['MMOG Nation' is a regular bi-weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column focuses on a single individual in the MMOG commentary blogosphere, a 'sidebar' column called Citizen Spotlight.]

- As an alternative to my usual commentary, this week (and again in the future) I'm going to be highlighting worthy blogs that deal with Massively Multiplayer games. While even folks not overly interested in the genre may have heard of the likes of Scott 'Lum' Jennings and Raph Koster, there is an entire ecosystem of smaller sites out there well worth investigating.

Today I'm going to highlight some of the best posts from the site AFK Gamer. Foton, the anonymous blogger behind the site, is a talented writer, a funny guy, and a very jaded game hag. Read on for links to the best of AFK Gamer, a short interview with the man himself, and a very worthwhile way to waste a Tuesday.

[Click through for more.]

AFK Who?

Foton very kindly agreed to an AIM interview, where we talked about gaming, life, and ... umm ... gaming.

Michael: Hey man, thanks for doing this.
Foton: No problem. I have to patch Burning Crusade again for the 18th time, so no rush.

Michael: What is your day job?
Foton: I'm in charge of a creative team for a design house, CPA by education and training. We do product design, marketing, and advertising. We manage the product from start to finish.
Michael: Are you married?
Foton: I'm not married, but I have been in a long-term relationship for about 10 years.
Michael: Besides writing and gaming, do you have any hobbies?
Foton: Photography. I need to start ebaying to feed that hobby. And sports, too .. I'm originally a Chicago homie. Da Cubs, Da Bears, Da Hawks.

Michael: So, how many Massive games would you say you've seriously played?
Foton: I've played MageStorm, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, Shadowbane, Anarchy Online, Asheron's Call (and a little bit of 2), Star War Galaxies, and World of Warcraft.
Michael: Of them, which would you say has been your 'favorite'?
Foton: Probably WoW, althogh time has fogged my bad memories from EQ, so it's a close 2nd. Each (except Shadowbane, and the Asheron's Call games) are a favorite in their own way.
Michael: Even .... Galaxies? :)
Foton: Yeah. I played SWG before the redo's, the craft and auction system was stellar. I had a great PVP group there, too.

Michael: What got you into ... MageStorm was your first game, right?
Foton: Yeah, it was. I got into it because AOL did some promo when they added games, so I tried it out. I was about 19 at the time, before Everquest came out.
Michael: Besides the promo, what was it about Mage Storm that appealed?
Foton: Well, it was a PVP capture the flag type thing, we had a group of regular players every night (none of who I knew RL) so we had some solid rivalry.

Michael: Gotcha. And when EQ came along, the group went there so you went along?
Foton: Oh yeah. Our leader kinda guy (no guilds in those days, no formal guilds) told us all about EverQuest and how wonderful our lives would be there and what server to start on and bla bla. I remember the most exciting thing to us about EQ was that we could make unique (for its day) looking characters. In MS, there were only 4 to choose from.
Michael: This was the group you stayed with through your whole run of the game?
Foton: We stayed together up until about level 30ish, then some quit, some joined other guilds. A few guys I stuck with to max level 50.

Michael: What is it about the Massive genre that appeals to you? Your 'game hag' stories make it apparent that you find drama annoying (as anyone would) so what makes you keep playing?
Foton: That's true, it is annoying. However, it's also what's so entertaining. As long as it doesn't involve me, I get a big laugh out of it. I guess that's why i prefer multiplayer to single. People watching.

Michael: What made you start the blog?
Foton: I assumed that might be one of your questions, and when I was buying steaks today, I was trying to remember.
Foton: As I recall, the SWG guild was realizing that PVP was not going to be as fun with the impending combat redo and we knew WoW was coming, so there was a month or 2 there where I had no gaming to do. My stupid friend wouldn't let me have access to his Warcraft beta, so I just started writing some of the things I remembered from past games to while away the time until WoW. I had done some game writing prior on guild websites, the Grumpy series in SWG, bla bla, so wasn't completely foreign to me.

Michael: Once things had gotten rolling for you in the game, what made you keep writing?
Foton: I guess because I want to remember some of these things that happen to me. Some times I'll read back through old things i've written and have a chuckle myself. "Oh, I remember that douchebag! Wonder what ever happened to him?" Kinda like an /ignore list, with greater detail. :)

Michael: What would you say is your proudest moment from a Massive game? The one youll be telling the grandkids about.
Foton: Well I'd have to clean up the language for the grandkids. I guess there'd be a bunch of them, all involving game accomplishments that i didn't think we could do or took for-f'ing-ever. The bard epic in EQ took me forever, was my 2nd main. First nefarian kill in WoW, first time other SWG players complained about my pvp guild on the forums. The EQ bard epic was the first time i swore in a good way in EQ. That's probably my favorite. I felt good about that for days. Now of course, I realize it would have been better to cure cancer or write a Pulitzer novel, but hell, it was THE BARD EPIC.

