Q&A: SOE's Raph Koster

Sony Online Entertainment's chief creative officer talks about the future of MMOs, communicating with users, and what a game needs to excel in the genre.


Sony Online Entertainment's Raph Koster is sold on massively multiplayer gaming. The industry vet and current chief creative office at Sony Online Entertainment helped create Ultima Online, the EverQuest games, and Star Wars Galaxies.

During a Churchill Club panel discussion on "the connected era" of gaming last week, Koster called single-player gaming an aberration that would eventually give way to more connected experiences. According to Koster, even the biggest single-player games already have connected components, whether their developers intended them to or not. Online fan sites, message boards, community-created FAQs, and walk-throughs--Koster says they all add up to a connected gaming experience.

GameSpot caught up with Koster after the panel discussion to get his take on more traditionally connected gaming and the future of massively multiplayer games.

GameSpot: Let's start with an easy one. You said that you pretty much live in these worlds, these massively multiplayer online games. What exactly is the MMO to you today?

Raph Koster: Is that an easy one? (laughs) What is the MMO today? MMOs to me are a platform, and we deliver games in them. Right now, we usually do the one game per [world] but I don't think it needs to be that way. I think a lot of the trend has been to deliver more games within one world. Crafting is now a viable sub-game and a lot of the games' economics are coming in--like people playing arbitrage and all kinds of things like that. To me, MMOs are a platform. They're a place that offers entertainment, where you can put games and community and socialization and all kinds of other things. That's what the MMO is to me.

GS: So because it's a platform, you want to try to get as many people on it. That ties into cross-console compatibility. Is there a way to unite the big companies, an approach you can take to say, "You guys need to get on this MMO. We need to all work together." Is that possible now? Is it going to be possible in five years?

RK: I don't think it's quite possible now. I'd hesitate to predict about five years. You're basically getting into the walled garden problem. MMOs are not yet the Internet. MMOs are still AOL in that sense and I think they're probably going to stay that way for a while. It took a while for that to change [on the Web] anyway. And when it changed, the Web turned out to be different from AOL in a lot of ways and I think we probably don't know yet the shape of the Web-equivalent MMO in that sense. It's probably different. So I think the games would have to change. Right now, there are so many things that get in the way of that. One huge one is even the flavor of an individual world. People want to be in the Matrix world or the EverQuest world or the Star Wars world. Getting even that going across worlds is a design challenge.

GS: What about Final Fantasy XI? Aren't Xbox 360 players going to be able to play with PlayStation 2 users?

RK: I have no idea who can play with who as far as Xbox 360, nor am I going to comment on Xbox 360. But I think that overall the cross platform idea--that's huge. That's a really big thing. Again, the platform really is the Net, right? I'm not minimizing the client but I am saying that the hardware's an enabler. You connect through it, right? To me, that's where the game really lies. So it's cool that they're doing that, and it's the kind of thing that we're also interested in because we think it's important.

GS: The king category for MMOs right now is role-playing games. What's going to have to happen for a real-time strategy/first-person shooter MMO to come along?

RK: On the shooter case, we viewed PlanetSide as a very successful title for us because we learned a lot, and a lot of people really love PlanetSide. So, to us that was a great title. I think in a lot of ways, it pointed out a lot of things about the ways MMO and FPSs can develop and the ways they can change.

I think one of the key things that we definitely learned is once you start thinking of the MMO as a platform or a place, you can put in a lot of different kinds of games in them, rather than thinking of them as having to be an RPG. At the same time, I would say that we also learned that one of the big things about having a virtual place was having a sense of your virtual self and the way in which they advance and progress. With PlanetSide, you have Battle Rank. Even though we were careful to make sure it didn't take over the game, it's also very important as a marker of how well you're doing and how you relate to other people.

So some of the conventions that we consider RPG-ish, like avatars, are actually incredibly important for all MMOs. That doesn't mean that the game system that you interact with is necessarily rolling dice behind the scenes. And I think PlanetSide's combat system demonstrates it definitely doesn't need to be that way.

