Interview with Richard Garriott, Executive Producer, NCSoft Austin

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by Kyle Ackerman

Richard Garriott is a pioneer in the computer gaming industry, and creator of the Ultima series, a dynasty of games which has sold millions of copies over more than twenty years. The Ultima series began with Akalabeth and Ultima I, and has continued through Ultima IX and Ultima Online, which revolutionized multiplayer online gaming. Garriott is also the alter-ego of the legendary Lord British, ruler of Britannia, a kingdom located in the world of the Ultima games.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Richard Garriott at the D.I.C.E. summit (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) in Las Vegas on March 1st, a conference at which computer gaming professionals discussed their approach to creating games and pushing the boundaries of interactive entertainment. We discussed Mr. Garriott's beginnings, the evolution of the Ultima series; the concept of virtue; and its impact on villainy in online worlds. Richard "Lord British" Garriott talked about his alter-ego, his role in the game Lineage, and Lineage's expansion into North America. Finally, he revealed a bit about his life outside of gaming and his love for real-life adventure and exploration.

Ultima has been one of the longest running series in computer games. Can you talk about how you got started programming?

When I was a freshman in high school, I had three things happen at the same time. At the time, I didn't recognize how profoundly they were going to change my life. One was that my sister-in-law gave me a copy of Lord of the Rings – it was my first fantasy book, and pretty much my only fantasy book, but it was enough to pique my interest in Medieval fantasy and the craft of detailed story telling. Another was the game Dungeons & Dragons, which came out about that same year. I was one of the first people playing it back when it was interactive storytelling more than a numbers game, which it has become over time. The third one was that they invented computers.

It was before the Apple was even very popular, and the school I was going to had no computer classes – no curriculum of any kind that really engaged the computer. They did have, in one of the classrooms, a teletype (which punched holes in paper tape). They had a second teletype that had a modem connected to a telephone (literally, you had to pick up the telephone and put it in the cradle) to connect that second machine to a PDP11 that was offsite somewhere. I was immediately fascinated by what this thing was and what it could do and I began writing little games on that computer. Since there was no class on it, and it was in a classroom, getting access to the machine was an interesting trick.

Throughout my schooling, from kindergarten through graduation from high school, I did science fair projects literally every year, and often did very well just because I was so well rehearsed. I knew the science and math faculty at the school quite well, and they knew that I was a self-motivated, studious person, so I actually negotiated with the faculty to have my own class, with no teacher. I got that classroom for a period at school during the school day, and I got a grade for my self taught class. At the beginning of the semester I would say "Here's my project, I'm going to write some more games." They'd say "OK, show them to us when you get done." That's what I did for four years of school. I had my own class – no teacher, no grades, and I always got an "A." Every time I'd make a new game I'd show it to some of the faculty and they'd say "That's really cool – do another one. I just called them DND 1 through DND 28. I'd first write them in a notebook, then type them up on paper tape, and read them in through the paper tape reader into the modem. Then I would finally get the chance to play them on this paper spool printing teletype.

At what point did you know that computer gaming was going to become a career rather than just a hobby?

It was a ways into it. Once the Apple II came out I wrote DND28b (which became Akalabeth) and even after that one sold I was like, "Wow! I can make money at this!? Well, let me make one which is intended for public consumption," which became the first Ultima. It really wasn't until somewhere between Ultima II and Ultima III, where I began to flunk out of school. The first class I failed was a programming class that was even on a processor that was related to the Apple II processor, but since it wasn't quite the same I would make errors in my school coding even though I was coding on a sister machine processor at night. Then I made a very difficult decision – I either had to finish school, or go do games. The money I was already making in games was hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, so there was no question even from a family standpoint. Everybody was like, "Oh, yeah... go do the games." But everyone still thought it was a hobby. Everyone thought, "When this windfall goes away, 'cause this is an aberration, surely, you'll go back to school and finish your degree and get a real job." It wasn't until a few years after that that I finally began to reflect and go, "This industry's not going away. My company's probably not going away, but even if it did, I'm now a senior member of this new industry. The knowledge I have is very valuable to anyone and everyone in this industry. I'm not ever going back to school. This is not a hobby anymore." That didn't really happen until Ultima IV or Ultima V.

What was your parents' reaction when they finally realized that you were never going back to school, that this is what you were doing for your life?

