Steve paid a visit to San Diego to interview veteran designer Raph Koster about his new startup, Areae, and their first project, Metaplace. Read or listen to the interview after the jump and keep your eyes open for the next installment of our Metaplace coverage.
The following interview is the first in a series of two features this week covering Areae’s upcoming virtual world creation system, Metaplace.
It was likely both the easiest and most interesting interview I have conducted to date. As both a journalist and likely future world builder myself, I had already begun compiling a laundry list of questions about the system from the very first moment after I read the initial announcement.
My areas of interest, however, were fairly narrow. As a former MUDder who saw Metaplace as a potential means to resurrect “the good old days,” they mainly ranged to such topics as “How is the editor going to work? How are you planning on keeping this thing afloat?” And, of course, “When can I start?”
When conducting interviews I tend to think of myself as a public servant in the search after truth: It is my job to discover new sources of information, and thereby to provide answers to people’s unanswered questions.
So, in that spirit, I decided to consult the public—or, at least, the portion of the public with whom I am personally acquainted—on what they would like to know.
“If you could talk to Raph Koster about this new system they’re working on,” I did not feel the need to mention that I was actually going to, “what would you ask him?”
After throwing out the obvious non-starters, such as “What’s with that logo? It looks like it’s going to be designed for nine year old girls!” I felt that I had arrived at a good, solid mix: things that I wanted to ask as a gamer, things I had to ask as a journalist, and things which the people at large seemed to want to know.
With this motley assortment of questions in hand I ventured forth to San Diego. There, Koster and I took our places in Areae’s meeting room and began to talk Metaplace… and we did not stop for nearly an hour.
Press the play button to listen to the interview, or scroll down to read it.
Interview, Part One:
Interview, Part Two:
Interview, Part Three:
The MMO Gamer: To get us started, for those among our readers who may be unfamiliar, tell us a little bit about yourself, and how we came to be sitting across from each other here today.
Raph Koster: Most of your readers probably first heard of me through Ultima Online. I was on the original UO design team, I was the creative lead for the original UO, and lead designer for Second Age and UO Live. I did UO for about five years—four years, maybe—starting in 1995.
Before that, actually, I was active in the world of text MUDs. LegendMUD is still around, I worked on that for a long time.
After UO I did a couple of things that never saw the light of day for EA, and then moved over to Sony Online, where I was the creative director for Star Wars Galaxies. I left Star Wars Galaxies, two months, three months after it shipped. For those who keep score, it was before CU, even. It was around the time that cities went into the game, is about when I left. And that was because I moved to San Diego to become Chief Creative Officer for SOE, and doing that I mostly did—I had an R&D group, and I did a lot of public speaking, and milestone reviews, and things like that.
After I did that for three years I decided to strike out and do my own thing for awhile. I’d been inside of giant corporations since ’95, so it was a nice change of pace. Started Areae last August, July-August, and here we are now having announced Metaplace, which is our top seekrit project—S E E K R I T, seekrit. We just announced that a little bit ago at TechCrunch.
The MMO Gamer: Indeed you did. Let’s start right from the beginning: Tell us, in your own words, what is Metaplace? What is the basic concept behind it?
Raph Koster: The basic concept behind Metaplace is to make virtual worlds work the way the web does. We mean that totally literally—as I’ve said many times now.
So here’s the thing: We look at the world of MMOs, we go, first of all, every single one of them is a moon shoot. They’re costing tens of millions of dollars to make, and they take enormous teams.
It’s getting so I’m really forward to seeing any MMO that isn’t based on a movie or a licensed property, because almost all of them these days are, all of the big AAA ones. And that’s because it’s the only way to justify the costs any more. You’ve got to have that built-in audience or it’s hard to get enough money back, essentially.
The cost of development’s just gotten crazy, and as it does that everybody just gets more conservative. It means that we don’t see the kind of experimentation that we used to. You don’t see the niches as much, you just get blockbuster stuff. And blockbuster stuff can be really totally cool—don’t get me wrong, blockbusters are awesome. But they’re also kind of aimed to try to make everybody happy, rather than finding stuff that is for a particular group of people and they really dig it, but other people really don’t get it. You know, targeting niches.
