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Where Game Meets Web: Raph Koster Speaks Out

Raph Koster is one of the best-known names in the MMO space, but he's no longer preaching to the Ultima Online choir, and has a strong message - the MMO biz "...is doomed because the web is stealing their thunder." How so? Gamasutra talked to him to find out.

  Raph Koster is an author, long-time MMO developer, and most recently president of Areae, a new virtual world development company dedicated to making something “fresh and new” out of the “tired and old.”

Koster's career has spaned a number of highly visible online titles, including Ultima Online, on which he served as the lead designer on both it an its Second Age expansion. He also worked as the creative director on Star Wars Galaxies. At GDC ‘07, Koster spoke about the future of MMO’s and the intersection of video games and the internet.

Gamasutra: At GDC you gave a talk called “Where Game Meets Web.” That seemed to be the focus of your comments on the MMO panel, too. Is that the big issue on your mind right now?

Raph Koster: “Where Game Meets Web”: that's the one where I basically said that everyone in the industry is doomed because the web is stealing their thunder. This industry isn't working with the web very well at all...Basically, the talk was kind of a tour through some of the products that are games from outside this industry, games that are doing spectacularly, games that we don't even pay attention to because we don't think of them as being part of our industry.

GS: But it seemed like the other panelists, for example Mark Jacobs, disagreed with you about the big impetus for future games coming from out outside the industry.

RK: That's because those people aren’t looking. Consider the statistics. Webkinz, 2.5 million uniques in December; you buy a plush toy. Runescape: we still don't think of Runescape as being part of our industry, but it's probably the most popular MMO in the world, more popular than WoW.

Toontown is up to more than 2.5 million uniques now. We never talk about Toontown because it's web deployed. Then of course there’s was Club Penguin, with 4.5 millions uniques in December alone...When you compare the numbers, all of those are larger than the number two MMO in the western world, every single one of them. So yeah, I think people are missing something.


New Horizon Interactive's popular massively multiplayer online game Club Penguin

Similarly, there’s something up with the ways we do our development practices. The web principles are release often and fail fast. We don't do that. We plan for two or three years, putting something together and then dumping it out there. With the web guys, it's just a whole different method of operating. Flickr patches every half hour.

I think we have to look at the current game industry as being a subset of big media, and big media is running into some issues lately. It's not that they're going to go away, and it's not that they're going to have less power. Well, maybe they will have less power in some ways. But what's happening in the other industries, like film, TV, music, publishing, is we are seeing a radical redistribution of power--where the money is going and where the eyeballs are going.

Some of the industries have adapted better than others. We're seeing TV reach a decent accommodation pretty quickly, whereas as music, music just sort of flew head long into a wall and threw up its hands and now it's cringing in the corner dying, melting like the Wicked Witch of the West. They're in the position where the industry is suing its own customers because they like its product. Something is completely wrong there.

We shouldn't kid ourselves; we're in the exact same boat. The only reason that isn't happening even more with us is that our industry isn’t relying on proprietary record play. Can you imagine if there was a standardized platform games, if PC were it, what would happen to the games business? The answer is, we'd be screwed.

GS: Wouldn’t there also be more room for creativity since the medium would be open?

RK: Absolutely. My warnings aren't about games. They’re about the current industry. Through all this, games will actually thrive.


  GS: What about the new prominence of indie games? Is that a crack in the foundation of big industry?

RK: It definitely is. When you start seeing developers setting up distribution portals of their own, when there's this amazing, burgeoning low-level indie scene, when garage games are high end technology, we start seeing that burst of stuff.

When we think of indie games, we think of stuff in the Independent Games Festival, but frankly stuff in the IGF is amazingly gorgeous. The stuff that I see hanging out down low. There are unbelievable things that are being done in Basic and in Flash. We're talking thousands of games.

GS: Where does something like the One Laptop per Child program fit into all this? They’re going to be giving open-source technology to kids around the world and encouraging them to program.

RK: The one thing the web makes sure of is that there are enough content creators to make any given content creator irrelevant, or superfluous at any rate. Even something you might slave over endlessly and put your best professional energy into, some guy off the street is going to trump you. We saw that happen with Geometry Wars. That came out, and then within 48 hours we started seeing the clones, and a couple of the clones I played were better. It's like, “Hmm, that didn't take long.”

The other thing is, I think we're having our lunch eaten from outside. MTV launched more MMOs in the last six months than any of the major MMO companies. What the hell is that about? Plush toy MMOs. Where is that coming from? You look at all the recent announcements for MMOs, and it's like, “Wait a minute, every one of them is a media licence.” Which is the tail and which is the dog here?

