Raph Koster’s MMORPG.com Interview: Ultima Online Comments

Raph Koster has had a storied and interesting career in the games industry. He was the lead designer for Ultima Online, and the creative director for Star Wars: Galaxies. He has been working on Metaplace since about 2006, in the various forms it has assumed over the years. And in addition to this, he has pursued his interests in music and writing; his A Theory of Fun (an updated version of which is forthcoming) is recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand the rudiments of game design.

MMORPG.com sat down with the man for a chat about his career recently.

MMORPG: Was it easier working on Ultima Online simply because, in essence, you were making the rules as you went along?

Raph Koster: No. It was easier working on UO because we were a small team, and we were all pulling in pretty much the same direction. The only other time that has happened for me like that was when we architected Metaplace. SWG had a much larger team and many pressures on it. The social games also had pressures and lots of conflicting goals. That skunkworks moment, when you have a team that is small enough to move fast, big enough to make something substantial, and all in sync on what we’re making, is something magical.

With SWG, there were tensions almost from the get-go, on things like whether to have Jedi in the game, whether to use procedural terrain, internal politics around the San Diego team versus the Austin team, and of course, the stuff associated with being a licensed title. With social games, you’re always engaged in the cultural conflict of creativity versus metrics. And we were in a run-up to selling the company too.

It isn’t really about making up rules. I mean, rules can chafe, no doubt about it. It’s more about working in synchrony.

For those of you who played Star Wars Galaxies, Koster has some comments on what he felt precipitated the ultimate fate of that game:

MMORPG: What different challenges in design did you face with Star Wars Galaxies in contrast to Ultima Online?

Raph Koster: Well, both were based on beloved IPs. Star Wars, though, did offer more constraints on us than Ultima did. The Jedi thing was a huge issue, and eventually, IMHO, it killed the game. We shouldn’t have had Jedi at all, I think. The fact that we had to have an alpha class in an MMO is right off the bat deeply problematic. Then we basically buried the class, made it nigh impossible to get. When the holocron hints on how to be a Jedi started dropping that first Christmas season, that was really the beginning of the end. Because of the way in which the Jedi system worked, for which I take full blame, you had to master all these different skills. When it was secret, that was one thing. But when it was public, it meant everyone started playing in ways they disliked. Botting skyrocketed. People started to grind. And they started to quit.

At any rate, click on through to read the rest! Koster also re-itereated many of the same comments he made to MMORPG.com in an interview with Gamasutra, and also got into a bit more detail about what he thinks the future holds for games, especially in the online space.