“I’m creating a world which is not incompatible with what has come before…” – An Interview with Richard Garriott

Earlier this week, Richard Garriott graciously took half an hour out of his busy schedule — in the middle of a press tour to promote Shroud of the Avatar, which was announced earlier today, no less — to chat with us about his new game. He answered a number of questions about the game, its development, and what his aims and goals with Shroud of the Avatar are.

And a word of apology: the original interview had been planned as a Skype call, but due to technical issues it had to take place as a phone call instead. We did our level best to record the call, and then tried to clean up the audio as much as possible, but we would like to apologize for any distortion or fuzziness even so. A full transcript is provided below.

Ultima Codex: Okay…so…right, where did we leave off here? I’ve got to pull up my list of questions here.

Richard Garriott: Perfect. Great.

UC: How’s your day been going?

RG: And by the way, I’m really glad we managed to connect today. I appreciate you rolling with the punches from our side as well. So…thanks.

UC: Oh…no problem, no problem. Just glad for the opportunity.

RG: Great!

UC: Well, I sent you the list of questions, so I guess I’ll kind of just work down them. The biggest one of course is, you know, it was November — early November — 2011 when you posted your very lengthy essay on Facebook, where you outlined your three eras of gaming, and of course touted the Ultimate RPG, really, for the first time. So…Shroud of the Avatar: is that this game? Is that the Ultimate RPG?

RG: Yes. Yeah, basically that is the intention. So, the treatise that I published about a year ago was kind of my…post-mortem, you might say, about the…twenty years (or a little more) that I spend developing the Ultima series. And I said “look, here is what I think were the key innovations and advancements that happened regularly through that series, and I think are worthy of continuing forward into a new world. I hadn’t at that point in time started the next game, but I was clearly starting to consider it, and consider what would I do if I started a new game. So Shroud of the Avatar is in fact the new game that I’ve started, kind of as an outgrowth of that initial treatise to say “here’s my foundational principles I’m going to begin building upon.”

UC: Cool! And just so everyone’s clear, then. Because I know you’ve said some stuff on Facebook and Google+ and Twitter, but just so everyone’s clear: this is a standalone PC title, released primarily (if not exclusively) for the PC platform?

RG: Absolutely. In fact, just to give a little more precision to that statement, we’re developing it on the PC for the PC.

That being said, we’re developing it out of the great wonders of the Unity engine — that, by the way, is a phenomenal toolset; I’m extremely pleased so far that we’ve chosen it as the basis of our technology. Unity does a great job of cross-compiling to basically anything else that it will physically fit on. And so…things like the Mac operating system, or a Linux operating system, literally are just a single variable change away and a re-compile. So for other operating systems of a full-scale computer, it would be very easy for us to make those versions also available.

And as a player, I like — personally — to play…a lot of my gaming I now do on tablets, because for me it’s very easy for when I travel, and I travel extensively. And so I’m hopeful the game will shoehorn into a tablet when all is said and done. However, that’s just what I’m hoping to do so I can play it 24 hours versus not having access to it when I’m travelling. But the game itself, the game design and the game’s intention and the game’s audience, is first and foremost…the relevant constituency is the PC gaming audience.

UC: Awesome. I think a lot of people will be happy to hear that. I know social was kind of…I’ve been a real proponent of it to the Ultima fandom, but it obviously isn’t an idea that has necessarily gone over well with everyone.

RG: Yeah, and let me even try to address that too, because a lot of people refer to things…I’ve even, at some points, stated the fact that it would include social elements. But let me first give resolution, and then clarity, to what I mean by that based on what I’ve learned about what it means and what I think the good and bad parts of social are.

What this game is not going to be is a classic Facebook social game, in the sense that it won’t be a free-to-play, microtransaction and pestering game all the way through as most social games are. But when…people have heard me say things like the following: look, for twenty years, we had only solo-player games, and the reach of that audience, the reach of those games was ones of millions of people. Then with MMOs, we reached tens of millions of people, even though the games are more expensive and more complicated. And I think the reason why the market grew in spite of the higher expense and complication is that people like playing with other people. And so it’s nice to be able to play with…somebody else when you want to. And so it grew the total market for games when games went online.

And what’s interesting about social and mobile is that there’s something magical about the ‘friends graph’ that has been uncovered where…if, instead of just playing with strangers wandering down the street, you can actually play with people who you know and who you care about already because they’re your friends, that is a constituency that you care about even more than strangers. And so a lot of social games have often sold into the hundreds…yes, a hundred million players or more. And that’s something to not walk away from lightly.

