by Cody "Micajah" Bye

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by Chip Morningstar and Randall Farmer

After you spend a few years in the gaming industry, it begins to feel
like you know everyone. In reality, the whole industry is a fairly
tight knight group where everyone is fairly familiar with everyone
else, and generally folks are treated as equals. However, those
individuals who have been employed in the industry for decades (and are
still at the top of their game) are treated as veritable gaming gods.

Last week, I felt like I had stumbled into Mount Olympus when I hopped
onto a conference call with Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer, two of
the minds behind the first avatar-based MMOG, Habitat. Since their work
on that game, Chip and Randy have worked in a variety of different
cyberspace fields and have discussed their work on Habitat on their
ongoing blog, The
Habitat Chronicles

In our first part of the extensive interview, Chip and Randy fill us in
on their backgrounds in the industry, their work with MMOGs, and what
they think of Raph Koster’s upcoming href="">Metaplace
project. Enjoy! 

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A screenshot from the
world of Habitat.

Ten Ton Hammer: To start,
could you give the Ten Ton Hammer readers – in your own words
– a description of your work with massively multiplayer games
and social networking in general?

style="font-weight: bold;">Chip Morningstar:
I’ve been involved in network social stuff for a long, long
time. I was originally involved with something called href="">Project
Xanadu way back in the late 70s and early 80s that was the
original hypertext project prior to the World Wide Web. I was just very
interested in what would happen if people could put documents online
and link them together.

After that I went to Lucasfilm, where I did a number of things that
were noteworthy, but mainly I worked on Habitat, where I was the team
leader and designer of the game. I’ll say it was mostly my
idea, but I can’t claim sole credit for it. The original
notion of it emerged from a conversation with my office mate, but I
took the idea and ran with it. Eventually I came up with this notion of
this vast extended universe where there’d be a world
populated by real users and you could go and have adventures together.
All the kinds of things that people do in today’s standard
MMOs. That notion evolved into Habitat.

I brought Randy into that project fairly early on, and we have become
very close collaborators because of that over the years.
That’s also the reason why you typically hear both of our
names mentioned simultaneously whenever you hear about us.

Randy and I then went to American Information Exchange where I worked
on a very early attempt at E-commerce. Mind you, this was all still
pre-web. The radical idea there was that there were lots of information
services available where people could buy information, but this was an
actual service where people could buy and sell information services to
each other. It was really designed to be a pre-web marketplace.

While this was occurring, we were also receiving a lot of interest for
the previous work we’d done with Habitat. It was with this
interest in mind that we put together the first href="">“Lessons
of Habitat”  presentation where we
presented it at the first cyberspace conference. The lessons generated
a lot of interest and quite a vocal reception, and it really launched
us on this other career of going around and talking to people about
what we had experienced during Habitat.

It turns out that we were really the first into the fray in a bunch of
stuff that people were very interested in but had no experience with.
We had the experience and stories that they wanted. When AMiX met its
unfortunate end, we looked around for a different thing to do and
started up our consulting partnership.

During this time, we ended up working with Fujitsu where we oversaw the
reintroduction of Habitat into the U.S. in the form of a service called
WorldsAway. We spent half of our time doing that and the other half
focused on more forward looking work.

All of that forward looking material ended up being the basis for, which we would spend the next eight years working on.
It was WAY too technically ambitious, but at the same time very

Eventually, Randy landed at Yahoo then I landed at Yahoo. We did some
interesting things there, but now we’re done there and
looking for the right project to start with next.

style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;">Randy Farmer style="font-style: italic;">: To tease out some of the MMO
stuff Chip was talking about, the first real virtual world with
avatars, exchangeable objects, and people selling items for money was
Lucasfilm’s Habitat. That was actually the beta title for the
game, the shipping title was called Club Caribe.
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I know that Ten Ton
Hammer has a focus on the game side of things, but games and social
media (or social networking) have all been blending into each other
since the whole concept emerged. When we were working on the American
Information Exchange (AMiX), there were game design elements throughout
the product. However, the game elements are a lot easier to see in a
product like Flickr, which is nominally a website about uploading
photos, but if you look closely it has reputation systems and all these
pieces that make it into a big game. Game mechanics and social media
have always been intertwined.

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Back to the MMOs! There
were a series of evolutions on Habitat, with the first being the
Japanese version named Fujitsu Habitat, which was done around
1990-1991. Fujitsu got really interested in the project and they wanted
to bring it back over to the United States. The title eventually got
re-released in the states as WorldsAway
(, and it launched a whole
batch of spin-offs and are under the moniker href="">Vzones.

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Another thing that
happened at was that we actually merged with two other
companies, one named Palace Incorporated and the other called OnLive.
Both of these companies made virtual worlds as well. Strangely enough,
the worlds that these companies created actually outlived the companies
that were trying to make money off of them.

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So if we back up a
little bit, Chip and I were actually working on our second generation
of MMOs before the first real graphics-based MMORPG hit the market.
WorldsAway actually released the same year that Ultima Online hit the
marketplace, and that was also about the same time that we released the
Lessons of Habitat.

There’s also a
sequel presentation that has yet to be released on the Internet named
Habitat Redux, which talks a little bit about the lessons learned
fifteen years after the original paper was released. For those folks
that are interested, a bunch of the lessons from Habitat Redux are
actually available on the Habitat Chronicles blog.

