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RPS Exclusive: Raph Koster on The MMO

In this interview we talk to Raph Koster, the founder and president of Areae, about why MMOs must be free to play, how he wanted to make an Ultima Online expansion where the players made their own shards, and whether games have reached the end of graphics. Areae is the company with an unusual vision for PC gaming: the DIY MMO. They're calling the project Metaplace, but it's just the latest instance of Raph Koster's contributions to the MMO genre.

Yep, Raph Koster knows a thing or two about MMOs. He started out in the realm of text-based MUDS, graduated to the class of Ultima Online, where he was well-known for creating features that many modern MMOs still lack, and then he had a good crack at creating a Star Wars MMO with the first incarnation of Galaxies. Since then Koster has written a book about game design, A Theory Of Fun, and has now started work on his build-your-own-MMO project, Metaplace. With the browser-based game-toolkit now close to its beta stages we thought we'd have a chat with one of MMO gaming's finest beards and see where his head is at.

RPS: Developers that I talk to mid-project seem to to fall into two categories: the ones who are trying to avoid playing any games other than the one their working on, and the those who trying to play everything that might be relevant. Which one are you?

Koster: Interesting question... I swing back and forth. I tend to do both. In the midst of a project I tend to not have time, and I do something else it won't be games at all. But you have to look around and see what you might want to include in games, and I'll see what I want to take from systems and what I want to put into a project. I'm inconsistent.

RPS: Not having enough time to play games is a problem for everyone in the field generally, but do you think not having enough time to play games is a particular problem for MMO developers, whose field of games includes titles with hundred, if not thousands, of hours of material? Do you have trouble seeing everything that's out there?

Koster: I do, but I think with the particular case of MMOs so much of what they do is shown to you in the first five minutes that it's not such a problem. There are plenty of things hidden away that only a high level gamer will see, you look at WoW and realise that you're not going to get to see raiding, and you're not going to get to Battlegrounds any time soon, but you're going to see everything else in the newbie zone. I think the same is true of most MMOs right now: they put their cards on the table at the beginning, and you really see what they have to offer in the newbie zone. Not all their cards, usually, but most. From that you can extrapolate, you can say “it's going to play like this in ten levels time”, and usually be right. Part of the problem is the genre similarity. You might not be able to extrapolate Eve or Tabula Rasa from World Of Warcraft, but you can certainly see how much of Lord Of The Rings Online might play. Play each of these for a couple of hours and you can see how they all differ or are similar.

RPS: You've been saying for a while that you think the games industry isn't using the web well, and that the influences for new online gaming will have to come from outside the industry. Why do you think that?

Koster: I wish I had a good, sound-bitey answer to that. One of the things is that our influences in the game industry are fairly narrow. Bioshock is one of the big hits of the year, and everyone is impressed by its core narrative influences. It's a critique of Ayn Rand and Objectivism and all of that stuff. But if you think about it, Objectivism is common currency for game developers, it's a nerd kind of thing. So we're not referencing anything too far afield there, a little further afield, but not a lot. A lot of the common cultural currency is not all that diverse, and that was really hammered home for me by watching the Xbox Live trailers for the new year. I sat with my wife and she said that if she hadn't been told that they were all different games, she would not have been able to tell them apart. They were all so similar.

RPS: The men with guns, see how they strut...

Koster: Yeah, there's this broad commonality across all the games. The one that stuck out the most was a racing game, Burnout, but even in that you could see that the car could sit in the same world as the monsters and the giant robot from the other trailers, and it would all fit together just fine. So what is it about the net that's different? Well, I think people who look elsewhere find new sources of inspiration, and find other ways of doing things. In the indie games scene and web games scene we're seeing a wider range of resources being drawn upon by developers.

RPS: So the problem with games, or at least MMOs, from your perspective, is that they're being made by the people who want to make MMOs? The people whose influences come from the Dungeon & Dragons culture...

Koster: It's a factor. But they're /played/ by that group of people, despite WoW having expanded that by getting so many people playing it. There's a heritage there that's hard to get away from. There are gameplay reasons why the elves and fantasy stuff seems to work – and it's part of this self-fulfilling prophecy – if you look at what we have now it's all based on Lord Of The Rings. You have a good and a bad side, and a party-based story. Lord Of The Rings is a classed-based narrative, with a party structure, fighter, elf wizard. If you started making games within a different tradition, even a different fantasy tradition, would you really end up with the same kind of game? Where are the Hindu mythologies, the old Celtic mythologies? Would these traditions lead to a class-based system? I think maybe they wouldn't.