And so what we’re going to do with Shroud of the Avatar is while it’s primarily a story-based, classic Ultima-style, virtual world, sandbox game, the way we’re going to implement multiplayer is we’re going to try bring people you actually care about — your friends — into the play space with you. And so, if we know who your real friends in the real world are, however you tell us — whether you tell us that in our gaming system, whether you give us access to your email names, whether you give us access to your G+ friends list or Facebook friends list, or LinkedIn list…or none of the above. It’s not necessary to give any of them. But if you let us know who the real world friends are that you do know, we’re not going to encourage you to spam them. What we are going to do is find them and bring them closer to you, so that your multiplayer experience is enhanced by the people you actually care about.

UC: Neat! I look forward to seeing how that actually plays out in real life. Although I’m not sure if…I have a lot of people on my LinkedIn contacts list. I’m not sure who among them I’d really play with. But…anyways, that actually kind of leads in to the question that I shot David [Swofford] a little bit earlier today. So I apologize for this one being a little late in the game; it just occurred to me. You talked about the multiplayer features, and you also talked about the single-player side of the game. And obviously, having been privy to some of the documentation David sent my way, the game will have stuff that you’d kind of more associate with an MMO: player housing, crafting systems, PvP, things like that. But you’ve also talked about the solo play, and I know a lot of die-hard Ultima fans will really want to hear a little bit more about that, and in particular whether offline play will be possible.

RG: Yes. And our current intention is that offline play is not only possible, but common. At least for me too…you know, one of my things where I like to play on tablets? A lot of the time, I’m on an airplane, and so there is no possibility to be online. So I’m heavily motivated to make sure offline is possible. That only reason that might interfere with that, or might be the challenge we’re trying to overcome, is just whether we can fit what you might call the client and what you might call the server all in one box. They’d have to be encapsulated on your machine. But that’s currently the way it’s being architected; there is no client…there is no server somewhere else, in the MMO sense, that the game operates on.

And instead, what we’re going to do is if you imagine you’re largely playing offline or solo player, well…when you are connected online, that’s when all the persistent world changes will update to you. And so who owns what house and what all the decorations look like, and all those things will change. And so if somebody is running a farm or a pub or a blacksmith in some other part of the world, when you’re online his NPC shopkeeper and the way he’s decorated his shop will pop in to your solo player experience. So the persistent world you’re playing in will update to you every time you go online, and be continuously updated if you’re continuously online, if you follow my drift.

UC: Wow.

RG: Because if you remember in Ultima Online, if you’re a blacksmith, it’s actually rare…you’re not online 24 hours a day. And so you needed an NPC seller to be there at your blacksmith anyway, to make your shop earn money for you when you’re not online, which is more often than not. So, using that metaphor, this offline, asynchronous way you interact with each other’s homes and shops…that proof of concept was already done in Ultima Online, if you follow my meaning.

UC: I see. I mean, I kind of get how that would work. That’s cool actually; I look forward to seeing that.

RG: Yeah. The thing the game won’t do is…there’s not a single server that allows 10,000 people to jump in all on the same map at once, so for better or for worse we’re not going to be able to have 10,000 people all dogpile into Lord British’s castle and bring the server to a crawl. The game’s not even going to allow that to be attempted. And that is both a blessing and a curse, because I think it’s kind of fun to go and do that now and again. But by not allowing the game to do that, we save both time and effort in development, and by focusing on, instead, match-making players with people they already know when possible, I think it actually makes for a better play experience. When you interact with real people, it’s people you have some common cause with, rather than just “the masses”.

UC: Yeah, and that way, if someone is griefing you, you can get on his case at the pub afterward, just like “dude, seriously, what was that?”

RG: Well, and also…it’s easier to harp on someone you know. And in fact the way we’re doing PvP is kind of interesting too. Now, again, this is not implemented, so this is our plan for PvP. So, our plans for PvP are…neither of the two extremes that I’m going to describe, and then I’ll discuss the middle ground that we’re taking.

You know, UO was completely open PvP. The great joy was that…it was completely open PvP! You could go attack anybody you wanted. The great tragedy was that…it was completely open PvP, which meant that — generally speaking — people preyed on the newbies, which actually worked against the success of the game in many ways. But, you know, it was lost of fun if you were the guy perpetrating it.

