Longtime MMO developer, Gordon Walton, has joined Playable Worlds, the company building a new cloud-native sandbox MMORPG helmed by Raph Koster. Walton joins Playable Worlds as both Executive Producer and Chief Product Officer at the company. The hire was announced alongside the addition of Omar Abdelwahed as the new Vice President of Engineering.
If the name Gordon Walton is familiar to MMO fans, it should be. Walton has worked on multiple MMOs since their inception, having worked on games like Ultima Online, The Sims Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Abdelwahed, the newly named Vice President of Engineering, brings 20 years of experience to the Playable Worlds team, having helmed technical teams at Ubisoft, 2K, Playstudios, and more throughout his career.
"I'm an old game guy, " Walton told MMORPG.com in an interview this week with a laugh. "Hopefully not old and tired, but old."
Walton's career spans decades, starting out publishing his first title in the late 70s. However, his passion for multiplayer titles really took off after a stint at Kesmai and then joining Origin, helping to run Ultima Online. From there, Walton went on to work on Maxis' The Sims Online before Walton joined Ultima-alum Raph Koster at Sony Online Entertainment to work on a little game called Star Wars Galaxies.
"So I ran that for a couple of years," Walton said, referring to his tenure at SOE. "And then when I left [Sony Online Entertainment], my partner Rich Vogal - Rich left a little later than I did from Sony. - but we were working on what we were going to do next. And we knew there were only a few companies in the world worth working for an MMO. And we eventually started BioWare Austin for BioWare."
At BioWare Austin, the duo would head the team that built the next Star Wars MMOG, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Gordon describes SWTOR as probably the biggest game he's ever worked on, which is still trucking on over a decade later.
After a stint at Disney, Walton, along with Todd Coleman started ArtCraft, which Kickstarted the Throne War MMO, Crowfall, which was released Summer of 2021 to mixed reviews. However, as Walton stated when he announced his departure from Monumental (the company that bought Crowfall late last year) in April, he wasn't necessarily looking for a new gig - but the perseverance of CEO Raph Koster prevailed.
"I went over to Monumental, which I really loved to be there. But Raph Koster and Eric Goldberg, who run [Playable Worlds], had been bugging me for a while to come over, and finally persuaded me that, yes, they really, really needed me. And they really understood what that meant to get me and, frankly, they're doing something that's pretty exciting. Super challenging."
As a result, Walton will be heading the team helping to build the vision that Playable Worlds has been drip-feeding fans over the past year: a cloud-native, sandbox MMORPG that aims to create what Koster in a press release states will be "meaningful online interactions and unforgettable experiences." However, Walton understands that everything follows you, both successes and failures, with his most recent venture, Crowfall, leaving a lot to be desired.
"In our business, everything follows you, right? The good and the bad. It's always good to keep in mind that essentially 95% of all games fail. So every time they work, it's a miracle. If they work in the market, if you get them shipped at all, it's a miracle squared."
Walton went on to state that while he felt he was super open with the Crowfall community about what he felt Crowfall's issues were, he also understands that there might be people who don't want to interact with Playable Worlds due to how his previous venture turned out.
"That's their choice, right?" Walton stated. "I'm here to make Playable Worlds work and the game that we're working on, and that's what I'm going to do."
Walton continued, mentioning that he feels he's learned a lot more in his games career from those failures versus the successes.
"I think I've learned a lot more from the mistakes than from the successes. When you have success, you start patting yourself on the back and going, 'Yeah, I must be brilliant! I was here and this cool thing happened.' But in fact, all my learning has actually been more from the failures or the setbacks. So coming [to Playable Worlds], I have a lot of experience, both good patterns and bad patterns to draw from. And I hope that we mostly focus on good patterns where we are at Playable Worlds."
Exactly what Walton will be doing as part of the Playable Worlds team is by helping to build and manage the team that will bring the vision of Playable Worlds to life. Walton describes studio co-founder Raph Kosters as the visionary, while he is more the one to help execute that vision. As such, his role will be to help build the team and help put it in the best position to succeed in building the vision that Playable Worlds is trying to bring to life.
"That's another reason for me to be here is to kind of help Raph realize what's up to because I'm not here to put my stamp on the game. My job here is to get the game done. I'm a public figure because I've worked on a lot of games, but I'm rarely the spokesperson. I'm the person trying to get the game done behind the scenes. And that's what I'm here to do at Playable Worlds. And yes, I'll have to be a little bit public about it later when we're ready to talk, but that's not my real role. My real role is building a team that can actually succeed at building the game."
For old-school MMO fans who enjoyed titles like Ultima Online and notably Star Wars: Galaxies, the reunion of Raph and Gordon, who worked together on both of those titles, might feel a little like getting the band back together. This relationship lends itself well to the two working together, with Walton stating he recognized just how talented Koster was early on in their careers together. Stating that he recognized Raph's talent very early on, he went on to talk about some of the brilliant ideas Koster had, and how he was oftentimes " way ahead of his time."
"I'm not the visionary, right? I'm more of an executor."
As far as who Playable Worlds is trying to reach with its upcoming MMO, it's a bit broad. While there will be some definite nostalgia for many MMO fans thanks to key members of the Worlds team having a hand in crafting some of the biggest MMOs of all time, Playable Worlds is also looking to reach those players who may not have experienced, say, Ultima during its heyday.
"Yea, we're making Raph's vision, but we're making it for people. I think the thing you talked about the nostalgic, you know 'we get some of the people together who made some of those games.' But when were playing them, they were fresh and new, right? It was that idea [of] look at all the 'possibility space' that these games contain. So yes, we want to get more possibility space back in gaming. "
Walton went on to talk about how modern games of any genre seem to tout "MMO" features. We've seen the rise of MMO-like genres: MMOARPGs, Survival MMOs, and most recently, MMONFT games, over the years. Many players who may not have experienced Ultima or SWG during their prime might still have played an MMO-esque game that Playable Worlds is looking to attract.
Exactly what Koster, Walton and the team are building remains mostly shrouded in mystery. We know they are building an MMO that will be cloud-native. We also know that they are looking to create a sandbox MMO where players can essentially be what they want and interact with each other in ways that are meaningful, in a world they belong in instead of a themepark where the player is along for the ride.
Walton equates the philosophy to what we experienced in Ultima Online: that feeling of the unknown. You never knew what you would experience next over the horizon.
"What was the underlying feeling of UO? Particularly the pre-Felucca/Trammel UO? There were kind of two underlying feelings. One is you were pretty much in terror the whole time you were playing because you knew you were gonna get killed sooner or later. But the other one was you really didn't know what was going to happen as you rolled around the world and went around the next corner. I call it the 'Over the Horizon" effect. You want to go over that horizon, because you might be confronted with something you've never seen before, or experienced before. That sense of wonder, that sense of discovery is what a lot of games have lost at this point."
Walton states that one of the "key pillars" of the MMO Playable Worlds is developing is a "living world." While he didn't elaborate one what exactly that would look like in their MMO, Walton did state that it is very core to the experience that players should have when jumping into the MMO down the road.
At the end of the day, though, Walton says he's eager to help this crazy vision come to fruition. He tells me that the team is definitely "overreaching" with what they are trying to build here. They aren't simply trying to build the same thing other teams are working on. They are looking to "change the landscape."
"And that's a major part of the reason I'm here: we are trying to do something just a little bit crazy."