|the international journal of computer game research||
Celia Pearce is a game designer, artist, teacher and writer. She is the designer of the award-winning virtual reality attraction Virtual Adventures: The Loch Ness Expedition, and the author of The Interactive Book: A Guide to the Interactive Revolution (Macmillan, 1997) as well as numerous essays on game design and interactivity.
A Conversation with Raph Koster
Conducted in a Hallway at the San Jose Convention Center. March 22, 2004
by Celia Pearce
Raph Koster: I think the first thing that strikes me is that there are some similarities, and then there are some differences. The big similarity is both are well-loved universes, and working within the boundaries of that. In that sense, Star Wars is familiar—it felt very similar, bigger in scope, in detail and so on…but it’s still similar in that way. I think one of the big contrasts for me, one of the things to compare between the two, is that Ultima Online from early on was kind of a garage project in a sense… a very small group.
CP: What were you doing before you got involved in Ultima?
RK: It is really challenging because what you find, of course, is that not everybody even sees it the same way. So there was actually a really vocal segment of that early fan base that didn’t want us to be making Star Wars Galaxies. They wanted us to be making Star Wars Battlefield 1942. And we’d say to them, well, this is going to be a subscription-based thing, and it’s an RPG, and you know, that’s its nature. And it didn’t matter. They still wanted that other game. Which is now being made, so I’m sure they’re happy.
RK: Some are derogatory slang terms that people use for one another. So, people who aren’t interested in player vs. player combat, the people who do enjoy PVP call them “care bears.” So that was one.
CP: That would be me. (Both laugh)
RK: Then there’s the player killers… actually the people who enjoy PVP… not all of them are player killers, in the sense of people who murder people. Some of them enjoy team vs. team sport, essentially. You know, there are the people who are interested in virtual crafting and building, versus the people who are interested primarily in combat, you know, and player vs. creature combat, traditional RPG-style. And you know, there are many competing tensions. The crafters want to be able to make the coolest stuff so that they have a market. And the power gamers and the RPG'ers want to loot the best stuff from the monsters they kill. So you end up having to reconcile all those different impulses.
CP: Of those… you might call them… personalized objectives, or the player style, let’s say, where do you see synergies and where do you see conflicts? Some of those things can complement each other, and some of them can actually undo each other, or make the other person’s experience less fulfilling. Is there any way to resolve that?
RK: A lot of what Star Wars Galaxies was about was trying to resolve that.
CP: So, give me some examples of some of the things you might have done to address those issues.
RK: A lot of it, for example, with the game economy. Minimizing the amount of loot, that is stuff you might want directly as a finished product, but instead making loot that is ingredients so that you can take the ingredients to the crafter-type. The crafter still gets to make the best things, but you still get rewarding loot. So there are lots of strategies.
CP: So that’s an interesting approach, because usually, I think, the crafter might make things for themselves typically.
RK: Oh, well no. That’s one of the things that I’m really big on at this point, is more player-driven economies and what I call large-scope group interactions. You know, we always talk about the small group interaction, which is, in a fight, we want these three or four roles and they need to work together—teamwork. And that is incredibly important, but I’ve become increasingly interested in large-scale interactions, in how play styles fit together, in their interdependencies. And so here we are at this convention hall, and we have academics, we have press, we have game designers, we have money people, we have the mobile people, we have the conference organizations, we have the people who keep the place clean, we have the caterers. And there’s this complex interesting web of interdependencies where if you removed one of these groups, some chunk of the conference would fall apart. And that’s how the world works. And we don’t tend to think of the telephone sanitizers or whoever—and there’s people out there doing very important things. Somebody’s out there monitoring the traffic lights to make sure the traffic works, and nobody ever thinks of that poor guy. And no doubt his job is pretty interesting if we decided to go look at it. So MMOs that are just about, “hey, let’s go kill monsters and get loot” have a very simple web there. There’s not much to them. I’ve been increasingly interested in seeing how the different groups interact, in part because so many of them dislike each other. (Both laugh.) For me, MMO design isn’t just about putting together a game, although obviously that’s critical. But it’s also about learning a little about that kind of thing. I mean, there’s an opportunity there for us to learn about ourselves and learn about others. So having an environment where, in Ultima Online, it became clear, crafters were important. And everybody said “Oh, wow! Crafters!” This is a viable major part of these games, and now there’s a little bit of an ecology going, right? In Star Wars, a big deal was we wanted to add the arts as an additional point on the thing… and so we added this. It wasn’t just arts, it was what we called social professions. Professions that are essentially social lubricants in one way or another. So we have politicians and dancers and musicians, and even image designers, which are essentially makeup artists and hair stylists. And we put these in and consciously gave them a place in the ecology so that they’d matter to people.