I never really talked to them about that point in the transition. We discussed dropping out of school, because my family is a dreadfully overeducated clan. My father was a Stanford University professor, had a doctorate and was an astronaut. My mother has a master's degree in art, and it was actually that combination that got me kicked off (science and art). My oldest brother is a medical doctor, my next older brother has two masters degrees. My younger sister has a masters degree, and I'm the black sheep of the family... I'm a dropout. The only good news was that other than my brother the medical doctor, who was already off in a private practice, everyone else worked for me as we got Origin off the ground.

What would you say has changed most through the course of the Ultima series, including all the iterations of Ultima, the Underworlds, and Ultima Online?

As I look at the Ultimas, I break them down into trilogies – eras... Not only because that's how they fit together content-wise and story-wise, but also as a creative person that's really how they break down, too. Ultima's prequels through [Ultima] III really were "Richard Garriott Learns How to Program and Learns How to Make Interactive Gameplay Work." That was the fundamental learning phase of making games. Ultima IV was the turning point. In my mind, that is the day the Ultimas became worthy. I really started paying attention to the content, and in particular, the story content was what started with Ultima IV. So, Ultimas IV, V and VI are learning to tell an interactive story.

Even though Ultima IV has received the most accolades down through time, if you actually look back at the game, even though it's profoundly different than other games of its day, it's still quite simple. It's very black and white. There's good guys and bad guys, it's obvious who's who and the text that's in the game is largely quotes that I took out of dictionaries of quotes. It's very simple story telling, but it was at least the first. [Ultimas] V & VI became much more competently told stories, much more interesting and compelling stories. With Ultima VII I began to go, "Well, I can tell an interactive story and I can create a rich, beautiful world, but there are games coming out that have considerably better gameplay than mine – that don't have the stories and visuals necessarily, but have really excellent gameplay." I realized I was falling behind the industry state of the art as far as combat systems and interactive dynamics. I'd done state of the art in Ultima I, II> and III just because it was one of the first.

There was no art.

There was no art. So, [Ultimas] VII, VIII and IX started paying much more attention again to the actual gameplay dynamics. I thought I was playing catch-up with some of my competitors. Then there's Ultima Online, which set the stage for the next generation. Almost all role-playing games have longed to be multiplayer. When we started Ultima Online, the Internet wasn't very popular. AOL existed, and they had some multiplayer games, but economically they weren't nearly as interesting as a retail product. So, it was a highly debated move when we began to work on Ultima Online. When we put it up for beta test and charged people five bucks apiece for the privilege of being a beta tester to get the CD, we were extraordinarily pleased that fifty thousand people signed up even though our total sales projections for the game were more like fifteen thousand. We knew we had a tiger by the tail at that point.

How has technology (since DND1-28) driven change in the games?

There are areas where technology has made an obvious impact, but it has not really changed the challenge of making a game. A little anecdote I like to use is: look at Ultima I. A picture took 8k of RAM at that point in time, and it was four colors – a very simple picture. The memory in the computer was only about 64K, and if you do that math, you can hold about eight pictures in memory at full scale, without compression. A floppy disk had about 140K on it, so you can hold 10 or 20 pictures on disk. The clock speed of the machine is about 1 MHz, so there's this amount of time it takes to copy a whole picture's worth of stuff to screen. Now run ahead to, say, the 286 era. Well, a picture took about 64K of memory, so it's eight or ten times as much memory for one picture. The machine had about 640K – that's about ten times as much. The machine ran about 10 MHz, which is about ten times as much. And you had 1.4 MB on a floppy, which is about ten times as much. And so, to animate and store things, the problem is largely unchanged for us as developers. The color quality and resolution has gone up for the players, but it still takes just as long to animate it and just as few pictures can be stored on disk. If you keep going through history, that's largely stayed the same.

3D hardware has actually finally broken that cycle very recently. That's probably the thing that's going to allow faster, higher quality graphics without the cost of taking the entire processor to do it or taking the entire hard drive to hold those images. As that now is freeing up the rest of computer's assets for us to start focusing on other aspects – like artificial intelligence, which is an area that everyone has talked about throughout the years but frankly, largely still is terrible compared to the state of the art in other areas. I was very excited to start playing Medal of Honor a couple of days ago – talk about good scenario design and some very competent AI. It still has a few glitches in it, but it's way better than the majority of what I've seen come before, as far as the ability for the game to understand the state of the player and the other NPCs [non-player characters] within an area. I think that is going to be a major area of innovation, and that Medal of Honor is kind of a harbinger of things to come.

