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GDC Online: Raph Koster Urges Developers To Take Back Control
GDC Online: Raph Koster Urges Developers To Take Back Control
October 13, 2011 | By Christian Nutt




In a rabble-rousing speech at GDC Online, veteran MMO developer and current Playdom VP of creative design Raph Koster commanded the developers in the audience to take control of social media -- not let it take control of them.

Koster framed his speech, in large part, as a fairytale. He compared the world of games to a magic circle where powerful wizards set the rules.

"We like living here because we're wizards! It's pretty hard for stuff to get in and out of this magic circle," said Koster.

In the circle, everything is made of math, follows rules, is creative, and highly manipulable -- and, as it turns out, highly profitable as well. Since the magic circle is comfortable for those of us who don't know how to work well in the real world, this is a problem: money attracts "geographers," he said.

"Nowadays the wild world is coming right up to the edge of the circle and the circle is looking a little faded here. Stuff is flowing in, stuff is flowing out," said Koster. "And honestly we get really freaked out in here by the stuff that's leaking in."

"But a in a lot of ways we should be worried about the math that's leaking out," he said.

Early MMOs like Ultima Online, which Koster worked on, lacked robust social functionality. In some cases (ICQ messaging used as direct chat) users worked around it; in other cases (guilds, which Koster himself coded due to demand) the users forced the teams to accommodate their needs in-game.

"If we don't provide these facilities, players will pressure us to provide them," said Koster -- even if they "erode the gameness of the game."

"All of this ended up helping us build these big social structures," he said. "Social structures in games, once they click, they leave the bubble. In fact, that's part of the point." Forums, chat, communities -- all outside the games. But they have gone even further.

What form has this type of social interaction ultimately taken? Facebook, primarily, he suggested.

Game developers tried to keep absolute control of game worlds; only "some crazy people from Iceland even tried" to let the world into the game -- referring here, of course, to EVE Online and its player government, the Council for Stellar Management.

"Today, you can take stock of how many of the core premises of virtual community design have been taken from games and moved onto the websites that you're probably obsessively checking four times a day. It's all of it," said Koster.

Games simplified and quantified the real world, made it follow simple rules. "I love Will," said Koster. "But when he attempted to reduce all of human experience" by building The Sims, "he reduced it to eight bars, one of which was needing to pee."

And now these game concepts -- achievements and rules -- have taken the form of gamification. A simplified view of the world has been imposed on the real world, thanks to games.

"The keys to our kingdom had been handed over to the wild world. The wild world has become more like a game in virtually every way," said Koster.

But these implementations are far too simplistic. Games, as we all know, are not just about points and badges.

And while "Design is about constraining people," said Koster, games are not just systems of control. "Games are interesting, because they're only partly in control -- because they're about teaching you how to think."

"Good art does that. Bad art lies to you," Koster said. "When you start going pretty far down the route of accessibility, it's pretty easy to slip in this mode."

He pointed out that by using a points-based weight tracking app, he's lost 40 pounds. But a badly designed app could be "a straight road to anorexia, if your incentives are wrong."

Koster pointed out that he got into designing games because he wanted to set foot into "a world with two moons... I wanted to have magical experiences and form real bonds with people."

But by his estimation, today Facebook does groups better, points better, profiles better, roles better, has more user-generated content, and puts people in touch with their friends more effectively than games or virtual worlds have.

And, oh yeah -- "the world with two moons has bad funnel conversion, so we cut it."

So where does hope live?


"You're still a wizard," Koster told the audience. "Games are social media. From their inceptions, they have been tools for the transmission of wisdom. They're how we talk to each other, in forms of play. We shouldn't forget that regardless of how much all of this changes, we still have the power to shape this. We are the ones who set the rules that the world is copying."

If the world is becoming more game-like, there is "no better group people on the planet to navigate and shape that than you in this room," said Koster.

"It's more than just points. We did it because it was fun. We did it because we hung out with other people, and got to know them; they challenged us, and we challenged them. That's why we did the games. Let's watch out not to let the pointsification and rulesification, quantification, and reductionism that we have always loved about what we do -- let's not let that change who we are."


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