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Interview: Richard Garriott
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Part One of Two
July 17, 2002


Richard Garriott. Lord British. I remember reading those names when Ultima Online was first announced, about the time when massively multiplayer games first began to come into realization. The names, both describing the same person, are synonymous with boundary-pressing game design and personal adventure. Professionally he’s the founder of Origin Systems, the creator of the Ultima series, the power behind one of the first games to pioneer the concept of massively multiplayer. Having become involved with NC Soft and the incredibly popular Lineage, he’s still making waves in the world of online role-playing. In person he’s a charismatic fellow in blue jeans who just happens to have a lot of experience turning dreamy fantasies into working reality. I got a chance to speak with Garriot at E3 2002.

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GF!: To start off with, can you give us a little rundown on what you’re working on now?

Garriott: Oh sure. Fundamentally most of my time is spent on a game called Tabula Rasa, which myself and several others, including the director of Ultima Online and the creator of Lineage, are working on. However, because we’re really trying to Americanize Lineage I’ve spent a fair amount of time also coaching them. Then there’s City of Heroes as well, but I don’t think they actually need my help much…. It’s nothing like full time work. I have opinions…as a sort of play tester and kind of an analyst.

GF!: So your main project, the one you’re working on specifically, can you give us a little overview, a little more detail?

Garriott: That would be Tabula Rasa. We’re still in year one of a three-year development cycle, so it’s still very early. Let me tell you about where we are in that development cycle and then I can tell you a little about the game. One of the things about developing an MMP vs. a normal game is that your programming discipline needs to be substantially more robust for an MMP. The code base is going to last a long time, and you’re going to need to make continuous revisions to it over a decade. The quality of the code, the commenting in the code, it all needs to be far better than it is in most others. So with Tabula Rasa we started out by planning for the game extensively. When somebody is going to go start on a code module we have a meeting about it; we have a plan. When they actually build the module they come back for a code review, and in the code review we actually make sure that all the documentation and code structure is not only in the product itself, but also in a separate document that you can review. It’s very thorough.

Plus, we just passed a major milestone about a month ago. We got the editor online, and the client and the server online. So now we can begin to see stuff. Another part and parcel of that is that we have the client …as an icon on everybody’s desktop. You click on the icon and it goes to the actual server, confirms you have an account, and it’ll patch you up to the current version and launch the game. Of course all you can do is walk around and talk. It’s the walk-and-talk milestone. Every night there’s an automatic compile that takes place, sends it to QA; QA has a full list of regression tests that they run on every new feature we add…. Until they approve it, it doesn’t go the patcher, and so in theory everything that goes to the patcher will be QA approved. From this point to the end, it should be extremely bug free, and that is essential for a massively multiplayer game because it is so hard to keep bug free. If it goes down, it goes down for everybody.

GF!: And MMPs have a bad history of that sort of thing.

Garriott: And MMPs have a really bad history, so without regard to what people will like in the game, which is a separate issue, I am very confident that our code quality will be perfect. As good as it gets. Second issue is the actual game itself. I spent the last twenty some-odd years of my life building Ultimas and the medieval sword and sorcery realm, which still excites me, but it’s time to go to something not medieval sword and sorcery. I’m very excited about building Tabula Rasa, which is neither medieval sword and sorcery, nor is it science fiction space opera. It is a new world. It’s an off Earth game…and I guess by being off Earth it’s technically science fiction, and it’s not historical; it’s sort of a near future fantasy, which I realize is hard to pin down.

GF!: Final Fantasy has been doing it for years.

Garriott: So that’s the general environment. I know that’s fairly unspecific, but it’s fairly unspecific frankly to us too at this stage. We’re still evolving the look and feel of the world.

GF!: What about how the game plays? What can you tell me about that?

