Beneath the Shroud: Richard Garriott

After re-entering earth's orbit, the space entrepreneur/game creator best known by his Ultima alter ego, Lord British, resurfaces with a new MMO and advice for new developers to boldly go where no man has digitally gone before.


The workspace of the Austin, Texas-based game development company, Portalarium, looks virtually indistinguishable from every other downtown office except for one not-so-minor difference—a four-foot mustachioed robot patrols the halls. Guided by Portalarium co-founder Richard Garriott’s laptop, the freewheeling automaton is how Garriott sees, hears, and speaks to employees in the Lone Star state while living in New York City. It’s a bit creepy, at least at first, but what’s even more disarming than a conversation with a telebot who sometimes has problems gauging when it’s invading the listener’s personal space, is how quickly you grow accustomed to it cruising through the halls, cracking jokes, and ducking into meetings like any other non-mechanized employee. 

Given Garriott’s pension for creating a life that’s as close to an action-adventure game as possible, a robot avatar that does his bidding only makes sense. Garriott established a foothold in gaming in the early ‘80s when he created the Ultima series, the success of which prompted Electronic Arts to buy his first company, Origin Systems, in the early ‘90s. Ultima and its nine sequels led to Ultima Online, a 1997 game that spawned the term “massively multiplayer online role-playing game” or MMORPG. Garriott remained in MMORPG development until the launch of Tabula Rasa in 2007 through the South Korean development company, NCsoft.  

After a bitter break with NCsoft and a subsequent legal battle over his departure, Garriott turned to his other passion—adventure. Following in the footsteps of his father – astronaut Owen Garriott who flew two missions with NASA in 1973 and 1983 – Garriott trained for a year in Russia and paid $30 million in 2008 for a trip to the International Space Station, becoming one of the world’s first space tourists in the process. 

And now he’s back. Founding Portalarium in 2009, Garriott came back on the mainstream radar earlier this year when his company raised nearly $2 million through Kickstarter to fund his newest MMO,  Shroud of the Avatar.

Get In Media: Why re-enter the gaming market now?

Richard Garriott: Well I never really left the gaming market, at least not in my mind. I took a little hiatus to go off-planet for a while, but as a creator, I’m still as passionate about games as I ever was. I really think that the market has evolved in so many ways. There are so many improvements that have been made, but yet there are so many giant gaps or rat holes that we seem to be stuck in as far as gameplay is concerned that I thought it was the perfect time for me to come back and sort of reintroduce the strategic development methodologies that really made me so successful in the past.

GIM: When you say “rat holes,” what specifically do you mean?

RG: Here’s a great case study: I helped introduce the entire category of massively multi-player games, but almost every game that has come out since my game is in the model of either EverQuest or World of Warcraft. While World of Warcraft is a great game and I myself enjoy playing it immensely, everyone else is sort of making a cookie cutter of the same game. They do things like when you’re dropped into the world, you see an exclamation point over every person that is relevant to talk to, you click on that person, you get a menu of options of things to say, but all you really need to do is click on all the ones that obviously wouldn’t piss off that player or that character. You really didn’t need to read any of it, it’s just click-click-click you’re done, then whatever is relevant is copied into your quest log. You then open up your quest log, click on the first quest, and an arrow shows up on the ground that you then follow across the terrain. Go kill the level one monsters, then you repeat this for level two and then level three, etc. It is exactly the same behavior. It requires no thought, no strategy. There’s no real sense of exploration or discovery.

To make it “easier to play,” what they’ve also done at the same time is, in a sense, destroyed a lot of what made role-playing games great in the previous era. I think because there are these rat holes that have been chased so thoroughly, there’s a great opportunity to come in and innovate within that space again. 

GIM: Tell me about Shroud of the Avatar.

RG: Shroud of the Avatar is a story-driven game very much like my solo-player Ultimas where the player will be guided and shepherded through a story where their behavior, their moral code of conduct so to speak, will be judged and they’ll be given feedback on their behavior. They’ll be given massively multi-player or large-scale multiplayer for people that live and work within this new virtual world, but some of the new technology we’re bringing to bear will allow this game to be played both online and offline, both highly multiplayer as well as largely solo-player in a very smoothly integrated fashion to where people can really kind of tune the game as they see fit.

GIM: You’ve stated that your goal with upcoming games is to create games where the player’s personality is analyzed. How does this game do that?

RG: I try to provide a variety of situations that have choices of right and wrong. I’ll give you an exact example in the new game: A woman is being attacked by wolves and if you rescue her from wolves she says, “Thank you so much for saving my life. I have nothing to give you of value except my wedding ring, which I’m so thankful for the saving of my life, I’d be happy to give this to you.” You can choose to accept or you can choose to accept no payment for the service you provided. The game at that moment makes no judgment or allusion as to what we think may be the right thing to do, but that answer will be recorded and build an ongoing reputation for you as a player as to how you react and how much you are willing to be compensated beyond what might be a fair measure. Later that will be reflected to you in how other people in the game respond to you or expect you to interact with them.

