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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 more frequently, their first grandiose plans). Most of these people have no idea what they are doing. But they sure are throwing money at the problem.
Don Bradman

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 charge them 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 service provider. 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, they probably 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 won't dwell 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 fault-the industry 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 best.

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 later 3DO's 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 online gaming-the 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 different place. Anyone who is not willing to play at that level is not going to be able to compete.

This is not to say that Ultima Online did it right. After all, everyone's favorite 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 been running online games for a while. But analysis of what actually makes these numbers happen is generally lacking. Online game design has gone through relatively 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? That's often 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 people care about. Other people in the same place as your people. Other people who aren't going to leave.

It's very easy for a group of friends to persist beyond a given environment. 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 things they can't take with them somewhere else. People they can't take with them. Identity they can't take with them. A cool avatar is not enough-every 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 two.

If your online game has a STOP sign posted at the end of its experience, 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, player-driven 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 environments. And 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 netsex for favors, about player killers causing demonstrations in some poor mud's inn, about schisms among guilds leading to massive anger-these are emotional 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 providing an 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 marketing campaign 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 accidentally.

The genius of the marketing was that everything was contextualized. There 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 wonderful bit 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 about-empowering the player. Wish I could say that it hurt Ever Quest any, but it hasn't-they are 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 text-only games, 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 technical opportunities we can make use of. How can we make things more compelling? The answer 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 either-the fact 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 right now.

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, a discrete 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 everyday, ordinary 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 ex-firefighter who 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 backgammon.

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 touch people.

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 the future 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 this medium 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 this industry making this kind of game-which is hard, damn hard-because we love them. And we want others to love them too.

Raph Koster was the lead designer and programmer for Ultima Online, he is now working for Verant.