What does it mean when these guys come in? When MTV went to make Virtual Laguna Beach, they didn't hire people from the games industry, and yet they had a lot of success. They had a better launch then Dungeons and Dragons Online, and on top of that, they're doing stuff we only wish we could do. They stream the TV episodes in the worlds before they come out on TV. I think big media will screw it up a lot, but they have effectively infinitely deep pockets. It's because they know that their territory is going away, so they're going to crowd into ours. They think that they can take it away from us, and they may be right.


Sony's upcoming PlayStation 3 virtual community, Home

GS: What were your thoughts on Sony’s Home?

RK: I missed the keynote, so all I've seen is YouTube. I think it looks really pretty, in a way that the current social worlds don't. It struck me as being still very much a big media play. Besides that, it looks very closed in terms of what it does. I’ve been watching the reaction from the kind of virtual world, metaverse type people. They all say, “Second Life!”

I don't think of this as Second Life. I don't think it's that at all. It looks like a controlled, closed environment. To me that's very different. It'll be interesting to see how that goes, because I think within the big companies themselves there are conflicting goals and desires. How do you reach out to the web and the new stuff while still maintaining control?

So where does Areae fit into all this?

RK: On our site we say what we're trying to do is marry MMOs and Web 2.0, and we mean that pretty literally. Plus, we're looking to be deploying much sooner than everybody thinks, hopefully before the end of the year. I hope we’ll bring together the best of both worlds, but you'll have to wait another month or two to know more.


  Do you think your background in writing has affected your approach to the industry?

RK: A couple of points here. One, I think the industry is sucky at writing. There are some shining exceptions, don't get me wrong. But on the whole, our average is pretty low. The other thing that stands out for me is that games so, so, so aren't about writing and so, so, so aren't about story. The more we make them like they are, the more vulnerable we are to Hollywood, because that's what they do for a living, and they're very good at it --whereas we're lousy at it. It's not playing to our strengths.

Games are not content. Games are systems that content gets put into. Still, we keep insisting on making these tiny simplistic little systems and spending massively on content. Well, that's a bad recipe for a couple of reasons. One, we're not all that good at it; other people can do that kind of content better. Two is that’s exactly the kind of thing that is dropping in value, the content. There are more and more sources of content, and they're all free. Why are we putting our expertise there, when we should be putting it where we're weak?

How about your sensibility as a writer? Has that impacted your work on MMOs?

RK: Sure it has, but in some ways it's like saying, “Hey, you're an architect. How does that change your guitar playing?” You're dealing with two completely different mediums. For whatever reason, the games that I make tend to be very systems-centric. I really enjoy writing quests and things like that, I just don't have time to do it. I used to do it more in the MUD days.

What fiction there is in Ultima Online, I did a lot of that. I also think my background in writing carries through in my desire for greater emotional depth in the games. Games can cover a much broader thematic subject area, not just triumph and frustration.


Electronic Arts' MMORPG Ultima Online, on which Raph Koster worked as the lead designer

As part of your panel presentation, you brought up the America’s current mass importation of culture from Asia–something of a reverse cultural colonialism. Does that apply to games as well?

RK: To start with, there's the manga on bookshelves, there's cartoons on television, and frankly, yes, there's the games. We're seeing more and more come from Japanese culture. To have a generation of kids who grew up on Pokemon, that's a very different view than growing up on Bugs Bunny, a different framework, a different mind set. When you're talking about kids — like my kids are nine and ten -- easily half their cultural consumption comes from Asia. Even the stuff that seems like it's Western isn't anymore.

As for why, some of it is just plain old globalization. Some of it is related to specific industry factors. Like in the comic book industry, things had grown incredibly small. They were in crisis, so suddenly there was this huge opening of the market and the explosion of manga. It came in with books aimed at girls. There was a vacuum that this rushed into.

It also depends on the vibrancy of a given thing, and our cartoons and our comics and our games must have been at least somewhat "eh," otherwise we wouldn't have been getting such a massive influx of games from Asia.

So is anything else grinding your gears right now?

RK: For one, GDC got way too damn big. I'm serious. I mean big in every sense. It's odd how enormous it is, how E3 glitzy. To me, that's a little worrisome, because it means even more focus on giant media, giant graphics, just big. The whole world is moving to small, and here we are chasing big. It makes me go, “Hey, this industry is like this giant ship that isn't turning fast enough.”

To me the themes of the conference were big vs. small, indie vs. established, innovative vs. same-old same-old. I think those are often the themes of the conference. There's a lot of that sort of vibe everywhere. I mean, they were turning people away at the door of the Three Rings presentation. It’s interesting when small studios like Three Rings are the ones that feel like they're driving the agenda.

Meanwhile, even Miyamoto's keynote was about small and different. The big corporate announcements are the ones that people are like, “Did you see that?” “Yeah, okay, but oh, the password is ‘tentacular’ at the Three Rings party!”

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