Richard Garriott has had a wonderful life in video games. But the founder of Portalarium and creator of the Ultima series has also done quite a bit outside of video games, with enough adventures to last five lifetimes.
He coached a featherweight boxing champion. He almost starved during a journey on the Amazon River. He almost had a fatal rock climbing accident. He had to pull a gun on an overly enthusiastic fan who broke into his home in Austin, Texas. Yet, he creates legendary haunted houses for Halloween, welcoming everybody into his home. Like his father before him, Garriott journeyed into space. While he was up there, he showed a secret message to his Tabula Rasa online game fans while on a communications link back to Earth. And he journeyed to the bottom of the sea to get a close-up look at the Titanic.
Garriott published his first video game, Akalabeth, in 1979 while he was still in high school. He went on to create Ultima I: The Age of Darkness in 1981. The fantasy role-playing game led to a long career in games and spawned his studio Origin Systems. He and his brother Robert made numerous Ultima games and eventually sold the company to Electronic Arts in 1992. While at EA, he created the groundbreaking massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Ultima Online.
Garriott left EA to found Destination Games in 2000, and he sold the company to NCSoft in 2001. Garriott worked on the sci-fi online game Tabula Rasa, which debuted in 2007. The game didn’t sell as well as hoped, and Garriott left NCSoft in 2008. In 2009, he founded Portalarium, and raised $11.6 million via crowdfunding for Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. Recently, he started an additional equity crowdfunding campaign for the game.
Garriott chronicled his life in Explore/Create: My Life in Pursuit of New Frontiers, Hidden Worlds, and the Creative Spark earlier this year. I interviewed Garriott onstage at the Gamelab event in Barcelona, Spain, where he received the Honor Award from the Spanish Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You started very early, in the ‘80s, making the first Ultima game in high school and progressed over the years to work for Origin, Electronic Arts, Destination Games, NCSoft, and now Portalarium. Tell us about those early days and the eras you’ve seen in games.
Richard Garriott: I feel very fortunate. I’m just about the right age to have come of age, in high school, as personal computers were invented. Before I released the first Ultima, I’d written a series of games on a teletype, an electromechanical typewriter connected with an acoustic modem to a machine still using core memory, little donuts of ferrous material that stored individual bits. Very primitive, but if you look at these games I made in the ‘70s, other than using asterisks for walls and spaces for corridors, they were still obviously the prequels to Ultima.
At the age of 19, when I began to publish games, I was one of the only people at that time. But as I’ve gotten older, there have always been waves of new young people getting into the industry. There are a few gray-haired people here going back to those earliest days, but I’ve been perpetually one of the oldest people in the industry, even when I was only 21 or 22. It was a wonderful time to get started because it allowed us to set the standards of different genres, terminology, even tools and techniques that have evolved since.
GamesBeat: How do you view some of the lows and highs of your career?
Garriott: I’ve been making games now for almost 40 years. Fortunately, I’ve had some great highs through that. If I look at my favorite games down through the years, I’d have to pick Ultima IV, Ultima VII, and Ultima Online as highlights. As I contrast the highs versus the lows — if any of you have played Ultima, I’d guess that those three might also be on many other people’s short lists. But all three of those were games that, when I started making them, it was difficult to convince people around me that they were good ideas. I was deviating significantly from what was already popular, even what was popular within my own games. I’d get advice against doing those [for] one reason or another.
On Ultima IV, Ultima III had been my first Origin game, the publisher my brother and I started. We got fan mail that described how people were playing. While I thought people would be heroic, they wrote in and said, “I loved defeating the bad guy, but it was really fun killing all the NPCs in the game, killing Lord British, and stealing from all the shops.” Basically, min/maxing the game system to become powerful and win. As I read that feedback, I realized they weren’t being heroic at all. They were lying, cheating, and stealing. So, I wanted to stop that, to force them to be virtuous in order to succeed.
That’s when I adopted the word “avatar” from a religious context. I put virtual karma in the game. My brother and my family thought it was a terrible mistake to hear feedback from players saying why they liked my game and immediately tell them that I wouldn’t let them play the game that way. But it was the first top-selling game I did.
GamesBeat: People had to make moral choices, right? They had to behave better.