RTSs are really tricky because it's a very different experience. You're way back [away from the action]. You're not identifying an individual. I think when we see a really successful MMO/RTS, it's probably going to take on a lot of RPG trappings that kind of ease people in--the sense of, "That's me," the sense of, "This is the place where I live or control things. This is my path for advancement." And RTS style will be put into the game plan.

The economic sub-game in Galaxies works that way. You can plant harvesters and check back on them and you have to keep them funded and build a supply network. That's a game and it's a strategy game. It's an economics strategy game. So I think there are lots of cues in the games right now for the ways in which other forms of game play can develop. I talk a lot.

GS: Talking about the different genres that the MMO can be applied to, a lot of them also kind of would go hand-in-hand with innovation in MMO space, and I'm wondering if you think that the innovation for MMOs is going to come from one of the big boys, one of the players like Sony Online, or if it comes from people outside the established developers, like Three Rings' Yohoho Puzzle Pirates?

RK: You know I'm a huge fan of the indie developers. Obviously, in any industry, the indies serves as a place to try out wacky ideas and, dude, I play them all. I checked out EVE Online. I played Puzzle Pirates, Second Life, all of those.

At the same time, I don't think that the big companies are incapable of innovating. They can innovate even in ways that the smaller guys often can't because they're small. They don't necessarily have the funding. And I think a lot of the things that are being done are actually along those lines. There are innovations that can't necessarily be tried by somebody that doesn't have a large established user base. PlanetSide is an example of that. I think some of the things we've done expanding out in that direction--[the flat fee multi-game subscription plan] Station Access, Station Exchange--you can't do those things unless you have a big user base. I think we've done a lot of experimenting with individual game systems within games trying out new forms of game play, like entertainers in Star Wars Galaxies. Those are all experiments. They're all innovations. So, I don't think that innovation is solely the province of the indies. At the same time, I love the indies and I keep a close eye on them to see what they come up with because you never know.

GS: With all the funding you have, when there's so much as stake, are there limits to the amount of weird and wacky stuff that you said the established developers can attempt?

RK: Sure. Just like smallness imposes constraints, bigness imposes other constraints. But particularly as it regards to individual game play features, it actually frees you up. Our players want new ways to play the game that they love. They're not in love with just slaying a mob over and over again. They're in love with the world. They're in love with their friends, the relationships they've got. So, adding a new way to play that game is exciting. And we just added player-versus-player in EverQuest II. It's a whole new system that's gone in there and current EQ II players suddenly have this new window of opportunity opened up to them. Players really like that kind of thing. They don't want to be stuck in the same old game. We want to always be adding and changing and providing fresh experiences.

GS: There are a lot of people testing out a micropayments model with their MMOs. Do you think that the future is micropayments or subscription or a mix of them?

RK: I don't think that any one business model is necessarily the right one. And I think business models change over time to adapt to things. I did Ultima Online way back when, and back then, everybody was on a per minute or per hour payment and going to a monthly flat fee was huge part of what opened up MMOs to people, right? We weren't the only ones doing it. It was like the whole market suddenly said, "Boof! We're moving over. Monthly subs now." Sometimes that kind of big shift happens, but there's still room for the tiered pricing. In fact, out in Asia, there's still by-the-hour business models out there.

Micro-transactions obviously is the one everybody's paying attention to now. I don't think that means subscriptions are going to go away but it does mean that we need to keep broadening our sense of the kinds of ways you can make money off of these games. It sounds like, "money, money, money," but, to me, what that actually means is we're going to get more kinds of games because when the business model changes, people get inventive about ways to design towards those business models. So, just like MMOs were born in part because of the shift to subscription models, I think more kinds of MMOs will be born by increasing micro-transaction models. I think we're seeing that in Korea, actually, where there's a whole new bunch of kinds of games out there that have arisen in part because of that.

GS: There seems to be an issue with the idea of an MMO sequel. Asheron's Call 2 was shut down recently, but the original is still up and running. Anecdotally, a friend of mine was huge into EverQuest, moved into EverQuest II, decided that he liked his original world better, and moved back. Is the nature of the MMO at odds with the traditional gaming model of a sequel?

