['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 behind the scenes at the MMOG blog Van Hemlock.]

Van HemlockSelf-styled as a 'virtual monster hunter', the author behind the site Van Hemlock offers up a regular dose of simple, honest game criticism. Other sites might see posts go up more often, but when Hemlock speaks it's almost always a good idea to listen. This wandering gamer has been posting for a little over two years now, and in that time has weighed on on everything from World of Warcraft to the depths of Eve Online's space.

Speaking directly and with little pretension, it's helpful to use Hemlock as a measuring stick for the interestingness of a game; if he doesn't have much to say on a particular title, odds are good there just isn't much there worth talking about. Hemlock was kind enough to sit down for a virtual chat, and I have some links to pass out touching on the major themes of his site. Read on for a look behind the scenes with this well-read and highly observant blogger.

Soon To Be Featured In A Major Motion Picture

Michael: If you don't mind my asking, what is your home life like? Do you have any children? A spouse/girlfriend? What's your day job?

Hemlock: In a lot of ways, I am the stereotypical gaming slob - single, no kids, live to play, etc. Computer games, well, MMOs in particular, have pretty much consumed my life at this point and I probably ought to get out more. In my defence though, I don't live in a basement - my mother's or otherwise - and in fact live in a second floor apartment, whose mortgage is probably enough Real Life Responsibility for me, I think. I also don't like Cheetoes or Mountain Dew, which are hard to find in the UK anyway - Wotsits and Tizer are the nearest UK equivalent, I suspect. My day job is as a Graphic Designer for an electronic engineering company - brochures, websites, exhibitions stands, that sort of thing, although it's not something I'm passionate enough about to want to do at home as well, hence the austere look of the blog!

Michael: Do you have any hobbies outside of Massive gaming? Do you do any more traditional PC/console gaming?

Hemlock: I've always been fascinated with computer games from a very early age, starting with a Sinclair Spectrum in the late eighties and progressively upgrading from there. Lonely childhood in a remote country location, a somewhat indifferent father, and being a bit of a dreamer all made those little 8-bit action games very compelling. Nowadays I almost exclusively play online MMOs, although a friend lent me his Xbox 1 not so long ago (He got a 360 so it became somewhat surplus), so have been trying to get into 'sofa gaming' a bit, with various sucess. Quite enjoyed Knights of the Old Republic, Deus Ex 2 and whatever Burnout game is on that thing. The whole car-crashing for points prizes and prestige is a lot of quick fun, but on the whole, I don't think I'm a console gamer really - not immersive enough, and I'm not really a 'drop-in type' of gamer anymore. Plus my huge gnarled claws aren't as good with a controller as a mouse and keyboard! As for other hobbies, I'm quite getting into the EVE CCG with a couple of friends, although I think that only counts as 'outside Massive gaming' on a technicality. I used to be a bit of an outdoors adventure sports type, it's been quite a long time since I've been rock climbing or caving - I'm probably getting old. I'm 31, by the way.

Michael: How would you characterize your experience with Massive games? Do you consider yourself more casual or 'hardcore'? Ever done any raiding?

Hemlock: In a word, 'nomadic'. I'm a hard-core gamer with respect to the genre, but terribly casual with any specific title. I suspect it's just because I've played so many of them now that none of them can quite monopolise my attention span. I don't think I have ADHD as such - it's just I tend to get to a point in an MMO where I can tick a mental box - 'understand how *that* works' - and then get restless and want to poke about new things. It's much better in these post-WoW days, where the levelling is just about fast enough to keep up with my attention span, but it used to be awful around 2000, when broken-glass grinding was the norm, and I'd end up very frustrated in most games, having to redo the same types of experience over and over, before being allowed to see new ones. As you can imagine, I'm an *extremely* 'Explorer' Bartle Test type. I also tend to solo far more than is reasonable or normal in a massively *multiplayer* game, and am still try to work out why.

Michael: How many MMOGs have you played? What was your first game?