Michael: On the flip side (and I know there are lots to sort from here) what was your absolute worst experience in a Massive game?
Foton: Worst game was hands down, Shadowbane. Worst moment in a game i otherwise liked. Let's see ... I was level 59 in EQ and I had to be dragged away from exp'ing for a guild raid. The F'ing dragon kills me outside Temple of Veeshan (not an uncommon experience), so i lost a lot of experience. A cleric zones out to rezz me so the exp loss isn't so bad and my corpse is bugged. Too bad for me, hours of work down the EQ drain. I petitioned a GM, the whole bit, he goes 'too bad for me' and I was livid. Threw stuff, swore, searched for my EQ CDs so i could crack them in half ... We all had many such moments in Everquest, but that was the worse one for me. I never again raided when I didn't have sufficient overage on XP so i wouldn't lose level.

Michael: Okay .... so WoW is pretty much the favorite. Why is that?
Foton: Well, World of Warcraft is the true EverQuest 2, in my opinion.
Michael: Second verse, same as the first, only better?
Foton: Yeah. A more polished EQ. The same things that bugged the shit out of us in EQ (most of them), same things we loved, nicer looking pixels.
Michael: You play Alliance, right?
Foton: yep
Michael: What race be your rogue?
Foton: Human
Michael: If I recall, you hit 60 with your first character about February of 2005. Sooo...how many 60s do you have on your account now?
Foton: I have 2 accounts, one 60 on each. other characters are various level 40ish, 30ish. The other 60 is a human priest. When we don't have enough healers to raid, I get to haul out the priest to save the day.
Michael: Do you take on a role in raids, generally?
Foton: I've made a concerted effort to avoid a leadership position, I just dont dig it. I'm happier being the comic relief when we wipe, but i do my share of yelling too.
Michael: The word from the Burning Crusade beta has been that the playing feild is going to get leveled by the new loot. Do you approve?
Foton: Yeah! I think it's good. 40 man raids should not be the future. People much prefer, and it's much easier, to raid 5 man, like DM. who doesn't love Dire Maul? 25 man, I can take. Much less admin and overhead.
Michael: You going to do some house cleaning in a few months? I think guilds are going to look pretty different this time next year.
Foton: Many in the guild are getting nervous, which I love. Maybe they'll stop whining and sucking. We're just gonna let them read the writing on the wall. Team A will get into the BC raids, everyone else can sit on the wait list. I think we'll see more guilds raiding end game with smaller numbers, which is good.

Michael: Okay ... I think that's pretty much all I had. Is there anything that you want AFK Gamer readers to know, or say to them?
Foton: Yes, to the Warcraft widows that keep commiserating on my blog in that one thread .... THIS BLOG IS ABOUT OBSESSIVE GAMING, perhaps you should commiserate elsewhere! Jesus, do they not see that irony? :)

Michael: Thanks, man. Enjoy your steaks!
Foton: Take care! Keep up the good fight.

AFK Noob

Honesty is probably one of the watchwords I'd used to describe Foton's writing style. Even though he's a vet of every game between here and UO, he's still a noob like the rest of us on day one. His first day in WoW was as memorable as it was for any of us, but his first day in Guild Wars ... that's just funny.
Foton:"Is it just me or are these maps and the radar worthless? guildanswer: I dunno, but not just you. How do I get back to town? guildanswer: INSTAPORT, click the town on map! Ok, that we know. We have thrown off the shackles of virtual travel and are loving every minute of it! Good thing I have low expectations because I can safely say … this is the most counter-intuitive game since … since AO. Not good. In fact, unless my memory has completely failed me, AO had an edge in intuitive over Guild Wars. Maybe more to follow as I attempt to accomplish something (anything!?). It’s entirely possible that I could arrive at max level in this game and STILL have no idea what I’m doing."

