Raph Koster

The Nature of Gaming

Raph Koster is a leading expert in social gaming worlds. He’s best known for his work seminal MMOs like Ultima Online and Star Wars: Galaxies – and his influential book “A Theory of Fun” – a must-read if you want to understand the deep connection between games & learning. Raph is a multi-talented renaissance man – designer, artist, musician, and poet – someone who knows a LOT about bringing ideas to life. Listen in and get a shot of Raph’s relentless, inspiring creative energy.

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More on Raph Koster

Raph’s Website: RaphKoster.com

Raph’s Book: A Theory of Fun

Connect: LinkedIn @raphkoster

Episode Transcript

[Amy Jo Kim] Welcome, Raph, to the Getting2Alpha podcast.

[Raph Koster] Thanks. Happy to be here.

For folks who don’t know you, give us a whirlwind tour of your background. How did you get started in game design and how did you decide what to pursue along the way?

Well, I’ve been designing games pretty much since I was a little kid. I started out learning how to program on the Atari 8-bits when I was in, oh I don’t know, I was probably 12 or 13, somewhere around there. I used to make board games of the arcade games that I would play in the arcade so that I could take them to school so other kids could play some of the arcade games I read about in the magazines. I got into it professionally around 1995. I was a MUD designer. I had worked on text-based virtual worlds in the early 90s. When the graphical MMOs of the mid 90s and late 90s started getting developed, I was hired to help design those. That was my professional beginning.

Since that time, catch us up to what you’re doing today. What have you worked on?

Well, among the titles I’ve worked on, probably best known for MMOs such as Ultima Online. I was the lead designer of that. Star Wars: Galaxies I was creative director for that. I became chief creative officer at Sony Online. I wrote a book called “A Theory of Fun For Game Design.” I did a startup called Metaplace which was a try at bringing virtual worlds to the masses making them web-embeddable so that you could embed a virtual place on any website. Eventually we built social games with that technology, so I worked on Facebook gaming for a while. The company was acquired by Platum and by Disney. I was an executive at Disney for a few years. For the last few years, I’ve been doing independent design and consulting. Really just enjoying being on my own, not beholden to anybody and making pretty much whatever I want to make most of the time.

Back to your earliest roots making games in a sense.

In a way, yeah. In fact, I’m spending a lot of time making board games again and really enjoying it.

That’s awesome. I can’t wait to play your board games. I know you also interact with young entrepreneurs and young game designers who ask you questions and want your advice. What are some of the most common mistakes that you see first time entrepreneurs and game designers making in the early stages when they’re testing their ideas?

It’s often different for entrepreneurs versus game designers. I think one of the biggest things is scope and scale. There’s often a lot of lack of focus and lack of thinking about what it is that the intended audience is really wanting to do. That’s in common whether you’re doing game design or whether you’re building a social app or something. You still need to have a really good deep understanding of what it is that your user is trying to do, what motivates them, what emotions are they hoping to feel. It’s pretty common in games for people to mostly be cloning something or not necessarily trying to invent something truly new. In that case, it’s pretty common for scope to be really large, for mechanics to be in there that aren’t necessarily serving the goal for a lack of clear thought about what is the goal. What is it that you want players to be taking away or learning or experiencing?

For entrepreneurs, it’s usually lack of focus. I certainly keenly feel this. As an entrepreneur myself, it certainly happened to me where you end up trying to boil the ocean. When talking with young entrepreneurs, my commonest advice is figure out one thing to do really really well and build on that rather than trying to do a dozen things at once. That’s probably the commonest thing that I run into.

Scope down.

That’s right.

You’re doing your own projects now and you have a lot of freedom. How do you approach early testing and iteration on your new board game products? How do you bring them to life using what you’ve learned as a designer?

You know, I certainly wouldn’t say that my process is necessarily generalizable to everybody. In doing the board games, I’m doing them almost for artistic reasons rather than market reasons and I do think that there’s a little bit of a difference there where it does free me up a bit from necessarily thinking, “Oh, well I need to make sure that this has this size audience.” I think one of the constraints when you’re working in business is you do have to worry about whether or not there’s an audience of adequate size for what you’re planning on making. To me, that might be the line between doing it for money and doing it for the art of it is caring about that number.

