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Portalarium's Richard Garriott

On his new Lord British-style game, standardising social gaming, and the problem with start-ups

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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

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Matt Martin

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Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.

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