How Space Travel Influenced Ultima Creator

Richard Garriott discusses how exotic travels have influenced his creative process, as well as why the Tolkien-style of writing for RPGs is to be admired.


Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Ultima creator Richard Garriott is a traveler. He has visited the Titanic wreckage at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, trekked to the South Pole, and even flown to space. But his latest trip is here on Earth.

Garriott today announced a new "ultimate role-playing game" called Shroud of the Avatar. How have his adventures affected his games? Only he can explain.

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GameSpot spoke with Garriott over the phone recently about Shroud of the Avatar, and in addition to offering numerous details about that project, the developer opened up on much more.

Below are highlights of GameSpot's discussion with Garriott on a range of topics, including his travels, the influence of Joseph Campbell and of Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien on RPGs, frustrations with World of Warcraft, and how Ultima VIII suffered as a result of Electronic Arts' development schedules.

On how exotic travels have influenced his thinking with regard to games

"It's interesting. I would argue that all of these unusual trips I've taken--whether they're to the Titanic, or Antarctica, or the South Pole, or space--all are very inspirational to what I do in games. But what I also find interesting is that it's often a little tangential compared to what some people might expect there to be. So what I mean by that is, while I've never made a game that includes submarines and I've never made a game where you camped out on the ice; I've never made a game where you sit on a launch pad--all of which are exceptional personal experiences. But as much fun as I had sitting in a capsule for four hours waiting for it to launch, a game where you sit in a capsule for four hours waiting for it to launch would not be fun.

"You go all the way around the earth in 90 minutes; and so it's like a firehose of high-resolution information about the reality in which we live and it's just pouring in your brain just by looking out the window."

The very best thing about spaceflight is looking back at the Earth, but even that wasn't special because of any one moment. In other words, if you just look out the window, of course it's a beautiful view of the earth, but it's not like life-changing just a single view. It's awesome, but it's not life-changing. What's life-changing is as you look out the window, you're travelling at 17,000 miles an hour, and you're only 250 miles up--which is actually high enough to get this fantastic view of the earth, but still close enough where you can see a lot of detail…like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz. You travel all the way across the United States in about ten minutes; you go through sunrise or sunsets every 45 minutes; you go all the way around the earth in 90 minutes; and so it's like a firehose of high-resolution information about the reality in which we live and it's just pouring in your brain just by looking out the window.

And finally for me, when I saw an area of the earth I knew well, in which case was Texas because I used to drive around a variety of places in Texas so I know the area from driving it; I know the scale of it technically. And I could see the entire earth in the same shot. I suddenly realized that I now know the true scale of the earth by direct observation and as soon as that thought went through my head, it was just like in the movies when they dolly the camera back but zoom the lens in, so the hallway collapses around the main character.

And so the earth didn't change size out the window, but I had a physical reaction where literally the world went from being this ambiguously large, complex place; it became finite and small. And while there's no way I could repeat that in a game, understanding how you build up, you take something that's very complex and you break it down into pieces that you can show somebody one at a time. And the pieces, as complex as the reality is, by doing a bunch of backstory work[…]by making sure that every piece of the backstory is correctly strung together and has purpose and meaning, then when people get a chance to feel the same whole, they'll put it all together in their head and go 'you know what, this place is real; this place is believable.'

On what makes an RPG "ultimate"

As you are in this virtual world and as you look around the scene, anything you see around you that looks like it can be interactive, should respond to interaction. So if I put a musical instrument in the corner, it ought to play music when I touch it. If I put doors, or chests, or cabinets, they ought to open and close. If I put a sink in the corner, you ought to be able to turn on and off the water.

On what to do if locked into a meeting room (and how it relates to games)

If I were locked in an office room, literally in the modern world, and I didn't have a key to get out, the first thing I'd do is I'd look at the hinge pin to see if I could push the hinge pin out and open the door backwards. If that didn't work, I'd look to see if it had acoustic ceilings on the top; see if I could push a panel out and crawl out of the wall. If that didn't work, I could maybe throw a chair at the window and do some damage; if that didn't work I'd have to go through the sheetrock. But the point is, you and I would get out. And I feel you need to fulfill the player's reasonable expectation of interaction.

On strengths of J.R.R. Tolkien and Joseph Campbell's writing as it relates to role-playing games

The world itself needs to have a deeper, internally consistent backstory, combined with a story on top of that which is both socially and personally relevant. I'm a big believer in both the Tolkien-style of research required to create a compelling virtual world and of things like Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, where you have to put the player in a story that is both relevant to them and socially relevant to modern times to make it both interesting and compelling and realistic for them to participate in. So that's something I work very hard at as well.

On how video game packaging can be used to sell a "reality" as opposed to a "game"

When I first published the Ultima predecessor, Akalabeth, the state of the art packaging of the game industry at the time was a Ziploc bag. So Akalabeth and Ultima 1 were published in Ziploc bags. And I was the first person to say 'look, I'm doing role-playing games; I'm creating virtual worlds. A Ziploc bag with a disc in it is insufficient. I want my game in a box; I want a cloth map that describes the reality of this world; I want trinkets in there that describe it; and I want to make the manual--instead of saying 'please insert disc here and type B when you want to attack'--I want the magic book, for example, to never admit that this is a game; and [instead] should describe this as a reality. And for that reality-crafting, starting from the box, Ultima II was the first game in a box, much less with maps and trinkets. And I think that the devotion to reality-crafting, from the beginning of the box, is also what makes a Lord British Ultimate RPG.

