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Areae president Raph Koster is perhaps best known as a designer of Ultima Online and the previous CCO of Sony Online Entertainment, and in this in-depth Gamasutra interview, he discusses his views on 'game grammar', the uniting of MMOs and online worlds, and the software patent problem.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

October 19, 2007

37 Min Read

Areae president Raph Koster is perhaps best known as a designer of Ultima Online and the previous CCO of Sony Online Entertainment, but his new venture capital-funded project, Metaplace, hooks snugly into the 'mainstream online world' angle that is a world away from the hardcore MMOs he formerly developed.

Koster is one of the most notable cheerleaders for a paradigm shift in the game industry away from alleged hardcore-centric insularity, In this extensive interview, conducted at last month's Austin GDC, Gamasutra discusses his ideas for a working "game grammar" for developers and much, much more.

I wanted to talk about your work on game grammar, as discussed in your AGDC lecture and in previous and upcoming books. Have other people done that before? It struck me as very much like a structuralist, or post-structuralist kind of theory. I don't know if you agree.

Raph Koster: It's certainly not developing out of thin air. I think there's a bunch of predecessors. In the late '90s, we had Doug Church talking about "formal mechanics," or something. We had Doug Church back then, and we had what I think of as the "Looking Glass Mafia" of people -- the MDA stuff, which was Marc LeBlanc, and Robin Hunicke, and somebody else's name that I'm blanking on. So it was that kind of thing. There was all of the work that Chris Crawford did -- an awful lot of what I described in the model is premised on his description of how interactivity works. He wrote the accessible book for game designers, and the very dense and really rich book on interactivity.

Didn't [game veteran and Marble Madness creator Mark] Cerny do something, too?

RK: Mark Cerny's thing isn't quite the same. There's lots of stuff. The grammar stuff is just taking it a little bit further. My goal, originally -- it's kind of funny that the grammar stuff has actually gotten interest and attention this year. It was my lowest-rated lecture ever when I gave the original lecture at GDC three years ago. It was actually lowest-rated because it was split. A bunch of people thought it was awesome, and then a bunch of people said, "Whoa, total freaking waste of time!"

476pxraph_coster_web_2.0_conference.jpgI think now they're paying attention to it because you're doing some weird new company thing, and they're like, "Well, we have to listen to him now!"

RK: That certainly helps! Pretty much every other creative field has ways of notating what they do. That was the original question -- can we notate this? That's actually what I wanted -- a notation system. Nobody has been able to come up with a good notation system yet, but the thing about trying to come up with a notation system -- we want it, because god damn do design documents suck as a means of communicating game design.

The thing I always say is that building a game off of a game design document is like trying to film a movie off of the director's commentary. One is not the same as the other at all. What I wanted was a way to notate what was going on, so that we could communicate it effectively. In trying to do that, what you end up at is, "Well, what are the things that we want to write down? What is pitch? What is key? What is tempo?"

The way that you broke it down, I felt like I needed to look at it and analyze it to make sure that it wasn't missing anything.

RK: Oh, I skipped over lots. It can't be that simple.

You said it so succinctly that it was easy to go along with, and so I just wanted to make sure that I didn't really go along. Have you written a book about it yet or anything?

RK: No. It's actually for sale on Amazon now, but it doesn't exist! Isn't that a neat trick?

Hey, that's cool. You're making good money!

RK: (laughs) No, not really.

Selling virtual items, that's what you're doing!

RK: (laughs) Yeah! The publisher's been wanting this book for a while. Part of the reason why I put this talk together in the way I did was because it prodded me to actually organize some of it. I've been writing bits and pieces of game grammar stuff on the blog for a while too. I've had a few knock-down, drag-out fights about whether the word "grammar" was even right. Frankly I don't even care very much. It's there in part just for the alliteration, I'll admit it. The process is kind of hard, actually. It's easy to look at something like Space Invaders and do that breakdown... It's really hard to do it for poker, as an example.

Anything that has an element of luck or risk, really.

RK: Well, it isn't so much luck. This is something I gloss over entirely in the lecture, but it isn't so much luck. Luck is easy. Luck is just a black box that spits out a number.

We do suck at randomizing things, really.

RK: We do. Computers suck at randomizing in one way, and we suck at odds assessment really badly. We're awful at it. It seems to be a human brain issue. It's not something we do well -- just like computers just don't do some things really well, our brain does that really badly.

