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Raph Koster Interview
In mid-March of this year, LucasArts, Verant Interactive and Sony Online Entertainment excited gaming fans everywhere with the announcement that they were collaborating on a massively multiplayer online world based on and set in the incredibly popular Star Wars universe. Very little information has been revealed yet. A few months ago, we learned that Verant was opening a development studio in Austin, Texas. The initial staff were a small group of experienced online developers who had previously worked on one or both of Ultima Online and Privateer Online, a project that was cancelled this year without ever being officially announced. While there had been some rumors, nothing had been revealed about the studio's project.
Somewhat earlier today, this changed when we learned that the two aforementioned events are now related; it was confirmed for the first time that Verant Austin is developing a Star Wars online world. Aside from this revelation, there's still no further information to be had about the project. However, we did have an opportunity to talk with Raph Koster, the Creative Director of Verant Austin, about online gaming in general. Raph is very well known in the development community as a leading authority on and spokesperson for online worlds. Accordingly, it is no surprise that there is a lot of extremely interesting information and opinions to be found in this lengthy and thought-provoking interview.
Jonric: In case anyone reading this doesn't already know who you are, please introduce yourself. And can you tell us what you're up to at the moment?
Raph Koster: Well, my name is Raph Koster, and I am Creative Director at the Verant Austin office. Basically, like a lead designer. My current project is a massively multiplayer game set in the Star Wars universe.
Jonric: Without going into too much detail, how would you describe your background as a gamer?
Raph Koster: Yeesh. Not sure I can remember it all. I remember playing ASCII games on CP/M machines like the Osborne I way back when a suitcase-sized computer with a 3-inch black & white screen was considered "portable." That's the machine I hacked ADVENT (aka Colossal Cave) on so I could see the last room… I had a Sears Pong console and then an Atari 2600. Eventually I went on to Atari 8-bit computers, where I taught myself to program. Some friends and I sold really crappy games in Ziploc baggies to school friends… the same friends we played D&D, AD&D, and Star Frontiers with, in fact. I also did a lot of board game design back then -we used to make board game versions of video games to play - they mostly turned into strategy games. In college, I briefly ran a roleplaying campaign as a play-by-email game. During graduate school, I got into MUDs, and from MUDs I got into the industry as a designer for Ultima Online and eventually Lead Designer. And now here I am!
Jonric: Do you play many games these days, and if so, what kinds do you prefer?
Raph Koster: I have to admit that I don't play nearly as many as I used to. Having two toddlers sort of changes your lifestyle. Right now, the game I am most familiar with is probably Winnie the Pooh's Ready To Read!
Normally, I like all sorts of games; not too much into the hardcore sims or wargames, but I like racing games, RPGs, shooters, Sim & Civ style games, RTS, platform games, etc., etc. But with the lack of time that results from my job and from the kids at home, I mostly play games that do well with short game sessions - which ironically leaves out most online RPGs! Lately, games that I've been checking out or enjoying include Unreal Tournament, Deus Ex, and I just got Icewind Dale but haven't installed it yet. I liked Majesty a lot.
Jonric: After having played a wide range of games over quite a few years, do you have any all-time favorites?
Raph Koster: Sure - but you're going to hear me name a ton of oldies! :-) I am a huge fan of Dani Berry's work. M.U.L.E. is probably my favorite game, but I also love Seven Cities of Gold. Ultima III was the game that first got me into CRPGs. I also immediately buy any game that Paul Reiche III is associated with-Star Control 1 & 2, Pandemonium, and a bunch of older stuff with FreeFall Associates, like Archon and even older stuff with Epyx. Among more contemporary games, I think Half-Life was fantastic, and Thief was really cool. UT has probably given me more enjoyment than anything else recently, though, just because I can drop in and play a match or two and get back out. I like console fighting games too, but I don't have a console right now so I'm not playing any.
Jonric: What games would you rate as particularly notable in terms of having influenced you as a game designer, and in what ways did they influence you?
