Stratics Areae Interview


Stratics posted this interview on Christmas Day, 2006, right after Areae was announced.

Past, Present and Future of MMO’s, an Interview with Raph Koster

We know actors. Tom Hanks. Brad Pitt. NataliePortman and Julia Roberts. We often don’t think about the people who are really behind the scenes directing the movies. With video games, it’s very similar, except often we think more of the publisher than the individuals it takes to make a single game.To create an MMO is to create a unique world or universe with people, stories and lives that are intriguing enough to make individuals want to log in, and step outside of themselves for a short period of time. The creativity, and imagination is only half the battle. Long hours, and countless days of studying gameplay and human behaviour is a small part of making an MMO that people will play.

Not a lot of people know who Raph Koster is as he is one of those individuals behind the scenes of MMO’s. My parents didn’t know his name, nor did a few of the gamers who are into WoW, or the late bloomers of SWG. Yet without his work, the first days of MMOs would have been drastically different. For this Christmas, I give you an interview with one of the fathers of MMORPG’s, Raph Koster.

Stratics: Where did you grow up? What kind of environment was it? Was there quite a bit of gaming on Atari as a child?Raph: I grew up all over the place. My mother worked for UNICEF and my parents were divorced. With my mom I lived in exotic places like Peru, Barbados, and Haiti, and I spent summers with my dad in Tennessee and Florida.

This sort of upbringing makes for an eclectic life. I think growing up overseas gives you very different perspectives on a lot of things.

Both sides of the family got into technology early. We had a Pong console from Sears when that came out. My dad had an Osborne 1, which was the first “luggable” computer, the size of a suitcase and with a 3 inch screen! I learned MS-BASIC on it — it ran CP/M. We had an Atari and a hundred carts eventually, and I graduated to coding on 8 bit computers by 1983 or 84.

Stratics: When did you first decide to study Writing, and why? How did that fit into your overall plan of where you wanted to be?

Raph: I started to write when I was really really young. My grandmother was a schoolteacher, and she taught me to read at some insanely early age. I cannot recall a time when I couldn’t read, and I read crazy fast. People who sit next to me on planes usually don’t believe it. I still remember having my first short story tacked up on the wall of my second-grade classroom.

Everyone always told me that I would be a writer or a teacher, honestly, ever since I was in grade school. I have two aunts who are teachers, and my maternal uncle was a college professor. Both my parents have EdD’s.

Stratics: When did you realize that you wanted to work in the gaming Industry?

Raph: I don’t know that I ever “realized” it in that sense. I just always gamed — it was there in the background. Some friends of mine and I made videogames for the Atari and C64 that we sold in Ziploc baggies to our classmates. (We called our “company” Protocom — we were in sixth or seventh grade, I would guess). During that same time period I did a lot of board game design. I’d do board game adaptations of video games — Pengo makes a pretty good abstract strategy game, for example — and invent my own too. I used to bring them in and we would play them during recess.

Then I was given the red box D&D set as a birthday present. That was a whole new world there too. I still have it, too, along with my first edition AD&D (a mix of yellow-spine ones and the older covers) and Star Frontiers and other old TSR games.

I kept playing, but living overseas, I kind of missed the whole Nintendo period. And I was focusing more on the writing during that time. When I got to college, I drifted a little bit back into it — playing a little bit of pen and paper gaming with friends there, a lot of early Mac games — Fool’s Errand FTW! — and also doing stuff on the campus network. I ran a small RPG as a play-by-email setup, for example.

Then after leaving for grad school, my college friends turned me on to MUDs as a way to keep in touch. This would have been 1992 or so. And that led eventually to job offers from Origin and from Meridian 59.

Stratics: LegendMUD opened in 1994, and it still exists today. Why did you decide to create a MUD, and when did it become a classless game?

Raph: Just to be clear, I didn’t create LegendMUD, or certainly not by myself. A bunch of us all played a MUD called Worlds of Carnage. It went down for a period, and some of us went to try to start a different mud, and some others went to try to start LegendMUD, including a friend of ours from college, Sherry Menton. She was a history major, and she actually came up with the basic idea and theme. She and Rick Delashmit were the original “implementors” which was the highest rank of game admin. My wife and I then joined them after the one we were working on didn’t go anywhere. This was all well in advance of launch. So we all worked then on the game design and the content. Kristen and I did a very large amount of the original content, and eventually joined Sherry and Rick as imps, then took over when Sherry and Rick backed away from doing as much.