The thing that's complicated in grammar is the question of assets. Are the pieces in chess -- you look at the array of moves -- are the pieces in chess verbs, or are they assets you manipulate? In a deck of cards, when you have a hand in poker, are you manipulating the cards as tokens? It's weird questions like that that are kind of picky. They lead to questions like, "Are chess problems content, or is each chess problem actually a new game?" It leads to weird nomenclature questions like that. That's actually a thing that was really weird and tricky, especially when you try and diagram it and end up going, "Well, do I have to actually notate every single one of the 52 cards in poker, or what?"


It does seem like in chess, each move is a new game in a way. It changes the whole thing, for one thing.

RK: Right. So I say that all games are iterative. I also say that all games are turn-based. And finally, I say that all games have more than one turn. They're always iterative. There's always a starting state, and then you do shit, and then there's an ending state. And sometimes, the ending state becomes a new starting state. So when you move the pawn in chess, now you've got a new chess layout that you have to think about. But then you have the choice of, "Well, which piece am I going to move?" And each piece has its own topological space around it, because they all move in completely different ways.

The fact that they move in different ways -- that they have different rules -- is that content, or is it mechanics? Are landscapes content? I tend to think that landscapes are content, and therefore, arrangements of chess pieces are content. But then when you go forward, they are verbs, and that means they are actions that you take. It gets weird. That's probably the kind of thing that will make people reading this interview go, "What the fuck? Who cares! This cannot possibly be useful!" (laughs)

It seems like an area in which the game academia should be looking seriously. That's the kind of problems that those people's brains are designed to solve and write long-winded things about.

RK: Yeah. But you know what? When music went through its big formalization period, it was actually musicians who did it. The Well-Tempered Clavier was done by a musician, not by an academic. We usually have tended to see that, but a lot of that stuff actually gets done by practitioners. I've listed off a bunch of practitioners who are doing stuff with it.

But they don't have time to do it all the time, or get together and figure out the one true way.

RK: But we do get together! It's the hidden secret of the industry. We have these cool secret retreats where we go meet.

And talk about grammar?

RK: Sometimes, yeah!


RK: I'm not making this up! Project Horseshoe, that got some ink. That's what that was -- that was a game designer retreat. There's several of them, and we have forums where we talk about stuff like this. Game grammar was actually born on a private game designer forum. That's where I put together the first outline of game grammar.

When I was looking at all the stuff you put down in the way it was there, just laid-out and dissected like that, it didn't look like building from those pieces... it was difficult to discern how, by using these pieces, you would create fun.

RK: The pieces did not give me a recipe for fun. They gave me a really good way to see when something wouldn't be fun, which is kind of interesting, right? I'll go back to music notation -- you look at a piece of music notation, and you're not necessarily going to know if it's going to be a great piece of music. You can often tell if it will be a crappy piece of music! I think that's kind of an interesting thing -- a lot of notation systems do that. They show you the absence of stuff more than the presence.

I found it when I was doing it, and then other guys, like when Andrew McLennan did it -- he's the guy at Slam Games, working at ITI Techmedia and Metaforic -- they did the GDC talk last year, where they used a game grammar approach to quantify the difficulty of going through levels of an FPS. The kinds of things they found, was they were able to find shelf events -- places where people would just quit. That kind of thing.

When you put together even a simple diagram -- even one using the kind of level that I have or [Lost Garden blogger and Gamasutra columnist] Dan Cook has [in his 'Chemistry Of Game Design' article], which is pretty high-level -- it's not near as complex as the Stéphane Bura one that I showed. Pretty straightforward. You can see places where we ask the player to solve a problem that is trivial, like "Push a button." Then we ask them to solve another problem that's trivial, then another problem that's trivial, then another problem that's trivial... and pretty soon you have crafting in an MMO.

You can see in the diagram where there's no systems -- it's "UI Action, UI Action, UI Action, UI Action, UI Action." That sticks out as unfun. (laughs) Right? You can see places where nothing branched, for like, forever. You can spot the unfun, but it doesn't tell you if it's fun.

I ended up with a list of criteria that's in A Theory of Fun -- it's in the book, actually -- which is nine questions you can ask. It's stuff like, "Did the state change from last time, and does that matter?" If it didn't change, then what you're making is probably less fun than it ought to be. Chess would suck if after you made a move, the board stayed the same! "Did you have to make a decision, and was skill required in the decision?" If you could roll dice and do as well, it's not as fun. There were like nine things. If you're missing some of the nine, then your game is probably in trouble.


