The Grouchy Gamer

Yeah, I'm cranky. That's kinda the point...

Forget Bartle, How About Garriott, McQuaid and Koster?

The last generation of game designers are irrelevant.

There. I said it.

As I drove past the Austin offices of NCSoft today, as I do every day on my way to work, I started thinking about Richard Garriott.  That brought my thoughts to Brad McQuaid, then to Raph Koster.  These were the last generation of online gaming’s luminaries.

One thing occurred to me as I thought about these “giants” of the MMO industry. Here’s a list of their successful games this year.

No, that isn’t really fair.  This millennium;




The list reads like my career Major League Home Run totals.  That is to say, zero.  OK, what are the prospects?  Garriott, who took almost a decade to bring Tabula Rasa to the light of day, is seemingly without a project right at the moment.  McQuaid is in seclusion.  We haven’t heard a peep from him since last May and the Sigil Parking Lot Debacle.  Koster is busy working on a project that is essentially a sandbox for making, um, sandboxes.

In the meantime, the folks at Blizzard have brought us World of Warcraft.  Mythic, McQuaid’s former whipping boy, is about to launch a game that many people think will soak up a decent sized base with Warhammer.  And even Turbine has produced a very playable and moderately popular game in Lord of the Rings Online.  As I asked Brad rhetorically in my post about the Vanguard debacle, “How does it feel to get you shit handed to you by effing Turbine?” (paraphrased)

I’m not saying that we don’t give these guys their due respect.  Quite the contrary.  Without these three, there wouldn’t have been an Everquest or an Ultima Online.  By proxy, there would have been no World of Warcraft or Star Wars Galaxies, either.  You could argue that maybe that would have been for the better, but let’s face it, millions of dollars are still being made every day based on those franchises.

So are we to conclude that the skills of the late 90’s don’t translate well into making successful games today?  I think that is a safe assumption.  Until one of these guys unleashes a blockbuster title again I would say that hiring one of these guys isn’t going to make your game a huge success.  I think it’s more likely that they would make it into a fabulous small niche product.

Of course that is just my opinion and I might be wrong.


  1. And now, if you would, please list the Olympics sports commentators who have won a gold medal this year. Okay, this millennium. Name all the commanders in chief who have fought in a war this year. This decade. In the last thirty years.

    You’re just putting up a straw man argument here. You’re comparing companies like Blizzard and Turbine against individual designers. Why not instead of saying Koster, say EA and SOE? For McQuaid, say SOE? For Garriott, say NCSoft? At least you would be comparing apples and apples.

  2. I think you’re wrong. 🙂 Not for my own sake, but because it’s just not really accurate overall, and leaves out a lot of nuance.

    In all cases — in a field where one project takes 3+ years and most projects never see the light of day for many reasons, you’re talking about assessing careers where there may only be a handful of shipped products.

    It also leaves out the many things that people at that level may do that aren’t directly making their own game. Take Richard’s case — Tabula Rasa definitely underperformed. But part of what he has done is create that studio, and part of that result has been games made by others. What’s more, the web of influences on even the new games you cite is much tighter than you seem to think — as an example, the live producer on WoW is from my Privateer Online and then SWG teams.

    In terms of skills of the late 90s… SWG came out in 03, which is this millenium, and given the volume of email I get about it from passionate fans of pre-CU, a lot of people liked it. So I count it as a success, and not “by proxy” either. *shrug* But the Mythic guys are a group that has been around since long before UO — so I don’t think that even the date thing is quite as clearcut as you make it.

    I think a lot of folks seem to want to see what is going on today as a passing of the torch, but really, the “old guard” is still setting the agenda for the most part. But that’s why I holler so much about what I see as the real New Wave. 🙂

  3. Well if nothing else, I finally got some people to give a dissenting opinion today.

    @Tipa – You are right that I was lazy in my article and didn’t name names Like Pardo, etc. This si what happens when you write while tests run. I certainly deserve critique for the quality of the writing. But I stand by my premise. In terms of productivity I don’t feel like the old guard is producing products that are as relevant as the newer companies/lead designers are. I’d also argue that your Announcer to Athlete and Commander to Soldier analogies are more obvious straw men than my comparison of designers/producers to designers and producers.

