Playable Worlds’ Raph Koster shares the secret of good social design in MMOs

    
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Raph Koster, the game designer behind Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and Playable Worlds’ upcoming project, has posted yet another essay about MMORPG design, all meant as preamble for the new game. In this latest piece, he challenges MMO players to re-examine and understand what social design is in games — and why it’s so essential to get right.

Koster speaks to a “sweet spot of [social] network development” where people aren’t disposable, forced to do everything by themselves, or form monopolies — a sweet spot that is only achievable, he says, if a game puts in rules to nurture this kind of diverse environment.

These rules include not separating players by level barriers, distance, or the structure of the economy. Koster is of the opinion that de-centralizing the economy offers more opportunities for “mom and pop stores” and tavern operations and the like.

“In the end, good social design is about good society design,” Koster said. “Diversity of people and of play makes for a more robust society, a more enduring community, in every way. That’s good for us as a business. More importantly, it’s better for players. It makes for an online world that doesn’t chase you out or make you feel insignificant or unwanted.”

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Michael18

There are things I like and some things I dislike in Koster’s blog posts. But the fact that there is an MMO in the works where such long-forgotten/neglected considerations again play a central role during development makes me incredibly grateful and, in fact, hopeful for the genre overall.

I mean, what was the last MMO being developed with such attention to virtual world design and social interaction? In that sense, it seems to me, this project links back to the pre-WoW era of MMO design.

Chronic Enigma
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Chronic Enigma

Only other game I know of was original SWG pre NGE and CU… Which was also developed by Koster.

Honestly it seems Koster is the only one truly interested in social economy and the dynamics of players within that social economy.

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Michael18

It’s true that SWG probably had the greatest focus on theses things, but imho most of the major MMOs before WoW put far more thought into how to make use of the “massively multiplayer” and persistent world aspects of MMOs than is common today, for example UO, AC, EVE, AO, and many others, even EQ1 with its group focus and class interdependencies. It seems to me the move towards single-player / co-op “MMOs” came with post-vanilla WoW and its clones (btw: in which camp the release version of WoW belongs is an interesting question that cannot be answered easily, imo).

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Robert Mann

I like the idea, but there’s also several other things that are important with decentralized economies.

Yes, an AH is convenient. It also DOES remove the potential for any gameplay in those other roles. It tends to reinforce crafting as a ‘everyone does everything, just sell for gold’ setup, whether you like that or as I do detest that.

The thing that is important for many is that something like this come with information available. To be able to KNOW where to go for the best of X, and in turn the crafters who have mastered that having such renown is… something that has been missing from games for crafting focused players for a long time.

Of course not every game is for every person. I personally lean toward wanting the in-game reputation to matter, to have more depth outside combat, to not just have the world be a backdrop, etc. There’s no one correct way, but there is an incorrect way… the way of trying to force everything to be aligned to personal interest. We see that all too often, whether it’s PvE vs PvP, or whether it’s convenience vs something like this. There’s every reason to have an opinion, and I welcome everyone to theirs so long as they show that same respect to others. Lack of respect is where I stop showing any in turn.

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Brinto Sfj

Wasn’t he part of Crowfall development team? Did he leave and start a new company?

Chronic Enigma
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Chronic Enigma

No, he retired a while ago, he’s now getting back into games. Last time he did anything was mid 2000’s

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Raph Koster

I never retired!

2006-2010: founded and ran Metaplace.
Shipped: Metaplace.com, plus a pile of games on Metaplace (mostly puzzle or arcade ones; Ant Farm, Wheelwright, UIRacer, an online snake thing I forget the name of, High Seas) plus Island Life and My Vineyard for Facebook. These two got quite a bit more players than any of my MMOs. :)

2010-2013: VP Creative Design at Playdom/Disney Interactive. No games of my own, but I worked on dozens of them ranging from many FB games to lightly touching several of Disney’s console titles.

2013-2018: consulting. Shipped Jackpot Trivia for Buzztime, which was in bars all over the country. A couple of games related to multiuser AR research at Google: Nightenfell and Truck Stars AR. Lots of boardgame design. One of those just shipped a couple of months ago, Waddle from Wizkids.

Been doing Playable Worlds since then.

I never went away — I was just doing things that MMO players tend not to pay attention to.

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cannotweep

Is this guy still a games designer or just an amateur writer post-SWG? Where are the videogames?

