AGDC 07: Interview with Raph Koster

Dana Massey | 26 Sep 2007 22:34
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Rewind one and a half years: Raph Koster was the Creative Director at Sony Online Entertainment, a monolithic company specializing in big budget, 3D MMORPGs. In March 2006, Koster left SOE to pursue something new and founded Areae Games. Now, he's the mind behind Metaplace, an MMO fused with social networking driven by player created content. It's the antithesis of a AAA MMO. At AGDC, Koster explained his thoughts and observations on the industry, where it's headed and why he thinks his personal shift in trajectory is the wave of the future.

At the turn of the century, games like Ultima Online and EverQuest had moved to the forefront and replaced a generation of text-based MMOs, better known as MUDs. It was the inevitable advancement of technology that enabled designers to create what before had only been possible through words and recast it with pictures.

However, just as the advent of motion pictures hardly replaced the book, that wasn't the end of MUDs. They're by no means huge money draws, but many of them continue to have strong user bases to this day. Nonetheless, they were clearly replaced in terms of popularity, investment and developer mindshare by the graphical MUDs we now call MMORPGs.

"I think the big MMOs," mused Koster, "in some ways, they are becoming the next text games."

It's a radical statement from a man whose opinions run contrary to many of the other respected names in this industry. During AGDC, he was on the usual panel of industry leaders and as per usual, he showed his fundamental disagreement on where gaming is going.

While most big MMO companies continue to chase the golden ticket of World of Warcraft, Koster has done a 180 from his days at SOE, believing there's a bigger pie to be sliced. Koster believes in the web-based game market.

"AAA MMOs do not realize that the genre has passed them by," he told us. He points out, accurately, that a host of web-based "MMOs" already boast much larger player numbers than World of Warcraft, and laments people talking only about graphical AAA games at conventions like AGDC.

For many, these AAA MMOs are the wave of the future. Koster points out that the accepted wisdom in the industry is that PC games are dead. Walk into the local GameStop if you don't see why people say that. More and more in retail, console games dominate. That's why big MMOs are so attractive to big publishers, they cannot be pirated and are the last PC genre that doesn't have a viable console alternative. Almost every other genre has been translated to the consoles, which is a much more stable platform for developers.

Koster points out that people overlook what may be the most stable platform of all: the Internet. Consoles themselves actually become more and more PC-like every time a new generation comes out and eventually, they might well be the same thing. In the meantime, people play web-based games on a scale the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii games cannot even compare to.

Koster brought up a historical parallel to the shift he envisions for the game industry. At one time, railroads we're the life blood of the United States. People got insanely rich simply by moving things from one place to the other.

"These guys were hardcore about railroads," he quipped.

Eventually though, that generation of technology ran its course and companies were forced to evolve or become irrelevant. It happened when some railroad owners realized they could standardize and index their containers so they could easily go from land, to sea. Those that used this system - still in use today - became insanely rich beyond imagination. Those that did not, died off.

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