So, in a lot of ways, few people have dared to do that again, and I think with good reason. On the other hand, the way people have tended to get around it is to make PvP fully consensual, or they put it in a…it only happens in certain raid conditions, or only happens on certain maps that you opt into. And the problem with that is, if you try to make it completely opt-in, only a handful of people opt in, and frankly it’s not very much fun to only PvP the people who have also only signed up to PvP. And it also leaves something a little lacking. So neither of those extremes really seem quite right yet.

And so our plan is to create a game where, nominally, you as a potential prey are safe from PvP; you’re not someone anybody can just walk up to and gank. However, there are story segments of the game, times and places in the game where you’ll be encouraged to do activities which will open you to be the target of PvP. And so…imagine, for example…I’ll give a hypothetical scenario. A hypothetical scenario would be that you’re really trying to earn a bunch of money in this game, and one of the ways it will be very profitable to make money in the game is to run a piece of what I would broadly describe as contraband across the country. Well, it might pay really well, but you also are explained to, well in advance, that by the way, this is contraband, and as soon as you pick up the contraband and start running across the world with it, you’ll be flagged as someone who is operating outside the law, is running this contraband, and in fact it will invoke other players — known to you or otherwise — they will be told “by the way, this player’s running contraband from the east coast to the west coast; look out…there’s a bounty if you manage to catch him.” And so now we’ve put you into the ‘fox and rabbit’ scenario, that now feels like fun PvP (I would hope), because you’re engaging in it in the proper spirit, which is that it’s now a ‘cops and robbers’ portion of the game, with real people instead of just NPCs.

UC: And you’re opting in, but you’re also not just cordoning it off.

RG: Right, exactly. And it can happen anywhere on the map. You might see somebody running by like “aaah, I’ve got this…little smoke going behind me,” which means I’m operating outside the law, so…either run away from me because I’m a dangerous thug or come get me because you think you’re tougher.

UC: Fair enough. I just want to loop back quickly. You talked a fair bit about the social…the migration away from social. But the one thing I just wanted to clarify, if you can, is…what exactly prompted that?

RG: Well…so, you mean away?

UC: Yeah. What prompted the…stepping back from Ultimate RPG/Shroud of the Avatar as the pure social game, the…third-era game to, now, a combination single-player/multiplayer?

RG: Well, I think that…what happens is, to me it’s a definitional shift. Because when you use the words…especially ‘social’, not so much ‘mobile’. But if you use the word ‘social’, what most people interpret is what they see as social gaming on Facebook and through Zynga products. And, universally, those game do both things that I think are very good for the players as a rule, but they also do things that are very bad, especially in the eyes of any traditional gamer. So what we’re trying to do is take some of the good thinking and avoid the bad thinking.

What I mean by that is…if you look at a good social game, and I mean good in the sense of successful, not in one you would want to play personally. If you look at a well-crafted social game, the best thing that they do, and I believe are good for all players — and if you enjoyed the game you would probably agree — is that they leverage the ‘friends graph’ well, to the benefit of the player. And what I mean by that is, let’s say, in a farming game: within that farming game, the person whose farms I can also see and go visit are people I know about, versus strangers, and I’m going to be much more interested than if they were strangers’ farms. And so that’s, personally, a good thing, to make it appear that my neighbour’s farm is next door to my farm.

Secondly, they let you connect with those people even when you’re not online at the same time, because people who know each other in the real world are rarely simultaneously online. And so, when I go to my friend’s farm, it’s important for me to either be able to water his plants, or buy his produce, or do things that help him (and vice versa) even if we are not online at the identical time. And I think that’s also a very good thing for all games that has come out of social technology.

The part that is not good for players, but has been good for the companies that made a lot of these games, is how to squeeze money out of ‘free-to-play’. And that’s the part we are avoiding like the plague. It is actually a good monetization strategy to take a ‘free-to-play’ game and fill it with tons of microtransactions, and then tons of ways to leverage you, to try to convince you to either start making microtransactions, or spam all of your friends to hopefully find one of them to make microtransactions. And while that’s proven to be a very successful business model, I don’t think it makes for very good games. And since we’re trying to create a ‘gamer’s game’, we’re going to avoid that monetization strategy.

And so I don’t think…I still hope I’m building a ‘third era’ game; I just think the term ‘social’ is now fraught with so much appropriate negativity that I’m dumping the terminology.

UC: Okay, fair enough. Moving on then…is there any significance to the timing of this announcement?

