Veteran MMO designer Raph Koster has announced the foundation of his newly-founded studio, Areae, and talked with Gamasutra to explain what the company will, or rather, will not be producing.
Along with his founding partner and current VP of production John Donham, Koster has a long and distinguished history with virtual worlds. His career has seen him serving as lead designer on Ultima Online and its Second Age expansion, as well as a creative director on Star Wars Galaxies, where Donham served as senior producer.
It's little surprise, then, that their new San Diego studio, Areae, which is apparently backed by venture capital firms Crescendo Ventures and Charles River Ventures, will be creating something in the virtual world space.
This is especially true considering the company's list of advisors, which reads like a who's-who of virtual/social world experts, including the original MUD co-creator Dr. Richard Bartle and Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow, but Koster remains demure on precisely what the company will be creating.
"We're definitely working in the virtual world space," says Koster, but adds that though "there will absolutely be games involved, I would say that we are disruptive. We're doing something different. We're trying to reinvent how virtual worlds are made, how customers are treated, how they're accessed, how the business models work, pretty much everything."
Koster says that the seed of Areae was planted as soon as he'd left Sony Online Entertainment. "In a lot of ways," he says, "this is something that I've been dreaming about doing for a long time. But we're setting forth now, the company is funded, we're venture backed, and we're out there hiring. It's pretty exciting."
That venture backing is unsurprising, given his recent comments at the Austin Game Conference about the funding problems facing the industry, but according to Koster, there's little about what Areae is trying to accomplish that's traditional.
"We're not talking too much about the business model yet," he says, "but the way to put it is that we're really looking to bring the qualities of the web, especially of Web 2.0, to virtual worlds. There's a lot of things wrapped up in that – everything from very low-end user costs for being able to participate, lots and lots and lots of listening to users, having them involved, having them contribute."
"You'll actually notice," he adds, "that if you go to our press releases section, we decided not to put out a press release, because we want to talk to customers first. We want to let users be in the DNA from day one."
Asked if the company had chosen or would be announcing any intended platforms for the upcoming project, Koster deliberated, but would only say, "As I've said many times before, the real platform for online worlds is the internet, and clients are an accident of history."
With what sounds like a firm emphasis on user participation, as well as user customization and content, all central tenets of the Web 2.0 ethos, we make an obvious leap toward the current open virtual world leader, Second Life, which Koster laughingly dismisses. "See, you're already jumping to conclusions about what we're making! Honestly, there are as many differences from Second Life as there are from Everquest." He pauses, but concludes, "I'll just have to leave you tantalized."
"Browse around the website," says Koster, adding that "there's plenty of hints for those who want to start speculating."
Though that leaves just as many questions as there are answers, he concludes, "We're going to run quiet for a little while and finish building out the platform so we can actually start talking about what it is that we're going to put out there. I would guess that you'll be hearing from us again in three months or so."