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RPG Vault > Features > Interviews
Raph Koster Interview
September 20, 2000

In mid-March of this year, LucasArts, Verant Interactive and Sony Online Entertainment excited gaming fans everywhere with the announcement that they were collaborating on a massively multiplayer online world based on and set in the incredibly popular Star Wars universe. Very little information has been revealed yet. A few months ago, we learned that Verant was opening a development studio in Austin, Texas. The initial staff were a small group of experienced online developers who had previously worked on one or both of Ultima Online and Privateer Online, a project that was cancelled this year without ever being officially announced. While there had been some rumors, nothing had been revealed about the studio's project.

Somewhat earlier today, this changed when we learned that the two aforementioned events are now related; it was confirmed for the first time that Verant Austin is developing a Star Wars online world. Aside from this revelation, there's still no further information to be had about the project. However, we did have an opportunity to talk with Raph Koster, the Creative Director of Verant Austin, about online gaming in general. Raph is very well known in the development community as a leading authority on and spokesperson for online worlds. Accordingly, it is no surprise that there is a lot of extremely interesting information and opinions to be found in this lengthy and thought-provoking interview.

Jonric: In case anyone reading this doesn't already know who you are, please introduce yourself. And can you tell us what you're up to at the moment?

Raph Koster: Well, my name is Raph Koster, and I am Creative Director at the Verant Austin office. Basically, like a lead designer. My current project is a massively multiplayer game set in the Star Wars universe.

Jonric: Without going into too much detail, how would you describe your background as a gamer?

Raph Koster: Yeesh. Not sure I can remember it all. I remember playing ASCII games on CP/M machines like the Osborne I way back when a suitcase-sized computer with a 3-inch black & white screen was considered "portable." That's the machine I hacked ADVENT (aka Colossal Cave) on so I could see the last room… I had a Sears Pong console and then an Atari 2600. Eventually I went on to Atari 8-bit computers, where I taught myself to program. Some friends and I sold really crappy games in Ziploc baggies to school friends… the same friends we played D&D, AD&D, and Star Frontiers with, in fact. I also did a lot of board game design back then -we used to make board game versions of video games to play - they mostly turned into strategy games. In college, I briefly ran a roleplaying campaign as a play-by-email game. During graduate school, I got into MUDs, and from MUDs I got into the industry as a designer for Ultima Online and eventually Lead Designer. And now here I am!

Jonric: Do you play many games these days, and if so, what kinds do you prefer?

Raph Koster: I have to admit that I don't play nearly as many as I used to. Having two toddlers sort of changes your lifestyle. Right now, the game I am most familiar with is probably Winnie the Pooh's Ready To Read!

Normally, I like all sorts of games; not too much into the hardcore sims or wargames, but I like racing games, RPGs, shooters, Sim & Civ style games, RTS, platform games, etc., etc. But with the lack of time that results from my job and from the kids at home, I mostly play games that do well with short game sessions - which ironically leaves out most online RPGs! Lately, games that I've been checking out or enjoying include Unreal Tournament, Deus Ex, and I just got Icewind Dale but haven't installed it yet. I liked Majesty a lot.

Jonric: After having played a wide range of games over quite a few years, do you have any all-time favorites?

Raph Koster: Sure - but you're going to hear me name a ton of oldies! :-) I am a huge fan of Dani Berry's work. M.U.L.E. is probably my favorite game, but I also love Seven Cities of Gold. Ultima III was the game that first got me into CRPGs. I also immediately buy any game that Paul Reiche III is associated with-Star Control 1 & 2, Pandemonium, and a bunch of older stuff with FreeFall Associates, like Archon and even older stuff with Epyx. Among more contemporary games, I think Half-Life was fantastic, and Thief was really cool. UT has probably given me more enjoyment than anything else recently, though, just because I can drop in and play a match or two and get back out. I like console fighting games too, but I don't have a console right now so I'm not playing any.

Jonric: What games would you rate as particularly notable in terms of having influenced you as a game designer, and in what ways did they influence you?

Raph Koster: A lot of the same titles, really, plus a bunch of online games. I often come back to particular designers, much as I hate to promote any sort of "auteur" theory in game development. It's hard to find a better balance of cooperative and competitive multiplayer play than Dani Berry's games. Anything Shigeru Miyamoto does makes me think "craft, craft, craft." He has such high standards, and he has a knack for reinventing a genre and making you look at it with fresh eyes. Sid Meier always has stunning depth of gameplay, and I pay attention to how he does that even if I don't like the game much - I loved Civ, but wasn't a huge fan of Alpha Centauri and still haven't figured out why; probably the reduced attention span from the kids!

The Infocom text adventure games are always a model for me in terms of intelligence; they refused to talk down to the player. Richard Garriott's work is so important for bringing a thematic dimension into games. The guys who were at Looking Glass and Warren, Harvey, Bob, and others at Ion Storm South, always set new bars in terms of interactivity in the world, and sometimes when I've compared notes with some of them, I've found we tend to approach some things the same way. Anything Will Wright does, I look at.

In online games, a lot of the influences on me come from MUDs, rather than from commercial online games. So a bunch of titles you've never heard of like Mortal Conquest and MUME for doing such interesting things with player conflict, Worlds of Carnage, which was my first real mudding experience, and LambdaMOO, which ventured deep into all sorts of sociological waters for online, and gave us so much knowledge. There's a lot to learn from Habitat as well. I've been paying attention to how Achaea does things lately, and Asheron's Call has some very interesting social mechanics to it. Of course, I've been trying to pin down the magic in EverQuest to see if it can be bottled.

Any other influences?

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