Chronic Enigma
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Chronic Enigma

He retired after basically Everquest 2 and has been blogging since then. He recently has come out of retirement because he hasnt seen any movement in the MMO industry and there is so much potential. Kind of like… well i guess I’ll just have to do it myself.

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Raph Koster

See above comment :)

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Schmidt.Capela

I agree with much of what he said; the bits about not separating players by power level or by travel time, in particular, are issues I comment about from time to time, as I tend to never play games with persistent power progression with friends (as we are bound to be at wildly different power levels, and playing with a large power gap simply isn’t fun) and to play MMOs with long travel time as if they were single-player (because I refuse to waste my time traveling just to meet with a player group).

About decentralizing the economy, though… to be blunt, I dislike the experience of shopping, both in the real world and in games. Nowadays I’ll only purchase online, even if it’s to purchase from the website of a store 5 minutes away from home, unless I have absolutely no alternative; heck, I’m willing to pay and wait more in order to not have to go into a bricks-and-mortar store. So, if you force me to experience all the frustration of real world shopping just because you want to allow other players to live the fantasy of running a “mom and pop store”, I’ll give your game a wide berth.

(Caveat: if the store provides an online community, where I can talk to employees and other patrons at my leisure, I’ll likely at least dabble with it. What I dislike is the act of in-person shopping; I actually enjoy talking to people who buy or sell things I have an interest on. It’s similar to my stance about forced socialization in MMOs; force me to talk to others and I will refuse to do so, but allow me to talk without adding any punishment for being silent nor any reward for being talkative and I’ll engage in conversation with other players all the time.)

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7thRankedNoob

Uh. Listen… I am in my 50s and listening to this guy is like talking to my dad (disconnected, possibly off his meds). Its like having Dick Clark appear out of history “Hey cool cats! Tyler the Creator is here and this is gonna melt your brain its so good..listen to this next track!” Ya. OK. …. Raph: It is not 1999 or even the 2000s . You are not even close to having the ‘pulse’ of online gaming. Maybe hitch yourself to Garriot/Long and you can make SOTA version x. I’m sure there is an abundant amount of people that will throw you money for it. But for God’s sake, retire already ….

Chronic Enigma
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Chronic Enigma

Maybe you are in your bubble and me mine, because all MY friends YEARN for what Koster did with SWGand wants to do. It may not be your cup of tea, but to hyperbolize and say ” the puse of gaming” is EXACTLY what you think, is just a fallacy.

creationguru
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creationguru

See I liked the economies of UO and SWG and are the only games I liked to craft in as I was part of an economy that had a purpose. To me having to replace even standard gear makes the economy tick and I always liked perpetual housing and vendors as it made the world feel more lived in. I know that I have become a minority in this regard as I like some conviencies of an Auction house but in the end it makes crafting instanced I would not mind a system that let’s you search where to get but would have to go to the physical location to get. I also want gear that is not so stat based and is more just armor and such so that it’s not as tiered and is replaceable and swappable at point. Guess this is why I also like skill over level progression. I am excited about what he eventually turns out.

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Jon Wax

usually statements like these precede a gigantic corporate hail mary that tends to land somewhere in the stands or hits one of the camera guys

im not sure what hes prepping the field for but this sounds like it could be kinda interesting in a dumpster fire kinda way

Chronic Enigma
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Chronic Enigma

I would say he has no agenda rather than to speak his mind, he’s been blogging for 10 years now about what he did with Ultima, SWG and others. Most likley this is just a vague drop on the direction his game is going, much like SWG with no levels and strong social connection.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Just to tweak some noses, this gave me a giggle.

“This graph structure is everywhere in our lives. It describes the structure of the Web, too. The biggest “lumps” are sites like Google and Amazon. Sometimes lumps get so central, so powerful, that they draw all the links towards them, like a social black hole. In economies we call these monopolies.”

Then down at very bottom

“What’s your take? Join the conversation on Twitter!”

I mean the article goes out of its way to paint the evils of centralization but even Raph couldn’t get away with having to rely upon it. Where’s the blog comments? Or the company forums? I’m well aware how miserable both of those things are to manage. Worse you lose the additional exposure to people who are far more likely to use Twitter than to make separate accounts. Which gets to my next point.

“There’s a sweet spot of network development where mom-and-pop shops aren’t crushed by megacorps. A sweet spot where almost no one is really disposable. Where people aren’t forced to overspecialize, but also aren’t forced to do everything themselves. Where no individual node on the graph is so powerful it swallows all the attention or all the rewards.”