Learn 2 Play

As an end-game raider and a veteran of most of the big Massive titles to have been released, his advice about life as a player is always well seen. At the same time, his genuine affection for the genre never makes him come off as jaded or overly cynical ... except when he obviously is. Where another person would use endless jargon and shout 'Learn2Play' at anyone not hip to the lingo, he has thoughtfully provided tooltip assistance for many of the MMOG-specific terms used on his site. Some of his practical instructive posts include protocols on teamspeak useage, why selling assets on eBay can be disruptive if you're a guild member, and the dangers of loose lips even in Massive Games. He also has tips on how to join a guild, and why you'd want to, some of the sick thinking that can go into guild recruitment, and some of the colourful characters you'll meet once you're in. Foton's not like other teachers though: he'll tell you the truth.
Foton:"This is no time for roleplaying winky dinks. You could quest your way through a tough level, you could raid your way through, you could even roleplay for the crowd. (I thought you wanted to be done?) Just grind it out. Set up in a spawn-rich camp and kill. There is no substitute."

Make the Game Right

As an old gaming hag, of course he's going to have opinions on game mechanics. As he says 'I shouldn't have to write these down', but just the same, he asks developers to play their own game, to make a travel system that works, and to, y'know, have an actual customer service system. Beyond that, of course, as a MMOG player he's honor-bound to bitch about patch notes, and question 'The Vision'.
Foton:"Further proof that World of Warcraft is EverQuest in a shiny wrapper … take a look at a partial list of the items available in the Ahn’Qiraj instances. See the books, codices and tomes? Weee, upgraded spells and skills are buried in an instance! Hurray. Because that was such a fabulous idea in EQ, it’s bound to be just as popular in Warcraft. O_O"

AFK Reporter

Most of his posts aren't so ranty, which is one of the truly enjoyable elements of reading the site. In fact, he's more than willing to share his affection for the genre with folks who can't be on hand for big events or trends. The Gnomish Warrior protest from so long ago had Foton live and in Ironforge for the event. Likewise, he was there to share with us the laggy joy of the opening of AQ on the Medivh server.
Foton: "I listened (read) the zone chat from the natives jawing about ‘ZOMG the lag is unbelievable’, even though Cow Network News has had better ping in Medivh’s Silithus than on our home server in the instances. Whatever, maybe Medivh usually has 50 ping, because I averaged around 100 in Silithus with dozens of cows milling about so Medivh must usually have the best ping on the planet."

Hag Stories

Mostly, his posts aren't ranty or informative so much as freaking hilarious. As he himself has said, the endgame is a gold mine for comedy, and he mines that vein for all it's worth. Some of his earliest posts involved the guild drama he'd seen in his EQ days. Those days weren't pretty, with do-it-yourself porn, lying, cheating, and stealing, and dissolved marriages just some of the low points.
Foton: "Few more days pass, and one of our more industrious guildmates makes a character on our Guild Leader’s home server and does some snooping around with the /who all command. Sure enough, there he be, running around the common gathering area, auctioning off the purloined lewt, which also now includes the entire guild bank. (thanks for stopping!) As our industrious guildie put it so well and so succinctly, “Wow, he really had a lot to sell.”"

Multi-part tales are some of AFK Gamer's strongest posts. After he'd settled into WoW, he became discontent with the way of the world. So, Foton tells the tale of how he and his fellow gamers went from a guild with the consistency of cookie dough to their own outfit carved out of wood.
Foton: "What a difference a year can make. Then, we were an allied little raiding guild, dependent in many ways on our allies and they on us. Now, we are the smallest endgame raiding guild on our server, still just a bunch of scrubs, only mere weeks behind the top dogs. That could change in Naxxlerammahamma — we’ll see."

Even once he was in a solid guild, the drama didn't end. An attempted insurgency led to former guildmates sleeping with the enemy. As you'll quickly learn reading through Foton's archives, that's not the kind of thing he lets stand.
Foton: "We scheduled Ahn’Qiraj 20 for the first off-raid night of the week purposely. The guild alts and recruits needed some of the upgraded books/spells in the zone and also, there’s nothing quite like free loot to shut people up when guildchat has become a bitchfest. To prove we were serious about shutting people up with free loot, the head raidleader volunteered to run the shindig, which is usually beneath him, but this was all about restoring the guild to order."

Of course, Foton himself isn't above some ... possibly questionable in-game moments himself, with money, violence, and bad manners marring his otherwise perfect record. But then, that's to be expected. After all ... absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Foton: "About three or so years ago, I was an EverQuest guide. Hard to believe, I know: how in the world did he get through Sony’s rigorous screening? and, why in the world would he want to get through Sony’s rigorous screening? Short answers. The screening was mostly: can you type and have you printed out the 149-page Guide Manual? As to the why … I was in between hardc0re raiding guilds, I was burned out and I thought it might be interesting ... "

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]