Against the Gods

Against the Gods
Raph Koster on Fire

Allen Varney | 25 Jul 2006 08:01
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Raphael Koster is a prolific theorist in the young field of massively multiplayer online game design. For many years, he has developed his design philosophy on his blog, in lectures, at conferences and in his 2004 book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

Unlike some high-profile thinkers, Raph Koster actually ships product. "I do all this writing to clarify things for myself," he says. "I put it out there afterwards, figuring maybe it'll help other folks, but the initial drive comes ... because I am banging my head against a design problem. So, the theory is a tool. You write it down so you don't forget it - it's like having a toolbox full of screwdrivers, wrenches and whatever."

Koster started designing for MUDs in 1992, while working on a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa; he was "implementor" "Ptah" in LegendMUD. (Check out an in-game interview with him here.) Joining Origin in Austin, Texas, in 1995 as a designer, Koster worked as creative lead on Ultima Online and, after launch, was lead designer on the Live Team until 1999. He joined the Austin office of Sony Online Entertainment, where he was creative director for Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided. Shortly after SWG's launch, Koster moved to San Diego to become SOE's Chief Creative Director.

Though Koster left Sony in March 2006, his contract expired in June. In this interview, conducted by e-mail soon afterward, he talks about past and current projects, and about what went right - and wrong - in UO and SWG.

In A Theory of Fun for Game Design (you can find some excerpts here), Koster defines "fun" as a function of learning and mastery. As we explore a new game, we learn to recognize its challenges and exploit the tools offered to overcome them - that is, to gain mastery over the game environment. "Fun" (which Koster distinguishes from aesthetic appreciation, visceral responses, delight and other forms of enjoyment) is "the act of mastering a problem mentally" - the endorphin reward feedback the brain gives us when we are absorbing patterns for learning purposes.

"Overall, I was thrilled at the reception the book got. I'm really honored and pleased it seems to have become a useful part of the overall landscape of thinking about games. It was interesting seeing the criticism, too. Many academics wanted much more detail in the book, for example. It's a mode of writing I am not all that interested in anymore, not since graduate school, so I felt few qualms about shrugging and moving on. Lots of folks said the ideas in the book were too obvious - and certainly lots of folks, like Chris Crawford, had said large pieces of the book before.

"By and large, the general ideas have held up for me. I think the most interesting comments on the book's ideas have come from the folks who say it did a good job of pinning down one sort of fun - a few people have taken to calling it kfun. I think there's something there. As [player experience psychologist] Nicole Lazzaro keeps doing research into emotion and games, my theorizing may get replaced by concrete data soon, which would be incredibly helpful to game designers."

Koster's current book project is A Grammar of Gameplay, an ambitious attempt to symbolically describe the component "atoms" of games. He presented an early example at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, CA, March 2005. The grammar would be a tool to reverse-engineer and notate individual game ingredients, such as topology ("the operational space for a given asset"), core mechanics ("ludemes"), depth of recursion, cost of failure and many other abstractions. Using the grammar, a designer could quantifiably assess a game's difficulty, range of challenges and required feedback mechanisms.

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