Small business can and do thrive despite the presence of huge-cube retailers. They do this by offering unique or tailored goods and/or superior service. The thing is off-the-rack is “good enough” for most people.

Forcing players to comparison shop is a miserable experience. Unless you get off on arbitrage. There’s a reason why Jita 4-4 is a thing and why ESO’s player economy is (was?) a laughingstock.

Centralized markets aren’t anti-fun. They reduce a huge amount of tedium.

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Rndomuser

Yea centralized markets are a good thing. They make it more convenient for people to search for item they need and to buy it for lowest price. And since most people in games don’t craft it’s better to offer everyone this convenience. The ESO’s system is an absolute abomination compared to any other modern MMORPG where centralized market exists.

As for giving individual players more unique business opportunities – there is an actual way to do that, which lazy MMORPG developers has not implemented yet. You just give people tools to create unique designs for armor and gear then let them upload that design in in-game store, if those designs will be approved then every player can buy that unique design either for in-game currency or real life currency and apply to specific armor piece or weapon with portion of the money going to the game developer to maintain this store. The purchased design can only be applied to a single piece so if someone will want to apply same design to a new armor or weapon – they would have to purchase it again. This is not complicated to implement and will give plenty of incentive for individual artists to design such things for the game.

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Sorata

I find centralized markets lazy. Sure ESOs system is way of from perfect. But it adds more to the game, than it takes time from it’s people.
The only real problem that occured to me in 4 years playtime was to find really really rare items in the stores. Nothing a search with “where to get an item” (could be integrated with an intersting system of informants for example) can’t solve.
Giving the trading back to the guilds is a great approache. Game get’s less shallow with it.

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Hurbster

I find ESO’s way of doing things to be a better way of the much-vaunted method of ‘player-run’ shops that everyone seems to love so much.

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Bruno Brito

ESO’s market would be great if the SEARCH engine wasn’t decentralized. The problem with ESO’s GHs is that you have to make a ungodly ammount of legwork and research to find what you’re looking for.

I’m all for decentralized markets, but let’s not pretend that the QoL that follows them should be as bad. It shouldn’t. Just use the SWG system and allow us to look for the vendor’s locations for specific items.

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Robert Mann

And here I disagree, not only because it means people have to start joining random trade guilds that have nothing other than selling goods and splitting bidding-war costs as a reason. Also, due to bidding wars, shops move, resulting in a giant ‘look around each place, might find something, if not move on’ (although at least that would be mitigated by the centralized search).

That said, the end result is that it’s just an AH with guilds charging higher posting fees and drama. It doesn’t feel better, it feels like it takes everything that is dislikable about the AH and adds more problems.

That said, I can see where a system of regional stores that work with the players on the crafting side (stores buy goods from crafters, who buy from gatherers or stores in a similar way, and then sell to the end user) might work better than just player run stores. At the same time, I think it would fly largely in the face of a fantasy or medieval themed game in terms of accuracy (which should never determine everything, but can be important to some people still), and it wouldn’t fit the bill for many crafters who want to be known for their unique items in a more vibrant economy with far more options than the standard… but for a middle ground game, I think it could work well.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Another side of this, is that most people nowadays run some kind of add-on that tells them prices. That’s a problem when people are having to visit weird off-game websites to get something to stick on their computer which could easily get them ‘hacked’ because they downloaded something they shouldn’t have and some person uses the access they gained to steal passwords or other personal info. Also, it’s not ‘QoL’ when you’re making it HARDER for people to participate.

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Sorenthaz

Yeah when I look to buy stuff I don’t want to have to search between multiple markets like you do (or did?) in ESO. I’d rather just have an auction/market board where I can see all the listings and then buy whatever at the lowest price offered. I don’t want to go through the headache of bouncing between markets to find the cheapest deal.

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Tobasco da Gama

The only game with a player economy I used on a regular basis was Guild Wars 2. Why? Because A) there was one single market for everyone and, most importantly, B) BUY ORDERS. I’m way more likely to produce something for listing on the market if I know there are buyers out there and how much they expect to pay. Make the player economy easy to participate in, and people will participate in it. Shocking, I know.

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Bruno Brito

Sure but…GW2 has a terrible problem with a small clique controlling the market. While ESO’s system isn’t that good, GW2’s isn’t anything you should envy either.