Raph Koster: A lot of the same titles, really, plus a bunch of online games. I often come back to particular designers, much as I hate to promote any sort of "auteur" theory in game development. It's hard to find a better balance of cooperative and competitive multiplayer play than Dani Berry's games. Anything Shigeru Miyamoto does makes me think "craft, craft, craft." He has such high standards, and he has a knack for reinventing a genre and making you look at it with fresh eyes. Sid Meier always has stunning depth of gameplay, and I pay attention to how he does that even if I don't like the game much - I loved Civ, but wasn't a huge fan of Alpha Centauri and still haven't figured out why; probably the reduced attention span from the kids!
The Infocom text adventure games are always a model for me in terms of intelligence; they refused to talk down to the player. Richard Garriott's work is so important for bringing a thematic dimension into games. The guys who were at Looking Glass and Warren, Harvey, Bob, and others at Ion Storm South, always set new bars in terms of interactivity in the world, and sometimes when I've compared notes with some of them, I've found we tend to approach some things the same way. Anything Will Wright does, I look at.
In online games, a lot of the influences on me come from MUDs, rather than from commercial online games. So a bunch of titles you've never heard of like Mortal Conquest and MUME for doing such interesting things with player conflict, Worlds of Carnage, which was my first real mudding experience, and LambdaMOO, which ventured deep into all sorts of sociological waters for online, and gave us so much knowledge. There's a lot to learn from Habitat as well. I've been paying attention to how Achaea does things lately, and Asheron's Call has some very interesting social mechanics to it. Of course, I've been trying to pin down the magic in EverQuest to see if it can be bottled.
Jonric: You've said before that games aren't the only things that have influenced you? What are some of the others?
Raph Koster: I do a lot of reading on things that I think can help me in game design. Some of the books I've been reading over the last year or so that I find have been great for that are:
Jonric: What changes and advances do you see happening within the persistent online world category over the next year or two?
Raph Koster: Well, development is slow, so in the next year or two, I don't know that we're actually going to see that much change. I think the REAL changes will be in the games that are over a year away from release. Right now, most everyone is still working with tried and true design patterns. Even the stuff that most people think of as innovative isn't all that new if you know the history of online gaming well - it's just new to an audience this size. And there will be a rush to try current popular genres as online games. We'll see RTS online, and space trading online, and wargame online, and racing game online, and Civ-style online, and god game online, etc., etc. We've already seen the announcements for lots of these. There are definitely too many games in development, and too many which are fantasy. In that market, we're bound to see niches form, and a lot of games will just plain never come out - we've already seen that happen to a couple of intriguing designs, like Dark Zion. And I'm seeing a lot of people going, "thank goodness for the arrival of science fiction MMORPGs!" but I don't think that's going to make that big a difference either.
Jonric: How about if we look forward more, say over the next five years or so?
Raph Koster: There will probably be some highly public failures. And there will also, I suspect, be a couple of market-expanding monster hits. Stuff that carries major media licenses has the chance to really break open the market again. When Ultima Online came out, the level of market awareness of online worlds jumped by several multiples, and I think the same will happen again with the Middle-earths, Star Treks, Star Warses and Harry Potters. These are things that have appeal well outside the games market. The trick is going to be making the environment have the broad appeal that the license does. And that's going to be very hard for all the game designers out there, because it's an alien mode of thinking.
One thing that I don't think the audience is prepared for is the visuals. I am just totally floored by how good upcoming games look, and I think it's going to improve by another order of magnitude in short order. That scares me as a developer, because the level of detail that the public will demand is going to be very hard to generate, but I can't wait to see the worlds that the industry makes.
Jonric: Do you think the market for online worlds will expand quickly enough to support all the games that are currently being developed? What are the main factors that will drive market expansion?
Raph Koster: More genres of game will help, but not that much. At most, you're looking at capturing the gamer market there. The audience definitely isn't going to expand fast enough for all the games that are started right now.
Personally, I think that the market for massively multiplayer environments - note that I don't say "games" - is larger than that for regular games, by a long shot. But it's going to take breaking out of the mold of "games" for that to happen. I expect to see more genre-bending stuff like what Will's talked about for doing some sort of Sims Online thing (in that interview on FEED), what Richard wanted to do with X, and what Project Entropia is going to try to do with real currency, and so on. Now, I don't know exactly which experiments will pan out and which won't, but for me, the great thing about online is that it has potential appeal to a MUCH bigger audience than just games because frankly, it subsumes games entirely. You could conceivably have a single persistent state world that embedded ALL the games on the market today, and nobody would even think it all that odd. These sorts of worlds have the potential to appeal to a much broader audience that isn't gamers at all - without giving up gamers in the mix. Massively multiplayer has more in common with the telephone than with RPGs.
