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.
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.
For those who haven’t read it, Ready Player One is a novel by Ernest Cline that describes a network of virtual spaces running on a common operating system, called OASIS. The story is a fun romp, not too deep, about a kid who is looking for the secret prize hidden in an insane scavenger hunt scenario by the network’s creator.
The book is full of geek references. The skillful playing of Joust is a key point; so is the ability to recite Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from memory. But of course, part of what captivates a gamer is the description of OASIS itself: a giant network of virtual spaces, capable of encompassing pretty much every sort of virtual space you might want.
So the article asks, what about building something like that. Well, we did.
Metaplace predated the novel. But really, the book describes basically what we built, and which is now gone. (The tech survives, within Disney, but isn’t used in this fashion anymore).
I think many MMORPG fans were barely even aware it existed, because really, it got almost no marketing. And while we were around, people were perpetually confused as to what it was. Frankly, I found it too big an idea to wrap up well in a marketing message.
a generic server architecture that could handle anything from arcade games to MMOs. Servers ran in the cloud, so it was designed to be really, really scalable. Just keep adding worlds. At the time we closed it, there were tens of thousands of them.
the ability for players to own and make their own spaces. You didn’t even need to know how to make stuff in 3d modeling, it imported SketchUp from Google Warehouse even. You didn’t need to host your own art.
scriptable to the point where you could make a whole game in it. The scripting used Lua, which was a barrier for people. We had made moves towards letting people snap together behaviors (drag and drop AI onto something in the world, for example) but probably didn’t go far enough.
full web connectivity in and out, so that you could have stuff from the real world manifest in the games, or game stuff feed out to the web. Like, an MMO where the mobs are driven by stock quotes was easy to make. Or hooking a Metaplace world up to say Moodle (for education) or having NPCs read their dialogue from external sources. We had one world which performed any Shakespeare play by reading the plays off of a remote server, spawning NPCs for all the parts, and interpreting the stage directions.
agnostic as far as client, so you could connect lo-fi or full fancy 3d — in theory. We never got to the 3d, but we had clients running on mobile devices, PCs, and in web browsers. If we were still pursuing it, you can bet we’d be doing an Oculus version right about now. 🙂
worlds connected to one another, and you might change from world to world, but you also had a common identity across all the worlds. You could walk from Pac-Man into Azeroth, so to speak.
I think a lot of people were turned off by the 2d graphics, and a lot were turned off by the fact that there wasn’t a full MMO there to just play, and a lot of people found building too hard. A huge part of why we didn’t succeed is that we were too many things to too many different people, and that split our efforts in far too many directions. The result was a tight but small community that never started to really grow.
But if you were ever wondering why something like the Ready Player One/Snow Crash style world hasn’t been made — well, there it was… open from 2007 to 2009. It saddens me to see it forgotten so quickly, though in many ways it really did end up as just a footnote in virtual world history. I get a lot of “the last thing you did was SWG in 2003” from people who clearly didn’t know it existed or weren’t interested because it wasn’t a hack n slash gameworld.
I might spend the time to dig through some screenshot archives and post up some examples of what got made. I miss that community a lot.
I didn’t plan it this way, but we have two interviews on back to back days! This one was for Adam Tingle over at MMORPG.com, and it focuses mostly on MMOs specifically, as you might expect, with a lot of retrospective stuff. You can read it here.
We talk a bit about the making of Ultima Online, the development travails of SWG, the promise of Metaplace, and even the origins of sandboxy features back in LegendMUD. A snippet:
MMORPG: Do you believe in structuring a players experience, or prefer giving them tools to create a more emergent adventure?
Raph Koster: Both, really. But I strongly believe that you can’t build the emergent tools on top of a static world. As soon as you decide to make storytelling or quests or whatever the basis of your experience, you sacrifice having dynamic and emergent things in the game, because you can’t break or upset all the static content. Whereas if you start with a foundation of simulation or UGC, and layer static stuff on top, that works fine, because the static content is built to assume shifting foundations.
This afternoon I was on a panel on mergers and acquisitions in the social games market alongside a bunch of great folks. It was the last session of the day, and they asked me to go “all designery” so I did. 🙂