Lord British, we hardly knew ye

Richard Garriott speaks about his years with Origin and what went wrong
Posted on 4/13/2001

Although you'd never know it by talking with him, Richard Garriott belongs to the truly "old school" of game design. His continued passion belies the duration of time that he's been in the industry, and his boyish exuberance, while just a bit less frenetic than a few years ago, still abounds.

Garriott has been around seemingly since the beginning of time, or at least since the Silicon Dark Ages of the 1970s. During the latter part of the decade, he created his first commercial game, Akalabeth (which he has described as having been "packaged in Baggies and sold out of the trunk of my car"). Eventually he and his brother Robert founded Origin Systems-the "We Create Worlds" folks. Shortly thereafter, Garriott introduced the first Ultima game, which enjoyed eight sequels and which spun off Ultima Online, the first graphically sophisticated (in its time) massively multiplayer online RPG and its satellite products.

Lord British in the flesh...and the flames.

The leading character of the Ultima games is one Lord British, named after a character that Garriott played in his pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons days. Garriott has adopted that moniker for himself and has been known to refer to himself in third person as "Lord British." Said a certain attorney from a certain holiday film of yore that starred young Natalie Wood and a nice old man with whiskers, "You call yourself Judge Harper and no one questions your sanity because you are Judge Harper." In the same vein, no one questions Richard "Lord British" Garriott's sanity either-well, almost no one.

He left Origin last March, with a trail of products behind him and a few in the making. Origin has since cancelled its most recent project Origin (a/k/a Ultima Online 2), and everyone wondered what would become of Origin without Garriott, or he without it.

I met Garriott some years ago, and the energy that surrounded him was contagious. It still is, and will probably always be a part of him (as will that signature braided pigtail). The last time we met, he informed me that his one year NDA with Origin was about to expire, and when that occurred, he was planning to immediately sell his stock and share his thoughts with us about his days at Origin and his future plans-in that order. On that note, here's what Lord British had to say.

Why did you leave Origin?

After years of doing Ultima Next, I was eager to do something not called Ultima. I had been designing a new non-Ultima title for years and even assembled the team to build it, when the unexpected massive success of UO sucked up all the company resources. Eventually, it became clear that no non-Ultima Online product was going to be developed. As obviously interested as I am in Ultima, I needed to be doing something new.

Was it your decision alone?

No. The EA-placed General Manager, Jack Heistand, and I did not see eye to eye, about how to pursue Origin's future. We agreed that a common future was unlikely.

What changes took place at Origin to finalize your decision to leave the company?

After it was clear that I could not build a non-Ultima game, I briefly pitched doing some mid-sized games for EA.com. EA only wanted java ap style mini games-another strategy I do not support. Finally, they suggested I return to UO2. In my mind the UO2 team had worked for years to prove themselves and take UO2 in a new non-Richard Garriott direction. If I had returned to UO2, it would have meant that I would likely want to remake it into a "Richard Garriott game," which would have been a disservice to the team and the ship date.

How do you feel about seeing the company you founded still in operation without you?

Well, seeing UO do so well and the key staff on it flourishing is still a real kick! Alternatively, seeing how the rest of Origin has now been largely dismantled and shut down is disappointing. EA has thrown out a very valuable business unit-which I hope to demonstrate very soon!

Are there any key decisions during your time at Origin that you would have changed?

Yes. EA acquired Origin to be their PC saviors. As such, we grew the company very quickly, too quickly. We did not manage the growth well, and soon after began the downward spiral of EA yearly layoffs and budget reductions-a cycle we never escaped.

Do you have any regrets about you years there?

Few. It was great to be a part of building a new industry from scratch. Origin played a pivotal role in the development of PC games, RPG games and Online games. Who could ask for more than that?

Do you wish that you could regain the helm at Origin once again?

We fantasized about buying Origin back from EA. I feel we could have made it run much better. However as Joseph Campbell says in Hero With A Thousand Faces: "A schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme of a return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements. Only birth can conquer death-the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new." [Yeah. What he said.]

To that end, we will pick up the pieces and start again. I believe that we have the right idea, the right time, and the right people to do it again!

If you did have to do it all over again, would you sell Origin to EA, or try to remain independent?

Origin was too small as the 10th largest game company, to go it alone. It was feast and famine when platform shifts would happen. Origin did well by EA for a time, but in tough times, EA and Origin never figured out how to work well together. It seemed that Origin just became a place that EA would place a new GM for a year as training and then return them back to California. It was difficult to get traction with few GM's lasting more than one year.

Do you think that when Chris Roberts' Wing Commander games were released, that an overly-inflated budget standard was introduced?

No. They were already going up. Chris just led the pack!

What is your new company and what are its plans?

Our new online games company has yet to be announced. I expect we will have full details to disclose soon though. We are finalizing some key business relationships.

A lot has changed in the games industry over the last couple years. Are you worried about not knowing what the market expects these days? Do you feel at all as though you've been "out of the loop?"

I knew that if I stayed out too long that would be the case. Strangely, the "state of the art" thinking seems to have progressed little. (Sadly) However, it has been great for me to sit out and rejuvenate, and think about the craft. I believe devoutly that my thinking has evolved in a healthy way. I feel more confident I can create the right next generation plan.

