Richard Garriott Interview

Gamasutra recently chatted up Richard Garriott, quizzing the Ultima creator about what his team at Portalarium is working on, the rise of casual gaming, how video game metrics are used to make improvements, and more. A generous snippet:
What's the state of Portalarium now?

Richard Garriott: So we started the company just over a year ago. It's what I'll call my "usual suspects", it's you know... Got my friend David [Swofford] who you just saw, who's our PR/marketing guy, Fred Schmidt who's kind of our business side, and Dallas Snell is running product development.

And a bunch of the developers, all of us who have worked together at Origin and NCsoft -- or Destination Games, which became NCsoft -- Origin, EA, Destination Games, NCsoft, now Portalarium.

You know, our first year has been largely building infrastructure and technology. Our belief about social media games is that not only do we believe we can create great games, but delivered through free-to-play, pay as you go, and, you know, click on an email link to start playing, which we think is the kind of critical aspect of the new delivery.

But also we believe that... one of the key aspects of what is not being done well now that we believe can and should be done much better -- and hopefully we'll lead the charge in this area -- is that if you look at most of the companies making casual or social games right now they... even if you're playing the same companies' games, you're largely siloed from each other.

Now if you're playing one Ville-like game and I'm playing a different Ville-like game, we don't know about each other's activities during those games until after I log out and look at my posts on my wall and I go, "Oh, at the same that I was playing, my friend was playing this other game; kind of wish I knew that."

And so we've created an infrastructure -- a standardized messaging system between all games -- so that while you're playing a game, I can get notifications of what you've done that I can either ignore, tell you congratulations or whatever else, or click on a link that lets me change games and jump right in and play right alongside you. So we believe that we're trying to deepen the connections between you and your friends across all the games that you play.

And so that's what we've been building so far. We've shipped two very light games -- just a couple of casino games that we used to test that backbone. We're just about to release our first truly original game, which is still a very light game in a sense of social media type game, but not a farming game, not a café operation game, not a pet management game, but a truly original game; it's still quite light by what people might expect from Lord British standards.

That game is called Ultimate Collector. And then we're going to roll into what I call the next, you know, big Lord British virtual world game (Lord British's New Britannia).


Yeah, and they have the advantage there of metrics. Being able to see what people are actually doing, they're not just guessing...

RG: Right, and by the way we had that in MMOs also. So no MMO developer should be excused from not knowing the answers to these questions because we had metrics then, too.

I think back then there was more of a reluctance to do it because it felt like cheating or something, as a game developer. But it is quite useful.

RG: Yeah, well, I can tell you in Ultima Online we constantly used those metrics to redesign the game. For example, one of my favorite stories is, in Ultima Online, when the game shipped, you could use a fishing pole on the water and there was a 50/50 chance you'd get a fish. Beginning and end of simulation -- literately use a pole, on water, 50/50, fish. Lots of people did it, tons of people did it.

And people began to believe apocryphal information about fishing; they began to believe that if you fished in a river versus in the ocean they were better chances of getting fish, which of course was not true. I told you the simulation use fishing pole, on water, 50/50, fish. That's it!

But so many people were doing it, and so many people had these fictitious beliefs that we thought, "Wow, we should spend some time to make fishing better!" And we did. Over time we actually made the fishing simulation more improved, gave you different kinds of fish, and there really was a point to using different places, and then it became even more popular.

And there were things that we thought were really cool that we put in the game, that nobody noticed or cared about -- very sad and tragic. But we either fixed and adressed those, or often, we just removed them from the game.

And so, even from the beginning -- I don't think of the metrics-driven feedback to me as new at all; I actually look at it as, "Yeah, of course you're doing it." And they are doing some things that are new, like we would never do A/B testing on the color of text. But you know that's interesting and useful to know how to optimize your value stream, but it really is something we were already doing 10 years ago.