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GamesBeat offers an extensive interview with Richard Garriott, the creator of the Ultima series who's been working in the games industry for nearly four decades now. A good portion of the interview is devoted to the business side of things and Mr. Garriott's proclivity to innovate and evolve with the industry around him. VR also gets a mention, as well as a plethora of other topics. Here's an excerpt:
GamesBeat: As far as inspiration goes, it seems like your main inspiration was J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Garriott: That’s definitely a foundation. In my best imagination of myself, I think of myself as a Tolkien-style game designer. What I mean when I say that — as soon as I started reading Tolkien, I personally came to the belief that his understanding of the world in which his characters were living was not just deep but astoundingly deep. The layers upon layers of reality crafting he had done for the world before he even unleashed his characters into the world — I was constantly impressed with that.
After reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, I went back and read all his unfinished work. I read English translations of Kalevala, the Finnish oral histories that inspired a lot of his unfinished tales and the pieces built on top of that. So, I feel the same way. By researching deeply the worlds that we’re crafting, it creates meaning and context and depth within the stories we eventually layer on top of that.
GamesBeat: You sold Origin to Electronic Arts and then built Destination Games and sold that to NCsoft. It seems like there’s a pattern where seasoned game developers build a company, make that brand go as far as they can, and then leave to go independent again. What do you think of that life cycle?
Garriott: What I find interesting about having had such a long time in this industry — there’s a cycle that I believe will likely continue forever. The first era of games — boxed retail products, mostly solo games — in the early days there were lots of companies. Origin was one of the top 10 — usually the tenth, but we were very pleased and proud. Origin did very well. We produced a lot of great games and made plenty of money.
But because we were selling at retail, as the retail business matured, the buyer for Walmart or Target or Amazon or anyone that you might think of, they don’t want to buy from 100 different companies or distributors. They only want to buy from a few. They want to make sure that if they buy a product from Origin, they can stock balance. If they buy one that doesn’t sell well, they want to be able to return that and buy something else instead. That means the shelf space per company becomes smaller and smaller. You have to buy your shelf space, basically. Unless you’re one of the top five, you don’t really have access to the spine-edge shelf space to sell products.
The maturing of distribution forced out anybody who wasn’t in the top three or top five. Then, when things go digital, everyone says, “Great, we don’t have to worry about shelf space!” But as that matures, you encounter the same problem in a new form. A few people today were talking about the hundreds of games that come out every month if not every day. There’s a constant stream of new products. While on one hand, it’s easy to publish, to make a game present, that does not mean anybody’s eyeballs land on it. The only way to get eyeballs looking at it is to be part of an ecosystem involving other similar game interests, something you can buy or partner your way into. That effectively brings shelf space back. The concept is similar.
Every time a new platform comes into existence, it opens up again. Not only can you make new IP, but new companies come into existence. Even though Origin gave Electronic Arts Ultima Online, one of the first great large-scale MMOs, they didn’t believe in the model. They thought the subscription model — they were gun-shy to start. Instead of making Wing Commander Online and Crusader Online, they paused. That gave an opening to new companies like Blizzard, which was already a strong developer, but then, they came in alongside NCSoft and Sony Online and all these other companies that dominated this new market segment. It was a missed opportunity for EA.
Every new platform, every new method of distribution, is an opportunity not only to create new IP but also to create new companies that compete with the older companies that might be too slow to turn and dominate that new segment.
GamesBeat: What’s your view of the future, looking at things like VR and beyond?
Garriott: I mentioned at the beginning that my power of prediction was very bad when it came to Apple versus PC. By no means do I believe that I can — I became very platform agnostic. Whatever platform people decide to play on, we need to provide them with entertainment on that platform. But I’ve also noted that there are opportunities. You can build new companies and new IP as new platforms emerge.
Talking about VR, I’m a huge fan. I owned VR hardware back in the Apple II days. There was a really terrible set of goggles back then with these postage-stamp monitors in front of your eyes, terrible lag time, very low resolution graphics. It was cool, but obviously, nowhere near ready. We thought, “Give this five or 10 years, and it’ll be great.” That was 40 years ago. Every five or 10 years, new hardware comes out, and I think, “Wow, this is close, but give it another five or 10 years.”
My personal opinion of the current state of VR is that unfortunately, we’re still not quite there yet. It makes great demos. I have a lot of the hardware at home. My kids love to look around in it briefly. But I don’t yet see the economics to back it up. I don’t think we can move through the world fluidly enough. We still have this problem of having to suit up and take it off. You lack the freedom to move around a space when you’re tethered. Peripheral view is still a problem. Seeing your hands is still a problem. Feeling like I have clubs for hands interacting with the world is still a problem.
All these things are solvable. People are working on it, and there are some really cool things to do in VR. It’s all really cool. But what I don’t see is anything even remotely close to the economics of purchases happening that’s necessary to justify the billions of dollars that are being put into hardware. I’m fearful not only that we’re going to see a short-term crash, but at least personally, I don’t see a path out at the other end yet.
That doesn’t mean that, on any given day, someone here in this building could have the solution that fixes it all, and suddenly, VR reaches its stride as the economic powerhouse of the future. I presume that someday that will happen. I hope to be a part of it and catch it soon enough to do my own IP development at that time. I just think that a lot of the hype is dramatically in front of the practical realities of making money.