January 8th, 2001
Hello everybody, and welcome to the second Comments from the Team. My name is Raph Koster, and I am Creative Director for Star Wars Galaxies™-that means that I am in charge of the game design, and making sure that the overall experience is the game we all want it to be. On the boards I post as Holocron. And today I wanted to talk to you a little about what it is I think we’re making…
I’ve been involved with online persistent world gaming for almost a decade now. That means I’ve only gotten to see one-third of its very long history (did you know that online gaming was born almost at the same time as standalone games?). But even that length of time is long enough to make it easy to lose sight of the magic I caught a glimpse of the first time I logged into one.
I had graduated from college at that point, and my wife and I were living halfway across the country from all our friends, and were rather lonely. Some of those friends had started telling us about virtual worlds that could be found on the Internet-all text-based, of course, but they were free. One told us all about one where she started exploring what seemed to be a full-scale representation of Europe. So we logged in. I made a character for my wife, so of course the character was female. But then she made her own character, so I was stuck using the girl that we had made-her name was Dusty, a name I had used in countless RPGs and pen and paper gameplay sessions over the years (but on guys, of course).
I found myself in a small ramshackle inn, in a hallway on the second floor. I went downstairs, where there were a few people bustling around. I ignored them and walked out onto the road outside, and after a hillock or two, was startled to see what looked like a glowing blue doorway hanging in midair. I figured, what the heck? And stepped through it.
I stumbled out onto a tall, grass-covered rocky cliffside, above an aquamarine ocean. Naked, except for my now empty backpack. I have to admit, the notion of being a girl stuck without any clothes in the middle of the wilderness was unfamiliar to me. Trees overhung a small dirt trail-maybe for goats, I thought irrelevantly. I wandered along the trail, and when I got thirsty, I automatically reached for my waterskin, but of course it was gone along with my clothes.
At this point I was immersed enough in what was going on that I started to feel pretty nervous. Lost, thirsty, getting hungry, naked in the woods. But then, as I trudged along the trail, I saw a structure. Looked like an old Greek temple of some sort. Made sense-the place seemed Mediterranean, and this was supposed to be Europe, right? I walked up to the temple, and the feeling of it was much like a movie: I could imagine putting my hand on the rough eroded stone of the wall, which felt cool to the touch, and smelling that dusty smell of an enclosed space in the warm sun. There were welcoming shadows within. When I went inside, I imagined that my eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness.
The tile floor was cracked, and there was a small stone altar. Frescoes decorated the walls. My feet were cold. There didn’t seem to be anything or anyone around, and at this point I had been wandering for an hour or two alone. I tried searching the room, but found nothing but dust bunnies. Finally I sat against the altar, and not knowing what else to do, prayed to whatever deity the temple had been erected to. I had nothing to lose, after all.
Ah, well. I got up, ready to go, and shrugged my backpack onto my shoulders. And felt something moving inside. I took it off rather quickly, of course. To my utter shock and delight, a white rabbit poked its pink nose out from under the flap, then came out into the light.
“Hello,” I said to it, not knowing what else to do.
Then the rabbit flashed and glowed and turned into somebody.
I won’t go into everything that happened after that, except to say that he was very gallant and offered the naked girl a robe to cover herself with. And he began the gradual process of disenchanting me-I was in Crete, alright, but it was pretty small, and Europe wasn’t there, and over the hill was a fairy forest, and there was a giant spiderweb over on that side, and the world was just a giant patchwork of fantasy cliches. Over time I learned just how much of the immersion that I had experienced was the result of smoke and mirrors. I learned about spawn points and about the PRAY command being a help line, I learned about teleporters and levels and zones and all the rest of the mundane crud that goes into making up magic. I suppose the same is true for anyone who sees the magic of a movie and then discovers the amazingly complex but also very ordinary stuff that goes into it: the standing on your mark, doing shot after shot, the way lights are faked, the way sound is dubbed in afterwards with crinkled tin foil and making kissy noises into a microphone…
I even learned about the odd and interesting phenomenon of cross-gender roleplay, which I had stumbled into by accident, and about the sociological structures of online societies. I started reading everything I could get my hands on about the history of virtual worlds.
Later on, of course, I was re-enchanted, by the process, the wonderful amazing array of moving parts that goes into making that grand stage play that is a virtual world. I learned how to create environments and effects like I had experienced-and better. I worked on making my own (where I did eventually make chunks of a virtual Europe!), and then began work on Ultima Online… and all the time, I tried to continue learning more about the craft, the ways in which all these cardboard movie sets and sneakily-lit stages are put together. But it’s all in service of one goal.
I want others to feel what I felt, that first time I felt I was truly someone else in a world that was strange to me, scrabbling up that steep dirt path, a rock jabbing my big toe, as I tried to keep from slipping off the path and down the rocky cliff to the bluegreen water below-the relief when I saw the dome of that temple peek out from above the trees, shining white like a promise. The feeling of the empty backpack flapping on my back-heck, of my back not being my back-and the amazing wonder I felt when that white rabbit crawled out of my backpack and nibbled at my offered fingers. And the moment when it transformed, and became another person-another real person, living halfway across the country, able to talk to me, and share the experience…! Yes, I suppose I imagined it all. It was all just a dream. But what a wonderful dream…
I still play Dusty in every online game I play, even when I make other characters. Kind of like an old shoe-just fits well, after all these years. It’s the easiest way to recapture the magic when I first log in. And that guy who was the rabbit that greeted me, well, he’s now lead designer for Ultima Worlds Online: Origin. Small world.
Star Wars is a universe beloved by many. And I think many of you are like me. You want to be there. You want to feel what it is like. Even before we think about skill trees and about Jedi advancement, before we consider the stats on a weapon or the distance to Mos Eisley and where you have to go to pick up power converters-you want to just be there. Inhale the sharp air off the desert. Watch a few Jawas haggle over a droid. Feel the sun beat down on a body that isn’t your own, in a world that is strange to you. You don’t want to know about the stagecraft in those first few moments. You want to feel like you are offered a passport to a universe of limitless possibility.
Call it an MMORPG, call it virtual world design, call it a graphical mud, I don’t care. My job is to try to capture that magic for you, so you have that experience. That’s my goal, the goal of this team, and we will do it to the best of our ability. I hope we’re well on the road to doing so.
But we’ll try to make sure you don’t lose your clothes on the way in.
The mud was Worlds of Carnage. The rabbit was Damion Schubert. The year was 1992. And Ultima Worlds Online: Origin sadly, never made it out the door.