An Audience with Lord
(PC Gamer, 1997)
Richard Garriott is not your average
company boss. The creator of the world's most famous computer
roleplaying games and founder of Origin Systems lives in a custom-built
hose complete with secret passageways, antique medieval weapons, arcane
memorabilia (a triceratops horn, a brick from the great wall of China,
and the world's first calculator all share space on the same shelf),
and its own observatory tower and fairground.
His mother was an
artist and his father an astronaut, which explains his combined
obsession with the scientific and the creative. He's an accomplished
swordsman. He's the only private owner of a man-made object on a
foreign celestial body (a Russian rover vehicle left behind on the
moon, for which he paid around $50,000). He even has his own double
life, an alter-ego in the form of Lord British, whom he likes to dress
up as at parties and his own now-famous "haunted house" Halloween
bashes. And he has created entire worlds. Britannia, the home of the
Ultima games that founded Garriott's company Origin Systems, has its
own living, breathing history that has evolved over twelve years and
eight games, and is soon to evolve yet again with the release of the
two most ambitious Ultima projects yet..
Since 1983, Origin
itself has also evolved, from Richard and his brother Robert working
out of their father's garage to 81,000 square feet of office space
and 300 staff who between them have created some of the biggest,
most ambitious and — on more than one occasion — best PC games in the
business. Currently, the company is gearing up to release its next
generation of software worlds, with new installments for Ultima, Wing Commander, Privateer, and Crusader,
plus the latest fruits of the newly-acquired Jane's Military
Simulations division. Time, indeed, to sit down with Origin's enigmatic
leader Garriott and chew the fat...
PC GAMER: Do you miss the old days when Origin was a small company?
Well I don't, but a lot of people I know allude back to that, and there
are people who've left Origin to start their own thing for that exact
reason. But I've been there and done that, and now I'm quite happy to
face the new challenges associated with a larger industry and a more
serious competitive field. If I had any frustration with the current
state of the industry, it's just the quantity of schlock amassing in
the pipeline. Right now it's so difficult for quality products to get
any kind of visibility due to the quantity of non-quality products. I
find that aspect of the industry frustrating, but I don't find it
frustrating that it takes better organized teams to be effective. I
find that healthy. I think it makes better games.
As Origin grows, is it difficult to retain the fun that was part of working for a small games company in the old days?
hear that from my employees all the time, but then I've heard that ever
since we had just five employees here. There's no question that we are
now in a serious business, it's no longer a business dominated by
random events — for example, Doom
and the whole existence of id Software was an unpredictable event, an
inspired group of creative types who came up with something out of the
blue. You don't see that happening in, say, the car industry, and
that's the way that our industry now has to be thought of.
Has Origin settled into a pattern of producing series of games rather than individual products? Ultima and Wing are established brands, and Crusader is going that way too...
Well, that whole series policy predates even Origin. The Ultima series was what founded Origin, and with something like Wing Commander, anything that successful has to have a sequel. But between Wing Commander and Crusader,
we've published arond eight original non-sequelled titles. It's
definitely our policy to say that once we have a formula and a play
style that we think is effective, we'll continue to pursue it. It's
never been a written company policy as such, but it's definitely high
on our agenda. There's usually one sequel going out for each of our top
two properties, and everything else is something new. We're still
pursuing things like 3D point-of-view games, real-time strategy
games... everything we're planning to do outside of Wing Commander, Ultima, and Crusader are all-new, original games.
Ultima IX and Ultima Online obviously represent the future of that series, but what's next for Wing Commander?
Well, we've had Wing Commander I, II, and III, which had their heavily intertwined stories that we call the Kilrathi Saga; and Wing IV was a solo product. But Wing Commander V,
which we're doing now, starts a whole new series. It's the opening
chapter in a series of two to four new games which will form the new
series. The Wing Commander
games so far have been about flying missions and then coming back to
see movie sequences which you fairly indirectly affect. What the team
really wants to do now is much more carefully intertwine those two
elements, so you'll start out on the fringes of the battle, but by the
end, you'll be in the front lines and at the critical junctions of the
battle; and your wins and losses are directly tied into the story, in
the sense that the foe you shoot down in space is the character you
would otherwise have run into in the cinematics. We're also working on
another new Wing Commander project with a working title of Maniac Missions,
centered around that character played by Tom Wilson. That whole project
only came about because Tom is such an interesting character.
