Editor's note: This interview was conducted in mid-December last year. Shortly after we spoke to Raph Koster, it was announced that Metaplace, which much of the interview is about, would shut down on 1st January. However, we thought that Koster's comments were still interesting in light of that news - perhaps even more so - so we decided to run the interview in its original form. We also contacted Koster for a comment on Metaplace's demise, and he had this to say:
"We here at Metaplace have been working very hard over the last several years to create an open platform allowing anyone to come to a website and create their own virtual world. Unfortunately, it has become apparent in the last few months that Metaplace as a consumer user-generated content service is not gaining the traction necessary to become a viable product. This requires a strategic shift for our company... Though making this announcement greatly saddens us, know that Metaplace Inc. isn't about to go away. In fact, we have some pretty exciting plans to announce in the not too distant future."
Raph Koster wants to give MMOs to the people. Having been deeply involved in the MUD community prior to becoming the lead designer on Ultima Online and creative director of Star Wars Galaxies - and later chief creative officer at Sony Online Entertainment - he's certainly familiar with the old way of doing things. MMOs are big, expensive, and their creation is inaccessible to anyone other than the cash-marinated and the insanely over-ambitious. Koster's solution to this is to go small-scale: create a tool called Metaplace that anyone can use to forge any sort of virtual world they like, and let them run with it. It's designed to be "platform agnostic", so one could also conceivably design a virtual Den of Albino Lizardman Iniquity such that it could be surreptitiously accessed on an iPhone. What would the EverQuest widows think?
Eurogamer: What is the fundamental goal of Metaplace?
Raph Koster: Metaplace's core idea is to enable anyone to have a virtual place of their own, for their own purposes. Users constantly surprise us with their creativity in designing worlds that allow for everything from showcasing music to offering political commentary. We've had an educational tool built by middle-schoolers about wetlands reclamation and another world was a jewellery storefront as well as an interactive exploration of the Tarot. One of Metaplace's greatest features is its versatility: there are countless ways in which users can have their vision realised through Metaplace.
My hope is that by democratising the creation of virtual worlds, it will enable the medium to come into its full potential. Right now, they cost too much to make and are too hard to make, and so we only get to see what well-funded big companies create, as opposed to what uses ordinary people would put them to.
Eurogamer: How has adoption of the platform been so far?
Raph Koster: Metaplace has always aimed to gradually grow, and that's what we're doing. To build our momentum, we have continued to add new features. One of the more recent additions, and a significant industry breakthrough, is the ability for any user to easily embed Metaplace into any webpage. They can now add their own virtual world to a webpage with the same ease as putting up a YouTube video. This breaks down the remaining barriers between virtual worlds and the rest of the web, allowing worlds to be easily accessed and shared anywhere.
Eurogamer: There have been attempts to implement game or "virtual world" elements into websites for a while - VRML springs to mind, and there have been Flash implementations, too. Why is Metaplace the more appealing prospect for world-builders and forward-thinking webmasters?
Raph Koster: Metaplace is a mass-market kind of product, not something just for programmers. It was designed to be as easy to use as The Sims. That makes it a pretty different proposition. Most of our users are ordinary folks, not webmasters, and most of them don't embed their worlds anywhere - they just hang out in them and invite their friends over.
Eurogamer: Do you believe the potential of the MMO space has been unrealised thus far ? Or, perhaps, too focused on a certain niche?
Raph Koster: Definitely. The range of possible virtual-world spaces is as wide as, well, the range of possible real-world spaces. Larger, in fact! But instead, we see convergence towards just a very few uses. Even in the games space, where you would think we would see all sorts of games that could make use of large multi-user spaces, we see a rather depressingly limited array of offerings. Massively multiplayer games went mainstream to the gamer audience clear back in 1997. So we're talking a dozen years, and we still mostly have elves in tights slaying dragons. At least in Asia we have seen a broader array of types of titles, but yeah, I do think the Western market has been really quite limited.
Eurogamer: Eurogamer: Describe how one would go about building the basics of a virtual world using Metaplace's Flash client.
Raph Koster: You walk through the build gate in Metaplace Central, or add a new world using a button on our website. After a brief loading screen, you are logged into a new world. It doesn't have much in it, and it isn't very large, but you're done. It has chat, avatars, a world to walk in. You can make it bigger, re-sculpt the map - the tools are a lot like SimCity in that regard - import or purchase items or even behaviours, add game mechanics or serious stuff.
After that, it's a question of how much time you want to spend making it really yours. If you just want a hangout, you can have the basics of one in under five minutes.
Eurogamer: What sort of behaviours can one script with Metascript?
Raph Koster: Metascript is pretty powerful. Some examples of what people have done: RPG combat systems, real-time whiteboards, Twitter clients, puzzle games, 2D vehicle physics, quest systems, full adventure games... the scripting system is Lua, like World of Warcraft's UI system, only event-driven. So you write the code to handle a click on something, or code that goes off on a regular timer, that sort of thing.
Eurogamer: Is it necessary to use Metascript?
Raph Koster: Not for most users. You don't need to script that stuff: once one person makes it and puts it on the market, it's available for everyone. As an example, if you want to make an adventure game, and you want stuff like pressure plates, passworded doors, switches, dialogue trees, and other common components, all that stuff exists already, and you can just get the "adventure game theme pack" off the market - it's a collection of all that stuff. And you don't need to know how to program to use it, either. It's all pretty much menu-driven and filling out text fields.