Garriott: Exactly. In fact, very specifically — when you look at the way I did this, I introduced a moral philosophy. I put a lot of research into moral philosophy. I tried to seduce players into behaving badly and then would keep a karmic registry behind their behavior. Later, if they’d been lying, cheating, and stealing — which most of them had been — the characters they stole from, who they needed to help them, would say, “I’d love to help a hero, but you’re a dishonest thieving scumbag. I’m not helping you.”
That turned out to be a very powerful game mechanic, kind of a revelation to players. It changed how role-playing games could be generated.
GamesBeat: With this kind of research you did for your games, you mainly had to teach yourself, right? You had to be a polymath.
Garriott: If you look at my educational career, not only am I a college dropout, but even when I was in school, in grade school and high school, I wasn’t a particularly good student. I did independent projects very well. I was a great science fair competitor. But I wasn’t particularly studious in English, history, philosophy, name the subject.
As soon as I had applications for it, though — as soon as I realized I was going to include moral philosophy in a game, I had to understand moral philosophy. I became a voracious reader and consumer of a wide variety of topics. For pretty much every game, I’ve gotten an entire new library of subject matter, digested it thoroughly, and then tried to do an original creation around that topic.
GamesBeat: As far as inspiration goes, it seems like your main inspiration was J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Garriott: That’s definitely a foundation. In my best imagination of myself, I think of myself as a Tolkien-style game designer. What I mean when I say that — as soon as I started reading Tolkien, I personally came to the belief that his understanding of the world in which his characters were living was not just deep but astoundingly deep. The layers upon layers of reality crafting he had done for the world before he even unleashed his characters into the world — I was constantly impressed with that.
After reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, I went back and read all his unfinished work. I read English translations of Kalevala, the Finnish oral histories that inspired a lot of his unfinished tales and the pieces built on top of that. So, I feel the same way. By researching deeply the worlds that we’re crafting, it creates meaning and context and depth within the stories we eventually layer on top of that.
GamesBeat: In your book, Tolkien provided you with a very inspirational quotation, about how he felt as if he created languages for his world and then the stories came from that process. This is something you’ve done in your games as well.
Garriott: If you look at the cloth maps that the Ultimas are well known to have included as one of these anchor pieces you’d get in the box — I presume most of you have read The Hobbit. You may have had a moment like I did, when you saw the map with the strange writing on it, and then, you move on, and only after a chapter or two of the book, you realize that that writing isn’t just a scribble. It’s real words that are in fact quite easy to read because it’s made in this runic language that’s an easy letter for letter cipher into English. To me, that was a great revelation, to realize that this wasn’t just made up. It had a sense of truth to it.
I went back to the same source Tolkien did, the druidic runes, to create a slight variation of my own for Ultima. But I kept that — to where I have research projects going on to this day about symbolic languages, phonetic languages, and other structures that try to improve how to present languages in a game context. For example, runic is great if you speak English, but it’s terrible if you speak Japanese. You first have to convert it from runic into English characters to get an English word, then translate that word into whatever your domestic language is. Something that’s easy for an American becomes doubly difficult for anyone else. Solving that problem — making universal languages that both create a sense of mystery and depth in the game world but don’t increase the difficulty for anyone to understand — has been one of my pet projects.
GamesBeat: Your brother Robert works with you on a lot of these projects. He’s the business guy. I can imagine him saying something like, “Isn’t this a little extreme?”
Garriott: Unquestionably. If we’re in the business of making games, it’s inevitable that you have the artistic desire to create great art, which is unhampered by time, money, and the need to return value, but if you’re doing it as a business, you have to be able to plan ahead, afford to create it, have it complete before you run out of money, and then ultimately generate enough money to sustain profitability and make the opportunity to do it again. That’s one of the challenges in any creative art, to layer those two things together.
In this case, with my brother and I working together — he’s technically retired now, but for 35 years, we were business partners. That interplay, I think, helped us in the long run to make good decisions.
GamesBeat: Your book had some details that we didn’t always know. You almost went out of business before publishing Ultima V.
Garriott: We talked about highs and lows. There are very important lessons that come out of the lows. The first machine I was particularly enamored with was the Apple II, and so, most of the early Ultimas were developed on the Apple II. When other platforms came out, I would make my own judgment as to whether I thought they’d eventually supersede or do less well than Apple’s.
