VirginWorlds ['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is a look at the site VirginWorlds, and the man behind the keyboard, Brent.]

The last Citizen Spotlight focused on a commentator who put his most cynical foot forward. (His left, I think.) Today, I'm going to introduce you to a gent who is more BBC commentator than Keith Olbermann. The VirginWorlds blog, podcast, and newsfeed is an all-in-one package offering MMOG fans everything they need to stay informed on the latest the genre has to offer.

I had the pleasure of talking with Brent, the one-man show behind Virginworlds. He had some very thoughtful, lengthy responses to my simple questions. This look behind the scenes is accompanied by my two-cent tour of the site. I'll highlight the best blog entries, feature commentaries, and podcasts the site has to offer, for your browsing enjoyment. Read on, and find yourself exposed to more MMOG-related edification than an average Thursday warrants.

A World of Virgins? Where?

Michael: Okay! If you're ready I'm ready. How you doing? How was your weekend? :)
Brent: The weekend was what is usually is, a flurry of action to complete a podcast.

Michael: How much time do you put into a podcast?
Brent: It varies, but not counting the actual collection of the news items, I tend to put in about 6 to 8 hours on each one. About half of that is in assembling the show notes and the other half is recording and post production. The actual recording is the quickest part. I've done them as fast as 3 or 4 hours but that is rare.

Michael: Do you just try to keep a running list during the week of interesting news? Or do you do it all the day of?
Brent: The nice thing is that by Friday when i start compiling show notes, I already have entered about 15-20 news items of note on the website, so I use my own site to compile the podcast-hit list. I just open up the news page, scroll down to the previous Sunday and start opening everything that looks like a possible podcast story. From that I assemble some rather detailed show notes that I work from. So, mostly I do the podcast all in one shot, but the news items themselves are already collected in short 30 minutes segments during the course of the week. I tend to write the show notes, sleep on them and do the podcast in the early morning so that I have a fresh head (and a rough voice unfortunately.) Interestingly enough, I get more love for those mid-week reviews and specials than the regular shows, probably just because people come to expect the regular show so they like a like something extra and out of the ordinary on those mid-week surprises.

Michael: Are you looking to do more of that in the future? Hopefully get a few more dev folks in front of a mike?
Brent: Yes, I do want to bring more people from the industry onto the show, and at this point, I'm relatively certain I could talk some of them into it, but honestly, scheduling can be hard (as you surely know) and seeing as I do this in any moments I can spare, it is somewhat hard to commit to tracking down people and working around the schedules of others.

Michael: Mind if I ask what your dayjob is?
Brent: Ah, the way I feed myself... I work in the information security field, so I'm at a computer by day as well, but my job is less and less technically focused every day, which is nice, because I can enjoy the tech on my own terms such as running my servers, writing code for the site and so forth. Technology 'work' is much more fun when you aren't doing it for someone else. But I still have to deal with it every day, for now. I was a developer for 6 years prior to moving over to security and at some point I decided that I was tired of writing other people's code, or more importantly, building products I didn't care much about.

Michael: What's your social life outside of games like? :) Married, girlfriend? Gerbils? :)
Brent: I'm married, have been for 7 years. Happily. And last August (2005) just a month or so before VirginWorlds.com launched we welcomed a baby girl. It has indeed been a busy year as you can imagine. Now I'm juggling a podcast mic in one hand and a toddler in the other.