RK: We certainly regard EverQuest II as a game of its own and we do not regard it as a replacement to EverQuest. It's a sister product. And when we look at our titles, that's why we package them in Station Access--to provide the range of choices, right? Because playing just one game can be great and you can be hooked on it and so on, but we can offer you the choice so that you can say, "Hey, I don't feel like playing EverQuest tonight. I'd rather shoot things." And you have PlanetSide right there.

So, with EverQuest and EverQuest II, [they're both EverQuest] because they share a lore. But if you've played both of them, they play fairly differently in a lot of ways. And we do that on purpose.

GS: What do you think the life span of an MMO is? Can EverQuest go on forever? Can the communities stay the same? Can I be playing with someone when I was 20 and still be playing with them when I'm 80?

RK: Well, 20 to 80… I think the historical evidence is that the games will last, right? The question is, "But with how many players?" So, there are games still running from 20 years ago that still manage to maintain this loyal core of users. Now, whether or not they can then afford to upgrade it to the latest shaders is a whole other question, right? But the persistence and the attachment of a community to the game--that doesn't seem to end.

From a business point of view, it becomes about how many customers you have and what does that pay for in terms of keeping it going? That's a completely different question than whether or not the games can survive. Our tactic is continued reinvestment. What engine is EverQuest on now? Number three? It's seven years old. So we just reinvest in it and you find out, "Hey, we can keep going." When UO started, EA thought it would only survive for three months. So, the estimates have traditionally been wrong about how long they can live.

GS: These MMOs are living, evolving gameworlds. And it seems like every time there's a patch for any game out, there's a bunch of users on the forums that are unhappy. But I think the reaction to the recent Star Wars revamping is above and beyond what I've seen before from MMO updates. Does that suggests to you that there are limits to how much these gameworlds can change? Or is it just a matter of how quickly they can change?

RK: That's an interesting question. Obviously, people grow attached to a game as they know it and sometimes it needs to change. Sometimes the game just needs to evolve. One of the classic examples that has always come up is the question of replacing avatar art. People get really attached to the way their characters look. Then you want to upgrade it so that it doesn't look like *** because it's been [the same for] years. And then we get a revolt. And that's happened to several games.

I think games obviously need to evolve and they need to evolve in tandem with what the user base wants and also what meets the demands for the game's survival. And it's a line to walk. I'm not going to say otherwise. But I think games evolve over time and when they evolve, it's largely from player desires and pressures. The companies aren't out there just changing stuff willy-nilly. They're out there trying to make people happy.

GS: You mentioned that everyone on the connected gaming panel probably had multiple community moderators just to handle it. I'm wondering if having this constant give-and-take between the players and the developers is just causing people to use it to provide feedback more often, or do people have higher expectations and are harder to please with an MMO and an online game than offline?

RK: I don't think they necessarily have higher expectations. In general, I think that people have high expectations and they deserve to have those met. That's what providing a product or service is about and I think that adapting to having them in touch with you is hard. It's different. In a lot of different media, we used to be a lot more in touch between the creators and the audience. There used to be a tighter relationship. It wasn't until mass publication in radio and broadcast that that changed. But there used to be a real tight connection there between the bard and his listeners. And it's not a bad thing that we go back there--not at all. In some ways, it's actually empowering as a creator to know immediately, "What I'm doing is touching people and affecting how they think and how they feel and here's how." But it doesn't mean that you're losing control. It's just the connection. It's just so awesome. It's so valuable that I love it. I like to dive in there with the players every chance I get and talk to them. Drives them nuts.

GS: Are you put on any sort of leash when you go in there, or is it just common sense?

RK: Obviously, everybody has to have common sense. There are things that we obviously can't talk about. I can't spill details about stuff that's not announced. There's always company confidentiality and this, that and the other. But it's a common sense leash, obviously. "Don't be stupid." It's kind of the cardinal rule that we try to use. But, beyond that, being in touch with the gamer community and knowing what they're enjoying--we need our developers to do that. We need them to play the games, know what things play like, know what people like, know what people don't like. How else do you know? It's not like games that are perfect for what the audience wants, like, spring from here [gestures to his forehead] or anything. It just doesn't work that way.

GS: Do you have a rule of thumb or a point at which you have to question if the changes you're making are substantial enough that it would be better just to make a new product?

