Richard Garriott, creator of the legendary Ultima series and Ultima Online, sat down to discuss his current endeavors in social gaming with us. His company Portalarium’s latest project Ultimate Collector: Garage Sale has been met with skepticism from Ultima fans, but Richard feels strongly that he can and will create the spiritual successor to Ultima Online and bring new fans to what he is calling the “Ultimate RPG”.
Why did you decide to make the change from developing hardcore RPGs and then transition over to social and mobile games?
Fundamentally I’m trying to constantly refresh what I think are really the best possible roleplaying games. If you go way back to the beginning, I was one of the first players of Dungeons and Dragons. Which I’m sure a lot of role-players, even computer-based role-players are. If you think of those earliest days, the first few people who picked up the monster manuals and such for Dungeons and Dragons were pretty good interactive story tellers and the manuals and instructions were largely meaningless. As it became more popular, the game, in my mind, degraded into being more a game about numbers and statistics than it was about storytelling. But if you look at the earliest Ultimas, the first computer-based based roleplaying games, they were absolutely nothing but statistics if you know what I mean. There wasn’t much storytelling at all. The quest of those early games was to capture some of the best aspects of group-based, interactive storytelling as was possible. For the first twenty years, the best way to do that was in, the only way to do that really, was solo-player Ultimas. Solo-player Ultimas constantly strived to be these deep, immersive, story-based worlds. I think that’s even set them apart from the competition. You know, Wizardry, A Bard’s Tale, Might and Magic, which were all fantastic roleplaying games, but those were generally more combat-based and less story-based than I tried to do with Ultimas.
Then we discovered Ultima Online which was right with the emergence of the internet. We were the first to cross the bow, to really take a major effort behind creating multiplayer game. Ultima Online is credited with being the first Massively Multiplayer game. That became the best place to try to do the best place to do interactive storytelling. With that preamble, here is what compels me about the new era. If you look at why each of these eras became bigger than their predecessors, solo player Ultimas, and solo player games in general, sell to millions players. Always have. But the bestselling MMOs sell to tens of millions of players and ten times the people are willing to play it, not because it’s cheaper, because it’s not, it’s more expensive. Not because it’s easier to get into, because it’s not, it’s actually a lot harder to get into and figure out how to play it. The reason why ten times more people are willing to play it or want to play it is because you get to play with other real people. That’s the power of playing with other people. But in MMOs, the other people you play with aren’t the same people you go to the movies with and out to dinner with generally speaking. You’re playing in an MMO with people you met online in that game who are equally devoted to logging in every night and six-o-clock and going on raids with you, which is still very powerful compared to playing alone. But the magic of new social media and these casual games, I don’t even like the word “casual”, is really games that operate on top of a “friends graph”, is that now everyone’s real friends are online with some digital identity, with Facebook or whatever.
The best games I think are being generated right now are building not only synchronous play, where we go on a raid together, but also asynchronous play to where if you are a farmer, you can sell your fruit at your fruit stand and if I run a café, my chef can go buy his fruit from your fruit stand and your farm. So we can make the best of all worlds, I believe, by allowing players to play with not random people equally devoted to a certain game, but with the people who they go to dinner with who hang out all day together anyway, who may not have the same life schedule as each other. I don’t think I’m going to create a game that is lesser than Ultima Online or lesser than a solo player Ultima. I think I’m going to reinvent roleplaying games again by respecting the “friends graph” and leveraging what we’ve already done and done so well with Ultima Online from a multiplayer standpoint, that we did so well with Ultima numeral versions from a storytelling standpoint, and now wrap it with both synchronous and asynchronous features that leverage the “friends graph” and social media to present a powerful new game.
In your newest game that you’re creating, Ultimate Collector, is there anything inside of that game that’s going to attract your fans of the Ultima series and Ultima Online?
Strangely yes, although it wasn’t our original intention. Let me give you the kind of Portalarium story. An MMO scale virtual world is a big game. It’s many years in development and it’s many, many millions of dollars in development. If you’re starting a new company like we’ve done, you have two choices: start by saying, “Okay the first thing we’re going to ship is the new big iteration of an MMO, the reinvention of MMOs”, in which case you raise tens of millions of dollars and you wait many years and hopefully you come up with something that works. Or you do what we did, which the first thing we did was understand how to leverage the “friends graph”. We haven’t done that before. That’s the new technology we have not leveraged. So the first thing we did was we built a casino game because casino games are always in the top ten of social media. We looked at the ones that were already out there and we thought they were pretty bad, frankly.
