Playable Worlds unveils Raph Koster’s new sandbox MMO Stars Reach

Playable Worlds has announced its first title, Star Reach, a fully-simulated, massively multiplayer sandbox game for all to explore.

This is a modern MMO crafted by veteran MMO designer Raph Koster, cofounder of Playable Worlds. It’s set in a smarter, more natural, and more reactive galaxy, thanks to a first-of-its-kind architecture running partly on the cloud.

In the game, which I have seen in demo form, water flows, generating natural currents. Forests can catch fire. Flora changes as heat and humidity change. Creatures migrate when food sources are depleted. This is a single, global, persistent universe that doesn’t reset at downtime. The actions you take affect the landscape, are visible to all, and are permanent. Koster noted that I giggled when I played his demo. It felt like anything was possible, like in Minecraft. But it goes a lot further than Minecraft.

“We’re out to really shake up the category. We like to think that we’re pointing the way forward in a genre that has not lived up to the dreams that we had for it 20 years ago,” Koster said in an interview with GamesBeat.

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What’s a playable world?

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Stars Reach is a cloud-native MMO with malleable and smart environments and beings.

The game is pretty darn detailed. And it gives you an idea of what it means to create an amazing new technology: a cloud-native game.

“We know the temperature and the humidity for every cubic meter of the game. We know what materials are present in every cubic meter. We support states of matter. So everything can melt. Everything can evaporate into gas. We support chemical reactions between things,” Koster said. “Melt the sand, watch it turn to glass, melt different kinds of rock, watch them become new kinds of rock. We support trees that grow, the environment that reacts entirely to the weather conditions, the seasonal conditions and so on. Creatures that are all running AI at the level of the sims with needs and fears and angers and hungers.”

The cool thing about this world is that it was built as a cloud native game from the ground up, and that enables some amazing things. In my demo, I could use a mining tool to hollow out a big rock on a hill and discover that it could lead down to a cave. If I poured water down that hole, a big pond of water would form in the cave. The water would have reflections and I could use it to put out a fire.

Eric Goldberg, cofounder of Playable Worlds, added in an interview with GamesBeat, “I mean, in essence, I think one of the simplest things that people get to do is take the scene in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf goes, you shall not pass to the balrog. He breaks the bridge. In a client-based game, you have to have the break be prescripted. It has to be pre-drawn, and has to occur in the same place every time. In this one, you can break it wherever you want. In other words, if you point a blaster at one spot (in a sci-fi game, not a fantasy, of course), it’ll break there. If you do it in another spot, or if you only partly melt the bridge so it’s structurally less capable, that’ll happen, too. I mean, in other words, Raph likes to use the expression the world reacts the way you expect it to.”

Big ambitions

I think this explains why Playable Worlds has raised $38.7 million and has been working on the game in various forms since 2019. Given the scope of the game, it has a relatively small team of just 43 people. It’s a remote company with a headquarters nominally in San Marcos, California, near San Diego.

As for the lore of the game, Koster explains that in one of the videos here. To summarize, he told me,

Stars Reach is set in a colorful, optimistic science-fantasy setting that appeals to a wider audience than just the MMORPG faithful – with gameplay that scales from casual to hardcore, from a quick five-minute session to a full-on gaming marathon.

A lot of MMORPGs will let you build your own home, but Stars Reach lets you build that home on the planet you choose, a subterranean lava mining facility, an underwater domed farm, an orbital starport…even wormgates to reach other solar systems. You’re limited only by your imagination. No classes, and no rails – just a wide-open world of adventure at your fingertips.

Created by the designer of Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, Stars Reach is an intelligent, living, fully-modifiable universe that offers players a unique opportunity to experience life on distant worlds. The galaxy continually evolves, featuring procedurally-generated planets that are as intriguing as they are varied. Gameplay options are equally diverse, allowing you to engage with the aspects that interest you the most, or to change your focus as often as you like – there is no single best path through this game.

The lore in a nutshell

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Stars Reach has alien races with consistent lore and physics and more.

The game has a lot of lore, which is explained in the videos, and Koster summarized it for me.