"And I was the first person to say 'look, I'm doing role-playing games; I'm creating virtual worlds. A Ziploc bag with a disc in it is insufficient."

On testing personal ethics in an RPG

In an ultimate RPG, the role you're playing is yourself. I'm trying to tell a story about you. I'm trying to tell a story that tries to test your personal ethics and your personal virtues. And to do that, I need to make sure you're not playing [generic character]--this is you. There will be a fiction and a backstory that describes how you get from Earth into my world. And so it's important to me that you get a chance to involve yourself however you want.

On frustrations with contemporary RPGs

I still love World of Warcraft; I think for a classic MMO, it's still phenomenally good. And what I find interesting about all the 'contenders to the throne' that have come since[…]is that you download this game, boot it up, and the first thing you're faced with is not only to choose a profession--and you're like 'Well, I've never even played the game. You're immediately making me make a permanent choice that I really have no information with which to make.'

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The next thing to do is now you must create your character; so you now you go 'OK, I can change my eyes and my eyebrows and my nose. And I don't know if I'm ever going to get the chance to do this again, and so I better take my time to do it right the first time.' So you spend another 30 minutes to an hour crafting what you look like. And so now you've already invested an hour before you've really played the game at all.

And then they drop you into the game, and universally what you find is you find yourself in a town and as you look around, you see 'Okay, there's the weapons guy…there's the magic shop…there's the armory…oh look there's a guy with an exclamation mark over his head and he's there to give me a quest.' And you go get your quest and guess what? Your quest is to go kill some level-1 monsters that you can see just outside of town waiting there for you. And all these games are the same. And you invest an hour or two up front before you even discover that they're the same. I'm personally very frustrated with the vast majority of these games that force you to invest so much time up front only to discover that it's the same old stuff.

"I'm personally very frustrated with the vast majority of these games that force you to invest so much time up front only to discover that it's the same old stuff."

On World of Warcraft and its emphasis on combat:

I would argue that every player of World of Warcraft is first and foremost a combatant. And secondarily, may have some speciality area of crafting. But if you look at Ultima Online, that was not the case. There were people in Ultima Online who never got involved in combat. There were people who literally had a full-time occupation as blacksmiths and effectively never participated in combat.

On development pressures after selling Origin Systems to Electronic Arts

My least favorite games that I have released are games that I have released just after becoming part of a new, bigger company. My favorite Ultimas are Ultima IV, Ultima VII, and Ultima Online. Ultima VIII was the first game I did after we became a part of Electronic Arts. And Electronic Arts is a very successful company and has a pattern by which they operate; and for them, for their sports games, the greatest tool for success is to make sure they launch that sports game at the beginning of the season of that sport. And that's frankly all that really matters.

And so they constantly evolve their sports engine and make sure that they have a release available at the beginning of each season and then continue to evolve the tools and engine. And for them, that works great. More power to them. And they're producing phenomenal product and…I believe it will continue to be successful. However, that's not what makes Ultima successful. And as soon as we were part of Electronic Arts, the pressure to say 'Look, I don't care what you have to cut out of the game, but you need to make sure you make the Christmas selling season,' because that's much more important than producing the journey of art you wished to produce.

And so, they were more successful than we were, so I towed the company line and we cut things out of Ultima VIII and…we shipped it. Frankly it just wasn't finished, it wasn't complete. And so, doing [Shroud of the Avatar] as more of an independent developer, we'll be able to bring the players what they and we want to make together much more successful.

On dangers of producing games based on metrics alone

I think we've learned the good and bad. And what I mean by that is, I think the great positive lesson of the social media era is things like…really watching player behavior at a much more micro level than we have historically. And that way we can really understand what the player really wants and how to interpret behavior better where you can better provide what the players are interested in. That being said, I think that a lot of companies that are in social media these days take that so far they no longer produce something that is internally coherent because they're only responding to metrics.

And similarly I think the bad part of a lot of social media activities, while they do make plenty of money--and I'm not arguing at the money, because we're in the business of making money so you need to make money--and a lot of the pestering activity and forcing you to spam your friends, is clearly a successful formula. I just find that the default version of that formula is especially important when you're going to non-gamers, people who are generally speaking not willing to pay anything for a game, and so therefore you need to find some way to get value out of those people by forcing them to pester.

And then you get a tiny percentage of your players pay…and are the few 'whales' that kind of cover your costs. But that's not the target for [Shroud of the Avatar]. We're really trying to reach the traditional gamer and the traditional gamer is I think much more interested and willing to say 'Yes of course tens of dollars is fair for me to have ultimately put into this game, so let's just find a fair way to do that and don't become a pain in the ass.'

For more on Richard Garriott's life and travels, check out the video below of the game designer's former Texas home, featured on HGTV's Secret Spaces. Garriott has since put the house--which includes trap doors, a waterslide, wine cellar, and an observatory--up for sale. The home--known as Britannia Manor--is listed for $3.5 million

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