If technology were no object, where would you want to take storytelling?

I don't think that gaming has to have storytelling in it. I'm a big storyteller – that's the kind of game that I enjoy creating. The category that I play in, we'll broadly call it Role Playing, is not only a compelling experience to participate in, but it's also a powerful tool for storytelling and for teaching. I became aware of this as it happened – when I would talk to people who had played lots of the early Ultimas, they would describe their experiences and what it meant to them in ways that I had never intended as a designer. I then began to think about the fact that if you look at very young kids, young kids go out in the playground and roleplay as a way to test interpersonal relationships. You learn things like if you punch your friend or call them a name, they don't like it, and they cry or hit you back. You find your own grounding as far as your ethical beliefs and interpersonal social dynamics go. If you look at computer games, people largely have gone off by themselves, and sit in front of the computer and shoot things or kick things, and don't go roleplay with their friends on the playground. That is, in my mind, a very substantial antisocial issue that computers have introduced into American society. On the other hand, one of the great things about roleplaying, especially massively multiplayer roleplaying, is you get back into that face-to-face interaction with people. As long as you can build fictional worlds (as I like to believe we did with Ultimas IV, on) where the world responds to you in a very realistic, well-measured way, and especially with massively multiplayer [games] where you have great rules of conduct and the proper feedback loop to social dynamics – I think these can be very positive role playing games, and have a very positive impact both from a storytelling standpoint and act as a teaching tool.

In a lot of the Ultima games, the concept of Virtue seems to be integral. What impelled you to put that in?

If you look at Ultima I through III, and most other roleplaying games even today, the story line is largely the same. You're going to go kill the bad guy. You know this because you are told so. The bad guy doesn't usually do anything other than wait for you to come kill him. On the other hand, you as the player are usually going "I want to be rich and powerful," so you pillage and plunder the world to become powerful enough to kill the bad guy. Well, not only is that morally ambiguous, but it's actually a little worse – in the sense that you aren't performing a very Arthurian role, even though that's the nature that the game bills itself as – this very Arthurian, idealistic game. So I sat back and went "Gosh, you know, I don't think that's as good a game." Just as a storyteller, I don't think it's as compelling. Plus, as a teaching tool, (which, in my mind, all roleplaying games are whether you like them to be or not) it's probably not the best ethical response for the game to have. So, starting with Ultima IV, I sat back and said, "OK, if you're supposed to be the hero, I'm going to really make you be a hero."

I was very proud of Ultima IV where I put in little tests. One of my favorites was a blind woman who sold herbs, and after you bought your herbs, the game just asked you, "How much money do you leave in her coffers?" She'd tell you "It'll be 5 gold," and instead of just taking the gold from you, you had the option to leave as much or as little as you wished. The game didn't say anything about it if you short-changed her, and she would say, "Thank you very much," and let you leave. Later in the game you would come back to her needing some very special information or help, and she would say, "I'd love to help you, but you are the most dishonest, thieving scumbag I've ever met! So why should I help you?" I was very pleased to see player response to that. They would go, "Oh my gosh, what have I done?" They really had bent what they probably would think of, personally, as a good ethical principal. I'm a big believer (though I don't believe in mystical Karma) in the Golden Rule concept that what goes around comes around. Friendly, happy people who help each other generally run into and are helped by the other friendly happy people. Building that kind of a natural, scientific response system into the games made it much more compelling.

With that as background, what was your reaction to some of the Player Killing problems that happened in Ultima Online? [Ed. For those who don't know, Player Killing refers to players using their online characters to attack other players without permission or prior agreement.]

Difficult issue, because on the one hand, almost all games are contests in one form or another. So, having combat, including Player versus Player combat, is an extremely valid thing in any game that wishes to have it, and when done right, can actually be a very positive experience, even for the losers of said conflicts – as long as it's well handled and gives you a chance to "Arghh! You got me! I'll come back and I'll get you next time." On the other hand, the way Player Killing evolved in games was much more insidious: what happened was that experienced players began to prey on new players. From a financial perspective – trying to grow a business – this was a disaster. New players had a substantial barrier to overcome to find enjoyment in the game. Also, as an art form, you become disappointed in it, you go, "this is no longer good art," because that's not the kind of world we were trying to create. But how to fix that, how to bring it back into what you might call social norms is very difficult. One of the biggest issues is that even though you can try to engineer things out, like don't allow player killing, there are still ways to harass each other which are equally antagonistic and hurtful to the economics of your game.