RK: Yeah, never change more than 59.7 percent of your code [laughs]. No. How do you do that? There's no easy way to do that. The best you can do is think about it long and hard, research the questions, ask the players, talk to them and make a call. And that's really how you do it with every change, even the tiny ones you do it that way.

GS: Does the Star Wars intellectual property add additional concerns when you change the game?

RK: Sure. Of course it does. It has to. With even the smallest change, you have to worry, "Is it Star Wars-y?" You have to weigh the changes and say, "Can we make the game more Star Wars-y?" The game's core audience is people that are Star Wars fans, so of course it plays that role.

GS: Is it easier to develop for a license or for an original intellectual property?

RK: It's not easier. They each have their own challenges because on the one hand, you have, obviously, all of the lore that's there. It gives you a huge leg up. You're not inventing all that stuff. On the other hand, coming to match that spirit and really nail it and satisfy everybody as a fan is very hard.

Working internally, you have all of the burdens of coming up with something great on your own. And you have the burden of shepherding it and then growing it. Working with an external IP, you have a different production burden altogether, which is working with an outside partner who has a huge say in what's going on. And just logistically, that adds different kinds of challenges. I wouldn't say that it's easier or harder. There's huge trade-offs. You gain a lot and you lose a lot, just in terms of how you operate.

Working on Ultima, that was internal. Working on EverQuest, that's internal. And you still have to pay just as much attention to the coherency of lore. And it helps that you can be the arbiter yourself but there's still a very similar burden, right? You can't be unfaithful to your own IP, either.

Creativity is enhanced by limitations. That's something I always say. Creativity is often about finding a way out of a given box. Here's the constraints. How can I make something really cool? It's like, "Draw a picture, but here's the size of your canvas," or, "You only get these colors." And you start coming up with creative solutions to that problem. If they tell you that you can have a canvas of any size you want and anything you need, any kind of paint, you kind of stare at it and go, "Uh…" for a while, because it's wide open. So, to me the limitations aren't a bad thing. They often spur creativity and ideas.

GS: I'm wondering what you guys are doing with Untold Legends and the PSP. I see "Sony Online Entertainment" and I just think, "They're the MMO guys."

RK: So, obviously, MMOs is central to us and core to us and so on, but I think everybody would agree that trying to make a PSP MMO launch title might have been a bit too much to bite off for the very first time. I don't know if you played Untold Legends but we put a big emphasis on multiplayer in that. Online is about the connectedness; it's not necessarily about client-server to us. So, with Untold Legends, we pursued multi-player. Actually, we did on the PS2 as well with Champions of Norrath. It was the same kind of thing.

GS: Well, that at least was using the EverQuest world that Sony Online owns, right?

RK: Are you complaining because we created a new world?

GS: Not at all. I'm just saying it seems a little bit outside of your core expertise, or the brand recognition of Sony Online.

RK: Creating a brand-new Fantasy IP? You dissing us or what? I don't know.

GS: It's not online. I wondered why SCEA wouldn't handle it, any one of their many...

RK: We came up with it. We wanted to work on the PSP. A great first step seemed to us to be, "Let's make a multiplayer classic dungeon crawl game but you can play multiplayer Wi-Fi." That sounds online to us.

GS: You said an MMO PSP launch title would be a bit much. Is an MMO PSP title…?

RK: …

GS: …

RK: "Cross-platform is the future" (laughs... turns to SOE public relations director Chris Kramer) That was our message, right?

Chris Kramer: That was our message.

GS: As a gamer, not as a developer, what is the most important part of an MMO to you? Is it community? Is it infrastructure? Is it content?

RK: I think it is the community, you know? In the end, you're there to play with your friends, right? If it's just the RPG experience, the shooter experience, you can get that lots of other places. The magic really happens when you get that expereience with your friends. Mind you, I'm not saying the game is not important or less important, because obviously it has to be awesome. But to me, the magic of MMOs happens with other people. That's when it really comes alive. If it's just a great game, you can get that disconnected, and then it's not an MMO. But with a great game, that community, those people, that's the heart of it.

GS: Thank you, Raph.

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