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.
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?
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.GF!: Moving on, are you involved with Lineage 2 at all?
lineage_two_screen.jpg (2765 bytes)Garriott: Yes. The majority of my work, like I said, is on Tabula Rasa, but next down the importance scale is for me to spend time on Lineage, be it one or two. We're trying to make sure we create a game that is a worldwide game, not merely an Asian game. With Lineage Forever, which Jake is working on, which is really the next big change. This is episode ten that we're on now, and once they get to twelve, we're actually doing a major revamp of Lineage 1, called Lineage Forever, that we're not even showing here. That's separate from Lineage 2, which is a whole different play dynamic than the world of Lineage, whereas the revamp that we're talking about is actually a full 3D game, but still a largely top down view rendered in 3D.
GF!: Is there anything you can tell me about Lineage Forever, even though you're not announcing it yet?
Garriott: Not much more that what I just told you. It's a complete client rewrite with the same server. Lineage 2 is all new code, server, and client. Everything, as well as new game play features, whereas Lineage Forever is a new client rewrite.
GF!: Is the look and feel of Lineage 2 going to make its way over into Lineage 1 at any point?
Garriott: No, actually what we're trying to do with Lineage is a little different. I actually think that the individual pieces of artwork in Lineage are beautiful. The problem with Lineage has been things like the animation is only four frames of animation for walking, which we've changed in episode 11. One of the problems we've had with Lineage is that we've now patched so much art in that, especially with the new twelve frames of animation, it is gigantic. The visual style we actually don't want to change, because we have four million players who are emotionally involved in the look and feel of this game. And one of the mistakes we'd made with, say, Ultima Online when we went to Third Dawn, where we made a lot of 3D characters...
GF!: For the record, four million players is by far the largest online gaming base, right?
Garriott: It's larger than all other online games in the world combined, probably times two.
So, we can't afford to offend these four million players, who are such a major economic resource for us, and so we're not going to tinker with the look and feel. By taking it over to the 3D, it means that the art becomes much more compact. For example, you only need a texture map for one frame of information, and the other twelve frames of information is just a delta on a skeleton, which is very compact compared to texture mapping. It is a necessary move for us to continue the evolution of this game, plus it happens to also be more fit for the U.S. market. I don't think that our style is inappropriate for the U.S. market, it's some of the technological aspects of it, and a lot of the user interface, and the newbie experience, which I think has prevented Lineage from being adopted quickly here in the United States.
GF!: It's the casual gamer vs. the hardcore gamer issue?
GF!: Speaking of that sort of thing. Sony and Microsoft are heavily pressing online gaming as the next thing for the console. Are there any plans for NCsoft, who is basically a publisher of exclusively online games, to carry their expertise over to the other platforms?
Garriott: No, actually I don't think that this round of platforms are going to work for online games. I think the perfect first example is the rumor I've heard about Final Fantasy XI. You'll have to confirm this for yourself, because this is rumor that you're getting third hand, but my understanding based upon the Japanese press that I've talked to here at the show, and even the Japanese business people and competitors I've talked to at the show, have said that Final Fantasy XI isn't doing as well as hoped. Now Final Fantasy, in Japan, is the number one property in the games business, doing a massively multiplayer game for the number one console in its home territory, should be about as good a job as you're going to be able to do with massively multiplayer online. Final Fantasy XI, from what I can tell, is not doing well at all. So here's the way it's described to me. If you're a PS2 player, and you want to play Final Fantasy online, which there are obviously millions of people who probably do want to do, first you have to get the adapter. They sold in about 100,000 adapters, but they sold through very few. Already you've gone from millions to tens of thousands. After you have the adapter, you have to have your Playstation 2 at a place in your house where there is a network connection, and you have to know how to actually make that physical connection. Don't forget that most console players are used to putting in the CD and turning the thing on, and it works.
GF!: That's why they're buying consoles.
