Live at the Independent Game Conference: Richard Garriott keynote

This morning your cheerful (only because we've had enough caffeine) Massively staffers are reporting to you live from the Independent Game Conference in Austin, Texas where Richard Garriott is about to deliver the morning's keynote address. For those of you who aren't sure why you should care, let me give you a mini-bio: Richard Garriott helped pioneer the MMO industry with the launch of Ultima Online a decade ago. If that that doesn't ring any bells, all I can say is that you could trace the heritage of most massively multiplayer games today directly back to UO.

This morning, Garriott is going to be speaking on good game design through research. Curious to hear his thoughts on the subject? Keep reading for our live coverage of his keynote.
10:32 AM: Richard Garriott introduced to applause.

10:34 AM: Garriott believes research is often a forgotten aspect of game design. Most game developers take "the easy and obvious" route. They say "I like this game, but would change this" and work from there. Such games are destined for mediocrity -- a slight improvement over the previous game, at best.

10:36 AM: Don't be a follower: be independent! Independent game developers have a unique opportunity to make games that are memorable because they have the freedom to think independently.

10:38 AM: In order to succeed, you need to make a game that's fun and unique. Examples of unique game mechanics:
  • Tetris: Fresh and unique game mechanic when released
  • Thief: You had to change your thinking when you played -- to sneak around, hide in shadows, etc.
  • The portal game in Orange Box: A fresh game mechanic that was just enough to make it uniquely interesting.
10:39 AM: Intellectual property is underdeveloped! You need unique characters and stories.

10:40 AM: Fun is very hard to define on paper. New ways to have fun cannot be specified in design documents -- great ideas on paper often fail. With game development operating on a limited schedule and budget, they need to plan for the need for two or three or four iterations of paper-to-game in order to have a fun finished product.

10:42 AM: Foundations of good design
  • Iconography
    • Key objects are more memorable when their shapes are simple
  • Terminology: places, characters, things
    • Must be readable, understandable, memorable, meaningful
  • Numerology: 3 Principles, 8 virtues
    • Well-ordered fiction seems more real
  • Symbols: Ankhs, Codex, Runes
    • Humans simplify the world around them
  • Parables: Virtues, ethics
    • Makes stories relevant and current
  • Culture: Languages, histories
    • Makes IP real and complete not just a game. Big believer in the Tolkien design philosophy -- designers should know more about their game world than will ever come out to the player.
  • Familiar yet fresh
    • Well-grounded (familiar) discovery. Garriott thinks they made a mistake with Tabula Rasa -- too much was unfamiliar to the player.
10:46 AM: Iconography. People radically underestimate the usefulness of familiar, recognizable shapes. Example: Wing Comander. The early game ships were all very defined shapes. (Remember the Dralthi?) In later games ships became more complicated, less familiar, and the games less successful.

10:48 AM: Terminology. Need good terminology -- it should be readable, understandable, memorable, and meaningful.
  • Example: Wrath of Denethenor vs. Ultima
    • WoD was an Ultima clone that, to avoid copyright issues with Origin, changed from a fantasy setting to an Asian setting. It was a good game, but none of the terminology was familiar.
10:51 AM: Numerology. Helps structure the world and gives players some expectations. Ultima revolved around 8's and 3's:
  • 8 Virtues, 3 Principles
  • 8 Towns devoted to Virtues
  • 3 Castles devoted to Principles
  • 8 Dungeons devoted to Anti-Virtues
  • 8 Reagents
10:53 AM: Parables.
  • So many roleplaying games are just "kill and collect." This is an addictive challenge-reward system that generates success, but personal relevance adds interest that can go beyond a single game.
  • In typical games, you're the hero and the bad guy sits at the end and waits for you while you pillage and kill and destroy in order to become powerful enough to defeat the bad guy. Make the player to be the hero instead of just telling them they're the hero.
  • Recast contemporary issues into game context.
  • Examples from Ultima:
    • Ultima IV: Only the virtuous deserve to win
    • Ultima V: Many who claim righteousness aren't
    • Ultima VI: Many foreign beliefs are righteous
11:01 AM: Cultural history. Tolkien-style development: the world you develop needs to be more thorough than anything that will come through in the final game. It should be rich but understandable.