With what you're doing now, are you attempting to divine and create fun? I don't even know if what you're going for is that direction.

RK: I think there are elements... it's not like this stuff happens sequentially. It's not like you say, "Oh, I'm working on game grammar, and therefore that will determine our game design methodology, and therefore..." It just doesn't work that way, at least not for me. It's more like, "Oh, I've got this going on in my head, and I'm also playing these games and reading these books and I'm also designing this other thing..." It's only afterwards that I can say, "Look at that! The design was influenced by game grammar!"

So that's how it came about. You mentioned that this thought process was influencing what you were doing and how you were thinking about what you were doing, but I guess it wasn't intentional. You didn't sit down and go like, "All right. I'm going to figure this out."

RK: It's not prescriptive, is the way to put it. It's not like we sit down... game grammar doesn't come out of your ass! On the other hand, our technical architecture is heavily driven by exactly those game grammar slides. In the end, you look at it, and you go, "Oh. Yeah. Look at that." So yes, there's inspiration, and yes, stuff crosses each way.

Often, most people write their music at a piano or at a guitar, and they use the notation afterwards to capture it, look at it, and see if they can tweak it. I think it's similar there, where you go through the design process and you can be thinking about notation, and at the end you can go back and go through the kinds of exercises I did. In this case, those nine or ten other "Hot or Nots" and "Line Riders" or whatever... all that was, "Okay, I'm consciously going to take game grammar, analyze that stuff, and use it as an analysis tool." I see that as similar to using Nicole Lazzaro's stuff as an analysis tool, or Harvey Smith's stuff.

One thing that was interesting to me during your AGDC lecture was that I got this feeling -- and this is probably wrong -- that some of the subtext was, "You guys are doing this stuff wrong. You're not thinking about it right, and you're kind of wasting your time." I just got that vibe.

RK: Vibe? I actually used the line, "I think we've been thinking about games wrong!"

It sounded more like a "you." Like, "And I'm going to do the awesome thing now!"

RK: That wasn't really the intent. Part of it was that you try to be provocative in the lectures and whatnot, so that's part of it. I'm certainly not going to claim to have all the answers to anything, and I don't think anybody can.

As I commented in the [later] panel, I do think there's two conferences going on. After the lecture, I had a couple of people come up to me and say, "Man, you're always saying wack shit. What the hell. That was totally crazy. I love that you're saying it, and somebody's got to, but that was nuts." And then I had a couple guys come up to me from the web industry and say, "This is obvious stuff. Did they really not know this? This is just boring as hell." I was like, "Okay! I guess we have a divide here!" To some degree, I think there is a need for preconceptions to be challenged, let's put it that way. That's why I come out and make bold statements. "Single-player is doomed!" or like...

Christian Nutt: "Consoles are a niche market!"

RK: "Consoles are a niche market."

Which is true.

CN: I came to agree with what you were saying at that point, or I understood the perspective and it does have merit and weight to it. But when you say it like that, everyone's like... (gasp!)

RK: That's the point! That is the point! If they're going to argue against it, then they start having to marshal facts. Then once they have some facts, they can make an informed decision. But otherwise, you don't tend to marshal the facts. You just go along in your current mode of thinking. So it is to be provocative, and try to upset the apple cart and make people think about it.


With the talk you gave, it made me wonder, "Does stuff even need to be a traditional game to be a game and for us to be whatever?" and like Habbo Hotel... Haro called it "a gameless game" yesterday. On the other hand, I also saw Nexon's Maple Story talk, which is very much a game, but is doing a lot of the same things as well, but within a structure where there's no way of saying that it's anything else but a game. You could say it's "stuff and a game" but you can't say "it's not a game."

RK: The way I would respond to that one is to say yeah, and all the triple-A MMO developers didn't go to either one of those two talks!

CN: I love when you chided everyone. I watched Sulka Haro talk, and I wrote about it, and I could feel this slightly electric vibe of tension between the MMO guys in the audience and Haro. I don't want to overgeneralize, but... I got this "We don't like you, and you don't like us," kind of feeling, because they feel like he's doing something different.