We thought we could easily create a game that could at least support itself and support our ongoing development. It would let us build client, server, billing, synchronous play, asynchronous play around a table with a fairly minimal game design and at least prove out or technologies and we did that. It’s working just fine. That was called Port Poker and Port Blackjack. Then we said, “OK, now we need avatars and housing and secure trade.” So with that, we created this game Ultimate Collector. What’s interesting about Ultimate Collector, for us it’s a stepping stone. It’s an MMO-lite in my mind. Very lite, with more what I will call classical leveraging of casual game mechanics than you will probably see in the RPG, but compared to most casual games, to most social games, it is far deeper. It is far richer as a lot more story is involved in it. I think that we happened to have built a game that, which is not terribly surprising since we are the people that built Ultima, that we built a much more Ultima-like casual game than most, if you follow my meaning. I mean, it’s in a cartoon style. It’s in a contemporary setting, so by no means is it an Ultima. There’s no combat or magic or anything of that nature in it. If you really sit back and take more of a distant perspective of it, you can see how, with the tools we’ve built here, we can now obviously come up with a different set of art. We can come up with things like character classes and combat and magic, as well as an outdoor map that connects it all together. You get back pretty close to Ultima if you look at it with that filter. Of course, I should also be careful here. I know you understand, but when I talk about my previous work, I should be using the words a “Lord British” game instead of the word U-L-T-I-M-A, because as you know, Electronic Arts still owns the trademarks for Ultima the brand. However, I think what’s unique about my creations is the structure and style of those creations. I think what I’m building now is the spiritual successor of my previous work.
With your previous work, you were met with a lot of skepticism. People said Ultima IV had too much philosophy. People said that Ultima Online was just too big. It would never happen. Have you been met with the same kind of skepticism as you are transitioning not only to social games, but with making Ultimate Collector and Ultimate RPG multiplatform? Making the exact same game on the computer as you are on a smart phone?
You hit the nail on the head on the subject. Almost universally, the time that people give me the most resistance, oddly turns out to be the times that turn out to be the best. I’m not sure they’re exactly linked, but what I think that is true is with most people who are not very close to the game development or don’t spend a lot of time sitting with me, pouring through the plans and intentions. By definition, there are not of comparables to look at. Newness is fraught with a certain kind of risk, distrust and lack of understanding. On the other hand, you could make a counter argument. If you do something that is so tried and true that everyone has already done it then there is no room left to innovate. While you might be able to make something that is least predictably likable, you can’t predict that it will be successful because it won’t chart any new territory. The more new territory you chart, the less comparables there are, which means it will either go down in flames or succeed gloriously if you create something that strikes a chord with the public. That is the magic of doing game design well. If you look at the industry at large, there are about a thousand titles released every year.
The top ten every year make a ton of money. After the top ten, maybe the next 10 or 20 break even and allow people to make their next game. The vast majority below that lose money. Those small developers, or less well-funded developers, generally go out of business. The hit to miss ratio, if you look industry wide at all games released, is only about one percent. If you look at the hit to miss ratio of big companies like Electronic Arts, or even Origin before being a part of Electronic Arts, a good hit ratio would be 20 to 30 percent. Even at Origin, which we ran for 20 years, was one of the top 10 game companies in the world throughout its existence. We started on the backs of Ultima. We then found the game Wing Commander. Then we created game line called Crusader. Eventually, Wing Commander was our biggest bread winner. Ultima was our second biggest bread winner. Crusader was our third biggest bread winner. It was really those three games that supported many, many other attempts at making top-selling games. If you look at my own hit to miss ratio, not every Ultima has done great. Most of the Ultimas have done great. The same thing is true for my works that were not called Ultima. Most of them have done well; some of them have not done well. My hit ratio as an individual is somewhere in the order of 60 to 70 percent. I think what that has reinforced is the desire and competence and belief in developing a plan that purposely moves into uncomfortable, uncharted territory. You measure it constantly. You listen to players. You listen to player feedback. You listen to their concerns. You listen to your marketing department. You listen to everyone around you. You still have to internalize that yourself and decide whether that dissuades you from your belief, if that makes you do some tuning in your strategy, or you think they’re wrong, I’ve got it taken care of, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
So, yes, the bottom line of the question that I gave you a long answer to the short question, the answer is yes, by all means, but I think what’s interesting about the resistance is that I think you, most people who have played my games in the past, who have bothered to log in to Ultimate Collector, get it. Even if they don’t bother to stick around, which by the way, a lot of them are. I’ve got a lot of people from the hardcore [Ultima]guild called The Syndicate. We’ve personally invited a bunch of players from The Syndicate and they were at least willing to give me a pass on, “He can’t be that idiotic to be going down this path”. The Syndicate really started as an Ultima Online guild and they were wanting to believe. What The Syndicate players have been doing, even if they were individually concerned or skeptical, once they came in and started playing Ultimate Collector, they went, “Aha! I get it.” I think we’re persuading one person at a time.
