2003-01-22: Star Wars Galaxies Stratics Interview with Raph Koster

Star Wars Galaxies Stratics Interview with Raph Koster

Stratics What do you like most about MMOG's? What do you like least about them?
Raph Koster There’s too many things that I like to list them all. I love the way they offer the potential for players expressing their creativity to such a huge degree. I love the way in which players create their own stories and narratives rather than marching through one that I created. I love the sense of tight community that develops.
Raph Koster The things that I dislike most about them is the way in which they are not yet as polished and as satisfying as single-player games. A lot of that is because we haven’t yet mastered the design of them, of course. But the bar needs to be higher in general too. There’s a lot of “we’ll forgive that because it’s online” around everything from graphics to interface to gameplay. And it’s pernicious because it leads to lower standards… One of the biggest places where I see this is in terms of complexity. Obviously, MMOG’s demand complex systems, but we also end up often exposing a lot of that complexity to the user, when really, the game should always be easy to use. Just difficult to master.
Stratics What do you like most about Developing/Creating MMOG's? Least?
Raph Koster The fact that they engage so many different skills and mindsets. I really enjoy the fact that I have a job where I have to think about politics and economics and architecture and visual design and group psychology and reward feedback and social networks and user interface design and creative writing so on. I really enjoy that variety, because I’m kind of a mental butterfly—I flit around from topic to topic a lot, and if I did the same thing all day week in and week out I think I’d go mad.
Raph Koster The thing that I dislike the most is how long they take to make. It takes years, literally, and if you’re unlucky enough to have a project cancelled (as I have, and as most game makers have) you might find yourself with years and years between releases, which can be bad for a career and also feels very unfulfilling as a developer. It makes it hard to make steps forward with the genre too, because the iteration loop is so slow, and the risk is so high.
Stratics What is the biggest lesson you learned from your experiences working on Ultima Online?
Raph Koster I don’t think I can pick just one. Well, maybe. “Listen to players more.” I think that on UO I did a lot of talking over things that players were saying, explaining to them why they were wrong about things. Mind you, they WERE wrong about a lot of things. But so was I. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the ivory tower of running one of these things and lose all perspective.
Raph Koster I also learned that you have to have a team that is bought into what you’re making. Many on the UO team were not, and it greatly impacted the final result. On the other hand, as I’ve learned with SWG, even having everyone on the team bought in is no panacea.
Stratics How long do you think it will be before the MMOG market is ready for something revolutionary, not evolutionary?
Raph Koster The market, meaning the audience, is ready now. But the development shops aren’t. The fact is that we have seen a few revolutionary stabs come (and sadly, sometimes go). I’m thinking here of games like A Tale in the Desert, World War II Online, Fighting Legends, Mankind, Starpeace, Dark Zion—mostly not high-profile titles, but games that were really trying something new and different beyond “let’s add more races, more spells, more content.” The fact is that many of these games are either very niche or not really ready for major audience acceptance even though they are not niche.
Raph Koster We as developers just don’t quite know how to make the revolutionary game, I guess is what I am saying. You see, there’s this dream of cyberspace, right? And everyone has it in their head. But we can’t make it in any reasonable timeframe right now, and it has in it a lot of technology that we really have no idea how to make, either.
Raph Koster For that matter, we haven’t really licked the gameplay in just what we can do right now, as it is.
Raph Koster If you’re asking, how long until we see a revolutionary product that actually works, and really expands the definition of an MMOG? I’d guess that we’ll see some first steps towards it with stuff like Second Life and the stuff at, but it’ll be five years at least before we see something that really blows you away. Hopefully, I’ll be involved. :)
Stratics What got you started in the game development world?
Raph Koster I’ve been designing games since I was in the fifth grade. My friends and I used to make board games that we would play during recess—a lot of them were actually board game ports of video games. Believe it or not, Pengo actually makes a very interesting turn-based strategy game. I remember I did one wargame set in Caribbean islands amidst pirates that often took eight hours to play… the map was about 3’x8’. I still have it at home.
