Mar 212016

flashbackwardstageI hear video will be up in a few weeks, but in the meantime, here are the slides and the text for the little five minute talk I gave at GDC as part of the FlashBackward keynote.

For some reason, I felt the pressure on this talk much more than usual. Five minutes is not a lot of time, and I had a lot I wanted to say. This resulted in fifty slides. There were, all told, four hours of rehearsals, although I only attended two of them. The animations on my slides were lost along the way, and when I did my runthroughs, I botched it both times. By the time I gave the talk, my hands were shaking and I had trouble pressing the button on the clicker to advance slides with my thumb. I had to set it down and press it with my index finger. But by all accounts I nailed it, so…

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Game talkGDC and Flash Backward

 Posted by (Visited 2951 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , , ,
Mar 032016

Officialspeaker_400x400GDC is fast approaching! I am only doing a five minute talk this year (much like last year!). But boy, I have a big stage for it. Instead of a regular keynote, GDC is doing a Flash Backward “keynote” where a bunch of veteran devs will share the stage giving a history of the last thirty years of game making… and I’m very honored to share the stage with a bunch of amazing people.

I’ve added it to the events calendar.

My portion, needless to say, will be on MMOs… the hard part will be squeezing all that history into only five minutes.


Apr 272015


This is the last post on SWG for, well, a while. I am sure there are plenty of other things to say and more questions that could be answered, but… it feels like a natural stopping point. I must say, the response to these essays has astonished me. Here’s hoping you’ll all care as deeply about the next game I make…

Why now?


I’ve gotten a lot of questions as to why I am writing this series of posts about Star Wars Galaxies now. Do I have something to sell?

No, I don’t have anything to sell. This past week was the fifteenth anniversary of that small SWG team first forming in Austin, refugees from Origin. We were a bit over a half dozen. It’s also ten years since the NGE, and in the last few years, we have seen a lot of changes for a lot of parties involved. I was asked some questions by a former player, and for once, it just felt like the time to answer them.


So, was it a failure?

Well yes, of course. And also, no. It depends how you ask the question. There are a lot of assumptions out there about how the game did, particularly in its original form. So, let’s start by tackling some of those:

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Apr 222015



Last time, I talked about the basic skill and economic infrastructure that Star Wars Galaxies provided. Fundamentally, these were about equality. They made the different roles played by players have the same standing in the game. However, it’s still a game, after all — players are going to engage in radically different sorts of activities, probably some will be more fun than others, and nobody is going to just “work a job” for their leisure time.

femcharsswgjpgThere was every expectation that combat was still going to be at the heart of the game. Few social MMOs were out there at the time, though they were achieving impressive numbers. Second Life did not yet exist when we began (they actually came to visit me at the office during the early development of SWG, to talk social design and tech). The skills and actions available were dominated by fighting, and this was by and large what the market expected.

However, we could still try to reinvent what people thought fighting meant. In the classic Diku model that players were used to, you basically had classes that were alternate types of damage-dealers. Some dealt it fast, some slow. Some could take a lot of hits, some only a few. Today we think of these as tanks and nukers. The lone support class was the healer type, who basically replenished the combatants so that they could keep going: basically, an indirect damage-dealer more than someone who actually healed.

Given our emphasis on making a social web, we needed to think in terms of different kinds of support.

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Apr 212015

Once upon a time you could drop things on the ground. It’s one of the first things a baby does, one of the most human things to do. You pick something up, drop it somewhere else. You build piles. Piles turn into houses. They turn into furniture. They turn into gathering places, into churches, into seats of civilizations. Dropping stuff on the ground is pretty important to who we are.

swg player city Solace

In the last post, I talked about the technical underpinnings that allowed us to provide a dynamic environment in SWG. But really, all that was in service of something bigger: having a living society. One of the challenges in creating online worlds is that societies are powerfully shaped by the environment they are in. A static, unchanging world will inevitably give rise to certain sorts of behaviors: spawn camping, for example. Players flow like water around gameplay obstacles; if a game doesn’t offer them the ability to run a shop, they’ll set up their character as a bot and sit online for hours to replace the system — or rather, the standard human social structure — that is commerce.

A lot of MMO design, especially in the last decade, has been about preventing behaviors, rather than enabling them.

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Apr 202015

This post is dedicated to the memory of John Roy, lead environment artist on Star Wars Galaxies. Help out his family here.