“Long ago, ancient alien civilization terraformed the galaxy and engaged in genetic engineering. As part of that, they created us. Humanity. They vanished. They’re gone. They’ve left behind a galaxy full of their robot servants and weird genetic experiments and planets perfect for human life. And now the different kinds of humans are all leaving their home worlds and venturing out to settle this galaxy. They want to discover the wonders that are out there and try to do better than they did when they ruined the homeworlds with climate change and war. Players join the transplantary league and venture out to explore these strange new worlds, harvest them for resources, build their new civilizations on them, adventure, build commercial empires, political empires, and have a second chance out there in the larger galaxy.”

I asked if Elon Musk was one of the colonists. Koster laughed and said some fan would probably create that.

Currently in pre-Alpha, a launch date has not yet been announced. Playable Worlds is gearing up for friends-and-family testing, focusing on key slices of the game. A new website is now live, welcoming sign ups for future updates and testing at  

Check out Raph’s vision video here, the announcement trailer featuring an early look at gameplay here, and Q&A-style interview video here.

“I have been working towards this game for thirty years. Now that technology has caught up to our dreams, we can build the living alternate world we envisioned when we were creating the MMORPG category,” said Koster.

Key Features of Stars Reach:

  • Gameplay you haven’t seen before. Everything — terrain, creatures, plants — reacts to what you do and to local conditions. It isn’t pre-scripted, it’s organic and simulated.
  • Every planet can be different — Different seasons, years, climates… and once players set up a government there, other things like tax rates, build permissions, or even the PVP rules may also vary.
  • Living planets. These worlds work the way the real world does: whether you break it or build it, you the players own it. Our trees grow, throw off seedlings, and spread into forests. They also burn down. Our rivers flow, and you can dam them up or irrigate a desert. 
  • Exciting combat featuring customizable weapons that enable both fast-paced action and tactics more like what traditional MMO players are used to – on both the ground and in space!
  • A fully player-driven economy including mining through deformable terrain, crafting a wide array of objects, building entire cities with your friends, and engaging in missions set by other players.

Playable Worlds is a multiverse company creating immersive worlds with diverse player experiences, social integration, and higher retention, based in San Marcos, California. Founded in 2018 by online gaming veterans Raph Koster and Eric Goldberg, Playable Worlds creates cloud-native online worlds by combining proprietary technology with expertise in service operations, community building, and online game design.

If people think they’ve played this game already because they’ve played Starfield, Koster has an answer for that.

“Well, the biggest difference is that Starfield, of course, is really not a massively multiplayer game. What we’re doing has much more in common with the sandbox MMO genre than Starfield, which I think is really, at heart, more in the tradition of single-player RPGs,” said Koster. “So that means that our focus is online community, on long-term retention, on players forming relationships with each other, on having a lot of different ways to play inside of one game world. All those different player types interacting with one another, each of them having fun, the way they like to have fun, but depending one another for their progress. So that’s a very different emphasis than Starfield.”

The Q&A you can see above is one of a series that will start now where players get to see the development process and Koster and his team show and tell things.

“There is a slew of gameplay that you can get that you cannot do in any published triple-A game,” Koster said. “We want people to understand what that is, and then we have to show that. We also show them. Here’s the technology that makes it possible.”

The team is working hard on the game and it isn’t yet clear when a large open beta will happen. But now Koster has spilled the details and is going to absorb fan feedback. Playable Worlds is also raising a new round of funding.

It’s ambitious, for sure. But Koster wants to outdo the ghosts of Star Wars: Galaxies, Everquest and Ultima Online — and deliver the games that he and fans really want to see.

I did ask whether the world is really a metaverse. Koster said that it was an accurate word before it got hijacked by a number of people.

“We’ve said on VentureBeat stages that you’re not going to get one metaverse,” Goldberg said.

Koster added, “The metaverse word has gotten a whole bunch of associations, but what it really comes down to is online worlds need to work in a more modern way than they have. They need to be able to evolve, change dynamically, respond to player inputs, embrace simulation, deliver things over the wire instead of with patches and all of that bundle of stuff. You can call that metaverse technology, if you want, and point at something like Roblox, which does do a whole bunch of those things. We are building a game of how technology that does those things and demonstrating the power that gives the game. Yeah, I just don’t want to get caught up in the semantics of arguing what metaverse means.”

Homage to the optimism of sci-fi’s past

I asked if the game was inspired by a lot of science fiction.