Michael: Why do you keep doing it, with that kind of time crunch?
Brent: Luckily my wife is both super-wife and super-mom. I'm not sure who she takes care of more, me or the girl. Why do I keep doing it? Good question with several answers. First is the reason I sort of joke about on the 'About" page on the site where I say, "Meanwhile, a career in the IT business grew up in the cracks in the sidewalk, threatening to suck all the fun out of computers. In a desperate attempt to preserve his gamer-self, Brent started VirginWorlds." There is some definite truth to that. But it isn't the whole story. Second, is perhaps the the second biggest reason: All my 'gamer' friends got married and had kids as well, but unlike like me, they decided to hang up the gaming and move on to other things. But I didn't want to quit gaming. I like it too much, and more importantly I didn't want to quit talking about gaming. We (my friends and I ) used to meet for lunch and talk about games from the second we sat down until we left. Emails about the games and ideas flew back and forth all day. It was great. And then all that stopped. But I wanted to keep talking to other gamers about games, so that's what I'm doing I guess. BUT, the third reason that I keep doing it is the most important. Those previous two are the reasons I started. The reason I keep doing it, is because I know that there are a ton of people out there waiting for me to do it, meaning write a post, or release a podcast. I've noticed that solitary goals that I have had over the years tend to fall by the wayside in favor of things that other people are expecting me to do. And now, I have a huge amount of people waiting for me to do stuff. It is extremely motivating. THAT is the main reason I keep doing it.

Michael: On that note, what kind of response has the VirginWorlds Podcast received? How many folks listen, what kind of feedback do you get, etc?
Brent: Very positive. At this time there are about 1300 listeners each week. I get about 20-30 emails from people every week. Some ask questions, some thank me for the show, and some have ideas for me. The thing that has shocked me most about the feedback I get is the consistency. The 55 iTunes reviews that have been posted all echo similar themes and the listeners have latched onto some qualities that I never noticed until they started pointing them out. It is very enlightening and luckily, the feedback is positive as well. :)

Michael: Good deal. Do you mind sharing what listeners see as the best qualities of the show?
Brent: Sure. It seems that the listeners of the VirginWorlds podcsast consists of people who are looking for raw information and commentary that is more lucid than what is presented by the vast majority of the gaming podcasts currently available. I never set out to tell jokes or make a statement. I just wanted to tell people what is up in the MMO world and drop in my thoughts along the way. Time and time again the listeners make comments about my even handed treatment of the material. To be honest, that was surprising at first. I DO have opinions and I do speak them, but they seem to appreciate the fact that I'm not coming off too 'fanboi'. I also get plenty of positive comments regarding my treatment of the English language. I'm not throwing down expletives every 5 seconds. Seems like a minor detail, but many moms and dads out there appreciate it. Additionally, people seem to like the raw data and I guess there is a ton of it.

Michael: What would you say your favorite show has been?
Brent: My favorite shows are the ones that Brenden, the occasional co-host, appears on. Brenden and I have never met. We live across the country from each other and have only been acquainted via IM and Skype for maybe 4 months now, and yet our common interest and compatible, yet not similar, personalities seems to bring a ton of extra life to the show. Brenden runs a very long running web comic and podcast at Falcontwin.com. He once linked a news article from VirginWorlds on his site and I noted a bunch of hits flowing in so I went and took a look and checked out his comic and his podcast. A month or so later he contacted me on IM and asked about my podcast equipment. And there began the MMO news and commentary duo that you occasionally hear. Interestingly enough, more than a few people have assumed we've known each other for years and record sitting in the same room. We have not and do not, but I think that is an indicator of a pretty good fit when it comes to doing the show.

Michael: What was your first MMOG?
Brent: Let's just say that MUDs fueled the fire, okay? I started playing a MUD called 3K (Three Kingdoms) in 1993 and it blew my mind. And then I saw Merridian 59 sometime around the spring of 1997, pretty sure it was then. That was an interesting experience, because my friends and I had been pondering the possibilities of such a thing since 1995. We played a bit of it and decided that the internet and computers in general were not quite ready for the graphical MUD yet. I put that away and went back to screwing around in MUD for awhile. Diablo came and went. And then, I fell into that deep dark pit called EverQuest.

