Thursday, October 3, 2019

New Tricks

As I was tabbed out, recovering from a bad pull where my Hunter's pet died twice, while the Hunter himself barely escaped with a sliver of life after two Feign Deaths and a long run to break aggro, I came across this interesting little item on

There is, perhaps, nothing so very new in Raph Koster starting yet another MMO-focused project, although he's been rather quiet on that front of late. Metaplace, which closed its doors on 70,000 virtual worlds in 2009, seems to have been his last big MMO adventure. I confess I'd forgotten all about it.

It had also slipped my mind that Raph was Chief Creative Officer at Sony Online Entertainment until  2006 and that he worked on (or at least would have had oversight of) the first and second expansions for EverQuest II, Desert of Flames and Kingdom of Sky

All of which is very interesting as far as it goes but it's not what first came to mind when I read the names of the people Raph will be working alongside at Playable Worlds. Several sounded rather familiar but Greg Kostikyan's name really stuck out.

Didn't I remember him from the 1980s? What was it he did? Oh yes, looking him up he turns out to have been the guy behind several of the more unusual tabletop RPGs of the 1970s and '80s. For example, the notorious Paranoia and the much-hyped and well-reviewed Toon.

I played sessions of both and they were, shall we say, not a great success. It was very hard to get anyone to take them seriously enough for any actual gameplay to emerge. And, to be fair to Greg, that was kind of the point, particularly in Toon.

That's by the by. It wasn't the quality or pragmatic value of his work that struck me so forcefully so much as his age. I found myself thinking "surely this guy must be older than I am" and I'll be sixty-one in in November.

So I checked and no, he isn't older than me. He's all of nine months younger. Greg Costikyan was born in July 1959, making him sixty this year.

What about the other people mentioned in the article? How about Raph?

Raph's birthdate as given by Wikipedia is September 7, 1971. That makes him just shy of fifty years old. Eric Goldberg, co-founder (with Raph) of Playable Games, has a short Wiki entry that doesn't give his exact age, but earlier this year VentureBeat described thim as "a 35-year veteran of the game, consumer internet, mobile, monetization, and edtech industries", which means he has to be in his mid-fifties at least.

I though his name rang a bell, too. Turns out he was behind one of my favortite 1980s pen and paper RPGs, SPI's Dragonquest. That game had a class which I believe might have been called "Beastmaster". I could go downstairs and dig out my ancient, boxed copy to check but it really doesn't matter what the class was called so much as the way it provided the archetype for all the MMORPG pet classes I've played over the years.

DragonQuest was published in 1980. Unless Eric was in his teens when he wrote it (which I guess he could have been) that pushes him up to around sixty.

Mat Broome, comics artist and games designer (and ex of Ashes of Creation, it seems), would appear to be the baby of the bunch. He began his comics career in 1993 so he's most likely in his mid-to-late 40s now. The only other Playable Games staffer mentioned by name in the article is Brian Crowder, "an SOE veteran with stints at Electronic Arts and Zynga". His role is "lead server engineer" and, not surprisingly, he doesn't have a presence on Wikipedia so I have no idea how old he is. He is "a veteran" though, so let's assume he's at least in his 40s.

And where, you may well ask, am I going with all this? Well, somewhere quite awkward. I probaly wouldn't be saying it if I wasn't ancient myself.

I think it's still very easy to imagine the people behind the MMORPGs we play as being "young". Aren't video games made by young people for young people?

No. No, they're not. Not the big ones for sure and not most of the little ones, not in the MMORPG field, anyway. They're made by people in mid-life and now, as evidenced by Raph's latest venture, by those in, or about to enter, their senior years.

Does that matter? The same is true of movies and music and books, isn't it? Creative artists mature, don't they? Isn't some of the best work in the field often produced by writers and artists and musicians in the later phases of their career?

Yes, yes and yes again. But...

Those maturing and mature creators are rarely innovators. They perfect and polish and sometimes produce exquisite examples of their style... but that style is set. Occasional geniuses confound expectations by carrying their ability to surprsise and shock into later life but geniuses are rare.

There's a feeling that surfaces frequently among MMORPG fans; the genre is stale, flat, treading water before it goes under, perhaps for the final time. It's not a feeling I share but it's one I understand.

If the success of WoW Classic and the lesser but still significant successes of the EverQuest Nostalgia Train and Old School Runescape prove anything it's that a lot of people don't want innovation. They want, and quite reasonably so, well-made, familiar games that play the way they understand MMORPGs ought to play.