You still have to play-test your games.


Yeah. I just want to really give people a glimpse into how an expert game designer play-tests his own original projects.

Sure. If I’m doing something, even for the art of it, that means that I might say, “Well, this might not have a really huge audience but I still want to know who they are and I still want to know what it is that they are going to enjoy.” Since I’m doing these and I’m starting from the artistic point of view, often I’m starting from a mechanical idea or I’m starting with a thematic idea that I want to express. That’s a little bit different from doing it for a utilitarian point of view where one chases a market. Either way, it still calls for understanding who the receivers are of that message. I will generally start on my own with prototyping. I’ll start trying to work through things like what is the core mechanic? What is the core loop? Does it have sufficient depth? Does it have enough to learn in it so that as players play, they will be discovering new things and working through things?

To me, that core loop, that fundamental question of “Is the player motivated to try to solve this problem that I’m presenting them with? Are they learning from it? Can they learn from it? Is it presenting the right information back? The right kind of reinforcement, the right kind of learning? The information they need to be able to make decisions? Are they actually mastering it? Can I then present them with a deeper problem?” That core learning loop is something that I try to work through in the prototype. I’m, however, often not right about it. I’m only one player. When I play-test on my own, I may not see all kinds of approaches, strategies, heuristics, even degenerate strategies, meaning things the players can do that just break the game. I’m not necessarily going to be good at the game that I’m designing. I might not be the right audience for it, and that’s fine. I think designers need to be able to create for people who aren’t them.

Then my next step, I actually start with friends and family and then I work my way out to strangers. I sit down and I do extensive play-testing with them. I sit down and I ask them after they’ve played the game, “What were the things that made you feel excited? What were the things that frustrated you? What were the things that you wished you could do but you couldn’t?” and so on, trying to get at what it is that is the emotional connection that they have with the work.

You just went through three of the questions that are in my script. “What do you ask people after a play-test?” That was so good. I just want to reinforce that for a minute because that’s such a great nugget of advice. First of all, I want to know which strangers you play-test with because you don’t want to play test with the wrong people, like people who don’t know that genre or et cetera.

That’s right.

What you ask people after a play-test is so important because so much learning comes in during that time.

Yes. A lot of learning actually does come from watching silently over their shoulder also. It’s very easy for people, particularly if they’re faced with the designer of the game. Generally, most people want to be kind. They don’t necessarily want to tell you the absolute unvarnished honest truth. It’s important to watch because people will actually revise their memory of the experience also. That’s a super common thing. Watching silently and just seeing what it is that people actually do, watching the expressions on their faces as they do things is super important.

To touch on the question of who to test with, for board games fortunately there’s a pretty interesting large set of events and activities that people attend. Here in San Diego actually, several board game designers have gotten together and we actually have a workshop where we get together once a month, bring prototypes, and play them and offer each other standard workshopping advice only in a game design context. That’s a great but very craft-centric kind of step that often happens before play-testing with broader audiences. That’s basically expert feedback. It’s like having a team around you as a backstop. In board games, there’s events such as Unpub for example which are events where prospective board game consumers, game players from board game clubs and that kind of thing, board game aficionados come to play unpublished prototypes. San Diego is actually having one tomorrow in fact.

Tabletop game stores will contribute space and set up a whole bunch of tables, and dozens of players will just show up looking to try brand new often broken games so that board game designers can then run these play-test sessions with them and get the feedback. There’s a network of these events happening all over the world actually. Super super valuable. It is a targeted audience. If anything though, I would say it does tend to skew a little towards core board game consumers.

Right. That’s such a great point though because you know the difference between play-testing early versions with those people and then shipping a game that’s for more your addressable market. Those are different activities.

They are. For example, I’ve been working on a card game project. It’s with a major internet website and we hope to be Kickstarting it in the coming next few months.

Stay tuned!

Stay tuned, that’s right. It’s very much a mass market kind of a game. Many of my early play-test experiences turned out to be with the wrong audience. I was circulating it to some of the savviest board game players and designers that I know. They turned out to be people who were pretty interested in heavier-weight games rather than this very lightweight very mass market kind of a thing. As a result, I got a skewed feedback, that the game was too lightweight. For a while, this discombobulated me quite a lot. I didn’t realize that I was getting skewed feedback at first, but then I kept working on the game and I started taking it with me out to restaurants and to just events.