Do you plan to work with any of the folks you've worked with in the past?

Oh yeah! We will be bringing on many of my previous work mates from generations of ex-Origin greatness.

Are you considering Starr Long as a potential long-term associate? [Starr Long was Garriott's right-hand man during much of the later development of Ultima, and took on the persona of Lord Blackthorne, the gameworld nemesis of Lord British.]

Yes, Starr and I will be working together again closely. Starr was always a rising star within Origin. He definitely got his share of hard knocks learning with the impossible task of UO2. We worked closely on UO1 and we worked great then, I'm sure it will be so again.

And what about those people you hired and then left behind at Origin? Do you keep in touch? How did it feel to let go of the Ultima helm while they were still there?

We stay in touch. Years ago, when I went from creating alone (full control) to working with a team (loss of full control) I went through the creative control pain of such a transition. Giving up even the producer reins of UO2 was also such a challenge. Yet, it was needed to let others grow and for me to move on.

What are your thoughts about Ascension and its fate?

U9 was a great game at its core, and could have been an great success story for Origin and EA, had we been allowed to complete it as originally planned. Unfortunately, EA had lost interest in the game years before, especially as UO did so well. They saw it as a distraction.

What are your thoughts about the cancellation of UO2?

Interestingly, Starr and I pleaded with EA not to do a medieval swords and sorcery UO2 right after UO1 as it would be so hard to meet the expectations of a game that had nearly a decade of development as UO1 would have had by the time UO2 shipped. They insisted we do it. It seems they eventually agreed?after spending tens of millions of dollars. Then they flush the team and the money. Go figure!

Is this the end of the Ultima universe and Lord British/Blackthorne?

I own/am Lord British. A New Britannia shall rise! [What did we tell you?]

Who played Tootie on The Facts of Life?

[laughs] Never saw it.

Would you ever consider recreating the Akalabeth world with today's technology?

Nah, It's already been done. Lots of dungeon crawl games, like Diablo, do it very well.

How do you feel about the new console RPGs?

There are two kinds of "Role Playing Games" in my mind. Stats-based advancement games, like Diablo and EverQuest, which are very popular, but less interesting to me, and games where you play a role first and the leveling up is less a focus, like Thief and Ultima. Leveling games are easier to build and often more popular. Yet, I feel that when the craft of role-playing is mastered some day, they will be the most desirable. Most console games are stats based games, thus less interesting to me.

Do you feel that your style of design is suited to multiple platforms?

Good question. I hope so. Good odds I will have to rethink my design standards to really succeed though.

What are your thoughts about the MMORPG in general and potential saturation in that market?

No question there is a huge amount of junk about to fail in the online space. Most are small under funded, under visionary, poor rip-offs of what has already come. As an investor I believe this space is still the right place to build a new company, as long as you have the right plan. Which I hope and believe I do.

Do you have any time to play games now?

No I have played very little until a month or two ago. Then I began to play any online experience I could and was not very impressed. The online market has a long way to go.

What else are you doing?

Last year was a great year of travel and leisure.

Was that "Origin funeral" thing behind your house? [Note: The UO2 Team apparently created a funeral pyre/conflagration at which they burned the legacy of UO2. T-shirts were spotted saying "We Created Worlds."]

The UO2 team was looking for a place to burn all the stuff that had to be shredded anyway. I volunteered my land where I am building a new "castle."

What are some of the biggest challenges RPG makers face today?

How to blend story telling from solo player games where the player can "win," with massively multiplayer social games where you can go with friends, but it's harder for anyone to have an experience that feels unique or of greatness.

Is the "dungeon crawl/find stuff/sell it/buy better stuff" paradigm still fresh enough for today's market?

I believe all game genres go in cycles. They start as simple shoot 'em ups or dungeon crawls. Then they add features to improve on their predecessors. Repeat. Then when Technology has sufficiently advanced, there is an opportunity to do a shooter/crawl again that seems fresh.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to today's RPG designers (especially the hordes in the MMORPG market)?

Don't launch anything that is short of clear market leadership. Hold out until you are superior, or all your effort will be a waste. This is an even more hit or miss market than packaged goods. We are about to see a lot of failures.

How do you adapt to all the hype about "You as an Industry Legend?"

I was just in early. "Industry Elder" seems more accurate.

Do you actually own something that was left on the moon?

Yes. I purchased Lunakod 21 from the Russians. I am now the world's only private owner of an object on a foreign celestial body. Though there are international treaties that say, no government shall lay claim to geography off planet earth, I am not a government. Summarily, I claim the moon in the name of Lord British!

Thanks so much, Richard, for talking with us, and we look forward to the announcement of your new company.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, Lord British emerges unscathed and more determined than ever. Closure with Origin, renewed business affiliations, and a soon-to-be-announced company all point to things looking up for the virtual ruler of Brittania. One thing we didn't ask (but wanted to) is "How much did all that stock sell for?" Perhaps the size of the marble Jacuzzi in the master bedroom suite of his new castle will give us a clue.

by Cindy Yans 2001 Strategy Plus, Inc.