Raph Koster talks metaverse design

Colin Campbell, Monday, September 25th, 2023 11:58 am

Raph Koster is one of gaming’s most renowned designers of online play worlds, like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. As author of the highly influential book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, he’s a sought-after commentator on the state of gaming.

Koster is currently CEO of Playable Worlds, a company with a mission statement of building “living worlds where there’s space for everyone to play their own way and create their own stories”. In a recently published GDC interview, Koster gave a fascinating insight into his views about the current and future state of metaverse gaming.

Although the “metaverse” is often cited as a busted flush in media circles, social gaming worlds like Roblox and Fortnite continue to attract millions of players. But metaverse gaming spaces have a long way to go to fulfill their potential, often presenting as either flash-bang worlds of violent conflict, or as sterile walkabout-and-dress-up spaces, dedicated to shilling some brand.

Positive future

Koster said he feels positive about the growing popularity of social play spaces. “It’s great to see people try to connect again, with the idea of large scale connected communities that are about being somebody else and somewhere else,” he told interviewer Bryant Francis.

However, the attempts by companies to yoke together metaverse and blockchain technologies has yet to find its full potential. “There’s a common thread between sandboxes and the whole metaverse thing, but I think it escaped the crypto folks who didn’t have enough background in the history of it all,” he said. “When I think back to the history of all of this, leaving aside the business buzzwords, the origins of those ideas were all about user creativity in the tech space”.

He praised developers who, down the years, have created “creative, cool environments” with “all kinds of fun, wild stuff,” adding that “if it all turns mundane and predictable, it gets a lot more boring”.

Metaverse spaces should be about more than “just hey, let’s have real world jobs and share our real world photos”.

The ideal has always been about enjoying “wacky adventures where I can digitally build magic – that’s the exciting part of it all. The appeal of online worlds is to be someone you can’t be, in a place that you aren’t – with friends. And that’s the heart of roleplay too.”

Enduring division

Koster harked back to games like Ultima Online, in which the division between “game-ist and narrative-ist” players began to show up, prompting much debate about the function of metaverse worlds, as both play areas and places to simply enjoy an alternate, fantasy existence.

It’s a division that is still very much at the heart of metaverse game design. “These days. kids are piling into Discord and running lengthy and pure roleplay sessions, often diceless,” he said. “There’s a lot more attention on the pure roleplay immersion side.”

The commercial realities of the game industry, and its reliance on processing power is at the core of this split. “Computers are number crunching machines. They tend to reinforce the gamey side of it … not enough roleplay and too much dice rolling. That tension has always been there. It wasn’t really until widespread internet [use] that roleplay was able to flourish again. Stuff like the early Ultima series pushing the first morality systems and things like that.”

Some of the most popular role-playing games today are “still pretty mechanistic,” he said, mentioning “Bioware games that made use of conversation trees to nudge stats around”.

He added: “An enormous amount of game mechanics in general, are things that lend themselves to modeling combat – for better or for worse, right? In physics, one of the first things you want to do is throw stuff at something and see if you can hit it. In Theory of Fun I talk about how a lot of those game mechanics are probably driven by survival instincts and hunting. Resource management is not a combat thing, but it’s also one of those elemental things.

“But teamwork is also elemental so I don’t think we’re doomed to only do combat [games] even though those games are easier to model and are very marketable.” He pointed out that games with lots of combat can also include social and teamwork elements, as well as personal expression.

Larger audience

The popularity of games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons has proven that narrative role-playing is finding huge audiences. “When we were making Ultima Online and Galaxies we always thought there was a larger audience out there for things like house decorating, dress, crafting and so on, than there was for dragon slaying. At the time, people said we were nuts, but I think time has proved this right.”

Technological advances have opened up roleplaying to new audiences who never stepped foot into a game store, he said. “You need the right technology – the internet, faster live chat. I think that demand was always there, but it was stifled.”

He said that the notion of metaverse spaces being separate from the real world is a cul de sac. “Once MMOs got big there were all these think pieces about how we are all going to get swallowed by the matrix. I thought ‘no, that’s not going to happen’.

“The real world continues to intrude, and I feel like the story is about the continued blurring of the line between virtual and real. COVID forced everybody into that blurry zone in a whole bunch of ways. Suddenly, your work was online and so was your entertainment and your social contacts. Everybody was suddenly interacting through screens, but for the folks who’ve been doing it as a hobby, it probably felt pretty familiar.”

Social media, he said, draws a lot of its core experience from online games. “When we think now about the ways in which online worlds are blended [with the real world] a lot of the things that social media does, came from online worlds.. We’re all avatars now, right? We live our daily lives as avatars.”

You can see the full interview here.

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist.

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