“Absolutely. We are paying homage to a lot of classic sci-fi and for people who are sci-fi geeks who also pull a lot of inspiration from the contemporary hope punk subgenre of sci-fi so one author that we like looking at is Becky Chambers. We really enjoy her books,” Koster said. “We’re pulling inspiration from Golden Age science fiction, which was the last time sci-fi was optimistic, right before the sixties and the seventies turned it all into grim, dark parables about how we’re all doomed. We’re pulling a lot of inspiration from that. You’ll see things that will remind you of Asimov and Heinlein and, you know, all those writers from that time period.”

As for whether this is an homage to his previous games, Koster said, “Absolutely. This is a spiritual sequel to Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. So it’s absolutely in the tradition of those games. But we aren’t interested in looking backwards and just making that with modern tech. Instead we’re looking forwards and trying to make it super accessible. Very easy to understand, very easy to play, five minute play sessions, that kind of thing. Highlights of the gameplay: we have action combat. You can customize your weapons with homing bullets or even old school tap targeting, but we are pretty inspired actually by action shooters and a bullet hell and similar. Right. So it is a very different field for combat in an MMO, more active, with active dodging and rolling and pulling up your shields on the fly and things like that.”

He added that the living world compounds a whole bunch of the cool world, peaceful ways to live. 

“So now you can not just farm, but there’s a dozen soil types that affect your farming. You can redirect a river to irrigate a desert. We support full building anywhere on the map,” Koster said. “So players can build their own cities and even form a government for those cities and for the planet, they can sit there laws such as whether or not the planet is PvP enabled or not or what the tax rates are. You can be a merchant, you can be a spaceship engineer, you can be a scout, you can be a miner, and so on.”

Koster added, “All of those different ways to play exist, and they are on equal footing with combat because the combatants need the cool guns that are made by the weaponsmiths, and the weaponsmiths need the minerals and the components that are obtained by miners and crafters. And the miners and crafters needs to explore these deadly worlds, which means they need scouts and cartographers who venture out into the wilderness and map where the deposits are. And these deposits can be mined out. So you. You can’t just say, oh, I know where everything is, and it’s on a wiki. The game is always changing and always evolving. So there is an intricate web of economic dependence between different ways to play that we believe results in the creation of a society where players discover that all these different ways to play matter and that they matter to one another.”

There will be cities on the ground and in space because the team is supporting spaceflight.

“In fact, go ahead and build your space station and your house out in space if you want the shifting economy, including the resource economy and the crafting system from galaxies,” Koster said. “We’re doing that, but we think only better the progression system. We’re using the horizontal progression system from galaxies, but again, we think only better. So people who enjoy galaxies, I think, will feel very at home here. But in general, it’s also a slicker, less clunky experience. “

It is a pretty amazing demo, when you think of all of the consequences of my actions that I saw when I played the experience, like how the sheep-like creatures could eat the grass barren or, if I hunted them, the grass would grow long without them. Little things like that make it come alive.

In fact, at a prompting from Goldberg, Koster said “The living world simulation is based on, as Eric said, populating every cubic meter with AI. When you see water flow past you, that is actually a small amount of water. A large amount of water that is actually moving in a direction with a little AI brain and knows how to interact with other kinds of things in the environment that it meets. So that’s true for everything in the world. That cliff is there because the stone AI’s know how to hold hands with each other and make arches and have structural integrity. And in our game, you won’t see sand arches because sand doesn’t have that structural integrity. And so the AI’s will fall instead slump. So it is not LLM style AI, it’s not diffusion style AI. For the techie people, I would describe it as inspired by cellular automata, like Conway’s game of life. For the gamers, I would say think of Noita. It was a popular action platformer a while ago. Think of Noita at MMO scale in full 3D.”

Goldberg added, “So just to give some examples with the river or the stream that Ralph describes. So when it interacts with the river bank, the grass will turn greener because it has more water. When the temperature goes below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it will start freezing. The water will start moving more slowly, and then it will freeze over. When it starts to, when it gets hot, it will start to evaporate. When something is dropped into the water, it will create a salt, it will create its own puddle and splash and so on and so forth. All this is done by prop jet, not by set pieces that you have to do with the climb. And that’s something that players will discover and say, wait, I don’t have to figure out where the set piece is. Everything can be a set piece.”

But Koster reiterated the team will react to fan feedback.

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