When the IBM PC first came out, the original version of the IBM PC in America had a bit of a faster processor, a bit more memory, but it had this chiclet-style keyboard that I thought wasn’t very good to interact with. I thought the DOS operating system was confusing. I just felt that Apple had a strong enough lead that it would ultimately win the day. I kept Ultima V, as well as most of our other projects that Origin was developing, focused on Apple first and then porting to a variety of other platforms.
About halfway through the development of Ultima V and three or four other projects, it became obvious that the Apple market had crashed. The PC clone market had rapidly become dominant. We had no employees that were working on the IBM PC. We were going to release a bunch of games that had no market, and we knew that would put us out of business.
We had to become a PC-first company. We had to hire a whole bunch of new employees, delay the release of all our games, and did a simple calculus. We expected this revenue to come in at the end of a particular year, and that was now pushed out six months or more. We weren’t going to survive that long. We looked into a bank loan, which wouldn’t take us to the point we needed. I had just built my first home in Austin, Texas, but I hadn’t paid for it yet. I had a construction loan. To bridge to the ship date of Ultima V, I had to put my house up as collateral. My brother and I went millions in debt with personal loans.
If we hadn’t shipped Ultima V on time and it was not successful, not only would we have been out of business, but all the value I had ever created up to that point in time in the industry would be gone, and I’d have a huge amount of debt. Ultima V, by the way, is the only game I think I ever shipped on time — because of that pressure.
GamesBeat: You actually got in a fist fight with your brother in the office.
Garriott: That is true. Robert and I were notorious for arguing. We’re brothers. But one time, this came to a particular head. I was in his office arguing about something neither of us remember, but I’m sure I was right [laughs]. As I was angrily leaving the room, I picked up a pencil off the table that my brother insisted was his pencil, so I should leave it behind. We began to argue about the ownership of this pencil, and that broke into a brawl. We literally physically fought over who owned this pencil. And then, the pencil broke, and we both just broke out laughing at the stupidity of the whole circumstance.
As soon as we opened the door to his office, we saw that all of the other employees in the company had their heads out of their offices. “Oh my god, what’s happening to this company? There must be something really profoundly wrong coming down the pipe.” That was sort of the pinnacle of our brotherly fights. We both matured a bit that day. Our business relationships got much better.
GamesBeat: You created one of the earliest VR prototypes, something called the “Nauseator?”
Garriott: That’s right, yeah. When we first started Origin, we picked the name because we weren’t sure if we would only make games. This was before DOS. Operating systems were terrible. We were having to rewrite large portions of them just to make games work. You never know, we might make our own operating system.
If you look at the Apple II, it was simple hardware, but it had ports you could plug things into. We actually built a prototype dual joystick to make games like Crazy Climber. And in my parents’ garage we built the Nauseator. The Nauseator was a giant wooden 360-degree multi-axis simulator that could free tumble in all dimensions. We got to the point where you could strap into a chair inside. We were in the middle of putting electronics in it when we decided this was far too dangerous to continue.
This thing weighed a couple thousand pounds. It had structural beams that would move past each other with an inch of clearance. If you put your finger anywhere near it, you realized it could take body parts off. That’s when we decided that maybe we should just focus on the software side. But we did like getting in the Nauseator. We called it the Nauseator because we would put people in it and just let them free tumble. You could endanger yourself some more by manually speeding it up from the outside. It was not safe in any way you might think of the term. You’d get out of it feeling all right, but within two or three minutes, you’d tend to get sick.
GamesBeat: But that started a certain tradition of trying something new.
Garriott: True. If I look back at my career, especially in the early days, one of the things that was key to my success was that with each new product, we had learned so much from the earlier ones that we set all the code, all the art, all the design aside and started fresh, trying to make something that was as significantly better than the predecessor as possible. I didn’t do that because I thought it was a marketing idea. I did it because I’d be unsatisfied with what came before.
If you look at my competitors back in the day — when Ultima first came out, a couple of the other great games at the time were things like Wizardry, and then Bard’s Tale soon after that, and Might and Magic. Each Ultima was measurably better than its predecessor. It had twice as many tiles, or it went from BASIC to assembly language, or the storage it used — all those things increased measurably, significantly.