RG: Not specifically. I would say the reason why we’ve picked this particular timing is that we’ve been working on this prototype for about six months, and we’re now to the point where we think we can demonstrate the product sufficiently well to prove our case that we are making a ‘gamer’s game’, that is hopefully appealing to the core fanbase of my previous works. And therefore, now is the time I believe it’s relevant for us to be able to come out there and ask for people to help participate in the game. If people back our Kickstarter, it will help accelerate the development of this game.

And we really want to get people’s commentary in early, starting now, on subjects like PvP, on subjects like player housing. Because if you remember Ultima Online, if you were there when it shipped, Ultima Online was not only a brave, wonderful new world in many ways, it also had a number of completely catastrophically-constructed systems. And that was largely because we didn’t have player involvement until very late in the development process. And there were lots of features we developed which were so ill-conceived and/or not appropriate for, or not desired by, the player community, that that work was really wasted. We just removed those things we’d spent lots of time and money on from the game entirely.

And other areas of simulation, and some of the activities and professions, were so wildly popular compared to what we anticipated that we had put in something that…really under-served the player base. A good case of that was: fishing became instantly popular in Ultima Online, even though the simulation was…a fifty/fifty chance that you catch a fish was the whole simulation. And so we probably should have dumped virtual ecology and instead put in better fishing. And those are only things you learn by having a connection to the player-base as early as possible.

UC: Cool! You mentioned then, too…we’ve had a…I know the guys from the Wing Commander CIC had a chance to tour the Portalarium offices a while ago, some months ago now. And you mention that timeline, six months or so. Now, I’m assuming that there was work being done on the Ultimate RPG even fairly soon after your initial announcement of the concept. So is this a continuation of that work, or did a lot of that kind of get put to the side, and this is something new that’s being built from the ground up?

RG: No, this has been evolving for…since that treatise went up. With the publication of that treatise about a year ago, that is when, largely — first, literally by myself, and only using the rest of the team as sounding boards — I began to put the design concepts together for this. Then maybe nine months ago, we began to at least circle back on some…what I’ll call prototype technologies, and researched whether…well, what ended up being Unity as our development platform. And then, really, six months ago is when we began to peel off staff from the other projects that we had and assign them specifically as employees of the Ultimate RPG game. And up ’till very recently, even internally, we called it the ‘Ultimate RPG‘; the development folders on our server are called ‘URPG’.

So it is Lord British’s Ultimate RPG, we just now…I don’t know if you know the story of the naming of Tabula Rasa, but Tabula Rasa was a working title that we kept for so long that it became the permanent name of the game.

UC: I seem to recall that, yeah.

RG: And so we began to get worried that if we didn’t come up with a real title soon, Lord British’s Ultimate RPG would be the de facto name of the new game. And as much as I would be perfectly happy with that, we really wanted a name that was more closely tied to the actual story that was happening within the game.

UC: Cool. To that point, then, talking about the story of the game a little bit, is it something that you intend as a…I don’t know if you’re familiar with Piranha Bytes and how they structured Risen, their second major RPG series, as sort of a spiritual sequel to the Gothic RPGs. But what they did is, basically, at the end of Gothic 3 or whatever, you defeat the gods or some such. I can’t recall the exact context, but then in Risen, the backstory is that in ancient times, there was this man who defeated the gods and now in Risen you’re dealing with the consequences of that. Is the Ultimate RPG, is it intended as a direct story sequel to the Ultima series, or is it more in the line of a spiritual successor, maybe along the Gothic/Risen model?

RG: It is a spiritual successor. I mean, the very least of the reasons would be because it has to be. I have to be very careful not to connect too directly to, and become a derivative work of someone else’s…since EA now owns the intellectual property of the original Ultima series. That being said, the reason why I published that URPG treatise is to try to communicate to players that what makes an Ultima an Ultima was not the individual, specific character, the name of an NPC, or the name of the game. What made an Ultima an Ultima was the detailed storycrafting, and the care to create those backstories, and the care to create socially relevant events to you, and to do that psychoanalysis of you during gameplay, et cetera.

And so that’s why, by all means, I’m creating a world which is not incompatible with what has come before, but is also not derivative of what has come before.

UC: Awesome! That’s good, and it’s good to hear that…is Lord British going to be in the game?

