GamesBeat had the opportunity to have a lengthy chat with Richard "Lord British" Garriott at this year's Gamelab event, and they're now offering up a transcript of that interview for those of us who prefer to read words rather than listen to them. The conversation spans most of the designer's 40-year career, from the early Ultima titles to Tabula Rasa and his stint with NCsoft to his latest venture, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. A sampling:
GamesBeat: You started very early, in the ‘80s, making the first Ultima game in high school and progressed over the years to work for Origin, Electronic Arts, Destination Games, NCSoft, and now Portalarium. Tell us about those early days and the eras you’ve seen in games.
Richard Garriott: I feel very fortunate. I’m just about the right age to have come of age, in high school, as personal computers were invented. Before I released the first Ultima, I’d written a series of games on a teletype, an electromechanical typewriter connected with an acoustic modem to a machine still using core memory, little donuts of ferrous material that stored individual bits. Very primitive, but if you look at these games I made in the ‘70s, other than using asterisks for walls and spaces for corridors, they were still obviously the prequels to Ultima.
At the age of 19, when I began to publish games, I was one of the only people at that time. But as I’ve gotten older, there have always been waves of new young people getting into the industry. There are a few gray-haired people here going back to those earliest days, but I’ve been perpetually one of the oldest people in the industry, even when I was only 21 or 22. It was a wonderful time to get started because it allowed us to set the standards of different genres, terminology, even tools and techniques that have evolved since.
GamesBeat: Your book had some details that we didn’t always know. You almost went out of business before publishing Ultima V.
Garriott: We talked about highs and lows. There are very important lessons that come out of the lows. The first machine I was particularly enamored with was the Apple II, and so, most of the early Ultimas were developed on the Apple II. When other platforms came out, I would make my own judgment as to whether I thought they’d eventually supersede or do less well than Apple’s.
When the IBM PC first came out, the original version of the IBM PC in America had a bit of a faster processor, a bit more memory, but it had this chiclet-style keyboard that I thought wasn’t very good to interact with. I thought the DOS operating system was confusing. I just felt that Apple had a strong enough lead that it would ultimately win the day. I kept Ultima V, as well as most of our other projects that Origin was developing, focused on Apple first and then porting to a variety of other platforms.
About halfway through the development of Ultima V and three or four other projects, it became obvious that the Apple market had crashed. The PC clone market had rapidly become dominant. We had no employees that were working on the IBM PC. We were going to release a bunch of games that had no market, and we knew that would put us out of business.
We had to become a PC-first company. We had to hire a whole bunch of new employees, delay the release of all our games, and did a simple calculus. We expected this revenue to come in at the end of a particular year, and that was now pushed out six months or more. We weren’t going to survive that long. We looked into a bank loan, which wouldn’t take us to the point we needed. I had just built my first home in Austin, Texas, but I hadn’t paid for it yet. I had a construction loan. To bridge to the ship date of Ultima V, I had to put my house up as collateral. My brother and I went millions in debt with personal loans.
If we hadn’t shipped Ultima V on time and it was not successful, not only would we have been out of business, but all the value I had ever created up to that point in time in the industry would be gone, and I’d have a huge amount of debt. Ultima V, by the way, is the only game I think I ever shipped on time — because of that pressure.
GamesBeat: This did lead you to becoming independent again, in the Kickstarter era. Tell us about what that transition has been like.
Garriott: One of my takeaways from now having completed two cycles of going independent and then being part of a company — I’ve already told you that the pressure to go from small to big is because of competition for distribution. Once you are big, you have the opposite problem, which goes back to one of the reasons I think a lot of big companies are slow to turn. They are by their nature risk averse. They acquire new properties. They acquire new gameplay. But they’re not good at inventing new properties or new gameplay.
If they’re going to put $100 million or more into a product, it needs to succeed. Their stock will suffer dramatically if they fail at one of these giant sequels they’re doing. They’re very risk averse. They need to have some level of predictability and reliability in their release schedule. It shouldn’t be surprising to us that if you end up working with a big company, you’ll work with big properties that you’re evolving but not taking giant risks.
If you want to go do something new, which I think a lot of us do — that’s where I get a lot of my enjoyment — you need to go back off on your own and start small. The cycle of small to large is understandable, and it’s something I embrace now. In this case we said, “We want to go off and create the spiritual successor to the Ultima series.” But we wanted to change it up significantly. We wanted to change the technological basis to this thing we call selective multiplayer.