RK: Sulka has been coming to GDCs for years! He's a guy who has been bridging the gap all along. Honestly, it's more cases like... Nexon never comes out and talks, because they really do think that they're just a different industry, as far as they're concerned. I don't want to ascribe motives -- I don't really know -- but they just don't do the talks! Because honestly, how relevant would many of the talks here this year be to them? Not very! I think it's really, really, really important that people in any industry get out of their village and go anywhere else and check out what's going on. Travel is broadening.


CN: The game industry has a lot of that in a lot of ways.

RK: It really is an insular industry in so many ways. Our biz-dev guy -- he's new -- he came over from our VCs, actually. So he's not from the game industry or even the virtual world industry. He spent eighteen months researching it, and spent eighteen months working with us, but I'm walking around the parties introducing him to people, and he's like, "I've seen the same people 48 times." And it's like, "Yes!" We are, very much, a tight-knit community.

We are a group. One thing that was actually interesting to me about Maple Story was that I actually had been somewhat interested in playing it before, and I got interested in playing it again after looking at all those cute graphics on the screen. The thing is, I hate MMOs. I have no interest in them, or in virtual worlds. However, I've been on social networking sites -- I like looking at peoples' Flickr, and stuff like that -- and so I wonder if that kind of lighter stuff is the sort of thing that can get people like me in.

RK: Do you play Live Arcade at all?

No. But it's mostly because my console just isn't plugged into the internet yet. But I'm not compelled yet -- I'm not interested because I can just go over to my friend's house and play.

RK: As a gamer, me personally, I'm the kind of guy who tends to play games only when he's got friends over on a couch, and then it will usually be console. I very rarely go out and seek out PC games. If something comes out on PC and console, I'll probably play it on console, and I'll try to get people to sit with me on the couch as we go through it. Even in the PS1 days, we worked through Wing Commander on the PS1.

That's how I'm playing BioShock -- with a bunch of people on the couch.

RK: I can totally relate. I have been hooked on MMOs. It seems to happen to me once every three or four years that I get hooked on an MMO for a while. It lasts about three months, and then I get unhooked again. I'm off-cycle with everybody, because I didn't get hooked on WoW. So, I totally relate. I do think that there are experiences out there that are things that you would be into.

puzzle_pirates.jpgI think the potential exists, it's just that no one's trying to go for it. I don't see a whole lot of people trying to bring new users into MMOs.

RK: New users are coming in, but it's certainly not the mainstream game industry that's trying or doing. GoPets is a blatant attempt to bring new users in. So it's happening. Puzzle Pirates was a direct attempt, and obviously all the kids' MMOs are direct attempts. It is out there. It's just the mainstream industry is very hard to push that through for so many reasons.

Do you think it matters if it comes from outside the industry or within?

RK: It matters to the people who make a living from the industry. I don't think it matters to the overall history of the genre. I think as a medium, online games and virtual worlds are going to continue marching forward, but history cares very little for the fate of individual companies.

We had this huge inflection point in 1996 that coincided with the web. Before that, there were lots of people making millions of dollars doing online games and MMOs on CompuServe and GEnie and AOL. Then, a bunch of MUD people -- text MUD people who had been doing it as a hobby and who couldn't afford to play on the closed online services -- happened to bump up against money from a couple of big publishers, and the MMORPG was born.

Today, Simutronics is the only one of those old companies that used to make millions of dollars that is even still around. Mythic used to be the other, but they just got bought. But the others just folded! Actually, EA bought about half of them.

So it's entirely possibly for there to be a whole industry going on, quite happily making tons of money. The ground can shift out from under them and the barbarians who come in at the gate do what they were doing, only do it in a fresh way, and just put them out of business. I think there is the risk that we're seeing that happen now, because every ten years or so, it seems to happen.

Even the creation of the MUD in the first place was that. It was the Internet-based reaction to the stuff that had existed on the microcomputers and the Plato network and all of that. All of a sudden, "Oh, wait! We can put a text MUD on Arpanet!" And it was like, "Whoa!" and it spread like wildfire, and all of a sudden, all of that other stuff went away. So it's really possible for that stuff to be happening now with microtransactions, with portals versus traditional publishers, with digital distribution publishers versus traditional publishers, and with MMOs from MTV versus MMOs from Sony or EA or NCSoft.

My perception is that single-player experiences are still going to be valuable to some people.

RK: No question.