Raph Koster We also played Dungeons and Dragons of course. (And AD&D, and Star Frontiers, and we made our own RPG rules, and so on). And we made our own video games too. This was mostly on the Commodore 64 and the Atari 8-bit computers. My best program was probably a font editor for making alternate character sets for games, but some of the other ones we did didn’t completely suck. Lots of versions of light cycles and Snake and the like, but also other stuff. We actually managed to sell one copy of a shooter I did to a school friend of ours—we called ourselves Protocom and sold it in a Ziploc baggie.
Raph Koster And then I stopped. Right when every other gamer on the planet was doing the NES and early PCs, I was off learning more about being a writer. And I did that all the way through high school and college.
Raph Koster But when I went to grad school, a few of my friends from college had gotten into muds. This was in the early 90s. We played muds to stay in touch, and eventually my wife Kristen and I moved on to making them with many of those same friends. One of those guys, Rick Delashmit, ended up working at Origin on a fledgling project called Multima. When the project started looking for designers, he recommended my wife and I. That was our entrée into the professional game developer world.
Stratics What would you recommend people to have a knowledge of if they wanted to get into game development?
Raph Koster Depends on what area they want to get into. If they are programmers, they need to have a demo, really. They need to know C++ and have demonstrable skill in game development. There’s really no two ways around it. For an artist, I recommend a strong traditional art background. Art is art, and the basic training that comes from learning visual design, draftsmanship, color theory, and so on, really stands you in good stead regardless of what sort of artistic endeavor you end up doing.
Raph Koster And for designers, I recommend you have a broad knowledge of as many things as possible. And you need to learn to analyze games. You need to be able to break them down into “hows” and “whys.” Because the job of designing is to do that same process in reverse: have how and why, and build it into a game.
Stratics How do you deal with players or testers who constantly demand one thing, yet it goes against what you want in a game?
Raph Koster Me personally? I try to listen, and listen more. If I agree with it, I try to get the change made, even if it means giving up a cherished aspect of the game. The customer isn’t always right in terms of game design, but they are likely right in terms of their enjoyment.
Raph Koster But you need to be sure you’re actually listening to the right thing. Frankly, good hard data from the server database is worth a billion passionate board posts.
Raph Koster Also, there is the fact that sometimes players are just, well, wrong. For example, it’s easy to see right now the effect of listening a bit too much on issues like reducing downtime, increasing player convenience, reducing player interdependence, etc. The result has been a rash of games where sure, soloing is effective, but most of the social glue between players has been removed as well. It’s a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because some of those things that players dislike are there fore very good reasons.
Stratics What is the most rewarding thing you have done in your career?
Raph Koster I am not sure I can pick just one. Humor me if I list off several. :)
Raph Koster One of the moments I most treasure came when there was a UO player who was leaving the game. He decided to give away his stuff to the player who could best express in a brief essay “Why I love UO.” Reading the replies was a great thing, but beyond that, one player waited until after the contest was over, and posted that he was confined to a wheelchair, and that he loved UO because “in it, I can run.” That was just such a powerful thing to read that it gave me chills—still does.
Raph Koster Also very rewarding has been seeing people like Jeff Freeman, Scott Jennings, Dave Rickey, people that I debated with on web boards and in Usenet (and who I often got into huge arguments with) eventually come to join the industry and work on MMORPGs. I don’t know how much credit they give me, but I like to think that part of the reason they ended up where they are, and damn good at what they do, is because of those hours I spent arguing with them. :)
Raph Koster Lastly, stuff like seeing essays like “Declaring the Rights of Players,” the “Online World Timeline,” or “A Story About a Tree” have an impact well beyond the communities for which they were written. I know of a couple of online games that use the former essay as a guideline for writing their games’ codes of conduct, for example. For me, the posting and discussing of design issues and community issues, and engaging players and developers alike about the future of these games, and the theory behind them, is very rewarding, and I’d like to think that my contributions have been worthwhile.
Stratics How would you define as a successful game?
Raph Koster Commercially? One which runs at a profit, makes back its money, and which people enjoy. Non-commercially, one which both players and admins enjoy. Basically, if you do it commercially, I think you have to give up some of the enjoyment (and freedom!) but you get the money in exchange!
