This is the first entry in what may end up being a series regarding interesting figures in the gaming community. Raph Koster, the lead designer of Ultima Online and former Chief Creative Director of Sony Online Entertainment will be my first subject.
Raph began his career in gaming after graduating from Washington College in Maryland with an English degree in 1992 and started work on LegendMUD. From that point he moved forward with his education and ended up graduating with a Master’s degree in Poetry from the University of Alabama. He then somehow made the jump from there to the hugely influential Origin Systems and became the lead designer on Ultima Online.
Using this experience Raph then moved to to Verant Interactive/Sony Online Entertainment and began work as creative director of Star Wars Galaxies. With Sony Online Raph grew into the role of Chief Creative Officer and worked on Everquest 2 and subsequent expansions until 2006.
At this point Mr. Koster moved on from Sony to form his own company, Areae, with the intention of creating a software platform that lets users create their own virutal worlds. This plan was realized with the release of Metaplace. Mr. Koster changed the name of his company from Areae to Metaplace and as of today that is where he is at in the world.
I first read about Raph when I came across his blog, simply titled “Raph’s Website“. Intrigued I typed his name into Wikipedia and began reading about a guy that was recently placed at #11 in the top 20 most influential people in the MMO industry. I then checked out Youtube and found a video featuring him speaking at a industry conference. At this point in his career he has the luxury of being able to speak on topics such as the theory of virtual economies, social networks, and games about tasting a peach, but I found it very interesting to watch.
The topic of the video seems to be the distinction between “playing” and “gaming” and how they should be approached. The primary point that he presents is that games today are essentially giant spreadsheets that keep track of what a gamer accomplishes and assigns them imaginary rewards for reaching different milestones. He then presents the idea of creating a game about the abstract concept of tasting a peach and talks about the questions that brings up.
A point he brings up during the discussion is that the biggest and most successful games on the market are the ones that present very little choices for the gamer, and pegs them into roles that need to be fulfilled or they fail (World of Warcraft is the example). He says that the games that present the most amount of freedom to gamers, with the biggest worlds and least amount of restrictions fail to find an audience and never make it off the ground.
I feel that though Mr. Koster has noble views on what games should be, he hit one of the major issues of game design on the head with those statements. The average gamer cannot function without a defined set of rules to follow and achievements to fulfill. If there is no carrot on a stick for a gamer to chase after then there is no reason for the game to go on. The challenging part of this idea is that also, if the carrot is too far out of reach for them they will stop and move on to something else. This is really the supreme challenge for MMO designers and something most of them fail at. This need for fulfillment through achieving different milestones is something that exists at a basic level in human nature and something that games, especially MMOs, feed on to successful.
There is an interesting question from the audience during the discussion where someone mentions that social networks like MySpace have such large populations that the lowest common denominator becomes the accepted norm so that a baseline for communication can be established. I feel that this also holds true in the social network that exists in games such as World of Warcraft. However, I believe that MMOs have become so popular that this network has extended beyond individual games and rather exists as an MMO community rather then one particular game. When you speak to an MMO gamer they have generally tried a large number of different games and when a new MMO comes out they run out and try it right away. What we see now is large numbers of gamers from different MMO populations converging in a new game and falling back on the lowest common denominator of communication and expectation.
So a problem is born from that base level of expectation. A game designer needs to fulfill what is expected of their game to hook gamers in, but they also have to find ways to push the boundaries and create new experiences to keep gamers there. Creating different versions of the same grinding treadmill doesn’t work and that is why we have so many MMOs failing these days. Just look at this announcement today saying that Matrix Online is going to be shut down in two months.
I applaud Mr. Koster for exploring new ways to bring games to gamers, and thank him for his thought provoking ideas presented in this discussion. The video can be found here:
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