Raph Koster: The Escapist Interview

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Outside of Blizzard, there are few recognizable names in MMOGs. One of them is Raph Koster. Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies; Koster’s resume reads like a who’s who of seminal MMOGs. Chances are, if you play MMOGs, you’ve played a game in which Koster has had his hand.

Yet for all his creative success, Koster’s name is most frequently associated with a great MMOG failure, one he’s reluctant to speak on, tired of hearing about and not even responsible for. In 2005, Sony Online Entertainment, the company behind Star Wars Galaxies, the MMOG based on the films, drastically revised the game, deleting character classes, reworking the combat system and literally erasing much of what had made the game so popular. Players revolted, and the “New Game Enhancements” or NGE immediately became an internet buzzword, synonymous with betrayal. Koster remained with SOE for a short time afterward, but recently suggested the NGE debacle ultimately led to his resignation.

These days, Koster is creating worlds, not destroying them. And he wants you to join him. Koster’s new company, Areae, is preparing to launch a bold new project called Metaplace, designed to be the first game where you can make your own game and link it together with games made by other people, even Raph Koster. Koster, who claims to have created his new game in his bedroom, just like the old days, likens it to the world wide web and hopes it will some day become as ubiquitous, as democratic and as powerful.


The Escapist: Can you briefly explain Metaplace? What is it and what are you trying to accomplish with it?

Raph Koster: The idea of Metaplace is to really make MMOGs work the way the web does, and what that means is making it so that it is very easy for people to set up their own MMOG. It’s very easy for these MMOGs to link to one another, it’s very easy for these MMOGs to interact with anything else out there on the web, to provide kind of a technology platform that doesn’t assume they’re making DikuMud version 27, and that it doesn’t cram all of these people into one world in the way something like Second Life does. It’s really kind of the equivalent to Blogger, but for virtual worlds.

TE: One argument some professional game developers have against user content is that it is simply not as good as professional content. How do you react to that?

RK: The answer is yes, because all professional game developers were once users. It’s not like some magic switch gets flicked the minute that they become a pro that makes their stuff good, and we’ve all played pro stuff that wasn’t that good. There’s just a spectrum, from good to bad, and whether or not people are pro or amateur has nothing to do with that quality line. The pros tend to get access to money and the good guys tend to gravitate toward being pros, but it doesn’t mean that an amateur cannot make good content. Maybe they’re just a hobbyist, maybe they’ve never had tools that were good enough, maybe they’ve never been given a chance. There’s plenty of examples of this sitting out there.

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This year’s great example is Portal. Portal was built by a bunch of students who graduated from DigiPen. And it was called Narbacular Drop, and Valve saw it and said that it was good and hired them, and today we have Portal. Valve in particular has been very good about this, as they did the same thing with Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, so there’s plenty of examples out there of cases where things that amateurs did are incredibly innovative and really incredibly good and what they needed was support and tools and infrastructure to be able to do it even better. So I tend to think that treating amateur stuff as bad is baloney.

TE: So are you going to then have your own world kick start content, and do you think it’s absolutely necessary?

RK: Absolutely. I think it gives people a huge leg up, because many, many content creators are modders.

We have this motto here that we make content so that it can be stolen. We’re going to make games, and we’re going to make them nice, and they’re going to be fun games in their own right, and hopefully people play them, but we’re also going to open source them so they can be used as starting points, so people can build on them.

For all we know, you may be the next Tim Shaffer or Richard Garriott and not be able to express it. We think it’s really important to have lots of starting points at different levels so people can pick up the ball and run with it.

TE: One has to wonder if your emphasis on user creation and, one infers, user ownership is in any way in response to the SWG debacle you’ve been both so vocal and so circumspect about. Are you trying to allow users to create a world no one will be able to take away from them?

RK: It isn’t any sort of reaction to Galaxies, I don’t think. It doesn’t have anything much to do with that. If there is a way in which it relates to Galaxies it would be this: The market is very much narrowing into a particular gameplay style, right? Even though I’m very gratified when I see something people made fun of getting adopted into other MMOGs, like I’m really glad to see the musicianship system in Lord of the Rings Online. It is the step beyond the Galaxies, one that we couldn’t take because of lawyers. Or the amount of dancing emotes that are in World of Warcraft, when before SWG everyone was making fun of us for dancing. Some of these things are sneaking in, but at the same time the overall gameplay really has narrowed into kind of a lack of variety, honestly.

