Matt Colville, The Product

I have long believed I had a leg up on other game developers because I felt like I understood the nature of online communities better than they did. My first job in gaming was answering folks’ questions online about the Dune CCG, a game so complex it was basically impossible for any one person to hold all the rules in their head at once. This was not a unique feature of Dune, you understand, it was just the style at the time. Folks had lots of questions not covered in the rules, and it was my job to answer them.

I was terrible at it, many people complained about me and they were right to. But I learned a lot. My online life started way before that. In 1983 I got my first computer (a Coleco ADAM!) and a modem and I started dialing in to local (and not so local. A $200 phone bill??) BBSes. This was my first real exposure to fandom and nerd culture and it was pretty neat. I miss those days.

Then the 90s came along and the internet. I had something like 30,000 posts on RPGnet when they wiped the database and started over. I was among the top posters there, not because I was in the business but because I just loved that community and was a part of it. Someone made a T-shirt with the top 100 posters’ avatars and I think I was like number 13? I might have been higher up.

I watched other industry vets wade into that community whenever there was some controversy regarding their game and it simply never worked. Sometimes it never worked spectacularly. Their attempt to spin the issue was always transparently an attempt to manipulate thought and that doesn’t work anymore.

I had dinner at a friend’s house when I was in my 20s and her mom was an ad exec at a big food company and when I complained about what seemed to me a random annoyance—there were now ads on the little rubber bar that separated your groceries on the checkout conveyor belt from mine—she explained why.

“Each generation,” she said, “is more immune to marketing than the previous generation. So advertisers now fight and scrabble over every inch, trying to put ads everywhere, anywhere, desperately hoping to influence you.” You used to be able to go on TV and say “Hey smoking’s good for you, buy Camels,” and folks said “Oh, word? Well, they wouldn’t let them say that if it wasn’t true” and they’d dutifully go out and buy Camels.

Not anymore. People hate the feeling of being marketed to, being manipulated, and by and large it just doesn’t work anymore. That’s why “social” is so important. Why “viral” matters so much. If I can get you talking to your friends about my product, your friends don’t feel like they’re being marketed to. They feel like your recommendation is authentic.

And, by and large, it is, and that does work. This is killing a lot of marketing firms because nothing about social has anything in common with anything they’ve ever learned or understood, but they’re sort of in charge of making it work, and we see the failure of that every day on the internet. We’re always astonished when a company gets it right.

So having grown up online in a way most of my peers and even many people from the generation after mine hadn’t, having screwed up as the Dune NetRep and been a fantastic troll on RPGnet, I felt like I got it. I’d sown my wild oats, so to speak, and had settled down into what I perceived as a deep understanding of online communities and how to navigate them. Other people at Turtle Rock had to go through training to be trusted to post officially online, I was already doing it and no one was worried. Before anyone in the D&D community knew who I was, I was already a redditor with tons of sweet, sweet karma. I believe I now have enough to cash in and get one of those little plastic rings with a plastic spider on it.

I am not, in other words, one of those people you see online slagging off “The Internet” or “Reddit,” as cesspools. Before industry folks had Reddit (which I love) to complain about, they used the exact same language to complain about RPGnet (which I loved). I am not one of those people saying “Never read the comments.” Those people are wrong. They’re on the internet, popular because of the internet, slagging off the internet and trying to score points doing it. Screw those people.

Come the YouTube channel and as it grew, I could tell one of the reasons it grew was people liked the way I presented myself online. I didn’t answer every single question, but it felt like I was present, like I was engaged, and like I was authentic and that’s the one thing that always, always works online. Authenticity. I mean, if you’re an authentically terrible human being, that will also ‘work,’ just not in your favor. You can tell that some very popular people online got that way because they cannot tell the difference between good attention and bad attention. They do not know that a large audience is not the same thing as a good audience.

Things started to get weird on the subreddit and in the discord when folks started sort of obsessing over images of me. Memes, basically. And the reason that depressed me was because every time I saw someone post a screencap of me making a face, I would just get…yeah I think depressed is the right word because I thought “There are better uses of your time.”

I don’t (or, I haven’t for a while, but I may again, who knows?) use custom thumbnails for the videos because I just love the ridiculous poses YouTube’s thumbnail algorithm puts me in. I have no problem looking like a fool, if I did, I wouldn’t be making videos.

It’s just that feeling of, like…bro, what are you doing with your life? You are worth more as a person than this. Go read a book. Go make something. It’s not unlike my attitude toward games like WoW. I played a lot of WoW, I five-boxed for like a year. And when I quit cold-turkey…I wrote a novel. Which do you think I value more? I look back on my time in that game as time wasted in a way I don’t view other games.

I looked at other subreddits I’m on and I saw many of them just had a “no memes” policy, so we instituted that and that patched the problem for a while. Focus on content I said. Well, I got my wish.

Now we’ve had the Kickstarter and one thing I’ve noticed is that even people who’ve been part of the community for a long time, no longer talk about me like I’m a person. Like I’m another member of this community.

They talk about me like I’m a product.

Well, folks need to be able to do that. There were lots of discussions online about the Critical Role comic in various corners of the internet and with a few exceptions, I stayed out of them because I wanted folks to be able to talk about the comic openly without worrying about another member of the community, i.e. me who just happened to be the writer, being offended.

