Richard Garriott talks MMOs at GWU lecture

Chris Chester
C. Chester|12.11.07

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Richard Garriott talks MMOs at GWU lecture

Yesterday, the Washington DC chapter for the Association of Computer Machinery welcomed game design guru Richard Garriott to speak at its last meeting for the 2007 calendar year. Garriott, who has been writing and designing games professionally since the age of 19, is currently the executive producer on Tabula Rasa, though he's perhaps better known as the man behind Ultima Online, likely the MMO for which he will be most remembered. It helped pioneer the massively multiplayer game as we know it, and ushered in many gaming conventions that we're still familiar with today.

While we were expecting something of a more technical speech from Garriott given the venue, the lecture was more autobiographical, with the esteemed Lord British explaining how, as one of the industry's oldest members, he's had to ride the wave of expectations in PC gaming over time. He also reflected on many aspects of Tabula Rasa's recent release, making it a relevant discussion for gamers who are more familiar with his more recent offerings in the genre.

Garriott started off the lecture by explaining the symbiotic relationship between hardware makers and software makers. While the two industries on the surface seem to be competing with each other – hardware makers trying to create hardware that can outpace the most robust software, and software makers trying their best to exploit the best hardware on the market. This has resulted in a curious dichotomy where games have more or less always used all the power afforded them by the newest hardware. Only recently, Garriott said, are game makers starting to find some breathing room thanks to hardware acceleration and multi-core processors. He speculated that this is going to free up clock cycles for other things like AI, which have traditionally fallen by the wayside.

Another big theme in his lecture was the difference between the game industry today and back when he was first getting started. Self-taught with the encouragement of his parents and teachers, he basically taught himself to program, learning the process of game development by making a game, then scrapping it and making a new one based on the lessons he learned from the last project. He contrasted that with development today, which he says is almost the exclusive domain of big publishers. Games require an enormous amount of "stupid money" to get started, and the returns on the investment is growing more miniscule as time goes on. Garriott said the only real growth going on at the moment is in the online sphere, though the risk is extremely high for publishers.

Talking about the MMO genre generally, Garriott both praised and criticized the competition. Of World of Warcraft, he said that it was really just an exceptionally slick and well-developed version of Everquest. He doesn't find much value in the gameplay, referring to it repeatedly as a "whack-a-mole" dynamic. And while WoW still boasts numbers that dwarf his current projects, he said that the "churn" phenomena will ultimately tip the scales in NCsoft's favor, as players grow tired of WoW, and NCsoft snaps them up with their robust stable of online games. Perhaps most interestingly of all, he conceded that he didn't find much value in the WoW grind, and admitted that he'd purchased gold in the past from an RMT company. He justified the practice, saying that in-game items have a real value and it's only a matter of time before those in-game items are subjected to a market economy. On the positive side, he praised World of Warcraft for its art style, noting both how striking the game is visually, and how well its style scales with old and new hardware alike.

Of his own game, Garriott said that the game was called Tabula Rasa (greek for "blank slate") because he really wanted to rethink the way most MMOs were played. He didn't like the "whack-a-mole" concept that's so prevalent in the Everquest mold, so he wanted to do something that made more sense in the context of a game world. What they came up with was Tabula Rasa's combat system, which rewards players for making smart use of cover, and features AI that is equally capable of exploiting the terrain. He also spoke at some length about his approach to creating the game world, which he referred to as Tolkien-esque. Basically, he wanted to go in and build a living, breath universe first, and then add in the gameplay elements afterwards. This manifests itself in Tabula Rasa's use of the Logos symbols, which are pictographs that Garriott came up with himself in his spare time.

When the lecture was opened to questions, I asked him how he would compare his experiences with the Ultima Online beta test (the popularity of which made the development of UO a reality in the first place), with the Tabula Rasa beta test, which many voices on the blogosphere had said that Garriott was extremely displeased with. He claimed that the stories of his displeasure with the beta are overblown – largely the product of blogs "playing telephone" and exaggerating the story as time goes on. He said that they did take strides to try and bring early beta testers back into the fold after the game had shipped, but still called the beta a success from a development standpoint.

And as we reported last night, he also talked briefly about PvP, and about how it was becoming more of a priority because of the volume of feedback they were getting about it. Specifically, they're looking at integrating the PvP element into the CP capture element to create real incentives for players to engage in clan wars that, up until this point, have been largely arbitrary. By encouraging players to band together to take CPs for their collective advantage, it serves the dual-purpose of allowing players to participate in the shaping of the game world in a very active way, while also giving players a purpose in PvP.

It was a great lecture by Garriott and an excellent event by the DC ACM, which they graciously opened for free to the public.
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