This is a warning (or maybe just a caution) to anyone out there thinking about starting a web site or a blog. I recently began work on a game-related web site called The Imaginary Game News Network (www.imaginarygamenews.com). I thought, how hard can it be? I'm a writer. I speak Photoshop. I spent 20 years writing about games. Man, I even enjoy building 3-D models and rendering scenes. There are plenty of tools out there, most of them free. And code; that's just words and fiddly bits, right?
Now, after two months in which I've battled Romanian spammers, wrestled with CSS, Tweeted my heart out to gain viewers, snarled at my dog to sit still so I could snap a picture that would turn him into the image of an evil alien overlord, it's truly amazing that I can remember how to wake up in the morning. Every assumption I made going into the project was wrong...staggeringly wrong. On the other hand, it's been one of the most engaging experiences of my life. (You can skip to the end for the pay-off if you like, otherwise, pull up a chair.)
The idea going into the project was to learn just what was involved in getting a web site up-to-speed, and I wanted to test out a variety of web tools and formats. As I muddled about building some early prototypes, I started wondering what sort of site content really made sense.
My consulting business was taking up quite a bit of time, so I needed a topic that wouldn't require much research, and I needed a content management system that would be robust and easy-to-learn. I wanted the content to be about gaming, but there are exactly two billion web sites already reporting every detail relating to the gaming industry, so that seemed a bit crowded.
For the CMS, I settled on using WordPress as the backbone of the venture because it had so many plug-ins for adding a huge variety of functions and forms. And the WP administration dashboard is so easy to use I could concentrate on building content, or so I thought. As for the content, I decided to make the site purely fictional with a humorous bent. No other site was really doing this, although a few produce some fun satirical columns and stories, so the idea would be fairly fresh.
It would be an Onion for the gaming world, with a bit of Python and The Daily Show thrown in for good measure. I felt that given my busy schedule, I would be able to produce short, funny stories in my spare time. I wish someone had been there to slap some sense into me. Instead, my wonderful wife was encouraging, for which someday I'll forgive her.
What I didn't appreciate was that web sites suck time like black holes inhale matter and energy. After spending countless hours mucking about with design issues and plug-ins that didn't work as advertised (or usually because I was such a thickie that I'd installed them ass-backwards or corrupted the file while trying to tweak the code) I began to sense that I'd entered some sort of deep cavern without a map...and my flashlight was flickering in that sort of menacing way that suggests your fate is likely to be as a pile of bones that some future explorer will stumble upon then laugh at nervously.
But instead of doing the smart thing--chalking it all up to experience and moving on with my life--I decided that what I really needed was just one big effort to get everything in place. Once I had developed the departments, the main pages, a schedule for updates, etc...it would be easy. I could spend a couple of hours each morning writing silly stories, then post them and happily move on to the business of making money.
The problem I didn't expect was that my imagination wouldn't turn off when it was supposed to. New stories and absurd phrases would pop into my head at inconvenient moments. I found myself typing notes into my iPhone wherever I was. That's a bad idea when you're talking to a client, and an even worse one when you're driving your kids to the playground.
How do you explain to a four-year old that Daddy was driving on the wrong side of the road because he had this hilarious thought about Sony being so obsessed by recapturing market share that it was planning on taking it back by force with an army of personal service robots. (Relax, it's not really happening.) I found myself tweaking everything, adding extra design touches, revamping the theme, rethinking columns, and rushing through the execution then having to rework it to make it clean.
But the process was valuable because it taught me about what worked and what didn't. Some areas just took too much time to update and didn't deliver enough content punch, so I ruthlessly axed them. Other ideas had to evolve before they found the right form. Slowly, things began to take a sort of shape--lumpy, yes, but cheese is often lumpy so a cheesy site could be excused a few bumps.
It's been a bit over two months now since I started The Imaginary Game News Network (Delivering hot scoops of satirical, fake game news since 1889!) and I'm finally getting a handle on this thing. What I've learned is that a web site or blog has a life of its own, and living things demand attention. Encouragement from readers has kept me ambitious, and I can now actually finish most of the work each day in about three hours. Two is my goal.
So here's the lesson; if you're just starting out building a site or a blog, expect everything to take at least twice as long as you think it should, then plan to spend twice that amount of time to get it right. If you have kids at home, double your estimate again.
In the WordPress community they like to say, "Code is poetry." Well, it does sort of look like poetry, all those little partial lines composed of an intriguing mix of characters, and I hope to appreciate it more in time--I anticipate it should take about 43 years. In the meantime, you can find me happily scribbling about a fictional game industry that looks just a little bit like real life.