Richard Garriott gave the final keynote at this week’s Game Developers Conference in Europe, using the Ultima series, Ultima Online, and his upcoming Lord British game as examples for the three phases, aka the “Three Grand Eras of Game Development” as he calls them. They move from single-player to MMORPGs to social gaming.
He discussed a bit of what helped him succeed, while making it clear that he felt it was time to move on.
“One thing that I really lucked into was creating storylines with what I will call ‘social relevance’,” he said, pointing to the moral choices inherent in the Ultima games.
The “save the kingdom” story of the original games in the series is no longer enough, though it still has traction in the industry, he said. “The first Ultimas were very simple stories… And if you look at most games today they still are. Personally, I don’t know about you, after I told that story a few times I was done with it.”
He also discussed the very early days of UO when it wasn’t always a sure thing, and he even discussed that the graphics were outdated in the 1990s:
When he launched the Ultima Online project, EA’s “faith in the team and faith in the project was so low,” he said, that “projected sales were 30k lifetime.”
“Sales and marketing were not in favor of us working with the game,” he said. “It wasn’t until we put up a prototype and put up a web page… 50,000 people signed up to be beta testers in the first couple of weeks. When it finally did ship it was the fastest selling PC game in origin and EA history at the time. Within about two years had outsold all of the other previous Ultimas combined.”
Even so, he said, “Despite the success, lots of people were not convinced that this was a good future for gaming in general.”
This is because the game had dated graphics and a lack of story — putting it behind the current state of the art of single player games. “When a new era starts with graphics that are five or 10 years behind the state of the art, very quickly that changes.”
One thing I found very interesting and agreed with, is Garriott’s take on mobile gaming:
“I am now much more of a gamer than I ever been been in my whole life, but the vast majority of the gaming I have played has been on this machine,” Garriott said, while holding up an iPhone.
“I’m a devout believer that this is the current and near-term future of games.”
I agree with that – I’ve played far more games on my iPhone and have been impressed by how far it’s come in such a short time. I’m playing the Ultima IV beta on the iPad as well and it’s very impressive and makes for a good platform for older games.
This is just a general comment, but I wonder at times if he’s got a case of sour grapes when it comes to certain things. He’s had some really bad experiences that weren’t his fault, especially with MMOs – Ultima Online 2, Tabula Rasa, but also with Ultima 8, which he mentioned:
“There are only two games I look back with some sense of regret… They happened under similar conditions and I made the same mistake twice,” said Garriott.
They were both the first games he worked on after selling his company to a new publisher. Ultima 8 was rushed to hit a holiday release window, and it’s his biggest regret.
“Tabula Rasa — the original vision we had for the game, I wish we had stuck by… The vision was seen as too strange and far out by sales, marketing, and international concerns… It put us further and further behind before we even really got started.”
He had very little to say about Lord British’s New Britannia, other than it wasn’t ready, but he did mention that MMOs are changing to suit the many playstyles out there and used UO as an example:
One important problem with today’s MMOs is that “every player is a combatant”, he said. “In Ultima Online, that was not true.”
It is easy for me to say that you should judge his comments in light of the bad experiences he’s had with some large companies when it came to both his Ultima and Ultima Online games and other properties later on, but some of those experiences ended in court. I think it’s especially telling that more and more MMORPGs are being released all the time – when you visit sites like Massively.joystiq.com or MMORPG.com, the selection of MMOs now versus even just five years ago is staggering. Some of the largest and most anticipated games in the next two years are MMORPGs – Star Wars: The Old Republic, BioWare’s Titan, just to name two.
On the other hand, he always had a thing for trying to be cutting edge, whether it was pushing the boundaries of computer hardware with games coming out of Origin, or helping take the MMORPG genre into the mainstream when companies and players weren’t sure what they were or what they were capable of. And let’s face it, some of the social games he talks about have 5-6 times the players that games like World of Warcraft have. Just because those social or Facebook games may appeal to a broader audience than MMORPGs doesn’t make them any less of a game and they are still making their developers 100s of millions, even billions of dollars.
I’ll still take single-player games and MMORPGs over 95% of the social games out there though. And the games I play most on my iPhone – mostly single-player, especially “retro” games that just aren’t being made on the Mac or PC platform. I’m still not sure why EA hasn’t started releasing Origin’s back catalog of Ultima and Wing Commander games on the iPhone. That’s a lot of money just waiting to be made.
It’s a very entertaining read, and while Gamasutra has highlights, I will try to find a transcript or video.