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Raph Koster's Postmortems Book Review: A Walk Through the MMO Graveyard

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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When it comes to game development, there are few who have devoted their entire careers to crafting virtual worlds. With a professional life spanning the early days of MUDs to modern-era MMORPGs, Raph Koster has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience, ranging from content creation to mechanic design and even leadership. As such, that distilled wisdom could be a potential goldmine for everyone from genre enthusiasts to industry professionals.

Postmortems: Selected Essays Volume 1 is the first in a planned trilogy, where Koster aims to provide an “inspiring historical look back” on some of the games that have marked his career. Presented as an anthology of work, it collects some previously published material and publishes it alongside fresh analysis and introspection into some of the key design decisions made, and why they ultimately succeeded or failed in their goals. The result a book that’s part chronological record, part critical autobiography.

Covering more than 20 years of game design, Postmortems focuses on topics that are close to Koster’s heart, including class versus classless character structures, social features and engagement, and the thorny issue of player killing. Even so, this isn’t a textbook. Unlike Koster’s previous work - A Theory of Fun for Game Design - the lessons in this latest work aren’t as instructional or explicit. Just as with the games, tracking a particular topic or facet as it evolves through the ages may take a bit of legwork.

The Human Perspective

Surprising as it sounds, online gaming didn’t begin with Everquest. It’ didn’t even begin with Ultima Online, even though this game is regarded as among the first graphical MMO. No, most modern online virtual words can trace their roots back to Multi-User Dungeons, which originated way back in the 90s, and where Koster got his first taste of online game development as part of the team behind LegendMUD.

It’s here that Postmortems starts to dispense wisdom, describing some of the early character designs and abilities and sharing initial zone design. But there’s also the start of a much longer and wider philosophical battle between player freedom and character immersion on one hand, and player restrictions for character safety on the other. In later chapters this point becomes increasingly complex and multi-faceted, as Koster strives to strike a balance between systems that can support deep or emergent gameplay, and ones which fit into the server storage and support limits of the time.

The development of a game’s feel and vision, and how online game mechanics contribute to or work against them, form a substantial part of Koster’s retrospectives. But it’s very much from a human perspective, discussing and dissecting player motivations in Bartle-esque analysis. Although it touches on server and infrastructure design, Postmortems doesn’t contain details on how to implement an MMO from a technical point of view, even though much of the guidance could be used to build a paper design for one in theory.

Quest for Solutions

Throughout much of Postmortems, the constant refrain of player flexibility rears up. Topics such as player killing, state engines and switch systems are brought up in both Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, where Koster was the Creative Lead and Creative Director respectively. The merits and challenges with user-generated content is threaded throughout, from the early days of custom descriptions for items in LegendMUD, through to the creative freedom offered by Metaplace.

And yet, Postmortems is not a textbook that chases a topic through from start to end. Although it highlights design choices that didn’t produce the desired outcomes (including some errors that Koster sees in hindsight  as critical mistakes), these are presented in a game-centric format. If your quest is to mine exhaustively for insight on a particular thread, you’ll find yourself reading (and tracking) the topic throughout the book. That said, Koster does a great job of making content accessible with his gentle writing style and a comprehensive index.

It’s sobering to realise that some of the same sociological and psychological problems being faced by  MMOs and their developers today were first identified in MUDs some 25 years ago, and still remain as open challenges. Even so, it’s clear that Koster refused to become jaded by the experience, instead using his experience to help others avoid making the same mistakes when trying to overcome them.

Understanding the Meta

Ultimately, Koster’s Postmortems is a valuable compendium of insight and essays that has significant value for both developers and genre enthusiasts. It lays down a body of knowledge on virtual worlds that sits alongside Richard Bartle’s more clinical analysis, providing clear and practical examples in an easily digestible format. The index also means that it has the potential to work as a reference with a little leg-work (although digital editions have the benefit of being searchable).

Behind-the-scenes revelations also provide insights into studio tensions, and help to clarify why certain decisions were made. These glimpses aren’t presented in a salacious manner, but are carefully shaped to provide background and context. Even so, the coverage on Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies make for compelling reading by fans of either titles or more general MMO followers. There are even lessons to be had about those developing and managing massive multi-user platforms more widely, as these are strong implications about the intersection between system/ interaction design and human behaviour.

But there’s also a vital point which emerges near the end of Postmortems. As Koster starts to sum up, he refers back to his vision behind virtual worlds and the experiences he worked to build. Without saying it, he articulates why MMO fans have struggled lately with titles such as Destiny and The Division, and why many of us find them disappointingly lacking.

This is the crux. Intentionally or otherwise, Koster gives form to the unicorn that so many of us have been chasing for a decade or more, and which always seems just out of reach.


Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.