Garriott: That's why you're buying a console vs. a PC. So most of them do not know how to hook up something to the Internet. Next thing is that you actually have to have an ISP functioning, you have to have internet service, which is another barrier of entry. Then after that you have to be able to connect to Square [makers of Final Fantasy] and create an account on their hardware, including a credit card or whatever their billing structure is. After you've passed those tests, then you can play the game. So it turns out that very few people are getting through all of those hurtles. That's the main reason. The kicker is that I also think the game was not designed well. I've never played it, but based on the feedback I've heard, which is that people who play Final Fantasy games are used to grand cinematic, with a fairly simple, easy to play style.
GF!: And traditionally, Final Fantasy makes you the avatar. You and your characters, that's it.
Garriott: Yes, and so most of the reviewers that I've talked to have also played Final Fantasy XI and have said that it's a lot different than Final Fantasy. The game play is unlike what people would expect from a Final Fantasy game. I think that's a unique problem for Final Fantasy, not necessarily for other products.
GF!: Blizzard may have to hurdle the same sort of thing with World of Warcraft, but they seem to be doing fine.
Garriott: I think they're doing fine too. They're going to do fine.
GF!: I think they're holding over the right elements, and drawing from all their games, like Diablo, not just Warcraft.
Garriott: I think they're going to do great. I'm a fan, so I think they'll do fine.
GF!: On the consoles, would you say that Nintendo, then, is actually in a better position in the way that they're looking at future plans, not emphasizing online gaming as much.
Garriott: I think consoles and online are going to be a real challenge with this generation of machines. I think the only way that online and consoles will work, in my mind, is when a console has the adapter built in, which some do, I know, and then literally you plug it into a wall outlet, and everything else happens automatically. It understands the issues of connecting through the Internet and it handles that on its own; it connects to the game creator on its own, and it launches the game to the service on its own. It's got to be plug and play like people are accustomed to on consoles. That's why they're buying the consoles. If it requires that you have PC expertise, much less a keyboard, like the Final Fantasy one basically does, then you're only selecting PC owners.
GF!: Which brings up another point. Because consoles don't necessarily have keyboards, communication happens in other ways. For example, Microsoft is bundling a headset with their online package. Do you see that sort of thing taking off on the PC side of things?
Garriott: Sure, I think voice is a very compelling part of the future. It's also currently a huge bandwidth hog, and so broadband will defiantly make that much more useful. With broadband, though, I intend to do voice. I think it will be a big part of it.
GF!: Is that being incorporated into the project you guys are working on now?
Garriott: It's hotly debated. The director is my antagonist in this particular debate. I'm pro, he's con. His perspective is that a large part of the market isn't broadband yet, and so we'd be jumping the gun, and I'm still pushing because I'm more a full speed ahead, who cares how much it costs, and we'll figure out the bandwidth. We'll see how that one plays out.
GF!: If you were to choose an individual feature, not necessarily from the project you're working on right now, but a feature from all the projects you're involved with, what would you say personally is the coolest thing?
Garriott: I actually think that there is a feature in Lineage that is the best, fundamental MMP feature, and it's a feature you don't see until you get into the game a-ways, which is one of the things I'm trying to change about Lineage. If you think about most MMPs, they all try to offer other forms of activities, but what most people spend their time doing is leveling up, and then leveling up some more. Lineage has an infinitely better elder game than all the other online games so far. What that is, is that Lineage actually has regions of the game, territories -- continents, we'll call them ? which then have regional control of the castle that the player groups can conquer, and once they own it, they can now adjust the taxation rates off all the shops in the entire region. This gives their group money, which they can then use to buy allies to help defend their territory. If they tax too high nobody trades in their zone, and they lose allies, people quickly try to overthrow them. If you set it too low, everyone loves your territory, everyone loves you as king, but you don't have enough money to protect yourself from the people who move in to take over. No one group can usually take a castle, and so if you don't make enough money you can't sustain your partnerships that helped you take and defend the castle. Technologically, that's a very simple feature. Design wise, it was a brilliant feature. It turns out that was what made all the Lineage's stickier. People play longer, in terms of months, than in any other online game. I think it is largely due to their elder game design.
GF!: So we can assume that you're patching that over into the projects your working on now, or some variation on it?