Stratics Please tell us a little bit about your life, like hobbies outside of work, or what you are enjoying in general, besides computers.
Raph Koster I watch little TV—right now, just Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, and the recently cancelled Firefly. I don’t get to go to the movies much, because we have two small kids. My main hobbies are reading, writing, and music.
Raph Koster I read voraciously (and very very fast). Mostly SF, fantasy, and mystery, but I’ve also gotten into more nonfiction and historical stuff recently. I’ve got a decent-sized collection of SF/F now, several thousand volumes. I grew up on Golden Age SF, Asimov and Heinlein are still touchstones for me.
Stratics Could you tell us a little bit more about your music? For instance, several years ago you came out with a music CD called "After the Flood". Anything that you can tell us about what inspired you to make it?
Raph Koster I took music theory and composition classes in college, but found that I didn’t really click with classical music at all. First time my piano teacher had me try a bit of a barrelhouse piano tune, though, I had no trouble with it. And I found eventually that guitar was really more my style. I’ve been playing now for over a decade, and at this point mostly play stuff in alternate tunings, fingerstyle stuff, with partial capoes, all that. I have enough fingerstyle guitar instrumentals at this point that I really ought to record a CD’s worth…
Raph Koster A UO player who also happened to be a TV producer picked up “Flood” and liked the instrumentals on them enough that he used the instrumental tracks on the soundtrack of the TV show that he works on, a snowmobiling show that is syndicated in Canada and Europe. This year he asked for more, and I recorded about four more pieces which I sent to him, and they got used too. Their website is at
Raph Koster “After the Flood” was actually a bit of a catch-all CD. Prior to “Flood” I’d recorded three tapes of singer-songwriter material, and had written all the songs for a fourth (but never recorded it), a song cycle called “The Land of Red Barns.” I never did record that album, but instead kept writing new stuff. “After the Flood” ended up cannibalizing songs from “Barns” including the title track. I actually got to record “Flood” in ORIGIN’s now-dismantled sound studio, which was at the time the only THX-certified studio in Texas. Stretch Williams, Mat Mitchell, and I did it in around 24 hours of studio time, spread over a few days. Most of the tracks are basically single-take live performances. It sold a few copies on, enough for me to be able to join ASCAP and stuff.
Raph Koster I have most of a new CD done, called “Longitude.” I’ve outfitted our spare room at home with a bit of a home studio—nothing too fancy, just some decent mikes, and my computer set up with ACID and a really good sound card. So I’m actually writing for a “band” now and finding it great fun. The sound is really different from “After the Flood,” with drum loops and electric guitar and stuff. I have been crunching on SWG so much that I haven’t been able to quite finish it though.
Stratics Rumor has it that you like to write stories and poetry too. Is it something that you enjoy doing as a pasttime, or is it more like work to you? Also, is this a part of you that you try to incorporate into your games as much as possible? For instance, it has been said that you wrote many of the stories that can be found in books within Ultima Online.
Raph Koster That’s right, I did write most of those. I actually have a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. My college major was also in creative writing. I did a book of short stories for my college thesis and book of poems for my graduate thesis.
Raph Koster Writing is more work than it used to be. It used to be that I wrote fiction or poetry every day. It was like breathing to me. And I studied it—a lot. I practiced, I edited campus magazines while in high school and in college, all that. I won awards all through high school and college too. A writer was what I was going to be, there was no question.
Raph Koster But grad school changed all that. I got major writer’s block, a hostile reception to a lot of what I was doing, and in general really disliked the halls of academia, with all the publish or perish stuff and the endless backstabbing politics. It basically made it very hard for me to write, and I haven’t really ever recovered.
Raph Koster Then a few years ago, Bruce Sterling, the science-fiction writer, whom I met through UO, invited me into his writing workshop, Turkey City. It’s a pretty famous writing workshop, often credited as the birthplace of cyberpunk. I was hugely thrown by this, because as far as I know, Bruce had never read one word of what I’d written. It turns out he made the right call, because I rediscovered a love of writing, even though it’s not like breathing to me anymore. I’m writing stories that feel publishable to me (and to the workshop, and they’re more objective about it than I am!) and I feel good about it. Soon as I get more time, I hope to pursue this more.
