[MUD-Dev] Re: MUD-Dev digest, Vol 1 #163 - 25 msgs

Raph Koster rkoster at austin.rr.com
Sun Jul 16 00:08:36 New Zealand Standard Time 2000

Seemed like it might be of relevance... if not, what the hey. :) This is the
address I was supposed to give at the opening of last year's Online Games
conference in London (the one SMi runs). I didn't make it over there because
I had to cancel at the last minute, so never got to deliver it. It's out of
date now, but relates to the current thread. I've had it archived on my
website but never really told anyone it was there...

start quote--->
Current and future developments in online games

So everybody is into online games these days.

Most of the major developers in boxed computer games have dabbled in the
field or are announcing their first tentative steps (or more frequently,
their first grandiose plans). Most of these people have no idea what they
are doing. But they sure are throwing money at the problem.

The "old guard," those folks who have been in the online games industry for
years if not decades, are watching closely, wondering how it is that mere
money thrown at the problem is getting these clueless companies the profits
and prominence that seem to have eluded the pioneers.

These two groups often don't talk to one another. They often don't get
along. The newcomers think the old guard has no production values and no
sense of the mass market. The old guard thinks that the newcomers have no
sense of what it takes to run a service.

Both parties are correct.

This is an opening address, and so I will frame it in the manner of a
challenge to all parties concerned: online games have been on the verge of
fulfilling their promise for so long now that everyone is getting tired of
waiting. If they are to break further into the mass market, as we all agree
they have wonderful potential of doing, people need to look both to the old
guard for the reasons why players keep coming back, and to the new guard to
topple some sacred cows.

What makes a game successful?

Over the long haul, there's only one thing that makes online games
successful. Websites call it "stickiness." We call it retention. It still
boils down to providing an experience that players wish to return to time
and time again. The reason for doing this is, of course, to charge them
money for it. We have to design our games to make players want to keep
paying, and keep coming back, at minimum cost to us the service provider.
This is one of those things so obvious on the face of it that people tend to
miss the point.

In a subscription-based model, the ideal online game is one where the player
keeps paying to never log on. This is rather antithetical to our design
sensibilities, I suspect-a game that nobody wants to play, that they just
want to hang around?

In a session-based model-well, personally I don't know that there are any
good session-based models. A session-based model means you need them to log
in to play. You have to count on players to take initiative. Most players
have trouble remembering to watch their favorite TV show. If you want to
trust players to reliably do something that is not woven into their daily
lives and that they have to pay for on top of that, well, they probably
won't. You also won't be able to easily tell why they didn't show up again,
because there is no opportunity for exit interviews (how do you say goodbye
to someone who just never showed up? In contrast, it is easy to say goodbye
to someone signing off).

I don't know very much about session-based models except that they aren't
something that interests me very much as a designer, so I won't dwell
further on that. I am sure that there are some of you out there who are
shaking your heads in dismay at how naïve I am about it anyway.

So retention is a key factor. But it's not the only factor. You have to get
them in the door too. And frankly, this is one place where the old guard
fell completely on their faces. It's not entirely their fault-the industry
was not mature enough to support the expenditure of massive amounts of money
on making games attractive. So the dedicated online game companies didn't do
it. But it was completely predictable that someone from outside would come
in and spend that money and usurp the industry away from those who knew it

Ultima Online, a product I was fortunate enough to be the lead designer on
for four years, has now had almost 400,000 people buy the box and log in. It
has over 130,000 people currently paying ten US dollars a month to play. It
sold a frankly frightening amount of "charter editions" at $100 dollars a
box via direct sales, which cost us almost nothing to sell and make. It has
approximately 40 man-years worth of 16-bit artwork in it. Sierra's The Realm
had the caliber of artwork, but no marketing. Archetype and later 3DO's
Meridian 59 had the game design, but not the artwork. UO got lucky-it was in
the right place at the right time and had the marketing muscle, the brand
name, the presentation, and enough accessible gameplay functional at launch
to grab the brass ring.

I don't think it is bragging to say that UO has redefined online gaming-the
evidence is not just in the numbers-it's in the fact that every major online
game endeavor forthcoming is using the same model that UO did. One of the
tips always given to budding generals is to choose your battles-if you don't
like the one you are in, redefine the battlefield. UO redefined the
battlefield, and now online gaming is, fundamentally, a different place.
Anyone who is not willing to play at that level is not going to be able to

This is not to say that UO did it right. After all, everyone's favorite
pastime in this industry is bashing what it did wrong. And all of those
people are correct. There are still more brass rings to be grabbed.

