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Book Review: Postmortems: Selected Essays: Volume One

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

Koster, Raph (2017). Postmortems: Selected essays: Volume one. San Diego, CA: Altered Tuning Press.

Raph Koster’s Postmortems: Selected Essays Volume One is as much a historical account of MMORPGs as it is a manual for creating the next paradigm in the genre. While the book focuses on virtual worlds, of which Koster is a founder, it holds lessons in design that are applicable across a variety of game types. Designing, thinking, and writing about games for decades, Koster not only takes readers back to where it all began but, also, leads readers toward the future. While there is no overarching argument made within this collection of essays, there are several areas of note. I will touch on a few of them here: the influence of MUDs, the dream of Ultima Online, the rise and fall of Star Wars Galaxies, and the future of MMORPGs.

In the beginning, there were MUDs. There were other influences too, but Koster (2017) posits that if MMORPGs were to trace their lineage to a direct ancestor, the most influence would be found within MUDs (p. 23). As he reminds readers, many of the designers of those early virtual worlds, Meridian59, Ultima Online, and Everquest, came from MUDs. He presents several examples that can be tied to text-based worlds, including that of DikuMUD mechanics from which stems the classes found in games like World of Warcraft (WOW). In another essay, he reminds readers of the origins of emotes. Once referred to as ‘moods,’ these commands gave players the ability to express emotions, enhancing roleplay (p. 84). This has carried over into current day, but the commands now express as graphical animations.

However, one of the most interesting insights in this early history is the relation of player codes of conduct to end user license agreements (EULAs) which Koster ties back to playerkilling (PKing) in LegendMUD, an issue that disrupted an otherwise peaceful world. Koster points out that though playerkilling required a clan, it wasn’t common, and players joined clans as a social group. When more aggressive players joined the game, they disrupted the atmosphere created by the roleplayers. As this is still an issue in online roleplay games today, I find it interesting that the battle between two play styles has gone on for so long, and Koster himself refers to it as an eternal war (p. 90). Firsthand accounts are provided, detailing the conflicts that ensued as the Immortals tried to find a solution for all. Looking back at these accounts as historical documents, it’s easy to see the connection to present day.

The conversation between the Immortals and players is recognizable and could be placed in any present MMORPG and still make sense. In the end, these conversations laid the groundwork for rules that still influence the genre. Whether viewed as shackles that inhibit in-game freedom or a set of norms that hold the social framework together, players can thank their PKing fathers and grandfathers for the implementation of community standards. Interesting to note, there has not since been an answer that makes everyone happy on incorporating player versus player (PVP) in a world where others just want to be immersed in a life that is atypical of their own via player versus environment (PVE). Koster notes that PKing continued to be a problem in the early days of Ultima Online (UO), released in 1997, tying into real life political issues and animosity between gamers from the U.S. and Asia (p. 187).

PKing aside, Ultima Online introduced a world the likes of which had not previously existed. While the entirety of the book includes lessons and detailed accounts on game design, the section on UO provides a valuable resource for game designers or game historians. The essays on resources and how these can be used to create a more immersive experience stand out as a must read. The system was a near copy of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with artificial intelligence (AI) first attempting to solve its food needs, then shelter, then desires (p. 206). From this came the possibility for a more involved world that functioned in similar ways to the physical world, meaning the needs of the AI would affect the AI’s behavior. For example, if an orc desired gold, it had the function to search containers. If a player had gold in their bag, the orc would attack. I found this to be particularly interesting, because Maslow is often used as a reference in narrative design but applying it to AI creates a world that feels real because it mimics drives in the real world.

Koster reminds readers of the world that should have been with the famous dragon scenario. With this system, a virtual ecology existed and something as simple as a player killing all the rabbits would have a domino effect. Wolves would then need to kill deer, the preferred food of dragons, then suddenly, a village would find that its inhabitants were lunch. Additionally, the animals were intended to level like players which could result in killer rabbits. The system never made it beyond alpha due to expense and resorted to using static spawn regions (pp. 209-210).

Technology has grown exponentially since the early days of UO, so why hasn’t a system such as this been implemented? Koster states in a footnote that the answer lies within “inertia, complexity, lack of seeing the benefits, and a desire by players for predictability (p. 212). On the last point, I disagree. This is exactly what is missing in today’s MMORPGs. Predictability can also lead to boredom and, as evidenced by the current trend of releasing classic versions of games, there is a desire to go back to earlier days. The genre is undergoing a paradigm shift, searching for that idea that led to the creation of virtual worlds in the first place—the idea of what virtual worlds were meant to be. The UO that should have been is the game that is needed now. Albeit, with some minor tweaks. Present and future game designers would benefit greatly from reading Koster’s resource section alone.

