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Massively interviews Raph Koster on the State of Metaplace

Michael Zenke

We've spoken before about the Metaplace property – an ambitious project to make everyone an online game designer. As we just announced earlier today, the company is now moving into a new phase of development! They've got a new name, are inviting in hundreds of users to try out their in-development product, and (as we learned) have a whole new round of funding to see them through! In honor of the occasion we were thrilling to sit down with Mr. Raph Koster, one of the founders of the company.

Raph has been a friend of Massively since we launched and, indeed, is well known to MMO gamers for his work on a number of high profile titles. Mr. Koster and the folks at Metaplace are working to put you in the developer's seat now, though, and it was an interesting experience being able to explore the outline of their ambitious project. Read along with us as we talk about the challenges of even 2D, a bit about the Metaplace marketplace, and discuss some of the amazing projects that average folks decide they want to do in their own virtual spaces!

Thank you for speaking with us today, sir. Can you sort of give the readers an outline of what we're here to discuss?

"We really do believe that, given the chance, ordinary people can make something new that aren't just the same-old same-old."

We are announcing that we closed a second round of funding. 6.7 million dollars from Crescendo and Charles River. We have added a third investor, Marc Andressen and Ben Horowitz. Marc is of course well known from Netscape. That's pretty exciting, more money is going to help us get out there. We've been working for a while in closed testing. We've been working hard to make virtual worlds accessible to everybody, and that's been a key challenge. Making sure it's accessible to absolutely anyone. That's what this money will help us do.

I think we're fairly close actually. That's the second thing we're announcing. We're moving to an invite-only Beta. Obviously, because we're doing a key giveaway with you! We've moving from closed Alpha into Beta, and along with that we've been quietly talking about just calling ourselves Metaplace. No more questions about how to spell the company name. We've been for about a year now, so we figured we could just tell people to focus on that name. That's where we are!

Could you give the average reader a sense of what this new round of funding to focus on in specific?

We've been in testing for some time, as you know. We're trying to do something kind of big. Right now making and running virtual worlds are not really accessible to the average person. They haven't been for a long time. We really do believe that, given the chance, ordinary people can make something new that aren't just the same-old same-old. I think we've seen indications of that from other products. Even though they're not accessible enough for ordinary folks, products like Second Life have really shown that there is a huge amount of creativity out there.

For us nailing the usability, marrying the web and the games together, making sure its fun and entertaining out of the box is what we're focusing on. That's what the money is for, not really anything particularly new.

Can you give us a sense of how progress has gone on the usability front?

Usability has taken huge, huge strides. It's hard to quantify, right, but in my opinion it's like 10,000 times easier to use than it was a year ago. Everybody who comes in, they get plugged into a room off the bat. The average user has made dozens of worlds right now. There's a bit of a mental shift that's going to happen for people. Right now we think of online spaces as huge and daunting. They always get finished up to this huge level, but when you get these tools into the hands of the average user you instead tend to get lots of smaller worlds.

"Then folks start to get more creative, crazier, and you get things like the Scandanavian Folk Music RPG world. "

We have a Jeff Buckley tribute world on the site, made by a user. It's a multiplayer world, but it's only maybe 15 yards by 20 yards. But it plays his videos and has Jeff Buckley's name spelled out on the floor. This user has made over 40 worlds! There are thousands of worlds already made, but a lot of them are throwaway or not any good. It's like someone messing around with a MySpace page. A lot of people try one for practice before really making their own, that sort of thing. Then you get stuff like the Buckley world bubbling up.

Then folks start to get more creative, crazier, and you get things like the Scandanavian Folk Music RPG world.

One of the things that is still developing is the number of people we've let in to the testing. We haven't let that many people in. I'm really looking forward to the invite-only phase, because we're going to expand even on that by giving keys to testers to give to their friends. Right now most people who join don't know each other. But really, that's not how these games work. When you join a new game you probably already have a circle of friends that you can play with.

I'm looking forward to seeing what happens when people come in as teams!

To that collaborative point, a title that's been in the news recently is the PS3 game LittleBigPlanet. When you talk about everyone being able to make their own world, LittleBigPlanet is something that springs to mind. Do you see that game as an extension of what you guys are tapping into with Metaplace?

"Honesty I see us as riding a wave, and LittleBigPlanet is too."

I don't know if they're an outgrowth or if they're pulling from the same place we are? I saw an article that called LittleBigPlanet the first Web 2.0 console game. And in that sense I think a big yes. I think we're tapping into the same wellspring, trying to bring together that user-generated, participatory creativity you see on the web. Marrying that with games, in our case virtual worlds.

Honesty I see us as riding a wave, and LittleBigPlanet is too. The market is changing, the technology is changing and we're trying to really leverage the best of what the web does – be everywhere, be easy – with the stuff that the games do – be compelling, have great content. So yeah, they're trying to do a similar thing in a different way.

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