Current and Future Developments in Online Games
by Raph Koster
So everybody is into online games these days.
Most of the major developers in boxed computer games have
dabbled in the
field or are announcing their first tentative steps (or
their first grandiose plans). Most of these people have no
idea what they
are doing. But they sure are throwing money at the problem.
The old guard of cricket, looking a little younger.
The "old guard," those folks who have been in the online
games industry for
years if not decades, are watching closely, wondering how
it is that mere
money thrown at the problem is getting these clueless
companies the profits
and prominence that seem to have eluded the pioneers.
These two groups often don't talk to one another. They
often don't get
along. The newcomers think the old guard has no production
values and no
sense of the mass market. The old guard thinks that the
newcomers have no
sense of what it takes to run a service.
Both parties are correct.
Online games have been
on the verge of
fulfilling their promise for so long now that everyone is
getting tired of
waiting. If they are to break further into the mass market,
as we all agree
they have wonderful potential of doing, people need to look
both to the old
guard for the reasons why players keep coming back, and to
the new guard to
topple some sacred cows.
What makes a game successful?
Over the long haul, there's only one thing that makes online games
successful. Websites call it "stickiness." We call it
retention. It still
boils down to providing an experience that players wish to
return to time
and time again. The reason for doing this is, of course, to
money for it. We have to design our games to make players
want to keep
paying, and keep coming back, at minimum cost to us the
This is one of those things so obvious on the face of it
that people tend to
miss the point.
In a subscription-based model, the ideal online game is one
where the player
keeps paying to never log on. This is rather antithetical
to our design
sensibilities, I suspect-a game that nobody wants to play,
that they just
want to hang around?
In a session-based model-well, personally I don't know that
there are any
good session-based models. A session-based model means you
need them to log
in to play. You have to count on players to take
initiative. Most players
have trouble remembering to watch their favorite TV show.
If you want to
trust players to reliably do something that is not woven
into their daily
lives and that they have to pay for on top of that, well,
won't. You also won't be able to easily tell why they
didn't show up again,
because there is no opportunity for exit interviews (how do
you say goodbye
to someone who just never showed up? In contrast, it is
easy to say goodbye
to someone signing off).
I don't know very much about session-based models except
that they aren't
something that interests me very much as a designer, so I
further on that. I am sure that there are some of you out
there who are
shaking your heads in dismay at how naive´ve I am about it anyway.
So retention is a key factor. But it's not the only factor.
You have to get
them in the door too. And frankly, this is one place where
the old guard
fell completely on their faces. It's not entirely their
was not mature enough to support the expenditure of massive
amounts of money
on making games attractive. So the dedicated online game
companies didn't do
it. But it was completely predictable that someone from
outside would come
in and spend that money and usurp the industry away from
those who knew it
Ultima Online, a product I was fortunate enough to be the
lead designer on
for four years, has now had almost 400,000 people buy the
box and log in. It
has over 130,000 people currently paying ten US dollars a
month to play. It
sold a frankly frightening amount of "charter editions" at
$100 dollars a
box via direct sales, which cost us almost nothing to sell
and make. It has
approximately 40 man-years worth of 16-bit artwork in it.
Sierra's The Realm
had the caliber of artwork, but no marketing. Archetype and
Meridian 59 had the game design, but not the artwork. UO
got lucky-it was in
the right place at the right time and had the marketing
muscle, the brand
name, the presentation, and enough accessible gameplay
functional at launch
to grab the brass ring.
I don't think it is bragging to say that Ultima Online has redefined
evidence is not just in the numbers-it's in the fact that
every major online
game endeavor forthcoming is using the same model that Ultima Online
did. One of the
tips always given to budding generals is to choose your
battles-if you don't
like the one you are in, redefine the battlefield. Ultima Online redefined the
battlefield, and now online gaming is, fundamentally, a
Anyone who is not willing to play at that level is not
going to be able to
This is not to say that Ultima Online did it right. After all,
pastime in this industry is bashing what it did wrong. And
all of those
people are correct. There are still more brass rings to be grabbed.
Ensuring maximum retention of player base
Ultima Online has an average retention time of many months.
Meaning that the
average player who buys the game plays for at least that
long. A sizable,
well over double-digit percentage of our player base has been with us
continuously since the day the product launched.
