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What's Next? Koster talks 'the revolution,' future of games

What's Next? Koster talks 'the revolution,' future of games Exclusive

August 27, 2013 | By Patrick Miller

[Ahead of November's GDC Next, GDC's Director of Online Community Patrick Miller reached out to many games industry luminaries to see where they think the future of video games is headed. This interview is the first installment of a multi-part series that will run up until shortly before the 'future of games' conference, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA from November 5-7, co-located with the App Developers Conference.]

Raph Koster needs little introduction. His pioneering work on massively multiplayer online role-playing games as lead designer on Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, among others, and his writing on game design (see his seminal book A Theory of Fun), and his work as an advisory board member for GDC Online and now GDC Next all made him one of the first people I wanted to talk to about the future of video games -- both the industry, and the artistic medium.

Much of your body of work has been centered around building early massively multiplayer online spaces. How do you see the future of the MMO playing out? Do you think that relatively centralized MMOs in the EverQuest/World of Warcraft tradition still have a major place in the mainstream games industry? (Personally, I'd characterize the current period of online games as almost "Post-MMO", insofar as we're past the days where Every Publisher Wanted Their Own WoW.)

It’s a tricky question. Basically, the traditional MMO, in the sense of “an RPG game world you log into,” has really stagnated. The more interesting things have been happening in genres that aren’t RPGs. MMOFPSes have continued to develop, with Planetside 2. The rise of the MOBA has been extraordinary, of course, and seems to have taken a lot of the energy and excitement away from older eSport games. You could make a good case that MOBAs were influenced by what was happening with MMORPGs.

MMOs are just more work to make than session-based games, in a lot of ways, and so I suspect a lot of publishers, having been burned, aren’t eager to jump back into it. On a global scale, though, they are still very important in Asia.

I don’t think they are over and done with, but I do think that it is going to take some radical changes for them to rise again. On the short term, we’re seeing a resurgence of the simulationist ideas from the early days in games like ArcheAge and EQNext, probably triggered in large part by the success of Minecraft. That’s near and dear to my heart, so I am looking forward to seeing what comes out of that. In the longer term… immersive VR offers a pretty interesting canvas for the MMO player.

I get the impression that pretty much anyone who worked on early virtual communities was heavily inspired by sci-fi/cyberpunk authors like William Gibson (Neuromancer, etc.) and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash); would you agree, and/or were there other major inspirations (in literature or elsewhere) that you think I'm missing? Can you think of any contemporary works that you think will be inspiring some of the next major game dev pioneers?

Funny enough, those weren’t key influences for me. But they were for a lot of people!
I used to keep a list of books and movies that were inspired by or derived from the stuff going in MUDs and MMOs. These days, doing that is impossible. I still remember the first time I heard the term “PK” used in a piece of visual media I was watching " it was in Serial Experiments Lain, the anime. I turned to my wife and said “wow, I think someone there played Ultima Online!”

If anything, a lot of the fiction and movies got a lot pretty sadly wrong. But recently the book Ready Player One was a pretty big hit, and it definitely was a sort of Snow Crash-lite sort of reading experience. For me personally, it sort of echoed what we were trying to do with Metaplace.

I think that Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge is another book that is already inspiring a lot of people. It’s (in part) about AR gaming, Google Glass-style. There’s also Halting State and its sequel, by Charles Stross.

Where do you personally draw inspiration from these days?

I’m spending more time making games than playing them. I dutifully check out whatever is mentioned a lot, but I don’t tend to get caught up and invested in anything. I tend to get more inspiration from non-game sources. In the past, that has usually been non-fiction stuff, like stuff about anthropology, or mathematics, or history. Currently, I have to admit that I am making game content that is in part about the way game culture itself is changing. The stuff that is debated around diversity, gamer culture, etc, is becoming a game topic for me.

This might sound like kind of a silly question, but from my perspective, it seems like the fact that people are jerks online is actually a huge factor that turns a lot of people off on the prospect of playing games online. Would you say that's accurate? What do you think devs need to do in order to build harmonious player communities?

Scale is really what kills us here. We want the games to be hugely successful, which means they have to have a lot of people in them. And large crowds just aren’t conducive to nice harmonious communities. Break the crowd into smaller subgroups, and things get a lot better. But that’s not where the market pushes us.

It also means that developers are very remote from the game. You can’t engage with the customers when there are millions of them. Instead, there are layers of moderators, and it all changes from a “we’re in this together” attitude into a “police these people” attitude, out of necessity.

