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Virtual Sanity

Raph Koster talks Web 2.0 and the evolution of virtual worlds.

Widely recognised for his work on Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, Raph Koster quit his position as chief creative officer at Sony Online Entertainment in March last year to start afresh.

In December he announced the formation of his new studio Areae, with intentions in the MMO space. Although he remains tight-lipped about his current gaming projects, he did agree to talk to about starting from scratch, his intentions to create something new with virtual worlds, and the influence of Web 2.0 on his game design. Firstly, to get us up to speed, why leave a big company behind and start up on your own?

Raph Koster: I've been in big companies for pretty much my entire career. I've worked for the big companies and I've gotten to learn what you can and can't do within one. So what I wanted to do was really try something different and run a team really differently to how those companies operate. Starting fresh seemed to be the way to do it.

What put you off working for big companies and what attracts you to working as part of a smaller team?

There's an array of different things. One thing is that big companies tend to get heavily invested in a particular way of doing things and it can be really difficult for a big company to break out of that mould - it can be really challenging for them to take on new ways of doing things. When you hire your staff with a certain method of development in mind and an infrastructure built for one particular process, it can be extremely challenging to try and change it.

On top of that, there's cultural barriers to overcome. If you're talking about doing a project that's really disruptive, sometimes it isn't understood by a larger company, they don't quite no what to make of it.

What do you consider 'disruptive' about your current project at Areae?

I mean it in the sense of disruptive to the current industry. We're not talking too much about what we're making right now, but to some degree we're looking to reinvent the way virtual worlds are made. And that's the core of what we're calling the disruption.

When you look at virtual worlds, the costs of them has gotten truly astronomical. And high costs tends to breed conservatism in design. We're seeing World of Warcaft considered as the pinnacle of MMO design, and it is in many ways a very, very conservative game. This is Blizzard's expertise obviously, but it is an extremely polished version of a 20 year old game.

If you're interested in doing something new, something that brings in contemporary design, it can be very hard to get backing for that kind of spend. To step up to the table we're talking about US $20 million, and rumour has it that World of Warcraft cost four times that, or more.

So costs and a different approach to game design are the main areas you're looking to address?

I would say the chance to create something new in game design, but also bring in many things that are known to be useful and interesting but are left by the wayside because they are considered high risk. Chief amongst those are bringing the qualities of the Web to MMO's. There have been MMO's that embrace the Web to one degree or another, but they are surprisingly few and far between.

There aren't very many MMO's that are about player choice, there aren't very many MMO's that adapt to the player through customisation. There aren't very many that embrace user participation in many ways.

As well as creative elements of Web 2.0, are there business innovations that you're interested in adopting?

It's about all the elements of Web 2.0 - the way the products operate too - like MySpace and YouTube. What they're really demonstrating is that building the cathedral is not the only way to create a monetisable product - building that giant, polished, perfect blockbuster.

If you look at a lot of Web 2.0 sites out there, they don't have gigantic production values and incredible costs. Often they are smaller and more nimble. They rely on constant innovation and listening to their users. In games we've very much gotten into a blockbuster, hit-driven mentality. And even within the games industry we've got this split - look at the casual games market, it very much operates on Web 2.0 principles. And there are a lot of really interesting segments of the indie game market that are working this way now as well.

What we've found is that the younger generation of users are not as hung up on graphics. The mass market is not hung up on incredibly high production values and 100 hours of gameplay.

Do you think the more traditional games publishers and format holders are slow to adapt to this change in audience?

I actually think that most of the platform holders have caught on. The industry in general is still adapting, but the format holders are pushing in the right direction and making them think differently. The most obvious example would be Nintendo with the DS and Wii. Clearly, it's saying that they are going to stop upgrading the graphics hardware and instead force developers and publishers to consider alternative gameplay styles.

And Microsoft, of all people. On the PC platform Microsoft has avoided digital downloads like the plague. And yet we get Xbox Live Arcade and XNA Game Studio, which are both very different approaches to the way in which Microsoft is percieved to think.

It's easy to see the level of excitement that those things have generated within the industry. Microsoft has a massive backlog of developers knocking on their door for Live Arcade and it demonstrates that there's been this pent-up demand to be making these smaller, more nimble projects.

How do you intend to merge creative user created content with the practical business aspects in your project?

There are lots of different ways to merge that and again you can take a cue from the Web. An obvious example is Amazon. It's a big company right? And they make extensive use of editorial content and licensed content where they get authors and film directors to produce exclusive material for them, and a tremendous amount of user-created content. A huge amount of value in Amazon comes from the user reviews.

It's clear that even big companies have figured out this Web-style of thinking, but in the virtual world we're mostly limited to occasionally decent community management and forums. And that's about it. The level of user contribution to the space is very low. Only a handful of games have allowed users to customise their space with things like player housing, much less contribute in any significant way.

What's you perception of home consoles moving further into the online space?

What we're seeing is convergence. Consoles are adopting more and more capabilities of the PC. It's no accident that we immediately see things like the Wii controller hooked up to the PC with homebrew drivers. That's a natural development. A lot of people in the industry have written off the PC prematurely.

There's little doubt in my mind that consoles by their very nature don't work like the Web does. They're closed, proprietary platforms. But they've become mainstream in part because they work and in part because they've offered up controls that are very straight forward. But PC gaming has a much broader diversity. Yes, at the high-end they're more obsessed with graphics, but at the lower end you have Flash games. What we're seeing is console manufacturers admitting that they need to have that level of diversity and ecology as well. That's consoles playing catch up to PCs.

The PC should not be written off. It's still going to be the main source of innovation for quite a while. Now what we're going to see is a push from PCs via Microsoft's Games for Windows to bring the accessibility of PC gaming down.

Raph Koster is President of Areae. Interview by Matt Martin.

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Matt Martin avatar
Matt Martin: Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.
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