Q&A: An audience with Lord British

GameSpot asks Richard Garriott about his induction into the AIAS Hall of Fame, his proudest moments, and whether his biggest contributions are behind him.

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GameSpot: So, what did you think when your name came up as the next Hall of Famer?

Richard Garriott: Well, of course, I was incredibly honored, and also quite surprised, considering it hadn't really crossed my mind. Fortunately, I think being one of the "old fogies" of the computer games industry has proven to have its value when things like this are concerned. In this case, I feel like I was very much at the right age at the right time.

If you look at my earliest works that were done in basic on an Apple II, they were not particularly sophisticated programs. They were just pretty much the only ones available for their day. So, I got to get a little bit of a head start on most of my more modern contemporaries.

GS: Do you think being in the game industry on the ground floor contributed to your being called out?

RG: Yeah, there's no question. I have an advantage being "early in," so to speak. There's no question that, from a very young age, I was devoted to figuring out everything there was to know about the internals of this new technology that had arrived on my desktop. Much more than anyone else I knew. Even though there were no others before me, at least not many, to follow or learn from, there were plenty in what I'll call my generation who did get that same opportunity. But the tenacity with which I kind of dug into it and peeked and poked around at every single memory address within the machine was a fairly unique activity. I mean that literally. I knew effectively every byte of code within that machine and what every memory address did.

Back in those days, I was working alone and the graphics were simple enough that I could develop my own graphics. The sound effects were simple enough I could develop all my own sound, and so I really did do work on all aspects of game development, which again has been an advantage for me now throughout the rest of my career in that a youngster who joins the business nowadays has very little hope of becoming a master in multiple fields because the machines are so complex now. And I find that has remained an advantage to me down through the years. I have developed art. I have developed sound. I have written the scripts and the text. I have built the maps. I've written all the code, and this has allowed me to really juggle the parts and pieces of game design and game development with a deeper level of understanding that a lot of my younger contemporaries have a much more difficult time doing these days.

GS: Of your achievements to date, which are you the most proud of?

RG: Hmm. I have three games that I'm really the most proud of. They're Ultima IV, Ultima VII, and Ultima Online. I think what you'll see--especially in the first two examples-- that I'm most proud of, is trying to imbue in the computer games not just game mechanics, but also a sense of literary storytelling. To try to create settings and characters and reasons to be there and things to do while you're there that go beyond "fight the next monster, collect the next level of treasure, cash it in and then level up.

GS: Does any one of those projects stand out above the others?

RG: Iif I had to pick one, I'd pick Ultima IV as kind of the turning point for me. Previous to Ultima IV, my games were, in my mind, the same in many ways as my competitors' games.

If you look at most games, especially fantasy role-playing games, the storylines, even through to this day, remain largely the same. You're the great hero. And you know that because you're told so in the introduction. Your goal--that you're also told about in the instructions--is to kill the evil bad guy. And then you begin to play the game where the evil bad guy generally does nothing through the whole game except wait for you to come into his castle and kill him.

What the players generally do in these games is they actually pillage and plunder and do whatever they can, cheat in whatever way that they can, not necessarily very heroically, in order to become as powerful as they need to be to go kill a bad guy who hasn't really done anything through your time in the game.

And after I told that story three times, I said, "OK now, enough is enough." This is not very interesting as a creator, and I'm kind of treading on the same ground repeatedly. I began to notice how players weren't living the heroic life. I really felt that the game would be more interesting and more relevant if I could figure out a way to imbue these games with a deeper content. And that's what started me off on the path of Ultima IV.

Ultima VII represented the pinnacle of virtual world simulation where I really felt I had done the best job of interactive storytelling and of world detailing to create a play space and a play environment and reasons to be there. I felt that was the most masterfully executed of the Ultima series, so to speak. From a refinement standpoint, though Ultima IV was for me kind of a watershed, it was still quite simplistic in its structure as a game.

And then, of course, moving forward to Ultima Online, there had been multiplayer games since the beginning of computers, but they were all very simplistic. Ultima Online was really the first kind of big bet into the online games arena. And it was a bet that myself and Starr Long both felt strongly would work. No one within Origin or Electronic Arts really had faith that this would work, and it literally took us years to get approval to even build a prototype to prove that we could make a game like this and that it would be popular.

GS: So how was it that you found out that you were going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame?

RG: I got a call from [AIAS executive director Joseph Olin], who just said, "Hey, I'd like to talk with you for a minute." And he's the one that let me know first. Then he had apparently already called my brother Robert to discuss with him about his interest or willingness to be the presenter, which I think is also great, just because my brother has been my business partner through the vast majority of my career and deserves a great deal of credit for my success. I would not have survived, and these products would not have survived, without him. So I think it's nice that they have also talked with him about being part of that day.

GS: Who else in the game development field do you see joining you in the Hall in coming years?

RG: Wow! That's a tough question. I'd have to give that more thought than just an off-the-cuff answer, I'm afraid. There was a magazine that asked me to put together my top 100 games here recently, and so I've already done a sort of the most notables. But individual people… What's interesting about the era I grew up through--I started when the games were done by one person. And so that one person's name was directly associated with the product, and you could directly, easily tell what that one person's contribution was.

But as we run out of old-timers like me who have long histories to observe, we'll get into some of the younger group who have been developing a modest 10 or 15 years versus 25. In the last half of the existence of this games business, it's been more and more difficult to tell who to ascribe the praise to within development teams because companies have kind of gone away from promoting the people. And so that will be an interesting problem. But I couldn't actually say [who is next].

GS: Looking at the previous inductees to the Hall of Fame, pretty much all of them are still very active. At the same time, though, the Hall of Fame induction in most fields is kind of a career retrospective. I'm wondering if you worry or concern yourself at all that maybe your largest impact upon the industry has already been made.

RG: That thought has at least crossed my mind, and, interestingly, I don't think so. And the reason why I don't think so is because Ultima Online wasn't that long ago. You could have made that argument previous to Ultima Online.

I substantially believe that Tabula Rasa, the game I'm working on right now, is a dramatic departure from all other [massively multiplayer games] that have come before and will revitalize this segment again.

If you look at all online games up until the most recent big ones like World of Warcraft, they are fundamentally in the same model as Ultima Online and EverQuest were in the earliest days. It's just that World of Warcraft is really nicely done. The user interface is expertly crafted, and the visuals are expertly crafted, but the model of its structure is not unusual even after seven years of development since Ultima Online.

I personally find that kind of disappointing and am a bit dumbfounded that people have strayed from that first model so little. Tabula Rasa does not feel at all like one of these current online games. My criticism of all online games to date is that they are all very slow. They're all a level grind. They all reward extraordinary devotion to the game and not much else. And so, even though the segment is still growing at about 100 percent per year, and has since the day Ultima Online launched, I still think that they have only touched on the smallest beginning of a threshold of where it can [exist] as an art form. I hope to prove that with the release of Tabula Rasa.

GS: Thank you very much.

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