Online Game Legend

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Aug 302012

Today the press release went out announcing that I was selected to receive the Online Game Legend Award at the GDC Online Choice Awards. This award is voted on by fellow developers, and it’s basically a lifetime achievement award.

The Online Game Legend Award recognizes the career and achievements of one particular creator who has made an indelible impact on the craft of online game development.

This rather leaves one thinking, “Well, now what?”

(Warning: introspection ahead…)

I feel deeply ambivalent about it. As I write this, I am just 40 years old. (I will be 41 by the time they actually hand me the physical award, though). In theory, I have quite a lot more years ahead of me in my career than I do behind me. The previous winners are Dr Richard Bartle, and John Taylor & Kelton Flinn. I would have expected that people like Randy Farmer & Chip Morningstar, or Mark Jacobs, or Gordon Walton, or Jessica Mulligan, or other pioneers would have gotten the nod before me…

I am also keenly aware that this award is likely being given as much for things I have written as for games I have made. And that feels odd. I don’t, after all, have that long a list of game credits — particularly not ones that I actually got my hands dirty on, as opposed to sitting in some management role at a fair distance.

It doesn’t help that the last really big, ambitious, passion project thing I tried to do, Metaplace, didn’t really click. Oh, it was a success, in the end, in terms of technology and in terms of financial rewards, but it didn’t do what I had been dreaming of for ten years. It didn’t even do what those few users who passionately believed in it had hoped.

Instead, the players pretty much see one game in ’97, one game in ’03, and maybe, if they noticed, a webby thing they dismissed, in 2007. There’s certainly plenty of folks who would be happy to tell you that I haven’t made an MMO in ten years. Or that I have “sold out.”

And then I can’t help but think of all the things that people don’t know I did, because they have never seen the light of day. The tech that allowed for worlds dynamic enough that rivers flowed, you could push through snow banks, and water the earth to have plants grow. The dozen or more puzzle games — in working prototype! — that sit entangled in various legal ownership questions. The (let me count now…) four or five full worlds’ worth of lore, stories, and high level design that cost me several years worth of working time, that all belong to cancelled projects: the city that was the ur-city at the heart of all stories, ruled by an ancient heptarchy; the planet made of sentient crystal where the colonists’ collective unconscious began to manifest as creatures and powers and new selves; the cartoon world full of aliens with unpronounceable names that was an homage to cheesy raygun-and-rockets space opera… The board games I have never gotten around to releasing in any way. The game design theory I have not finished writing down for lack of time and because of contractual obligations. I have an awful lot of stuff on the shelf, and who knows how much of it will ever be seen by players and colleagues.

Oh, but there are the novels I haven’t written. The fantasy and science fiction stories that sit on my hard drive. The 250+ songs I have composed and never perform. The poet I might have been. The unused art supplies that litter my shelves. The things that I have not done because of what I have done; and how often I would rather have done what I did not. It is odd to get this award when you don’t really feel that productive.

I’m not kidding myself; after all, my ego is quite healthy.Β  I knew this would happen, someday. There’s plenty of folks out there who will be happy to tell you about my arrogance, just search any MMO forum!

I just didn’t expect it… yet.

And really, it arrives at a time when I am in need of validation. So I feel grateful, and honored, and flattered, and humbled. And discombobulated, and pensive.

I keep catching myself thinking that it must be a hoax or practical joke, and then some other email arrives and I have to realize all over again that it is real…

(For those keeping count, this is the second of the three things that I will be doing at GDC Online this year: accepting this award on stage).


  26 Responses to “Online Game Legend”

  1. Having enjoyed UO, SWG, & MP, I hope the third thing is announcing a new project πŸ™‚

  2. Congratulations, Raph!

    The other less-tangible impact you’ve left on the world that this award doesn’t make evident is those you’ve inspired and taught. I don’t know where I’d be right now if you hadn’t taken a chance on me, a 21 year old naive Minnesota girl in nursing school who liked to write opinion pieces on games on a personal WordPress blog. I will never forget the feeling of awe and excitement that I experienced when I started out at Areae in 2007, walking into this foreign world where I was expected to “know things” and be an expert on my role while working under the ultimate expert in virtual communities. Daunting and scary doesn’t explain the half of it.