Often I’m travelling and giving speeches and talks and workshops around the world, so I would just take it with me and there’d be a very wide array of people at these different events and pretty soon just play-testing at all of these. I was just shameless about it. I’d say, “You know, I got my new game in my pocket. How about we play it right now?” In order to try to get a really broad spread of people. With that, I gradually realized, “Oh, I had the wrong initial test audience for this.” The commonest sort of feedback was, “Oh well I should buy this at Target, not at a board game store.” “Oh, this is like Uno.” It had a very different kind of audience than that core board game consumer.

Early on though, there’s this really tricky thing which is you need to find early adopters that are casual gamers versus core gamers but they still kind of need to be early adopters to give you good feedback.

Yeah. In this example, you want the kind of person who periodically checks the shelves at Barnes & Noble, checks the shelves at Target for new games for families. It’s important to make the distinction. You can think of it as a neophile, an early adopter type person who’s looking for new experiences. The new experience doesn’t necessarily mean a deeper, more complicated experience. People are looking for entertainment in certain kind of bands, so to speak, because they’re filling certain social needs in their lives. Somebody might go trying tons and tons and tons of new sitcoms. They’re an early adopter sitcom watcher. It doesn’t mean they suddenly want to start watching Mad Men. I guess a good way to put it, Damion Schubert put it this way. He’s a great game designer I’ve known for a long time. He put it, “Gosh, there are hardcore casual game players. There are people who are incredibly hardcore about Solitaire.”

That’s right.

You have to be aware of these multiple different kinds of stages and clusters within the audience and not mix them up.

I would sum that up as “Don’t conflate need with complexity.”

Exactly. People might want new games, but it doesn’t mean that they want new complex games. Some people do, but not all people.

Yes. Oh that’s beautifully put. Drilling down on that, what is your superpower as a designer? There’s so many different kind of designers. You’re now pursuing something that you deeply love. What is your superpower? When do you really feel like you’re in the zone? What lights you up?

Wow. I feel like I have different answers to each of those things. Probably my superpower is that I can do so many different parts of making a game. I also create puzzle games, digital games, and I can program the games. I can design the games, I can do the art for the games, I can create sound and music for the games. To me, that’s actually the thing that I enjoy the most, is moving across different disciplines. I tend to think of that as my superpower, is being hopefully a little bit more than a jack of all trades. Can’t make a claim of master of all trades, but journeyman of all trades maybe. Having the ability to move across those because by nature, I tend to move across those things in my creative endeavors all the time and pretty readily. Games for me is one place where I can actually use all of them. I find that to be, as you put it, the thing that lights me up. That’s the thing that I really enjoy, is not being stuck in one discipline.

What are you seeing that’s new and exciting in game design and other kinds of design these days? What trends are you following? What are you paying attention to?

Oh there’s a bunch of things. Very recently, I got interested in the stuff that’s happening in the real of procedural generation. I just got back from a really cool game workshop that was oriented around computational modeling of games. It turned out a lot of the folks there were interested in procedural generation of games and parts of games. That was something very interesting to me. I’ve been very interested for a while now in the stuff that’s happening with the, call it the “idle game movement.” There’s interesting things happening there. I’m very interested in what I’m calling the “new narrative” game, which is games that explicitly are attempting to do narrative structure stuff as their core mechanic rather than math things as their core mechanic. There’s been a lot of really fascinating stuff coming out of indie games down that front.

Lastly, I’m also very interested in cool new math problems. There’s a couple of designers, particularly in the mobile space, who keep doing really interesting things that regards new mechanics and puzzles. Dan Cook, Zach Gage. Michael Brough has just put out Imbroglio which is amazing. He keeps making amazing little games. 868-Hack and Corrypt, they’re all on iOS. Reaching for that quality which is something that I’ve been trying to do in the board games as well, that feeling of “this is game that you could play for decades and never fully master” or “this is that kind of game that feels like it’s been around for 1,000 years and it was just discovered again.” Finding that timeless quality is something that really interests me and something that feels like I may never hit it, but it’s something to aspire to.

