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Raph Koster and the future of gaming

Raph Koster has recently emerged into prominence in my mind as a man who knows a lot about what he is talking about. He’s a long-time game developer with a concentration on massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, games with hundreds of people interacting at once such as World of Warcraft or Everquest.

Raph first burst into my awareness when Tycho of Penny Arcade (coiner of the word “lexiconnoisseur”) asked him to come up with some way to make a massively multiplayer online game, or MMO, about construction. As in “making buildings.” The challenge wasn’t coming up with a way to make the game, it was a way to make the game fun.

The whole article is rather fascinating, a look into the tricky world of game design. But the thing that made the whole thing stick out in my mind was that Raph eloquently summed up something that I was gradually coming to understand on a non-verbal and conceptual level. He said, “Games are made out of smaller games – turtles all the way down, until you hit the game that is so trivial and stupid it isn’t deserving of the name.”

Playing Mario, for example, can be boiled down to pressing the “jump” button at the correct precise moment. When it is phrased this way, I can only think of those crappy Flash “reflex tests” which require you to play almost exactly the same game. In the art of video game alchemy, the “jump”, the “shoot”, the “move” are among the atomic elements from which all games are wrought. But the good game abstracts and nests these atoms so deep that it feels like something completely singular.

At any rate, the point of taking these elements and combining them in a way that makes working with a hundred people you don’t know, over the internet, to win a contract for and construct a building to be an enjoyable experience. This ends up taxing almost all of his genius, which results in something that sounds, on a general level, at least passingly interesting. He does not, however, find a way to write the whole design doc, as he admits at one point, “I have no idea what makes for a fun drywall subgame, sorry.”

But of late, Raph has been working on a product called Metaplace. It is, essentially, a toolkit to be used to build your own MMO, as a web-browser game. A game master, for lack of a better term, begins creating his world, specifying all the elements of the game and opening it up for the world to enter.

When [Web 2.0] started becoming common currency for everybody what we saw happening with everything from literature to video was that it became democratised. But it wasn’t happening for games. I was attending all these “how the web works” conferences and seeing how these things worked, and it all clicked into place. Here was this opportunity to harness this energy and get the same kind of results from the web that we’ve seen with thriving indie musicians, or all these other creative people who were previously gated by infrastructure. It’s all been coming out. It made me want to do that for games. I’d been developing a bunch of small games at the weekend, and said to myself “this is easy for me because I’m a game developer, but for most people it’s hard”. I want to fix that. For most people the tools aren’t there, the infrastructure isn’t there, and in particular for MMOs. I mean, if you want to make your own MMO, just forget it. It’s an insurmountable barrier.

As someone who is both a lover of MMO games and a weekend game programmer, this excites me greatly. We really are living in the future.

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Categories: Gaming
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  1. April 23, 2008 at 2:27 am

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