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Q&A: Tabula Rasa's Richard Garriott

Lord British, the creator of the Ultima series, discusses the real reason he decided to make his new title a sci-fi, Tabula Rasa's new combat system, and NCsoft's recent deal with Sony.


Richard Garriott has been developing games for longer than almost everyone else on the scene at the moment. Born in Cambridge in the UK, his family moved to the US when he was a young boy. He was nicknamed Lord British (and is sometimes also called General British) by classmates because of his pronounced British accent. Although he no longer speaks with a British accent, the nickname has stuck with him through the years.

Garriott is probably best known for his work on the Ultima role-playing game series, which he first sold by making copies of the games himself, putting them in Ziploc bags, and distributing them to stores.

He is currently working on a sci-fi-themed massively multiplayer online role-playing game called Tabula Rasa, which he claims will put right many of the mistakes that most contemporary RPGs are making--focusing on level grind, respawning, and a static game world, for example. Garriott claimed last week at the Develop conference that most RPGs available today are simply Ultima Online or EverQuest with better graphics.

GameSpot got a chance to talk to Richard Garriott during the Develop conference in Brighton.

GameSpot UK: You say you've revolutionised the combat system. But don't you think that maybe some people actually like the usual gameplay mechanics, that whole turn-based and respawning method just the way it is right now?

Richard Garriott: The word turn-based has a variety of interpretations. So for example, there are truly turn-based games, like Pokémon, where when it's your turn to make a move, the game will literally be on hold until you make your decision. And that is a truly thinking game where you are strategically thinking very specifically about considering two moves, or thinking about the fine probabilities associated with one result or another, and then I can invoke it, and the enemy will respond, and then I can sit and wait before my next decision.

MMOs don't do that; what they do is they have a server click, where there is a timer click, then there is another timer click, the combat will invoke every second or whatever the timer might be. The way they usually operate is that you highlight an opponent, who is now your enemy, you now stand toe to toe, and on the timer they will swing their sword at each other. And if you want you can change it from a sword swing to a fireball, or to a healing potion, but otherwise, you're going to stand there until someone does the most damage over time and the other dies. The whole fact that people talk, instead of about, "Oh wow, I did this really awesome thing"--they talk about damage over time. And they talk about the precise percentage of critical-hit chances that they have with each of their equipment items. And they worry about what I consider inventory management and statistics, far and above their own immersion into the reality of the gamespace.

I would much rather have people talking about, "Wow, I tried to go to the Foxtrot outpost, but every time I go over there, the Bane sweep up from the north, and once every few hours they seem to have an invasion force that comes up, and that's not enough time for me to be able to deploy the activity that I need to do. So, can anybody give me advice on how to manage this story issue, this event that's taking place in the game?" And I think that's a much more interesting conversation for players to be having about their play experiences than levels, grinding, and damage over time.

GSUK: Are you worried that some role-playing fans will see this as too much like a first-person shooter?

RG: We've given that a lot of thought. I think the worry is reasonable but I don't think that will occur. I don't play first-person shooters very much. I admire them to watch, but I can't be a player of them because my personal dexterity is frankly not good enough. The people whose motor skills are finer than mine constantly ruin me, so to speak.

Also, I think that when you create a skill game, like a shooter, there's not really room for advancement. The advancement is less important than personal skill. This is not the route that we wanted to go down. So Tabula Rasa is absolutely a role-playing game, it is absolutely a mathematics-based game of "my character and their attributes," and the environment--which is the new piece--game. And environment is the part which most other MMOs totally don't consider. And that's the one place that I think we really shine; taking the environmental conditions into account. But I don't think it forces you to play any more of an arcade game than other MMOs, it's just that in other MMOs you generally stare down at your shortcut bar, and in Tabula Rasa you stare at the 3D environment around you. And I think staring at the environment is more interesting than staring at your shortcut bar and watching your reset timers cool down.

GSUK: So you deliberately kept the screen as empty as possible so that the focus is on the actual virtual environment?

RG: That's right. We want you to pay attention to what's happening here [gestures to gameworld] because--for example--a lot of the enemies that you face, as long as you stay away from them, you can probably do quite well, at least for the simple, little opponents. Every creature has a tactic so to speak, and since these guys I'm playing have no long-range tactics, if I keep backing up, I can do fine, but if they manage to catch up to me, they can with their tusks knock me to the ground, and they can get the advantage on me that way. And so, tactically, I want to stay away from them, even if I'm fighting them.

Whereas the Shield Drones, you need to get inside that shield, otherwise you do no damage to it.

GSUK: Why did you choose a sci-fi theme?

RG: The honest primary reason is because we've done medieval fantasy for 25 years, and the one thing I didn't want to do was medieval fantasy!

That's not to say that I won't do it again in the future, it was just time for something else.

