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Richard Garriott is known as a video-game pioneer, an undersea diver and an astronaut. Now he wants to outdo Zynga, the creator of FarmVille and CItyVille, in social games. His new game company, Portalarium, will debut its first major game in a month.
Garriott doesn’t make empty promises. If anyone poses a threat to Zynga — which has more than 276 million monthly active users on Facebook — it is a veteran of video games like Garriott. What the industry’s old-timers bring is their knowledge of game mechanics — the elegant, creative, quirky details that make a game fun — to bear on social games. Zynga is busy acquiring talented game designers — including Garriott’s friend Bruce Shelley, now a contractor for Zynga — but it hasn’t locked up all the talent yet. There are huge stakes for whoever wins this talent war, since the best days of social gaming are likely still to come.
Garriott is no stranger to ambition. He has soared into the heavens, literally — all the way to the International Space Station as an astronaut. He has plummeted to despair with the launch and failure of one of the game industry’s biggest online games, Tabula Rasa.
Now he is trying to launch the “third age of video games” through his new company, Portalarium, which we wrote about a year ago.
What were those ages? For those of you who didn’t grow up playing games, it may help to know that Garriott was present for the first age of video games, with the debut of great single-player games such as Ultima, which was followed by many sequels. In 1997, under his alter ego Lord British, Garriott extended his role-playing fantasy world to the online multiplayer game Ultima Online. Garriott considers the rise of Internet-connected games to be the second age of video games. The third age began with the explosive growth of simple, quickly played social games like Zynga’s FarmVille on Facebook.
In an interview at the Dice Summit game conference in Las Vegas, Garriott said he knows he is late and the gold rush into social games has happened without him so far. Portalarium launched two simple casino games on Facebook so far in order to test the company’s theories about player engagement, or the trick of getting gamers to play games for a long time. Within a month or so, Garriott says Portalarium will unveil its first social game on Facebook, Hi5, and other social networks.
This game won’t be an act of “plagiarism,” Garriott said, alluding to charges some have laid against Zynga that the social games maker’s success derives from mimicking other social games. Plagiarism has proven to be a very lucrative business model, Garriott said. (Zynga begs to differ, of course, since it has created successful original games such as FrontierVille and CityVille. CityVille won the award at the Interactive Entertainment Awards for best social game. Even so, some point to the inspiration CityVille apparently took from the early city-building game SimCity.)
Garriott isn’t describing his new game now because he worries that someone will take the idea and plagiarize it. (Copyright and trademark law are not as clear-cut in video games as they are in other media, which makes this a real risk.) That’s one difference between social games and traditional console games. While traditional game marketers tease their games early and dole out the details far ahead of a launch to build buzz, social game companies launch their games quietly and then tweak them until they start taking off like wildfire. Then they announce them.
Garriott says he feels he arrived two years late in the new social game era. And he warns his colleagues in traditional games that they had better join into the gold rush or find themselves in a very difficult position, as revenues for traditional games will likely go down even as budgets soar.
“It’s time for game companies to act,” Garriott said. “The first age of games took 10 years to mature. Online games took five years. Social games may mature much more rapidly. The door is closing quickly.”
Those who make the jump to social games will discover how to make money with casual, bite-sized titles, he said. With each new age of gaming, the audience size grows by a factor of 10, Garriott said. Women, men and pretty much all demographics can now count themselves as gamers.
“This is a particularly exciting period for the game industry,” he said. “We are about to begin a new time of invention.”
Garriott’s last game, Tabula Rasa, required the work of hundreds of game developers and it had a huge budget. The game launched in 2007 but it failed to unseat rival World of WarCraft in the massively multiplayer online game market. Publisher NCSoft shut it down in 2009, just after Garriott returned from his Space Adventures trip to the space station. Garriott spent $30 million of his own personal fortune for the space trip. But he won a $28 million judgment from NCSoft because it fired him without awarding him promised stock.
Garriott was very far removed from the programming process in Tabula Rasa. But at Portalarium, he can now get involved at that level.
“I once felt like I had mastered every byte of the Apple II as a programmer,” he said. “It’s been a decade since I have worked at this level in a game and I am truly enjoying it.”
The game mechanics won’t be something familiar like running a pet shop or a farm or a town, Garriott said.
“I looked at FarmVille, but it was too simple for me as a player,” he said. “The user interface was awkward and the game play was not rewarding. When FrontierVille came out, it was much more interesting. But now with CityVille, there is way too much going on. So now we have bracketed this new experience. One is too simple, and one is too complicated.”
Eventually, Garriott promises that he will move on to “Lord British’s brave new world, or a spiritual successor to my previous work.”
Garriott said that Portalarium has built a suite of tools to make it easier to build games that can “break down the barriers between games.” That is, he thinks it is too hard right now to promote a game to a person who is playing another game. You should, he said, be able to easily find out what your friends are playing.
Is there a tiny bit of bluster in Garriott’s words? Sure. Should Zynga be scared of a puny company in Austin, Texas? Not yet. But objects in the rear view mirror may be closer than they appear to be. Yes, Zynga may look over its shoulder and find that one day Lord British is gaining on them.
Check out our video interview with Garriott below.