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Raph Koster is known as one of the most accomplished and influential online game designers. Most obviously, Raph was the lead designer for Ultima Online, where he is known as Designer Dragon, but Mudders may know him better has Ptah, one of the one of the implementors for LegendMUD. Currently, Raph works for Verant on the "top secret" Star Wars Online. The gaming section of Raph's website (newly renovated, 11/25/00 to include his book on mud design) is one of the best sources on the web for feature articles on MMORPGs. Raph was kind enough to talk to us about MMORPG design issues, internet addiction, and fiction / role play in MMORPGs, amongst other things.
Raph not only designs MMORPGs, but he writes extensively about MMORPG design as well. His web site contains about a dozen well thought-out articles, and is a must-visit for anyone seriously interested in game design. This weekend (11/25/00) he just added his hypertext book on mud design. It's worth the read.
Of course, we were hoping that Raph might comment on recent high-profile MMORPG incidents, such as a fan being banned from Everquest for publishing fiction, volunteers suing Ultima Online for work lost (ok, that one seems kind of lame), or role-playing and Internet addiction (s ee Life and Death in Everquest). Raph is an experienced imm from the MUD days, a strong advocate of players' rights (See Declaring the Rights of Players), and an accomplished writer to boot. Raph has multiple degrees in writing and has published fiction in games, i.e. in-game literature, as well as stories, poetry, and songs.
Although Raph surely he has interesting things to say on these topic, lawsuits and trade secrets prevented Raph from commenting in this interview on any specific incidents, or how these issues are being addressed in Star Wars Online. If you're really curious about what Raph thinks about these issues more generally, go read the papers on his website.
Now that that's out of the way, let's get to the interview. Raph was nice enough to take a few moments out from his busy days and nights at Verant to answer some of our other questions.
JS101.org: What compels you to work in this field -- to create online gaming environments? What about this genre -- or about this kind of work do you find appealing, challenging?
Raph Koster: Well, I've said in the past (I think the quote is on my website) that I do it because of ideals about virtual communities. [Ed. From the website]:
Then again, doing it as a religious crusade gets lots of players saying you're on a hobbyhorse, grinding an ideological axe, etc (the latter is a direct quote from a newsgroup post I read once). And ya know what, they're right. :) As long as I don't cross over into fanaticism, I'll feel OK about it. ;) (Of course, if I did cross over, it's in the nature of fanaticism not to notice...!)
(Back to the interview) I think that it's valuable work to be doing for Western culture in general, as more of our lives move to a networked, online model. I think that the challenges we face with this genre, even if it's "only games," are ones that will hold true as we start to do things beyond games.
That's not the only thing, though. I also do it because it's a very complicated thing to do, and I enjoy the challenges of it. It takes a large team to make one of these things, but there's such a high level of interdisciplinary knowledge required that it suits me perfectly, because I personally have never been able to stick to doing just one sort of thing.
JS101.org: As I think you're aware, the current generation of MMORPGs require a lot of time (and $$) to play -- both in terms of a typical gaming "session" and to stay involved in a community. Could you talk a little about this issue and how you're presently dealing with it in your current designs?
RK: Well, time is currently the only real currency there is for anything online. Most persistent world games reward the persistent, even though that's not where they got the name! Basically, players trade time for power in these games. The rate at which they trade it is different for every person, but by and large the games are not about actual skill or talent on the part of the players, but merely about spending a lot of time doing whatever prescribed activities the game is about. This means that everyone spends as much time as possible, and the games select for people with lots of time.
As far as what I want to do about it--break that linkage. The games need to be rewarding to those who don't have that time to spend. I can't go into detail on the mechanics of accomplishing that, though. :)
JS101.org: Given that trade-off between time invested and success has the issue of internet addiction ever been a concern to you as a designer -- if you're essentially rewarding persistence? Or, perhaps reframed, has your days as a MUD imm informed your thinking about this issue?
