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 hes 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,
hes still making waves in the world of online role-playing. In person hes 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.
GF!: To start off with, can you give us a little rundown on what youre working on
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 were really trying to Americanize
Lineage Ive spent a fair amount of time also coaching them. Then theres City
of Heroes as well, but I dont think they actually need my help much
nothing like full time work. I have opinions
as a sort of play tester and kind of an
GF!: So your main project, the one youre working on specifically, can you give us
a little overview, a little more detail?
Garriott: That would be Tabula Rasa. Were still in year one of a three-year
development cycle, so its 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
youre 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. Its very
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 everybodys desktop.
You click on the icon and it goes to the actual server, confirms you have an account, and
itll patch you up to the current version and launch the game. Of course all you can
do is walk around and talk. Its the walk-and-talk milestone. Every night
theres 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 doesnt 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 its time to go to something not medieval
sword and sorcery. Im 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.
Its an off Earth game
and I guess by being off Earth its technically
science fiction, and its not historical; its 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 thats the general environment. I know thats fairly unspecific,
but its fairly unspecific frankly to us too at this stage. Were 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 youre the first and only person
whos ever seen it
because youre blissfully unaware of your next-door
neighbor whos playing the same game. The wonderful thing about an MMP is that you
dont 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. Weve seen other people try to fix that, like
Anarchy Online with their pocket spaces of your own completion area of the quest. Ive
heard World of Warcraft is doing sort of
the same thing with solo player areas, but in my mind were actually doing something
much more fundamental than that, which is that instead of creating this giant virtual
world where -- though its cool to go, "Hey, our world is five square
miles." -- its 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 its very easy to find each other or get from one fun activity, called a ride,
to another fun activity, and even if youre 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 wouldnt, 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. Lets re-equip ourselves and
see what else we want to do." You want a thirty-minute, short combat adventure,
thats over here. You want a four-hour quest of the avatar scenario thats very
intricate and complex because youve set aside time for tonight, then thats
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 its reachable from the main
game, if you follow my drift. Which is not to say that were creating a theme park,
because this isnt a theme park, it is a virtual world, its 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
youll achieve greatness. You will be the avatar. Itll be as if you are the one
group that has achieved this, as your blissfully unaware of the other groups in separate
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?
Garriott: Actually we have a
slightly different approach to it. I think these two ways are both very compelling, and
theyll both have their strengths, and problems eventually as well. The way
were doing it is that, say, the four-hour mission I mentioned is an extremely custom
crafted story based mission, which means theyre 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 well 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 theyre 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
others 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 doesnt mean that somebody else cant also become
a Jedi. So even though the players have private experiences, its just like the real
world where if you and I both played Ultima 9, we can meet and not be offended that
weve both finished it. Our scenarios will be designed to keep that in mind.
Youre 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, its cool
that youve 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 theres 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. Youre
advancement within the main hub, though, is more of a communal advancement verse a
competitive advancement. Again Ill use the Jedi metaphor. Becoming a Jedi is not
trying to conquer the other Jedi. Youre 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
Im not offended by somebody whos 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 its live? Different items, things of that
Garriott: Oh, totally. Were big believers in what Ill 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,
Asherons 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
thats 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 youre 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
theyll do is that theyll hold it back. Instead of saying, today there are new
trashcans, tomorrow theres 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 its 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 theyre 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 well 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!: Thats 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 Im sure that some of them will want to move on, since
theyll 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.