One of the biggest problems to my mind is anonymity, and as long as people have anonymity, they can always return later in a different guise, and still find some loophole by which they can harass other people. One of my biggest charges is to get rid of anonymity. Most companies do things like require credit card numbers and [things of] that nature, but I even go so far as to say, "You know what? You can't even have multiple characters within a game." Because that's a level of anonymity and I'm a big believer in "We know who you are as an individual, and you have one life in this virtual world. Period." That way you feel the same level of responsibility that you do in this life.

So that's almost a way of bringing virtue to the Massively Multiplayer market?

By necessity. By the way, I don't think all games need to do that. Only a very specific class of games need to do this, but it's a specific class of games that I'm very interested in. I want to go live in an alternate world, but I want to go live in an alternate world with other people who are sharing the joy of the experience of this new world and exploring and discovering the great benefits of this world. I'm not trying to create Unreal World or Doom World, though I think those worlds are great – I'd love to play those. But, I would enter those worlds with a very different attitude than I would enter the worlds we want to build.

Could you talk about Lord British, who he is, and what is the difference between Lord British and Richard Garriott?

I like the moniker Lord British as me, so Lord British and me are the same – just like people can have projections of themselves.

Sort of like someone calling himself "Skippy"?

Sure – it's like a nickname. The way I've evolved that thinking is very much like the way I've evolved the fictional storyline starting with Ultima IV.

Another change in Ultima IV was, since I wanted you to take on this role where your personal ethics would be measured and the story was an ethical parable at large, I wanted to make sure that you, even from the beginning, feel some responsibility for the actions of that character. For example, if I go play Duke Nukem, yes, I'm the player, but I project myself onto Duke Nukem where I don't have my morals anymore, I have Duke Nukem's morals... and that is to go kill everything! Now that's a great, fun, escape role to play, where I'm projecting myself through another personality, but I wanted this to be your personality in Ultima IV. So, I built these things called moongates that not only moved you around within the world itself, but also that opened up a gateway from Earth to the world of Britannia. I went to great lengths to make sure that you're not playing Duke Nukem, you're playing yourself, and that's why you're responsible again for those ethical decisions that your character makes. I feel the same way about Lord British. Whenever we use Lord British, just like you really get to go to Britannia and play, I, Richard Garriott, really get to go to Britannia and play – Just like you, and we're going to play together in there. So when we write scripts for Lord British, we write them very much like this is me and has my thoughts, my morals and my ethics without regard for the plot of the game.

So in a sense, even in the early single player games, you're really creating a sense of community play?

Correct. Exactly.

What's Lord British's role in the world of Lineage, now that you've joined NCSoft in their endeavors?

It's interesting. It's like some of the early Ultimas, in the sense that Lord British was there, but he was one of a handful of little fiefdom kings. It wasn't until Ultima IV that Britannia was unified under Lord British. Lord British's role now is very much like his role in the early Ultimas, where he said "Hey, here's a great new world and it has all these fiefdoms fighting." Even when people come to power some of them are despotic, oppressive taxers and oppressors of the people around. Some people get into power and actually try to set up lots of friendly alliances to keep everybody on their side and keep palms greased to be more beneficial leaders. That's a fascinating landscape for Lord British to step into and try to play the peacemaker like he did in the Ultimas. He's here to help root out the despotic rulers and help find the true kings who should be in power in the land and to act as a spiritual guide to the path of virtue.
Tell us about Lineage.

Lineage is phenomenally popular with four million players currently – nine months ago we had two million, so it's still growing phenomenally. In Lineage, there are castles set up across the land (the primary game mechanic that I believe is responsible for its success is it's castle sieges). If you look at Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Age [of Camelot] and the games that are available in the states, as an elder player you level up... and then you keep leveling up, and when you hear your friends are higher than you... go level up some more. Advancement really is the elder game. Lineage has advancement, but is much more a game like Diplomacy, or Risk, where you try to take over a castle – which is not trivial since it's owned by another guild or player group, and to do it you probably have to form alliances. Once you take a castle, you can set the taxation rate for the general region, and you get the money for your group. Now you can pay off your alliances... or not... and so the political intrigue associated with capturing and holding these geographic regions is very complex. Players make their own content, so to speak, which is one of the Holy Grails of Massively Multiplayer Games. Lineage actually has that, and demonstrates the power of that with castle sieges.

