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Raph Koster Talks Loss, Opportunity For Games In The Social Media Age

Raph Koster Talks Loss, Opportunity For Games In The Social Media Age Exclusive

October 28, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

Playdom's Raph Koster is one of the veteran game designers who joined the social gaming space after building a legacy in traditional online game development, most prominently leading Ultima Online. But although he expresses "cautious optimism" in the new landscape, he also says there's something of a sense of loss.

Most concerns about the blending of gaming with social media hinge on obsessions with ideas that metrics or social design will somehow corrupt the purity of games, but Koster says that designers should be more concerned about the bleed-out of once-private ideas into the popular realm.

"We should be aware that ultimately we're the ones that should be in the driver's seat," Koster tells Gamasutra about the traditional designer's role in the highly-trendy app and Facebook landscape. "In the end there isn't any better-qualified, better-adapted group of people to help shape this kind of world than game developers. It's the environment we've chosen to live in."

"We're talking about this like these two worlds are in collision, or one is swallowing the other... but once upon a time newspapers were 'social media', poems were 'social media.' Games were born social media," Koster emphasizes.

Thus in some ways the proliferation of games, gamified apps and social play across networks "brings games back closer to their roots," he reflects.

Koster has always viewed games as social, having worked in the online space for the great majority of his career, and on group-oriented board games before that. To him, they've always been social. "No doubt I feel a sense of loss over the kind of qualities I think the market is shifting away from," he acknowledges.

"I feel a sense of loss over mystery... I feel a loss over immersion. I loved... playing long, intricate, complex, narrative-driven games, and I've drifted away from playing them, and the whole market has drifted away from playing them too," Koster says. "I think the trend lines are away from that kind of thing."

Lest people surmise Koster no longer himself loves or believes in such things, he's emphatic -- rather, the loss he describes is a result of a changing market and an evolving audience.

"To me, it feels like how opera fans must have felt when people first showed them their first primitive movies," he suggests. "The world is moving on. I feel that sense of loss, but at the same time, I'm excited by the new canvas."

Only in this era does someone who loves game design as much as Koster have the opportunity to create for millions of simultaneous players. "Things like that would have been outright impossible [before]... so part of me goes, 'well, I'm losing the opera-style game, but I'm gaining something else that we've never had before.' It's very exciting to me as a designer."

"Another way to think of it is, we always said games would be the art form of the 21st century: Gamers will all grow up and take over the world, and we're at that moment now," he continues. "It's all come true -- but the dragons and the robots didn't come with us, they stayed behind."

Yet in plenty of ways this loss isn't even about social games, Koster believes. "We're losing some of our most cherished things -- and honestly, we already had. The more big business we got, the more that got replaced by women in too-little clothes, or guys that all look the same and have bullet-heads and everybody's dressed in green and brown."

In light of the increasingly risk-averse and market-researched nature of traditional games, the increasing size of the mainstream audience has been something of a boon. "If you'd asked someone in 1998 whether there could be hit games about cooking, fashion design... a guy running over roofs, [as in Canabalt], still there's an element of a broader frame of reference, a broader aesthetic there."

And while he himself is a big science fiction fan, Koster says that a wider frame of reference is "incredibly exciting" for games that can be about all kinds of things now, beyond the expected. "We lose something, but we gain something that is potentially bigger," he reflects.

"It's a mixed feeling that I have; that's how it's changed me," Koster continues. "I always said I wanted to make games that ordinary people could love and enjoy, but in practice I was still working inside of this little box. I think the world still shows us that these ordinary people... don't love the dragon and the zombie on the box, necessarily, but they can love games. That's pretty awesome to see, and that's the thing I try to spend more time thinking about now."

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