Hemlock: Whoosh...around twenty, I think. Pretty much every western MMO there's ever been, with a few notable exceptions; City of Heroes and Dark Age of Camelot are two I feel I ought to have tried, but never quite got round to. Horizons, Auto Assault and Dungeons and Dragons Online, less so. My first MMO was actually the barely heard of Cyro/Vibes Mankind - mostly a kind of massive space based RTS. Very bewildering and very broken, which I think gave me a prophetic and accurate first impression of the genre as a whole. The first one I'd seriously count though, is EverQuest. After a few weeks on a regular server, I got it into my head that full-on, no-rules open PvP server would be somehow honourable, interesting and a suitable challenge for my gaming talents. The next two years scarred me and made me a lot more of a cynical, bitter gamer than I was, and I'm glad Rallos Zek has been server-merged out of existence, frankly. I tend to avoid PvP nowadays - not worth the stress. Mind you - I do love Planetside. It's probably more about the consequences of PvP, rather than the act itself, for me.

Michael: City of Heroes is one of those games that a lot of MMOG nerds have notched in their belt as a matter of course. Was there anything in specific that kept you away, or was it just an accident of timing? What's kept you from checking it out recently?

Hemlock: I think it's just me, rather than CoH/V. Heard a lot of good things about it; light-hearted and casual fun in spandex and all. I just never went through a Comic Book phase when growing up, so the whole Superhero thing mostly passed me by. I was probably obsessing about another game at the time, and now, it's finding the time. I probably will have a look some day though - just need to get bored and storm out of one of my curent games first! Must admit though, I hated Freedom Force, so that might have put me off a bit.

Michael: What would you consider your favorite game? Your least favorite?

Hemlock: Difficult. My impressions of games vary a lot depending how near or close I am to them at the time - very flambouyant love-hate cycles for most of them, I'd say. I think for me, a favourite game is one that I'll keep returning to over and over; I'm going to quit them all, sooner or later, but some I never come back to again, apart from the odd week here and there to see how it's doing. You probably want names really, don't you? At this very moment, I'm liking Guild Wars: Nightfall the most, I think, although it infuriates me in almost equal measure with it's hectic nature and somewhat unpredictable combat. In general though, I'm increasingly drawn to MMOs that do things a bit differently - Planetside, EVE Online, Guild Wars, etc. Stuff that isn't EQ/AO/WoW/EQ2, although I still usually have at least one Level Quest on the go too.

Least favourite is easier - played a lot of train-wrecks in my time. Shadowbane deserves a mention, although probably not for the usual reasons - ultra harsh PvP brutality, etc. It just seemed too empty. And didn't perform very well on my PC, despite it's obviously apparent age. Neocron 2 for the sheer unpleasantness of it's playerbase - very offputting, which is a shame... the world itself was very interesting. Call me superficial, but I never did get my head around the 2D sprites of Ultima Online either. The very worst online game I've ever played though, is Mimesis Online, a game I've never seen mentioned anywhere else. It's possible I dreamed it, but I'm far too traumatised to go into details here. I'd have trouble pointing at a recent title though - a lot of current titles are bland, certainly, but rarely awful.

Michael: To follow up with that, do you have a favorite memory from a Massive game? I like to call it 'something you'll tell your grandkids about.' Anything like that?

Hemlock: Probably the Star Wars: Galaxies town I had a part in building on a fresh server. I think there's Ranterbury Tale about it somewhere in my archives, but basically, a whole series of unlikely coincidences caused some kind of gaming 'alignment', and for a few months a whole group of us managed to create a real and geniune 'community' like I'd not sen anywhere else in my travels. It wasn't guilds or cliques, just a whole load of individual players spontaneously pulling together to make the game work pretty much as it must have been designed by some starry-eyed SOE/Lucasarts dev. All very utopian, and good while it lasted. I'm generally quite distrustful of the whole 'Guild' structure, especially in games where raid loot is better than soloable stuff - guilds become more like temping agencies than anything else - short term contracts, in exchange for a particular kind of payment, so it was nice to see that there can be another way.

Michael: Conversely, do you have a bad memory that's tainted your experiences with Massive games in general?

Hemlock: Well, I don't mind crazy pickup group antics so much - you get to the point where it just becomes funny in spite of the wipes, smacktalk, etc. My Ranterbury Tales feature thing is pretty much typical of my attitude toward it all these days - no such thing as a Bad Group, only Good Comedy Material! In terms of darker and more damaging experiences, I'd have to go with my years on Rallos Zek. I know 'Emo' isn't very fashionable these days, but I really do think spending so much of my spare time in such a viciously paranoia-riddled and spiteful environment damaged me, over the longer term, and could be one of the reasons I'm so inclined to solo so much. As a result of it all, I'm quite distrustful of others online, even in worlds where it's physically impossible for them to attack me, and worse still, some of it leaked out into my perceptions of Real Life. When you start to see what human beings could be like if there were no laws or police or repercussions, it makes you start to believe that the only reason people don't gank each other 'RL', is that they aren't sure enough in their ability to get away with it. Vastly out of proportion I know, and I expect much of my problems with Rallos were just me taking it all *far* too seriously. I think I'm mostly cured nowadays though!

