Raph Koster on MMO ecosystems, the balance of power, and tennis
Most MMORPGs have the core sandbox problem: Whoever gets there first, controls all the toys and has the power to drive everyone else away. Even in a themepark, the “richest” players, whether they control the gold or the dungeons or the gear or the PvP, eventually help kill the game.
That’s the subject of a Raph Koster blog that recently popped back up on my radar. Koster, known for ecosystem-oriented virtual world MMOs like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, is subtly making the case for MMOs that end, even if that end starts a new beginning. It’ll sound familiar to A Tale In The Desert players, surely, or anybody watching Koster’s latest MMO, Crowfall.
In the service of his argument, he references a blog post about the age of the world’s best tennis players, which just keeps rising. Is it because the olds are innately better at tennis? Nope. It’s because the “winners” are entrenched in a rich-get-richer situation that ensures “the typical person in the system ends up below average.” The more the winners win, the more money they have to ensure they win more, whether that’s with better coaches, better equipment, better medical treatment, or just plain more time to train, which makes it progressively more expensive (on all fronts) for newcomers to compete… until the newbies stop trying and the olds start retiring.
And then? The whole system collapses.
“Systems that don’t destroy their kings on a regular basis end up destroying the kings and the citizenry,” Koster argues. “And life under a king is never advantageous to the citizens, either.”
“There is a sweet spot for ecosystems, you see. A certain level of connectedness, a certain level of inequality, gives us teams and cities and competition and cooperation. But a level above that gives us stagnation and centralization and loss of freedoms. There are thresholds in systemic complexity that serve the system but do not serve the components of the system well. Having hugely paid celebrity tennis players serves them and the system of tennis that monetizes that celebrity well, but does not serve anything else in tennis well, just like having a music scene of only the major rock stars does not serve garage musicians well.”
The takeaway, from an MMO perspective, is that our worlds need to be designed with “ferment,” not stability, in mind. The power and profit ecosystem must be constantly shifting and breaking down so that if “kings” – be they the uberguilds that control the dungeons, the gankers who control the farms, the PvP powerhouses that cap all the territory, or the number-crunchers who rule the trade economy – do rise up, they don’t last forever. Hopefully, that’ll mean the game will.