What's going to draw U.S. players in to Lineage? Lineage has a tremendous installed base in Korea, but a lot of U.S. players are complaining about the state of the graphics or the slow speed of the game. What would make them play?

Fascinating problem. I honestly have to tell you that I don't know, for sure, the answer to that question. I can tell you what we're doing to try and answer that question. First let me tell you what we originally thought, which we were wrong about. Nine months ago, when we first met, we looked at the game and found a lot of the same issues and said, "We know the U.S. market. We're going to help you fix this game up and make it a big success here in the States." Here in the United States, we have tens of thousands of subscribers, but not the hundreds of thousands that we'd like to have. It also just shipped in Japan, and the market in Japan is a lot like the United States. [Gamers play at home] instead of playing in game rooms like the rest of Asia, which we understood would be one difference of the United States market that we would have to overcome. Japan and the United States are similar in that way, but they're also similar in the level of broadband installment compared to the rest of Asia, which is much ahead of us. In both Japan and the United States, Ultima Online has an almost identical number of subscribers. So we're going, "Learning from the United States should apply to Japan, so we can probably help advise in Japan, as well." We advised on things like graphics, we advised on things like the new player experience, and we advised on things like the chat tools, which are much more important when you're not sitting right next to each other in a game room.

Then we launched, both in Japan and in the United States. In Japan, Lineage has already beat out Ultima Online, and in the United States we have still not. We're still well behind. That was just a wake up call for us. We went, "Wait a minute, why is it that Japan is working so much better than the United States? The only difference between how we're operating in Japan and the United States is that the Japanese servers are being operated by the Korean office, which has evolved their style and publishing models with the customers. We're operating as if we're experts in the United States, independently, of how they're operating in Korea." It's actually been a very humbling experience to realize that we don't know the American audience as well as we think we do. They're still beating us in a western style market (calling Japan in this case a western style market). So now we're sitting back and we're going, "OK, clearly there's more work here than we think, and one of the areas that we do think is very important is the graphic quality.

Lineage has, we think, the best long-term model in that you don't have to actually buy the game to play it. You just download the game and play it for a month. Then, only if you're hooked and really enjoying, you begin paying for the game itself. One of the best features of Lineage is that they have episodic releases where every quarter they release a gigantic amount of content. However, with bitmap graphics – the way the game is currently set up, that's a huge download. The United States, which again is largely on modems, not on broadband, can't handle those levels of downloads very well, and so we're working quickly to migrate the game into full 3D. We're not going to do it the Ultima-style hybrid way. We're going to truly do 3D, because the game is now so big in a bitmap graphics sense that we can't really add graphics for long before the game would be too big. So we're now working on a full 3D version of the game. [Ed. note: Migrating the game to a 3D version intensively uses processing power, which is provided by 3D graphics accelerators. On the other hand, it cuts down on the sheer volume of data necessary to render smooth, hand-rendered backgrounds and animations in 2D, bitmap format. Thus, 3D is more suited to a market with powerful processors and bandwidth limitations.]

To what extent is the 3D version going to interact or overlap with the current version of Lineage?

The thing we're working on is actually the current version of Lineage.

So it would be the same game, but with a 3D engine? Could someone with the 3D version and someone else with the 2D version interact in the same world?

Whether the maps literally co-exist is an interesting discussion, and I'm not even sure if the team knows the answer. One of the great things about the success of Lineage is that 4 million people is a lot of people. A lot of those are paying through site licenses in game rooms, so the actual revenue per player per month of those 4 million is like $5 a month if you include the site licenses. The trend over the last 12 months was $120 million in revenue, and next year, they're projecting something like $100 million in profit, on one game. That could fund a lot of development. The art department at NCSoft in Seoul is gigantic, and not only do we want new products, but protecting our position is even more important. It's hard to imagine generating another game that can beat this game, because one out of thirty people in Korea and a bunch of other Asian countries now play this game. It'll be very difficult to beat, so protecting it is very important. There's a number of Lineage projects in development concurrently. There are not only things like a Lineage 2 which they recently released, but there's ongoing investment in what we'll call the status quo Lineage, and there's also Lineage 3D. The investment in Lineage is immense.

Can you talk about what you've been doing since your non-compete agreement expired with EA? You started to form Destination Games?