Legend was classless in a special way. Really, your choice of starting town determined a lot about your character, because it defined your affinity for magic, nature, or technology. Each town then had an array of skills open to them; you could never master all of magic if you were from a less magical place, and so on. So it was a hybrid system. It also had a full-blown level system in place, of course.

Stratics: Do you feel that MMOs could learn anything from a game like LegendMUD?

Raph: For a very long time, there were many lessons that MUDs had to teach that weren’t absorbed by the MMOs. I think there still are some, though not as many. Scale changes a lot of things. Stuff that was a great feature in a MUD will break in an MMO. For example, there was a lot of social recognition for achievements in LegendMUD: you could earn a badge for doing a particular quest, and it would be announced to everyone in the game. That would be intolerable spam in a game with thousands online at once.

But there are also things that took a long time to filter through. I still think some of the quests in Legend are better than anything I have played in the MMORPGs, and a lot of it is because text gave so much freedom for special effects.

I did a quest in LegendMUD where you brought a jungle town back to life, and when you did a wave of color passed through the entire town, and ghostly inhabitants came back to life, and everything was restored — and then gradually the restored stuff starts to pop like a soap bubble…

Legend has stuff like embedded baseball games, Shakespeare performances on the stage of the Old Globe, WWI trench warfare and blackjack in the back rooms of pubs on the London docks. That sort of variety happens because of two things: giving designers the ability to go nuts within a really broad theme, relatively easy tools, and the lack of graphics — which are a huge huge barrier to making cool stuff because they are so expensive and hard to make.

Let’s see — Legend has awards for best roleplayer, nominated by the players. It has an out-of-character lounge within the game that anyone can teleport to and just hang out… for a long time, nobody had the sort of emote puppeteering system that Legend did, but I finally added something like it to Galaxies… so there’s lots still to mine from the history of MUDs. Not just Legend either — all those players who wish there were more immersive RP should look at Armageddon, or all those virtual world fans ought to check out DartMUD. In a lot of ways, MMORPG design has followed only one of the many currents that were followed in the MUDs.

Stratics: In 1999, you told a very real story about a player in a video game who passed away, called “A Story about a Tree”. I was crying when I read it, because I’ve also experienced loss of friends I’ve met online. What do you think the impact of a single individual has over their virtual friends and family? When does it become too overwhelming?

Raph: Well, you do know that the story was debunked, right?

The conclusion seems inescapable: “Karyn” fabricated her death just as she’d fabricated her life. So who killed Miss Norway 1995? Karyn did. Or rather the person behind the Karyn mask.

I offered some final thoughts on the matter here.

To me, the heart of the story still stands: that the bonds we form with others online are real. Realer, it seems, than the people themselves, sometimes. The crux of the matter is that real or not, Karyn is lost to us. And to me, that fact will always be deserving of a Garden of Remembrance.

Even though the death of Miss Norway turned out to be a hoax, I think all the emotions are real, and it can be overwhelming, just as much as losing someone in real life. No, scratch that. You DID lose someone in real life, is the thing.Sometimes it seems like the more people you meet, it just means you open yourself up to more deaths in your circle. But despite the sadness, the tradeoff is worth it, right?

Stratics: How did you get involved in developing MMO’s? Did you scour looking for a company that was hiring or did you look for a company in particular?

Raph: Well, there weren’t really any MMOs at the time! In early 1995 or possibly even late 1994, people were starting to think about taking MUDs graphical. There were dozens of projects, a lot of which are lost to the mists of time. Rubies of Eventide and Underlight seem like footnotes now. Dark Sun Online. And, of course, all being developed at the same time, Meridian 59, UO, Asheron’s Call, EverQuest, The Realm.

Mike Sellers from Archetype, who were making M59 at the time, showed up on Legend and I gave him a tour. Then he asked if I would work on the game. At the same time, Rick Delashmit had been hired by Origin to do a “Multima” prototype, and he recommended us as designers. Lord British logged onto Legend to check the place out. Nobody believed it was actually him and he got ribbed a fair amount. I told Mike no, and let him know he should check out this other friend of ours named Damion Schubert instead. Kristen & I moved to Austin, and that was that…

Stratics: What was your favorite aspect of working with Ultima Online?

Raph: It’s impossible to pick a favorite part. I loved working with the scripting system. Players wanted guilds, so I went and made guilds. Tossing in funny Easter Eggs like the stories that the tillermen told. Writing books and seeing how many people connected the Girl in the Forest book with the story of Trinsic burning.

