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

Morgan Ramsay Posted:
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Ramsay: On previous games, did you work with people in your current position?

Koster: It's not an unusual structure, actually. It's not unusual at all. It's what Bing Gordon did at EA on games like Privateer Online. I used to do some of the same work when I was chief creative officer at SOE. Inside Playdom, it was institutionalized with a group of people who were called the creative directors. And, at Disney Interactive, there was a creative council, where I advised on things like Fantasia and Disney Infinity.

Ramsay: When we've spoken previously, I understood that you didn't enjoy that aspect of your roles at those companies. You want to be hands-on and make games.

Koster: It's not that I didn't enjoy doing that part; it's that I wanted to do my own things, too. And, currently, I am doing my own things. I help out on Crowfall, but not that long ago, I was working with Buzztime on Jackpot Trivia, and I've been doing board game design. But I still help other teams where the games aren't mine. I go in thinking, "This isn't my game. They have a vision. They have something they're trying to accomplish. How do I help them make their own ideas, their vision, their game better?" I'm using different muscles in a way.

Ramsay: Online games have an interesting problem: they're designed to be played by many. You've even said they need to be deployed to a live audience in order to test them. Crowfall hasn't been deployed yet. How do you know if you've found the fun?

Koster: A lot of fun comes moment to moment. You can test moment-to-moment things, like physics and combat, in isolation, so they've been focused on finding the fun that they can right now and in a way they can test internally before the first public tests later this year.

With large-scale systems, like faction balance and campaigns, you need more time and people. You do end up spending a lot of time on paper, so to speak, and in some ways, you just have to take your best informed guess, based on the lessons of the past.

Sometimes those lessons might seem really minor. For example, why is Crowfall going with tiered resources rather than totally discrete numbers? Over the really long haul in Galaxies, one problem emerged was that having so many different variations of resources led to dead ends: resources would accumulate and didn't matter to gameplay. We learned we could get better gameplay if we had fewer variations. Decisions like that end up being made from lessons learned, but I agree it's hard to see the consequences until you've got tons of players.

Ramsay: Is designing, building, and testing a game like Crowfall easier than developing a game like EVE, for example, which absolutely requires a lot of players?

Koster: I think Crowfall in particular has a really clever design feature that works on multiple fronts that does make it a lot easier, and that is the limited campaign durations. The campaigns are designed so that they can have different rulesets, so if a ruleset turns out to be not as fun—maybe it's too long, too short, or they need to bring in more or less resources, or they have the balance wrong on how many different strategic elements are on the map, and so on—they can just run a different ruleset next time. It's almost like a genetic algorithm kind of approach where you can keep trying different meta-level rulesets.

EVE, because it's a single giant simulation, doesn't have that freedom. They would have to fork EVE to try out that sort of thing. But that's built into the design of Crowfall, so, in that sense, it is easier. I don't think it's a bad thing to choose designs that are intentionally easier to solve, but you do have to make trade-offs, like instead of having a single continuous universe, you have more of a metaverse. It's just a different design direction.

Ramsay: UO has lasted so long because, in your words, the team created a living fantasy world. In Crowfall, while the characters are persistent, the campaign worlds are not. How can a game where the living fantasy world is so temporary hope to thrive in the same way?

Koster: One of the challenges for a simulation world is "how much can you allow players to actually change?" Early on in UO, we had an abstract resource system that would have allowed players to, for example, start forest fires. We ended up saying, "Because this has to be a single persistent world that lasts, we have to curb the degree to which players can affect it."

In the case of Crowfall, between voxels and the limited campaign durations, we can actually let players affect the world much more. Crowfall can feel more like a living world because, although the campaigns will end, the fact that they will end is what lets you really change things.

And outside the campaign, you have the Eternal Kingdoms, which is, in the fiction, almost like Heaven; it's the part that doesn't change. The Eternal Kingdoms are your hubs, where you engage in building your real estate, building your kingdoms. That's a really substantial part of the game. The Eternal Kingdoms are critical to the economy, the crafting system, and as meeting places for the social dimensions of the game. Everything that happens in that hub is central to your player identity, and in some ways I know I can't talk about.

Ramsay: When people hear your name, they think crafting, sandboxes, and the living social world experience of UO and SWG. And so whenever you're in the news, someone inevitably asks, "When are you coming out with your next sandbox?" How do you feel about that?

Koster: Something like 95% of the games I've done over the last 20 years has never been seen by the public at all. Puzzle games have been a key part of what I've done for a decade and a half, and only two of them were visible on Metaplace for a little while. Most players don't know that has been a passion of mine for a long time and always has been a part of what I do. There just hasn't been a way for them to get to market. So, sure, people think "this is what that person does," but it's because, well, that's what happened to make it out the door. And MMOs happen to be what I was lucky enough to get paid to make.

But I remember when, many, many years ago in grad school, I was hanging out on the music boards on Prodigy and the new Suzanne Vega album was out. I complained that that album, the new Shawn Colvin, and a few others felt overproduced, too slick, and too much like big-budget projects. Somebody older and wiser than me replied, "I understand you don't like the direction this artist is going. That's fine. At the same time, if you're a fan, you should be willing to follow them wherever they go. You won't necessarily like the new direction, but if you appreciate their work, let them explore. It's how they do what they do."

Being 100% beholden to an audience and doing only what they expect of you can feel like a straitjacket. I'm not complaining. I love that people still want me to come back and make sandbox MMOs, but I worry sometimes that people have built up this picture in their heads that I'll come back and solve all of the problems. That's giving me a little too much credit.

Right now, I'm basically indie and consulting on the side, but I'm going wherever the muse takes me. I'm really lucky to be able to do that. I wouldn't rule out doing another sandbox, but what I'm doing now is a lot of the smaller projects I've wanted to get out there for a really long time.

I'm putting the finishing touches on a book of poems from my blog. That's very close to done. And I'm working on a book of game essays, a lot of which are things like the Galaxies essays that are up on my blog. And I'm one song away from finishing a new music CD.

In May, I was in Europe, doing game design workshops at companies like Wooga. But I'm still working on my own games, too. I've got a bunch of board games I'm looking to take to market. Several are pretty far along. At least one has been ready for over a year. We've been exploring ways of getting it to market and have some exciting partners for that one. I've been consulting and helping a variety of teams. Gosh, I've even helped out on a console sports title.

There's also really cool project I've been working on with people that isn't announced yet but which is really out of left field. A lot of people might say it's not really a game at all, but that one's mostly aimed at the mobile market. You know, I don't want to disappoint the MMO crowd, but MMOs are definitely not everything I do.

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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.