I'm hopeful that those kinds of things are still going to stay around. The way people are talking now, it's like, "Well, this is going to be everything! This is the industry!"

CN: Is that the converse of "The PC market is dead?"

RK: Well, yeah. I'm one of the people who went out there and said, "Single-player gaming is doomed," and I actually used that phrase. An Xbox Live Achievement is a soul-bound item, and Gamerpoints are experience points, and BioShock is a one-man instance dungeon in the Xbox Live MMO. That is the direction that single-player gaming is going, frankly.

CN: That's an observation that I think has a lot of merit.

RK: I think that all single-player gaming -- all of it -- is going to have spectator modes, presence, chat, persistent profiles, and all of that shit. I think every single-player game is going to do all of that.

CN: It's heading towards that in the arms race between Sony and Microsoft on the console side.

RK: That's not even where it's interesting. Frankly, the interesting thing is like Bethke said. Like Erik said, it's on Live Anywhere. The potential! We'll see how Microsoft executes, but the potential of having Xbox Live for every PC game is pretty dramatic. If they really wanted it to work, they'd make it an open API and let every damn Flash game on the Web use it, and then Microsoft would literally own every gamer profile on the Internet. But they probably won't do that!

This is a total aside, but I was wondering why you were using Kongregate instead of Newgrounds?

RK: I love Newgrounds -- Newgrounds kicks ass -- but Kongregate has an achievements system.

Ah! Okay.

RK: So there's a metagame to Kongregate. Every time I blog about Kongregate, actually, a whole bunch of people come in referred and then I gain Kongregate points! They have that metagame going on.


There are ratings on Newgrounds as well, right?

RK: There are, but they don't have the whole badge system and everything else. So no offense to Jim Greer -- Kongregate is my poster child now. I'm sure there'll be another on in three months. But whatever. Newgrounds is awesome, and pre-Kongregate, I would've used Newgrounds.

CN: Something I wanted to talk about but wasn't really gotten to with both the Haro talk and the panel you participated in, was the sweet spot between Warhammer Online -- which is extremely hardcore -- and Habbo Hotel, which is very, very, very casual. There is success in both models, but there doesn't seem to be a game in that sweet spot.

RK: I think every game that is successful, at the millions of users level, bridges. I think that WoW would not be successful if you could not play it both casually and hardcore. I think clearly -- looking at the slides Sulka shows -- there are crazy-hardcore Habbo Hotel players. Damion Schubert likes to talk about how his mother is hardcore on Windows Solitaire. She's obsessive about it, and plays constantly.

CN: I guess I mean by intent. I think WoW does have that intent, and that's why it's successful -- because they understood that better than most or many -- but in some instances like... I can't really speak for Habbo, but it probably came as a surprise to them that people were playing it to that hardcore degree when it happened.

RK: Yeah, I think some of it is reaching the right people who are willing to be hardcore about it. Those people are certainly not going looking in the game store. They're not going into GameStop in the first place. I think there are games that are crossing over in that fashion. I think Maple Story actually is one of them.

Yeah, I was going to say that.

RK: It's casual pretty well, but it's a deep and complex game.

It's got leveling and all.

RK: Yeah. I think a lot of stuff like Shot-Online and Albatross 18 -- aka Pangya Golf -- have a lot of that kind of thing too.

CN: I think that's what I'm looking for, personally anyway. I don't know if that's what the industry is looking for. I've never wanted to play an MMO, but I would like to play an MMO, if you follow what I'm saying.

RK: It's one of the kinds of things that I find kind of ironic, actually. I got plenty of arrows in my back for... like when we did UO, we had crafting, and competitors -- all of whom are gone now -- had banner ads that showed "logs plus rope equals chair... or do you want to slay a dragon?!" Well, it turned out that the answer was, "No, people want to make chairs!" People made so much fun of us for having the crafting-type stuff in there.

Lots of people were like, "Why would I want to do that? Who wants to go work in a virtual world?" was the line everybody always used. On SWG it was dancing. Everybody was like, "Dancing?! It's Star Wars!" and I'm like, "But the Cantina, and the slave girl!" and they're like, "Dancing?! It's Star Wars!" Today, if you go on YouTube and you do a search for WoW, I bet on that first result page will be dancing.

