Gaming the Matrix


This is an interview done by Chris Shulgan for It was part of a four part series entitled Gaming the Matrix wherein Chris interviewed several folks from various parts of the industry to get their take on the question of whether online games could ever turn into The Matrix.The other segments of the series are:

Gaming the Matrix

In the third installment of’s four-part series, Star Wars Galaxies’ lead designer Raph Koster predicts some gamers will lose themselves amid the ultra-fidelity of virtual worlds. Anyone who has mouse-pushed through Quake‘s House of Chthon knows that interactivity can breed addiction. Whether the game is Space Invaders or Shenmue, most of us, at some point, have worn the opaque stare brought on by gaming stints measured in days rather than hours. Such persistent-state world games as Everquest and Ultima Online have intensified the addictiveness of the videogame. And as technology advances, online worlds are bound to become increasingly immersive — today’s vibrating console controller leads to tomorrow’s neuro-transmitted virtual reality. If the addictiveness of online worlds grow with their level of immersion, are we headed toward a future where real life effectively ceases, while we muck about infinite binary Edens?

For the answer, we looked to Raph Koster, one of the web’s most-respected theorists on the social implications of virtual reality. He was an amateur programmer in the mid-90s when he helped run the LegendMUD multiple-user domain, which got him hired at Austin’s Origin Systems, where he was the lead designer on Ultima Online. Today he’s the lead designer on the web’s most anticipated persistent-state world game, Star Wars Galaxies.

In the following edited transcript, Koster discusses the future of massively multiplayer environments, speculates on the product that will break online gaming into a mainstream market, and convincingly argues his take on the addiction question.

Shift: You’ve said in the past that massively multiplayer has more in common with the telephone than with role-playing videogames. Can you explain that?Raph Koster: Sure. Massively multiplayer is more a medium than a genre of computer game. You can make things in massively multiplayer environments that aren’t computer games. You could put a role-playing game into a massively multiplayer environment, but you could also put a first-person shooter, or a university, or a chat space, or anything that relies on a spatial environment. So in that sense I see them as being more like a medium for communication — more like the telephone — than a genre of games.

You’ve speculated about the breakthrough multiplayer game that would bring that sort of environment to a broader audience. Can you talk about what that would be?

I think it’ll be the game that doesn’t scare away my cousins from Ohio. I don’t have a recipe for what it is or I would have made it by now. I think it’ll have a very diverse array of experiences within it. It may be that the first one to accomplish true mainstream success will have more in common with a Harlequin Romance novel than with what we think of as hardcore computer games.

How long away — do you think it will ever be possible to create a perfectly realistic virtual environment, like in Strange Days or The Matrix?

OK, wait, you have to break that apart. So if you think of that in terms of visuals, getting real-time visuals that are completely photo-realistic, we’re going to be there in five years. It’s not that far away — look at the advancement curve on video cards.

Getting the neuro implant stuff is further away. Figure even if it takes them 20 years to invent it, then it’ll take another five in FDA approval. There have certainly been big advances in that — in direct neural stimulation. But I think we have a ways before we get anything like that — 30 or 40 years.

Will people want to experience it, when it’s ready?

Sure. Sure they will. You can think of a killer app right now. If you had a photorealistic environment that would let you go on a date with Anna Kournikova or something? With full tactile feedback? Yeah, there’s an audience for that. (Laughs.) That might be the mainstream game right there — which is a little depressing.

Today we’re seeing people in Everquest spending dozens of hours at a time in an online world. And as the games become more realistic, they seem to become more addictive. Any chance that this might have large-scale implications on worldwide productivity?

An impending VR disaster that brings down the world economy? (Snorts.) It’s a common sci-fi scenario. Everybody’s plugged in and nobody’s doing the work. In (George Orwell’s) 1984, it was TV screens. And VR certainly can have that implication.

We have an interesting thing right now where, for monetary reasons we kind of wish these people didn’t play quite the long hours that they do. We’re a flat-fee business right now. And the longer they stay online, the more money they cost us, because they’re using our bandwidth. Interestingly, a lot of the current development in upcoming games is — How to make the games compelling so that people subscribe, month after month, but not so compelling that they sit online for hours after hours? We want compelling rather than addictive.

Will there be people who go online and never get off?

Of course there will. There are also people who go into a book and never come out. Or whatever. All we’re talking about is — by what medium is a given experience transmitted to people? Essentially when you’re talking about an online game — it’s a community-based endeavor, really. So when you’re playing an online game, you’re still interacting with other people. Aren’t you really just trading the locus of interaction?

One thing you’ve said that I thought was really interesting is that, being online can help people who aren’t good at real-world social interaction, that it’s through games like Ultima Online that some introverted people learn how to deal with others.

I think it’s possible. I’ve seen it happen. People were talking about those people who are buying (Everquest) characters on eBay, and calling them pathetic. But you know, if these people don’t have a particularly rich life, and they go online and they’re a noted community leader and they make a difference to people and that’s where their real emotions happen — who the hell are we to judge that? And what’s different from doing it there versus doing it in any other communications forum? Why do we say, oh, it’s on the computer, so it must be dangerous?

So you don’t think it’s possible that we’ll become a world of zombies in a virtual world.

I want to make sure — some people, I don’t doubt, will. But I don’t think we’ll become a world of it, anymore than we became an entire world of people trapped by the TV, or the telephone.

–Christopher Shulgan

Reprinted by permission from Copyright © 2001 MULTI-VISION PUBLISHING INC.