MailbagMailbag: breaking in (again)

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Mar 082014

Hello Mr. Koster, my name is J___ A_____ and I am a recent college graduate with a computer science degree. I came across your name on the Wikipedia article about MUDs, and noticed the link to your website and in turn this contact form. I realize this is a complete shot in the dark but I’ve gotten so many friendly “no thank you” letters recently I figure the worst that happens is you never reply.

In 1993, I began playing a hack and slash Rom 2.3 mud called Creeping Death, and completely fell in love. In 1999 I taught myself C and with the help of a friend, we put up our first MUD. I have been actively coding them off and on ever since. A few years ago I went back to school and pursued a Bachelors in Comp Sci and am desperately trying to break into the video game industry. Outside of mud coding I have little expertise in game design. My question then is this:

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Jan 272014

Slide1Periodically I have gotten requests for either audio or video of the talk I gave at Living Game Worlds IV back in 2008. I have the slides, but they aren’t even posted up here, and honestly, without the actual talk, they don’t make much sense.

My talk was complex. I just watched it, and honestly did not remember it all; how it came together linking railroad yards, the first major copyright case, Kenyan mobile phone companies, Wagnerian opera, text muds, shipping containers, molecular biology, microtransactions, and of course, the future of games. But yeah, it hit on all that and more.

Videos from LGW IV (mine is “evening keynote”).

It still feels rather relevant today, even if my ending on Metaplace doesn’t. In many ways, what I was talking about has come true via indie games, Unity, Twine, Gamemaker, and countless other “banjos.” In fact, I am particularly hopeful that it will be watched by those who see me as a ludological fundamentalist or representative of “the old guard” or whatever, as there is a moment in there where I jeer at Game Informer magazine for the ludicrous term “impostor games” they used for games that were not challenge-based. FWIW, I also bluntly call MMOs colonialist and racist at one point.

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Game talkRequiring online for single-player

 Posted by (Visited 10006 times)  Game talk  Tagged with:
Mar 082013

In the wake of what has been happening with SimCity 5, a lot of folks are asking what the future holds for single-player games that require an always-on connection.

It’s not going to stop.

The future is that

  • Connectivity keeps getting better, which softens the blow for consumers.
  • Developers find the sweet spot between “always on” and “phone home when you can” that mobile games have already had to solve (because bandwidth and connectivity for mobile are far more erratic).
  • Metrics usage explores in the single-player market, to match what is seen in Facebook and mobile.
    • Yes, this means, with all the good and bad that brings to the table. The fact is that publishers simply won’t be able to resist it. When used right, it makes for better games. And even when used wrong, it generally adds to the bottom line.
  • Single-player games will continue to evolve towards being services.
    • Ongoing updates, because again, as seen on mobile, publishers won’t be able to resist the loyalty factor, the boost in retention, the revenue from re-acquisition… in the presence of things like charts showing popularity of games or top grossing games, there’s huge value in doing this even for games that don’t have ongoing revenue streams.
    • For games that do (be they sub, DLC, or microtransactions), it’s of course a no-brainer.
    • Really, the single-player model did this already, just without connectivity. Always on just makes it cheaper and better.
  • Ongoing erosion of the pure single-player experience, as I stated would happen ages ago.
    • Achievement system metagames.
    • Tweets.
    • Dashboards of friends, leaderboards
    • Getting interrupted with messages that pull you out of the immersion
    • Notifications
    • Asynchronous multiplayer features
    • Sharing your gameplay sessions (, Everyplay, etc)

Basically, we will continue the march towards “everything you used to buy, you now rent as a service.” With all the good and bad that entails.

Penny Arcade, "All of the Jokes",

Gamers may protest now, but if I may draw an analogy: when they came for your music collections (Pandora! Rhapsody!), you did not complain. When they came for your DVD collections (Netflix! Hulu!), you did not complain. When they came for your office documents (Google Docs! Adobe Creative Cloud!), you did not complain. Now they are coming for your games (Steam! You love Steam, don’t you?), and no one is left to complain on your behalf. 🙂

Don’t get me wrong, though. I keenly feel the drawbacks. As an example — as someone who cares deeply about the history of our medium, I shudder to think what happens to preservation efforts for games from this time period. We’re not going to be able to emulate things without reverse engineering dead server apps — which will mean reverse engineering every rule and bug.

Or another — we’re used to platforms obsolescing away the ability to play a given game. But when business realities mean shutting down a server as soon as the opportunity cost makes it not as profitable as doing something else, we’re going to feel like even single-player games have gotten to feel a lot like that TV show we loved that wasn’t allowed to finish out a full season and left us on a cliffhanger.

But for any business owner, the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages. Even with the issues SimCity has had, I am sure that right now the takeaway within EA is not “don’t do this” but “do it better.” The fact of the matter is that running a service seems to be one of those things that you have to learn by doing, stumbling along the way, and it’s a big adjustment for any organization that has been used to retail-style sales.

And the fact is that if it works seamlessly, customers will start to say “I like my Games On Demand” and sign up willingly.

It may be that at some point we see a swing back from the cloud — if the power on our devices exceeds that available in the cloud (if this happens, it likely will be due to bandwidth, not CPU cycles). But I don’t see that changing in the near future.

Instead, we’ll see disconnected games using their disconnected nature as a selling point, at first in contrast to the rocky services and later on as a premium offering for hardcore folks who want to keep going after the game is sunset.

Am I crazy about this scenario, all things considered? No. It has many pitfalls, and some old lessons are getting to be more relevant than ever. But at the same time… I design online games. I’ve been part of the problem the whole time. 😉

Best of luck to the SimCity team with resolving the issues. I’ve been there.