This sort of thing is nothing new to those of you who have
online games for a while. But analysis of what actually
makes these numbers
happen is generally lacking. Online game design has gone
little evolution in its 30-year history (dating here from
the earliest games
on PLATO). And some of the evolutionary paths are plainly
visible to those
who care to look.
Everyone knows that the game is about other people, right?
presented as the Great Secret, the Holy Grail of Online Knowledge.
Well, it's wrong. In part, anyway. The fact is that other people are
something fairly cheap. The trick is other people that your
about. Other people in the same place as your people. Other
aren't going to leave.
It's very easy for a group of friends to persist beyond a
We've all seen it happen. In online games in particular,
we've seen the
clans and guilds and tribes or what-have-you move wholesale
from one game to
another. Friendships always migrate out of the game. If you
rely on other
people to keep folks in your game-you're gonna lose. This
is why the parlor
game sites have virtually no customer loyalty and are
casual in more ways
than one. There's no emotional investment there-and if
there is, it's all
too easy to drop that friend an email and interact with
them without having
to sign up for yet another tedious game of hearts.
The game should give ownership
I'll tell you the Holy Grail of Online Knowledge: give them
can't take with them somewhere else. People they can't take
Identity they can't take with them. A cool avatar is not
competitor is going to offer that too. A level is not
enough-they won it,
they can brag about it forever after. Friends are not
enough-the whole gang
will migrate to another game, with guild names and titles
intact. Give them
something they can't take with them, something they must
work to maintain,
something they prize so much they can never give it up.
There's lots of ways
to do this, and generally speaking, traditional online
games, especially the
"casual" ones, have been fairly bad at it.
The game shouldn't end
The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim liked to talk about
"games" and "play." If
you only offer a game that is about "game" you're not going
to fulfill the
promise of online gaming. But if you offer a game that is
only about "play"
then you aren't really going to offer solid goals. You have
to marry the
If your online game has a STOP sign posted at the end of
you're making a fundamental mistake. But every game derived
from mud seems
to make this mistake over and over again. It's trivially
easy to examine the
life-cycle of those games and see the point at which the
bulk of ongoing
development shifted from being about the new user and
became about the
maxxed-out player. It's easy to find the stories about the
guy who "ran out
of things to do" and turned towards savaging his fellow
players in pointless
retaliation against boredom.
There's plenty of tactics here. I've got ideas, and I'm
sure you've got
ideas. And this article isn't about answers: it's about
challenges. So here
is my challenge: make your games ones where your
advancement ladders are
infinite rather than finite. Be it via king of the hill,
content, redirecting players to socially-oriented
advancement ladders, or
what-have you-just do it.
The game should give things to argue about
Lastly-we spend so much time trying to make our games safe
we know, their reputation as hard core, niche pursuits
chases away many
potential customers every day.
But the fact is that people seek entertainment in large
part to be touched
emotionally. If the experience does not touch them
emotionally, they will
not stick around for a repeat showing. They will not seek
it out again, they
will not recommend it to friends. It may be a pleasant
brief diversion, but
it's not something they will want to experience over and over again.
All those silly scandals about chat room moderators trading
favors, about player killers causing demonstrations in some
poor mud's inn,
about schisms among guilds leading to massive anger-these
engagement, people. These are people being passionate about
some bits and
bytes we have on a server! This is magic.
For the love of God, we need to stop sanitizing the emotion
out of online
games. We need to be willing to make people feel strong
emotions about them.
Yes, even hate. We all know about the games we love to
hate-let me tell you,
there's something oddly satisfying about running a game
people pay to hate.
Marketing online content
The thing that should be evident about this is that we're
experience. In the past I've made the statement, "It's a
SERVICE. Not a
game. It's a WORLD. Not a game. It's a COMMUNITY. Not a
game. Anyone who
says, 'it's just a game' is missing the point."
Recently everyone has been applauding the brilliant
behind The Blair Witch Project. I don't know if that film
has made it over
here to England yet, but in a nutshell, this is a trifle of
a film that
purported to be videotape made by three college students
who became lost in
the woods and met a dreadful fate. The film was supposedly
found years later
The genius of the marketing was that everything was
was a documentary that went with it. It treated the events
in the film as
real. There was a web site. It also treated the events as
real. The film
itself was in a cinema veritÚ style.
In other words, Blair Witch was not a movie. It was an experience.