CP: What was the stat?
RK: We called it battle fatigue.
RK: They’re always empty.
CP: Yeah, and I was thinking it would be great if somehow there was a social bonus, so that if you’re doing that with other people it’s now accelerated.
RK: It was kind of traditional in the MUDs that everybody would always build taverns, and the taverns would always be empty. Usually the way that people tried fix it was to make it so that drinking alcohol healed you faster.
CP: That’s kind of odd.
RK: That’s why we made it a character class, because that is the reward mechanic in these games.
CP: So you actually level up?
RK: You actually level up as a dancer, or whatever. Because what I wanted to do was give them a pat on the head that they were doing good work. Traditionally, the game was oblivious to this important stuff that they were doing.
CP: Yeah, and I’m always curious too, I wonder if those social dynamics, or what I would consider sort of emergent behaviours, behaviours that are outside of the game's roles, to what extent they either support or detract from the primary game mechanic. I notice that in some games, socializing is actually a detraction because you don’t really get any points for it. But one of the things I always liked about the demos that I’ve seen of Star Wars Galaxies was that they were sort of accommodating a variety of player types.
RK: It literally was to give it a feedback channel, and make it so that socializing wasn’t just a neutral activity. It used to be passively punished, in that you couldn’t advance while you were doing it. So by letting you actually advance in it, or actively rewarding you, if that’s a path you want, and it became recognized: “hey, somebody put in all the effort of making Master Musician, you know, that’s something significant.” And there’s also the factor of people just feeling rewarded for it. You know one of things that had become crystal clear in MMO design was that people will do the thing they’re rewarded for, not necessarily the thing that is fun. So players will gladly short circuit the fun out of the game system in order to get the rewards. Which is exploiting, it’s cheating, it’s cheat codes. People will find ways to bypass the fun in order to advance and get rewarded quickly. So I see that as a problem. It short-circuits out all of these things that are slower-paced.
I tend to think of it as a social architecture thing, or creating opportunities for the interaction. There are emergent behaviours that will happen in the game, but the thing is, they only arise if there are avenues and channels for them. And these games aren’t really complete enough simulations in a lot of ways, especially economically… Like all the examples I gave you earlier, essentially all economic interactions, in one way or another, exchanges of information, exchanges of money, and exchanges of goods, in some cases, like this place, exchanges of jobs, like in this place—it happens a lot. But if those constructs don’t exist within the context of the game, then that kind of interaction will never happen. So if you leave out crafting, you won’t interact with tradesmen because there simply won’t be any, because there’s no call for it, it’s not simulated.
CP: Also the role of money is kind of interesting, because although it isn’t an explicit goal in a game to get money, there are things you can do with money that help you achieve the goal.
RK: The basics of economics always show up. You always get something getting defined as a currency, either whatever the designers provided or something else. If they didn’t provide anything, somebody will make some object in the game into currency. That part’s easy. What’s hard is then getting a rich and diverse ecology of people doing different things. And that’s where we as designers choose to include or not include different kinds of activities, and the richness of the interaction, of the culture within the game, is going to depend on what you include in the simulation. So if you leave out, say, the service economy, by and large MMOs don’t have a service economy. Retail jobs kind of suck in the real world… so being the cashier in a grocery store probably isn’t likely to show up as a role in an MMO. But running the grocery store has. And so there’s this chunk of the economy – like the service economy – that has huge ramifications. In the real world, all kinds of interesting things arise out of that. It’s just not in these games. Because we don’t tend to have anybody waiting tables in the MMO. So if we don’t provide for it, we’ll never get any of the things that might arise from it. Now, I don’t know that there’s any interesting gameplay in waiting tables, but I could be dead wrong. So to me it was a matter to me of, let’s pick some things that I think do have gameplay and put them in the game.
CP: That would be fun in and of itself but would also provide some tangible outcome.
RK: I do read a lot of that, I hang out on the Terra Nova blog a lot, Ted and for that matter, Dan Hunter, all of that crowd there. Some of it, like in Ted’s case, was revelatory to people who weren’t immersed in it already. I think most of us who are already working on it knew about the extent of the phenomenon. One thing he certainly contributed has been hard numbers. That wasn’t something that even the industry had looked at that closely.
A lot of the legal stuff that people keep coming up with is very novel and interesting. That’s something I’ve been following a lot, because that’s opening up new—I don’t know if I’d call them new vistas, maybe new minefields—for online games. Other academic areas as well.