On top of that, so many of the games, like the MOBAs and shooters and strategy titles, are all about domination and aggression, which of course bleeds over into the behavior of players. It can be a very testosterone-fueled culture, full of trash talk and posturing.
Many of the techniques for building harmonious communities have been known for a long time. Keep each community fairly small. Actively engage with the community. Celebrate the good behavior. Avoid publicizing the bad behavior. Provide diverse roles within the community and within the game, so that people have a need for people not like them. A lot of this is baked into the MMOs at this point.

It occurs to me that at the current rate of dev tech/tools progress, it won't be long before indies will be able to get their hands on fairly sophisticated, scalable MMO tech. What kind of work would you love to see indies do if MMOs were an option?

I think titles like Realm of the Mad God show that some indies already are getting their hands on tech like that, and innovating into new genres. Personally, I’d like to see all sorts of game genres tackle incorporating large-scale communities into the gameplay. So far, it’s mostly been RPGs, some tries at RTS, some building/creativity stuff like Minecraft or Roblox, and of course, a few shooters. Where’s the MMO politics game, the MMO economics game, the MMO platformers and survival horror and visual novels? I have no idea what shape some of these might take, but there’s a lot of unexplored territory.

Sometimes it seems like the best ideas in tech and games simply didn't happen at the right time. Is there anything you've come across in the history of video games that you think was too early to succeed and might come back?

I feel that a lot with my own work, actually! It feels like the simulated virtual world is making a comeback -- I don’t know that we had the right tech scalability available to us back then to really do it right. I don’t think the social virtual world is likely to return to prominence anytime too soon, though; social networks seem to have stomped it.

We’re seeing a resurgence in hypertext right now, thanks to the confluence of web tech with old ideas. That’s already leading to cool new stuff done in tool like Twine.

As AI develops, I think that we may see whole genres get revitalized. Imagine what a Siri-like experience within a game could be like. It was tried a few times, but failed badly because of technical limitations.

Let's talk platforms: We're currently seeing the industry both diverge (going from two relevant consoles to an assorted set of microconsoles plus the Big Three, PCs, mobile, and social) and converge (mobile hardware largely built to common standards; next-gen power consoles very similar to each other and the PC). How do these trends inform the way you think of games over the next ten years -- and your work in the biz during that time?

It is both a good time and a bad time. The good side is that it’s way easier to ship a game on many platforms than ever before. Broader audience, etc. And I think it’s important that in this new world we understand that “platform” is not about technology. Platform is about an ecosystem, a distribution channel. In other words, it’s about a storefront, more than it is about anything else. This means that Android isn’t one platform, it’s several, in most of the ways that really count.

The bad side is that in practice, the convergence is leading there to be de facto winners. Most PC distribution channels are seen as pointless by many devs. Same goes for most of the Android distribution channels. Going to microconsoles right now is more an expression of support than a real financial boon.

The cost-benefit analysis is failing the “is it worth my time?” test. When you can get 80% of the paying market from one source, well, you tend to do just that one, and you’d rather ship a new title than scrabble for 1% incremental revenue for 10% of the work. This is why crossplatform engines are so important -- they minimize that 10%. I can’t conceive of “porting” anymore. Unless you’re paid to do it, it’s hard to make it make financial sense.

There’s some sort of sweet spot that exists between too many platforms and too few. It feels like we are teetering on the edge of that right now, and all signs point to more platforms, not less, but most of them not succeeding.

How do you see the role of games (and the kind of experience players expect) changing? Are there any games/other work do you see around you now that is indicative of an emerging trend in this regard -- something which you think you'll later point to as a watershed moment in the evolution of video games?

It feels like we are swimming in this water already and not realizing it. Just recently, Gone Home charted on Steam above some big AAA releases. That’s a landmark moment right there. The press has already turned the corner to a significant degree " the debates over the artistic merits of a title like BioShock Infinite were already louder to my ears than the sort of traditional review discussion we used to get. The titles under discussion by craftspeople at conferences are the indie games, not the AAA games. We’ve seen the rise of artist enclaves, bohemian attitudes, old guard resistance, jejune manifestos (mind you, I think virtually all manifestos are jejune) and all the rest.

I think the floodgates are open. We’re at the point now where the kids who grew up with widespread “mass market” gaming are adults and are steeped in the gamer culture and mindset, and with that is coming all the self-examination, the desire to see substantial thematic content, and so on. The revolution has happened.

Registration is now open for GDC Next - which Koster is on the advisory board for, helping to pick the content - and the co-located ADC. The first 500 attendees who sign up can save over 30% on ADC, GDC Next, or a combined VIP Pass. For all the latest news on GDC Next, subscribe for updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS.

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