RPS: But even when the stylistic approach is different (Lineage, Tabula Rasa) there's still this hand-me-down conceptual skeleton that says that level-based structures are the best way to deliver this stuff.

Koster: It's a good way, it's held up for many years, but I don't know if it's the best way to actually do MMOs. It has so many artefacts of keeping people apart, or setting up characters that aren't necessarily the point of the game. It drives us towards obtaining levels rather than enjoying the game, it drives us to rush through it. And this makes the designers make quests simpler, remove puzzles, and so on, because we start catering to the desire we created in this big feedback loop...

RPS: Okay, let's move on from the MMO rants and talk a bit about Metaplace, your current project. You're proposing a system where gamers can basically build their own mini MMOs using a toolset provided by your company, and access it through a web browser, any browser, on any system. But how did you come to the conclusion that this is what you wanted to do? When did you decide that gamers needed to be able to make this stuff themselves?

Koster: Well, back in 1998 we were thinking about what should be in the expansion for Ultima Online. Back then there were a bunch of players who were trying to reverse engineer the code to create their own servers with their own quests and dialogue. And the game was already do a lot to empower games, with content like player housing. It was back then that I said “hey, why don't we just release the tools for making all this stuff, let gamers build up their own shards and then link it all together”. So the idea is basically that old, for me. Also it goes back to the way we used to do it in MUDs. Players graduated to being content creators, and the boundary was highly permeable: there was never the stance about being the big media corporation who had control. I've /always/ pushed user-input in my games.

But then there was the Web 2.0 stuff. When that started becoming common currency for everybody what we saw happening with everything from literature to video was that it became democratised. But it wasn't happening for games. I was attending all these “how the web works” conferences and seeing how these things worked, and it all clicked into place. Here was this opportunity to harness this energy and get the same kind of results from the web that we've seen with thriving indie musicians, or all these other creative people who were previously gated by infrastructure. It's all been coming out. It made me want to do that for games. I'd been developing a bunch of small games at the weekend, and said to myself “this is easy for me because I'm a game developer, but for most people it's hard”. I want to fix that. For most people the tools aren't there, the infrastructure isn't there, and in particular for MMOs. I mean, if you want to make your own MMO, just forget it. It's an insurmountable barrier. It it was.

RPS: How are the gamers who have contributed to the alpha testing of Metaplace reacting to what you've provided?

Koster: Well they seem to really, really like it. We're still alpha so there's loads of work to do. We've built quite an open system for experimentation, so we're finding that many people are interested in just modding code, or modding worlds. We have quite a lot of people who just want to create art, and people who want to create games from scratch, but the biggest lesson for me is the number of people who can mod, but can't create from scratch. That requires a higher level of knowledge. Giving people stuff to start modding from turned out to be incredibly important.

RPS: Over the past couple of years the discussions on your blog regarding Second Life have taken on quite a lively quality. How much has this kind of debate about the status of users and worlds informed what you're doing now?

Koster: Oh, quite a lot. I've always been one of the devs who just hangs out on the player forums, and it all goes into the pot. When you hear the Second Life people talking about the forms of player government or advisory council or whatever it is, it seems like something /so/ esoteric. But people nevertheless get passionate about it. It reminds you that people really do get invested in these places and they don't want to just have a token say about what happens. Some of them trust us to do everything and have faith in us until we mess up, and some of them have a healthy distrust, and want their point of view to be represented from the start. It cuts across game design, community management, all that stuff. Even when the discussions aren't relevant to what you're making in a direct way, you learn about what motivates a user, and what they want to accomplish.

RPS: And what a lot of them seem to want is to make money. How will money work in Metaplace?

Koster: Well the current plan (subject to whether we immediately start haemorrhaging cash or not) is to allow you to build a small place for free, but if it's starts getting large and intensive, then we're going to need to bill you for bandwidth and hosting costs. It's standard hosting, as we might model any other web business. However, if you use our virtual currency system in Metaplace you'll be able to cash-out as well. You'll be able to bill your users to mediate your costs to us and make money that way.

RPS: Do you see the Metaplace locations as being something like tourist locations then, where people visit, may or may not spend money, allowing the owners make a profit, of which you take a slice?