Now, of course what we see is stuff like that, that's really regarded as non-central, non-core gamer, these huge casual MMOs are taking just the one feature. Coke Music is just the music system. Audition is just a dance system. It's a whole freaking MMO! It's one of the most popular MMOs in the world. It's massive in Korea -- it's like top five or something. So I find it weird and ironic and financially disappointing (laughs) that somehow this stuff... because that is the stuff that makes it have the interesting crossover. That is the place where you find interesting bridges that cross hardcore to casual and let both kinds of people be in the same world.


CN: I'm a fan of the offline Final Fantasy games, but that hasn't resulted in interest in any MMOs for me.

RK: So what you should do is try Three Rings' Bang! Howdy, which is a cowboy-themed Final Fantasy Tactics online. I'm trying to think of a better analogy, but it's kind of in that ballpark. We haven't made enough different kinds of games for some of those things to pop up, but they absolutely could exist.

Me personally, I can't stand that kind of... I love the stories in those console games, and I hate the combat. I'm like, "You know, if I could play a Final Fantasy and skip every random encounter, I would so do it!"

Are you concerned at all by the potential privatization of the internet that's going on? That certainly would prevent the whole Play Anywhere thing.

RK: I don't think the whole net is going to get privatized. I think in the grand scheme of things, issues like net neutrality -- which got dealt a big blow yesterday.

I didn't see that.

RK: Yeah, the DOJ essentially came out saying, "Eh, it doesn't really matter. We don't really need net neutrality." I think for people who are really, really close to the problem, which includes game operators, of course it's a massively big deal. On the grand, historical scale, I'm not sure that it is, because I think to some degree, market forces will make it so that if we have a non-neutral net, market forces are still going to push prices into certain kinds of tiers, and it will have to be reasonable because the ecology of business will demand it.

I would still prefer net neutrality -- flat rate, much simpler for everybody -- but I recognize that it's actually an uncommon business configuration to have a service or utility that only offers a flat rate. That's really unusual, and honestly, internet connectivity is a utility. It's increasingly acting like a utility. I want net neutrality. I'm not sure if we're going to get it or keep it. I think it will be disruptive, but I don't think it's the end of the world. I think accommodations are reached, essentially. It might be painful for a while, but far more worrisome to me would actually be stuff like censorship or surveillance.

What do you think about the stuff that MMOs have to go through to come out in China?

RK: That kind of stuff I find as being far more worrisome. Imposing a surveillance burden because of Homeland Security or the Chinese government or whatever will probably cost a company far more than net non-neutrality. That kind of stuff is far more worrisome on many more levels than the question of whether one guy pays more for a byte than another guy.

I was talking with Sulka about your game grammar stuff, and I was asking him if he thought there could be some sort of global language for games -- not necessarily the words, but the terms and the things we call them. He thought it was maybe impossible, because of all the various differences that come up when you're entering different countries and things like that. But we do have the same terms for film and stuff, pretty much.

RK: Sort of. You kind of need to make the distinction between the terms for film that are for tools -- like "dolly shot" -- and terms that are of film grammar, which is way vaguer and half in French.

Yeah, like "mise-en-scène."

RK: Right. I think a lot of people will argue about "mise-en-scène", for example. I named the first book "A Theory of Fun" very much on purpose, and this one is "A Grammar of Gameplay" very much on purpose, because again, I look at music and I go, "Huh." If I play guitar, there's chord diagrams, there's harmonic analysis, there's standard music notation, tablatures... there's a lot of different ways to get at this stuff, and it's very much a good thing.

So I would expect and hope that we would have variances in grammars and approaches and models and all the rest, because the more tools the better. I think there will be commonalities. Things like the definition of a boss monster probably does cross culturally fairly well, but actually the definition of a character has turned out to be something that shifts a bit when you cross.

CN: A very striking example, if you look at the prominent developers of an ostensibly same-genre game, is BioWare and Square Enix, if you're talking about character. That's a vastly different concept.

RK: Vastly different definitions, right. But you can get both groups together and they'll be able to use the word "hit points" with no problem. It's very dependent on the specific.


I also wanted to ask you about patents, because you mentioned...

RK: (laughs)

CN: Everyone loves patents!

Well, he does!

RK: Well, no, I said, "Evil but necessary."

I know, but -- and this is going to sound combative -- it does seem strange to me that we're in a conference where everybody's trying to help each other out and stuff, but if you have an idea that's so good that you're going to patent it and keep it, then that can't ever be shared and nobody can do it ever again.