Jonric: What do you see as the biggest obstacles that might slow growth? What needs to happen for online worlds to become attractive to more players, and especially to a more mainstream market?
Raph Koster: Well, the biggest obstacles are the time investment it takes to play, the fact that the games are largely about killing, and the fact that they appear far too complicated to the user. When the breakthrough online world comes, this site may well not cover it, because it may have evolved beyond being what we like to call a computer game.
Getting into the console market may help expand the market. But I am skeptical on that front. Who wants a keyboard attached to their TV? Not me. And without a keyboard or real-time voice, forget it, you won't see subscription-based online worlds succeed. But the console developers understand those three things a lot better than the PC developers do.
Right now, it takes like two hours to get into a session of an MMORPG, and it's unpredictable enough in gameplay that is can easily balloon if you have to do something like corpse recovery. A more casual gamer needs bite-sized sessions. The average player plays some crazy amount of hours per week. The more casual gamer doesn't have gaming time available every night. And right now, all the designs are centered around adventuring. I personally think there's a lot of potential audience out there that doesn't necessarily want to be the hero. There's all those people who like to build things, for example. We don't give those people enough scope. There's the folks who want to visit a wondrous land or have experiences they couldn't have had otherwise - and those experiences might just be as simple as discovering a new continent or running a farm or learning to hang-glide or what have you. And it has to be easy to do. That means, no slash or text commands unless you are a power user, no obscure keywords, no interfaces six pages deep.
Jonric: Community is a word that we hear and use daily in relation to online worlds. How do you define the term?
Raph Koster: A community is a group of people with shared interests, who actually communicate and work together in some way. Note that I don't think they have to like each other, or be friends. There are a lot of communities with internal dissension, even though we'd always like it to be different. I do think that communities refine and define themselves through conflict, in that they have to know what they are and what they are not, and react against the latter to define themselves.
It's interesting to see how the communities pan out online. I was flipping through Hamlet on the Holodeck the other day - I like to re-read books, too, because I always rediscover things I had forgotten - and I came across this great quote:
...the collective virtuosity of the role-playing worlds may provide a tradition of stories around the themes of violence and community. The violent gaming culture that now characterizes much of cyberspace is likely to spread as the Internet gains speed and bandwidth. Teams of combatants from every corner of the globe will blast each other's avatars with ever more macho digital weapons; the narrative formulas of combat tied to disturbingly lurid images will continue to proliferate. At the same time, the communal aspects of cyberspace are also growing rapidly, with people eager to construct utopian fantasy worlds that they can share with one another. The Internet is therefore likely to serve as global stage for conflicts between these two groups, turning the struggle between the blasters and the builders into a kind of worldwide morality play.
Kinda scary, how well she nailed how we'd have this conflict between the PvPers and the roleplayers. The book came out in '97 I think.
Jonric: How important are community and community building for an online world?
Raph Koster: They are critical to online worlds. You had better build your community up before the game launches, in fact, or else it will suffer when it comes out. You need that critical mass to get your game going. One of the Laws says that the first people in will set the community's tone, and that after that, you'll just get more of the same sorts of people because they will self-select. So it's critical to manage it as much as possible. It's very important to be honest with players, to grant them respect, and to listen to what they have to say. They won't always be right - but neither will you. It's so easy to lose touch with that truth when you're riding the wild roller coaster that is a live online game.
Jonric: What do you consider the keys to successful community building?
Raph Koster: A community, to my mind, needs the following: some shared goals, some background to define themselves against, facilities for self-identification, and facilities for communication. For example, the role-players in online games share the goal of some sort of immersive environment where they can roleplay, they define themselves in opposition to PvPers and kewld00ds, they tend to talk in a certain way and dress in a certain way, often to the detriment of their characters in the game mechanics, and they tend to have e-mail groups or chat channels or websites or player towns for easy communication. The same sorts of things are true of a PvP guild, or of any other sort of community.