Michael: How many games, then, have you played? MUDs and MMOGs.
Brent: A played a handful of MUDs seriously or semi-seriously. I know I had at least a couple MUD characters that were around the 50 day old mark, which seemed like a big deal in 1995. With MMOGs, I've played quite a few, but as you know, they demand heavy attention so when I really get into one, I tend to stick for awhile. EverQuest is of course the one that got the biggest chunk of time. I recently checked and found I have characters that total up to over 400 days old in EQ. Pretty ridiculous. After EQ I played EQ2, Lineage 2, CoH/CoV, World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies, Guild Wars, Auto Assault, Dugeons and Dragons Online, Saga of Ryzom, Eve Online, and a slew of the recent betas and ports from the east. Some which I cannot mention at this time. In the near future, Brenden and I are going to return to the roots and get some time in Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and maybe Asheron's Call too. Some of those I still play. Some I played briefly. And some I was totally absorbed by.

Michael: Okay...so you've played all these games, would you have one that you consider 'your favorite'?
Brent: It is one of those "first kiss" scenarios. EverQuest has the best memories for me and though I doubt I'll drop everything and go back to that full time, it will always be one of the game experiences (experiences being the key word there) that I'll compare all others against.

Michael: So, you've played a lot of massive games, and you've generally avoided single-player experiences. What about the MMOG genre has kept you coming back? The people, guilds, raiding?
Brent: It certainly isn't the raiding. The people is a big part of it, but my play style most closely resembles the 'explorer'. I love the sheer size of the worlds and the fact that they're all new and all put together to entertain us. They are truly virgin worlds. I love the complexities of play that other games don't have. I love the coordination with all the other players. I love the fact that the fun doesn't end in 10 hours. But remember what I said earlier about showing up because other people are expecting you to? That is a huge part of it. When I turn off Tomb Raider, Lara doesn't care when I come back. But when I log out of a MMOG, my friends and guildmates do wonder that. Add on the fact that they keep leveling and exploring without me. I need to get online and see what is going on. It isn't so different from dropping by the corner pub to see what the regulars are doing. (I'm singing the Cheers theme song now.)

Michael: Hard one for you: What would you say is your proudest moment from a Massive game? "The one you'll be telling the grandkids about."
Brent: I'd like to say it was whooping Vindi, or raiding MC, or something grand like that, but it is quite the opposite. One of my best friends and I used to 2 and 3 box in EQ all the time. It worked well for grouping because we didn't need to assemble a ton of people. If we had a ton, great, but if we didn't, we'd still get stuff done with a full party of 6, even if it wsa just the two us logged into the server at 5AM. It also made for a very nice command group when raiding because we knew each other's play styles very well, and in that single group we had all the stuff a solid EQ party or raid command team needed. Tank, healer, puller, crowd control, slower, etc. So one day, we decided that we were going to head out to the Temple of Veeshan, and take down some dragons in the Halls of Testing. Back in the day this was a serious high end raid zone, but at this point, it was mostly vacant because all the serious raiders were in the Planes of Power. We got it into our heads that we could probably take down the huge dragons with a single party operated by just the two of us. We tried again and again. I bet we spent 5 or 6 hours pulling, fighting, wiping, rezzing, pulling, fighting, wiping... But we were so close. Each time we'd get closer and closer. 53%, 42%, 37%, 22%, 17%! Here is why this is so odd as a proudest moment. We never won. We just kept trying again and again and laughing the whole time as we got closer and closer. We'd have never done it if any of the other guildmates had been there, because we wouldn't want to inconvenience them, but since it was just the two of us, we didn't care. We just kept refining it. Finally, we went to bed. Then, the next morning, the day we actually had a raid in ToV scheduled, we got up and went back. But it was early morning and only ONE other guild member showed up. A beastlord. So we're standing there with our "raid" party of 7. And guess what? We took down dragon after dragon after dragon with those 7. Sure it was slow going, but guess which three guild members got a ton of well earned drops that morning. That is the scenario that came to mind first when you asked that question. One of my best MMOG memories.