Garriott: We're going to have to think of some variation of it for Tabula Rasa. In fact, we don't really have one, because Tabula Rasa is not a game about PvP style conquest as is the theme of Lineage. With Tabula Rasa that is not the focus. The focus is actually more cooperative, and uncovering the mystery of this very powerful hub world that has been discovered, and about how and why these connections to outlying worlds exist. We will think of some variation of that, though.
GF!: Dealing with the graphical look and feel of... you notice I'm not trying to pronounce it because I don't want to butcher the name.
Garriott: Well, so you know, the name Tabula Rasa is a Latin word that means 'blank slate' and if you look in the dictionary it will say it's, "A desire or need to start again." For us we're starting over in the post-Ultima era, which makes it a good working title, but it won't be our final title. Nobody knows what it means, and it's really hard to pronounce.
GF!: It sounds cool, though. As for the look and feel what are your intentions? For example, Blizzard is aiming for the bright colors atmosphere of Warcraft. Anarchy Online has a much darker look to it than that. What are you guys looking at?"
Garriott: Unfortunately I have very little to report on that front, both because it's very hard to describe, and because it's still evolving. That's actually turned out to be one of our hardest problems to face as a design team. We wanted it to be this off-earth thing. Well, how alien do we want it to be? Too alien is uncomfortable, but you don't want it to be Earth-like either. So you don't want it to be Earth-like, you don't want it to be alien. Uh-oh. What's that? And you don't want it to be futuristic square or triangular buildings, but we don't want it to be brick and mortar historical. Again, what is that? What is this non-standard future looking, but also not contemporary or historical? That's a tough call. That's probably been our biggest challenge figuring out the look and feel for the play environment. Over the last year we've done a lot of iteration and refining, and we finally, literally only a month or two ago, think we've finally found fundamental pieces of our architecture, fundamental parts of our flora and fauna, where we can say, "Ok, this is it."
GF!: If you could give me any kind of a brief comparison, what would you give me?
Garriott: I wouldn't. I can't. For one I'd be shot by the team if I represented it accurately, since we believe we just got it, and it's too tenuous, but also there are good odds it will change again.
GF!: That's fair. Final few questions then, probably. What interesting thing could you tell me that you haven't already said in one of your other hundred interviews you've given today?
Garriott: Wow. Yikes. That's too hard. Let's think, what can we do? Hmmmm. Well, this isn't exactly a great answer, but one of the things I'm most excited about is the role that our Austin office has taken on as far as NC worldwide. One of the things that we believe we brought to the table with our Austin office is all of the Ultima history, all the people who worked on it, and all the experts we developed. Of course, NCSoft has conquered Asia very well, and we've conquered the U.S. fairly well over the years, but one of the roles we're hoping to provide for our new global company is to not just develop a new product, but also attract new people. For example, Cryptic with City of Heroes. There's another new game that we have in the works that we've now signed on as of a couple months ago, I can't tell you the name, I'm not sure if we even have a name for it, but in about a month, within a few weeks, we'll know about it. It's another game that I'm very excited about. Again, not medieval sword and sorcery, not science fiction space opera. I know that's rather vague, but watch here, because we have another product to announce here shortly. It won't be shipping by next E3, we're saving it for next E3, but we'll announce it shortly after the show.
GF!: I know that I said that was going to be the last question, but one more. In general, how many titles does NCsoft currently produce?
Garriott: So we have Lineage, Lineage Forever ? which will replace Lineage, Lineage II, Tabula Rasa, City of Heroes, the new game, and probably even in the long term only one or two more, until we get one out. We think that we want to be releasing between two and four products per year, ever. That would be the maximum.
GF!: Yes. Producing an online game is different than producing a single player product.
Garriott: Exactly. If you're EA, you can do one every month, or every week, but we also want to keep our support up.
GF!: Truly last question now, a little bit more personal. You're known for, of course, Lord British, but also for leading a very adventurous lifestyle. Are you planning anything in the works, and when are you heading for space?
Garriott: Oh yes, so space being the holy grail, that one's still a little bit way off. I have to have 15 or 20 million dollars to make that a reality, and that's going to be a while. However, I just got back from Antarctica where we went hunting meteorites, in January. And then in July I'm taking my girlfriend and her daughter down to Mid-Atlantic hydrothermal vents to go look at some of the earliest life forms on the planet.