Is Ultimate Collector fundamentally different from games you’ve designed in the past? Was it a difficult transition to go from designing a hardcore RPG to designing a web-based social game?
There is what I will call the designer aspect of difficulty and then there’s the technical aspect of difficulty. There is no question that the technical side is quite a bit different and has areas that I will call, not only newness that we just have to go learn, but also frustration in that if you’re going to run in a web browser or a mobile device, you’re dramatically impaired from a strength of engine that you’re capable of deploying easily. One of the luxuries that we had in the PC exclusive times in the past was that we could really ignore the operating system and anything else going on, and basically take over at the lowest levels of the hardware and just drive whatever we wanted to through the system. That allowed us to do all kinds of interesting special effects and get well ahead of the curve on what other people thought they could pull off with the processor power. It came at a cost of it was fairly unstable and required a more sophisticated installation that occasionally didn’t work. Therefore it required reasonably nerdy users to be able to kind of keep their system stable. In this new era, the market has grown from ones of millions to tens of millions. Now we’re going to reach hundreds of millions if you use social media or mobile or web browser technology properly. Clearly, most of those users are not very sophisticated. You can’t really scare them off with too much custom downloads and engine mods that they have to accept and risk not knowing how to undo if it takes it too far off field. There is a huge technological issue to deal with, but on the game design standpoint, again I think if you go back to Ultimate Collector, we really are building the Ultimate RPG. We’re just doing it a step at a time. I don’t think that I’m designing a game that is lesser. It is just kinder on the front side, but it will still be just as deep on the back side.
You’ve greatly emphasized that you’re making your games multiplatform, but you want to keep the same game whether it be on a smart phone or on a browser. With the technical aspects, are there features that you feel are limited since you have to adapt to a smaller screen, touch interface, or even limited graphics depending on the platform?
That’s a very good point. The short answer is we’re going to have to see. Your first statement was correct, and it’s something that I’m not in favor of, and by the way, this is my personal opinion. I even have other team members that don’t share my level of emphasis on the point I’m about to make, that you made also. The experience should really be the same across all platforms we support. However, the good news is that I am a mobile gamer. Almost 100 percent of the time that I play games, other than Ultimate Collector which is on a web browser, 100 percent of the games that we didn’t make that I play, is on my iPhone or my iPad. I’m very, very confident that we can create the experience that I believe that we should and can for at least a tablet. I’m pretty confident that I can squeeze it onto a high-end smartphone, but we haven’t proven it. We don’t have any version of any of that stuff working on there yet. We’re going to see just how scary that proposition looks as we get a little further into it. I have cautious optimism that things are going to go fine even on smart phones. I’m very, very confident. The ultimate roleplaying game really is going to be built first for a mobile device.
Do you think it’s going to be difficult from a storytelling standpoint to create a world as compelling as the Ultima Online world, which was already backed up by years of predecessors?
You’ve identified an accurate challenge by all means. When you start with a fresh piece of paper, you obviously don’t have twenty years of fiction behind it. If you look at the way I developed the Ultima property, you start with core foundation and then you build from there. For example, if you look at the first few Ultimas, even the predecessor, Akalabeth, there really was no unique property much of its own. I was really doing all the classic monsters out of Dungeons and Dragons or Lord of the Rings. Even in Ultima II, there were light speeders and light sabers from Star Wars. The whole moongates and travel through these gates and the cloth map, I got from the movie Time Bandits. I was really learning how to program. I was really learning how to assemble a roleplaying game functionally. I wasn’t even starting yet to create an intellectual property. Ultima IV is really where that started. Starting with Ultima IV, it came out of the barrels, so to speak, pretty deep. It clearly got richer and richer with each iteration. Our goal with the ultimate roleplaying game is going to be to make sure that it comes out first round with enough depth that people get it, but just like Ultima Online, which has now been surviving almost 15 years, we’re going to shepherd this deeper and deeper over time. Even before we’ve coded hardly any of this first version of it, we are already thinking ahead of iterations two, three and four and how we are going to deepen the world beyond its initial conditions.
