Rapping with Raph


Mark Asher is a long time gaming acquaintance. I first came into contact with him in the contentious grounds of USENET, in the RPG and UO newsgroups. We didn’t always get along–in fact, we had many furious arguments there. But we eventually made up. I moved on and up in the game design world, and he moved on to become a freelance journalist, and then eventually get a job in the industry as well. But before that happened, he contacted me asking for an interview for Computer Games Magazine. It was for part of a long feature on online games. The interview was eventually presented in the magazine as just a small excerpt, but the full version was published months later on Computer Games Online. It’s reprinted here by kind permission of the editors of the magazine and website, though they tried to extort personal Star Destroyers out of me for it.

Rapping With Raph

Star Wars Galaxies point man Raph Koster talks about online games

by Mark Asher

Raph Koster is the point man on Star Wars Galaxies, the LucasArts and Sony Online game that folks are predicting will be the first million-subscriber online game. As “Designer Dragon,” he was also one of the creators of Ultima Online and is a veteran MUDder. Although unable to discuss specifics on the Star Wars game, he was willing to talk with us about online role-playing games in general.

Mark Asher: How different was doing UO compared to running a MUD?

Raph Koster: Hugely. The biggest factor was scale.

Some things were similar. For one thing, when I worked on muds, we actually ran the mud—we the designers and programmers. On the mud that several of the UO developers worked on (LegendMUD, it’s still around), we’d taken the step of splitting the staff into admins (who policed the space and did all the paperwork-type stuff that keeps the game running), builders (those who generated the content), player relations (people who ran quests), and programmers. There weren’t any designers per se—everyone contributed on that front. And there were only a handful of people in each department.

By the time UO launched, it required a massive infrastructure of people. The split of tasks was very similar (except that “builders” were now “designers” and were also in charge of designing game systems. And pretty much all the day to day “running of the game” fell to departments other than the one I was in. That’s what it takes to run a large service…

The biggest adjustment to make, and one we had to confront over and over again, was scale. I was used to talking through issues with players and arriving at a consensus on things. That’s impossible with a user base as large as the big commercial graphical worlds get. We try anyway—spend lots and lots of time on the boards discussing things, posted philosophical essays explaining why we were doing things, and so on. But it’s an uphill battle.

Scale mucked up lots of other things, not just our relationship with players. It affected how well many systems functioned. The traditional methods of policing the space didn’t work all that well and had to undergo considerable refinement. The biggest area that changed was the sense of community within the game. On muds you could rely on a tight-knit community helping to keep the game fun. Peer pressure kept the culture together, everyone knew each other, which made it harder to be an outright jerk… but the scale of the big games lost that—scale, and the rate of growth. The community kind of shreds apart when it grows quickly from that small alpha test group to a full beta test, and again when it goes live. It’s hard to keep cultural values like “don’t cheat” and “let’s all work for the good of the game” when that happens.

There was also lots more pressure in general. Every time you went out on the boards, you knew that there were literally thousands of people watching your every word, potentially very disappointed by your every action. It’s hard not to feel tugged in many different directions by that.

On the other hand—the scale also opened so many new possibilities! The advancement of the state of the art in muds had slowed down quite a bit at the time that the first generation of graphical commercial worlds launched, I think, despite solid work done by companies like Kesmai and Simutronics, and even more stellar work done in the hobbyist community. I don’t make any claims for huge amounts of innovation for any of the resultant games, but I do think that it served as a spur to innovation, bringing in lots of fresh blood, forcing the text mud community to re-evaluate where they were, and also just plain old throwing money and talent at a genre that had become pretty insular.

How different will future MMORPGs be from games like UO and EQ?

Well, how far in the future do you want to go? In ten or fifteen years, I am not sure what you will be able to recognize. The generally accepted first date for a real online world is 1978, when MUD was written by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle. In 1980 you had something that looked a lot like a multiplayer version of Zork, or a text-based version of Dungeons and Dragons. In 1990, we were seeing the application of this model to user-generated worlds with stuff like MUSH and MOO. By 2000, the state of the art dictates an immersive recreation of a reality with fancy 3d graphics, but we’ve lost a lot of the user extensibility. I think we’ll recapitulate the growth of the text mud world pretty quickly—within five to ten years, we’ll probably see a viable commercial large-scale online world that is distributed and run by hundreds of players scattered across the world.

A big hurdle is going to be getting the large companies to surrender their fear of user-generated content. Right now, everyone is terrified of it for legal reasons and for customer support reasons. But the entire premise of the Internet is distributed, user-generated content. I see it as inevitable that this become the dominant form of online world. A big question, though, is how one makes money off of it. 90% of everything is crap, according to Sturgeon’s Law, and handing over the creative reins to the players isn’t going to change that. And those who are good at it are going to want to make money at it, which means they’ll join the companies making the games in the first place, or start their own. Some form of either flat fee or usage-based fee is going to be with us for a very long time.