Jonathan Baron (formerly of Kesmai, now at Origin) has this
about online game tag lines. Are you with us?, which is Ultima Online's
tag line, he
says, means that we get it. And EverQuest's tag line, You're
in our world
now, shows that they don't understand what online games are
the player. Wish I could say that it hurt Ever Quest any, but it
doing fantastically. Fortunately for me, they haven't hurt
Ultima Online any at all!
Either way, though, the key is that both are offering an
experience. If you
offer just a game, why will anyone care?
Technical opportunities and restrictions
Obviously, we can't do everything. We can't give everyone
what they want.
But I think that thinking in a box about the sorts of
technology that can be
applied to online games has been limiting our thinking as
to the potential
they offer. There was a massive resistance to giving up on
for example. Now, I started on text-only games, as I
imagine everyone here
did. I love them. They give unparalleled freedom of
imagination. They can
provide unsurpassed eloquence and elegance of experience.
They are a direct
plug into the brain!
But folks, Johnny can't read. Certainly not Johnny the
console player. Not
the Johnny I run into daily at work, the fourteen-year-old
who thinks that
the latest expression of hip-hop gangsta rap rage is just
the coolest thing
going down. I find it wonderful that there are muds out
there that I can go
to that give me areas based on Foucault. But Johnny doesn't
care. And I am
in this to make money, after all. (Crass, I know).
We need to think a little more creatively about the
we can make use of. How can we make things more compelling?
everyone has right now is voice technology. Now, I don't
know if we can
afford to do voice technology. I don't particularly care
that it is everyone's answer means it's not mine. I'm not
saying what my
answer is, but I do know that I don't want to design where
the herd is
going. I want to find ways to use interesting
technology-perhaps not even
cutting-edge technology, just, well, snubbed technology-to make an
experience that is emotionally captivating.
And yes, that may mean a text game at some time in the
future, too. Just not
Future developments in content, technology, and consumers
The simple fact is that our consumers are not who they were
five years ago.
They are different now. Where they were once online gamers,
market, they are now the standard gamer market, weaned on
Doom and bred on
Quake, blissfully unaware of antiquities such as BBS door
games, the year in
which mud II launched, and Modem Wars. In few more years,
the market is
going to be someone quite different from that. Someone who doesn't
necessarily care about flashy 3d graphics, but who
certainly isn't going to
sit still to read quickly spamming text. Someone who isn't
into blowing up
bizarre alien creatures or slaying innumerable orcs and dragons.
The consumers that are the future of our genre are
people. Most of us in this technology-mad industry frankly
have no contact
with them. The technology we need to develop isn't the
technology of more
polygons or better 3d sound or more accurate simulations. It's the
technology of people. Of giving them what they don't know they need.
I spent last Christmas holidays in Ohio, with my father's
side of the
family. An architect, a teacher of disabled children, an
now sells bathtub linings. They had many questions for
me-they wanted to
know if I was proud of what I did, and how I felt about
video games allegedly
driving disturbed youths to acts of insane violence.
And boy, I longed to make a game for them. Because I knew
that I could get
them interested in an online game that personally touched
them, that made
them have a greater awareness of the world around them (for in my
technologically savvy big city mind, I suspect I saw them
as provincial in
some ways. I don't feel too proud of myself for feeling
that way, either).
An online game that connected them with people they
wouldn't have otherwise
interacted with. That maybe didn't have a single dragon or
spaceship in it.
A game-let's be frank-an Internet-that is woven into the
fabric of their
lives. I know it can be done, and I also know that it's not online
So this is my challenge. The new guard, the boxed game
companies, and the
old guard, the online game diehards, may both miss the
boat. That's OK,
because someone else will see the obvious and rush in to capture the
audience that is waiting. But I know where I want to go: I
want to go
towards experiences that are emotionally resonant to the
widest range of
people possible, because in some kooky, idealistic way, I'd
like my work to
I want to make online games for the same reason that people
want to keep
playing them: to touch people, to find new things to
conquer, and to leave a
mark on the world. I want to make games people argue about,
that make them
discuss philosophy or art or culture. And I bet that's what
brings us: online games that matter. If someone asked me
what it was that
made people play Ultima Online, that's what I'd answer: because it
matters to them. And
that's my challenge to all of you: to find some way to make
matter, so that it gets the audience that it deserves: my
cousins in Ohio
and everyone else. There's a bottom-line reason to do
it-it's a large
market-but there's also the reason that we are likely in
making this kind of game-which is hard, damn hard-because
we love them. And
we want others to love them too.
September 2000 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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