All new buildings above ten storeys high to be fitted with zeppelin mooring masts. It's the future of transport.
It's a fine and respectable market and it deserves to be well-served. It won't, however, push the genre forward. It won't innovate.

That was what the overhyped and underprepared EQNext proposed to do. It's what EQNext's would-be spiritual successor, Ashes of Creation would like us to believe it will do. It's what any number of smaller-scale projects wish or claim or believe they can do.

And all of them are being built and designed by "industry veterans", people with a proven track record in the industry. People who know what can and can't be done. Or think they do.

Raph Koster is a genuine thinker in the genre. He does know what he's about. Even so, I find it hard to imagine a team of people around my age creating "a completely new experience that will push the boundaries of persistent game worlds and social competitive play".

I rather think that will come, if it comes at all, from some twenty-somethings who don't know what can and can't be done. People with the deep conviction and confidence of inexperience. They won't have wikipedia entries or names that ring bells. They'll have energy and ideas and uncynical self-belief. That's how we got Ultima Online and EverQuest and Asheron's Call and EVE Online and...

When they appear we'll know them by their works, not by their reputation.

Meanwhile, best of luck to Playable Games. Dad Rock has been a huge commercial success. No reason Dad Gaming can't be, too.


  1. Good ol' Paranoia. "The Computer is your friend."

    Never liked Toon much, however.

    1. I think Toon was better idea on papert than in play. Paranoia was a big favorite of a couple of the people in my RP group back then but the majority were bored to tears when we tried it.

    2. Paranoia was popular with my university gaming group, probably because we were all terrible human beings who found backstabbing and rapid character turnover hysterically funny. Our Call of Cthulhu campaign also featured backstabbing (or at least some deliberately contrived friendly fire incidents) and rapid character turnover...
      Most MMOs come from a D&D-like place which is all about character progression, measured explicitly by levelling up, and that requires persistent characters. Would be interesting to see games come from designers who weren't wedded to that paradigm - maybe we could have something where the player is persistent but the characters are disposable and you played them for the current session but didn't have to worry about grinding toward qualifying for endgame. Doing things that way would lose a retention method, but would remove a barrier to new or casual players... worth a think, at least.

  2. My notes on the PC gaming E3 show last year include this little block of text:

    "1000-player Battle Royale. "Maverick's Proving Grounds".
    this sure is cgi of a dude running through a forest for like four uninterrupted minutes

    The CEO of the company making it comes out. He is a beautiful baby boy. He cannot be older than nine. Someone collect this child, he wandered onstage at E3 somehow."

    Going to check on that game, I see that it's in "Development Hold" status, other sites list the game as simply "Canceled due to insufficient funds", and so that chapter of gaming is over for that poor boy, who now must return to elementary school. I hope he didn't miss recess.

    Perhaps online gaming currently belongs to old people because they can actually ship a dang game. It's rather important, in the eyes of the public, to be able to do so.

    1. If gaming turns out to be the medium where the new ideas come from old people it's going to be the first since Philosophy! Actually, how old were the "ancient" greeks at the time?

  3. I don't know. The pioneers of video gaming were limited by technical constraints that might not apply now, so what they create now might not be "more of the same" but rather 'what we REALLY wanted to do all those years go". Elite:Dangerous is very much the game that I and my friends dreamed about playing back in the mid-80's huddled round the BBC Micro one lucky sod owned and docking our wireframe ships in the solitary space station orbiting the solitary planet in one of a thousand identical solar systems because that's all you could manage in a 80's home computer. Likewise if you read any of Raph Koster's blog posts and other musings there were a lot of ideas that couldn't be pulled off in Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies, but just maybe they can now. And WoW Classic has just shown there's a market for a more worldy virtual world...

    1. Yes, remaking your original ideas from thirty years ago with technology that was science fiction at the time - not to mention investment money you can get now that your back catalog is deemed "Classic". It's a whole sub-industry now with remasters and collectors' editions and box sets and the like. The record industry must scarcely be able to operate for hysterical laughter as they re-sell the same material on vinyl that they already sold on CD and Digital Downloads... and vinyl. There's even an attempt to get a Cassette revival going. God knows where it wil all end - if they start re-issuing stuff on MiniDisc it's game over.

  4. Ah, DragonQuest. I was a wargamer in the 70s so I ended up trying out a lot of the early RPGs. DQ along with Traveller were my favorites, though AD&D 1st edition was the widest available game. I still have all of my DQ stuff in storage, including the two later editions, though the original boxed set was what I mostly played of DQ.