Watching towns spring up. Seeing wrestling matches, sporting events, theater, governments. The first time someone noticed the obsession with llamas. Hanging out on the forums constantly and getting to talk with people who were playing directly, instead of behind a big corporate veil.

A lot of that stuff was just a matter of scale. I mean, hell, we ran the pre-alpha website ourselves — Origin didn’t even KNOW about it at first, much less EA!

Really, it’s about touching players, and all of us being in a community. Today, it’s all so big that it can be hard to do.

Stratics: Do you have a favorite class or skill that you always have to have when playing?

Raph: I don’t play straight tanks. If the games afforded the opportunity, I’d probably play something that was a cross between an expert rapier wielder, a troubadour, and a hint of spy. I don’t fit well into the tank/healer/nuker mold at all. This usually means I play scouts, rangers, that sort of thing. I’ve been playing that archetype a very long time — I had a Fuzzy thief in Ultima III, a bard on Legend, and a scout/musician in SWG.

Stratics: Why do you think that Ultima Online is still a game that is active and buoyant in the gaming industry?

Raph: Well, I think one thing is that the dev teams on it have just never given up on it. I think there has certainly been some drift from the original ideals (Trammel, the emphasis on stat items, and the like) but so many of the original core premises of UO are still intact to some large degree, that people who are looking for that sort of world just haven’t been able to quite find it anywhere else.

And honestly, I think the gray shards are a huge part of what keeps it alive. Once when I was in China, I commented to my hosts that I was perplexed as to why anyone there knew who I was. I was told that back in the late 90s there were hundreds of thousands of UO players, all playing on gray shards. I was floored.

Stratics: Describe what the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences is, and what it means to you.

Raph: Well, it’s essentially an organization that promotes the legitimacy of games as a medium. The two big activities are DICE, which is a conference, and the awards, which happen every year and work much like the Emmys, Oscars, or Grammies.

I’m also a member of the IGDA, which is more grassroots driven — AIAS is more publisher-centric, whereas IGDA is more individual-developer-centric.

Both of these are incredibly important for the industry, and both should be more broadly supported by the industry as a whole, I think.

I have to admit that I really do not contribute nearly as much to these organizations as I probably should. 🙁 Mostly, I speak at IGDA events from time to time. But I try to do a small part, anyway.

Stratics: ‘A Theory of Fun’ started out as a speech, and ended up as a book that has captured not only the makers of games, but gamers themselves. Do you feel that the book is still relevant in today’s culture? Gaming has become an accepted part of the world’s culture; was your book the ignition point for changing the belief that gaming was pure entertainment, and not a developmental tool?

Raph: Ack, I don’t think my book was the ignition point for anything except perhaps a few fires. 🙂

I do think it is still relevant — heck, it only dates to November of 2004. So it’s not that old yet! Despite gaming being a bit more accepted in our culture, I think there’s still plenty of resistance overall to regarding games as a medium comparable to any other. I also think there’s a persistent notion within the industry that they don’t deserve to be, and we need to get over that.

Stratics: I should warn you, Star Wars Galaxies is my favorite game of all time. At the time, we were all waiting for it to open, anxious to see the first Jedi. How did you feel when you first opened the doors to players, and when did you think that the first Jedi would be unlocked?

Raph: For me, opening day was horrible. The server system as a whole didn’t work and nobody could log in! I spent the day on the forums trying to calm people down, while running back and forth to the phone conference where people were trying to sort out the problem.

No, the real opening day for me was months earlier, when we first let in the original 150 testers. We barely had any game there yet. We divided everyone one up into small groups of like 20, and set them to focus testing stuff like the basics of chat, of movement, of targeting. It was weird and magical — stuff broke constantly, nobody knew the basics, but we got phenomenal feedback. And today, there’s this whole cloud about whether SWG interacted with the community, but I really think we had a very special connection to players in the development days.

Stratics: Why did you leave?

Raph: Months before SWG launched, I was asked if I would consider taking the role of Chief Creative Officer for all of SOE. I was very torn, actually — I knew that it might mean losing contact with actually making games, and I knew that I couldn’t leave SWG before it shipped. It was a very tough decision, but in the end I decided that I should do it for career reasons, the sake of my family, and so on, and we set a gradual shift over to the new job that started after SWG shipped. Technically, I started as CCO on July 1st of 2003. The game shipped in late June. We actually told the team right around when we launched.

I basically then drifted away slowly. Post-launch stuff that I was involved in started out heavy but gradually decreased. I did the map and original storyline for the Warren. I helped out on the city system design and then barely on vehicles. After a couple of months, I actually moved to an office on a different floor, and that was really the point at which I wasn’t doing SWG work anymore. There’s very little in SWG Live that I would take credit for, because at that point I was already moving off.