So Metaplace was in large part to try to bring that back. You know, we want to bring back the modders, bring back the diversity, bring back more kinds of stuff. And we’re pretty idealistic, we have all of these high-flown ideas about the applications and the virtues of virtual worlds, and how cool they can be, and all the things that people can accomplish with them, all the different ways that they can have fun, and make friends, and build communities, and teach, and all the rest that just weren’t going to happen if everything stayed in blockbuster mode.
That was the motive. So Metaplace is a platform that fixes all of that, and that’s what Metaplace is.
The MMO Gamer: When did you first come up with the concept of this? Did you found the company with the intention of making Metaplace, or did Metaplace come about as sort of brainstorming of things for the company to do?
Raph Koster: You want to hear an anecdote?
The MMO Gamer: Sure.
Raph Koster: Way back when, in 1998, when we were talking about what the first expansion pack for UO should be, I said, “You know what we should do? We should release the server, and our scripting documentation, and let anybody make servers and have red moon gates that you could go to from our server to other people’s servers.”
Everybody laughed very politely, and then that pitch got shelved.
In some ways I’ve been thinking about it since then. This version of it, with a lot of the characteristics of it, actually took a little bit of time after I left SOE to figure out. And that was because—essentially the reason I ended up making it so webby is that I was doing it by myself for awhile. When you’re a team of one you go out there and you start looking at what other technology can you co-opt, what can you leverage.
So the idea was bouncing around for sure, for a long time I’ve been wondering, “How do we accomplish this?” But, at the same time what Metaplace is now is really the result of what we’ve done here. Even when we founded the company we talked about doing other things. And then it’s evolved enormously once, obviously, we had a team of programmers better than me—it changes pretty dramatically. [Laughing]
The MMO Gamer: What in a name? How did you come up with “Metaplace”?
Raph Koster: Coming up with names sucks. It’s really painful. You may have noticed that the name Areae for the company is hard to pronounce and a lot of people don’t understand it. That would be because they tell you, “You now need to supply a name for the company, you’ve got twenty-four hours to come up with it thanks to all of the paperwork that we’ve got to fill out.”
You’ve been searching for three weeks trying to find something that isn’t already trademarked or taken and doesn’t suck, and you panic. [Laughing] So you end up compromising.
In the case of Metaplace I think we got luckier, because it does mean exactly what we’re making. We’re making a kind of central destination that is a place of many places, it’s above all the places that people will make. It took about five months to come up with the name Metaplace, [Laughing] it took a lot of work. God, we even had a naming company involved at one point. We didn’t pick any of those names.
The MMO Gamer: I admit, I kind of wish you’d gone Snow Crash on it and named it Metaverse, but then I suppose every other character would be named Hiro Protagonist.
Raph Koster: There’s already Metaverses out there, there’s lots—every possible variation of Metaverse has been done. Actually, I was surprised Metaplace wasn’t. There’s Metaworld, there’s Metaversed, is an MMO news site for virtual worlds specifically, there’s an MMO “virtual world service bureau” called Metaversatility.
So, Meta is… popular.
The MMO Gamer: Probably a wise idea you skipped that, then.
Raph Koster: [Laughing]
The MMO Gamer: I’ll be honest, when I first saw the placeholder image—the announcement on the Coming Soon site that said to come back Tuesday at 4PM—the one with the little girl with the ponytail, I was a bit concerned.
I freely admit to being what most people would call a quote-unquote “hardcore gamer,” and the image looked about as soft as you could possibly get without registering as talc on the Mohs scale.
Raph Koster: Right.
The MMO Gamer: Once I saw what it actually was, I felt a sense of… relief, let’s call it. Have you been getting that reaction a lot?