Do you see Wing Commander and Ultima as ageless properties, or do you envisage a time when they will have run their course?
A little bit of both. I think what we'll do is give them breaks periodically, and or re-invent them. For example, with Ultima IX, I'm purposely closing the Britannia history which has evolved throughout the series, specifically so that after IX
I can sit back and evaluate the series and decide where to take it from
there. It's time to ask, is the online environment where the next round
of Ultimas should be created, or now that we've moved into this 3D
virtual environment in which we can create great stories, is that more
important? It's kind of a fresh start for the whole series.
How has Ultima survived so long?
If you look at movie series, like Friday the 13th,
the problem is that after a few iterations of the story people start to
lose interest because you're dealing with the same characters and
environments, but using essentially the same technology to show them,
so it's difficult to make it fresh. With computer games, it's easy to
keep it fresh because the technology's moving so rapidly. Ultima IX and Ultima I
are so night-and-day different there's no overlap in their appeal. If
the technology evolution continues at this pace, we'll be able to
Because of your
personal connection with the Ultimas, do you take more of an interest
in their development than other titles at Origin?
there have been periods of time of around six months to a year where I
really haven't been involved in game creation, but I haven't found
that personally so rewarding. I'm so personally tied to the Ultima
series that it's hard for me not to stay involved to some degree.
How do you feel the Ultima series has progressed over the years?
There's been an interesting pattern ever since around the time of Ultima III, and whenever I talk to people about the series, they always say that their favorite Ultima is not the current game, but the one we did a couple of games ago. And for a while I was really paranoid about that, like during the periods of Ultimas III, IV, V, and VI when people would tell me that Ultima II was
their favorite because that was the last one where you could kill
everybody, without having any of this ethics stuff on top. My two
favorites, by the way, are V and VII. Ultima V
because of the gray area in the storytelling — the characters weren't
just archetypically good or evil, there were a lot of in-betweens, and
it was hard to tell who was on your side and who wasn't. And Ultima VII because of the richness and detail of the world. That's the best Ultima in my mind, because every single thing within the world was interactive and could be used as it was intended.
But then came Ultima VIII, which wasn't as popular with die-hard players...
By the time of Ultima VIII, we really felt we had driven ourselves into this Ultima
niche where we had lots of historical Ultima customers but we weren't
getting very many new customers. So what we wanted to do with Ultima VIII
was focus a lot of attention on the animation and the presentation,
but the trade-off was that the world detail suffered, and so the game
didn't go down quite so well with the old school of Ultima players. But
we were prepared for that; we anticipated that it wouldn't. The idea
was to try to bring new people to the storyline. The real test is going
to be Ultima IX, because after VIII we're not sure if we have the same audience. We've picked up new players, but we may have alienated some of the old.
How important is Ultima Online for the development of the series?
That's an interesting question, and one that we debate amongst ourselves a lot. There's one school of thought that says Ultima Online is going to completely take over the brand's future. People believe that multi-player is so compelling that Online
is the future of Ultima. I personally feel that there's two futures.
I'm pretty confident about the single-player story-based game, based
around the epic conflict and resolution, because that concept is so
compelling for me as a storyteller. But even the pre-alpha test version
of Ultima Online, where all
you could do was talk to people and buy and sell goods, has attracted
people who wouldn't normally play Origin games, or games at all. Even I
didn't intend to spend the amount of time that I did just wandering
around and conversing with people.
seems that the multi-player genre is starting to take off at last, as
the big companies are releasing multi-player version of their biggest
Yes, and we've got multi-player plans for our other brands. everything from Longbow to Crusader.
But it's interesting to talk about the online multi-player strategies
that the different companies have. We play a lot of multi-player games
like Command & Conquer
over the local area network here in the office, and some companies are
making these multi-player action games nationwide, but I don't find
that particularly compelling. Those kind of action games have a certain
multi-player aesthetic, but I don't think they're going to be nearly as
compelling as the social games like Ultima Online,
where you actually get a chance to check each other out in detail, talk
about adventures you might go on together, and see if you have common
ground, both in the real world and in the fantasy world.
Has your attitude towards interactive movies changed over the years?
year at shows like CES and E3, the hardware manufacturers are trying to
predict where they should invest their development time, and so we get
asked what we would rather have —
surround sound audio cards, 3D graphics cards, Windows accelerator
cards, or streaming video cards. And tons of people always say
"streaming video!", but I'm going "No no no, virtual environments!