We were in the middle of forming Destination Games. I actually registered the day I left Origin (you leave the Origin, and eventually you arrive at your Destination). My brother Robert (who had been retired a few years ahead of me) and I began to put plans together for Destination Games, knowing that we had time. We had a one year non-compete, so knowing that we weren't going to be doing anything for a while, we just toyed around with it and talked to people in the industry and began to retool some of my designs from previous iterations of projects that I wanted to do. Right as my non-compete ran out, literally within a few days of that, EA decided to cancel UO II. The thing about UO II was that me and Starr Long had advised EA not to do UO II because it would be expensive, take a long time and scavenge the players from the first game. Eventually they concluded the same thing and stopped the project. Also, when I left Origin, all the Ultima IX team pretty much left Origin also, so suddenly all the Ultima IX team and all the Ultima Online team were available to me again. These are people that I had spent twenty years evolving relationships with, so it was a no-brainer to say, "There's Destination Games, thank you very much EA, for giving back to me what I had sold to you for millions of dollars a few years ago."

We all got back together, and we were all quite excited about that, but literally within a week of that happening, we got a call from Jake Song, the creator of Lineage. He had been living in LA for a year or so trying to figure out how to make Lineage work in the United States market. He was trying to get people to review it, but nobody would even talk to him, in spite of their enormous success. He was also trying to find U.S. developers because they already own most of the development talent in Korea. Developers didn't know who they were and really had no interest, so he was banging his head against the wall. He called us up and said "Hey, you're doing an online-game only company – we're an online-only game company. You need funding and are hoping to go public in a year or so, we've got lots of money and we've got public stock that's in a small, undervalued market." Add it all up, and literally everything we wanted, they had, and vice-versa. We helped to introduce them around to the rest of the U.S. development community. We're now distributing EverQuest in Asia, we've signed up City of Heroes, we've got another U.S. developer that we've signed that we'll be announcing shortly, and we've got our game, Tabula Rasa, in development, which Jake's helping us on. Jake's also the person working on the 3D version of Lineage in our Austin office. It couldn't be going better. The icing on the cake is that the stock price has doubled in the last nine months since we became part of the same company. So it literally has gone from retiring and not knowing if you're really going to get back into this industry, or feel inspired to do a game again, to nine months later going, "I've just got to go make more games," searching to find your way back in, and then suddenly, Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Not only are you in, but you're back on top. I couldn't be happier.

A lot has been mentioned about the Tabula Rasa project, and it has developed an air of mystery about it. Can you talk about how you split your time between Lineage and the creative process of this new project?

My involvement with Lineage was mostly only early on, and in total it's still quite minimal. I go in whenever Lord British goes in, because I like playing myself, so to speak, and I don't like other people playing me. Not because other people don't do a good job of it, but because I don't like being caught with things like people saying. "I ran into you the other day and you called me a buffoon!" and me going "What? I did?" I want to know if I did that, so I prefer playing myself.

The vast majority of my time has been spent on Tabula Rasa. Some of the mystery around Tabula Rasa is purposeful, and some of it is because it's a mystery to me, too. I spent 20-some odd years in Ultima, and if you look at its beginnings, it's really Tolkien and D&D. It wasn't until Ultima IV that I began to evolve my own world, but even then it was always patchworking onto the things which I designed or stole at the age of 14 to 19, and so it wasn't really a very well crafted, original world. So, one of the big pushes for Tabula Rasa is we want a very well crafted, truly original world. That is really hard to do, let me tell you. Especially when you feel like you've put a lot of very good things into Ultima, like the virtues, starting over from true scratch is non-trivial.

For parts of the game, we already knew very well what we wanted to do, for example the gameplay paradigm – this blend of massively multiplayer and solo player experiences. The great thing about massively multiplayer is you get to go with your friends and your family. Everybody who's played roleplaying games forever has always wanted to be able to adventure with their friends. However, your life in a massively multiplayer game is fairly average, kind of by definition. In a solo player game, you can be the one hero who saves the whole world. Every feature you see, you experience it as if it was made for you. You're blissfully unaware of all of the other people who bought the game and are playing it at their own houses. In a massively multiplayer setting, you're getting your information about what to do from the other people who've seen it before you. There are people preying on you, so as cool as it is to go massively multiplayer, it also has lost some of the best attributes of what we used to have solo player. What we're doing with Tabula Rasa is we're creating a massively multiplayer world, but the adventures themselves completely take place in party-based, scripted scenarios. A lot of people will go, "Gee, that's what Anarchy Online did." Well, no. Anarchy Online has randomly generated quests where you basically go by yourself to fetch and carry one thing. That's not at all what we're talking about. We're talking about Disney World, effectively as a metaphor. That is a dangerous metaphor, because people think we're building a theme park. No, we're not building a theme park.