Ensuring maximum retention of playerbase

Ultima Online has an average retention time of many months. Meaning that the
average player who buys the game plays for at least that long. A sizable,
well over double-digit percentage of our playerbase has been with us
continuously since the day the product launched.

This sort of thing is nothing new to those of you who have been running
online games for a while. But analysis of what actually makes these numbers
happen is generally lacking. Online game design has gone through relatively
little evolution in its 30-year history (dating here from the earliest games
on PLATO). And some of the evolutionary paths are plainly visible to those
who care to look.

Everyone knows that the game is about other people, right? That's often
presented as the Great Secret, the Holy Grail of Online Knowledge.

Well, it's wrong. In part, anyway. The fact is that other people are
something fairly cheap. The trick is other people that your people care
about. Other people in the same place as your people. Other people who
aren't going to leave.

It's very easy for a group of friends to persist beyond a given environment.
We've all seen it happen. In online games in particular, we've seen the
clans and guilds and tribes or what-have-you move wholesale from one game to
another. Friendships always migrate out of the game. If you rely on other
people to keep folks in your game-you're gonna lose. This is why the parlor
game sites have virtually no customer loyalty and are casual in more ways
than one. There's no emotional investment there-and if there is, it's all
too easy to drop that friend an email and interact with them without having
to sign up for yet another tedious game of hearts.

The game should give ownership

I'll tell you the Holy Grail of Online Knowledge: give them things they
can't take with them somewhere else. People they can't take with them.
Identity they can't take with them. A cool avatar is not enough-every
competitor is going to offer that too. A level is not enough-they won it,
they can brag about it forever after. Friends are not enough-the whole gang
will migrate to another game, with guild names and titles intact. Give them
something they can't take with them, something they must work to maintain,
something they prize so much they can never give it up. There's lots of ways
to do this, and generally speaking, traditional online games, especially the
"casual" ones, have been fairly bad at it.

The game shouldn't end

The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim liked to talk about "games" and "play." If
you only offer a game that is about "game" you're not going to fulfill the
promise of online gaming. But if you offer a game that is only about "play"
then you aren't really going to offer solid goals. You have to marry the

If your online game has a STOP sign posted at the end of its experience,
you're making a fundamental mistake. But every game derived from MUD seems
to make this mistake over and over again. It's trivially easy to examine the
life-cycle of those games and see the point at which the bulk of ongoing
development shifted from being about the new user and became about the
maxxed-out player. It's easy to find the stories about the guy who "ran out
of things to do" and turned towards savaging his fellow players in pointless
retaliation against boredom.

There's plenty of tactics here. I've got ideas, and I'm sure you've got
ideas. And this address isn't about answers: it's about challenges. So here
is my challenge: make your games ones where your advancement ladders are
infinite rather than finite. Be it via king of the hill, player-driven
content, redirecting players to socially-oriented advancement ladders, or
what-have you-just do it.

The game should give things to argue about

Lastly-we spend so much time trying to make our games safe environments. And
we know, their reputation as hardcore, niche pursuits chases away many
potential customers every day.

But the fact is that people seek entertainment in large part to be touched
emotionally. If the experience does not touch them emotionally, they will
not stick around for a repeat showing. They will not seek it out again, they
will not recommend it to friends. It may be a pleasant brief diversion, but
it's not something they will want to experience over and over again.

All those silly scandals about chat room moderators trading netsex for
favors, about playerkillers causing demonstrations in some poor MUD's inn,
about schisms among guilds leading to massive anger-these are emotional
engagement, people. These are people being passionate about some bits and
bytes we have on a server! This is magic.

For the love of God, we need to stop sanitizing the emotion out of online
games. We need to be willing to make people feel strong emotions about them.
Yes, even hate. We all know about the games we love to hate-let me tell you,
there's something oddly satisfying about running a game people pay to hate.

Marketing online content

The thing that should be evident about this is that we're providing an
experience. In the past I've made the statement, "It's a SERVICE. Not a
game. It's a WORLD. Not a game. It's a COMMUNITY. Not a game. Anyone who
says, 'it's just a game' is missing the point."

Recently everyone has been applauding the brilliant marketing campaign
behind The Blair Witch Project. I don't know if that film has made it over
here to England yet, but in a nutshell, this is a trifle of a film that
purported to be videotape made by three college students who became lost in
the woods and met a dreadful fate. The film was supposedly found years later

The genius of the marketing was that everything was contextualized. There
was a documentary that went with it. It treated the events in the film as
real. There was a website. It also treated the events as real. The film
itself was in a cinema verité style.

In other words, Blair Witch was not a movie. It was an experience.

