Welcome Back, Koster: Why an MMORPG vet is back building a new virtual world
After a few years of working on other things, veteran online game designer Raph Koster(Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies) is back in the MMORPG business.
"I think certainly the Gama audience doesn't think I've been gone, but players think I've been gone from games or something," Koster said during a recent conversation. "I've been out of MMOs for a while, but I've been doing other stuff. I worked with Google on mobile AR, I did bar trivia, I did a bunch of consulting for lots of companies."
All the while, more and more games were adopting systems that Koster says he's been thinking about his entire career. Crafting. Digital economies. Guilds and live events.
"It was super clear to me that a lot of the core things about MMOs were becoming the norm," Koster said. "Those are all things that I've been thinking about and making games around for a long time. So it just really felt like the time was right; the audience was ready, the technology was there...it just felt like everything was coming into place, and it made sense."
So last year he made the decision to return to MMORPG design with Playable Worlds, a new online game studio cofounded by Koster and fellow game industry vet Eric Goldberg. Koster says the core team is now in place, and earlier this month the studio confirmed it's raised ~$2.7 million in seed funding as it begins working on a new MMORPG project.
It's an interesting time to jump back into the market. Long-running MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, and Eve Online are still alive and kicking alongside a slew of younger competitors, but the business has changed; mandatory subscriptions are a relic, replaced by micro-transactions and premium memberships.
Plus, the competition is fiercer than ever. Now that the free-to-play model of designing games has become commonplace, new games are competing for players' time and attention first, and their money second.
Fittingly, Koster says his work with Google on player attention and trust has directly influenced his return to MMORPG design. After a few years of contributing to a Google ATAP group researching how games can foster social connections, Koster last year published a blog post detailing the Trust Spectrum, a framework the team fabricated specifically for designing multiplayer games with an emphasis on cooperative play.
What's interesting about the Trust Spectrum is the way it quantifies games: as virtual spaces for practicing social skills, spaces which can be measured and tuned for specific groups of players. You could look at raiding in World of Warcraft as a high-trust game, for example, whereas infamous friendship-testers like Neptune's Pride and Diplomacy are much less so.
"To say combat is The Way is just so reductive"
"What it did was just refocus me, I think, back on social dynamics and back on the ways in which players interact," said Koster. "For me that's always the area of focus: how are players interacting? What is the environment in which they interact? What is it it like? Is that environment shaping their behaviors? And what are we building, in terms of a community and a society?"
This is what makes Koster's involvement with Playable Worlds notable: he seems intent on applying lessons learned from decades of studying online game communities, and passionate about building a shared world where combat isn't the focus.
"There are so many ways to exist and interact with these alternate, fictional worlds that to say combat is The Way is just so reductive," he said. "We've really started getting that lesson; for me it was a lesson we came into on Ultima Online."
Though Utlima Online was conceived and pitched as a virtual world where players could craft things, buy houses, run guilds, and generally play out an alternate virtual life, Koster acknowledges that much of the game revolved around combat. When it launched in 1997 Ultima Online's use-based skill progression system didn't reward players for doing things like role-playing or organizing in-game events, time-consuming activities which Koster sees as key to the health and viability of a virtual world.
It was an oversight, one he later tried to avoid on Star Wars Galaxies.
"In Galaxies we said we really need to more explicitly reward people for doing things that are purely social, because in UO so much of the social glue, the community strength, came from people doing things like running role-play taverns, holding events, forming townships, things like that," said Koster. "And yet the game would not acknowledge that. Like there was nothing that closed the feedback loop back to the player, telling them 'writing role-play stories is something this game rewards.' And so in Galaxies we explicitly said 'let's identify things like that, and have the game reward the activity.' Have the game actually acknowledge it."
As a result, when Galaxies launched in 2003 it offered a list of professions that covered everything from scout to entertainer to artisan. Players could earn experience points performing for each other in virtual cantinas just as well as they could fighting enemies. It was one of the game's major selling points, and as work continues on Playable Worlds' debut game, Koster says the things he learned on Galaxies still shape his approach to design.
Designing online games that feel more like connected, living worlds
For example, Koster hopes to prevent toxic player behavior in Playable Worlds' next project by designing a virtual world where players are rewarded for building connections to each other.
