Raph Koster on Virtual Worlds vs Games (notes)

by Raemon2 min read18th Aug 20198 comments


Gaming (videogames/tabletop)Online Socialization
Personal Blog

Raph Koster is a game designer who's worked on old-school MUDs, Ultima Online, and Star Wars Galaxies among others. His blog is a treasure trove of information on game design, and online community building.

The vibe I get is very sequences-like (or, perhaps more like Paul Graham?). There's a particular genre I quite like of "Person with a decades of experiences who's been writing up their thoughts and principles on their industry and craft. Reading through their essays not only reveals a set of useful facts, but an entire lens through which to view things."

I'll most likely use the comments of this post to braindump thoughts or summarize things as I work my way through his corpus.

He has two major books I'm aware of:

A Theory of Fun – An illustrated book who's central thesis here is "Games are about learning. When you've learned all you can learn from a game, it becomes boring." (this has a vibe very similar to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, which is a similar kind of braindump that teaches a lens to view things). [PDF of the first few pages here]

Postmortems – This is a collection of essays Raph wrote across his career, starting from text-based Multi User Dungeons, then Ultimate Online, and eventually Star Wars Galaxies. (I think most of this is available online as blogposts but I purchased it to read on kindle)

And meanwhile, his blog itself, divided into:

With posts clustered into topics like:

  • Theory of Fun (cognition and games
  • Game Grammar articles
  • Game Development Process
  • Experience/Narrative Design
  • Games as Art
  • General Game Design
  • Game Economies
  • Community Design
  • Star Wars Galaxies articles/anecdotes
  • Ultimate Online Articles/ancedotes
  • Misc game postmortems
  • Ethics in Game Design
  • Player Rights (i.e. treating players ethically)
  • Gamification
  • Games as Business
  • Community and Marketing

Virtual Worlds vs Games

A central question he keeps revisiting is the difference between a virtual world, and a game. I think this is well encapsulated in "Designing a Living Society in SWG, part one and part two."

A game is "something with rules, where your actions have consequences, and you can achieve some kind of mastery." Whereas a world is more like, well, a world – a breathing ecosystem where consequences are persistent, and things can interact with each other over the longterm.

Most games he's been involved with have been worlds first, games second. In Ultimate Online you deliberately didn't have access to a global chat. If you wanted to talk to someone, you had to find them and chat "in person." Objects you dropped on the ground stayed there permanently. Monsters interacted with each other. Players built houses, and this eventually resulted in a land/housing crisis.

Ultima Online was famous for dealing with "excessive playerkilling", where it was hard to leave town because aggressive players would murder you.

Raph spent years trying to built tools that enabled players to solve this problem themselves – it felt very significant and important to him that the roleplayers actually had to defend themselves against the playerkillers, and saw it as a failure if a problem was resolved via "running to daddy" (i.e. getting an admin involved).

And this struggle seemed far more real and important to him than players being able to defeat a dragon, or whatever. If an online, anonymized world of players could learn to impose law and order onto chaos, and literally defeat evil – this would both be far more meaningful than any hand-crafted challenges.

(this actually bears some relation to Gordon's comment elsewhere about games as simulations and learning)

[I feel like there would be value in me writing up extensive summaries of all this, but then I was like "Huh, if I'm going to spend that much time I might as well spend that time helping to distill the LW sequences or something." But will try to write up additional notes in the comments here as I come across them]