RK: Well, my observation had been that for many, muds were indeed a refuge from the real world. I certainly saw many who seemed to be "addicted." But I think there is a qualitiative difference between being addicted to specific mechanics, and being addicted to other people. Many of the addicted folks I saw were not so much addicted to leveling up, as they were to the social interaction. I also saw many people who might be termed misfits in real life learn applicable social, technical, or leadership skills as a result of their involvement with muds, and end up returning to RL to change their lives for the better.
Yes, it troubles me that we make games with directly addictive mechanics, but it's going to be hard not to do that, given the entire point of a game is to make an enjoyable experience. Enjoyable experiences tend to be addictive--just check out the number of hours that many Americans watch TV, for example. For me the yardstick has to be whether there's socially redeeming value to the experience, and I think that's a pretty easily achievable target for online world designers.
JS101.org: Overall, how would you characterize what is gained and lost when comparing MUDs and the current commercial MMORPGs? Both in terms of going from smaller, usually volunteer run environments to larger commercial ventures, and in terms of a text-based environment to a graphical one.
RK: The big losses on the graphical side thus far have been player expressivity with avatars (textual emote is much more powerful), user construction of environments (a principal activity on all the MOOs and many of the MUSHes), and users learning to code using embedded scripting languages (another principal activity on MOOs). Lastly, the lack of the ability to become a member of the full staff is a big loss.
The big gains from the commercial graphical muds have been scale and audience. More people play muds than ever before, and interesting social dynamics have developed that were not fully expressed in the mud world: real functioning macroeconomic systems for example. More complex social structures as a result of supporting multiple subcommunities within the same space. The prevalence of continuous map with consistent scales leading to a greater significance for geography and thus for elements like in-game construction of things like towns.
JS101.org: For me, a lot of the fun of mudding was the idea that you could someday become immortal and help create the enviornment you are a part of. I think that that affected gameplay from top to bottom. Do you care to expound any further on your comment that "Lastly, the lack of the ability to become a member of the full staff is a big loss" going from MUDS to commercial MMORPGs?".
RK Well, the fact is that the traditional criterion for selecting immortals (beating the game) is in fact a truly lousy criterion for picking people who are going to develop content and administer behavioral rules. This is part of why it's gone away as the sole criterion on the best-run muds anyway. So while I see the definite carrot there in terms of providing a goal to work towards, it's not really a good idea to use that as a carrot in my mind.
The real loss is the fact that it was an advancement ladder predicated on advancement engines that were not game-mechanic related. The ways to advance as an immortal were generally tied to generating good content, being a good administrator, working well in teams, etc. These are not things that are rewarded any other way currently in muds. And for muds to advance, they need to start rewarding more than just hack 'n' slash activities. To get REALLY specific, the primary loss is that of user-contributed content, which commercial endeavors are rightly wary of, but which is clearly one of the most compelling reasons to participate in any sort of virtual environment.
JS101.org: Has the recent dispute regarding UO "volunteers" suing for affected the way you collaborate with game players?
RK: Can't comment. :)
JS101.org: You went from a life as an academic in the humanities to one of gaming production. Any striking comparisons between the two worlds?
RK: Well, they are radically different. Some of my observations:
As far as making the transition--sheer luck. I was working in muds, a friend was working in muds, he got into the game industry as a programmer & landed on UO, he recommended me (and my wife, actually) as designers... and we luckily had the mud we worked on to show as evidence of skill.
JS101.org: Games take a beating for their poor use of narrative. As a writer, have you ever thought of taking up a more traditional (i.e. single player) RPG?
Yep, I would completely love to someday. I think the writing in most of these games is pretty crappy. There are some shining exceptions, though.
JS101.org: Probably can't answer this, but has your appreciate for the Star Wars mythology changed at all recently?
Can't comment. :)
JS101.org: As a writer and a designer, what were your personal reactions to the recent banning of a MMORPG player for fiction generated through role play? What part does player fiction play in role play in an MMORPG?
RK: Also can't comment. :)
JS101.org: As MMORPGs sell themselves as providing rich environments for role play, what role does the game designer play in policing the environment? Have you been working at all on integrating this function within the gameplay?
