothers of the Guillemot family founded the video game publisher, Ubisoft, in Carentoir, a small village located in the Morbihan department of the Brittany region, in France....Ubisoft announced plans in 2013 to invest $373 million into its Quebec operations over seven years, a move that will generate 500 additional jobs in the province. The publisher is investing in the expansion of its motion capture technologies, and consolidating its online games operations and infrastructure in Montreal. The significant investment is expected to generate 500 jobs in Quebec over a seven-year period. By 2020, the company will employ more than 3,500 staff at its studios in Montreal and Quebec City."

      Her LinkedIn profile offers "French (Canadian) Limited working proficiency" so I guess that's a possibility...

  2. In the general run of of things, Authors are my heroes. I have also admired many developers and game journalists in the years I've been playing and I've been a huge fan of those creating the worlds I play in since the beginning. I played all single player games till 2003, and loved that knowing " how the developers think" could help solve you solve puzzles and anticipate what might be the way to the next game level (literally) if got stuck. Enter SWG and a completely different kind of game, a living immersive world. I didn't read the forums at all or know much about the people making the game until I created an Artisan character and had questions. Imagine you could not only read about the creators of the world, but they interacted on the forums with players and discussed the game. Those early days were a revelation and all staff were just the best. As we know that all ended badly, but it also instilled in me a desire to make sure I didn't know the game makers so well anymore, and to not know who might be admirable or not. It's easier to take big changes to the worlds you inhabit when none of it feels personal. My only remaining game developer hero is Todd Howard of Bethesda, no way he's ever letting me down :)

    1. I've long had a very ambivalent attitude towards the individuals who create art and entertainment that I love. Learning about them, let alone meeting them, is always a gamble. I still haven't read the third book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark materials" trilogy, for example, because I heard him interviewed on the radio and he was so deeply obnoxious I've never been able to disassociate his lecturing tone of voice from his excellent prose, spoiling the latter for me completely. On the other hand I've met plenty of authors and artists, both in my comic convention years and now as bookseller, who have related an entirely favorable impression.

      They do say never meet your heroes and I think that's good advice. With the exponential growth and looming universality of social media, however, it's not advice that seems as easy or as practical to follow as it once did.


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