Raph Koster I’ve done a fair amount of writing for SWG as well.
Stratics One of your earliest games was a MUD called "Legend MUD". Can you tell us a bit more about it? Are you still actively involved in it?
Raph Koster Well, LegendMUD wasn’t just my game. A lot of different people worked on it, and still do. It’s up at -- my website is hosted by the game server, in fact. My wife Kristen still runs the game. I log in only really rarely these days, and I don’t really do much more than offer occasional advice.
Raph Koster LegendMUD is a skill-based game based on “history the way they thought it was,” which means that if the people of the time thought it was out there, then it’s in the game. This allows us to be both fairly rigorous historically, and also to have a lot of fanciful stuff drawn from mythology and legend in the game. So you don’t run into elves, you find the Daoine Sidhe from Celtic legend, and if you visit Victorian London, you might run into vampires as well as roughnecks on the docks.
Raph Koster It’s sort of a time travel theme—there’s dozens of different historical periods and places to visit. I really enjoyed the theme, and I did a lot of content work there, including areas based on Beowulf, The Jungle Book, and the aforementioned London.
Raph Koster At this point, LegendMUD has been around for going on eight years, and it’s won a slew of awards and a lot of recognition. But it is a text mud, and so the mainstream of attention has sort of passed it by in some ways. But if you are into text gaming, you should check it out. I still think the level of literary building there is higher than most anywhere, the quests are truly epic, and the game system is still fun.
Stratics With online games getting more and more popular, their influence and importance in the real world, both in terms of community building and economy, is doing so as well. Saying that, would it be safe to state that this direction may also very well have its own difficulties, issues maybe, and carry its own risks with community and daily life more and more taking place and happening around virtual, non existent, unreal online worlds?
Raph Koster Sure. There’s a tangled legal landscape ahead because of it, too. See, the fact that the communities formed exist online rather than in the real world is really a red herring. People ascribe more difference to these communities than they really deserve. The fact is that online communities have more things in common with real world communities than they have differences.
Raph Koster That means that we can expect most of the things that we associate with real world communities to spring up. The most obvious of these that is already causing hassles to everyone involved is of course the economic developments. There’s the whole debate over virtual property, making a living selling virtual goods or services, etc. We’re seeing the phenomenon of cash exchange between virtual and real currencies happening—and there’s no mechanisms for taxing that, for assessing it as part of a country’s GDP, or anything of the sort. It’s basically an open area in the law. Who knows what’ll happen on this front.
Raph Koster I don’t think that the fears of a Matrix or Veldt or whatever that eats up people will ever come to pass, though. Sure, we see some people now that some might say are “lost” in the game. But they still need to eat and breathe and go to the bathroom, you know? The real world has an immediacy that is hard to ignore. That said, the big thing that the online communities (regardless of whether they are in online worlds or not) provide is an easy way to bridge distance and bring like-minded people together. It also has the potential to bring differently-minded people together, and to my mind, this latter is the great potential of online.
Stratics With more and more competitors showing up, will it be more likely that online games get more and more diverse and therefore attracting different kind of people, or will they basically all want to follow "the one succesful way" (and therefore not many companies may survive)?
Raph Koster We’re heading for a common “minimum feature set” that all MMORPGs will have. We can already see the rough shape of it, we just can’t build it yet. It’s probably between 5 and 10 years away. It’ll have a diverse skill system, the ability to switch careers, player housing, player cities, a robust crafting system, robust communications tools, player cities, the ability to create player content such as uploading music and art, build your own maps, various forms of optional PvP, dynamic spawning content, and so on. No one game offers all of this, but eventually all of them will offer all of it. It’s a standard development in any industry—things become commodified.
Raph Koster Once the core feature set is standardized, then we’ll see true nichification occurring—people choosing one game over another because of personal taste and not feature set. You’ll be making choices like choosing “NYPD Blue” over “CSI” or “Boomtown” or “Homicide.” Really, those shows all offer the same feature set, but different experiences because they choose ways to approach that feature set.
