Richard "Lord British" Garriott Interview

To anyone familiar with the game industry, Richard Garriott should need no introduction. Not only was he the driving force behind every Ultima RPG ever created, but he's also responsible for founding Origin Systems, the company that brought a multitude of innovative games like Wing Commander and the original System Shock.  Now that he has a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award under his belt, we reached out to quiz the man himself about his many years as a game developer, starting with the pre-Ultima days and working up to his current sci-fi MMORPG, Tabula Rasa. Our questions and his answers to follow:

GB: First of all, let's go back twenty-five years. What originally influenced your decision to become a game developer? Was Akalabeth your very first attempt at creating a game?

Richard: I started writing small games in 1974. The first few were (Star Trek) style simple games, then I quickly moved to a series of tiny games I called D&D 1 through D&D 28 (I was a big D&D fan, as you can see.) Each was written in Basic, on a teletype terminal connected via an acoustic modem to a mini-computer offsite from my school. But even then they looked a lot like what would eventually become Ultima, but with (*)'s for walls, ($) for treasure and letters for creatures ((B) was a giant bat for example.) You moved around and fought monsters and collected treasure. Then I discovered the Apple II, specifically the one that is still functioning outside my office. That's when I began the Ultima series. with (real) graphics!

GB: What exactly was California Pacific Computer and how were you involved with the company? What events took place that put the remaining Ultima titles under the Origin Systems umbrella instead?

Richard: California Pacific (discovered) my first game that I was self-publishing at the time by putting some in Ziploc bags at my local computer shop. They distributed it nationally, sold thirty-thousand units and paid me five dollars per unit. For a high school senior the one hundred fifty-thousand dollar income for six weeks of after school work was a pretty good payoff! So I decided to make more! Eventually CP went under, but that began the road which lead to my brother Robert and I creating Origin, as we felt we could run a business at least as well as the guys who ran these other businesses.

GB: The fourth Ultima is considered one of the finest in the series because it was the first to feature the now-famous virtue system. Where did this idea originate from and how did it influence the remaining Ultima titles for years to come?

Richard: When I was creating Ultima IV, I was worried that it would be a flop. I labored over the virtues to the degree that I felt no one would understand or appreciate. It grew out of a response to the flak RPG's get by religious extremists who decry RPGs as (the devils work.) I had noticed that most RPGs have the same boring, morally ambiguous plot: (You are supposed to be the hero. Go kill the bad guy,) but most players pillage and plunder in order to gain the power required to kill the (bad guy) who has done nothing active in the game but wait for you to come kill him. Players are, in fact, usually the (evil) force. So I decided to make a game that tested IF you really were a good or evil character. Most players began playing in their old ways until they realized they were going downhill due to their behavior and quickly responded, happily amazed at the hidden tests that affected their gameplay.

GB: Why was Ultima VII presented as two separate titles (The Black Gate and Serpent Isle)? Why do you think this installment in particular has garnered so much fan support to this day?

Richard: Honestly Ultima VII: Part 2 was an afterthought. We had built the U7 engine which we felt was very capable and deep, but only lightly (exercised) in Part 1. So we decided to let the designers loose to more fully exploit story telling and interaction in what I think is the best Ultima engine for its day.

GB: After developing so many party-based Ultima titles (III-VII), why was the decision made to allow players to control only the Avatar in Ultima VIII and IX? Do you think this decision hurt these final two games commercially?

Richard: I think the simulated party had benefits and deep costs as well.

GB: When did you originally consider the idea of creating a persistent online RPG in the Ultima universe? What sort of challenges did you find yourself up against to make Ultima Online a reality?

Richard: We had talked about it for many years before starting it. We even tried to contract such a game out on a few occasions, but since there were no examples of the success metrics that would be required to invest at the level we wanted to, it was hard to get buy in for it. Only after many attempts did we get the green light for UO.

GB: Before we move on to Tabula Rasa, are there any memorable experiences working on the Ultima series that you can share with us?

Richard: Frankly, there are too many to tell but as a generality, getting to work with the great developers I have through the years and seeing the results of our work in the players' hands has been incredibly rewarding.