Stratics had the pleasure of conversing with Richard “Lord British” Garriott regarding his highly anticipated title, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. What follows is a written transcript of the third part of a three-part interview.
Stratics – Nexus: Basically by doing this, not only does it free you up of having someone over your head, but also gives you a sense of having more obligations to your consumers, to the players?
RG: Exactly. And that is who we want to be obligated to. In the end that is the only obligation that will succeed. I can literally go back and analyze each previous Ultima, and its fascinating the ones, even Ultima 4, Ultima 7 and Ultima Online I think are the best ones, and I can tell you in each of those cases I very specifically ignored a lot of the feedback from the publishing, even the internal publishing people who didn’t understand it or even agree with it just because I knew in my heart of hearts it was really the right way to go and this was before we even had player involvement. With Ultima 8 and Tabula Rasa where I really listened a lot more to what my publisher had to say and revised and revamped to make them happy meant we ran late, over budget and ultimately did not provide the players the complete pantheon of what they were looking for. So to me the answer is extremely clear, I need to develop a relationship with the customers early and I need to make this game for them not a publisher.
Stratics – Pinnique: I think that leads nicely into the beta. Are you going to be having a beta then? That’s something you couldn’t have had 16 years ago with Ultima Online whereas now it’s relatively simple.
RG: Exactly. So we are even discussing how soon we can let people into the beta. The game is technically playable right now. There is a stream of gameplay of literally 5 minutes and it wasn’t even seamed together. It was literally a case of someone turning on the recorder for 5 minutes of gameplay, going in and out of towns and in and out of combats. So the game works right now but it is probably too early to let players in. You have seen in the 5 or 10 minutes of video pretty much all the content there honestly is in the game. There isn’t really enough content to let people in to explore, we need to get that further along before it is really valid. Now since we are discussing that we have a more advanced combat system than shows up in the video that is already in but it wasn’t refined quite enough that you could tell what it was and if we had turned that on during the video capture and I didn’t want to start debates on what we had implemented before it was really finished. So now is really the time if we can get players in to talk about it, we will be able to show them more about it after the Kickstarter and we will be able to tune that, what is really one of the core, foundational systems that is how does character advancement and combat occur.
Stratics – Pinnique: Are you going to tie that with Kickstarter then? Would it be an opportunity if you donated $50 or will it be right at the foundation of $10?
RG: It is at a slightly higher level. The way we are breaking it down is if you contribute a low number of tens of dollars you get access to the game, it really just means you are pre-buying the game. If you get up to around $50 to $100 that is when we start letting you in to some of the other earlier activities. That is when you are paying for the full cost of a premium game.
Stratics – Pinnique: Like a founder’s pack sort of thing?
RG: Exactly. Once you get over $100 / $150, somewhere around there, we are starting to give you the swag associated with the game. As you know I am still big on reality components. Things like cloth maps, trinkets, of that sort of nature. We are already producing some of the cloth maps which can be shown to the team, to show how the artworks hold up when you not only shrink it to this size but transfer it on to a piece of cloth. So we will not only make those available to people but if you join the Kickstarter at around $100 to $150, the collector’s edition scale, we will start shipping those to you. The highest levels are where you begin to get the real estate. In UO you could buy a deed and deploy a house anywhere in the world, which was cool because you could deploy anywhere in the world. The problem was you could deploy anywhere in the world. The world became littered with abandoned houses really. Not only does the two scale map fundamentally not support that very well. I mean it’s hard to think about how that would work, but by limiting it to the cities and towns that exist and we can make more cities and towns. In fact we are hoping that we get contacted by some of the big player communities, like maybe yours, who say look we as a group would like to form a town, named after your site and named after your group, with enough lots for all of us and we will apportion them amongst ourselves. Fine by us, we will do that, we will instantiate a town just for that community. But even though the houses sound expensive at $1000 each, depending on if you want smaller or bigger, if you look back at Ultima Online the blacksmiths’ shops near the core of Trinsic, which were by far the most trafficked areas for people to get in and out to bring their ingots in from the mines and to get their weapons to go back out with. Those blacksmiths’ shops sold for tens of thousands of dollars on EBay, and there will actually be fewer places in this game than the last game to be able to deploy homes. So we think that real estate will ultimately be worth that price to the people that lay down a house if they wish.