With the competition, a lot of their original games outsold my original games, but what they would do with their sequel is change the art, add some new monsters, add a new story, but technologically, it was still very similar to the original. And so, what often happened was they would sell to a subset of the people who enjoyed the previous game. My games, I would argue, were radically better each time, so they sold to larger and larger fan bases with each iteration. While that started as an accident, it became purposeful in my plans for each game going forward.
GamesBeat: Ubisoft seems to have a similar pattern today. They introduce a game with a new platform, like the Wii or Wii U, and they hope that the sequels are the ones that make the real money.
Garriott: In fact, I’m talking this afternoon about intellectual property development. Part of that is my belief that the introduction moment of a new platform is the moment where you can create new IP. Ultima, Wizardry, [Might and Magic], all of these things were created, essentially, at the beginning of all platforms.
But once a platform matures, you have the reverse problem. Once you already have Ultima, Wizardry, Might and Magic, and Bard’s Tale, an RPG no one has heard of is hard to market. That’s when people start to buy licenses, like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, to break through the chaff. But those people who do that don’t own the IP themselves. It’s only a way to get their game to sell well. As game creators, the real opportunity — you want to create IP, you want to own the IP, and the place and time to do it is when you have the blue ocean of a new platform, where existing powerful IP is not already present. These windows open and close periodically around us, and you have to take advantage of those moments.
GamesBeat: You sold Origin to Electronic Arts and then built Destination Games and sold that to NCsoft. It seems like there’s a pattern where seasoned game developers build a company, make that brand go as far as they can, and then leave to go independent again. What do you think of that life cycle?
Garriott: What I find interesting about having had such a long time in this industry — there’s a cycle that I believe will likely continue forever. The first era of games — boxed retail products, mostly solo games — in the early days there were lots of companies. Origin was one of the top 10 — usually the tenth, but we were very pleased and proud. Origin did very well. We produced a lot of great games and made plenty of money.
But because we were selling at retail, as the retail business matured, the buyer for Walmart or Target or Amazon or anyone that you might think of, they don’t want to buy from 100 different companies or distributors. They only want to buy from a few. They want to make sure that if they buy a product from Origin, they can stock balance. If they buy one that doesn’t sell well, they want to be able to return that and buy something else instead. That means the shelf space per company becomes smaller and smaller. You have to buy your shelf space, basically. Unless you’re one of the top five, you don’t really have access to the spine-edge shelf space to sell products.
The maturing of distribution forced out anybody who wasn’t in the top three or top five. Then, when things go digital, everyone says, “Great, we don’t have to worry about shelf space!” But as that matures, you encounter the same problem in a new form. A few people today were talking about the hundreds of games that come out every month if not every day. There’s a constant stream of new products. While on one hand, it’s easy to publish, to make a game present, that does not mean anybody’s eyeballs land on it. The only way to get eyeballs looking at it is to be part of an ecosystem involving other similar game interests, something you can buy or partner your way into. That effectively brings shelf space back. The concept is similar.
Every time a new platform comes into existence, it opens up again. Not only can you make new IP, but new companies come into existence. Even though Origin gave Electronic Arts Ultima Online, one of the first great large-scale MMOs, they didn’t believe in the model. They thought the subscription model — they were gun-shy to start. Instead of making Wing Commander Online and Crusader Online, they paused. That gave an opening to new companies like Blizzard, which was already a strong developer, but then, they came in alongside NCSoft and Sony Online and all these other companies that dominated this new market segment. It was a missed opportunity for EA.
Every new platform, every new method of distribution, is an opportunity not only to create new IP but also to create new companies that compete with the older companies that might be too slow to turn and dominate that new segment.
GamesBeat: What do you see in the rear view mirror about the Tabula Rasa project?
Garriott: I mentioned that my three favorite releases were Ultima IV, Ultima VII, and Ultima Online. The games that, despite resistance, me and the team stayed the course with our beliefs and got them out as we planned. The two rockiest releases I’ve had were Ultima VIII and Tabula Rasa. In both of those cases, they had a very similar problem, largely described as a strong difference of opinion between me or the team and the publisher.