Wow, you truly have the soul of the artist. Thank you for that list, by the way. We will put links to all of those in the show notes. You wrote a book called “The Theory of Fun,” and I recommend this book to all of my students in my program. I want to know two things: how did writing that book deepen your understanding of game design? What’s new and different about the second version which you updated after having some years in between?

Yeah, the tenth anniversary edition. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. I wrote that book after doing Star Wars: Galaxies. I’d gotten feedback on Galaxies and felt myself like the game was intricate and rich and complex and a lot of people deeply loved it, but it wasn’t as fun moment-to-moment as it should’ve been. I wanted to get back to roots because that was a giant project. It was one where there were over 100 designers working on creating content and all the rest, eventually reporting up to me. It’s very easy to feel out of touch with what’s actually going on. I started getting back to roots of making board games and puzzle games again to try to go as small as possible and try to really think about what is it that drives fun. It’s always been a very slippery word. It doesn’t even exist in that many languages actually. It’s a bit of an oddity.

The research, I’d been reading a lot of nonfiction pop psychology books actually. They were leading me out of pop psychology and into the actual papers, particularly cognitive psychology and cognitive science and a little bit of evolutionary psychology as well. That was a really interesting lens to me that I hadn’t really seen explored that much, particularly not from a designer’s point of view as opposed to from the scientist’s point of view. Looking at what is it that makes these things work. Obviously there were things like flow theory and the like. After lots of exploring that and, for that matter, trying to connect it to as you say the “artistic thing” that is very much a part of me, I ended up looking at not just games but really all kinds of media as problems and situations that are presented to viewers, readers, players, users in order to communicate systemic understanding.

In games in particular, it’s very explicitly systemic understanding. Figuring out and learning how these little systems and sometimes very big systems operate. Not necessarily understanding literally what the algorithms are, but instead giving players the ability to intuit how they work. A different phrase, I don’t think I used it in the book, was that “games are really in some ways tools for helping your intuition.” They’re tools for training intuition because it’s often not the kind of learning where you can necessarily even express what you know. It’s often almost subconscious learning. That really changed actually quite a lot about how I thought about games. It made me think a lot more about things like, “In what way is this scaffolding learning?” To borrow a tool out of education. “How is it helping you move up the chain? What are the different kinds of emotional feedback and reward that you get from these processes, from this learning, from connecting dots basically?”

Over the course of the 10 years since it first came out, I’ll say that it started out and I think it was a little controversial back then to say that all the fun was about learning. These days, I think it’s gotten to be almost a dogma in some ways. I think it’s time for it to get challenged more from more fronts, but at the same time a lot of the science has evolved. I’ve come to a broader appreciation for a lot of the kinds of things that aren’t those sorts of learning. In the book, one of the added sections is about things in games and in entertainment that aren’t fun but are incredibly important anyhow. Things like using them for meditation, for emotional comfort, for training. Training is often excruciating, not fun at all. To me, the thinking has evolved especially as some of the new sciences come out on things like long-term training, deliberate practice. That’s a concept that wasn’t around when I wrote the first edition.

Yeah, there’s a bunch of new stuff in the tenth anniversary edition, plus it’s full color now. It’s very pretty.

That was awesome, Raph. What’s new and exciting for you on the horizon? What’s coming up that you’d like to let folks know about?

Well, let’s see. In keeping with my eclectic stuff I’ve recently published a book of poetry. That’s out there. It’s called “Sunday Poems.” I have several board games in process. The first one is a card game and I’m doing that in partnership with Boing Boing, so keep an eye out on BoingBoing.net for a new game announcement coming up in the next couple of months. I continue to work actually on not just more board games but also a variety of puzzle games. I’ve also been working with a variety of other companies on projects and probably the one that I’d call attention to people is Crowfall. You know I’m best known for working on MMOs and I have been working with Todd Coleman and Gordon Walton on Crowfall which is a new MMO centered around guilds and guild conflict. It’s very much a socially driven competitive-cooperative kind of game. That is in open testing right now, so people can go check it out.

Awesome. We’ll also provide a link to that. Very exciting, Raph. Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring vision and all your insights with us today. It’s been fantastic.

My pleasure.