Stratics – Pinnique: Well I can see that Greg is visibly excited. I am excited but Greg certainly is.
Stratics – Nexus: I have been talking about this non-stop the last few days with the people that help set this up. You have had such a fascinating life as an individual. Some of things that you have done, pioneering in the industry, space tourism, you are involved in the space programme. You are really a positive role model for people, I have to say that. I have just turned 36; I’m going back to college for the first time. Whenever things start to get on me I think well you know if Richard can go into space I can finish school.
RG: That sounds fantastic. That is really a great story and I am truly believer in the lifelong learning process. I actually think that is the only way you can be good at frankly anything; to devote your personal method to that end. It is interesting as to put this campaign together I have gone back to a lot of my earlier design and development documents. I pulled out the original stories I wrote, which were the histories of Mondain the Wizard. I pulled out the notebooks I used to plan the stories for the Ultimas, especially 3, 4, 5 and 6. Where I would setup a notebook, which was always on paper, as the tools weren’t good enough to do these things digitally, where I would multithread this work, that would diagram the work of people, places, plot threads, motivations, where magic items were and how they were moving around the landscape. In a way it is pretty hard to think of a complex, interactive story and thread it all properly. You can’t just sit down and write it all out from in the beginning, “bla, bla, blank, blank, blank…” and write it all down. You have to go through this fairly arduous process and I don’t know anyone else that does that. I don’t know anyone else that has the patience.
Stratics – Nexus: I remember when I was young and got into the D&D table top games. If you really wanted a good game session you had to do the research. You had to sit down and do the planning, spend the time and that’s one of the things that has fallen off in recent years and I think that is making the industry suffer some.
RG: I agree. You look at paper table top gaming and I think at the very beginning when I got into Dungeons and Dragons which as you mentioned, you noted it must have been an inspiration and of course it was a phenomenally huge inspiration. I think the first five years of table top gaming were phenomenal as the early adopters on the whole were the people who were willing to do that research and generally speaking a lot of them were very good story tellers. But as D&D became really popular you ran out of good story tellers and so it then became a debate about, well I have a +3 sword and I’m standing behind you and I have initiative and after we debate the numbers we roll some dice and it is either a hit or a miss, then we start the debate all over again and that is not roleplaying. So I think table top gaming really suffered, it fell down extensively and then I think there was resurgence with the launch of the card game Magic the Gathering. Where more sophisticated and interesting ways of rules based combat came in but that is also right about when MMOs became nothing but these level grinds because everything became rules based and then that sort of fell off but I think there is a resurgence of table top gaming happening right now largely again based on story telling. The rules have all been simplified and the games are really about creating a fictional setting and getting the rules out of the way then doing some interactive storytelling. People are devoting more time again to storytelling so what I’m hoping to do with this game is storytelling. I’m hoping to learn some of the best things about what I will call the Magic the Gathering era of combat systems to not just do the shortcut bar of let me put all my buffs in and then let me do my most damage over time without really paying any attention to what I’m doing, which is the combat of most MMOs. So I’m planning a skills based combat system, combined with deep storytelling, in a largely solo player story based experience but with a persistent world behind it with your contributions, the contributions of others and even some of your friends get to visit you as you play the game.
Stratics – Nexus: That’s great. I really love the idea that even though it is mainly solo game it is going to be a persistent world. As we get to be part of the story more than just acting out a role. We can add things to it and that is another thing that has been missing from a lot of the MMOs. You created worlds where almost anything could be manipulated. That was one of the greatest things put into games; players could make up their own stories.