RG: Absolutely! Absolutely. And in fact, it’s interesting you should ask that question, because I actually think in my little “What is a Lord British RPG?”, I even stated that little treatise, I actually think that’s an important part of what made Ultimas special, is that not only was the player…not only is Lord British an active participant in the game, but so are other members of the team, so that everybody knows that we’re on this adventure together. We need the player to be a part of this, part of our crowdfunding, to not only help us accelerate the development of this game, but also…we’re going to build this world together, and we’re going to live in this world together.

UC: Nice. And of course, the obligatory question, then, following on from Lord British’s presence in the game is: is there going to be some super-secret way that he can be dispatched during gameplay?

RG: Heh…yeah, that was hilarious. I saw that you sent that one in. And I have to say that my first intention would be to make Lord British immortal. And based on my confidence level that we’ve accomplished that goal, which…as you know in Ultima history, I think the only Ultima where Lord British, we actually managed to make him immortal but then purposely put in a back door way to kill him for fun, was Ultima 9.

UC: Yeah, you had to bake the poisoned bread.

RG: And I think that as a general rule, we failed at protecting Lord British. You know the famous scene in Ultima Online where I got myself killed. And so we will try to make him immortal. And if I feel confident in our ability to actually succeed at making myself immortal, then I will entertain suggestions from the team as to a super-secret way to kill me. I’ll first want to make sure we have the ability to protect me in general in the first place.

UC: Yeah…awesome. I think Ultima 7 had a deliberate easter egg too, because

RG: Ah, you’re right.

UC: …the sign could drop on your head.

RG: The sign, the brass plaque.

UC: Yes, and evidence of…anyways. So let’s talk…just coming toward the end of the questions I put together for this. Shroud of the Avatar, and it’s got the subtitle Forsaken Virtues. Is that a not-so-subtle hint that you intend this to be the start of a new series?

RG: Absolutely. And in fact, the way we’re releasing Shroud of the Avatar is…well, Forsaken Virtues, in particular, is the first episode of five episodes that are currently intended for Shroud of the Avatar.

UC: Wow!

RG: And we actually have the outline of all five episodes. We understand what story will be unfolding in each of these five episodes. We’re hoping to release each episode about once per year, and they’ll all be expansions of the actions of this game world. In fact, the map that I think you now have a copy of, is the center tile, you might say, of a 3×3 Tic Tac Toe grid, and that world will expand for you.

And so yes, Forsaken Virtues is episode one, and two, three, four and five will come.

UC: Awesome. The map reminds me strongly of Ultima 3, actually. Now, the last question that I put in the email, and this is just something that I’d resolved to ask you if I ever actually had the chance. You mentioned Ultima 9 earlier, and this has been, of course, one of the great controversies surrounding Ultima 9 and its plot in particular, was the idea of the Avatar and the Guardian being two sides of the same being. Was that always the design? Was that always the goal?

RG: From 7, 8, and 9, yes. What’s interesting about 7, 8, and 9 is…if you look at the ‘trilogy of trilogies’ of Ultima, Ultima 1, 2, and 3 weren’t related to each other at all. Ultima 1 was barely a game, honestly, it was my first real attempt at making a game for publication. Ultima 2 was really Time Bandits plus Star Wars in its conception. Ultima 3 became somewhat loosely based on some of my D&D worlds.

But it really wasn’t until Ultima 4 that I really began to create a new world, on purpose, in earnest. And so Ultima 4 and 5 and 6 are related to each other only in that…when I started Ultima 5 I went “okay, what did I do in Ultima 4? Let’s start there and keep building.” And so there was no forward thought at all from 4 that expected there to be a 5 or a 6.

And it was only after Ultima 6 that I finally said “you know what? I have to start planning a little more ahead rather than only looking backwards.” And so when we invented the Guardian for Ultima 7, I already knew a couple key points. One was the relationship between the Guardian and the Avatar, one was that I was going to leave Britannia for Ultima 8, and go to the dark side and Pagan for Ultima 8. And then I knew, fundamentally, in Ultima 9 that I was going to have to find both the unification and departure of the Avatar, as well as the Guardian.

UC: Awesome. Well, I think I’m about bingo for time, to use an Air Force term, so…thank you so much for taking the opportunity to answer some questions.

RG: My pleasure! And thank you very much for having the interest and for sending me those…you had some unique and fun questions, from my perspective, so thanks.

UC: Well, thank you again, and I look forward to Friday.

RG: Great.

UC: All the best, safe travels,

RG: Thank you. Appreciate it.

UC: Take care, Richard.

RG: Bye.