Garriott: Game play dynamic. Well, one of the great things about solo player games is that you get to be the hero that saves the world. Every door you unlock, every feature you see, you experience it special as if you’re the first and only person who’s ever seen it…because you’re blissfully unaware of your next-door neighbor who’s playing the same game. The wonderful thing about an MMP is that you don’t have to go alone. You can actually go with your friends, which everyone has always wanted to do. The problem is that you can never get rid of everybody. Everybody is with you all the time, and so you go into a dungeon and people are qued up to kill the troll king and you just wait your turn. We’ve seen other people try to fix that, like Anarchy Online with their pocket spaces of your own completion area of the quest. I’ve heard World of Warcraft is doing sort of the same thing with solo player areas, but in my mind we’re actually doing something much more fundamental than that, which is that instead of creating this giant virtual world where -- though it’s cool to go, "Hey, our world is five square miles." -- it’s not much fun to get to your friend if you were to come online at different times and different places. We actually believe that the best games will be organized much more like a theme park.

In Disney World, if you think of the main area as the massively multiplayer space, where it’s very easy to find each other or get from one fun activity, called a ride, to another fun activity, and even if you’re on opposite sides of the park, you can get there quite expediently either by walking, or using the train, or in our case teleporters even to make it faster. But when you go on a ride at Disney World, like Pirates of the Caribbean, when you get on a boat, you become blissfully unaware of the other people on the other boats. You can still see them, and you occasionally bump into them, but if it were an instantiated activity, you wouldn’t, and if the Pirates of the Caribbean were a pirate battle instead of a passive boat ride, you could imagine that here we have a quite contained hub world where you go from one fun activity, you come back and say, "Haha, we had a great time on that ride. Let’s re-equip ourselves and see what else we want to do." You want a thirty-minute, short combat adventure, that’s over here. You want a four-hour quest of the avatar scenario that’s very intricate and complex because you’ve set aside time for tonight, then that’s over here. You want to go out and do the red vs. blue, Unreal style tournament battles, well those take place over here, but all of those activities will take place in close corridors. Even if you go, "Hey, you know what I really want to do is explore the Himalayas just aimlessly", you can do that, but it’s reachable from the main game, if you follow my drift. Which is not to say that we’re creating a theme park, because this isn’t a theme park, it is a virtual world, it’s just organized in such a way that makes commuting not a pain. So we think that will provide both the best aspects of the massively multiplayer – ownership of territories, variety of roles that you can play, not just the traditional roles of just combat, which are part of the great aspects of MMPs. But also the great aspects of solo player games, where if you go on the four-hour quest of the avatar style adventure – you get a very scripted event where every lock you unlock, you and your party will feel is special for you. And you’ll achieve greatness. You will be the avatar. It’ll be as if you are the one group that has achieved this, as your blissfully unaware of the other groups in separate instances.

GF!: I noticed that in City of Heroes was taking on the perspective that each mission is your mission. I thought that sounded like a good idea. Are you guys doing something similar?

screen_01-01.jpg (9593 bytes)Garriott: Actually we have a slightly different approach to it. I think these two ways are both very compelling, and they’ll both have their strengths, and problems eventually as well. The way we’re doing it is that, say, the four-hour mission I mentioned is an extremely custom crafted story based mission, which means they’re going to be hard for us to make and take a long time for us to make, but I think will be very compelling. Our challenge is going to be to create them as fast as people use them up.

GF!: So when you say custom created, what elements are you going to be basing the custom created missions on?

Garriott: Well, we have a world editor that will have objects and tunnel pieces and trigger events, and each time we build one we’ll custom connect the tunnel pieces together, or outdoor pieces together, and custom put out NPCs, put down treasure events, to where that scenario was very carefully designed. The way the City of Heroes people are doing it, is that they’re building adventures based on modular parts that are in some automated way strung together so that they can create content as fast as people consume it. So if you go and have a party of five, level X players, and you want to go on a kill the bad guy mission – the game decides that it should be this long, this scale of bad guys, and so they will spawn that space automatically. So the strength is that there will be a lot of diversity. The challenge for them will be to make sure they still feel compelling. I think that ours will be easy to make compelling, but it will be hard for us to create enough diversity.

GF!: In the actual gaming world, what level of interactivity between players do you expect? How does that fit into the individual, "I am the avatar of my particular realm," perspective? At what point do the other players cross over into each other’s realms? How does that work?