Stratics: While working on Galaxies, you also worked on EverquestII. Which game do you feel best embodies the kind of games you’ve always wanted to put together?

Raph: I barely worked on EQ2. There’s a reason why I don’t list it, or in fact most of the SOE games, on my CV. It’s awfully easy to end up with credit for things you didn’t do, and taking away from others the credit that they deserve. My contributions to EQ2 are limited to some UI advice (a lot of it indirect, actually, because it was filtered through other people — you might notice that the EQ chat bubbles and conversation UI are an improved version of the SWG ones); some milestone reviews; and some discussions on the crafting system with the exec producer. I did a lot of early playtesting and sent in my fair share of bugs. But any beta tester probably had more impact in that sense.

Stratics: In 2005, you worked on quite a few SOE titles as their Chief Creative Officer. Did you ever feel stretched too thin?

Raph: CCO didn’t mean that I worked on every title. On some titles I would get involved with the team during the pitch phase or early on. A lot of times I was a troubleshooter, so many of the things that I worked on didn’t see the light of day — sometimes the right answer was to cancel the project.

Of all the SOE titles that I assisted as CCO and that are even announced, I only list Untold Legends, the original one, as one where I had a real direct impact. I spent a chunk of the Xmas holiday coming in doing rewrites on dialogue and adding story elements. If you played that game, the subplot you read when you found bits of journal, with the love story from the past, that part was me.

Stratics: How does art and gaming mix into a learning tool?

Raph: The art is usually sugar coating, a distraction so to speak. The mechanics are really where the game teaches you things. You learn to understand systems, how the underlying mechanics relate to each other. The art often lies about what those mechanics are, if you know what I mean. We don’t think of FPS games as teaching us how to accurately move mouse pointers, or of tic-tac-toe as teaching us a magic number square, but that’s what they are doing. Systemic things.

The art is the dressing that makes the lesson go down easier, really. When you marry the right metaphor to the system, then you get something really powerful.

Stratics: Currently, you are working with a group of developers on a secret project through the company Areae, Inc. Where did the name come from? Why should gamers be excited about Areae?

Raph: The name came about because it’s damn hard to find a company name these days that means what you want! I spent weeks looking for a name — it has to pass muster on a lot of levels. In the end, the name of the studio matters a lot less than the name of the product we make, so I’m not all that hung up on whether people can pronounce it or not. I am pretty sure they are not going to forget it!

We’re not talking too much about what we are making, but I think — I hope — that gamers will find it liberating and exciting.

Stratics: What you do feel is lacking in current MMO’s?

Raph: In some sense, variety. Just as happened with the muds, we see everyone falling back to the proven model of the DikuMUD-style gameplay: levels, classes, hacking and slashing with quests that are mostly fetch and carry, small group dynamics, no impact on the world… I made that game, Legend was basically a lot like that. I burned out playing that game before I even started working on Legend. I did the grind, and I moved through it, and I am not interested in playing it again really.

So I am into something immersive; something roleplayery, something casual; something different. Not all in the same world, necessarily. I still do like my hack n slash too, just in smaller doses.

Stratics: Where do you see the world going? What will it take in an MMO to knock World of Warcraft off the top spot? How will the future effect gamers?

Raph: I think MMOs are ready for something out of left field, honestly. I don’t think I am alone in that. In a lot of ways, left field is a pretty crowded place: Multiverse, Second Life, Gaia, Habbo, all the crazy cool stuff in Korea… and we tend to forget just how popular some of this is because we think of MMORPGs as the be-all end-all.

I don’t know that there is really room for “the next WoW” — I think instead we’re going to see an explosion of lots of different stuff, because trumping WoW is really hard from a financial point of view as well as a design point of view.

Stratics: What do you feel about the ever increasing marketing lead game content in MMO’s?

Raph: It’s not going to go away. Wish I could say anything else on that front, but it’s a simple answer. The door is open, Pandora’s box is wide open…

Stratics: What games are you currently playing, and what future games do you think you will play when they go live?

Raph: I’m not currently playing any MMOs — no time as I work on Areae! But I have been doing a lot of console gaming. Lots of good games on that front this year, from Guitar Hero II to Okami to stuff on Live Arcade (been playing lots of that) to Wii Sports… no killer title on the PS3 yet, but I am looking forward to Fl0w — I love the Flash version.