RK: Ultima Online was in large part about letting players police themselves. It didn't work, and there's many reasons why it didn't work (among them inconstancy of communication, lack of significant deterrents, and willingness of the populace to do the work especially given the above two). Yes, this is and has to be a major area of endeavor going forward, because the traditional admin models don't scale all that well as you increase the flexibility of the environments.
The game designer isn't directly involved in policing the environment, but the actions the designer takes greatly shape the amount of policing needed, as well as what tools both admins and users have to effect such policing.
JS101.org: Similarly, EQ and AC have been criticized for not really supporting role play -- a large number of players are playing the game without playing within the story necessarily. Is this a concern to you as a designer, and if so, how are attempting to teach "teach" players the mythology of the world or encourage role playing in your current designs?
RK: Roleplay... well, I hate to say it, but it's futile to encourage roleplay. :) There's too many disagreements on what it is. You can't possibly mandate a fictionally involving universe with thousands of other people. The best you can hope for is a world that is vibrant enough that people act in manners consistent with the fictional tenets--this is what J. C. Lawrence calls "functional roleplay." It's not fictionally immersive, but it does lead to people acting in the same ways as if they were roleplaying.
We make many efforts to improve fictional immersion, and they rely on context, background fiction, and ongoing storytelling. But these are all hard to make relevant to day to day play.
JS101.org: Can you talk at all about Star Wars? Ok, at least, will I be able to be a Jawa? (It should be my right, you know). [Ed. note: this is a reference to the Player has a Right to be a Frog example, quoted in Koster's "Player's Rights" piece.]
RK: Sorry, can't discuss it. :)
JS101.org: Are you playing anything these days?
RK: Nope. I ended my bout of addiction to Unreal Tournament, and am between games. I started playing Icewind Dale but haven't had time to really pick it up and play it for any length of time.
JS101.org: What's the last game that really blew you away? (and why?)
RK: Whew. Games I've been really impressed by recently have included The Sims, Thief, Age of Empires II, and Pokemon Snap. All for different reasons.
For the Sims, the thing that caught my interest was the extensive use of artificial life, which is something that I was very interested in using in UO but which ended up getting removed from the server during the beta test. I still believe that artificial life mechanisms are going to be needed to develop truly alive-feeling virtual worlds. The turnoff for the Sims for me was the emphasis on addictive, repetitive, materialistically-emphasized resource management. I loved making outfits and figuring out the AI system more than I liked the game itself. I look forward to Black & White for similar reasons.
For Thief, it was just the fact that it was a fresh look at a genre that had grown stagnant. FPS designers still haven't matched Half-Life, to my mind (first half of it anyway) for pure cinematic immersion, and Thief did a really great job of showing what else can be done with the first-person action experience. It brought a new color to the palette, so to speak.
Age of Empires II didn't fascinate me for the game itself. It fascinated me because the production values were so damn high. :) It showed how you can take a game that is really damn complicated and make it into something that is very easy to get into, and might even have educational value.
Pokemon Snap was just delightful, a real fresh take on a very old mechanic. It's a shooter on rails, of course, like Rebel Assault. But the setting conceals that really well, and the fact that you save off screenshots of your photos, and that "accuracy of the shot" isn't solely about twitch ability but also about composition, I thought was really brilliant. Unlike other rails games where the rails are there to provide barriers to exploration, to prevent you from seeing how the background is actually just a static picture or movie... well, rails are usually to hide some failure of the designers, basically. In Pokemon Snap, the rails are integral to the game. It would fall apart without them, because if you could roam around freely, you could always obtain better camera angles.
Joystick101.org would like to thank Raph for participating in this interview. Again, if you're interested in MMORPG design, you need to check out his site (have we beat you over the head with it enough yet?). I'm sure we'll all be talking about Star Wars Online, when it finally arrives.
Kurt Squire is a Sr. Editor (new title) at Joystick101.org and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He spent about 2 years mudding at avatar.