    @Raph – Nice surprise to see you here. I will give you that Galaxies was almost successful. It was this close –>||<-- but for whatever reason never quite got there. I think the fluidity of the game systems and all of the post-launch adjustments that needed to be made really hurt the game. I WANTED it to work so much, and so did my wife. We subscribed, quit and resubscribed three times. I don't know you but I'd be surprised if it turned out the way you hoped it would. You got me on the naivete on the amount of time that the Mythic team had been together. I guess my point there was they never got the rock star tag that your generation of designers did. I never read about one of them owning a castle or going into space, or they weren't as open and available to the community as you and Brad were. I don't think you can argue that Brad has jumped the shark, though. I think it will be a little while at least before his reputation is rehabilitated enough to do a AAA project. And I don't want to be insensitive, but for the most part hasn't Richard's studio been dismantled this week? I'm not trying to be a smartass, I really don't know the dynamic of who is left. My point is that in the world of AAA MMO's (which is the scope of this blog) you guys aren't doing anything that compares to what you did in the past. I'm not saying the industry has passed you by, it's just that going by results I don't think you've demonstrated that your named projects are getting the traction that the newer guys seem to be.

  4. Just my personal opinion, but I doubt Brad McQuaid will work in the MMO industry again. If I were him, I’d go back to my roots and make some kicking single player adventures, perhaps for mobile devices.

  5. Surprise? I try to keep up. But I mostly lurk unless called out. 😉

    NCSoft is definitely having troubles — but were it not for Richard founding Destination, would you have Guild Wars or CoX today? (Not that he worked on them in any way to my knowledge, but it was his studio that signed those development deals). Far as I know, though, Richard’s team is intact at the moment.

    As far as Galaxies — I stay away from discussing it much. In terms of money, it WAS successful. In terms of what I wanted from it… like you said, close but not quite.

    In any case — you didn’t really preface by saying “irrelevant to AAA MMOs” — you just said “relevant.” Someone like Bartle, who continues to provoke thought and push the boundaries even without a project, is still contributing.

    And I think Metaplace DOES compare to what I have done in the past. I have high hopes for it being far more impactful to far more people than anything I have ever done before. I don’t give a crap, really, what industry it gets considered to be in. 🙂

  6. Hehe the reason I say surprised is because my wife got me a t-shirt from that says “nobody reads my blog” on the front, and for the most part that is the assumption I work under. 😉

    Best of luck with Metaplace, btw. I know there are people who are a lot smarter than me that have high hopes.

  7. I knew Raph way back when he was living in Alabama and running LegendMUD. I’m positive he doesn’t remember me so I’ll keep the name dropping to a minimum.

    I’ve got nothing but respect for him as a person, he’s a very warm, friendly, approachable guy, exactly the kind of guy people feel comfortable sitting around a table and shooting the bull with.

    Raph however isn’t (or wasn’t) exactly what I’d call the technical guy responsible for getting the plumbing just right, and to his credit, I don’t think he’s ever claimed to be that guy. Unfortunately, I think the MMO business has gotten to the point where the devil is in the details. Most of the people I know will play a game for perhaps 10 hours, make up their minds and then either stay for the long haul or move on and try something different. It is absolutely crucial that those ten hours be as painless as possible (or accepted in the context of the story).

    I’ll give you a quick example. When WoW first came out, one of the first reviews said they noticed that none of the shops in WoW have doors. You simply ran in, sold your stuff and ran out. In contrast, Asheron’s Call required you to find the door “hotbox” first which could be difficult if there were other players standing in front of it. One little thing like this isn’t going to make or break the experience, but ten, fifteen, one hundred of these within the first ten hours, will definitely break the camel’s back.

    More to the point, I get the impression lately that Raph and Garriott (I don’t know McQuaid) have gotten bored with this level of fine-detailed craftsmanship and they’re trying to… transcend that work. I don’t blame them. I program for a living and yes, I do get tired of doing the same kind of work day in and day out.

    Rather than suggest that their skills don’t apply to MMOs of today, it’d be more interesting to ask why the pioneer game developers of yesteryear aren’t building games today. Steven Spielberg seems to retain his enthusiasm for making movies year in and year out, but McQuaid appears to have retired and Raph is obviously… unsatisfied with being a “mere” MMO developer.

  8. As Bartle himself said in response to the whole “I’ve played Warhammer, it was called WoW” comment, he’s only relevant as long as people thing he is and are willing to pay him for his input.

    As for McQuaid, sorry, I’m convinced he was a fluke. He happened to be on the EQ *team* but was singled out (or put himself out there) to be the “rock star” of the team and receive all the publicity and fame. Actually put him in charge of a project and his real abilities to lead and design are shown. His MMO career may be over. Maybe he can team up with George Romero, another “rock star” designer who crashed and burned after his ego wrote checks his talent couldn’t cash.

  9. Interesting post and even more interesting comments.

    Scott’s comment about putting themselves out there as the “rock star” is valid. Peter Molyneux’s (did I spell that right?) games Black and White and Fable, while good games, didn’t live up to expectations. But any failings were pointed at Lionhead Studios. When you put yourself out there the way George Romero did, then the buck stops with you if the game fails. George Romero isn’t just “a guy that worked on Daikatana”, he is Daikatana.

