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Interview with Raph Koster, Metaplace




Story by Benjamin F. Kuo

 

Today, San Diego-based Metaplace (www.metaplace.com), which develops virtual world software, is announcing a funding round from Charles River Ventures, Crescendo Ventures, and high profile investors Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz. We spoke with Raph Koster, the firm's CEO and founder, about the site and the new investment round. Metaplace was formerly known as Areae.

First off, for folks who aren't familiar with Metaplace, what do you do?

Raph Koster: Metaplace is creating an end user platform, which allows people to build their own virtual worlds, and put it on any website on the Internet. Basically, it's an open platform, really aimed at end users. If you think about virtual worlds right now, there's a lot of hype around kids worlds and entertainment, much like there was a lot of hype around Second Life in the past. So the technology has been around for a very long time. But, it hasn't yet cracked the mass market code. That's what we're about. I believe that when you marry the web and technology out of the game industry, you can empower people to really exploit the potential that virtual worlds have to bring people together and socialize.

Who are the people creating their own virtual worlds, and why?

Raph Koster: Actually, it's quite a lot of people. We already have lots of folks who are using to to create games and that kind of thing, but we've also got families who are using it to stay in touch. We've had users using our software to create a "virtual dinner table"--where there is a husband deployed overseas in the military, and this allows them to have a virtual dinner with the family. We've got classrooms and teachers who want to use it to enhance the learning experience, and hold virtual workshops. We've got friends from college, who use it to be able to keep in touch, hang out, and virtually do fun things in the evening--even though they live thousands of miles apart. It's a testimony that it allows such a wide array of people to use it in many ways. It's not just gamer types, building games--what's fascinating is it's people who are not gamers, and who are mass market consumers. They're doing all kinds of crazy stuff. It's been really fascinating to see what happens when the medium is democratized ,and you put it in the hands of everybody.

From your description, it really does sound like you really mean anyone and everyone?

Raph Koster: If you think of how virtual worlds have worked, they haven't worked like the web has. They're centrally managed, big iron, big servers, and dedicated client software. They're not like the Internet. The analogy is they're more like AOL, or even like Prodigy used to be. There are lots of slick entertainment platforms, but there are none that feel like Web 2.0, none that feel like the blogging, free commenting, or even anything like Geocities. The virtual worlds haven't really kept pace on how end user content has driven the growth of the web. When we say easy to use, we mean easy to use--as low end as the Sims, where you can snap together pieces from a library. For example, if you want an Amazon kiosk to sell what you want, you can just buy that from a library and put it down, and you're off to places. At the high end, we expose scriptability, behaviors, and you can create behaviors and share it. I draw the analogy to blogging--on the low end, anyone can set up a Wordpress blog. At the high end, people can write plug-ins. And, those plug-ins make life better for the low end users.

So is that part of the business model - selling components?

Raph Koster: We're not saying much about our business model yet. The one nice thing is how many potential revenue streams there are. We have a marketplace to share content, and one of our explicit goals is to foster entrepreneurship on the platform and network, allowing people to sell their creations via the marketplace. You can buy and sell and acquire behaviors and objects for your world. It seems obvious that we'll take a cut there. But, there's more to it than that. There are lots of things we can do around monetization, but we're not really talking about them yet.

What's your background, and how did this all come about?

Raph Koster: I started in virtual world in 1992/1993, when they were all text. My co-founder is John Dunham, who worked at Simutronics, which developed text based virtual worlds on Compuserve and the like. I was a designer on Ultima Online in 1997, and kick started everything that was going on, and became Chief Creative Officer at Sony Online, where I worked on EverQuest and other multiplayer online games. John was actually VP of Production there, and we worked together for eight years. We left Sony in 2006 in order to do Metaplace--I'd dreamed about doing it for about ten years, and actually put together our first prototype in the spare bedroom, with my wife helping me out. In fact, the first server ran on the Mac on her desk. We went and raised a Series A back in late 2006, and went on to win the audience award at TechCrunch40. So here we are now, announcing our Series B round with Crescendo Ventures, Charles River--our original investors--along with Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz.

Marc and Ben are pretty visible angels--how did you connect with them?

Raph Koster: Actually, Marc heard about what we were doing, and cold called me one day and set up the investment.

He just cold called you? That's pretty remarkable.

Raph Koster: He had a lot of confidence in us and wanted to invest right away. I said--hold on, don't you need to learn more first? He's been great. We are philosophically much in alignment, if you think about the things that are really passionate for him and which he write and talks about a lot. You'll see there's lots of similarities with what we're doing.

Let's talk about the name. You used to be called Areae?

Raph Koster: We changed the name for two reasons. One was for the spelling, and two is we've made the site the centerpiece at this point. The names actually both mean the same thing. Metaplace is essentially the product and the site, and it just made sense to consolidate and not have lots of confusion about whether it's a product of Areae, or powered by Metaplace, and so on. So it's some streamlining. The network of worlds we have is essentially a place of places. Areae, in Latin, means many places -- but Metaplace is easier to spell and say.

What are you going to be using the new funding for?

Raph Koster: We have tried to be very methodical about developing the product. We've got tons of experiences in building virtual worlds -- I think we have 50 man-years of experience here in the office. We know what we wanted to make, and our technology is up and running. However, tackling the mass market is challenging, particularly when you have a technology that has never succeeded in reaching that kind of audience before. We're focused on usability, and making this something anybody can pick up and use. So we're spending money on continuing that. We're really tying a bow on what we've already got, and gearing up to go wider and wider over the next few months.

Why focus on the mass market?

Raph Koster: Another name for how the web evolved is the social web. If you think about when we first saw the web, it was very broadcasty in a lot of ways. These days, it's like a giant conversation. In the same way, virtual worlds are technology that has been around for a long time, but has never married with the web, or moved onto the web, or added in its own unique element. There's a sense of place that they provide, in the same way that there is a difference between a phone call, and hanging out with your friends at the bowling alley or wherever you hang out. That's what virtual worlds bring to the table--community and a sense of place, and of escape to some degree. It's a different, richer kind of communication. We've seen avatars on the web, and they came out of virtual worlds. That's an example of how the technology has been creeping into the web. We believe that there are communities of all sizes--from half a dozen friends hanging out, to large scale online communities, who will benefit from and embrace having a virtual place where they can hang out, and interact because they can't do it in person. I think virtual worlds will become as ubiquitous on the web as audio and video have become.


 

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