Garriott: If I understand your question correctly, in the massively multiplayer setting, everyone is there together, and so if you could remove the word avatar and replaced it with the word Jedi, then there can be multiple Jedi. The fact that you went on a Jedi quest and became a Jedi doesn’t mean that somebody else can’t also become a Jedi. So even though the players have private experiences, it’s just like the real world where if you and I both played Ultima 9, we can meet and not be offended that we’ve both finished it. Our scenarios will be designed to keep that in mind. You’re not the main hero of the hub world, but you have defeated the bugs of Arachus, and even though others have also defeated the bugs of Arachus, it’s cool that you’ve both saved princess Lea.

GF!: So are there adventures that can take place in the hub world that you can undergo with others?

Garriott: Most all the adventure will take place outside the hub world. The things that take place in the hub world are what I call the meta game. The hub world is not merely a launching point to other adventures. The hub world has a history of its own. There is a reason that this place exists, and you have Stargate-style portals to these other worlds, and there’s a deeper mystery of why and where this exists that you discover as you go off on the outer journeys that let you advance within the main hub. You’re advancement within the main hub, though, is more of a communal advancement verse a competitive advancement. Again I’ll use the Jedi metaphor. Becoming a Jedi is not trying to conquer the other Jedi. You’re proud to be where you are, and you may even be proud that you got there before the other guy, in that sense of competition, but I’m not offended by somebody who’s joining the ranks. That is the style of activity that takes place in the main hub.

GF!: One of the my fondest memories was playing Legand of Zelda on the Super NES, calling my friend on the phone in a race to figure out how to get atop the mountain. In terms of after it goes live, and I know this is a bit down the road, but how much control are you guys planning on having after it’s live? Different items, things of that sort?

Garriott: Oh, totally. We’re big believers in what I’ll call the Lineage modal. There are certain things that Lineage has done much better than all of us who have done these western games. All the western games -- Ultima Online, EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, Dark Ages, anybody else I can think of – we all do the same release model, which is you ship the first game, then you have a whole live team that’s building more content and you release it as you create it and you hope that keeps it fresh for all the players. After about a year, you probably release some major revision at retail again to make some big switch that you’re not willing to make everybody go download or you just want money from them instead of making it a download. Lineage did something that turned out to be much smarter. They released episodes. The episodes are really the same live team development, but just packaged as an episode. What they’ll do is that they’ll hold it back. Instead of saying, today there are new trashcans, tomorrow there’s tables, and after that new swords, which everybody thinks is cool, but by the time they see the new sword pretty much everybody else has already seen it too. Statistically, half the people will see every new thing before you. But if you save it all up as an episode and you release the whole three months worth of work all at once, everybody knows it’s coming, everyone gets a chance to get in there, everybody gets excited about it and not only get in themselves, but they also bring new friends who have never played. At that point, we can see that the usage and the sales of the game go up in a big spike, every one of these episodes. In fact, if an episode has taken more than about four months, which some have, we can see that interest begins to drop off. If they get out quicker than three months then they’re no help. Three to four moths is the sweet spot for episode releases to re-engender the excitement about the game. That is our intention with Tabula Rasa. Every three to four months we’ll do as big an update as possible to maximize the new content.

GF!: I always thought that the Dungeon Master concept, or that sort of thing, provides the best structure to the game for the players. City of Heroes suggested they may be doing something like that down the road.

Garriott: Like for their bad guys in particular.

GF!: That’s right. Even Ultima Online had a structured government, and you were actively participating in the world. Will the same development team continue on after you go live? How large will it be in comparison to what it is now?

Garriott: The live team, if anything, will be bigger than the development team and will include all of the development team for as long as we can keep them in there, at least a couple of years. Eventually I’m sure that some of them will want to move on, since they’ll have been on it three to six years at that point in time, but we fully anticipate that the live team will be the vast majority of the original team, plus more.

Continue to Part II, where Garriott talks about Lineage II, online console games, and his adventure vacation to Antarctica.

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Interview by Aaron Stanton


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