The Game Archaeologist and the Ultima Prize: Richard Garriott

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|05.18.10

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The Game Archaeologist and the Ultima Prize: Richard Garriott
Before he was Tabula Rasa's General British, Richard Garriott was simply -- and most famously -- known as Lord British, the absolute ruler and creator of the Ultima franchise. From 1980's Ultima I through 1999's Ultima IX, Lord British guided the development of one of the most popular RPG series of all time, including 1997's Ultima Online. Through it, Garriott and his Lord British persona became the de facto face of the series, a video game celebrity before such a thing really existed.

After the floundering of Tabula Rasa and his subsequent falling-out with NCSoft, Garriot took a little R&R time to blast into outer space, returning to Earth to get involved with a social media games company called Portalarium. Because of his stature as one of the founding giants of not only MMORPGs, but video game RPGs as well, the Game Archaeologist stopped at nothing to procure his wise words for an interview. This quest took us to far-off, dangeous places -- including the world's most famous haunted house, Britannia Manor -- at which point we promptly purchased a return ticket and pleaded with our editor to do our dirty work for us.

So bow, mere mortal! For you are now in the presence of LORD BRITISH! (cue wild applause)
The Game Archaeologist: How did you envision Ultima Online fitting in with the Ultima series as a whole? Was it to be a spin-off or a legitimate part of the story and legacy?

Richard Garriott: In my mind's eye, if you go back to the foundation of Ultima, it was created during the same period of time where I was doing paper & pen gaming extensively. Ultima I and II were emulations of what we were doing with PnP at the time. So for me, the game was really always a multiplayer game, at least what it was intended to be. The motivation to do Ultima Online was to manifest the features that should've been there from the beginning.

"Since there had never been a significant selling MMORPG previously, nobody believed it could be profitable."

At the time of Ultima's development, how aware was the team of other MMOs being developed at the time, like EverQuest and Asheron's Call, and did that affect any of their decisions in design?

We were so unaware of it, that if you'd posed that question to me back then, I would not have known that they were in development at all. There was one game released before UO from 3DO (Meridian 59) that didn't fare very well. Since there had never been a significant selling MMORPG previously, nobody believed it could be profitable. It was an uphill battle to loosen the purse-strings enough to even build a prototype.

A lot of these other games that came out later were 3D MMOs -- was this a concern of yours while making a 2D MMO?

No. In fact, in those earlier days when games were in software 3D -- hardware 3D had yet to come -- I actually preferred top-down 2D, as it allowed you to interact in a very detailed way with the world. I would even argue today that a vast majority of MMOs are about running around, killing monsters and collecting treasure. They're not about interacting with the physical world in detail. Ultima Online was about this. Things such as placing on tables cups and plates and silverware, and being able to pick up rings off the ground were important to me. Even today, 2D offers some advantages to how you might be tuning your game.

UO's launch being in the early days of the web, did you find the players drawn to the game generally more technologically sophisticated and willing to put up with more hardcore activities, or was the mix of players similar to today?

The early adopters were definitely hardcore players and willing to suffer with the struggle to pull it off. That would never work in today's market. It became obvious with the launch of Ultima Online what a pent-up demand there was for such a game. The EA sales forecast had us at only 30,000 lifetime sales, and they only let us make it because it was an Ultima title and thought I could drag in some of my more hardcore Ultima fans. When we finally put up a web page saying that players could send us $5 to be in the beta, we got 50,000 responses to it. Even though its records have been resoundingly beat by other games like World of Warcraft, it still has an enormous total volume of sales and a significant number of players to this day.

What was your design motto at the time of UO's creation?

We had two things that we were trying hard to accomplish. One, was to create the "perfect Ultima world" that you could interact with to the maximum possible depth. Two, to find a way to continue to make the virtues and story relevant even though you were in a multiplayer setting.

What feature did you particularly enjoy seeing go in the game? What about a feature you wanted in the game, but ultimately (no pun intended) got scratched?

Two features stand out as noteworthy in spite of how they turned out. The first was a feature that failed -- that was the virtual ecology. We had spent a great deal of time and effort building a virtual ecology between plants, herbivores and carnivores. When the game operated with no players in it, it found a natural balance. When the game launched, the players killed the creatures so fast that there was no way to crank the respawn up high enough to give it any relevance. So very sadly, we removed it.

Conversely was the amazingly uninteresting feature of fishing that we put into the game for completeness. Even though it was extremely basic, that feature became stunningly popular, and a bunch of apocryphal stories arose of whether fishing worked better in streams or rivers (it didn't). So we doubled-down on it and increased the sophistication of the feature.

"At the time, all the players and employees from all over the world had congregated in that one area, and the QA guys didn't know who to punish, so they decided to kill them all."

PKing became a huge issue in the early years of the game -- did the team anticipate it panning out the way it did, or did it get too out of hand?

We definitely did not expect it to pan out the way it did; as it began to unfold we had mixed feelings as how to respond to it. The theory we thought was sound -- we made the towns safe and guarded, you'd leave and have more of a free-for-all. But one day I was GMing as Lord British, and I saw a female character shouting for help. Right as I was talking with her, a thief shows up with macros, steals everything she has and runs away. I teleported ahead of him, froze him to the ground, and told him to cut it out. He promised to do so, but stole from her two more times. When I confronted him about it, he broke character and said, "Of course I'm going to do that, I'm a thief, it's what I do. I'm operating within the rules of your game, and of course I'd lie to the king of the land." I was like, "Damn! You're right!"

Tell us the truth: from your perspective, how'd you react to being PK'd in beta?

What's funny is that normally my character wasn't PKable, but after each beta server wipe, it was important for me to reset the immortality flag on Lord British. I'd been toodling around for weeks assuming that I was immortal, but I wasn't. When Rainz threw a fire field at me, I assumed I was immortal and stepped back into the field and keeled over dead. Days later we had to pour over the server logs to see what happened.

One of our QA guys hurries over to resurrect me, a minute away from the shutdown of the server at the end of beta. At the time, all the players and employees from all over the world had congregated in that one area, and the QA guys didn't know who to punish, so they decided to kill them all. They summoned dragons and demons and shot off fireworks and massacred everyone who was there. We thought it was great fun at the time, but what horrified us later was to learn that many players did not think it was fun -- they got killed and sent away as a ghost so they couldn't be there at the final moment.

What did the community do that truly surprised you when the game went live?

There are numerous examples. The game quickly became a victim of its own success -- it didn't handle well with a hundred people on screen at the same time. So the players were understandably frustrated when they clustered together.

What's interesting about it is that you'd think if people were frustrated with the game, they'd quit. But the people of UO were so compelled to be a part of it and, simultaneously, frustrated and wanting to be heard, that they staged a sit-in at Lord British's castle. They brought a thousand people together in the castle, which brought the game to its knees, then stripped and got so drunk that their characters started throwing up all over the floor. They basically had a civil disobedience uprising as a way to get the development team to hear their complaints.

If Ultima Online 2 hadn't been canceled and you were still part of the project, what would you have liked seen done with the title.

Ooh, complicated question. When we did Ultima Online, the team said that the game was a living, breathing entity that would continue to grow and evolve. So our advice to our publisher at the time was to do Wing Commander Online or Crusader Online, but not Ultima Online 2. By starting UO2 immediately, we had to have every feature that was in Ultima Online already, which was a moving target. But we were told to start UO2, and we knew that it was going to be bigger and take longer and require more and more money. As we predicted before we started, people eventually got tired of the ever-expanding scope and canceled it.

So I don't think I can answer this question, because I don't think we should have ever started UO2. It wasn't the right time.

Thank you, your highness!
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