Is it possible for a small independant company to compete in the MMORPG business?

Depends what they are trying to do. Right now, the benchmark everyone seems to use for “success” is that a game garner around 100,000 paying subscribers at $10 a month—or at least, a comparable revenue. Running a world for 100,000 paying subscribers is not something a small independent company can do. Or rather, they can do it, but they won’t be small anymore!

Creating the games is still a wide-open field, in my mind. Yeah, there’s some moderately tricky tech involved, but it’s frankly not THAT arcane and becoming less so every day. I may be biased, as a designer, but I think that the design of virtual spaces is a much tougher nut to crack than the technology. But sure, a small, talented, independent company can do it. Plenty are. It costs a lot of money, but you can get that and still stay reasonably independent. I foresee the budgets of these games continuing to rise, though.

The harder part is running the games. There’s a big difference between making a TV show and running the cable network. I think that indie companies can do fine at running games, but not at that 100,000 subscriber level.

What’s the biggest mistake that was made with UO?

Naivete. We were naïve about the number of people we’d get, the way they’d behave, the amount of bad behavior we’d get, the appeal of the concept… it manifested in things like the many problems with playerkilling, the way low sales forecasts, a lack of awareness of what it would take to run the service, mistaken priorities in the game design and technology… on the other hand, I think that if it had not been for that naivete, it couldn’t have been what it became. It takes a certain amount of cluelessness to go tilting at windmills, you know?

What was UO’s biggest triumph?

I wish I could say it was the game design, but it wasn’t. Oh, it put together a bunch of elements into a particular package that caught at the imagination, but it’s not like those elements were new, necessarily. Some of them were, but a bunch of others weren’t. And the ingredients all had a lot of rough edges. In the commercial massively multiplayer world, it’s probably still the most complete fantasy world created, even though it suffers from trying to do too many things. Along comes an Everquest that does fewer things, but does them really, really well, and you have to question how many people were looking for that complete experience, you know?

The first big triumph, I think, was more a credit to the Ultima name than to the game itself. It opened up the market a lot. It made it possible for a lot of other games to succeed at a level that wasn’t previously possible. I think it took a big well-respected universe like Ultima to make that possible.

I think that we were successful in making a more dynamic environment than what was the norm. It wasn’t anywhere near what we’d hoped for, but it was enough, I think. We got that amazing player economy, we got those player towns, and theater troupes—shout out to the Golden Brew players here—and just this stunning array of guilds and the like. I don’t know that the level of community involvement, and of so many microcommunities, has manifested anywhere else.

I was flattered to see that UO made it into a list of the Most Influential Games of All Time. But I am not sure that the full influence of UO on the online gaming world can be appreciated yet. We haven’t seen any games out yet that have absorbed all the lessons—the games out now were all in development at the same time as UO. These games take so darn long to make. I think the confluence of in-game player housing, viable extensive trading skills and player economy, all those things that go into making it more than a game about just adventuring—I think those things are going to be ever more important over time.

Lastly, I think that UO will be remembered for a long time as a pivotal stage on which some of the big cultural debates about online worlds were played out. I don’t think the gulf between the roleplayers and the powergamers, or the PvPers and the peaceniks, was ever so apparent as it was in UO, precisely because all the different groups found it a viable home.

Players are so passionate about these games—how does that affect you as a developer?

It makes me really careful. Above all, the thing I do not want to do is disappoint people, or get them as angry as they were over some of the flaws in the first generation of big online worlds. Maybe it makes me a little more risk-averse, I don’t know. I think the emotional engagement is a good thing—it belies a lot of what people said about the Internet and virtual worlds leading to alienation and lack of community—but it’s also possible to go too far.

A lot has been said about videogames of various sorts being forms of conditioning—the whole violence in the media debate, etc, ad nauseum. In the case of virtual worlds, I do believe that there’s an impact there, because you are interacting with other people, and it’s not just pretend anymore. It’s not hard for us to make a world where you have to screw people over to advance, real people, and what does that teach the players?

I think the last way in which it affects me is a desire to educate all those passionate people about what the issues are. Every year, more people discover this medium, and run smack into problems that have been around a really long time. I enjoy explaining how it all works (as best I understand it, of course, I don’t claim to have even a fraction of the answers) because that passion, that collected energy, can make the genre better for everyone. That’s what is so exciting about websites like The Rantings of Lum the Mad—it’s serious, intelligent, informed commentary, and it makes everyone’s games better. Of course, I can say that because they’ve roasted me so many times…! [Editor’s Note: In the time since we talked to Koster, Lum has moved on from his site to work on Dark Age of Camelot; the site however is still up and active.]

Why are these games so addictive, and is there a danger here?