CP: Have you read T.L. Taylor’s writings?
So in a sense, you know, I don’t really fault these guys for not having been on MUDDEV since 1996. I’m a Johnny-come-lately to it. Anytime I sit and talk with Randy Farmer, or John Taylor, or Richard Bartle, I’m the young pup among them. You know, there’s always a lot to learn. I think the base problem is how little of it’s been codified, has been collected, and really kind of analyzed. But at the same time, for every T.L. Taylor, there’s an Elizabeth Reid that nobody remembers. And that’s not to mock T.L. Taylor. And everybody remembers Sherry Turkle, but not quite as many remember Amy Bruckman. It’s not even a question of remembering things—these people are still actively doing work. It is a little bit odd.
CP: I mean from an academic perspective, I get a little bent out of shape about it because academics are supposed to do their homework. I mean if a random game designer doesn’t know this stuff, that doesn’t bother me at all.
RK: It bothers me!
CP: But it bequeaths those of us who are supposed to be answerable to a certain level of rigour. Part of the problem too is that most people who are at it are so young, and we don’t quite know what academic really means yet. And a lot of us are trying to maintain a bridge between practitioners and theorists and scholars in a way that other media haven’t. Clearly there’s been a real breach in the film side. A lot of us have been trying to have that avoid that happening here.
RK: MUDDEV has a name for that. GOP MUDS and non-GOP MUDS mode—goal-oriented play. To me, Second Life is really recapitulating MOO, and There, to me, is recapitulating a lot of MUSHes, more the topic style of MUSHes, but basically MUSHes. I mean they’re obviously impressive technical achievements. But to me, from a design perspective, their primary innovation is adding graphics, and adding how to do deal with the graphics. I think they’re both really interesting. I was hard-core hooked on There for about two months. The reason why was because I found myself very involved in playing the game of making money as a fashion designer in the game. And once I made a quarter million Therebucks, I lost interest, because I’d felt like I’d won. And there weren’t enough other things for me to do. I’d played all the Buffy trivia games I was going to play. I’d rode around on all the hover board courses I was going, and I played avatar pinball, and thrown myself off of flying platforms. And I’d done all of that, and so I ran out of things to do.
RK: So we don’t give you the subscriber numbers. But there were some numbers thrown around on Gamespy that we’re the top MMO by more than half. Our impression is we’re number two in the North American territory. It’s getting hard to measure that because so many games are multiple territory, and you don’t know whether the numbers include Japan or Europe. It’s getting hard to tell.
CP: Cable television?
RK: Anything! It’s cheaper than cable, it’s cheaper than movies. I guess books… I mean that’s heavily dependent on how fast you read. Yeah, it’s incredibly cheap, and yet, people really balk. The idea of a fee really turns them off, right off the bat. It’s the biggest barrier.
CP: Now with Star Wars Galaxies, do you have a disk or do you just download it?
RK: No it’s a disk. (Laugh) It fits three disks.
CP: Because I know that that, for me anyway, if there’s not a disk, it’s an easier sell for me, rather than having to buy something and then paying a monthly fee.
CP: That brings up another question I wanted to ask. What kind of a gender split are you getting with Star Wars Galaxies? Do you have any sense about that?
RK: You know I haven’t run stats any time recently. I think Star Wars is in an interesting position. The license is not necessarily the most appealing to females, but I think the gameplay of it is. Every woman that I’ve every demoed Star Wars to has ended up subscribing to it. You know, I’m trying to remember the last stats we heard. I want to say that we’re 10 to 15 percent range. The things that we did have a lot of success with in Star Wars – one of them was lowering the time it takes to play a given play session. We were pretty successful at that. We managed to cut that time in half.
CP: Which is what, like an hour or so?
RK: Yes for Star Wars it’s about an hour. But in many other games, it takes like two hours just to get the group together. So that actually opens up the possibility of play to a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to play. Because, you know, I don’t have four hours in an evening.
CP: Yeah, that’s sort of the zone between the casual and the hard core. I’ve always felt that there’s a market there that really hasn’t been approached.
RK: Yes, we were successful in tapping that. One of the interesting things was that the level of hard core demand for it was so enormous that in practice, we ended up getting a hard core audience for it.
CP: It built up a big head of steam before it even went online. In the Avatars Offline film, and I’ve heard you say this before, you mentioned that with Ultima Online, you thought that age wouldn’t matter, you thought that race wouldn’t matter, and you thought that gender wouldn’t matter, and you were right about everything but gender. I’d love to hear you talk about why? What is it that makes that an immutable aspect?
