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Raph Koster on MMOs, Their Future, and Crowfall’s Place in the Mix

Morgan Ramsay Posted:
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Raphael "Raph" Koster is an award-winning game designer and creative director best known for his work on Ultima Online (UO) for Origin Systems/EA and Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) for Sony Online Entertainment (SOE). A pioneer of massively multiplayer online games, Koster is regarded as one of the video game industry's foremost authorities on game design.

In January, ArtCraft Entertainment, cofounded by J. Todd Coleman and Gordon Walton, announced that Koster was collaborating on Crowfall, which the company describes as "the unholy love child of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and EVE Online."

MMORPG.com contributing writer Morgan Ramsay caught up with Koster to talk about his role on the ArtCraft team, Crowfall, and how they're applying the lessons he has learned.

Ramsay: How did you get involved with ArtCraft?

Koster: I had been working with Gordon [Walton] at Playdom on a game that never came out, so we were talking constantly during the period. We left at the same time, and we kept in touch about what the heck was going on in our careers and what people were doing. I actually got to watch at a bit of a distance as he and then Todd got together and formed ArtCraft. To some degree, I was somewhat in the loop before it even existed.

Ramsay: Gordon was involved with Ultima Online. Did you work with him before Playdom?

Koster: Absolutely. Gordon came over from Kesmai to run the UO service a little bit after launch. We had very small team then because so many people had moved over to UO2, and a whole bunch of people had left the company, including the original programmers. I was the only original team member left on UO.

Gordon was hugely into UO. He was really, really hooked on it, so when he came in, he very quickly turned into a mentor for me. He introduced me to the larger world of game development. Origin was my first industry job. I didn't know much about the rest of the world. He and Rich Vogel encouraged me do things like submit presentations to the Game Developers Conference. They said, "Look, you've done something here that's impactful. You need to think about your career." After our first one-on-one, Gordon flew me to a game conference where I got to meet people. It was just a huge, huge thing for me.

We've ended up each other's bosses more than once. I worked for him, and then later on, I was the chief creative officer at SOE while he was an executive producer. He didn't report to me, but I was higher up in the food chain. So, yeah, we've swapped positions back and forth in that way a couple of times now. We've known each other a really long time now.

Ramsay: Had you worked with J. Todd Coleman before?

Koster: No, but I've known Todd since Shadowbane started. I even visited their offices way back when they were getting going. I don't remember exactly why, but that's when I met Todd. He went on to do a bunch of other things, and we would see each other every year at conferences. It wasn't unusual for there to be a big dinner he'd organize every year and I would usually go to that. We kept in touch that way, but I never worked with him.

Ramsay: Crowfall is described as "a seamless blend of a MMORPG and a large-scale game of territorial conquest." What does that mean exactly?

Koster: Most MMOs still follow the model where you level up by advancing through PvE content, unlocking the ability to tackle more content we've crafted or scripted for you. But the core of Crowfall is really about PvP, or realm versus realm (RvR), which goes back to the text days, to games like Shadowbane, Dark Age of Camelot, and World of Warcraft (WoW). But Crowfall makes RvR the central part of the system, rather than a peripheral feature.

The heart of Crowfall is the campaign worlds. You can participate in relatively persistent, long, and large-scale PvP campaigns where multiple factions are fighting territory battles to control key strategic points, resources, and so on. These are not straightforward and easy two-hour events; they're real campaigns. We're talking battlefields that could last a month. So, you go in, fight your battle, there's a winner at the end, and resources flow back to the Eternal Kingdoms, which is the housing area. That's a pretty different model from what we've seen.

Ramsay: Crowfall is trying to do a lot of things. There's genre blending. It's persistent and not. There are elements of competitive multiplayer, roleplaying games, and real-time strategy. There's voxels and procedural content. Do you think Crowfall is trying to do too much at once?

Koster: It's easy for it to look that way from the outside, but a lot of what they're doing aren't so much new inventions as bringing back ideas that haven't been explored in awhile.

If the concern is whether Crowfall is too ambitious for the budget, for the team size, and so on, I don't think so. I think a better criticism might be: are too many aspects looking to the past? But I don't think that's really true either. I think we need the market to be more diversified, and the Crowfall team is super conscious of the fact they're not making a game for everybody.

Everybody else has been chasing the WoW numbers because the costs are so high. By making Crowfall a PvP game, not a content-driven game full of quests, Crowfall is able to rewind time on things like costs, hugely. Quests are easily an enormous amount of the cost of a modern MMO. By not doing a PvE extravaganza, they're able to instead spend those dollars on other things.

A lot of people might point to the voxels, for example, but at this point, you can get a lot of that almost off the shelf, working with Voxel Farm, and so on. It isn't quite as scary. They don't have to invent quite as much. Crowfall cleverly puts together existing ideas and existing technologies that unlock potential that hasn't been pursued in a really long time.

Ramsay: Why do you think that potential had been abandoned?

Koster: There were several efforts trying to push new directions, but WoW shifted everything. Right before, we had Galaxies pushing simulated worlds and The Sims Online pushing a mass market social world. But Galaxies disappointed and Sims Online disappointed. Neither broke through to the mass market. Then WoW comes around, streamlines the hell out of EverQuest, and captures 90% of the market very, very quickly in the space of days after launching.

When you see something like that, the money starts to chase that, and that's what happened for the next ten years. Given the rising budgets and the need to compete with WoW, that's where all of the dollars went. Other branches on the family tree just didn't get tended, they didn't get watered, and they didn't get any attention.

Eventually, we started rediscovering those branches in very different ways. Today, Grand Theft Auto has more in common with Galaxies than with many single-player games. Minecraft is very clearly a great-great-grandchild of that kind of online world. And World of Tanks is very clearly a great-great-grandchild of the PvP MMO. The definition of MMO had narrowed to WoW, but the ideas didn't go away; they've actually been very successful, just elsewhere.

Ramsay: And now the money is chasing MOBAs and mobile games like Clash of Clans.

Koster: And Minecraft. And DayZ. And World of Tanks. All three of those are huge successes. But today, you can run an MMO server of your own with Minecraft and sculpt the world any way you want. Minecraft is a total MUD throwback in that sense. Ideas come back.

Ramsay: With sandboxes in again, now's a perfect time to make your own game, right?

Koster: Of course, you'd come back to that! Everybody comes back to that. [laughs]

Ramsay: Tell me about your role on the Crowfall team. Are you still working with them?

Koster: Oh, I'm still actively working with them, but it isn't just "he's doing the crafting." It isn't that straightforward. I'm almost like an editor on call. "Hey, here's a design thing that we're wrestling with. Come in and look at it, give us your opinion, and help us arrive at decisions."

I'll get a pile of design documents to read, and I'll actually go to Austin and sit with them. They'll walk me through game systems, decisions, and open questions. I'll be a designer on the team, having discussions with them. Periodically, we'll spend a few hours on a long Skype video call, holding up sketches in front of the camera as we try to explain design ideas to each other.

It's interesting as a relative outsider. I'm not there every day, but I think there's value in not being there, coming in, and being able to say, from a bit of a distant position, "Hey, from the outside, this looks like that," or, "hey, did you think about this?"

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Morgan Ramsay

Morgan Ramsay, bestselling author of Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play and Online Game Pioneers at Work, has interviewed more than 50 leaders in entertainment, technology, and sports, such as EA founder Trip Hawkins, Gaikai CEO David Perry, and NFL punter Chris Kluwe. Follow him on Twitter (@MorganRamsay) or visit his website at theramsayinterviews.com.