Game talkOscar bait

 Posted by (Visited 6109 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , ,
Feb 282013

side_oscarHollywood just got done with its annual parade of self-congratulation. And I don’t mean that in a bad way — the Oscars may have originated as a marketing gimmick, but they are more than that. They serve as a way for creatives to honor creatives. And every year, movies are made which get called “Oscar bait” — films clearly made without much expectation of huge profits.

At a time when big game companies frequently speak in terms of “it it doesn’t make a million a day, or have a million players a day, it’s not worth making,” why do Hollywood studios keep making films that are small, play to small audiences, and aren’t anywhere near as profitable as a summer blockbuster? Wouldn’t it make sense to focus all your resources on the titles that have the highest ROI? While many small films have great profit margins, the absolute numbers are small, and thus there’s a large opportunity cost to doing the small movies.

Don’t worry, there’s a business reason. The logic goes something like this:

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Game talkMy big GDC takeaways

 Posted by (Visited 13418 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , , ,
Mar 122012

Just some hastily scribbled notes here:

The art & the science are at least yelling at each other across a divide, if not talking.

Chris Crawford is more relevant than he has been in years. At least more discussed. People are now embracing things he said that they used to disdain. His face was put up on slides a bunch of times, and his spirit was invoked a lot. There were many calls for games to “grow up.”

On the flip side, the social/F2P model is clearly not just winning but dominant — but there were a lot of discussions about how to do it ethically, rather than just rejecting it out of hand or embracing the monetization.

There’s a little bit of an identity crisis. Some of this is from debates over terms (“is Dear Esther a game?” was a constant thread), which some feel to be exclusionary. Now that interactive art is burgeoning, it is either growing out of the rubric of “game” or expanding the definition. This is leading to people calling each other fundamentalist or clueless, which is not very productive.

In the process, that term definition exercise and the deeper analysis of the “science” of how games work has continued to make great strides, and many of the best talks were about understanding the audience psychology or understanding mechanics in greater depth. Game grammar-like diagrams popped up on many slides, and concrete game design exercises were showcased at great length — where we used to just get special-cases, we now get general principles.

A lot of the above was enabled by back-to-low-budget trends that enabled the indie and art game movements, and by the fact that mobile tech was easily accessible. The center of gravity has clearly shifted to mobile.

But there was also general agreement among business types that this Renaissance period is over. Budgets are about to skyrocket again, and we’re now at the start of a “mature” period akin to the early glory days of consoles, or the early glory days of PC gaming. Expect creativity to give way to conservatism again and the stakes get higher in terms of budgets and time.

Basically, it feels to me like we’re just about cresting the edge to a new plateau. We’ll see what happens to disrupt this one. 🙂

Mar 092012

Here’s the PDF: Koster_Raph_GDC2012.pdf

Here’s the PPTX, which includes the speaker notes, which this time are extensive: Koster_Raph_GDC2012.pptx

And the closest I can get to the speech itself is this page here, which has an image of each slide, followed by the notes… so you can just read it like an article.

I imagine video will be up on the GDCVault eventually…


Game talkFAQ on the immersion post

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Jan 142012

Yesterday’s post on immersion has occasioned a fair amount of commentary and questions. More importantly, different people seem to have read the post in very different ways. Given its nature, and who I was speaking to with it, that doesn’t really surprise me.

Rather than answer them in comment threads scattered all over the place, I thought I would do it all right here. So here is a FAQ!

Are you trolling? Please tell me you are trolling?

No,  I wasn’t trolling. It was heartfelt. It was also dashed off in the middle of a sleepless night. I did not expect quite the level of passion in reply, I have to admit. 🙂

Immersion is a slippery word. What did you actually mean?

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Jan 132012

“I feel a sense of loss over mystery… I feel a loss over immersion. I loved… playing long, intricate, complex, narrative-driven games, and I’ve drifted away from playing them, and the whole market has drifted away from playing them too,” Koster says. “I think the trend lines are away from that kind of thing.”

— Gamasutra interview of me by Leigh Alexander



Games didn’t start out immersive. Nobody was getting sucked into the world of Mancala or the intricate world building of Go. Oh, people could be mesmerized, certainly, or in a state of flow whilst playing. But they were not immersed in the sense of being transported to another world. For that we had books.

Even most video games were not like worlds I was transported to. Oh, I wondered what else existed in the world of Joust and felt the paranoia in Berzerk, but I never felt like I was visiting.

Then something changed. For me it started with text adventures and with early Ultimas. I could explore what felt like a real place. I could interact with it. I could affect it. And with that came the first times where I felt like I was visiting another world. It came when I first played Jordan Mechner’s Karateka and for the first time ever, felt I was playing a game that felt like a movie.
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Game talkF2P vs subs

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Jan 112012

One of the comments on my recent posts accused me of being naive about marketing. That was a first for me. 🙂

A lot of commenters believe that free to play business models are fundamentally less ethical than other business models, that they are by nature predatory. So I thought I would offer up some simple facts.

The typical F2P player does indeed play for 100% free. It is not a nickel-and-dime model, as some commenters think. The vast majority of players in an F2P model never pay anything at all.

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Game talkProduct versus art

 Posted by (Visited 18734 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , ,
Jan 102012

Yesterday, I posted about ways to improve free-to-play games, which got one commentator to say that I was comparing traditional designers to creationists, and free-to-play designers as evolutionists. A science versus religion debate, in other words.

Well, that was not really my intent. Let’s say instead empiricists versus intuitionists.

That said, I think an important takeaway, which echoes my earlier post about dogma in programming approaches, is that taken to an extreme both approaches can be dangerous. After all, religion misapplied led to holy wars, and science misapplied led to eugenics.

The spectrum in the case of games might perhaps be seen as intuition leads to art, and empiricism leads to treating games as product.

Are either wrong?

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