"Because in the end, those connections between players help many games combat toxicity. It's what helps build the notion of players as a society, right," Koster said. "The biggest thing that leads to toxic behavior is your ability to sort of dehumanize and objectify other people, and think of them as not real...that's what leads us to treat people worse, when we don't have that sense of ongoing connection and dependency."
Koster hopes to create a game where players can build the same sorts of connections with each other that they might have with a plumber, or their local mail carrier. These are people you rely on for useful services, people you're probably friendly with but otherwise don't think much about.
"Building those into the game, building those into the online world, which frankly is just...even trying is to do a pale, pale imitation of reality. But trying to do that, at least to some extent, is to me one of the ways in which you reduce bad behavior, increase sense of community, and just make it feel more like it's a real world," he continued. "A real place that you can choose to live in, some of the time."
So what does that look like, in terms of practical game design? Koster leans heavily on his Trust Spectrum here, suggesting to fellow game designers that there's still leagues of room to explore online game design viewed through the lens of high-trust and low-trust relationships.
For curious devs, Koster suggests a sports team as a good example of players connected via high-trust relationships. Players train together and work out strategies with each other, so that when the time comes to perform they trust each other to be where they need to be and play their roles.
Many modern MMO games excel at helping players build similar high-trust relationships with each other, since they're regularly seasoned with high-level challenges that demand players team up and coordinate. However, those challenges are often explicitly designed for players who have already established high-trust relationships with each other, limiting their reach.
"This is part of why people hate pick-up groups; because it's basically like being told 'hey lets go out into our high-stakes tournament with a group of random people who have never played before,'" said Koster. "A lot of the successes in MMO community and teamwork have been oriented around that stye of trust-building, which is fun and good and natural. I don't want to sound down on it. But at the same time it's somewhere between challenging and alienating to people who are uncomfortable with being put in high-trust relationships out of the blue, with strangers."
What's more, claims Koster, games which prioritize high-trust relationships aren't particularly scalable. Citing research by folks like Robin Dunbar (of Dunbar's number), Koster suggests that the ways in which modern online games prioritize and reward building high-trust relationships may actually have limited their appeal to a niche audience of players who can afford to build those relationships.
"Because of the nature of MMOs and MUDs being, early on, very hack-and-slash oriented, we've got a whole bunch of almost dysfunctional, emergent, dynamics, such as players getting pulled apart because one player has more time to play than another," Koster explained. "And then, by coping with that by inventing things like mentoring and sidekicking, like now there's a whole cascade of issues."
By way of example he pointed to Elder Scrolls Online's implementation of a dynamic difficulty-scaling system, which afforded players at different ends of the progression spectrum opportunities to play together. It serves a purpose, but Koster says it also created a lot of new headaches in service of ameliorating the problems caused by game design that revolves around high-trust relationships.
"The cascade there led to increased content costs, it led to huge power differences between newbies and advanced players, which then led to players being unable to play together, which was already challenging because it had to be a high-trust relationship in the first place," Koster said. "So that's just one example of these cascading consequences that come from building everything around tight relationships."
Making weak relationships matter
As Playable Worlds pushes forward, Koster says he's keen to use this new project as a space to explore what can be accomplished in a game better designed to support and reward weak relationships among players.
"One of the opportunities we have is to think about weak relationships, actually; weak ties...it really opens a lot of interesting design decisions when you ask yourself okay, how do we create a game where those weak relationships matter, and matter in ways that help players understand the incredible value that other people provide?" Koster asks.
Right now, Koster says he's still engrossed in finding the answer. Instead, he follows the question up with a brief aside about Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books. One of them has a passage, he recalls, about the critical role of "telephone sanitizers" in society.
"It's really funny because, you know, what is a telephone sanitizer? [Adams] made some joke about how if you didn't have them, everybody would die from infections when you use the telephone, and it's always stuck wth me because there are so many jobs & social roles, like telephone sanitizers, that we take for granted. And for every single one of them, there's somebody out there who enjoys doing it, or has fun doing it, or aspires to do it, and would love a game about it," Koster concludes.
"There's no game for the telephone sanitizers to play. And when we think about the the dream of a parallel alternate world, it's going to have in it librarians. It's going to have in it, carpenters. It's going to have in it, press agency people and journalists. And all of those people drive real value. They all matter. So yeah, that's kind of at the core I guess, my design philosophy. Somebody once said to me that my games are about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. And I thought that was the best compliment anybody had ever paid me."