We're building a virtual world that is massively multiplayer, but once you and your group decide to go on a quest, that quest, as opposed to being a dungeon populated with random monsters, is a planned, scripted experience. Compare that to going into a hypothetical dungeon where there's five groups ahead of you and five groups behind you, and you wait your turn to pull the lever to get the toy, and even if by some miracle you get there first, there's five groups behind you who are going to take it from you. The experiences are scripted for you and your group as a scenario so your group faces that challenge together. The scenarios are diverse. It's not that you always go alone. Sometimes we'll, on purpose, put another group in, from the other side or behind you, but those are encounters by design, rather than the obnoxious constant flow of people messing up your experience. By having these scripted adventures we can do much more interesting things. For example, we can have truly multiplayer events and puzzles, like an elevator where there's a crank outside the elevator basket necessary to drive it up, which means that somebody has to stay behind. When you get to the top, somebody can turn another crank at the top to get your last player up. Those things in a solo-player game can't work, and even in the traditional massively multiplayer game where there's just random people all over the place, don't really work. We're very confident these scripted party-based adventures and massively multiplayer hub world will be a great next step for massively multiplayer games.

The fictional wrapper has proven to be much more of a challenge, because we're trying to really create a new world. The group that's done it best is Myst. Those guys, I think, really came up with a fresh, new, imaginary look for a world, and you still felt well-grounded and safe and comfortable, but you were also awed by the mystery of the space. We're trying to create a fiction and a look that has that same level of awe, as well as that same well-grounded, safe feeling as our homeworld – that's our challenge that we're working on now.

Could you talk about what you do with your life outside of computer gaming? What is it that you love about the time that you're not designing games?

I'm a big adventure travel nut. You could describe it as somewhere between eco-tourism, eco-adventure travel and science-adventure travel. Last month, I was down in Antarctica hunting meteorites. I was in Antarctica once before, on a similar trip, but we failed to find any meteorites, so this is my return trip armed with better knowledge, and we were much more successful. We brought back 33 meteorites which are now in Chicago being analyzed. I've taken three trips so far in Russian deep-diving submersibles. I went down to the Titanic, a few years ago. I also went down to the Mid-Atlantic ridge hydrothermal vents and brought back a number of samples, including some mud which NASA has now analyzed. They isolated the highest-temperature bacteria ever discovered – four strains, all of which are now record-setting for temperature. They're now gene sequencing, and the early results appear to be that this is the oldest life ever found on Earth, and we just happened to bring back samples for it. Last summer, I went down with the same submersibles on a treasure hunting trip. The Discovery Channel recently sponsored a trip to hunt for the Liberty Bell 7 space capsule, and in that side-scan sonar data was a target that looked to be an old wooden ship. We went back to it and sure enough it was. We actually brought back a big chest of coins – mostly silver, a handful of gold coins in a little gold box, some guns, a telescope and other artifacts – that was good fun. I've been to Russia a number of times to put myself through pseudo-cosmonaut training. I have this fantasy of putting myself into space. In fact, a company that I'm a part owner in, called Space Adventures, is the company that's arranged for Dennis Tito to go into space, and the South African that's going next month. We have a few other people that are in the queue to be put into space. The only problem is that it takes about fifteen million dollars, and until I have an extra fifteen million dollars sitting around, I won't be going, but hopefully a few more great games and I'll find a way to get into space.

Any thoughts on Science or Technology you'd like to share?

I am such a science nut. The discovery digital networks are one of the places I spend the majority of my time as well as similar programming. High-energy physics is one of the areas that I find the most interesting, especially as it relates to cosmology. I'm a big believer that the universe is so vast that life exists out there somewhere, in some form – no question. The fundamental laws of physics are still the big barrier that are key to both solving a lot of the world's problems as well as progressing with exploration of the rest of the Universe, and have the most immediate mystery associated with them.

One of the most fascinating things about science is that it's really like going into a role playing game or adventure game where you're exploring a dungeon and behind every door there's some great new discovery. The same thing is true in science, where the classic adage is true that you go looking for one answer, and you find the answer to that issue and many more questions. That's what makes science such an adventure just like a game.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 17, 2002 7:48 PM.

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