GIM: Is having that level of personalization a necessary component for making a game that’s competitive on the market now?

RG: No, by no means. The kind of work that I do is what motivates me and I think motivates the players of my games, but the technological advance of gaming is so speedy and constant that a simple game of run around and shoot things and collect power ups is more often than not all that is required to be the most rewarded by market success. That being said, every time there’s reasonable stability in the platform upon which games are played, games tend to get deeper and deeper and closer to what I’m describing. But every time there’s another huge technological advancement, going to the 3-D hardware for example or the introduction of the Internet as another example, games reset back to that very simplistic form of play. Having developed games for 35 years, I’m really just frankly not interested in playing or creating games that are as simple as run around and shoot things. 

The deeper, more literary quality of games, I would not say, is demanded for market success. I, however, do believe that it makes for a higher quality game. It makes a game that stands the test of time. It makes a series of releases that are remembered for their contributions and quality much more than the product of the day, which has the latest bells and whistles that are required to blow something up in an even bigger way. 

GIM: Is that a reason that you hired [best-selling fantasy novelist] Tracy Hickman to do Shroud’s storyline?

RG: Tracy has been a friend and business partner of mine for many years. Even in the earlier games that I did, if I reflect on the games that I believe were the best, it was when I had a skilled writing partner working with me on the storyline. On what are called the actual prose itself and some aspects of story structure, having a very strong writer, a linear prose writer, can really take the quality up to another level. Tracy and I have talked for many years about wanting to collaborate together in the digital world, but until I finished this fifteen-year break, there really hadn’t been a good chance for us to sit down and do that. We’re both very excited to finally fulfill something we’ve talked about for literally decades.

GIM: Across your career, what is the biggest lesson you’ve learned the hard way?

RG: The biggest hard-way lesson came during the switchover from the Apple II personal computer to the generic PC on MS DOS or even the Microsoft operating system. The reason why I describe that as learning the lesson the hard way is that when the IBM PC first came out, as a person who is creatively involved in creating products for both these platforms, it seemed obvious to me that the Apple platform was far superior to the PC platform. I therefore just had simple faith that the users out there would come to same conclusion, so I continued to have our company make bets where we would develop products based on the presumptive future that Apple would remain the dominant PC platform. 

Of course I was extraordinarily wrong and so it nearly put my company out of business; that simple statement of assuming that people would come to the same conclusions I would. One of my latest opinions is that I think the console market, the hardware for consoles, those days are numbered. I personally look at consoles and I go, “Why in the world do you fundamentally need one? If your television is on the internet and you’ve got cloud computing with an enormous amount of computational power behind it and all you really need is a controller, and by the way your phone is a mighty fine good touch sensitive, motion-sensing, camera-wielding device so it makes a pretty darn good controller, so why do you fundamentally need a console that you have to rewire into your computer every couple of years when the new one comes out?” I just don’t know. I have an opinion that the console market might have one more cycle in it, but I think it’ll ultimately just go away. Would I make money bets based on that? No. If the players are still going to the consoles, would I make sure that my games are available to them on that platform? Absolutely. But that is my personal opinion.

GIM: What entrepreneurship advice do you have for someone who wants to run his or her own game company?

RG: I think there are tons of people who try to make games and very few who even try to make particularly good games. Most people who get into the games industry, get into the games industry because they like to play games and they’re going, “I’ve learned how to program. I’ve learned how to do a little bit of this work. I’m just going to go make my own,” but what they try to make is a game like they liked playing, plus a few fixes or enhancements to the last game they’ve played that they’ve found some deficiencies in. The problem with that plan is the people who made that game originally that you liked already probably have the exact same ideas about where its deficiencies were and where the ways to expand it were, so they’re going to beat you to the punch. They’re going to come out with an improved one long before you can organize a team much less try to beat them at their own game. 

The thing that I think very few people ever do well is really sit down and try to envision some new way of interacting, some new style or way to present things, and really try to step up and do something bold. While on the one had, boldness clearly has risk, doing a “me too” game, I think, is higher risk. In fact, it’s pretty much a guarantee of lack of success. By at least doing a lot of research, doing a lot of planning and then trying to build something that is truly new and unique, I think it has a better chance of getting funded and I definitely think it has a better chance of being a top seller and kind of changing the path of gaming going forward. Being devoted to doing things of only the top-most quality and that have really fundamentally unique aspects, in my mind, you can only reach both of those goals with tons of research. The mantra I always tell students is research, research, research. Don’t just do the first idea that pops in your mind. You need to really vet things to make sure that they’re really worth doing before you bother spending time and money on them.

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