    The late-night chats with you about your experiences and your game design theories were just as helpful as the day-to-day guidance that you gave me. You taught me to think critically about things and not just see things as they appear. You also helped make me more ambitious, because if Raph can do it, so can I! And just realizing what a nice down-to-earth person you are despite being a celebrity (to me!) made me feel comfortable working in games. And honestly, with how cynical and bogged down so many people in games end up getting (omg cost! omg scope! omg technical feasibility!) it was amazing to work with someone who never left that stifle his ideas. If someone told you it couldn’t be done, you’d stay late working on a prototype that accomplished exactly what you wanted. And you have a personal pride in the things you work on that I’ve never seen anyone else own.

    So no, you might not have a lot of successful titles shipped recently, but some of us know that the impact you’ve left (and continue to leave, I’m sure) on others in the game industry is huge. You deserve an award. πŸ™‚

  3. Congratulations, Raph! Well deserved.

  4. yay! ding!

    additionally, i’d like to take a moment and offer a sincere congrats, my friend. in my experience, both from knowing your work over the past 10 or 15 years and working with you pretty much daily for the last 5, it’s richly deserved. i firmly believe no one has either anticipated or navigated the shifting landscape that is multi-user gaming better than you have. it makes me very proud for you.

    and additionally, i TOTALLY look forward to your earning of some sort of soon-to-be-created double-lifetime award in the future. keep truckin’, man!

    aka chris.

  5. Reflection and a certain self-doubt are healthy in themselves, but awards are inherently arbitrary and not worth any amount of self-doubt. The only “awards” that truly improve our lives are money and the respect of our peers. You’ve long since earned both those awards.

  6. Congrats Raph.

    Times do seem to be changing. Players ARE looking for something different and with more “world” to it. Maybe there’s an opportunity there for you, Bartle, Farmer, My sense is that you aren’t done yet with MMORPGs. But I can only hope that the long wait is over soon.

  7. The sheer amount of what we don’t know is why you are deserving. You’ve been an ever present force in this space since its earliest days. You’ve been involved. You’ve had ideas. You’ve inspired.

  8. Congrats, Raph. You may feel like there’s a lot that you haven’t done, but I think that’s pretty common. As others have mentioned, you’ve done a lot by way of inspiration and sparking other people to think, do, and believe in themselves. You make us ask why things are how they are, and where we can see the patterns. That’s valuable stuff. πŸ™‚

  9. Congrats Raph! But I do believe this will in no way mitigate the snark πŸ˜€ And like Bunk, I (and my wife, btw) blame you for UO for getting me on this path, and then SWG for making me set a new bar by which to measure the depths I’m willing to invest.

    [[ “Instead, the players pretty much see one game in ’97, one game in ’03, and maybe, if they noticed, a webby thing they dismissed, in 2007. There’s certainly plenty of folks who would be happy to tell you that I haven’t made an MMO in ten years. Or that I have β€œsold out.” ” ]]

    You might be a bit too hard on yourself. They’ve got technical awards for people who lead teams in the competent execution of innovative ideas. But I don’t know that there’s a very long list of luminaries who have inspired companies to invest in, and teams to rally around (and players to be willing to co-experiment) in as many truly unique systems and designs. These are risky things you’ve been able to convince people are worth doing. That goes *a lot* further than just having the idea or just being able to execute a derivative idea well.

  10. In theory, I don’t need to be hard on myself! The players do it for me. Check out the thread at Massively. πŸ™‚

  11. Your critics lose their voices in the noise of the 24/7 news cycle while you create jobs and more than a billion dollars in lasting value. I think you have them beat, but they’re still going to call you Ralph.