Let's get those 3D things going." I'm still a devout believer in the
virtual environment, but the quality level of what you can do with
video, in the sense of what a real actor can emote to you, and how
real an actual movie set can be, is currently so far superior to the
virtual environment. So I think the best of all worlds is to capture
the aesthetic of what you get from an interactive movie, but in a
virtual environment. Our first experience in that field, and one that I
backed strongly, was Bioforge.
And although we don't have one of those in development right now, it's
still an area that I sure hope we can pursue, and if I get my way we
will. But I can imagine lots of other clever ways to build virtual
environments that have television-quality presentation. Imagine
something like 7th Guest, but
instead of being on a set path and constantly moving forward, at any
point you can stop and look around through 360 degrees. The camera
still moves on a dolly, but it can look absolutely wherever it wants in
3D space. I think we can create movie-quality virtual spaces, and if
not today, really soon. The blurring between interactive movie and
synthetic environment will continue, and that has top happen because
right now interactive movies are just movies that are occasionally
interactive. What we need are games that are always interactive, but
look as much like movies as possible.
At the moment, though, you seem happy with the approach you use in games like Wing Commander IV.
Yes, we're pursuing both approaches, and you'll see them moving closer together. If you look at Wing IV and The Darkening, the interactivity in the movie sequences is already much better than it was in Wing III. And from the outlines I've seen for Wing V,
I know there are some very clever ploys to make those sequences still
more interactive on a constant basis, rather than just clicking A or B
when the movie pauses. They're coming up with better ways to make that
more fluid and make those branches more relevant. The other trick with
interactive movies is if you're at a branch and you make a selection,
you only get to see one branch or the other, which means you've wasted
the whole other half of the branch. Now we're finding better ways to
utilize footage effectively, so if we've built two very expensive sets
and you choose to see set A, we'll get you past set B as well before
you leave the area.
How big a blow was it to lose Chris Roberts, who was pioneering for this area for Origin with the Wing games?
is still loosely associated with us, so we haven't lost him completely,
but yes he was clearly a key member of Origin from a variety of
standpoints. We'll miss him from many other aspects of his managerial
contribution than from Wing Commander
specifically. Just like Ultima has grown far beyond me as an
individual, the same thing is true for Chris and the Wing Commanders.
There's a contingent of us here at the office who feel that Chris was
driving the Wing Commander stuff so much towards movies that he was
neglecting a good aspect of the gameplay element. One of the reasons
for Chris's departure is that he;s not really interested in making
games anymore, he really wants to make movies, and he's one of the few
people who I think might be able to cross from games into movies. He's
taught himself the ropes pretty well.
There was speculation a while ago about a Wing Commander movie...
That's still a reasonably likely event. We're already doing an animated tv series with Wing Commander Academy,
and we have a movie deal waiting to be signed. But there's an
interesting difficulty right now, with George Lucas planning the next Star Wars series, there are lots of studios who want to work with George and don't want to piss him off.
has taken a lot of criticism for designing its games for
top-of-the-line PCs, with owners of lower-end systems not being able to
enjoy the games. What's the policy at Origin regarding hardware specs?
have kind of an unwritten theory here — unwritten but often spoken —
which says you never hear anybody say "That's the best game I've ever
seen that still runs on a 386." It's either the best game you've seen,
or nothing. I believe there's nothing to be gained by having access to
the lowest common denominator. Active game buyers also tend to be
active hardware buyers, but the question is: How far can you push it?
It's always hard to know exactly. You start a game anything up to two
years before it releases, and you're guessing what your final frame
rates will be, and you're also trying to predict what the market will
be like. Fortunately, PCs get faster sooner than we expect, and the
amount that our frame rates are slower than we'd hope balances things
out. All of our fall games are Pentiums only.
What do you expect Origin to be doing two or three years from now?
think we'll see that mixture of interactive movies and synthetic visual
spaces continue pretty dramatically. I think the hardware's just now
finally available where we can begin to integrate that stuff
seamlessly. Ultima IX will touch on that a little bit, but with the next round of products that will begin with Ultima X,
you'll begin to see truly virtual spaces, places that are truly
immersive and achieve that holy grail of giving gamers a complete
virtual world to play in. I think our whole company slogan of "We
Create Worlds" will become much more notably true...