That’s not unusual. I’ve had those differences before. But in both those cases, we did what the publisher wanted us to do. In the case of Ultima VIII, Ultima VII had been the first product we did as part of EA, but it was mostly finished before we became part of EA.
EA’s dominant business is selling sports games that they do on a yearly cadence. Every year, they release a football game at the beginning of the football season. Every year, it’s a bit better than last year, but they always make that ship date for football season. Their advice to us was, “You have to ship on time. It’s more important to ship when we expect you to ship than it is to have all the bells and whistles you think need to be there.” They believed they had data to prove it. And they now owned me so I listened. I cut the game to try to fit their schedule, the schedule we’d agreed to. That was a tragic mistake. It means the game shipped unfinished. It was buggy and unrefined.
With Tabula Rasa, it was a similar issue, but instead of being at the end, it was at the beginning. We were going to create a game that would hopefully sell well in both Korea and the U.S. For two years, we kept shipping game designs and art styles to Korea, and for two years, we got feedback saying, “No, this isn’t right for Korea.” Here we are burning time and lots of money not really starting at all because we could never understand what they wanted from us or provide them something they were happy with.
In the end, we just said, “We can’t make a game for you. We’ll make the game we think we should make for the audience we know….” But those two years of false starts set the project behind in time and in budget at level where the pressure to ship began, frankly, before we even got started. It was a very difficult game to finish — again, because of that unclean start to the vision.
In the end, for both Ultima VIII and Tabula Rasa, I’m actually very happy with those games, once they were polished and patched and rectified. But by then, it’s too late for the marketing window. I’m not entirely sure what the lessons to pass on from that are. But having a good, clean, strong vision from the start, and standing by it until you finish, I think is crucial. I always found that if you allow yourself to wander or you allow your publisher to make you wander, it’s a recipe for disaster.
GamesBeat: This did lead you to becoming independent again, in the Kickstarter era. Tell us about what that transition has been like.
Garriott: One of my takeaways from now having completed two cycles of going independent and then being part of a company — I’ve already told you that the pressure to go from small to big is because of competition for distribution. Once you are big, you have the opposite problem, which goes back to one of the reasons I think a lot of big companies are slow to turn. They are by their nature risk averse. They acquire new properties. They acquire new gameplay. But they’re not good at inventing new properties or new gameplay.
If they’re going to put $100 million or more into a product, it needs to succeed. Their stock will suffer dramatically if they fail at one of these giant sequels they’re doing. They’re very risk averse. They need to have some level of predictability and reliability in their release schedule. It shouldn’t be surprising to us that if you end up working with a big company, you’ll work with big properties that you’re evolving but not taking giant risks.
If you want to go do something new, which I think a lot of us do — that’s where I get a lot of my enjoyment — you need to go back off on your own and start small. The cycle of small to large is understandable, and it’s something I embrace now. In this case we said, “We want to go off and create the spiritual successor to the Ultima series.” But we wanted to change it up significantly. We wanted to change the technological basis to this thing we call selective multiplayer.
GamesBeat: This is in Shroud of the Avatar, right?
Garriott: In Shroud of the Avatar in particular. We knew we would be taking risks with the model that large publishers would have a difficult time embracing. But games now are not something you can do small by yourself. You need more cash in your pocket to even make a modest game than was the case 20 years ago. That’s when we became an early participant in crowdfunding. Shroud of the Avatar is actually the number two crowdfunded game in history. It’s a distant number two behind Star Citizen, which is 10 times bigger than we are.
Now, we’re at a point where we’re going to be launching later this year, so we’re looking to grow and become a publisher for the first time. We’ve been purely a developer until now. We’re doing another type of crowdfunding that didn’t exist when we started, equity crowdfunding, with a company called Seed Invest. People can directly invest in the company as we grow to become a publisher. We think this will be a great model for this size and this time. But for us to really succeed as a company, we’re not only going to grow as a publisher for Shroud of the Avatar, but we’re going to grow to publish other products from creators of worlds. I anticipate, in five years or so, that we may feel the pinch to partner up with a much larger company.
GamesBeat: What’s your view of the future, looking at things like VR and beyond?