  12. Congratulations! Rest assured, it is deserved =)

  13. If you don’t feel that you deserve this award yet, my young friend, then don’t regard it as an accolade. Regard it as a mandate. We celebrate what you’ve accomplished, but we expect to see a great deal more from you in the future.

  14. Raph, that’s not “the players”, that’s some players. Of all the players out there, most are not hardcore enough to take a stand one way or another. They just want a good game and a great experience for their time and money. Of the small percentage of “hardcore” players, they can be divided among the two basic theologies of MMORPGs, “theme park” and “sand box”. No matter what side you as a developers are on, you’ll have detractors from the other side. And from both sides in the percentages that might perceive any waffling. That’s never going to change. And it’s no big deal. Players are not “sheeple”, and there’s always the other side of the coin.

    You’re heading into a great advantage now. That mass of less-than-hardcore players, and I’d suggest they aren’t quite as “casual” as many say, have experienced the theme park experience. Quite a few times now. They now know they want more “world”.
    This next pitch is in your wheelhouse. Don’t bunt, man, don’t bunt.

  15. Amaranthar:

    Oh, I know that. And I do have a pretty thick skin (or at least, that’s what I show the world — I’m crying inside…).

    The interest in a sandbox world is actually really fascinating. I think the big challenges are

    – it kind of has to be F2P from the get-go
    – it should be social in the linked-to-Facebook sense
    – it should absorb the lessons of short attention spans that are driving so much of play today
    – that includes, it should be playable on mobile somehow

    I mean, I know what i would do as far as a plain old sandbox MMORPG “the old way.” The tough parts are around the stuff that has changed. And how much would the sandbox-craving audience want or accept these ideas? Because I don’t think a plain old “modern UO” or “SWG remake” is really what would work.

  16. Yeah, I agree to some extent in general, Raph. And it kills me a little bit inside.
    The Sandbox audience acceptance is the hard part, but I think there’s a way to get a largely acceptable agreement from them. They know the current direction of the winds just like you and the rest of us do. Some few, as always, will be too hard headed for any give at all.

    Speaking of hard headed, maybe I fall into that range too. At least from your opinion. Lets see if that’s so.

    – In my opinion, as far as FTP, there needs to be a “worldly” answer to that too. My thinking is a game with player housing, but you have to buy a subscription. Voting rights, if there’s that deep of a social game, could be added onto that. Landholder rights (and voting rights) works for the mission in both ways, in my opinion. It allows for FTP, and has that “worldly” feel to it as far as explanations to the player’s sensibilities. An “apartment” system might work for free players, as well as a system for “warehousing” (which could double up on usage for trade systems).

    – Linked to Facebook, I don’t think anyone would have an issue with as long as it doesn’t downgrade the game, and as long as players don’t have to go through Facebook. I have a feeling that would be a killer for Facebook. But you don’t need Facebook. And they’ll try to manipulate you somehow. Most people on Facebook don’t hardly use it except if they get an e-mail about a friend posting something new. That whole “social network” thing has it’s uses, but over that it’s a fad. Forget that, or suffer their controls.

    – It’s not short attention spans. It’s time. You can make a Sandbox that allows for players to jump in and play without building a Themepark system for it. Players did it in UO all the time. But it does need enhancement from what UO was. Think “Player Created Drivers” here. Or advanced UO bulletin board systems. Nothing will ever be as good as a perfectly designed quest in an instanced zone like in Themeparks, for the few minutes they offer. But you can’t do that and still have a Sandbox World. The rest of the game, as a world, can easily overcome that shortfall in my opinion.

    – Playability on mobile phones would be excellent if it didn’t cause shortcomings in the game. Unless you want a simple game, of course. But then, again, you won’t have much of a Sandbox World. I can see a player using their phone to restock a vendor, set prices, talk to players inside the game, etc.

    I hope you are aware that there’s a lot of short term things going on. In a couple of years they won’t be a driving force anymore.

