How Playable Worlds is building a cloud-native sandbox MMO
Playable Worlds, an online game company that Raph Koster and Eric Goldberg founded, is making a “cloud-native” massively multiplayer online game.
But what that means is still a mystery, as the company isn’t yet disclosing the game details like the lore or the setting. But in an interview with GamesBeat, Koster and Goldberg talked about what they’re trying to achieve and dropped some clues about their approach. It will be a sandbox MMO with a player-driven economy. It will be a living place, where players can make a mark on the world, and simulation drives the environment. Naturally, I tried my best to figure out what the game is by asking Koster and Goldberg to tell me what the game is not.
Koster has been trickling out the clues in his blog posts. Koster’s games include Ultima Online, Ultima Online: The Second Age, Ultima Online Live, Star Wars Galaxies, EverQuest II, and Metaplace. He also wrote a game design book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Goldberg is a role-playing game designer and an investor in game companies. His exits include Playdom (sold to Disney), PlaySpan (sold to Visa), and Pixelberry (sold to Nexon). Both Koster and Goldberg talked about their plans in an interview.
Koster and Goldberg are fans of the metaverse, the idea of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. But Koster made it clear that their project is a “sandbox world” online game first and foremost, accompanied by a service and technology suite that makes it a very ambitious work.
The company raised a seed round of $2.7 million in funding in 2019, and it raised another round in 2020.
“We are leaning into collaborative design. We’re going to bring up the design and we will talk to the player community,” Koster said.
With the advent of the cloud, Koster believes game makers can provide a wider variety of gameplay and a more accessible game. For instance, you won’t have to wait to download large patches anymore.
One of the goals is engagement and retention, meaning how long do players play for and how often do they play. And how long do they stick with a game until they stop playing for good? The goal is to turn the game into a hobby that becomes part of life for years to come. The reason they do this is because a game is “fun,” but fun isn’t particularly measurable.
Game makers have different ways to keep players engaged, like nurturing pets, crafting things, tearing down or harvesting, and combat. Koster and Goldberg know a lot of fun is driven by how people learn and eventually master tasks. The trick is how to create something that people don’t outgrow, the way that kids outgrow toys.
Competition is one way to keep players interested, but many people don’t want to become esports pros. And so cooperation and collaboration are important parts of sandbox games as well.
Koster said it’s good to create a game that welcomes diverse playstyles, which results in stronger communities that last longer. Players need a change of pace or they become bored. Players who contribute to an economy can make a faction stronger, and that helps the combatants fare better in battle.
Game designers can escalate the difficulty of challenges to put players on a treadmill, but that only works until players realize they’re on a treadmill and that it’s no longer fun. The designers can also create things for players to collect. Players will put up with these progression paths, so long as they’re fun.
Koster wants to provide players with lots of ways to play and ways to move between them freely. Players can specialize in a skill tree of advancement, but they can also dabble in other things. Koster said that designers should think of their projects as services and communities, not games. His first virtual world was LegendMUD, which is still running after 25 years.
The key is to create a service that establishes a long-term emotional relationship with a player, but that means the designers have to earn the player’s trust, prove their value every day, and treat the relationship as valuable. That requires transparency in communication, and that’s one reason why Koster is blogging about the game already.
Personalized and social gameplay
“Social design is one of Raph’s strengths,” Goldberg said. “If there’s one thing this game will do, it’s about community and retention.”
Koster added, “We are trying to design the entire game around social systems. The big thing about this is it means recognizing all of the different ways in which players play these games, and not just combat, not just narrow ways to play. We are doing a game that allows players to come and choose the ways in which they want to play across the different kinds of play styles. Whether that is combat, whether that is crafting, whether that is exploring, whether it’s various forms of social support.”
The different styles are interdependent, Koster said. You don’t have to party up with each other, but there are reasons that a combatant will need the services of crafters periodically. If players don’t want to fight, they don’t have to. The crafters will need the explorers. The economy of the game ties the players together.
When Koster did Ultima Online, the company ran ads about whether players wanted to crush enemies or bake bread.
“The answer is it turns out a heck of a lot of people want to make chairs,” Koster said. “It was supposed to be a game about blasting people in the face.”