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Personally, I have a bit
more experience on the MMOG front than Chip because I was briefly the
Live Producer for the Sims Online. It was about a four month stint.

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The Habitat project
eventually evolved into a set of worlds called Vzones.

Ten Ton Hammer: I bet
that was a pretty neat little project to work on…

style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;">Randy style="font-style: italic;">: It wasn’t actually
as cool as you’d imagine.

Ten Ton Hammer: So what
did you learn from the experience?

style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;">Randy style="font-style: italic;">: It was definitely educational.
One thing I’d like to say is that, during my entire time at
EA Maxis, that I proposed that if the Sims Online were going to succeed
that it needed to center itself around user generated content rather
than porting The Sims latest content. They created a bunch of freight
trains that just ported the latest content from The Sims into The Sims

It turned out be a not
incredibly compelling experience. So I made a big push to say that we
should stop doing that and turn the game into a platform for users to
create their own content, then buy and sell it with each other. I
didn’t think it was rocket science because Maxis was
literally running a site that did exactly that for just The Sims.
People were uploading content, putting prices on it, and selling it to
each other.

I wondered why the
company couldn’t just move that over into The Sims Online.
It’s now been five years since I worked there, and they just
repositioned The Sims Online to do just that.

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One thing that is kind
of unfair about being in our position is that we get to pick and choose
when we can point out the areas where we were right. On the other hand,
if you look at our very own papers – Lessons of Habitat and
Habitat Redux – we also spend some time talking about areas
where we were wrong. Just because you’re a veteran
doesn’t mean that you were always right.

style="font-weight: bold;">Chip: In fact, you
often learn more from your mistakes then your successes.

style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;">Randy style="font-style: italic;">: Absolutely. Usually our
successes are just happy accidents. You believe that all of the stuff
you do is going to work, but only some of it does.

style="font-style: italic;">One last little tidbit about me
and my MMO experience: I’m actually on the board of advisors
for Areae and Raph Koster’s Metaplace project. So I do keep
in contact with the industry quite a bit.

Ten Ton Hammer: What is
your opinion of Metaplace?

style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;">Randy style="font-style: italic;">: Back when we were at, we were building a platform for people to build things
on top of. We were ahead of our time.
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This is a similar play,
but it bits off the correct hard problems. It bites off scaling and
compatibility and a bunch of the right problems while not biting off
any of the wrong ones. I’m actually very impressed, and
I’m one of their alpha developers. I’m porting back
my first multiplayer game into Metaplace.

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I think
they’ve really got something. The question is: Can they
market it appropriately? Can they get developers to produce the content
that produces the diversity?

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I don’t know
if you know, but they’ve already put out their first
alpha-feeler. They call it MetaChat,
and it’s essentially an application that moves the Metaplace
chat function to your MySpace page. If you go to MySpace and type in
MetaChat, you’ll find their application. You can find it,
download it, and use it.

It’s a really
decent, multi-user, graphical chat, that you can run in your browser.

Ten Ton Hammer: Do you
think that core gamers are going to be attracted to Metaplace?

style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;">Randy style="font-style: italic;">: No, and this is one of the
challenges. It can be that core gaming experience, but in order to do
that you have to develop an appropriate program. It’s one of
the problems that we’ve had developing platforms, where you
always have to develop a reference application to show people how the
server works. But as soon as you do that, everyone gets distracted by
the reference application.
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In fact,
that’s not at all it. If anyone knows how to build one of
those big games, it’d be Raph Koster. He built Ultima Online
then Star Wars Galaxies. He’s already developed the server
part, now someone just has to develop the game part on top of the

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Farmer is on the
board of advisors for Raph Koster's Metaplace.

There’s also something about the whole ecosystem here where
you have a producer versus consumer issue with the platform system. In
order to get the sort of wide uptake, world wide phenomenon sort of
thing going, you need to have a large community of consumers.

If you look at the whole slate of offerings on the virtual world, MMO
market, you see this consumer versus producer dynamic played out a lot.
My current pair of examples is to contrast Second Life with World of
Warcraft. On the one hand you have a pure producer environment, while
on the other you have a pure consumer one.

They’re wildly different from each other, but in the one case
it’s mostly interesting to the people creating things and
less so to people who are consuming stuff. On the other side,
it’s a completely closed system and all you can do is consume
whatever the operators of the service have chosen to provide for you.
Fortunately they’re really good at that, and World of
Warcraft becomes an interesting experience.

style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;">Randy style="font-style: italic;">: One of the other things to
bring into the discussion concerning Areae is that it is between those
two extremes. If you look at games, there are plenty of them that fall
between the two extremes.

there’s a pile of money to be had with games like World of
Warcraft, but there’s also a pile of money to be had making
casual games. Casual games are generating a huge amount of money. Yahoo
has an entire division dedicated to casual games. Sure they like the
big games and the people playing World of Warcraft, but the people that
are buying $25 a pop to buy the latest version of Bejeweled are
generating small fortunes. You need platforms for the generation of
those games and bringing them to a multi-user environment.

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If you just look at the
casual games market, Metaplace is certainly targeted at the
“gamer”. But if you want to know if Metaplace can
build the next WoW killer on top of its platform, I don’t
have an answer to that question. It certainly could.

Ten Ton Hammer:
That’s all for Part One of the interview, check back in with
us to see the second part of this extensive discussion!

What's your opinion of
Randy and Chip's early Habitat project? What about Metaplace? href="">Let
know on the forums!

Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016