Koster: Perhaps. You could use Metaplace to make an MMO, to charge a simple monthly fee and that would be fine. When you join Metaplace you have a user ID which is tied to your wallet. You can be Snickersnack The Swordslayer in an MMO, and someone else in another place. There's an over-arching central identity that is tied to your currency. Of course in the games the currency can be doubloons or whatever, and the network level currency is just a billing mechanism.

RPS: You said a while back that all MMOs should be free to play, and Metaplace will be, at least in part, free to use. So do do you see the MMO market actually looking like that in five or ten years time?

Koster: We're seeing a split. There are already more free to play MMOs in the world than there are subscription MMOs, and the free to play ones make their money from digital assets sales, that sort of thing. The subscription model is an incredibly good model, it makes a lot of money. But there's a kind of expected level of polish, service, maintenance and so on. So we're seeing a split between high end MMOs choosing subscription, and lower end choosing free-to-play models. That's kind of interesting because it's backwards compared to how it works in other industries. Usually it's the niche, elite product that charges a subscription and the mass market project does tiered services. More and more MMOs will be providing free client downloads, trials and so on. Way back you couldn't even try MMOs without paying for them. Eventually everyone will have to give their game away for free and the question will become: what are they selling? Access to tiers of service, items, what? Project that ten years on and the landscape is going to be really different. We're all asking: who other than MMO can afford to make a Blizzard level MMO? Who else can lay out the kind of money required to make that high-end hit?

RPS: It does seem that the market is oversubscribed, Vanguard's failure probably demonstrates that. But perhaps the subs model needs to be moderated, and the development moderated too. We need mid-level MMOs that are designed anticipating 100,000 players rather than a million. MMOs probably need to do less like, say Empire Of Sports. Have you seen Empire of Sports?

Koster: No, not yet. Which one is that?

RPS: It's the French/Swiss sports MMO, which has a kind of central player hub where you hang out, deck out your flat form up teams to play the sports events which are the real 'game' of the piece. F4, the developers, are saying they want to deliver a really cheap sub, or even make it free, by introducing advertising. So there's a potential for a third route in MMOs, so you're don't have to pay a huge sub, but maybe you pay a couple of dollars, and have an option for advertising and micropayments, and all these other systems to support the game financially. Models like these could be used to support more esoteric development. And I think the problem right now for gamers like me is that MMOs don't actually cater to my tastes. I'm stuck playing Eve because I don't want to play the free games like Maple Story and the browser games, nor the high end fantasy romps like WoW. I want a third way for the MMO.

Koster: That's the thing that is most interesting to me. It's the question of whether gamers like you will be satisfied by the changes in the market. The thing that's driving the cost at the top end is a bunch of presuppositions about the level of presentation and the progress into high end graphics, and 3D card support. Of course if Blizzard had tried to do top-end graphics with WoW they'd probably have failed and been sold by now. They chose to spend on art direction, rather than technology. Blizzard was on the block when WoW shipped, and it saved them. They were for sale and the game was a huge risk.... Anyway, I think the browser games will get better and better and the high end games will get more and more expensive. I think you'll hit a point where these free browser games are good enough that gamers like you say “okay, they're good enough now, we can give them a chance”.

RPS: The progress towards high-end, realist graphics is just going to have to stop though, isn't it? I mean 2007 showed us that the relatively abstractly presented games like Mario Galaxy, Portal, and Team Fortress 2 were far more interesting, and far more successful, than the graphical muscle of Unreal Tournament 3 or Crysis. Aren't developers going to have to back down on their graphical ambitions?

Koster: Perhaps. You look at triple-A games on the consoles now and they're at the margin of what is actually affordable. We've got a long life-cycle for these consoles and how much will it cost to make the games in 2012? Who will actually get to make them when they cost this much more? The PC is on a gradual upward curve, but the consoles are on a wratchet up, so you really see the step up in costs.

RPS: Designers need to look at some other stylistic options, rather than rely on technology.

Koster: And there are harbingers of that in games like, say, Okami. Nintendo does this well: look at the way that Zelda was reinvented. Mario Galaxy would not be significantly improved with displacement maps...

RPS: Anyway, we're way off topic here. When can we expect to get our hands on some of what you're working on with Metaplace? Are we going to be logging into the beta soon?

Koster: Well the plan is that we'll be letting people as players, not having the full building tools, but just allowing people to play with what the alpha testers have created, in February. Then hopefully by April anyone will be able to come to the Metaplace site and make a world.

RPS: We might just do that. Thanks for talking to us, Raph.

Koster: Thankyou!

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