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]


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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:49 AM

I finished reading both of his books earlier this year. Postmortems is worth its weight in gold; even when I disagreed with conclusions, the historical perspective was invaluable. The story of UO is interesting, where Koster tries to push a product that his players do not want, and once he had left, the UO team launches the "Trammel" server where there's no ability to attack other players and the userbase doubles! LWers should probably read these chapters with Goodhart's Law and the concept of legibility/Seeing Like a State in mind.

(You might also want to go find a copy of Star Wars Galaxies off ebay and try playing it on the SWGEmu servers, though I'd warn you that it hasn't aged very well. Combat is almost non-functional and rubber-bandy. But seeing its crafting system in action is kinda worth it, if you're interested in alternative MMO design. I put little weight in Koster's attempts at social engineering, but very much admire his simulationist bent to other areas of game design. "Start with the Sim.")

A Theory of Fun, however, isn't worth your time. It's a very casual overview of his theory with a side of culture war and several later chapters which are merely sermons about how important video games are. It was written long before we had the phrase "replication crisis" and cites a bunch of psychology from that time.

A central question I've been thinking through while reading all this is "is this stuff actually relevant to me?" A lot of it is solving a different problem than the one I'm solving. How much of it transfers to building a rationalist community or ecosystem?

Raph's work seems most directly relevant to "how to build the great transhumanist future." His Theory of Fun is, non-coincidentally, related to LW's Fun Theory sequence. He spent UO and SWG trying to play is own much harder game than any of the players instinctively wanted: how to create a virtual world where player's lives had meaning.

I find Raph's story of UO very heartbreaking. I can describe the plot in a few sentences, but I'm not sure I can do justice to the heartache. The design process for UO was a higher level game, and each "round" in the game Raph would try a new strategy.

Victory or loss for Raph's meta-game was measured (in a goodharty way) by whether players were subscribing to Ultima and/or complaining on the forums.

In a (hopefully less goodharty way), victory or loss was measured by reading the precise stories players were telling or complaining about and seeing if the world was actually achieving the ability to self-police, in a way that was actually meaningful. (A more easy-to-parse-metric for self policing was "amount of playerkilling going on", where Raph wanted it to be non-zero, but nowhere near as high as it was.)

He tried numerous strategies to give players better tools for self-policing. I think there is some experiential thing that's important to get from reading, chapter by chapter in Postmortems, each new strategy Raph would try in this crusade, and the ways that it failed or only partially succeeded.

Raph played this meta-game multiple times (i.e. UO never really succeeded the way he wanted. He might have gotten differently closer in SWG, trying a different strategy and perhaps making different mistakes, although I haven't played either game so I'm not sure)

(I guess most of the history here is encapsulated in this blogpost – A Brief History of Murder (in Ultima). I think it's a bit less impactful if not read in the context of the entire history of Ultima and it's predecessors but is still a decent 80/20)

Thanks for the link! I ended up reading a large number of his articles. His thoughts on UO and Galaxies were predictably the most interesting to me -- I definitely share his sense that the old "wild west" Ultima and the like was better and more alive than the more soulless modern games (though I didn't actually play Ultima and maybe I'd change my tune after being ganked repeatedly by PKs... :P).

I also find it interesting how successful Galaxies was despite the fact that the combat system apparently never worked as intended and was basically dysfunctional! It kinda makes me wonder, what if Galaxies had had the dev resources and budget of WoW? Would that be the new face of MMOs? (Sometimes I've had similar thoughts re: Netrunner and MtG...)

For me the most "wild west" exciting alive game right now is EVE Online, but the actual gameplay is something I'm profoundly uninterested in so I basically live vicariously through stories of interesting happenings.

So reading all this has led me to think a lot about using MMOs as a testing ground for sociology, and vague disappointment that apart from corporate takeovers in EVE Online, there's not a whole lot of MMOs that are really complex/realistic enough to test, say, governance systems that are relevant to the real world.

EVE seems designed around a mix of corporate guild structure and "colloquial 'MMO for-fun' guild structure." People don't seem to invent governments that are aiming to solve the sort of problems that real-world governments are trying to solve. (there's not as much point in keeping the peace if killing each other is part of the point of the game)

What properties does a game need to have to sufficiently reflect real life that you actually have to solve the same problems?

[hmm – fake edit: apparently EVE has an in game democratically elected council whose job is to interface between the players and the company that makes EVE. Which does make sense and is interesting but isn't quite the thing I'm looking for here]

I feel like Minecraft is pretty close here.

I'd like to see a massively multiplayer Minecraft taking place on a roughly earth-sized world, with some tweaks to shift it it a bit towards a combo of "realism" and "able to build things that take some effort to destroy."

reading all this has led me to think a lot about using MMOs as a testing ground for sociology

i think you are on the right track---a google scholar search reveals an enormous amount of social science conducted on virtual worlds including topics like teamwork, economics, and religion. don't know about governance systems though.

Another interesting bit here is the "reading history backwards" thing. There's a chapter in the "text-based multiplayer game" section that's like "hey guys we've recently added variables to the game. Now we can give things properties, and we can references those properties to build complicated multilayered game mechanics!"

And it's sort of boggling that once upon a time someone had to invent variables, or that it was still a big deal to add them to your game.

A snippet relevant to "being a living world" as opposed to a game:

In thinking about the UO resource system in recent posts, I also got to thinking about other things that we either wanted to or tried to get the NPCs to do.
Today, NPCs have gradually evolved more and more towards being quest dispensers. Originally, we wanted NPCs that would give the illusion of life. But there were a few bumps on the road, and today NPCs in all the games pretty much suck. Moving around was actually one of the biggest bumps. One of the most obvious cues that an NPC is actually nothing more than a quest dispenser is to make them immobile terminals with hovering icons over their head. Yet this is what players demand.
In early UO the NPCs moved about — there was even some attempt to make them move about purposefully, from trade implement to trade implement, but that failed. When the NPCs would move around while you were trying to talk to them, players objected, and then eventually the NPCs were frozen in place because their primary purpose was as a dispenser of items. I fought this for a long time.