The essays on UO hold a wealth of information, and the sections on Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) are equally insightful. Koster describes the game as “the summary MMO” (p. 367). The intention had been to take all the best aspects of the games that had been created so far. The game had the backing of Lucas Arts, low system requirements intended to attract a larger audience, and it had something that most MMORPGs did not: freedom. According to Koster, flexibility was a key feature, giving players the ability to play any way they desired (p. 368). Star Wars Galaxies epitomized the ultimate sandbox.

While SWG is notorious for the devastation wrought on the playerbase in the form of the New Game Experience (NGE), it did succeed in providing the freedom and broad appeal it promised. Gameplay went beyond combat, and Koster notes that when social professions, such as dancing, entered design discussions, they were met with disbelief. While dancing was only one of the social professions, 20% of players chose to be a dancer (p. 369). Other social professions included musician, image designer and, of course, SWG was a world in which being a crafter was instrumental to the economy. Playing as a chef or a tailor was highly lucrative.

SWG opened a gateway to gaming that appealed to a diverse audience, including those looking for something beyond combat. Here was a game where the choice existed to be whoever one wished while living in the Star Wars world. From PVP to housing design, the game created a tightly bound community: a real world set in the Star Wars universe existing in a virtual space. Koster’s essays are a good source of information for those wishing to pursue the idea of virtual worlds as real worlds.

At one point, Koster tells readers, he suspects the game was one of the most popular MMORPGs in North America, coming in second to Everquest (EQ) (p. 368). So why did it fail? It all began with the rise of the juggernaut that is WOW, which resulted in treating players like numbers. Koster reiterates throughout that players should be treated as people (p. 427). As Sony Online Entertainment chased after Blizzard’s success, new ideas formed on how to achieve that status. This resulted in significant changes, such as moving from a merchant class to an auction house. Koster writes that “the merchant class was created to fulfill the fantasy of running your own business” (p. 435). This resulted in an intricate economy, highly organized guilds, individuals playing as shopkeepers, and factory towns. The economy in SWG was so well done that it should be a guide book on designing economic systems. Yet, in a response to WOW, this vast and nuanced system was replaced with an auction house. Koster explains that in doing so, “all that complexity and variation that was present in the market earlier fell away” (p. 437). This decision alienated those who played the game as shopkeepers, shutting them out of the market.

Unfortunately for SWG, this would not be the end of changes implemented to try to capture WOWs subscriber numbers. The most notorious of which is the combat upgrade (CU) and NGE. Koster himself does take some blame for this, tracing it back to a decision he made on a frenzied day in the office, regarding the implementation of Jedi. (p. 480-481). But here again, I disagree. Koster is too hard on himself. Could the path to Jedi have been better? Of course. Koster is correct in that mystery and love of the chase made Jedi so attractive. Once the way to unlock Jedi was revealed, some players, probably more than desired, did stop playing the game they loved and began, “playing everything they didn’t like” (p. 480). Even so, the game still had heart.

After the release of holocrons, subscriber numbers dropped. This created a panic from which the idea for the CU and NGE came to fruition. Not only had the game failed at reaching the subscription numbers of WOW, but the loss of subscribers progressed at a rapid rate. The NGE changed the game at its core. Instead of having the ability to custom build characters, players were forced to choose from specific classes, including the previously elusive Jedi. Thirty-four customizable professions were reduced to nine classes. Combat was changed to be more action-based and several skills were removed completely. Koster states that this left players with “broken identities” (p. 529).

The night before the NGE went live, players gathered to mourn. Creature handlers took out their pets for one last time to say goodbye. Large swaths of players crafted markers titled with their own names and placed them on the ground, effectively creating graveyards. Little notice had been given of the change to come. A great betrayal occurred, and Koster writes, “To this very day, you can arouse anger and vitriol from MMO players by mentioning the NGE. . . .” (p. 531). The decision resulted in an initial active player loss of approximately 30% (p. 531). By 2011, the game went offline. Koster’s account of the rise and fall of SWG holds many lessons that would benefit the future of game design.

Postmortems, indeed. While the title emphasizes the death of virtual worlds as they are currently known, within these essays can be found the formula for rebirth. Koster writes, “The innovation lies in making something that matters to ordinary people” (p. 659). Those seeking to create the next paradigm in the genre should not only ask how it all began, but why it all began. The topics in the book are vast and cover everything from the early roots of MMOs and building community relationships to game balance and designing an immersive social world. Koster’s collection of essays are arranged in a way that provides an avenue for advancing research in the field and a solid historical framework for future analysis.

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