Jonric: And the natural follow-up question - what are the main barriers to community building?
Raph Koster: One of the biggest hurdles is size. Communities tend to fragment when they get too big because it's hard to have interests shared that precisely, and hard to communicate well with a large group of people. Reading sociology and anthropology stuff is really useful here. You learn that there are really specific reasons why people work together for goals, and really specific group sizes at which communications tend to break down and people need more hierarchy. There are also some nasty typical stages in evolution that communities go through that aren't that appealing. For example, cultures of certain sizes tend to naturally fall into groups with a hereditary or strongman leader with a bunch of cronies at the top, who exact tribute from the lower down people, and who don't rule by law but by force - often threat of death or exile. And in these cultures, slavery is really common. When I read that description, it reminds me of some of the really large guilds - not slavery per se, but certainly the way in which newbies to the guild often have to farm items for higher ups, or turn over all their gold, or whatever. That's not really what one thinks about trying to set up in an online world, right? We all want to do something that is so much more civilized…
One of the most depressing realizations I ever came to was seeing that a lot of our loftiest goals for online communities need around 50,000 people to come to fruition in the real world. And in the real world, it happens because they need to work together to extract food from the soil, usually. The only analogue to that in online games is getting at the spawn! That's going to be a hard hurdle to solve, if we want to have nice, enlightened societies online that are larger than around 200 people. It does suggest a lot of radically different game mechanics than what are getting used today, by and large.
I think that this is part of why Neverwinter Nights is so anticipated… it's so much easier to make a friendly community when it's small.
Jonric: What's a typical work day like for you, and how does this change during the course of a project?
Raph Koster: Well, I like to keep my hands in on as many aspects of the project as possible. So I attend design meetings and work with the designers on the game design, but I also try to make it to programming meetings and art meetings, and give input there. At the start of a project, everyone should work closely; as implementation proceeds, there's less chance for radical confusion about what the game is, but it can still happen. There's a ton of documenting that goes along with that too, of course. Later in the project, I work on implementation, and not just design. On UO, that meant scripting and some small amount of artwork. I also do PR stuff and talk to marketing, and so on. A lot is going to depend on the project, of course.
I see the role of a designer as being a bridge between all the parts of the project. I think it's important to be able to understand the implications of choices in programming and in art, to be able to communicate with all the disciplines in each language. It's important to understand marketing - no, I'm not one of the developers who calls them marketing weasels! :-) - because you have to understand who you are making the game for and what happens after the game ships, and marketing's job is to know that. I've been learning a lot about production over the last few years. This job is always about learning.
Jonric: What do you enjoy most about your job? What are your least favorite parts, and the biggest challenges?
Raph Koster: The most fun is problem solving, seeing disparate elements come together. I love it when we finish designing a system, and can say, "wow, that's elegant." Instead of messy, or lots of special-casing. I mean, sometimes you have to have special cases, but it's nice when all the pieces fit. I really enjoy being able to interact with a lot of different disciplines, all working towards a common goal. And seeing your game on the shelf - or hearing stories from players about how it changed their lives - that's just an incredible thing.
The worst parts - oh, knowing you disappointed players has to be right up at the top. Having to cut a beloved feature because of development realities. Those things are always painful, because you'd like to have every great idea pan out, and they often don't.
Jonric: Do you have any suggestions for readers who are interested in getting into game development, particularly online worlds?
Raph Koster: Go download a text MUD codebase and run a MUD for a year or so. There's no other aspect of game development where you can so quickly and easily get to see what works and what doesn't, and get real hands-on experience.
Jonric: Cool. Is there anything else that you'd like to say to or ask our readers?
Raph Koster: Well, I enjoyed the interview. :-) Uh… go read PvP and tell Scott that Raph sent ya. Buy my CD on mp3.com before lawsuits make it go away or something! And just, keep enjoying the games. There's better yet to come, I think.
Jonric: Gamers around the world are certainly anticipating much better from the upcoming Star Wars online world and from other projects in development. We look forward to seeing what will happen over the next few years, and in the interim, we thank Raph Koster for this very interesting and thought-provoking interview. And for anyone who'd like to join the Star Wars online world community early, be sure to swing by our Star Wars Vault.