RK: Age doesn’t matter because once you remove physical interaction, and it primarily becomes writing ability – ability to write coherently and express your thoughts in text. We’ve all known 12 year olds who are fantastic at it and 30 year olds who are terrible at it. That’s why that one turns out not to matter. That one’s actually really liberating. Finding out “wow, my Guild is run by a 14-year old kid who somehow is a better project leader for a team of 200 than I am.” That kind of thing. I’ve heard so many stories about things like that happening.
Race… very similar. Typically what happens is that it will be social cues that give it away – things like shared experiences, cultural things, music or whatever.
RK: Language, right. But since it tends to be a cultural thing, you’ll also find it crossing race barriers anytime a culture crosses race barriers. Which actually happens all the time, right? And so that one kind of falls away.
And then there’s gender. And what we find with gender is that we do have gender representation in the game. I mean we have age in the game, since it’s really based on how well you type, you expect to see the young kid looking old and vice versa, and nobody cares. And we do have race in the game, but everybody knows that they’re going to make whatever they want to look like, and so, nobody really thinks about it.
CP: And, at least in the medieval roleplaying games, the races don’t quite map to human races one to one – they sort of loosely do.
RK: Yeah, so you get the fantasy races, which are really like species – elves, and dwarves and so on, lizard people, and all that. And you also get, usually within the human, that there will be enough variation. What tends to happen though is that people tend to go for races and classes that are kind of personality archetypes – the big dumb troll – or whatever, that kind of expresses something about themselves. And people see that as being a mapping, rather than saying, “oh, you’re black, right?”
Now gender is a different beast. When people put on the gender identity within the game it’s an explicit choice that maps more strongly than age and race. What we’ve seen over and over again is people take for granted what the presented gender is. Often, even if they know that statistically it’s very likely that the person behind that female avatar is a guy, even if they know it is a guy, they will still interact with that character as if it were a female person.
CP: But you also hear things like, other players are nicer to you if you present as female and you get more gifts, you get twinked more.
RK: And that’s not anecdotal. That’s verifiable. That is true. Again, that’s what I mean about gender presentation. That happens whether or not it’s a guy playing a female, or a female playing a female. It’s just something that happens to female characters.
And it’s interesting. I’ve played female characters for years. And for me, it’s that I actually prefer interacting with the culture of the female characters. Because I’m sick of dealing with 14 year old boys. There’s a cultural thing there… what kinds of things tend to get talked about, what movies are people discussing. It’s everything about it. So just as when you’re in a cocktail party, and you see, oh, over there are the people with the pocket protectors and the glasses; over here are the people wearing tank top T-shirts, who do I want to talk to?
CP: Which may not map to what they would be like in a real cocktail party.
I mean, gender politics is a minefield. But there is clearly some form of identification there that people say, I want to be in a healing role, and I’m going to present female. There’s a linkage there that people make. Whether it’s a justified linkage is a whole other question. They make the linkage.
Similarly, I know that I’m going to tend to get more intelligent conversations in Star Wars, for example, if I go to the Cantina and talk to the woman dancers and the women roleplayers inside. I also know that a disproportionate portion of the town leaders is going to be women, rather than men. Regardless of what they’re presenting, it will be women behind the scenes. And so there are a lot of things like that. They’re empirical realities about how gender seems to operate within these contexts that in a lot of ways are kind of eye-opening. It’s not so much reinforcing stereotypes, but just an acknowledgement of that this is how things are working, so now let’s explore the roots of it.
I find it a fascinating area. But it’s a tricky area to talk about. Because people have real flash points when it comes to it, in many different ways.
The other thing that’s interesting I’ve noticed in There, which I describe as a virtual club med –it’s kind of like an hour-long vacation.
RK: I completely agree.
CP: Because otherwise you can’t try the clothes on.
CP: So you had a female character in the game. Very interesting. I’ve just been playing There for a couple weeks now. I was in the Beta briefly, but I’ve been playing fairly regularly.
RK: Almost all my friends are gone.
CP: They just stopped playing after a while?
RK: One of the things about the gender presentation thing—and I guarantee, I’ll lay money, I will get ribbed about this later, because oh, yeah, we talked about playing girl characters. In fact, I got needled about it not an hour ago on the other side of this hall.
CP: You talked about it at USC too.
CP: Of course I’ve never played a male character in a game.
I was telling somebody that if you really want to test whether or not a given female avatar is played by a female, ask them what brand tampon they use, because it will be then that it will all fall apart.
CP: (Laughs). That’s a good tip to close with. Thanks much for taking the time to talk to me Raph.