11:03 AM: Familiar yet fresh. Tabula Rasa struggled with this -- the first two and a half years of development was thrown out.
  • Tabula Rasa version 1 was planned to try to succeed in the global and Asian market where Lineage had had so much success. The TR team was working with the Lineage team on a game with these features:
    • World mythologies
    • Eastern martial arts, Asian influence.
  • However, whenever the TR team attempted to make Asian-influenced design, the Lineage team would see it as a caricature of Asian culture -- not something that could be taken seriously in the Asian market. After two and a half years they realized that, trying to appeal to both Asia and North America, they'd created something that was nothing but compromise.
  • The team started from scratch with something more grounded. Near-future military setting.
11:08 AM: Method Sample: Tabula Rasa language research project
  • Wanted a language for the game -- much like in Ultima. However, couldn't use the same Ultima-like rune system, because the runes were English-based. For an English speaker, it was relatively easy to translate rune to English letter. But they're horribly difficult for foreign audiences. Tabula Rasa wanted to sell globally, so they needed a different solution.
  • Researched many sources:
    • Egyptians hieroglyphics: horrible source! Pictures don't actually relate to their meaning (i.e. a picture of a bird doesn't necessarily signify a bird).
    • Ancient Chinese: these were actually initially pictographic, though they evolved away from that.
    • Thought signs: not very useful
    • Bliss symbolics: modern pictograms!
    • Modern signs: roads, olympics
  • Created lots of slips of paper with basic symbols they felt they'd need. This actually effected the game's design! I.e. the fact that the "person" pictograph was bipedal forced the game in that direction. Created a number of base symbols which could then be modified in minor ways to indicate more specific things.
  • Now the game language is a real language, evolving with the game.
  • The language is all over the place, in architectural elements, etc. Hard-core players could actually learn and read the language. This enriches the world.
  • Players are taught how to read the language gradually by introducing them to symbols at shrines (which they must collect in order to gain powers). Most players do learn how to read the language.
Q & A

Q: In a persistent world, how do you approach the opportunity to evolve, without the capabilities of re-inventing each time? [I.e. stuck with the same code, same game engine, etc.]
A: The concept of re-inventing the game with each version was key to the success of the Ultima series. Fortunately with MMOs you can constantly do live updates... but you can't re-invent the game. The trick is finding the right cadence to re-invent the game sufficiently [major content patch] to re-invigorate the players. Tabula Rasa is planning quarterly major feature updates and yearly expansion boxes (with entire new planets).

Q: With your experience on Tabula Rasa version 1 [attempting an Asian environment], should game developers not attempt to reach out that far?
A: Developers need to develop games on subjects that they know well. TR's original Asian setting moved too far away from our comfort zone, which really just contained a handful of movies.

Q: With the high cost of game development today, what are your thoughts on paid tournaments or in-game advertising to support the game?
A: Single player games are fairly isolationist -- and we're social beings. And playing in an environment where you get a chance to interact with other people is very compelling. But the business model is very much in its infancy: we're still not sure how players are willing to pay for content. TR: deeply embedded advertising. Non-subscription models are actually one of the more interesting places to be right now.

Q: Have all of your games involved original IP or have you ever developed for other IPs?
A: I am heavily biased towards original IP. There's a reason known IP is successful: if you have the choice of 50 fantasy-themed MMOs and one of them has familiar characters and names, you'll pick up the familiar one. However, original IP has continuing value for sequels, etc. The revenue from an individual game is fleeting.

Q: In the marketing of Tabula Rasa what do you think was done right and what do you think was done wrong?
A: Marketing is a black art. We go back and forth on whether marketing is important or irrelevant. Marketing can definately get you on the shelf and in the first few weeks get you off the shelf. However, in the long run, even with the best marketing, if it's a bad game word of mouth will get out. And with a weak marketing effort and a good game, word of mouth will get it selling. I think the biggest marketing mistake was actually made by the development team and not the marketing team -- by inviting too many people into the beta. We invited them too early and they've burned out on bugs in the beta and haven't returned. So the beta process, which we used to think of as a QA process, is really a marketing process.

Q: How far away do you think we are from multi-platform MMOs?
A: I think for console MMOs, the time is now. They're well-connected, have big hard drives, good graphics, etc. But I think the console market is different. It's a brief play-session experience where you're still likely to be interacting with people in your immediate environment. But deeper play experiences are better suited to the desktop where you're closer to your screen, have more precise input mechanisms, etc.

Q: Can you talk about what happened with Auto Assault?
A: It was a game we were all very enthusiastic about the concept of. But we think that what we ended up with was a game that was too awkward a blend between a car/driving simulation and a character-based fantasy/roleplaying game.

11:43 AM: Thanks for coming -- that's a wrap!
This article was originally published on Massively.