One Book, Three Richard Garriott Stories

David L. Craddock recently released a new book: Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution. Three different gaming press outlets have excerpted stories about Richard Garriott from the book…some of which we’ve heard before, and at least one of which (the most amusing, by far) we haven’t (that I’m aware).

First up, US Gamer has an article entitled How Richard Garriott Got Players to Start Thinking About the Choices They Make in Ultima IV, which excerpts the book directly:

Switching off the monitor, Richard Garriott rolled up his sleeves and dug into the mounds of unopened letters on his desk. “What was interesting about Ultima III being our first product was that when people had something to say about the game, good or bad, they could write in to Origin at our home address, and we began to get fan mail. And hate mail. Both.”

Tearing open envelopes and poring over the good, bad, and ugly of fan feedback was a new experience for him. Garriott had written his previous games in a vacuum, handing in code to publishers and waiting for royalty checks to roll in. Receiving letters, postcards, and packages from fans directly was exciting. To his amusement, he picked out a pattern existent in nearly every missive. “When anybody writes to you about your game, it’s usually one paragraph of ‘Hey, I really liked your game, really enjoyed it… but…’ And then the rest of the letter, which could be anywhere from one paragraph to ten pages, is their personal diatribe of what was wrong in the game and what they would do to fix it.”

Looking past fans’ tendency to play armchair general, Garriott took many responses to heart. Every so often, religious zealots would write sternly worded letters complaining about the winged, horned demon that adorned the front of Ultima III’s box, which they believed provoked the youth of America to run around killing goats and tendering bloody sacrifices to Satan. Garriott might have found the claims ridiculous and easy to dismiss if not for the methods that an alarmingly large percentage of his players seemed to employ. In painstaking detail, these players explained that when the going got tough, they got nefarious. When they needed gold, they admitted it was easier to bribe or steal than earn money killing monsters and looting crypts. To his horror, many players copped to killing off vendors so they could loot their shops with impunity.

We all know how that epiphany played out, the ultimate result of it being Ultima 4 and its strong focus on moral decision-making.

Polygon chose a different excerpt, this one looking at How Richard Garriott got started in games:

Two months later, Garriott set foot in Clear Creek High School as a sophomore and got some good news. The school had a single teletype. A summer spent programming and roleplaying filled him with renewed purpose. Readily copping to an average academic career, Garriott survived more than thrived in most classes, pulling in Bs and Cs. Science fairs were an exception. Beginning in kindergarten and continuing through graduation, he showed up to competitions with projects that dazzled judges. As he grew older, he went on to compete in district, regional, state, and international fairs, making even bigger splashes.

Entering Clear Creek’s administration office, Garriott made a request and cited his proven ability to self-govern projects as incentive for them to agree.” When I got back to Houston, I told the faculty, ‘I want to continue working on this machine. There is no curriculum [for computer programming]. What I would like is your permission to, instead of taking a foreign language, please consider BASIC my foreign language.'”

The faculty gave him its blessing. Over his junior and senior years, Garriott and a few other students with permission to tailor their curriculum to their strengths embarked on self-guided journeys. At last, Garriott had found the perfect outlet for his interests in fantasy adventures and computers. “That was the moment where teaching myself about computers switched from a fascination with the machine itself to specifically trying to implement games on computers. Just before that, my sister-in-law had given me a copy of The Lord of the Rings to read. I was playing Dungeons & Dragons. I was beginning to master this unusual teletype, which was the same I used during the summer at OU. So off I went to start making games.”

But I think the best story that any gaming press outlet has gleaned from the book has to be this one, which Gamasutra chose to focus on. Because it would seem to be the case that, when disputes over game production arose at Origin Systems between Richard and Robert Garriott, the boys would…call their parents to help resolve it:

Garriott recalls trying to design a final dungeon filled with both moral and mortal challenges for players to overcome, including one room in which the player is attacked by a group of monsters disguised as human children. When a member of the QA team who didn’t know about the disguises threatened to resign, Garriot’s brother (and Origin cofounder) Robert pushed him to cut the sequence from the game.

“I was stunned,” Garriot recalls. “I said, ‘I have no idea what this guy’s talking about.’ Robert said, ‘I don’t know, either, but whatever it is, we need to find it and get it out of the game. Whatever is creating this feeling, we’d better get out of the game.”

This is something a lot of devs today can probably empathize with — the concern that players won’t interpret your work as you intend, the push and pull of different opinions on the team. What’s less common, perhaps, is Garriott’s description of how serious disputes were settled at a family establishment like Origin.

“Usually, when arguments broke out, my dad would agree with my brother and my mom would agree with me,” Garriott said, explaining that Robert had ultimately called their parents to help settle the question of whether the room full of fake murderous children should stay.

“That’s usually how things went down: we invoked parental involvement, but nothing got settled because they were split. This was the only time in company history where my mother sided with my brother.”

Too funny.

At any rate, it would appear that Craddock has done a lot of homework — and spent no small amount of time getting out and talking with people at length — in pulling together Break Out. It might just be one to pick up!