It's been a year since veteran game designer Richard Garriott announced his social and casual games business Portalarium. Running with a low profile, Portalarium has spent the past twelve months building the back-end infrastructure with just a couple of casino games public to test and asses the service he hopes to offer.
Now, due to announce his first Ultima-style game for the social space within weeks, Garriott took the time to discuss the project with GamesIndustry.biz, how he hopes to help widen the reach of social interaction through games, and why we'll very quickly see the real winners and losers in the social online gaming space.
Q: The last time we spoke you'd just announced Portalarium around a year ago. What stage is that at now?
Richard Garriott: We started the company about a year ago and it is still effectively in what I would call the garage incubation period. It's literally operating out of a lake house that I have in Austin Texas. We cleared out all the tables and other normal lifestyle trappings and put in folding tables and high speed internet and we have varying between a dozen and half a dozen people operating there.
Q: What attracted someone with your games design experience to the social games market?
Richard Garriott: I think there has been three grand eras of games playing. Solo gaming, massively multiplayer gaming and my definition of social or casual gaming. Solo player are obviously for one person, you also pay $50 at a retail store for them. MMOs you still go to the retail store and buy, but you also pay $10 per month to subscribe. In my mind, the key issue for social and casual games is largely the distribution method.
Instead of having to go pay $50 up front you find it virally by friends of a friend, you don't pay anything up front, you don't have to install anything up front of install anything up front. You just sit down and start playing.
I think that's the key model along with making sure the experience is designed in a light enough way and an attractive enough way to reach the broader audience. Not the millions of gamers we had with solo, not the tens of millions we had with MMOs but the hundreds of millions for social. That's the market I'm now tapped into.
I also want to tap into the true mass-market but I want to do it with an in-depth, Lord British style experience.
Q: In terms of products created and social experiences, what stage are they at?
Richard Garriott: We're doing it in steps. Portalarium has two, really just casino-style games so far which we largely did because the game design aspect of it is trivial. We're building the back end - the infrastructure that allows us to do billing and customer support.
More importantly we have a belief about connectedness of people that we believe most casual game-makers aren't doing. For example, if you play any of the currently popular games from the big two dominant players right now making casual games, if you're playing that company's game and I'm playing another of the same company's games, we're not really aware of each other in real time.
We think that's a mistake. We think that the whole point of social gaming is to keep up with your friends. So we've created a suite of tools that mean no matter what we're doing in our entire eco-system, any game that adopts the same kind of standard, it means that you will be permanently connected to them as you roam the universe of entertainment and activities and online. So we started with a simple game but building the back end is the value part of our proposition.
What we're building at this moment is our first completely original game. It's still relatively small compared to Ultima and it's not announced yet, we'll debut it in a few weeks. But we believe it's right on the sweet spot of what's already popular and attractive to casual game players but it's also a bridge to the next part of our plan. Ultimately, we do plan to bring an experience to the consumer in the casual space, that while it meets the criteria of social and casual still has the depth of what people are used to seeing me make akin to the Ultima series.
Q: You've said that you want to expand Portalarium to include learning, science and other technology areas - is that still part of the plan?
Richard Garriott: Yes it is. If you look at the open social movement, and if you look at Facebook versus Hi5 or any other of these have-been or future social media networks, only Facebook is using a unique standard. Everyone else is adopting this open social standard that Google really helped to spearhead. Not only do we think that's a good idea, but we're expanding it to what we call 'open play' and 'open good', that can add to that.
We don't want to control it but we do want to make sure that we at least help provide guidance to standards or help encourage standards, so social gaming goes beyond just covering name and friends lists. Worlds and quests and wealth and other things that are game related should also have a similar standardised context so that if we're playing completely separate games it's still possible to message each other something that's relevant. That complete package of social play and social good is important for our company and the industry.
Q: So what's the timeline for the evolution to get to that level where the different elements are up and running, interlinked with multiple games and experiences?
Richard Garriott: We've built the infrastructure to offer as much as we could to begin with. By no means will it all be done at the same time as out bigger games that are starting to come out, but at least the framework will be in place. The more games that use these standards, the more you'll see the power of them and see the need for them to justify flushing it all out.
It will take a few years before the full power is visible but you can already see in our first two casino games that players are sharing information, cool things are popping up on each other's screens in windows - do you want to ignore them, do you want to message them back, do you want to go play with them?
Q: The standards, the tools that you're creating for Portalarium, is that something you're going to sell to other companies?