I'm also a big believer that great gameplay creates the perception of a popular genre. Whereas right now, people on the MMO think that medieval fantasy is so cool, and nothing else seems to work, I think that's only because a handful of really good games have all been medieval fantasies. I don't think it has anything to do with the fictional setting.

GSUK: So if Tabula Rasa is a big success, do you think there'll suddenly be a ton of sci-fi MMOs?

RG: Yes, and I can tell you how that has happened in the past. It's really funny that if you look at the Ultima series, there are eras of the Ultima series where people were saying that it was cool that we were doing medieval, but there were also eras where you know, Command and Conquer and those type of games had shipped, more kind of contemporary military, and other than Ultima, there weren't very many popular fantasy role-playing games or medieval games. So I actually had my marketing people coming to me and saying "Richard, why on earth are you making fantasy games? No one wants to run around dressed like men in tights. You need to be doing Die Hard or some contemporary setting, not this silly fantasy stuff."

But now, of course, we're on the other side of that coin, where everyone's going "Ooh Lord of the Rings is popular, everyone's into fantasy," and it really is because there are some good movies and some good games that have come out that happen to be fantasy and so people will perceive those genres as hot. But I don't think it's really that the genre is hot, I think there have just been good products that have come out in those genres.

GSUK: So you often find yourself bucking the trend?

RG: It's not that I'm purposely bucking the trend, it's that I'm just doing whatever I feel like, as I don't think it's relevant to success. I don't think genre is an impediment to success. The success is purely determined on creating a great game.

GSUK: How will you be addressing the issues of gold farming and cheating in Tabula Rasa?

RG: It's a pretty complicated issue, so I'm sure that we will make some mistakes in that vein. But as a company we learn more about cheating each cycle we do and so we're better prepared over time. But especially with how we do ownership and character advancement, it's hard to describe the fundamental systems we have that prevent cheating, and gold farming of course we will also try to resist it.

GSUK: Tell us more about the deal NCsoft made with Sony and the reasons for doing so?

RG: When you think about console gameplay, it's important to note that there are real differences in the placement of a console in the home, and therefore in my mind the optimal gameplay for those platforms. A PC tends to be a machine that you sit close to, under a desk, the monitor fairly close to your face, usually there's a high-bandwith input device like a keyboard, and an accurate input pointing device like a mouse, whereas with a console you're generally on the couch, you're using a television that's further away, your controller is usually much simpler...So the kinds of gameplay that those two will tend to favour will clearly be different.

That being said, I think online gameplay is a benefit to entertainment, period. There's no question in my mind that online games will become very popular both on PCs and on consoles. The question is, "How will you tune those gameplay experiences to what will be appropriate for the physical console environment as well as the kind of entertainment people are interested in based on the biases that people bring with those physical limitations?"

That's one of the things I think NCsoft and Sony are excited about. There have been technical hurdles in the past associated with the fact that you needed a hard drive and the Internet. But now the latest generation of consoles can physically do online games, but then the next problem was as a business structure, how do you put it together, because it's also very complicated in that, as an online game maker, we need to reach into that hardware very deeply, modify the hard drive very regularly, have a direct relationship with the customer; you know, constant open communication to really understand their gameplay experience.

Of course all are also very scary to console makers, who are honestly and reasonably worried about the damage that might be done to the console by giving full access to that hard drive, or by changing the customer experience, which normally has been completely under their control...If they now have people changing the user interface or the customer's experience away from the rest of their product line, that's a big deal to them.

So, this deal is not a small statement about our confidence in working together [with Sony] to be able to solve those problems together.

GSUK: What business model will you be using for Tabula Rasa?

RG: Retail plus subscription.

GSUK: Will there be a place for user-generated content in Tabula Rasa?

RG: I am both an enthusiast for user-created content, and a sceptic for the contemporary moulds of user-created content. Back when I was playing Dungeons and Dragons in the early days, the game masters were very good interactive storytellers. But as Dungeons and Dragons became popular, you ran out of good storytellers and instead you ended up with a bunch of people who debated numbers and advantages and statistics in a way that was no longer role-playing in my mind, it had now become a numbers game. And the same thing will happen with user-generated content. There are very few users who actually make very good content. And a lot of games that have had very open-ended user content I think have become giant fields of boring junk.

The only time that that will change is when there's an economic reward to the players for making good, quality content. So I imagine going to see a play in an online game, but the play's going to cost you a real dollar that's going to be paid to the real actors, so therefore if you're going to pay a real dollar, you're going to want to read a review of that play to make sure it's worth your real dollar. And so then people will avoid the bad plays and go to good plays, and everybody will be happy. So, to sum up, I think that user-created content is a very important part of the future; it has not been facilitated in even close to the right way in any of the contemporary round of products. And even in Tabula Rasa, user-generated content is not really a part of the game to the depth that I believe it should be.

GSUK: Thanks for your time.

Tabula Rasa will be released on October 5 on the PC. For more information on the game, check out GameSpot's hands-on preview.

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