Michael: What is it about Massive games that appeals to you? What makes you keep playing these great big beautiful games?

Hemlock: Good question. I sometimes think my entire blog has just been me groping at some kind of answer to this myself. I'm not terribly social, solo by default and generally expect the worst from group or guild work. I guess it's the 'Alone Together' thing the brain-folk at Terra Nova talk about now and then. Even though I'm unlikely to interact with very many of the other players, just seeing the zone-chat and knowing that 3000 or so other people are in there too gives it a vital pulse, I think. Also, having a game it's unlikely I'll complete, no matter how obsessively I play, is good too. I have a lot of singleplayer games I've loved to bits for the 20 hours of gameplay they offered, and then never touched again, having 'won' them. Doesn't happen so much in MMOs, I find.

Michael: What made you start a blog in the first place? How did you decide on a name?

Hemlock:Mostly imitation and seeing other MMO bloggers at it. Back then I was much more angry about MMO shortcomings and seeing stuff like Lum the Mad was great; "We don't have to just sit there and take this stuff? Power to the people!" Kill Ten Rats and Tobold were big influences too, I think. After a little while I settled down a bit and just start treating it as a kind of online diary, mostly for my own benefit, that other MMO gamers might find interesting or helpful, rather than a one-man crusade to get my classes buffed and everything else nerfed.

The name was thought up in a hurry after my previous, and not nearly as successful general blog had to be 'dissapearred' after I somewhat naievely said some rather foolish things about my RL employer. I kept the job, just about, but any further blogging would have to be purely game related, and under a new, secret name. All just as well really. I always think a good blog has a focus that it should keep to, other than the blogger him or herself, otherwise you run the risk of being a bit self-indulgent. I picked MMOs, something I spend an awful lot of time either playing, or thinking about anyway.

I'd just been watching the Hugh Jackman action romp 'Van Helsing' at the time, and the whole generic monster hunting thing seemed to fit, although I gave up on the silly 'in character' bits very early on. I am not, not have ever been, Dutch!

Michael: What keeps you going, writing on the site?

Hemlock:Boredom at work, mostly. No, partly it's because I just need to write something about it all, even if it is just for my own amusement; I'm so self-absorbed that sometimes I go back through my older posts and read through them - they make me chuckle at least, so part of their purpose is served. Also it's nice to be a bit of an expert in *something* and I don't really have any other field of more worthwhile or meaningful expertise, so if I do have to write something, it's important I write about something I know. Self justification of sorts, perhaps? Plus I do particularly like being a 'cross-game' blogger, talking about all sorts of MMOs from post to post - with any luck, someone who came to me looking for World of Warcraft tips or whatever, might go away and try something they wouldn't have otherwise thought of, like Planetside or Second Life. I like the sponaeity of it all too...I often won't have a clue what to write about until I've sat down and gone through my RSS thingey. There's always something a bit bizzare or odd going on in the MMO-O-Sphere though!

Michael: I definitely share your wanderlust in Massive games, and I've always wondered what it was about the genre that inspires that kind of attitude. What is it about understanding a game that makes us need to move on, do you think? Conversely, for games like Planetside (which you've talked about a bit recently), what keeps you grounded for a time?

Hemlock:I think it's about the variety of it all for me. Different *kinds* of experiences, within the various games. Seeing and trying new and unexpected things. Certainly there might be a difference in specific choreography for different end-game raid bosses and what have you, but I sort of consider the whole end-game finished, once I've been on enough particular raids for the novelty of raiding itself to wear off. Same with crafting, or exploring. You make enough 'Mediocre Swords' and you pretty much know how making 'Outstanding Swords' will be. Planetside is a bit of an odd one though - the overall gameplay is very samey over the long term, but no two base captures ever go quite the same way - each situation is slightly different. Human opponents do keep things interesting - I just wish I could get over my fear of material loss enough to enjoy PvP in other games. Plus the war stories are fun - you don't tend to come away from the average goblin bashing session with quite that level of annecdote.