  10. I think you guys mean John, not George. George made Night of the Living Dead. 🙂

    But again — John may never shed the Daikatana label, but one flop does not define someone. Almost nobody in any field has a perfect track record.

    David… hmm, so many possible Davids. Someone who played Legend, or who also lived in Alabama?

    As far as getting my hands dirty with specifics — On LegendMUD, I did in fact write code, tune mobs, write quests, build maps. On UO I made lots of the map, wrote piles of scripts, etc. Very hands-on.

    I didn’t get to very much on SWG — some very few examples were sketching out the layout and the storyline and quest for The Warren, but I didn’t actually implement the Warren. I didn’t get to for several years at SOE, on most titles. One of the few was Untold Legends, where I did a lot of writing.

    So instead, I started making small games for myself — and I made a LOT of them. And on Metaplace, I write code, I pick the color of buttons on the tools, etc. Very hands-on.

  11. Not really trying to defend Brad, but not everything he did for vanguard was bad. They had a very elaborate design plan and he was great for hype and the FAQ was excelent. If he hadn’t been involved in the business end, who knows what might have come of the game. A company could do worse than hiring him as a PR guy and dreamer. Just keep him away from the money. His reputation might be too damaged for anyone to touch him though.

    I played some TR, I didn’t think the game was bad, just missing that catch to make me want to stay. Not being so much into Sci-fi mmo and pvp didn’t help.

  12. Raph is correct (isn’t he always?) it’s John Romero. Sorry, I’d just watched the 2004 Dawn of the Dead so the name was on my mind.

  13. Raph, I think the fact that you get so many e-mails for wanting the pre-CU SWG back is a testament to how horrible the post-CU SWG was.

    I enjoyed my time in SWG, from the first day of beta when I logged onto Tatooine to be greeted by a frighteningly life-like Raph Koster, all the way until I quit prior to the CU. However, not once during that time did I feel SWG was special, or even remotely “complete”. That was half the fun, because there was this “the sky is the limit” feeling that so much could be done. Sadly, all that happened was failed attempts to fix the few systems already in game. Oh, they did add space flight though…

    I think Genda has a point here. A lot of developers that talked the talk during the “golden ages” haven’t come up with much this time around without a boatload of money. There is success to be found, but more than enough failure to go around… failure still spreading to this day.

    In the end, for a lot of us that were around and used to the smaller community where developers talked more in the past, this new generation feels disconnected from the community and we feel a need to place blame somewhere. Holy run on sentence.

  14. Personally I never understood the ‘rock star’ image that certain mmo devs on a team get. It may be they are more publicly accessible or something but to be quite honest none of them I’ve met in person have impressed me in the slightest.

    There are many good ideas that get picked up and implemented terribly, it also seems that the ‘flavor of the month/year’ is what everything else is based on. MMO players are becoming gypsies; I have yet to talk to a friend of mine that has stuck with one game for more than two years in the last 5 years of talking with them. This plus the plethora of games coming out makes for sad times for both these ‘rock star’ folks and any developer in general.

  15. I think some developers from the 90’s are still relevent in today’s market, but you did name some of the biggest MMO disappointments of this decade. The games all have developers directly associated with their failure as gamers have sought a head to place blame on.

    The real problem was that all three of the games you named were horribly unfinished and buggy at release. As much as this has been said all over the internet, WoW changed things. Gamers simply leave a MMO now if its buggy and unfinished. Look at the subscription numbers for Tabula Rasa and Age of Conan. It really can’t be any clearer.

    SWG has the only excuse since it was released before WoW and can’t really be held up to the same standards. I was never a fan of the game since it was so unstructured and had really weird requirements. Crafting to unlock Jedi?? However, the game had a decent player base and probably would be on par with City of Heroes if not for the NGE and CU changes.

    I doubt we’ll ever seen another successful game from any of the developers you mentioned. Though if someone makes something very cool on Metaplace then Raph gets the credit by association.

  16. I have to agree, at least in part, with Relmstein on this. When EQ, SWG, DAoC and UO first came out they had tons and tons of bugs. I remember it took me three hours to take my first boat ride from Felwithe to Antonica because as soon as the boat would zone into Freeport I would get disconnected.

    WoW has definitely changed the state the game needs to be in before it is released. Coming from my own experience with AoC over the last few months since release and a little before. One of my raiding guilds from EQ decided to get together and play AoC and get the old mojo back. At release we had 40-50 people come back and get the guild started and going. We now have about 5 of those original people still playing. Why? Mainly because the game wasn’t finished. Sieging in AoC has yet to ever work properly and that was one of the biggest things that a lot of people were excited about. I remember in late beta they had barely tested their first tier of raids, they had tested sieging once and they were still adding new crafting content that never got tested before release.