Corellia0023Let’s do some math. Let’s say that you need to have a pretty big world: sixteen kilometers on a side, and made out of tiles.

A tile needs to know what texture it is. That’s one byte. Not much, right? You only get 256 tiles on a planet, though, which isn’t a lot.

But wait, we can add some variety there, by putting in some colors. We’re in 3d, right, so we can tint the tiles slightly and get variation. It’s normally three bytes to apply a color, but let’s instead just say that each planet has a fixed list of colors, and you can have 256 of them, and that way each tile can look up into a list of colors and we only need one byte.

Oh, and it’s a 3d game heightfield, so we need to know what the elevation of the tile is! We’ll just say that there are only 256 levels of height, and that way we can keep it at a nice conservative three bytes per tile.

Corellia0004That’s good, because we need a lot of tiles. They’re one meter on a side. So that means that for a planet we need 16,384 just to make one edge. We need 16,384×16,384 to lay down the whole world.

That’s 268,435,456 bytes for this world. Of course, we need ten planets, not one. So, that’s more like 2,684,354,560 bytes. Nobody uses bytes, so that’s 2,621,440k. 2,048mb. 2.56 gigabytes, uncompressed.

That’s… not going to fit on a CD. I mean, that doesn’t include any art yet.

DVD drives weren’t yet widespread in 2003. In fact, taking up 2.5 gigs of space just for maps was unheard of.


The solution to that problem didn’t just let us ship Star Wars Galaxies, it also unlocked everything from player housing to crafting to giant Imperial vs Rebel battles.


Patent disclaimer

Before you read any farther, you should know that Sony Online actually patented some of the technology that I am going to describe. If you are someone who should not be reading technology patents, you should stop now.

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Game talkGamemakingA Jedi Saga

 Posted by (Visited 13247 times)  Game talk, Gamemaking  Tagged with: , , , ,
Apr 162015

Continuing here with the questions that were sent in by Jason Yates! Yesterday it was the TEF system… today it’s Jedi! Some of this stuff has been told before, but it’s actually kind of hard to find it all in one continuous tale. I have to preface this with a huge huge disclaimer, though: it’s been fifteen years since this particular story started, and a dozen since it ended. My memory may well be faulty on many details.

#2 What were the thoughts on Jedi and why were such drastic changes made in patch 9 to the entire system?

-Jason Yates


Well, my opinion is Jedi are evil. Heh.

You see, Jedi are an immense attractant to players, readers, viewers. As a kid, I too waved around plastic lightsabers (we kept bending them as we struck one another, I am pretty sure my mom got really sick of buying new ones). Who can resist the fantasy of having this awesome sword, effectively magical powers — mind control, telekinesis, telepathy, and more — and of course, the classic Hero’s Journey? I mean, it’s basically an ideal play scenario.

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Nov 212014

500px-WOW_logoTen years of World of Warcraft. Well. So many thoughts.

WoW has always been a contradiction of sorts: not the pioneer, but the one that solidified the pattern. Not the experimenter, but the one that reaped the rewards. Not the innovator, but the one that was well-designed, built solidly, and made appealing. It was the MMO that took what has always been there, and delivered it in a package that was truly broadly appealing, enough so to capture the larger gamer audience for the first time.

Don’t get me wrong; that’s not a knock on it. If anything, it’s possibly the biggest game design achievement in all of virtual world history. After all, we’re talking about taking a game skeleton that was at that point already almost a decade and a half old, one which had literally had hundreds of iterations, hundreds of games launched. None of them ever reached that sort of audience, that sort of milestone, that sort of polish level.

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Game talkGamemakingPrivateer Online

 Posted by (Visited 7711 times)  Game talk, Gamemaking  Tagged with: , ,
Jun 192014

privateeronline7In the wake of the excitement over No Man’s Sky and its procedural worlds, I thought that it might be a good time to tell some of the story around the version of Privateer Online that I worked on, that never saw the light of day.

After I moved off the UO team, I worked on several MMO concepts for Origin. The mandate was explicitly “come up with something that we can make using the UO server and client pretty much intact, without big changes, because we need it quick.” This limited the possible projects enormously, of course.

So I started developing one-sheet concepts that fit the bill. None of them got farther than a few pages, and the idea was to give execs some choices on what we would go make.

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