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?
Brent: Aside from every WoW and Lineage pickup group? The things that have been bad enough to actually carry over and disappoint me even outside of the game have been those scenarios where I've seen guilds full of people who were fantastic friends ripped apart by silly issues around loot and raiding. A bad night of raiding or a string of character deaths or a bad encounter with farmers can be shrugged off, but when I see a tightly knit group of people break up in dramatic explosions it is the worst. I often wonder how digital loot and raid progression issues can cause seemingly unbreakable guild-loyalty to vanish overnight. I've never been able to truly depart a great guild. I've had non-dramatic detours, but I always end up going back to the welcoming arms of 'the family'. I don't understand why more people can't be like that. I'm not perfect. I get frustrated with things too, but where good virtual-friends are concerned, I try to treat them as good RL-friends. I wish more people would remember that there are indeed real people behind those avatars.

Michael: Okay, so, there are (all of a sudden, it seems) a lot of MMOGs on the far horizon. What is the unreleased MMOG you're looking forward to the most?
Brent: You would think I'd have a great answer for that since I get asked the question practically every day. In the distant future, I am really looking forward to Star Trek Online. I'm not positive I'll love it, but I think there is a chance. Perpetual seems to be going in the right direction. In the near future, I want to fall in love with Vanguard, but I'm not sure that I will. Every word that Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler say gets a resounding "YES" from me. It is like they are reading my mind. But, I worry about the delivery. I worry about the design. I worry about my video card blowing up. And lastly, I look forward to whatever is is CCP decides to do next. Their merger with White Wolf that was announced this past week left a million gamers drooling in anticipation, me included. I think that some of the best game play and innovation continues to come from the small studios. They're fueled by passion and great ideas instead of gazillion dollar art budgets. The names that come to mind first are Dusktreaders from Granite Games (which may be overshadowed now by the CCP/White Wolf thing) and whatever Stray Bullet studios decides to do next. Let's hope they can stay afloat. I was very bummed to see another promising small studio go away recently when Tulga was dissolved.

Michael: Any hobbies outside of gaming?
Brent: One serious one. I'm a guitar player in a local metal band. Been playing for about 17 years and have been with the same group of guys for about 9 years now. Another example of a low drama "guild". We are putting the finishing touches on our first full length CD right now. Very exciting.
Michael: Ever played Guitar Hero? :)
Brent: I haven't. No consoles in this house. And honestly, when I can go down to the studio and unleash on a real guitar, why would I, right?

Michael: Is there anything you'd like to say to Virginworld listeners/readers?
Brent: What can I say aside from "thanks"? I've been extremely surprised at the response from the listeners and readers, as well as the other podcasters and bloggers. I never really expected anyone to visit, and listen, but they have, and that is great. When I started blogging I looked at people like Foton, Ethic, and AggroMe (among others) and was extremely impressed. When they linked me I was blown away. Now I see bloggers and podcasters coming up behind me who are inspired by what I've done, like I was with those before me. It is extremely exciting to see and it keeps me motivated. Those rewards are all we get in this line of dabbling, and believe me, they're more than enough to keep me doing this for a long time to come.

Michael: Thank you so much, Brent, for the time you've given me tonight. Especially with a little-more-than-one-year-old in the house. :)
Brent: Sir, it has been very enjoyable and a great honor.


The Words of the World

While VirginWorlds has primarily become a news reporting organ, Brent has occasionally sallied forth with some longer form commentary pieces. A piece from last December looked at Instancing from a Player's Perspective. It explains the pros and cons of the technology, and provides a bevy of links to commentary from other websites. That preference for providing references is a watchword around VirginWorlds, with Brent usually thoughtfully providing information for even the most casual of readers. His ongoing series called "What Makes Us Go Ding?", though, is almost reference-less; it's a very personal look at what Brent feels are the reasons we play these things. Part 1 looks at the newness of experiences we MMOGers crave, Part 2 covers exploration, Part 3 covers questing and the hero complex, and Part 4 covers the insidious attraction of community. Interesting and personal looks at the hook in every MMOG player's mouth.