Jonathan Baron (formerly of Kesmai, now at Origin) has this wonderful bit
about online game taglines. Are you with us?, which is UO's tagline, he
says, means that we get it. And EverQuest's tagline, You're in our world
now, shows that they don't understand what online games are about-empowering
the player. Wish I could say that it hurt EQ any, but it hasn't-they are
doing fantastically. Fortunately for me, they haven't hurt UO any at all!

Either way, though, the key is that both are offering an experience. If you
offer just a game, why will anyone care?

Technical opportunities and restrictions

Obviously, we can't do everything. We can't give everyone what they want.
But I think that thinking in a box about the sorts of technology that can be
applied to online games has been limiting our thinking as to the potential
they offer. There was a massive resistance to giving up on text-only games,
for example. Now, I started on text-only games, as I imagine everyone here
did. I love them. They give unparalleled freedom of imagination. They can
provide unsurpassed eloquence and elegance of experience. They are a direct
plug into the brain!

But folks, Johnny can't read. Certainly not Johnny the console player. Not
the Johnny I run into daily at work, the fourteen-year-old who thinks that
the latest expression of hip-hop gangsta rap rage is just the coolest thing
going down. I find it wonderful that there are muds out there that I can go
to that give me areas based on Foucault. But Johnny doesn't care. And I am
in this to make money, after all. (Crass, I know).

We need to think a little more creatively about the technical opportunities
we can make use of. How can we make things more compelling? The answer
everyone has right now is voice technology. Now, I don't know if we can
afford to do voice technology. I don't particularly care either-the fact
that it is everyone's answer means it's not mine. I'm not saying what my
answer is, but I do know that I don't want to design where the herd is
going. I want to find ways to use interesting technology-perhaps not even
cutting-edge technology, just, well, snubbed technology-to make an
experience that is emotionally captivating.

And yes, that may mean a text game at some time in the future, too. Just not
right now.

Future developments in content, technology, and consumers

The simple fact is that our consumers are not who they were five years ago.
They are different now. Where they were once online gamers, a discrete
market, they are now the standard gamer market, weaned on Doom and bred on
Quake, blissfully unaware of antiquities such as BBS door games, the year in
which MUD II launched, and Modem Wars. In few more years, the market is
going to be someone quite different from that. Someone who doesn't
necessarily care about flashy 3d graphics, but who certainly isn't going to
sit still to read quickly spamming text. Someone who isn't into blowing up
bizarre alien creatures or slaying innumerable orcs and dragons.

The consumers that are the future of our genre are everyday, ordinary
people. Most of us in this technology-mad industry frankly have no contact
with them. The technology we need to develop isn't the technology of more
polygons or better 3d sound or more accurate simulations. It's the
technology of people. Of giving them what they don't know they need.

I spent last Christmas holidays in Ohio, with my father's side of the
family. An architect, a teacher of disabled children, an ex-firefighter who
now sells bathtub linings. They had many questions for me-they wanted to
know if I was proud of what I did, and how I felt about videogames allegedly
driving disturbed youths to acts of insane violence.

And boy, I longed to make a game for them. Because I knew that I could get
them interested in an online game that personally touched them, that made
them have a greater awareness of the world around them (for in my
technologically savvy big city mind, I suspect I saw them as provincial in
some ways. I don't feel too proud of myself for feeling that way, either).
An online game that connected them with people they wouldn't have otherwise
interacted with. That maybe didn't have a single dragon or spaceship in it.
A game-let's be frank-an Internet-that is woven into the fabric of their
lives. I know it can be done, and I also know that it's not online

So this is my challenge. The new guard, the boxed game companies, and the
old guard, the online game diehards, may both miss the boat. That's OK,
because someone else will see the obvious and rush in to capture the
audience that is waiting. But I know where I want to go: I want to go
towards experiences that are emotionally resonant to the widest range of
people possible, because in some kooky, idealistic way, I'd like my work to
touch people.

I want to make online games for the same reason that people want to keep
playing them: to touch people, to find new things to conquer, and to leave a
mark on the world. I want to make games people argue about, that make them
discuss philosophy or art or culture. And I bet that's what the future
brings us: online games that matter. If someone asked me what it was that
made people play UO, that's what I'd answer: because it matters to them. And
that's my challenge to all of you: to find some way to make this medium
matter, so that it gets the audience that it deserves: my cousins in Ohio
and everyone else. There's a bottom-line reason to do it-it's a large
market-but there's also the reason that we are likely in this industry
making this kind of game-which is hard, damn hard-because we love them. And
we want others to love them too.

Thank you.
<---end quote


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