Raph Koster Right now we see bits and pieces of that minimum feature set scattered across different games. But it won’t stay that way. The real challenge for the industry is that that commodified game design is probably a $40 million dollar game taking 5 years or more to make, and the industry isn’t ready to take that risk yet.
Raph Koster The end result is going to be shakeout. The closer that a game is to this feature set, the larger the slice of the market they are going to get. And eventually, nothing will be able to launch that doesn’t have the minimum feature set. Given the stakes, that may close out the smaller players, which is a real shame.
Stratics More and more, the worlds of MMOG's are beginning to become test studies for college courses. In fact, we are even starting to see textbooks based on them, including Amy Jo Kim's "Community Building on the Web" [1]. Is this something that you suspected would happen years ago as a professor yourself? Ever think about going back and teaching the philosophies of MOG's to others rather than applying them in the real world?
Raph Koster Well, I try to do some of that teaching via my website and via conferences like D.I.C.E. and the Game Developer’s Conference. I guess it never occurred to me that textbooks and the like WOULDN’T happen. They happen everywhere for everything else, why not this? :)
Stratics How much influence has Pen & Paper Gaming had on your work in the computer gaming industry?
Raph Koster A lot, but less than you’d think. See, here’s the thing. Pen and paper games are really really bad models for muds and online worlds. They’re designed for narrow level ranges and are heavily narrative—even the most hack ‘n’ slash campaign is more narrative than a mud experience is. I think that we’re misleading ourselves by making the comparison, to be honest. We can’t and shouldn’t try to replicate that experience in an online world. MMOs are their own thing.
Raph Koster But there are undeniably things shared in common, and lessons to be learned. We need to learn them, and share the expertise. But it’s like the distance between vaudeville and movies. Lots of basic theatrical knowledge shared there, but really different beasts.
Stratics What is your favorite late-night-at-work snack?
Raph Koster I’ve been trying to lose weight, so it’s mostly nuts and apples these days! It’s been working too. I’ve cut out sodas almost completely (I drink maybe one a month now), and instead of donuts in the morning I eat an apple.

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Stratics Who is your biggest idol in the computer gaming industry and why?
Raph Koster I think I’m probably past the point of idols. Maybe getting to work for Richard Garriott on day one of my first professional job spoiled me, but I see people as people now, not as unattainable idols, regardless of their accomplishments.
Raph Koster That said, I really admire a lot of designers, of course. Will Wright. Shigeru Miyamoto. Sid Meier. Warren Spector. Paul Reiche. I feel privileged to call a couple of those guys friends of mine now—I certainly learn a lot every time I speak with them.
Raph Koster Idols always have feet of clay, that’s the thing to remember. Don’t idolize. Realize that the most accomplished and smart people are always also still on their journey of learning, and make mistakes. You want to learn from their mistakes as well as from their triumphs, and seeing them in the blinding light of “idol” blinds you to their faults and errors.
Stratics Do you enjoy attending live Conventions (E3, Player Luncheons, etc) centered around Computer Gaming? If so, what are your favorite parts? If not, what is it that you don't enjoy about it?
Raph Koster I do enjoy it. What do I enjoy… well, to some degree, I am a performer. I enjoy public speaking, I enjoy doing sales pitches and the like. I love arguing! More the talking to colleagues than the talking to players, I must admit, because the conversations with players often get very specific and repetitive. If you’re a player and come up to me at one of these things, the last thing I want to hear is a specific detailed complaint about the balance of some skill or critter! I usually get handed dozens of these in a given day, and it’s just impossible to keep up with. Email is MUCH easier for that!
Raph Koster I much prefer hearing from players about how they are as players. The things they do, the people they know. People are the very substance of what online game designers work with, and I’d like to know the players better as people.
Stratics We would like to thank Raph for spending the time with to put this excellent interview together. We hope that with it, you can get some additional understand of exactly what makes the Raph Meister tick! Thanks Raph!