The Snark of the World

Of course, VirginWorlds is also a blog, and Brent can be just as snarky as the next guy when he wants to be. Witness his 'WoW Haiku' ("azeroth grows stale / expansion still a figment / eve online installs") and DDO Haiku ("Clumsy interface / Click click click click click click click / Fifty wasted bucks"). Brent's been especially hard on World of Warcraft, hitting it with complaints about the patcher, lamentations about the boredom of WoW podcasters, and even statements that WoW just isn't that special. "It has the right marketing, the right look, the right depth, and the right competition and all have allowed it to be the success it is. It probably IS the most complete, fun, and accessible MMO available today. Blizzard has done a fine job, they have executed well and deserve credit, but on the other hand, WoW isn't special."

Despite all that, Brent has an unreserved enthusiasm for the genre that comes through very clearly in his less formal commentary. Where I and others are more likely to focus on what we're not enjoying about the games out there, Brent's appreciation for exploring new virtual worlds is like a cool drink of water for the angry MMOG Blog circle. For example, earlier this year he decided it was an oversight that he'd never played Star Wars Galaxies. While he wasn't blown away by SWG, it was very interesting to see someone completely new to the game comment on its post-NGE state. Brent's a big fan of EVE Online, and his enthusiastic coverage of EVE TV during the PvP battles earlier this year aided greatly in my enjoyment of the beautiful explosions onscreen. Likewise, his first experience at AGC made even an industry-event cynic like me smile. "I return to the show floor where I meet Brian 'Psychochild' Green from Near Death Studios. Blackguard records a VirginWorlds promo for me. The MOGArmy interviews... me?"

The posts Brent has written for the site that make me smile the most involve good old Everquest. It's got to be a standard in MMOGdom by now: you can take the gamer out of the game, but you can't take the game out of the gamer. Your first MMOG always stays with you, no matter where you find yourself /camping out on a day-to-day basis. Two particularly enjoyable posts on EQ and its successor have Brent proclaiming EQ Live the best MMOG ever, and the Revival of Everquest 2. "They've polished and finished their game. Today, EQ2 is what it should have been at launch. It has a strong and positive community team with a great new podcast. Our video cards have caught up with the future-proofed graphics. Trade skilling has been revamped numerous times, all for the better. The world size has been expanded and great diversity and falvor has been added in the well received expansions. The class progression was removed. Soloing ability was enhanced."

The Voice of the World

The most notable element of the VirginWorlds site is the weekly Sunday podcast Brent has put out, come rain or come shine, since March of this year. Like this past weekend's 'cast, each of these 20-40 minute audio tracks lays out the news from the Massively Multiplayer genre for the past week. The average podcast covers between 8-16 games, touching on any titles with noteworthy news for the week. Each news clip is delivered without commentary. The goal of the service is to provide information, not convey Brent's personal opinion. That, combined with his attention to some smaller titles, makes the VirginWorlds podcast an ideal stand-in for genre fans uninspired by yet another RSS feed.

He's also had the opportunity to switch up the format on occasion, offering additional commentary and information outside of the usual weekly news. He's had a few interviews, including one with Dusktreaders designer Erik Hyrkas, and the gents from EVE TV. He's occasionally done game reviews, such as his hard look at Ryzom, and his first-hand look at the dungeon experience in DDO.

With some 40 podcasts behind him, Brent has recently begun opening up the format of the show with some new elements. In October he and fellow occasional commentator Brenden opened up a compressed can of conversation by declaring a top ten of MMOGs in two parts. To give you some idea of the conversation sparked by their choices, World of Warcraft was only number 6. VirginWorlds listeners have also begun to accompany Brent on driving outings, in mid-weekly editions of the show meant to offer a more casual look at games and a chance to deal with reader mail.

By playing 'straight man' to the court jesters around him, Brent and the VirginWorlds podcast offer something hard to find in a world of self-made 'journalists': clarity and impartiality. He's also got pretty good taste in games, which helps a great deal. If you need any more proof, a final link and a heads up for the next Citizen Spotlight: A recommendation from Brent for Tobold's MMORPG Blog. Look for an exploration of Tobold's site, and an interview with the man behind the keyboard in two weeks.

[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. ]