Raph Koster: Actually, only from hardcore gamers. Who are not, by the way, even the largest group of people who are interested in Metaplace. It’s been really interesting because we’ve gotten really a broad cross-section of people coming to talk to us.
We are getting from the core gamers a lot of, “Oh wait a minute this looks like it’s designed for nine year old girls,” even though we had an alien and a spaceship on the cover, too. People just focused in on the girl with the ponytail.
You know, part of the thing there, honestly, is that we like having a sense of humor. And to us cartoony versus not or whatever—we often have a slightly sick and twisted sense of humor. You saw we have one shooter which is all like chalk art, we have another one where you have these cute little bouncing aliens, and when you shoot them they leave behind these impressive blood splatters.
So, we’re a little bit sick and twisted, too. I wouldn’t read too much into the art, because actually any given Metaplace world can have completely different art, too. So all we were trying to do there was just show diversity.
The MMO Gamer: I’ve read people discussing the announcement on various message boards calling this the second coming of Diku. How do you feel about that?
Raph Koster: As long as we don’t log in to ten thousand Midgards, that would thrill me to death. And I don’t doubt that we will log in to ten thousand Midgards. But I think to me Diku was actually really, really important to the development of MUDs and virtual worlds, even though it meant that there were a zillion repetitive clones.
The fact that it was easy to set up led to all kinds of cool stuff being done, and people who before that, because there was a higher barrier to entry, people that wouldn’t have been able to participate, got to.
Frankly, without DikuMUDs, there would have been no Meridian 59, there would have been no Ultima Online… Damien Shubert worked on a DikuMUD… I worked on a DikuMUD… Rick Delashmit worked on a DikuMUD…
It was important because it made it possible for more people to touch the medium and then do stuff with it. I think it would be totally awesome if we ended up being the virtual world Diku. That would kick ass.
The MMO Gamer: One of the keys to Diku’s success was the fact that the source code was freely available to change and modify as you saw fit—which many people obviously did, leading to all of the variations that you just discussed.
I assume you’re not planning on doing that with Metaplace?
Raph Koster: We’re actually architected really differently from Diku.
Diku had essentially the server and the game rules, and the data structures, everything was hard-coded, and what made it easy was that making content was really easy, so it was really easy to just fill in tables of stuff and you could make a zone.
We’re architected differently—in some ways we’re architected more like an LPMud, for those few of your readers who know what I’m talking about. We have the server itself, and then we have the game logic is actually done in script, and the data structures are also open, and the network layer is open, so we have a server that, right now anyway, is closed, although we have talked about letting it out in the future.
But, the server doesn’t do that much. What makes the games different is actually in the layer above that. And that stuff, everything we make, is going to be open. All of the games that we make are open. We have a saying that we only make content so it can be stolen.
Hopefully, a lot of the other makers of stuff using Metaplace will also do the same thing. They can choose to make it closed source if they want, but open source is kind of the default.
The MMO Gamer: You state on the website the goal of millions of worlds being created. That’s an ambitious target by anyone’s standards. But, what it really boils down to is the question: what do you define as a “world”?
Raph Koster: To me a world could be as simple as a little chat apartment with you and a friend. It doesn’t necessarily mean millions of worlds the size of WoW. I think it’s important that we not be too snobbish about it. I think that the truth is that different people like different kind of worlds, and they’ll have different needs for different kinds of worlds, too. So as soon as you’re saying, “Hey, anybody! What kind of world do you want?”
We think an awful lot of them will be empty. We think an awful lot of them will be just “Hey, I want to stick an apartment on my Facebook profile, or on MySpace.”
Those all count to our mind. They’re kind of the equivalent from the text MUD days of the old talkers, or a very simple MUSH or something. That’s a world, right? And it could scale up, you could have hundreds of people in there if it got really popular. And hey, maybe you have LamdaMOO or something, and that’s fine.
So to us it doesn’t necessarily mean a game. But it does mean a multi-user space that people can hang out in. Because to us really that’s the core of what a virtual world is: a multi-user space. Games then get put in it.