  17. As far as FB usage is concerned, I am thinking more like what if you could log I with FB instead of having to create an account.

    Btw you are statistically incorrect about how people use Facebook. πŸ™‚

  18. Congrats Raph. Fame is an unpredictable mistress, so I understand how you feel. For me online gaming started with UO, so I’d say it is deserved. Now go and get it!

  19. I don’t really have much faith in the statistics of a company that uses every trick in the book.

    You didn’t say anything about the other stuff. I’d suggest that things like cash shops, simplicity (due to playing on a smart phone, or playing without a keyboard for input options), things like these all detract from the game itself. And that’s exactly what I meant by “don’t bunt”. Then again, I don’t have a clue as to what you are thinking, nor what assets you might have or gain access to. I just hope some day we all are discussing the finer points of “Sandbox World”, and not how indirect aspects are good or bad.

  20. Congrats Raph. There are many many people out there who would love to see you make another AAA MMORPG.

  21. You seem from your initial post to be of the opinion that “Online Game Legend” is and end-of-career award for people who have done all their best work and are getting a final pat on the back before they fade away entirely. You don’t feel you’re in that position, so you’re a bit unnerved by it.

    Personally (and I have done some reflecting of my own here), I believe this is simply an award for people who are online game legends. That’s it. You are an online game legend, like it or not; therefore, you should be in line for such an award, like it or not.

    Sure, there are other online game legends, but I’m sure their time will come. I particularly like the fact that this is an award that can go to people who haven’t won much before because when they were starting out there were no organisations to give awards. In addition to Randy, Mark, Gordon and Jess, I’d add other (in my view) legends such as Rich Vogel, Damion Schubert, Scott Hartsman and Jake Song. All are still going strong, but all are unsung and need to be sung (or in Jake’s case, Song).

    I wouldn’t be happy if the term “legend” were being used as merely a substitute for “star”. If it were, then the award would be going to people like Markus Persson, who has plenty of other awards he can win (and indeed has won; I don’t see either of us getting a BAFTA any time soon). Perhaps 15 or 20 years from now, after Brad McQuaid and Rob Pardo, yes. Right now, though, they haven’t been around for long enough to qualify as a legend; they’re more legends-to-be. Hmm, maybe Brad has, actually… I expect we’ll see some non-MMO legends in time, but since MMOs and their ancestors have been around for longest, it’s natural that they would come first.

    So don’t get all pensive about it. Just pick up the award and accept the formalisation of what everyone has long been saying informally anyway.

  22. Hey Raph, as someone who personally is pretty bad at taking compliments, I sympathize with your post. My advice is to not over think it. This award changes nothing for you and your own goals, and doesn’t suggest that you’re “over the hill” or anything like that. It’s just a commendation from your peers on your success and role within the community. And it’s well deserved πŸ™‚

  23. Well, actually, yes he is “over the hill”. His time is at hand. And it was a good run, if I may say so.

    Ralph Coster, I’ll be arriving soon to…meet you. No need to make any special arrangements or anything.

  24. Whew, for once I am glad about that whole name spelling thing. πŸ˜‰

  25. Ah, my apologies for the confusion. Ralph isn’t so happy at this moment.

    Looking at the rolls, it seems you have a little time yet. And, yes, there seems to be more yet for you to do. That Amaranthar fellow is certainly going to be happy. Of course, it’s been known that some people try to deviate from their tasks as listed in the Great Book of Fates, a thing I do not recommend. I should hate to have to bring Charon along for our visit when the time comes.

  26. I wonder if any game ever reaches perfection, and if in fact the nature of a game is never to reach perfection, like the Hound of Heaven, drawing you further.

    With the latest convulsions in Second Life now over Steam and the JIRA closure etc. I’ve been going around and exploring other worlds. And it’s funny, I often think of Metaplace and how things were done differently there, and also the island game, and how certain things like the interactive visits and real-time chat were given a priority, that was great Well, there are still many years to come, Raph!

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