Garriott: I mentioned at the beginning that my power of prediction was very bad when it came to Apple versus PC. By no means do I believe that I can — I became very platform agnostic. Whatever platform people decide to play on, we need to provide them with entertainment on that platform. But I’ve also noted that there are opportunities. You can build new companies and new IP as new platforms emerge.
Talking about VR, I’m a huge fan. I owned VR hardware back in the Apple II days. There was a really terrible set of goggles back then with these postage-stamp monitors in front of your eyes, terrible lag time, very low resolution graphics. It was cool, but obviously, nowhere near ready. We thought, “Give this five or 10 years, and it’ll be great.” That was 40 years ago. Every five or 10 years, new hardware comes out, and I think, “Wow, this is close, but give it another five or 10 years.”
My personal opinion of the current state of VR is that unfortunately, we’re still not quite there yet. It makes great demos. I have a lot of the hardware at home. My kids love to look around in it briefly. But I don’t yet see the economics to back it up. I don’t think we can move through the world fluidly enough. We still have this problem of having to suit up and take it off. You lack the freedom to move around a space when you’re tethered. Peripheral view is still a problem. Seeing your hands is still a problem. Feeling like I have clubs for hands interacting with the world is still a problem.
All these things are solvable. People are working on it, and there are some really cool things to do in VR. It’s all really cool. But what I don’t see is anything even remotely close to the economics of purchases happening that’s necessary to justify the billions of dollars that are being put into hardware. I’m fearful not only that we’re going to see a short-term crash, but at least personally, I don’t see a path out at the other end yet.
That doesn’t mean that, on any given day, someone here in this building could have the solution that fixes it all, and suddenly, VR reaches its stride as the economic powerhouse of the future. I presume that someday that will happen. I hope to be a part of it and catch it soon enough to do my own IP development at that time. I just think that a lot of the hype is dramatically in front of the practical realities of making money.
GamesBeat: Like your father, you suited up and went into space. Maybe suiting up in VR is going to be the next big thing someday.
Garriott: There’s nothing I would enjoy more than creating and experiencing something as close to The Matrix as we can possibly build.
Question: You talked about the early days of the MMO market. What did you think about the revamping of Final Fantasy XIV, after the original version of the game was so unsuccessful?
Garriott: When you look at business models and platforms and even individual releases in a series of games — I can’t tell you how many times people have told me about the death of the future of any one of those categories. For example, pretty much my whole career, I’ve been told that PC games are dead. Every two years, PC games are dead, and you need to get out of developing for the PC. I’m still developing for the PC, and I’m quite content.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that medieval fantasy is dead. When Star Wars came out, people said it had to be science fiction or nothing. When The Matrix came out, it had to be modern people in trench coats and sunglasses or nothing. EA told me, back in the day, that nobody wanted to play as a man running around in tights. They wanted to look cool in a leather jacket. And then, similarly, if you have one hiccup in a game release, people assume that whole game product line is now washed up and dead.
When people are telling you that, and they’re powerful people, powerful partners, people in charge of your economic future, it’s hard not to pay attention and think hard about this advice they’re giving you because they’re giving it to you in a well-meant way. They’re just wrong. What I’ve learned, at least — as a game developer, it’s important not to just stay with your plan because it was your plan, because that’s the way you started. But if you really believe — if you listen to the feedback, and you’ve done your research, and you believe you have something compelling to do — the best thing you can do is stand your ground. That doesn’t mean don’t listen, but it means you should take the input, grind through it, reflect on what this means to you, and push on.
Final Fantasy, I think, is one of these great perennial properties that has a foundation of incredible strength. Sure, it’s perfectly fine to have a hiccup as you change features, as you experiment, as you try to move outside the confines of what you did before. It’s understandable that some efforts won’t be as strong. But that’s no reason to give up on the property. You bind up your wounds, circle back, and try again.
Question: What did you think about the arrival of mobile games?
Garriott: As a creator, I’m still PC first. As a player, I’m absolutely mobile first. In fact, there are probably 10 games I ever played to completion on PC, the games I truly love. But they’re all from more than five years ago. I now have about 10 games on mobile that I love and have played to completion multiple times, all of them on mobile. Most recently, it’s Monument Valley one and two. A game called Spider was the first one I loved on a touch screen. Plants vs. Zombies is a great favorite. There have been quite a few others.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.