RG: Exactly. I agree and it’s something I’m committed to. I think the best job we did of that was Ultima 7. The moments that I remember the most in those middle Ultimas when we did that was from the early Ultimas where we really just had mountains, trees, grass and water but really no objects. Then as soon as we had enough tiles to decorate a house with we thought what to put, tables, chairs, a bed and a piano. Then I thought, well if there is a piano you ought to be able to click on it and make some music. So next I thought well if you can click on it and make some music, there should be one time when it is relevant. Where it became relevant, I’m referring to Ultima 5, where in the instruction manual we had a sheet of music of the piece that Iolo wrote that we called Stones, one of the best pieces of music in Ultima and we put the real nomenclature for Stones in the instructions and a series of clues in the game that said Lord British in his chamber has a magical harpsichord and Lord British’s favourite music is this piece Stones. So if you go to Lord British’s harpsichord and play the piece Stones it opens up a secret door in the back of that room and gives you one of the items you need. So to me that is what a sandbox world allows you to do; it allows you to create a world in which everything might be important or nothing might be important. It is really for you to figure it out and for you to use the tools. I mean if I could take a canon and break wooden doors, well then maybe I can figure out a way to get a canon down the hallway and get into this room I’ve never been able to get into as I can’t find the key but let me see if I can get a canon down there. It makes sense that you are logically, rationally, working out real solutions to the problems that are laid out before you versus my classic worst case which is from Kings Quest. You had a gun and you were trying to get past this Yeti and if you used the gun it would dodge the bullet but the way you actually got past the Yeti was to throw a cream pie in its face and I thought well how would anyone have ever known that, there was no logical way to deduce it, you just had to try everything until you got in the mind of the developer and that is the opposite of what I am trying to do with rational storytelling that we are trying to do in Shroud of the Avatar.
Stratics – Nexus: One more, big question for you. In every game that you have, you assume or have some character in the game based upon you, an alter ego; Lord British, General British. Is that going to carry over with this? I know in your early RPGs there were always creative ways to assassinate your character; everything from the plaque falling on your head to poisoning the bread. Is this the type of thing you are going to carry on with this new game too?
RG: Absolutely. All the things you said, the answer is yes. So the way I look at that, it is very funny, the history of that is that again going back to what started Ultima 4 was post Ultima 3, when I realised everybody was killing my character and everyone else too and taking great pleasure in it. So I thought that’s no good, in fact thinking back I think I first knew around Ultima 2 and Ultima 3 was the first game I tried to make it so you couldn’t kill Lord British and so I made it so that my character Lord British was immortal but the way you could actually end up killing him is that people found that if you attacked Lord British and he became angry and would chase you down and kill you but if you ran out the castle, there was a moat around Lord British’s castle and there was a ship in the moat, and if you got on the ship and moved to the shore you could fire your canons back at Lord British on shore. The way a canon was doing damage was that it wasn’t counting down hit points it was just a 50/50 chance whoever you shot at was dead. That was the full simulation as canons weren’t really meant to be a weapon and sure enough you could even kill Lord British that way. So I though ugh! Next time when we made it to Ultima 4 or 5, I’m going to make some of these out of order. I made it to where you again couldn’t kill Lord British. If the person you were attacking was Lord British it did not succeed. But everyone had a timeline, they would get up every morning and at night they would go to bed and there was only one icon for a sleeping person. It didn’t matter who you were when you were standing up, Lord British for example, when you were lying down in bed you were “sleeping person”. So if you could kill Lord British in his sleep in one shot you could kill him and there was a glass sword in the game and so people would figure wait until Lord British went to sleep, get out the glass sword and whack him in one shot and kill him because the damage routine did not detect that I was Lord British yet. Anyway you get the idea it was this cat and mouse chase, over and over again, until really the last couple of Ultimas with the golden plaque and the poisoned bread. So we finally successfully managed to protect me from unintended death but we added in an Easter Egg method. Something like that I’m sure we will put in for the future.
Stratics – Nexus: Ye, I’m not trying to encourage people to try assassinating you again. It’s just one of those traditions that had been there and I had to ask.
RG: Ye, it does seem like that so we will be sure to accommodate it.
Stratics – Nexus: This has been great, having you here to talk with us for a little bit. I have really enjoyed it.
RG: Thank-you very much.
Stratics – Nexus: I’m hoping; I’m sure your game is going to do well. You have a huge following as an individual. I mean most games you hear about, you know there are developers there, you might know one, and a lot of times the one that people do know is someone that worked with you originally. You are like the original company and the original studio. Most of the people wherever they have gone they have been followed and you more so than other. You are, at least in the gaming world, a household name. So it has been a real treat having you talk with us and we wish you the best of luck.
RG: I really appreciate it. Thank-you very much and it is very obvious your knowledge and passion for Ultimas and Lord British’s contributions to the gaming industry’s past; hopefully present and future. I really appreciate the chance to talk with you too.