Sure, there’s a danger. There’s an danger in anything people do to excess. I think there’s a few reasons for the addiction. One, a lot of people use these worlds as avenues of escape, right? And you stay in the escape as long as you can, to avoid whatever it is you are avoiding in the real world. We see that as addiction. We see game mechanics that are explicitly using classic addictive tricks—of course we do, we’ve learned through the dint of hard effort how to supply that for single-player games. And it’s all compounded by the presence of other people. Other people are addictive, you know. So yes, I am troubled by it, and worry about it, but don’t have any answers. I don’t think that the answer is to run off in the opposite direction. There’s a balance struck by plenty of other forms of entertainment which keep people coming back for more over time, without it being called addictive. I just don’t know what that balance point is for online games.

I’ve always been of two minds about it. I’m not all down on it—I’ve seen too many people who came to the mud or MMORPG world and became addicted to it because they had real life problems, only to find that life in the virtual world can be every bit as real, emotionally and socially speaking. And they often learned the tools they needed to cope with their problems in real life. So I do believe that it can be therapeutic to go through that experience, if it’s a self-limiting one. I also believe that if you are forming real ties to other people online, well, they are still ties, and you can become just as emotionally attached to an online friend as to one in the flesh. Who are we to say that one friendship is more valuable or important than the other?

Where will these games be 10 years from now?

OK, this is where I get to put something on record so I can fall flat on my face later, right? Let’s give it a shot:

They won’t be games. You might not be covering them. They’ll be accepted major parts of popular entertainment and the media. Online worlds are a medium—games are just one sort of content they can carry. It just so happens that the entertainment industry is the only industry seriously advancing the field right now. You could fit the entire current game industry into online worlds, because there’s absolutely nothing precluding you from putting The Sims, Command and Conquer, Mario, and Quake all into one virtual world (well, except time and money). The reverse isn’t true. I think embedded or tiered experiences is going to become a major trend—but that’s hardly a prescient prediction since we’re already seeing projects like World War II Online making the first gestures towards it.

We’ll have seen the first true “impositional” world. This is the opposite of role-playing, where instead of being about you expressing yourself, it’s about the computer giving you the experience of what it’s like to be someone else. Imagine an online world where you played, oh, in colonial Williamsburg, and could only act in the ways that made sense in that setting. It’s like, we control the vertical, we control the horizontal, you know? The game would control what you saw and heard and paid attention to. There’s so much educational potential—and also scary potential for abuse—in that sort of design that it’s inevitable that it come to pass.

We’ll have plenty of distributed models around, but I doubt that any sort of standard will have emerged to tie them all together yet. I think cyberspace in that sense is a little further away.

The big media properties will have not only had games made, but will be thinking about crossover programming. You’ll reach the point where people think of the movies as being about the game, rather than the game being about the movies, and in the case of TV, we may see scriptwriting and the like being shaped by the events in the game. We’ll certainly see episodic TV-style stuff being done within the game within the next five years. Within ten years, we may have a musician whose hit tune originated in a virtual world.

I also think we’ll see a bunch of e-commerce flops and educational flops where we try to shoehorn shopping or classrooms into virtual worlds, which aren’t necessarily playing to the strengths of the medium. A virtual world interface isn’t necessarily ideal for everything.

Also within ten years—the first legislation. And I predict that it won’t be pretty. Maybe I’ll get asked to testify!

Can you see yourself playing and designing these games 25 years from now?

I don’t know. In the past, I’ve said no. I’ve said that I’d move on to one of the other things that interest me and have consumed my attention in the past, like music or writing. But I don’t think that these things are going away. Oh, they may hit periods of market stagnation. But they’re here to stay. We shouldn’t forget how long they’ve been around already—I’ve got a timeline on my website with important dates. This doesn’t date from UO’s launch. It’s a lot older than that. There’s certainly no shortage of challenges and places to go. The question is whether I have the attention span for it.

What are you looking for in these games that hasn’t been done yet?

I think I mentioned a bunch of the design directions that intrigue me in the other answers. I’m very interested in seeing artificial life, dynamic storytelling, and a few other things come to fruition. I want to see a virtual Paris done to such perfection that I can wander it and do virtual tourism. Hmm, except I think Bill Gates owns all the images in the Louvre, doesn’t he? Kinda puts a wrench in things.

The biggest thing, though, is the cultural divide. I want to see a game that bridges the different kinds of players. Yeah, we can have lots of successful niche projects, but I think we should be after bigger game.

Raph, tell us anything you want.

Well, I can’t discuss Star Wars Galaxies any, but I can tell you to check out the website at www.starwarsgalaxies.com. Buy my CD, it’s on mp3.com at http://www.mp3.com/raphkoster. Visit my website at www.legendmud.org/raph. And keep playing online worlds. I predict you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Sadly, since the interview was done, The Rantings of Lum the Mad have disappeared. You can still find the articles archived on various sites around the Internet, however.