You’ve stated you don’t feel free-to-play models are successful long term, but with success of games like League of Legends or Tribes, have you reconsidered your stance on it?
Let me give you a little more color commentary about my beliefs on the words “free to play”. I think both extremes are at least not right for me and I’m a doubter in them for the long term for many other reasons too. The classic MMO extreme is charge me 50 bucks up front and charge me every month regardless of how much I play it. I don’t think that’s a fair model for players. It requires way too much upfront and it demands of the player that they will be a manic, four-hour-day at least player to get value out of what they believe they’re contributing in the sense of cost. It really can only appeal to the truly hardcore market. By the way, when I say that, I don’t have any problem with hardcore players. I want hardcore players. I believe there’s a way to interest hardcore players and not run off everybody else. What I mean by that is, now let’s go to the other extreme which is completely free to play. You probably have seen a lot of the free to play MMOs that exist. There’s a ton of them that are coming in from Asia, for example. I went through a period of time where I would hear about or see or see the imagery or graphics, ads, whatever it might be, from one of these free to play MMOs coming in from Asia, and the graphics look great. They were at least as good as any other US-made game. So I’d be enticed to go play it. I would download it. I would start playing it.
The first thing you have to do is create a character. Then you would have to go through maybe 30 minutes of character creation. You can move your eyeballs, eye color and eye brows. You’re going like, “Well I’m not even sure if I get to do this again, so I can’t really skip past it. I really need to take my time with because I might be living with this forever in this game. I don’t even know if I’m going to like the game yet or not and I’m still too in fear to rush past.” So you spend your 30 minutes, sometimes even an hour creating your character, then you get dropped into the game. Sure enough, you’re in the middle of a beautiful, like every other MMO. You look around and you see your armor shop over here. You see a café over there. You see the mage-guy over there. You see a few quest givers with exclamation points over their heads. You can look out around the edge of town and see some monsters roaming around. So then you spend another hour going around through town, getting your basic equipment together. Getting a few of the first missions together where generally you mine some level one rats or something. Then you go out into the woods and you get this kind of bonk, bonk, my turn, your turn, my turn, your turn. Okay, I got a few health points. I got a few gold coins out of it. Some experience points. Then you walk back into the town to buy some more equipment and it’s like, dude, I just spent four hours to find out that this is basically a clone of every other MMO that’s out there.
Even though it was free, I am so totally done with it. If I paid 50 bucks for it, I might be devoted to getting a little further because I wouldn’t want to feel so bad about wasting my money. But when it’s free, I’m going, “You cannot take four hours to prove to me that this game is better than all the other games that otherwise I could waste four hours trying to play.” That’s the real problem of both extremes of the model of how to get people into a multiplayer game. You can neither be demanding way up front to say, “Give me 50 bucks and 15 dollars a month and this is game only going to be great for you if you are truly a hardcore player and everyone else stay away.” Nor can you become a free to play game where I get dropped in the middle of a virtual world that takes four hours to figure out if the game’s any good. Rather, let me give you my impression of why I believe we can make a new interpretation of a multiplayer roleplaying game that will be powerful and fair.