Richard Garriott: We're actually going to give it away. There are people that are trying to sell their game development tools of various kinds and there are lots of high quality tools and engines available. But a lot of people are demanding that either money changes hands, or if you use those tools you must publish or use a particular service. That limits adoption and turns that standard into a competitor group that is out to resist other standards.
Fundamentally, if you think of your friends lists, I have two on LinkedIn and Facebook. Facebook is now my dominant one because that's where my customers are. Migrating one friends list to another is a hassle. They're my friends, they're not Facebook's friends. So another thing our tools will do is they will make sure your friends are your friends.
As you migrate you don't fundamentally care that they're on Facebook, you fundamentally care that they're your friends. We believe a rising tide lifts all ships so we're giving this away when people utilise them - if they want to use them just for their own experiences, that's fine, they can wall it off - but we think it's a better advantage for all of us if we let all of your friends know what you are doing across all of the games you're playing, anywhere.
Q: There's been an attraction to social gaming because it seems to be lower budgets, lower team sizes, it's quicker to get product to market. But that's extending now to take longer, cost more... will social hit a peak or like console development would you expect budgets and team sizes to spiral continuously?
Richard Garriott: The popular new games have now taken many person years and are already pushing millions to develop. It will always grow, but it's still a fraction of an MMO because an MMO demands the package, the subscription, the feature complete game, debugged and properly marketed on day one. The advantage of free-to-play is you can put up an unfinished game.
What if there were two versions of Ultima that shipped but once you'd played them for 100 hours they were identical? Game one you package for $50 and charge $10 a month. But game two you ship for free, and only after you pass a level or change maps we begin to charge you money. In today's market the free-to-play one would spread quicker, even amongst its traditional audience. You're reach a much bigger group of people.
If you dissect it further, Ultima Online included farming, running shops, fighting monsters, pets - and what kind of games are popular on social networks right now? They're all dissections of what I've already done throughout the Ultima series. One of the things I'm really excited about is that these games are already popular with an audience ten times bigger than the MMO audience, that now covers all ages, all genders and all walks of life. I already know how to do those games.
As soon as we have a game where you can have an avatar with a house and a room to display the cool things you've collected we can ship it. And then tomorrow you can fight monsters, and a month after than you can have some weapons and armour, and a month after that you can build swords... That will still allow us to come out with a full in-depth Lord British experience, but begin the journey as light as makes a confident, interactive game.
Q: The social and casual space seems to have consolidated very rapidly...
Richard Garriott: When you talk about resets, that allows new companies and teams to come into existence, Ultima Online was the first massively multiplayer online game. At that time no other firm was interested in doing them because they didn't understand it. So a few new companies came into existence that are now permanent.
NCsoft is one of those and they were inspired by Ultima Online as it was in development. Zynga and Playfish, they didn't exist previously and now they're very big players. Each of these moments allows a few new players to come into existence and compete with the previous generations standards. However, those eras don't last.
It took 20 years for solo player games to mature and then consolidate. My first company Origin was one of the top ten, but eventually, top ten isn't big enough. Eventually you have to be the top five or top three. We had to sell Origin to Electronic Arts because otherwise you don't get access to the distribution channel.
MMOs have levelled the playfield again, and social games have levelled it once more. It was level for 20 years with solo games, ten years for MMOs and now five years for social and casual. And we're already through three of those five years.
Q: Do you think the social market is going to level out soon with just the four or five top companies? Is it already almost that time? There's a lot of money being thrown around, a lot of land-grabbing going on.
Richard Garriott: There is, but most of it is junk. What's interesting is that there are a few companies that are making real money in a big way so they deserve their high valuation by all means. And they've not only led the charge but they are evolving quickly and they're doing a brilliant job of it. I have respect and admiration for my already titanic competitors that are ahead of me.
That being said, there's tonnes of small start-ups who we are seeing take lots of investment and lots of activity and large acquisition costs - who are creating, literally, junk. Stuff that people aren't playing that much and if you play it, it's not much fun. But it does show you there are investors desperate to find a foothold in this market.
There are lots of individual developers who have now finally seen the light and realised they want a piece of the action too. I install and play as many of those game as I can see and find just to see if there's somebody we want to work with, or acquire, or see as competition. It's fascinating to watch how everybody is still in over their heads. I do think it's going to be short-lived, the door will close quickly.
People that think we have the permanent door open of free distribution on the internet and therefore viral is going to be the great permanent equaliser - it's just not true. Because you're still going to be competing for mindshare and access to where people go to find this information. Advertising and distribution muscle is still going to win that day.
Richard Garriott is CEO of Portalarium. Interview by Matt Martin.