    I really liked that era because it was just an explosion of settings and game systems as folks figured out what worked and didn't.

    1. I did run one short DragonQuest "campaign" - more of handful of sessions really. It was hampered by the fact that I was the only person who owned a copy. We played so many different RPGs that in the end people got fed up with having to learn new rules. I think that had a lot to do with why the group broke up in the end.

  5. There’s a Paranoia video game supposed to be coming out November-ish/2020, and Critical Role is going to do a Paranoia one-shot in conjunction. So we might see a resurgence of interest in that for a while. What is old is new again, and all that.

    Mike O’ Brien just officially had his mid-life crisis and is moving on to a smaller team to make new games... presumably produced by “old” people at the helm.

    I think the whole video games industry as a whole is maturing and moving into a place where post-millenial and baby boomer alike are going to be working together, or trying to, like pretty much every other industry out there. As for who comes up with the next hit, we’ll believe it when we see it.

    Hearing the phrase “social competitive” just made me shut down, so welp, not meant for me. If I had that kind of time and interest, A Tale in the Desert is going strong and rife with drama right now, it’s obelisk season again apparently, and eavesdropping on the Discord is about as far as I want to touch “social competitive” ten foot pole style. It’s all good, plenty of other “social cooperative” and “asocial semi-cooperative” games out there, keeping me very very busy.

    1. I saw the Mike O'Brien story right after I wrote the post. There's not much of an explanation or context given for him leaving the comapny he's totally identified with and has spent most of his working life building. I imagine he's been sidelined by NCSoft and has had enough of sitting on his thumbs doing not much that anyone knows or cares about. He was apparently involved in the new projects that NCSOft canned earlier in the year so I imagine he feels pretty hacked of with that.

      As for his new project... well, his tenure at GW2 was patchy to be polite. He talked a good game for a while but he steered the ship like a one-armed captain with two bottles of rum inside him trying to hang on to the wheel in a force 10 gale. Maybe small games will suit him better. I wonder how significant the marked uptick in quality this last update is when you take his absence into account?

      As for Raph's project, the elevator pitch sounds confused and conflicted to me. We'll see what he comes up with but I would bet on yet another iteration of the same game he's been trying to make for more than a quarter of a century. I haven't been keen on any of the previous iterations so I doubt it will do much for me.

  6. From the way I see it, those old an early MMO's - especially those designed by Raph Koster (i.e. Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies) - belonged to a very different breed of MMO, than did Everquest and WoW and everything that came after.

    Typically one of those groups is called "sandboxes", and the other "themeparks" - but I think the distinction goes way deeper than that. Themepark or not, MMO's have become very metrics-driven, to the point, where pretty much everything is A/B-tested and perfectly optimized to drive player retention and player spending - and often in a way that can feel really cynical.

    Now what EQNext tried to do, was not so much a big innovation, as much more a return to that older style of doing MMOs. As it turned out, the themepark style of doing games, suffered from a great problem: it is impossible to create new content anywhere near as fast as experienced players consume it. If there is no "emerging" content, no dynamic, player-driven development that serves as "content" for others, players run out of things to do way faster, than developers can add new expansions to the game.

    Those old games like UO and SWG did leverage players and their interactions as content, and worked more like dynamic, player-influenced simulations, rather than being just chains of pre-made, canned content in the form of scripted quests. They did so in very crude ways, and those methods never where much refined - as the more static, unchanging worlds of EQ and WoW had so much success, that the entire industry moved over to doing that, and abandoned the sandbox-way of doing things.

    But it turned out a dead end. And as that dead end was hit, western MMO development ceased almost completely. The big publishers gave up on MMOs, and moved on to making MOBAs and later Battle Royale games (which leverage PvP as the easiest form of emerging, player-driven content!). It's only some crowd funded indie projects and some Asian companies that keep the MMO alive.

    If the MMO as a genre is to see a renaisance, we have to go back to where we took a wrong turn, and take another direction from there. We have to go back to what MMO's originally were meant to be - what UO and SWG tried to be (and not quite or only barely achieved): Living, breathing, virtual societies.

    Therefore, getting together the veterans who made those old games before the wrong turn was taken, might not be as bad and idea you make it out to be. If they make a game just like SWG, only more modern - that could be exactly the kick the genre needs. I'm sure the 20-somethings will then take it from there. But someone has to establish that starting point - because as I said, those on-rails themepark experiences have hit a dead end - there's no going further from there.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide