The Return of the Space Cowboy
Richard Garriott details his comeback to the industry and talks social media gaming
Richard Garriott has experienced mixed fortunes in the past couple of years - as lead designer on the disappointing Tabula Rasa title, his departure from publisher NCsoft was acrimonious and now the subject of a lawsuit, but last year he fulfilled a lifelong dream to go into space.
After a hiatus, he's now back in the videogames business with the launch of new company Portalarium, which publishes games on social network sites. At this year's DICE Summit we caught up with the man himself to find out more.
Q: Your last project was with NCsoft - Tabula Rasa - and while that's the subject of a legal dispute I realise you can't comment specifically... but it must have been quite draining?
Richard Garriott: Well, yes, I can't comment specifically, but just for the record with Tabula Rasa and other games - I have about a 50-50 hit-miss ratio with the publication of all my games. And by the way I think 50-50 is mighty good - so although Tabula Rasa didn't find a sufficiently big audience for NCsoft to wish to continue it, I'm actually still very pleased with a lot of the innovations we brought to bear on the game, and I think there's a lot of ways in which it succeeded to at least the design vision we were attempting.
There are other areas in which, in hindsight, even I would be critical a wide swathe of things in Tabula Rasa, but that's no different to any others games I've done.
Q: Is the new project something of a reinvention? People tend to be remembered most for the project they worked on most recently...
Richard Garriott: Well, there are also new players coming in and old players going away - and that's especially true in the giant, five-plus year MMO gaming space where literally a lot of people didn't exist in the last iteration - so I think it's quite forgiveable that people only see one iteration back.
But that's one of the reasons that, while you won't see me personally building a poker game - even though we're publishing that as our first title, the games you'll see me making will be more traditionally Lord British games.
The nice thing about social media networks is that by design they must begin casual and small - which means that unlike the big PC games, for which you have no idea if you're going to be successful or not until you're five years and $50 million into it...
For a social media game like poker, it's not done - it's in beta, but it's already running live and has thousands and thousands of players. So we're refining it while it's out in the public domain. That's normal - but you know if you're on-track much earlier, and the costs are much smaller, the time to market is much quicker, so the risks are mitigated and it's more compelling as a developer.
Q: The launch of Portalarium was announced on the first day of the DICE Summit - what was the immediate reaction like?
Richard Garriott: So far it's been good - so far it's what I'd call "factual" in the sense that most of the press I've seen has focused on the "Richard Garriott is back" angle, that he's doing some crazy new thing that they're not sure how to interpret yet.
Q: The traditional games media tends to find it a little hard sometimes to place casual stuff, because most games journalists are in the business because they're core gamers, so maybe there's a bit of a disconnect?
Richard Garriott: That's true - here's my belief about social media gaming in general, and I'm going to lump social media gaming and casual gaming into the same pool. I think I've lived through what will now be three, once-in-a-lifetime, major shifts in the economics of our industry.
The first was the emergence of the industry - I was one of the very first game developers, and got to ride the wave of the growth of the business, and was very fortunate.
Number two was the emergence of online games - Ultima Online, you could argue, is one of the reasons why that came to pass, but in the last ten years all of the growth in our industry has come from online games.
If you look at the economics, Ultima was one of the best-selling solo-player games in history. Ultima Online, however - which I could hardly get anybody to back, I had a very difficult time getting it started - when it did come out, it sold ten times more than all the other Ultimas combined.
By the way, as that market grew, World of Warcraft makes 10-to-100 times than Ultima Online ever made, so that's the scale of money we're talking about. We're talking about the entire first twenty years being dwarfed by not only my first game, but every game that has been successful since in online gaming.
The third wave is happening right now, with the emergence of the casual gaming customer, largely through the social media networks. What people in this industry better smarten up about, I think, is to recognise the power of this coming wave.
I actually think that in my career I made one stunningly strategic error, and that was being a big Apple fan at the time of the emergence of the IBM PC. I though that surely the consumers are as smart as I am and would realise what a superior platform the Apple was - I kept all of our development on the Apple and it nearly put us out of business, because we had to retool everything quickly as the IBM rapidly took over.
Well, the same thing is happening now with social media. There's no question that core gamers still exist, but the money flow is already shifting so quickly that if you look at the biggest games that are offered on social networks, not only is the player base again ten times higher than World of Warcraft, but the monetisation is now rapidly exceeding all of the games that all of us think of as traditional games - or "higher quality" games.
What's interesting about that is that traditional games people are looking at social media games as having game styles beneath them, they're too simple, or the quality of the offering just isn't inspiring - which, by the way, I have said too, so I understand people's reticence.
Q: Well, if new toys are available, as a creator you want to play with them to see what they can produce, right?
Richard Garriott: But I actually think that this growth wave in social media networks will quickly become the level of quality of offerings that we're more accustomed to, and it's going to become the financial powerhouse of the industry.
So you better choose to participate yesterday, or you will be left behind. I think it's that big a deal, and that important.
Q: There is very little evidence that the core audience is deserting triple-A games though - do you see social media replacing traditional games, or being supplemental?
Richard Garriott: No, it will ultimately be part of one large continuum of what I'd call trivial games up through totally immersive, typical games. If you think about it, Tetris is quite capable as a social media game - even though it never was, but it's light enough to have been - but is also played by a lot of serious gamers.
Q: Well, Pac-Man and Pong were core games when they were first released, in effect...
Richard Garriott: Absolutely it was. Let me ask you this: Do you play any games on the iPhone yet?
Richard Garriott: And what fraction of your gaming time do you spend on iPhone games?
Q: Well, it's not replacement time, it's supplemental - time I wouldn't have otherwise been able to spend playing games. Probably 5-10 per cent.
Richard Garriott: Okay - for me, I'm now 100 per cent on the iPhone, other than when I'm playing our own games or developing. Literally, this year, I've probably played more games than I have in a decade and it happens to have all been on the iPhone. I've only played, like, ten games to completion on the PC, but most of the games on iPhone I've played to completion - okay, they're easier to play to completion, but I've downloaded expansion packs and added in other things... I've never done that on a PC game.
As I'm doing interviews I'm always asking this question, and I'm finding that it's a pretty even mix - a third of people aren't playing any social media or iPhone games yet, a third - like yourself - are picking it up as an addition, and a third for whom it's blending out existing gaming in spite of the negatives of the currently-existing social and casual games.
I think that casual and social media is a coming juggernaut - but the question is, where is the opportunity? As I look at social media games, one of the things that really helped them get started quickly was the fact that you could find it in a web browser, it runs in Java and Flash, it's a fairly ubiquitous platform, easily transportable and it has enough graphical quality in it to be able to create some great games.
As a developer, that's a great head start, but as a consumer it means the highest quality you can get is whatever you can squeeze out of Java and Flash - which is not the same quality that we're accustomed to with all of our custom tools.
Even those casual players... if you've played a Facebook game, the thing that stops me is that on average the user interface is not nearly as slick and obvious as a regular PC store-bought game. The frame rates are not nearly as good as a custom engine, and the overall quality of feel on a moment-to-moment basis is a big step down compared to what we're used to.
But that's by no means needed - it just happens to be where they've gone because it was the easiest way. Our first game out is a poker game - creatively not the most astounding, earth-shattering game design by any stretch, since it's not even at all a new game design, fundamentally.
But unlike all of the top games out there (that are making more money than almost anybody in this building is with their games), this poker game... those top games have all of the issues I've just described in terms of the quality of experience. Their social tools are very strong - their gaming UI and presentation is relatively weak.
We've created a player, called the Portalarium Player, which - instead of running under Java and Flash - installs frankly any graphic engine, but will still run inside that window, inside Facebook or any other social media network that you wish. And it's engine-agnostic, so you can plug anybody's graphic suite behind it - it's like OpenSteam in a web browser.
So if you look at our game, play ours for five minutes, then play any of the others you wish for five minutes and I'm confident that the parallel will be very clear - that while all of them play poker well, and most all of them have the same social features, ours looks better, feels better, plays faster, has actual sound effects... it just has a quality and production value that we're more accustomed to.
I'm a believer that what's important about reaching these customers is that you go to where they are (on the social networks), you allow them to discover and interact with the game very easy (no downloads, no installs, no pain), when they start play it has to be very obvious what to do (with no instruction manual) and then they can play.
But at that point I think a wide variety of types of games are and will be interesting, and once they're there, whether they're playing poker, or farming, or fishing games, I believe that not only can we enhance the quality of those games radically - we can also introduce them to other forms of gaming, as long as you don't violate those early promises.
Richard Garriott is founder of Portalarium. Interview by Phil Elliott.