Not many MMORPG game developers are famous enough to have their own Wikipedia entry, but Raph Koster has one. Koster was lead designer for Ultima Online (good!) and creative director of Star Wars Galaxies (not-so-good). Then he wrote a book about the Theory of Fun. And a year ago he founded a company named Areae and started working on a secret project. That secret project has been revealed today, and is called Metaplace. The news is all over the net, although it isn't quite clear whether that is due to Metaplace being such a brilliant idea, or due to the celebrity status of Raph. Let's hope it's both.
The idea of Metaplace is to allow normal people like you and me with minimal programming experience and no budget to build their own games, including but not limited to their own MMORPGs. All the tools you need will be web-based, and you can stick the result on your own website, blog, even your MySpace entry. And you can have your game have a "door" leading to somebody else's game, connecting the two. If you are a firm believer in the Web 2.0, this is Web 2.0 game design. You can sign up for the alpha (!!!) version on the Metaplace website.
The other extreme point of view is if you are firm believer of Sturgeon's Law, that 90% of everything is crap. Cynics might say Raph created Metaplace as the ultimate weapon against all those who ask why the author of Theory of Fun was creative director of the not-so-much-fun SWG: Go ahead, make a better game, here are the tools!
Me, personally, I'm somewhere in the middle between those two extreme opinions. (That happens to me quite often. I must be a centrist.) Much user-created content on any platform will turn out to be crap. But even if Sturgeon is right and 90% is crap, that still leaves us with 10% of good stuff, we then just need tools to rank it and find it. I played a lot of single-player games which came with a map editor, and many of the user-created maps you could find on the internet were as good as the developer created maps. It all depends on the quality of the tools. I can't say anything about the quality of the Metaplace tools yet. I'm not even sure I will try it, because I haven't really programmed anything since the 80's, and I don't have tons of free time on my hands. But if somebody sends me a link to some Metaplace-powered game he created, I'd love to have a look at it from the player's point of view. I'm much better as a player commenter than as a developer. I do armchair development in my blog, but even that is more meant as a comment of what I would like to see than as a plan to develop my own much better game.
So for now my main doubt about the whole thing is the "meta" part, where all these individual game creations get connected into a huge meta game. I can't even start to imagine how that could possibly work, except by attaching a fancy meta label to the mundane fact that you can switch from one game to another. At first the idea might sound great, the equivalent of my level 70 troll warrior from WoW being able to walk into Everquest 2 and continue playing there. But there are some obvious problems: How do you translate all of my stats, abilities, and equipment into another game? What if leveling in WoW is much faster than leveling in EQ2, would I keep my level 70? And what if my troll warrior didn't walk into EQ2 but into EVE Online, how do you translate from one genre into the next? What if the name I'm using for my character is already taken in the other game I'm moving to. And so on, and so on, the list of potential problems of the meta concept is endless. And if nothing remains from my WoW character when I move him to somewhere else, but end up in EQ2 as a level 1 newbie with a different name, class, and race, well, then I already did that when quitting WoW and starting EQ2. Nothing meta about it.