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Massive Opportunities

Richard Garriott on developing the genre he helped create.

It's been ten years since Ultima Online opened its virtual gates and revolutionised the massively multiplayer online game. Its success inspired the development of other titles with more advanced graphics and gameplay such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft - which themselves went on to become hugely successful.

For creator Richard Garriott (who based Ultima Online on his long-running, popular series of computer role-playing games, Ultima), MMOs would become the dominant focus of his career.

Ultima Online was published by Electronic Arts, who also purchased Garriott's first development studio, Origin Studios. On departing from EA in 2000, Garriott started a new company devoted to online gaming - Destination Games.

The studio quickly partnered with and became absorbed into NCsoft, the South Korean developer renowned for its own MMO games in its native country, where the genre remains dominant.

For the past five years Garriott and his team at NCsoft Austin have been working on Tabula Rasa, an MMORPG with a science fiction theme which is due to launch later this year. It marks a departure for the man who's most often associated with Ultima's epic medieval fantasy setting and is Garriott's most ambitious project to date. But will the pioneer of the MMORPG be able to score a second hit? talked to Garriott to find out what he thinks about the state of the massively multiplayer gaming market he helped to create. In part one of our interview, he discusses Ultima Online, the growth of the genre and why World of Warcraft will help sales of Tabula Rasa. Ultima Online pioneered the MMORPG genre, and proved the economic viability of the platform. Looking back at it, what factors were key to its success?

Richard Garriott: I think the demand for a game like Ultima Online existed long before Ultima Online. We had spent quite a few years pitching that game to be developed. There [had] been some form of online games, but they were generally on things like AOL [or a] dial-up bulletin board service. Their maximum subscriber base had been just a few thousand players.

To project sales based upon that, even if you think you'll do twice as good when the best game has 10,000 subscribers, you don't get a very high number. So publishers were, understandably, reticent to try this whole new model. Expectations of [Ultima Online], even through the first half of its development, were quite low.

We put up a website that said, we're developing this game called Ultima Online; if you want to beta test it for us, send us $5 for the privilege. 50,000 people immediately signed up, which was three times higher than the life-time sales projections of the game - even before there had been any marketing spent. Immediately it was clear that the demand [projection] had been missed.

While I'm very proud of Ultima Online, I think the demand was there long before we made the game.

The MMORPG field is dominated right now by World of Warcraft, in the West at least. So why will anyone who is already hooked on it want to take up Tabula Rasa?

What's interesting is the MMO space is still growing so rapidly. The only enemy we have are bad games. If people try MMOs and get a bad taste because of a bad game, they won't continue to play MMOs. They'll go back to playing offline.

We commonly get the question, is World of Warcraft a big competitor that might hurt our sales? It really turns out to be quite the opposite. In the case of the MMO genre, when people sign on to play one of these games - while it's true that they generally only play one, maybe two at the most, no one plays any particular MMO for more than a year or so.

For example, Ultima Online still has hundreds of thousands of players just like it did when it launched. But the ones playing today have almost no overlap with the ones who played it a year ago, or the year before that. What's happened is the majority of those players are now looking for other things to play and have moved on to EverQuest, or World of Warcraft, et cetera.

Similarly, the people that World of Warcraft brought into online gaming have been churning out, and are now looking for other forms of online entertainment. So we're very excited - truly, honestly - to see any successful massively multiplayer online game. World of Warcraft has done us a great service.

You don't feel at all that this field is becoming crowded with too much product?

You know, I have heard that statement from the beginning of the industry, including from my original publisher Electronic Arts. EA felt that one of the main reasons UO had done so well was because it had a 20-year following of Ultima fans that helped it to become as successful as it was. UO was ten times more successful than all the previous Ultima [titles] combined. A year later, it was surpassed by EverQuest and by subsequent games, including now World of Warcraft.

But the release of a new online game has almost made zero difference in the subscription and play rates of [older] games, except for some minor baubles during launch windows where people spend higher percentage of their hours per day playing any new game. So we see what we call our "concurrency numbers" drop as new games come out, temporarily. But I see no sign of the abatement of the expansion of the MMO genre.

So every new MMO game that comes out merely adds players, doesn't necessarily take away previous generations of players?

I completely believe that is true. We have 100 per cent perfect tracking of who is playing, and it's a constant flow of new people.

Richard Garriott is executive producer of NCsoft Austin. Interview by Howard Wen. To read the second part of this feature, visit next week.

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