Folks need space to talk about the products they buy (of which the entertainment they engage in is a subset) without worrying about offending the manufacturers. We call that space “the internet.” And as my audience grows, more people talk about me like a product. Perfectly natural.

So my “leg up,” my understanding of online communities, no longer serves me. It doesn’t help. Because now people feel empowered to describe me, physically, and my content, as thought it were any other product. As though I were an actor on a TV show. As though I was something they were consuming. And…they are. I produce content, they consume it.

And we are perfectly comfortable being very familiar with the products we consume. We don’t feel at all strange talking about how an actor is wrong for a part because of how they look or that we don’t think an actor’s performance was believable. This steak is the wrong color, and I don’t like the texture. We don’t expect the actors or the steak to care. We don’t expect either of them to even hear us.

I’m not different. I think Martin Freeman as Bilbo is terrible, because he seems miserable to me…and I think he was. That is not something I would say about almost anyone in real life. I would never say that TO Martin Freeman, or anywhere where I thought he was going to overhear me.

I would have to be really really good friends with someone before I would just casually toss off “You seem miserable.” Or “You look terrible, have you been getting any sleep?”

I don’t think there’s any middle way here. Being a member of the community means…well, it means reading a lot of comments. It doesn’t mean replying to them but it does mean reading a whole lot of them. The comments section of my YouTube channel is great, because I read the comments and kill the ones I think don’t contribute anything. That’s not special, by the way, all the YouTubers I follow have great comments sections.

But there are very few people online with the following I have who use the internet the way I do. I post a lot, I share a lot of the things I like. Like, dozens of times a day I tweet out stuff. I respond to a lot of people, I engage with a lot of people. The folks with larger followings than mine, all engage a lot less. They are all way more picky about A: what they post/share, B: how often they post/share and C: who they engage with.

Well, there’s a reason for that. I thought I could be different, I thought I was smarter and more savvy and I think maybe that means I got away with it longer? I got away with just being me online longer than most people would have.

But this is the end of that. My videos are a product (a salesperson would say I am the product, alright) and folks need to be able to say things about it like “You look tired, are you ok?” “You cut your hair too short,” “that sketch failed to build upon itself.”  (there was a sketch?!)

These are certainly not comments I would make about any YouTube video, but they’re no different than comments I have made about other products. I think because I am a YouTuber I see other YouTubers as people, not products, and so I post encouraging things if I post anything.

My YouTube channel seems to be slowly dying. My subscriber rate is half what it was only a couple of months ago, and no surprise. I stopped making Running the Game videos.

Well, I just took a break. I’ve got a whole list of ideas for videos I’m really excited by. But it can take half a day, a whole day, to get a video done depending on the content, and I have this colossal fucking deadline I have to worry about. If you wait a couple of weeks to post a new video, it better be good!

I know there are more Running the Game videos coming, so I’m not super worried. And my subscriber rate is still amazing. Lots of YouTubers would kill for it.

And I know I don’t have to ONLY making Running the Game videos. I’m working on a video about Google and AI that I think folks will like. But the Kickstarter videos? Uploading twitch streams? Those don’t count as ‘videos.’ They’re not content. Those are basically ads, and an archive.

I don’t HAVE to talk about D&D, but I have to produce content, and I will and I am exited to. The Strongholds & Followers book is content. People will review it by saying “It reads like his YouTube videos sound” and for some people that will be a criticism and for others a compliment.

But if I compromise and put out a video that looks and feels rushed, because it was, even if I think the video was really good and had a lot of good advice in it, folks will critique it in a very familiar fashion. He looks tired, what’s with the camera, it tastes funny, there’s too much salt.

There are two lessons there. The first is “don’t compromise.” Because I never have before. I started with professional lighting and 1080p and 60fps and I think that had a lot to do with the success of the channel. In many ways, in most ways, I still have no idea what I’m doing. I know many editing tricks, but I can’t be arsed to deploy them, because I’m too impatient to get the content up. Basically, I hate editing and it shows.

Most of the production over here is amateur hour, but I’ve faked it pretty good. When I fake it badly, people notice and they say so. So, actually, I compromise all the time, but in a “do it well, or not at all” kind of way. I pick my battles, in other words.  

The other lesson is “don’t engage.” It’s counter-productive. Folks need to be able to slag me and my content off just like it was a Twinkie, or a Blu-ray. Which means I can’t be in there with them. I can’t be part of the community that’s slagging me off. That doesn’t make any sense, no one does that.

So now instead of being casually but carefully “me, just online,” I have to manage my online presence. We’re going to need moderators and probably a social media manager and that’s going to suck because no one I know, who is good at that, is available and the people I know who are available hate that stuff. :D

We’ll work it out. But it’ll be a transition and things won’t be the same. Something is always lost. The present is better than the past, the people who say otherwise are wrong. But the folks who say something valuable was lost, are right. They’re not mutually exclusive.

We created an MCDM Twitter account, expressly so I folks who just want updates about what we're doing, when we're live, when there's a new video, etc..., have an option without actually following ME and all my nonsense.

I’ll still be on twitter, just less and more carefully. I’ll still moderate the YouTube comments, but I’ll reply less. All this will save me time, and some of my sanity.

But…something valuable will be lost. Nothing good lasts forever...but then, neither does anything bad.

Matthew Colville