Raph Koster is returning to MMOs. Since his days as lead designer on Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, the developer feted as an Online Game Legend has worked on web-based games, Facebook games, PSP games, and even bar trivia games. But this week he announced his new MMO studio, Playable Worlds.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz this week, Koster reflects on the way MMOs have evolved since his days helping shape the genre with Ultima Online. His first observation is about the dramatic advances in horsepower for the servers where MMOs' virtual worlds are running.
"If you look at the compute power of the servers we had back in the UO days, we're talking 300Mhz of servers," Koster says. "They had like 256 megs of RAM. An Apple Watch is probably quite a bit more powerful than our servers were back then. When you look across what could be done with all of that additional compute power, the kind of worlds we could be building if we were leveraging all of that CPU and what we could do today, it feels to me like it really unlocks an enormous amount of potential."
"There's this craving for alternate worlds that are richer than just hack and slashing your way through levels"
But for all his excitement over the technological advances the genre has experienced, he seems less enthused about their counterparts on the design front.
"When I look at what has happened with MMOs, it feels like it's really fallen into a template, and it's a pretty old template," Koster says. "Let's party up, let's kill some monsters, we'll level up, and then rinse-repeat. And we know from seeing how sandbox-y play has evolved over the decades that online game players want to do way, way more than just that. And those other ways to play really not only broaden the audience, but they make the alternate world really come alive."
Multiple generations of gamers have grown up with sandbox-style experiences now, Koster says. From Runescape to Minecraft to Roblox to Grand Theft Auto Online, he has seen an appetite among players to do and be more than warriors in a fantasy setting looking for loot.
"There's this craving for alternate worlds that are richer than just hack and slashing your way through levels," Koster says. "So that's what we're out to build."
That's not a particularly novel observation for Koster, as he saw that craving as far back as Ultima Online.
"When we did Ultima Online, other companies actually did marketing campaigns making fun of us for having crafting," Koster recalls. "Today you do crafting in Tomb Raider and Uncharted. It's everywhere. It's taken a while for people to realize that the game playing audience out there really does enjoy that diversity of play. They really do enjoy having lots of different ways to engage with an IP they love, a world they love, a fiction they love.
"I would go further and say it's not just those sandbox-y elements; there are lessons we could be pulling into MMOs from other kinds of games all together. There's this impression that an MMO has to be something heavy, something you take two hours to do every session. I think there are a ton of lessons we've seen in everything from mobile to indie games showing you can have things that are deep and really engaging but don't require you to make them your principal hobby taking up hours and hours every day."
That balance between engagement and excessive play can be a difficult one to strike.
"I think a lot of the folks making games-as-a-service now kind of took some of the wrong lessons [from old MMOs]"
"I think a lot of the folks making games-as-a-service now kind of took some of the wrong lessons [from old MMOs]," Koster says. "They looked at things and said, 'It's about engagement.' But engagement, the sense of wanting to check back regularly, should be driven by the player's interest. Engagement is there in order to lead you to retention. When we were designing those games back then, we weren't thinking in terms of, 'How do we get people to come back daily in order to increase our [day 2] or [day 7] return rate,' which is sort of the metrics-driven way of thinking of things. We didn't approach it that way. We were always thinking, 'We need this person to come back next month.'
"And that drives a different mindset. It puts you in the mindset that we're building long-term relationships here. We're not trying to drive necessarily constant activity. We want to drive something where a relationship of trust is built with the player. We don't need them to log in every day. What we want them to do is to feel attached and care about our fictional universe and want to come back all the time."
Specific to ongoing debates about loot box legislation and gaming disorder, Koster says he's "really not a fan of the more exploitative" approaches some developers take.
"It feels to me like everything we do in a game-as-a-service needs to be driven around the idea that you're building a community, building for the long haul, and building a relationship of trust between the operator and the player," Koster says. "The fact that we've landed some place where there are lawsuits or legislation around loot boxes tells me we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way."
While Koster won't talk in detail about the project Playable Worlds is working on, he is emphatic that it is a game first rather than a virtual social space, a Facebook Horizon-style project, or a descendent of Second Life. And even though the lead investor in Playable Worlds is Bitkraft Esports Ventures and the game will feature player-versus-player combat, it's not really an esports play, either. That said, Koster adds that there is overlap between Playable Worlds and esports in that they are both driven by community.
"Esports ends up being around the players who follow teams," Koster says. "It ends up being around the passion that drives and the ongoing investment that drives. So when we start talking about the ways we want to build and engage communities, to help them develop over time and build relationships with them, I think that really clicked a lot with Bitkraft."