    Personally, I think AoC is a great game with tons of potential. They had the first 20 levels of the game extremely polished and well done. I just find it unfortunate that the rest of the game was not done as well.

    Why is WoW the 800 lb. gorilla that everyone is competing against, but no one can touch? Because they understood and continue to prove that they understand that they need to finish the game and additional content before it is released. Finished means that everything that is currently in the game has been appropriately thought out, implemented and tested before anyone has to pay any money for it.

  17. Hey Cyrr! Great to see you bud.

    You and Perky should drop by the guild site we have up for our WAR guild. It’s in another post, so I don’t derail this too badly.

  18. This is a late comment so I apologize if the thread is otherwise considered dead.

    When I referred to the plumbing of the code, I wasn’t very specific and I used a poor anthology. I’m thinking more along the lines of socket programming, database interactions, the graphics engine and in game data structures and calculations, as opposed to the user interface and gameplay elements. Using LegendMUD as the example, Raph created the world and Sadist made the world tick. But I do acknowledge that when Sadist left for UO, Raph did take over much of Sadist’s work.

    Incidently, I was Arkady (or alternatively, Six) at the time and if that didn’t ring a bell, my sister Caidi certainly should. I probably should take this aspect of the discussion over to Raph’s own forums.

    With respect to this discussion, my feeling is that there’s only so many times you can optimize TCP/IP socket handling code for gaming. At some point, you’ll want to say “enough!” Make the socket code part of a common library, reuse it as much as you can, and spend your time working on the really fun stuff like (ahem) picking the color of the buttons on the tools. 🙂

    I really doubt even Steven Spielberg consults a lighting chart anymore when directing his films; he and his director of lighting have worked together so many times now that they should be able to just say “ok, I want something dark and shadowy and misty” when staging a scene, and already know all the little adjustments they need to make.

  19. In this industry, past success does not mean you won’t blow it later. Conversely, you hope a failure helps you learn and not repeat your mistakes.

    That’s not unusual in creative endeavors. Great film directors may produce a work of art one year and stink up the screen the next. Your favorite band may release an album you absolutely love and follow it with one you find bland.

    If there was some magic formula for success, the game devs you mentioned (all of whom are smart guys) would release hit after hit after hit, each more successful than the last.

    It just doesn’t work that way.

    I do agree that game devs should be judged on what they do rather than what they say. But to pick out one project from a body of work and use that as the sole basis to judge someone isn’t really fair or accurate.

  20. Arkady! Holy crap. We should get back in touch. 🙂

    I never really did “run” coding on Legend. I certainly didn’t take it over from Sadist! But I did a moderate amount of it.

    I will say, though, that for me personally, one of the big differences between SWG and UO was the degree to which I actually implemented some things myself. It’s not that I touch everything — but being down in the guts of things, seeing how things are for a developer, feeling the project from a content creator’s point of view, really makes a difference for me.

    I think Spielberg does often still grab the camera, look through it, adjust some things himself. Maybe I am deceived by publicity shots though. 😉 But for me personally anyway, directing at too much of a distance is a mistake.

  21. A good idea, good execution, good customers can still fail.
    Bad idea, bad execution, bad customers can still succeed.

    If anyone actually knew what lead to success everyone would just copy it and be successfull.

    Blaming the idea people for success or failure of a large project is just silly.

  22. Isn’t it funny though that even though Brad may never work again in this field..
    His legacy is still pushing on in Vanguard. No matter how bad it was, it seems to be getting the treatment now.

    These people left their mark on the industry, and everyone today is still trying to copy it.

    Elvis is dead, but his mark still exists…

    Legacy man, legacy!

  23. (P) First, we need to define “successful”.

    (P) In the movie space:
    A. blockbuster – implies huge hype and presence
    B. money maker – implies revenue that exceeds cost
    C. award winner – implies peer-recognized talent and innovation

    (P) You can have movies with none of those traits. You can have movies with just one or two of those traits. And you can have those really rare movies with all three, and those are the ones we hear about the most.

    (P) The MMO game space has the same parameters, only there’s not much in the way of peer recognition yet.

    (P) We, the public, see the McQuaids, Kosters, and Garriotts as the idea men. But, an idea does not a game make. Everyone has ideas. Although McQuaid didn’t seem to pull it off with his last venture, he was right back when he said that making the idea take shape was by far the hardest part. Since innovations start with ideas, we give these guys all the credit for those innovations, but we really shouldn’t. We should give the credit to the people turning the crank.

    (P) I don’t think McQuaid or Garriot have ever proven that they can do that successfully yet, but they make great public idealistic front-men. I suspect Koster can do it because, as he said, he tends to be more in the gears of things and SWG was turning out pretty awesome near the end of beta. But again, we won’t know for sure until we see how his solo project Metaplace does.

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