Raph Koster – Visionary or Misery?

Raph Koster – some people think he is miserable and lost his faith in games design. I didn't think so, but I did wonder what others thought he had said…

A professional game designer and frequent writer on issues of virtual world design, Raph Koster was the lead designer on the seminal online world ULTIMA ONLINE, which first brought online worlds to the mass market. Until March 2006 he was Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment, makers of EVERQUEST, where he previously led the design of STAR WARS GALAXIES. His essays and writings on online world design include widely reprinted and influential pieces such as “Declaring the Rights of Players”, “The Laws of Online World Design”, and “A Story About a Tree”. He is in demand as a speaker and lecturer on issues of online world design, particularly in the area of community building. He is a regular speaker at the Game Developers Conference, and is the maintainer of the canonical history of virtual worlds at his website, http://www.raphkoster.com. His book A THEORY OF FUN FOR GAME DESIGN was published in 2004 by Paraglyph Press and is used in several university courses as study material.

Raph Koster was speaking at Living Game Worlds at Georgia Tech, and I think what he said needs wider understanding. Not that he is shy about coming forward. The issue is that a lot of what he said is wrapped up in metaphor and allegory and may not have got out to the audience. Or perhaps we each saw our own meaning in the metaphors. You know how it is with clever people explaining themselves: “the only problem with communication is the illusion that you have achieved it.” Many people at the end of his speech wondered if he had lost his love of games. That was probably because it was hard to extract a clear message.

Some people are very direct (my favourite quote of the week was Pavel Curtis saying to me about programming languages: “all you have to do to succeed is not to fuck it up at the start”, at least I think that is how he put it…). Raph was not very direct. But he was very deep, and what he said has huge resonance with what we do in terms of helping users of software tools to create things of value to themselves.

Raph used a complex series of images from folk music, to the wreck of the old 97 to modern town finances to make his point about the roots of creativity in human groups, and why they are important. They were fun, but not all that cheerful.

So, first up, you need to get over and read his laws on game design, which you should be able to find at http://www.raphkoster.com/gaming/lawsindex.shtml. Read that? Good. Now start to think about what group creativity means. Because it is not about technology, or rules or rewards. It is all about that basic human desire to sit in groups around fire, eat, drink and make things up. The only real tools required are voices, eyes and ears, but a banjo or guitar can help. Paper and pencils are optional. And the point I found about using computers to help people create is that computers are at their most useful when they are practically invisible and transparent to the creative process.

Raph pointed out the inexorable trends towards smaller, faster, more connected and simpler interface devices (something I have riffed on in this blog before). This has huge future implications for the design of MMO and shared virtual spaces, and must impact how we design and deliver things like Moviestorm.
Couple that with a trend for entertainment that is about collaboration and which is self-developmental (as opposed to combat / competitive) and you have a powerful force acting on the tools for social creativity.
The depressing backstory to the history of computer games was that it is all about money right now: audiences are proportional to budgets, and block buster games are the “opera” of the games world (using another metaphor, but this time one that most of us got).

There are other powerful development forces that incline us to realise that traditional game development is out of control. Not just in box products, but in MMO and online as well. Raph used some figures along the lines of needing $50k and 3 people to fill about 10Mb of data in a few months 1982, but needing about $1.4m and 40 people to fill 1.3Gb per year over 5 years in 2008. Costs are up 22x and data is up about 127x. The tools to create are getting better, but they are not getting better fast enough to prevent development costs spiralling out of control. That cost spiral has bought in “accounting driven creativity” (my words), which in turn are driving out creativity in favour of financial risk reduction.

Couple the drivers of smaller + faster, with the need to drive down costs, with the final force which is “interactive all the time” and we have something that is pointing us right back at the beginning of creativity. We are all the way back to the folk process of creating. Sitting now in virtual groups, making things up quickly using tools that the game world provides. Entertaining ourselves, without recourse to or need of the major games publishers. Mashing it up, making it up, collaborating through computing devices that we barely notice.

That is why I think it is essential that creative teams break out of computer “processes” and re-engage with the source of creativity. That source is groups of people with a shared purpose who are just doing it for themselves. If we want to capture and assist that, then the tools and software we make are going to have to be utterly transparent to them and help without even appearing to be there.

Not that is a challenge that I am happy to take up, and I really hope that is what Raph wanted us to hear.

I think that desire to “get back to the source” is what has driven him to build Metaplace and develop it as far as he has. (thanks for the Beta key!). I think that desire to empower and enable pure human creativity 'for the heck of it', is a great and wonderful thing and to be roundly applauded. <claps> It is certainly NOT about misery or dejection. Not at all. This is the sort of big step that only optimists and pioneers could ever hope to take, and I love it (being an optimistic pioneer with arrows in his back).

Oh, Matt and Dave, if you read this far: he name checked “the Lemon Tree”. How cool is that!

And Dave, your quote of the day would have been “WOW is a racist, colonialist, hate-filled, violent and warmongering place”. Yes, indeed it is …

1 Comment

  1. I love your takeaway 🙂 I suspect that Janet was just a bit upset that I dissed computer storytelling so much!
    As I tried to point out, this isn't a case of me necessarily disliking or doomcasting anything — just pointing out that the ground shifts out from under us sometimes, as happened to the folks in Spencer, and indeed the entire transportation industry. And it can shift either way, and gain benefits either way.
    Containerization helped everyone, but also limited scope and diversity. UGC and folk models lower profitability for everyone, but also increase cultural richness. And so on.


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