Michael: Your EVE CCG posts are highly entertaining. What other non-computer based games do you enjoy? Any previous experiences with CCGs, board games, pen and paper games?

Hemlock:Well, I'm passing familiar with Magic: The Gathering, although generally only play with the cards of others. The whole marketing model for collectible card games is a bit sinister for my liking, and it's a bit of an exercise in self-discipline not to go out and spend hundreds of pounds on booster pack trade displays, just to find that one crucial rare card. I've dabbled a bit in the various Games Workshop tabletop wargames too (very excited to see Warhammer 40K MMO annouced!), and of course, various incarntations of D&D, AD&D, ADHD&D, etc. Still, looking back at those 1980s rulebooks from today, it seems obvious that they were just MMOs, that the computers hadn't been invented for yet. I've dabbled in a lot, but keep coming back to the PC - nothing else quite has that draw for me.

Michael: Is there anything that you'd like to say to your site's readers? Anything you'd like them to know in specific?

Hemlock: Yes, please be more specific when entering keywords into Google, otherwise you'll just keep ending up at some bizzarre online gaming blog written by a wannbe hack who thinks having a large vocabulary is the same thing as being intellectual! Also - I haven't played Project Entropia in years, and was only there for a week even then - please find your own websites to hang out at!

Chaucer and Inexpensive Seating

Pulling a page from the works of great English literature, Van Hemlock's most well-known series of articles is the Ranterbury Tales. Each consists of a flashback to a specific gaming moment in Hemlock's 'Traveling Matt' life, and is a great place to get a feel for his writing style. He mentioned The Pioneer's Tale above, the story of his time homesteading in Star Wars Galaxies. Additional posts guaranteed to entertain are The Babysitter's Tale (the first), The Fellowship's Tale (in which Hemlock reminds himself why he solos), and The Banqueter's Tale (my current favorite).

"From the little raid window, I could tell that we had only three healers between us all, only two fighters, one scout (me), and six mage types, ranging from the Ever Cool Warlock, through to some of the more obscure practitioners of arcane arts, conjurers, illusionists, wizards, you name it, they were there. Was like Vegas, really...I'm sure I even saw Penn and Teller at the back somewhere, but it all got a bit confusing to be honest. That's DPS covered then, I thought, and not for the first time, wished I was a priest of some sort."

The Cheap Seats, another Hemlock post series, makes an effort to provide high-level observations of low-level gameplay. Specifically, it's a collection of 14-day trial impressions of a number of games. It's also one of the regular series he's updated the least, and is definitely something I hope is returned to in the future. In the meantime, you can check out his rationale for the project, as well as his impressions of Ryzom, Puzzle Pirates, and Shadowbane.

"My real main problem with the game though, is that your little half-vampire, or demon-kin, or whatever, is born into the world, and beyond being given the somewhat lofty and abstract goal of ‘Crush Your Enemies’, ‘Claim A Throne’ and ‘Rule The World’, is basically left to it. For the raw newbie, this is a bit too far on the ‘open ended gameplay’ scale, and you have to entertain yourself. I could find no quests, missions, discernable NPC factions or back-story, and only the vaguest hints about what life was like on The Mainland, and how, and who, I could help. There was no tutorial, no greeter, nothing; not even the customary explanatory note in my inventory – “Hail, Soandso! Orcs killed your parents! Go talk to Quest_NPC_1 who can help you start a new life!”…that sort of thing."

Firsthand Accounts of Monster-Slaying (Virtually)

The bulk of Hemlock's other posts concentrate on his day-to-day activities in whatever title he happens to be playing at the moment. While there are certainly posts about World of Warcraft and EVE Online if you're inclined towards those games, at the moment he's concentrating on Planetside and Guild Wars. I've particularly enjoyed Hemlock's discussion of his regular group in Guild Wars, the 'Tuesday Noob Club'.

"Last night saw us help a man find his lost wedding ring, stolen by harpies. We provided armed security for a delicate mining operation in a quarry. We helped 'control' the population of the above harpies -mostly by going on a bit of a rampage in their breeding grounds - the mothers were not happy, but then I've never met a good-humoured harpy in any game! We helped a chef put together a banquet, made mostly out of various types of monster gunk - rather him than me. All while pushing forward into new and unknown lands, on our way to deal with the next step of the Primary Quest, which at the moment seems to be focussed on containing a sudden outbreak of undead. Grrr...pesky undead! One life is never enough, is it? Ohhhhhh noooooo."

[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. ]