Back in the day, Koster got criticism for enabling players to dance in Star Wars Galaxies. It seemed silly, but the Fortnite Dance played a big role in making that game famous, and so no one questions things like that anymore.
“We are explicitly trying to think forward to what are other important ways in which players can express themselves,” Koster said. “We want to have ways to reward players for engaging in things that they’re fans of, whether that’s the intellectual property or the environment.”
Players love to do things like hunt, make maps, gather information, and be the first to explore a mountaintop.
“People love to do that, but games often leave these out,” Koster said.
Goldberg was one of the skeptics about dancing in Star Wars Galaxies, but he acknowledges he was wrong about that. People will pay more for a game that allows personalization, he said.
“Personalization is still one of the most important things,” Goldberg said.
The company’s sandbox MMO will have features that enable at the very least the low-end of user-generated content, Koster said.
“We’re very much designing this,” Koster said. “A real-world society needs all sorts of people doing different kinds of things. There are many ways for players to engage with an alternate world. All of those should feel viable and rewarded.”
As for the crazes of the moment, there’s no plan right now to implement nonfungible tokens (NFTs) or cryptocurrency, Koster said.
What is a cloud-native game?
“Cloud-native technology is certainly important,” Goldberg said. “This is cloud computing, you can summon the force of lots of CPUs to be able to do your stuff and do things you cannot do with the client game.”
By cloud-native, the company is thinking of games like Roblox, which runs on servers in the cloud and can be played on virtually any device.
Playable Worlds isn’t talking about platforms yet, but Koster said that as a cloud-native game, the company won’t care which device you’re using. You should be able to access the experience of the game, regardless of the way that players are trying to access the game.
“We see these devices as just screens,” Goldberg said. “The most crucial thing is the degree to which the game is running on servers in the cloud, as opposed to being about game clients. Most games today are client bound. But Roblox works almost more like a browser does. We are aiming in that same direction.”
Koster added, “They’re basically all windows onto the virtual world. Now, different sizes and shapes of windows, onto the virtual world do have different control affordances. They have different usage patterns, right. And doing good social design means paying attention to that. So we are building a game where there are some activities, where it will always make more sense for you to be sitting at a desktop while you use it. But there are other activities that are bite-sized. There’s no reason that you couldn’t do them on a phone while you’re in line at the grocery store. And we’re explicitly designing around that.”
The game may not, however, be playable on every device on day one.
Simulating a living world
Exploration has often been capped because all of the environments have to be hand-built, and you run out of maps to explore, Koster said. He recalled playing Seven Cities of Gold on an 8-bit computer, where you could go to the top of a mountain or into the deepest swamp because it was procedurally generated.
“Cloud compute lets us do more simulation than what we typically see in handcrafted environments,” Koster said. “It’s still sad to me that when we were dreaming of online worlds, we wanted the seasons to change and the worlds to be dynamic. But they’re not.”
Koster wants to create a world that is dynamic. He said it’s long overdue for games to simulate chemistry, where you can mix things together and get something else, and not just physics. Goldberg said you should be able to have a game where you could fire at some attackers, miss them, hit some trees instead, and set them on fire. You could further shoot at the attackers, miss them, hit a dam instead, and a hole opens in the dam. The dam bursts, the water spills out and puts out the fire. The next time you log into the game, the dam is still busted, Goldberg said.
“We think of this as build a truly living world,” Koster said.
Some games have had dynamic events like rifts opening up in an existing MMO, or changing weather.
“All of those were set pieces that designers created and said they would put them into the game,” Koster said. “Once upon a time in EverQuest II, we implemented dogs chasing cats. And that’s fine. But it doesn’t mean that cats chase mice and so on. There’s a difference. Our world is a simulation. Everything is data driven and everything is simulated.”
Koster said the team is building a lot of proprietary tech to make the cloud-native game. Playable Worlds is aiming for a shardless game experience. The game isn’t necessarily aiming for an experience with giant crowds, like having giant battles.
“It’s so clear that that is the future,” Koster said. “The whole notion of shards works against player community. It was a necessity when we built it in the 1990s.”