RK: Actually, that isn't how patents work. What a patent does is you say, "Hey, I have this idea, so I'm laying a stake in the ground. I'm laying claim to this." And they don't let you lay claim to it for very long. It's twenty years, which -- compared to the other kinds of IP thing -- is microscopic. Copyright is insane at this point. Trademarks are infinite! So a twenty-year patent is like peanuts.

Even then, it means that you lay claim to it, but it doesn't say anything about whether or not you'll let other people use it. You can patent something and then say, "I put this patent in the public domain." You can patent something and say, "Go nuts. If people use this idea, I'm going to turn a blind eye." You can say, "Oh, here's a patent, and if you want to build on it, then just give me a little cut, because hey, I spent a lot of money to come up with this."

CN: Midway does that with ghost cars in racing games.

RK: And then there's people who outright say, "No, you can't come in." It's when people use it really punitively that it's really obnoxious. And it is really obnoxious, I completely agree with that. So they can be abused, absolutely. It's just like copyrights and trademarks can be abused. Like every time Disney makes somebody paint over Mickey Mouse on some preschool wall -- give me a break, right? I have the same reaction when patents are abused, especially when patents are granted for obvious stuff.

This is just a generic problem with patents -- there's too many bad patents. That's a challenge. But if somebody really does invent something totally earth-shattering, or invent something not necessarily earth-shattering -- just a very specific little highly useful thing. It's like, "We made this cool thing and it's a really useful tool!" They should be able to sell that, and not have somebody just copy it and run with it. So they are kind of necessary. Greg Boyd gave a great talk on legal issues.

I didn't get to see that one.

RK: I've blogged it. One of the points he made about patents is that part of the reason why they're necessary for startup companies is because patents are your leveling up. They're you going, "And we have, in fact, invented something that's been vetted by outside people as being actual stuff!" Boom. There's one. And boom -- there's another, and boom, there's another.

What that does is that it means from a crass point of view, it means your company value goes up. It's like, "Look, they've done work!" It also means that... let's say you make something. Somebody else is going to come along and work in the same space. You've kind of staked out an area around yourself. It's like, "Oh, they're doing that." It forces the other company to be more creative, rather than just cloning everything. It's got lots of tradeoffs. They are evil in many, many ways, but...

ps3sixaxis.jpgIt's hard to see past the whole punitive thing. It's certainly arguable that -- and we don't have to talk about the specifics of it -- PlayStation versus Immersion... did they really copy them? Who knows?

RK: Who knows? And obviously I don't know either. The thing is, in a lot of these cases, it comes down to, "Should someone have been allowed to patent the idea of a controller that wiggles? Or are we actually arguing about the way the motor works, that makes it wiggle in a really good way?" Those are pretty different kinds of questions.

I think most people, if you said, "Well no, they invented this really badass motor and it's inside this little black box. You really should check it out. They came up with a whole new way of making wiggly motors," most people actually won't freak out. "Good for them. They own that. That's awesome." Most people wouldn't be freaked out. It's when they turn around and say, "No! This applies to every wiggly device in the universe!" that people go, "No it doesn't!" It's a tradeoff.

I guess that's the concern. Someone patented moving a camera through a 3D world.

RK: I know all about that one. In my professional opinion, prior art existed on that one. (laughs)

And if what you're going to be patenting is things like, "I invented this specific way of storing data in caches!" it's...

RK: Yeah, we're not going to be patenting... no. None of our programmers like software patents either. So when we go to put together a patent, we do it in such a way where we go, "Well, we're going to patent something that we actually feel comfortable patenting." Actually, you can get in trouble for... it costs you tons of money. It costs you tens of thousands of dollars. So going to do a patent on something stupid is stupid. It's true -- sometimes people angle for these big things on purpose, to try and lock up something. It's like, "Oh, well... You really shouldn't have." So there's no doubt the system is flawed.

CN: A common argument is that the patent office really isn't hip to the groove of what tech is doing.

RK: It's gotten worse for them, too, because the pace has increased so much. It's gotten harder for them. That's absolutely true. So to some degree, there are some benefits to you as a company. The right thing for our company to do -- and I realize that it's hard for us to think of companies doing the right thing, but it is actually possible -- is to be responsible about how you use the system, and patent things responsibly, not stupidly, indiscriminately, over-aggressively, and graspingly.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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