Follow me on this thought experiment. One of the things I find interesting about MMOs is that I still think that there are to two basic types in the world. There’s the Ultima type of which there’s mostly been Ultima and then there’s the Everquest through World of Warcraft type, of which most everyone else has been. Most every other MMO is a game where every player is first and foremost a combatant. If you play Everquest or you play World of Warcraft or anything else like that, you are, generally speaking, a combatant. You might be able to on the side also make some cloth or do some other crafting of some kind or another, but you are involved in combat. There is no forward momentum in the game that is truly exclusive of combat. In Ultima Online, I think that while maybe half or maybe more of the players were also combatants, there was another 25 to 50% of the players who were never involved in combat at all. Instead we developed very rich, deep roles including advancement in a variety of areas like blacksmithing, running a restaurant, taming pets, researching magic, et cetera. What’s interesting about those separate categories is there have been relatively few games that have gone to that extreme of sandbox like Ultima Online has. If you look at what became popular first and foremost and still almost exclusively in social media, it’s game where you can be a farmer. It’s games where you can be a café owner. It’s games where you can be a pet owner. It’s all of these things which were sort of the side roles that the socializers like to play in Ultima Online. So I would argue that if there’s any one group who can now bring this new breed of 100 million players who are already playing these farming and café games and all this other kind of stuff and unite them with the players who say, “Look, I’d love to buy my food at your café and I’d love to get my pet dragon at your pet shop, by the way I need to go out and kill some monsters and I’ll bring you some supplies for your shops.” I think my team is well poised to do that. It can’t feel like that MMO coming over from Asia that I described.
You can’t spend four hours to get to know if the game is any good. You have to let me go through what I will loosely describe as a gypsy-like experience where you have someone interview you to see how you really ought to be placed in this world and then make sure I set you down in the world in a place that allows you to find the play style and a level of success and reward in minutes that is directly akin to the way you like to play. Then allow me to play in a world where we don’t all have to manically be on at 6 PM to go raid together. Instead if I’m creating a farm because I like farming games, I can have it on a plot of land that’s right next to your café so your café can buy from my farm and vice versa, and we are right next to that blacksmith. We’re all surrounded by a city wall, and the adventurers come through that city wall and buy to supplies from us and we get to hear their tales. Every now and then a dragon might follow them in and burn up my crops, but that’s okay because they’re here to protect me. Then those guys can run back off and do their hunting. I believe we can create a rich experience that harkens very strongly back to the games that I have done throughout my history that is as easy to get into as any contemporary mobile or social game, but ultimately still has the depth of any of the games that I have done in the past.
Recently Zynga’s stocks have dropped significantly and the company lost about 5 million users on the game Draw Something that they purchased from OMGPop. Does that make you concerned about the direction that you and your company are taking with your games?
Quite on the contrary. I think Draw something is a great game. I played it also, but what’s interesting is that I played it just like everyone else seems to have played it. I played it rabidly for a week or two, then it was like, okay, been there done that. I enjoyed it and I haven’t played it since. The problem with Draw Something wasn’t that it wasn’t a great game because it was a great game. The problem is that it’s a great game like Tetris is a great game. It’s not the kind of game that you’re going to get users to continually pay for it month after month on end. That game was not meant for the financial model of expecting to people to play it for life. If you played Pictionary, it’s basically Pictionary. Pictionary had its day in the sun. Lots of people picked it up. Lots of people bought it. It still perennially sells. Pictionary is still for sale at every toy store on Earth. Most people who own it brought it home and played at a party with their friends once and then it stays in the cupboard for a rare, occasional use. I actually think that what we’re trying to do with these games is in fact the future of these kinds of games. At least one angle of the future of these games.
For example, I think it’s perfectly fine to make a social Tetris so to speak, games that hang on social or mobile media which are more like games of the past in almost any vector, any direction. If you believe that roleplaying is a cool basis for play with your friends, I think solo player games had their day in the sun because that was the best we could do to simulate bringing your friends together and enjoying an experience together. Then we created massively multiplayer games, which are far better than solo player games at giving you that experience of true roleplaying with your friends. However, those MMOs do not respect your true “friends graph”. You have about 100 people on your “friends graph” statistically on social media like Facebook. Those 100 people are the people who you really want to play with. Those 100 people are not generally available to be online at the same time each day of their virtual life. MMOs cannot be played by the majority of people in their traditional form, in their historical form. I believe it is this new form that will allow roleplaying games to truly come of age now with the platforms of social media and especially mobile.
Last question: When Ultimate RPG actually goes into closed beta, you’re going to keep me in mind, right?
Oh, heck yeah, of course!
Yeah! In fact, not only stay in contact so we can keep you abreast of how its’ developing and absolutely get you in early, but part of it is you’ve heard it from my mouth as to what we hope this game is. I want and I hope you remain a fan, but only because we prove that we can do what we claim we’re doing. So if you ever think we’re not proving what you’ve heard me say or if you just dislike what you’ve heard me say, I hope you speak up at the time we start bringing it all together.
I definitely will. Richard, I just wanted to say thank you very much for giving me your time and thank you behalf of Gather Your Party.