Eurogamer: To what extent does Metaplace Inc. control what Metaplace users are able to put out there? Are there content checks?
Raph Koster: We don't control it other than what we are obliged to by law - criminal content, basically. We do filter content that is displayed to users based on their age, and have age ratings on worlds. But we really do treat worlds as yours, not ours. We also police our public areas, such as Metaplace Central and cross-world chat, more strictly, of course. They are PG-13 environments.
Eurogamer: You've mentioned wanting Metaplace to become part of the standard fabric of the web, but isn't the whole point of the standard website format to abstract away all the time-consuming things we need to do to access content in the real world? (Reading books, having face-to-face conversations with horrible people, etc.) Isn't trying to simulate those processes somewhat counter-productive?
Raph Koster: I think the biggest thing that the web was originally invented for was access to information, certainly, but I don't think it was intended to replace face-to-face conversations! So I think that may be a bit of an overstatement. I wouldn't say that Metaplace, or any virtual world, really, is trying to just simulate tedious real-world things.
I think the great power of virtual worlds lies in the fact that you can do things there that you can't do in real worlds. And, often, can't do on web pages either. There have certainly been plenty of misguided "VR interfaces'" - my favourite is the virtual filing cabinet in that movie Disclosure - but I don't think that this means that is all that virtual spaces can be, not by a long shot.
Eurogamer: Don't services like Second Life already offer a fairly democratised MMO space?
Raph Koster: In some ways, but not in others. Content creation is still fairly difficult in Second Life, for example, though they have done a great job of making it easier over time. And of course, Second Life today is more of a singular destination, a single large world. Someone truly running their own world is something that has been quite hard for a typical user.
Eurogamer: Second Life was hailed as the future of online marketing for a while. Do you think its time has come and gone?
Raph Koster: I think they are a robust platform and service that continues to grow. Perhaps its hype has come and gone, but it remains.
Eurogamer: What about PlayStation Home? Do you think it has much of a future?
Raph Koster: It seems to have established itself well, and given that, I think Sony is likely to continue investing in it.
Eurogamer: Moving on to the more mainstream MMO sphere, what do you make of World of Warcraft's astonishing success? Can you see any elements in it that were influenced by Ultima Online, or Star Wars Galaxies?
Raph Koster: WOW is an incredibly polished, fun game, backed by a company with a huge and dedicated following, and it had a luxuriously long and extremely expensive development cycle. It's not a recipe easily replicated by anyone else. There are certainly lots of things you can point at in WOW that appear to be influenced by both Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, but you would have to ask the folks at Blizzard whether I am right about the lines of influence!
The camera WOW ended up with seems influenced by Galaxies' - so does everyone's now, actually - and the way player-versus-player works seems to be a combination of the realm system from Dark Age of Camelot and criminal flags from UO or TEFs [Temporary Enemy Flags] from Galaxies. Pretty much all the MMOs that have crafting as a big component draw that from UO. Dancing is more prominent in WOW, I think, than one would have expected pre-Galaxies, too!
Eurogamer: Do you still follow what EA's doing with UO?
Raph Koster: Not very much. I do still hear from folks on the current UO team from time to time - some of my script code from 10 years ago is still part of core gameplay!
Eurogamer: Why do you think the EverQuest model, shall we say, ended up proving more successful with players than the Ultima Online style?
Raph Koster: The EQ model was taken quite directly from the most successful text game model, the Diku-style game. UO was originally conceived as a way to appeal to a broader audience than that, since that model was pure hackandslash, which wasn't really the Ultima brand identity. Instead, I think we found that there's plenty of core gamers who like just hackandslash. That said, I think we have ended up seeing many of the distinctive UO features turn out to be things that did end up being really broad-appeal features, popping up instead in all sorts of other titles all the way into huge new markets. Whole games about housebuilding, crafting, dancing, pet caretaking, et cetera.
Eurogamer: To what extent do you think modern MMOs are derived from MUD traditions?
Raph Koster: Hugely, massively. As I have said before, if you pulled an experienced DikuMUD player from 1996 and sat them down in front of WOW, they'd think the graphics were awesome, the combat very familiar, aggro management somewhat more complex, spells somewhat simpler, crafting and the economy insanely overdeveloped, quests a mixed bag, and the volume of content simply astonishing. But they'd have zero issues playing it.
Eurogamer: Do you still talk to Richard Garriott?
Raph Koster: No. He doesn't attend that many industry events, honestly, and I haven't been working alongside him for, what, nine years now? Last time I saw him was probably at E3 a couple of years ago.
Eurogamer: What did you think of Tabula Rasa?
Raph Koster: I didn't play it very much. From the outside, it was clearly troubled, given that they had that drastic reboot in the middle. There were lots of cool things about it.
Eurogamer: Has BioWare had any correspondence with you regarding The Old Republic vis-a-vis Galaxies?
Raph Koster: No, but many of the folks working on it are friends of mine, so I pay attention.
Eurogamer: And from what you've seen, how do you think their project is shaping up?
Raph Koster: It looks gorgeous, and I am looking forward to trying out the story-driven mechanics. That would really be something new and different if they pull it off.