Despite occasional things like EVE and Puzzle Pirates, by and large they play mostly the same. To my mind, Galaxies had a different vibe to it, and part of the thing here would be to see different vibes. I think if we can open up MMOG creation to a wider array of people and influences, I think we’ll see a much more interesting gaming library.

TE: From your alpha so far, I’ve read that you’re already shocked with what people are building. Can you give me an anecdote or example?

RK: People are just doing crazy stuff. We’ve got a chat world, it literally looks like an IRC world. We have one tester who has added automatic language translation to it, using Google translate and the like. It happens transparently and automatically. When I think about the amount of effort we go to put that stuff into a commercial project, and to have an alpha tester add it in live a day and a half, it blew my mind.

Because of that interoperability with the web, it’s going to make it possible to do a lot of surprising stuff. Because there’s all kind of web stuff out there. Streaming video just went online yesterday, so people can open YouTube videos in their world.

TE: Explain the relationship between Metaplace and the web.

RK: Basically, we always say we work the way the web does and people tend to think that’s a metaphor when actually we mean it very literally. When you think of the pieces of the web: You have HTML, you have a browser, you have Apache (and Apache is running CGI scripts), and you have CSS, and you have DNS so you know what webpage to connect to, and you have essentially Google so you can find stuff on top. Metaplace has all of those pieces in and of itself. It has a markup language that can describe to a client anything from Tetris to World of Warcraft. And that is the markup language that anyone can write a client for. Our first client happens to be a Flash embeddable widget, but it could be a stand-alone client, it could be a mobile client, it doesn’t really matter.

We actually have written like three clients ourselves. We have a server that doesn’t make assumptions about what kind of game you’re running on it. And instead, the equivalent of CGI, which is our Lua-based scripting language. So that means the same server can be hosting Tetris or World of Warcraft, and it’s all about what modules or scripts you plug into it.

It’s built to be a distributed system, so you could have servers running anywhere, pretty much, and clients could be embedded into a webpage or not. And for that matter the assets or the art isn’t based into the game; it literally points to an asset on the web. It works like a browser in that sense; it fetches assets from anywhere. It talks “web” in and out. It submits forms, you can access remote database you can talk to any web service. So your script can go fetch YouTube videos if it wants to; it’s easy, it’s not hard at all. Because of that it, works very differently from how a standard MMOG does. If you think about it there are almost no successful reuses of an MMOG server; it almost never happens. Whereas in our case we reuse it for radically different purposes all the time, and it’s designed that way from the get go. Because it is designed to be a network of worlds, there is that Google-ish aspect that sits on top so you can find worlds, which may not even be in the same place from time to time.

So we have essentially a portal that lets you find worlds, that lets you link them, that lets you review them, they have forums, wiki, all of that kind of thing, right out of the box. So it’s kind of like having a Yahoo/Google/Alexa service sitting there from the beginning.

TE: What about content, will you monitor it? Like, can people make a porn world or a plagiarized game?

RK: Especially for assets, by and large we don’t even host the assets. That means that it’s just a link; we don’t even know what you’re pointing to most the time. We are not looking at what people are making in their worlds. If you go to cash out, then we will verify that what you’re doing is legal.

TE: So there are no content restrictions?

RK: No, none except for whatever the law is. Really, Metaplace is a system, and then we have a hosting business, and that works using standard DMCA takedowns and all the rest.

TE: Are you worried about the name of the game – Metaplace – given how people on the internet like to change things, in this case, by moving the “T” and the “A”?

RK: You know, we’re not that worried about people changing Metaplace to “Meatplace” or anything like that. I think as time goes by people will settle on something, and I think it will probably be the thing that most people use is going to be the real name. The more you work with it, the more you play in it, the more obvious it becomes that the name is actually quite literal; it is the place of places.

Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Senior Editor for WarCry.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.

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