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Richard Garriott: the man, the myth, the mischief

On the publication of his autobiography, Polygon talks to one of gaming's most celebrated creators

AFP / Getty Images

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Early in his autobiography, Richard Garriott characterizes himself as a storyteller, a lover of yarns. After reading his new book, stuffed with tales of derring-do, I interview him via Skype. True to form, he answers almost all my questions with anecdotes, occasionally waving props into the mini-cam. He's as practiced as a Toastmaster Grand Wizard.

I'm familiar with some of the stories he tells because I've just read them in his book. Others have only a glancing relationship with the actual question asked. But no matter, he's an entertaining old cove. Among video gaming's elite auteurs — the multi-millionaire club of game design innovators — he's probably the one you'd most readily invite to a dinner party.

You're probably thinking of Garriott as that fella who wrote the Ultima games and then bought a ticket to space. But his stock of reminiscences go far beyond merely helping to shape video games and visiting the International Space Station for a fun fortnight. He's explored the Titanic. Hiked the Antarctic. Built amazing ghost houses.

Garriott is not the sort to hole himself up in a mansion like some 21st Century Charles Foster Kane, secluded with his greenbacks and his toys. He's out there, living it large, splashing about in the joyful puddles of existence. It's enough to make the rest of us feel a twinge of envy, perhaps even a nasty lick of resentment.

After all, how many of us can say, "my dad was was an astronaut." Yet even as he acknowledges the good fortune of his birth (in the book's opening paragraphs) and an upbringing of marvellous privilege among America's scientific elite, it's impossible to take away his achievements. Being Richard Garriott has taken a lot of effort, and plenty of knocks.

It's illustrative that he spends as much of his book talking about how he got to go to space, as he does in space itself. He spent his life pursuing a single, highly unlikely dream. Time and again, he was thwarted by regulations, money troubles and bad luck. But he got there in the end.

Our reward is a bunch of gleeful stories about life on the Space Station, with an especially amusing chestnut about how to take a shit in space.

There's something else I like about Garriott. Some of these old-time videogame development heroes have gotten crotchety in their old age. As an interviewer and a journalist, I've found a few of them to be jealous of their carefully constructed myths and reputations. Garriott is happy to talk about his shortcomings such as the blinkers of his privilege, the professional relationships that went south and his own propensity to dodge boring chores.

The only thing he gets defensive about is his new game, Shroud of the Avatar. But we'll come to that later.

First, let's take a deep dive, down to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Garriott with his new book
Rick Kern / Getty Images

Titanic Struggles

His autobiography — co-written with David Fisher and available now — is called Explore / Create. From the get-go, Garriott pulls us into the exploration stuff, dropping us into a submersible where he's watching the ghostly outline of the Titanic drifting past his window. Y'know, just like me and you did in that movie, except he's right there, as opposed to sitting in front of Netflix. Anyway, long story short, something goes wrong and the sub is stuck under the rudders of the doomed liner.

Garriott explains that there's no point in panicking in a situation like this. But he has the good grace to admit to being pretty terrified at the thought of slowly suffocating 12,415 feet underwater. Anyway, after a few hours of staring at impending annihilation, the boffins up top figure out a way to free the vehicle, and Garriott lives to tell the tale.

He's frank about the limitations of his own courage. He has no interest in dangerous sports or thrill-seeking. He just likes visiting really cool places. His desire for experience is slightly greater than his fear of consequences.

Like many modern biographies, the book sets itself up as a guide to living, a self-help lite. But really, it doesn't have much more to say than: A little bit of what you fancy does you good. Exploration of places has been the point of his life, but the way he's gotten to do that is by creating things that other people want to consume.

For those of us animated by the history of computer and video games, there's plenty here to enjoy. Garriott was raised to be inquisitive and so, when computers first showed up, he wanted to know how to use them. When Dungeons & Dragons became a thing, he wanted to play. D&D is mainly about crafting stories, and this looped back into his own love of all things Tolkien.

Tolkien + D&D + scientific upbringing + emergent computers = kid who makes a video game. He sold it in a zip-bag from the computer store where, as a teenager, he earned pocket money. One copy ended up in the hands of a Californian entrepreneur who was desperate to make a killing from these newfangled games. The game was published and Garriott was suddenly, nauseatingly rich.

He wasn't very happy with that first game, so he made another, and called it Ultima. He and his business-minded brother got together to create a company called Origin. The Ultima series is now regarded as central to the development of role-playing games, right up to the seminal Ultima Online (1997) which did as much as any other game to pave the way for MMOs.

Ultima Online
Origin

A life in video games

Garriott's game-related stories begin with his desire to transform code into explore-able worlds that could be manipulated by the player. He writes about his long fights to protect his artistic vision, even when he was out of sync with prevailing wisdom.

There's also a section on his ill-fated relationship with Electronic Arts, which bought Origin in 1992. I'd expected Garriott to be scathing about the company that essentially fired him. But in the book he holds his hands up to making bad decisions, and just not fitting in with a zero-sum culture of intense corporate competition. Still, in our interview, he's a little more forthcoming.

"The different studios would all go to a big meeting and discuss all of our products." he recalls. "I'd say all the right things about the other studios and I'd applaud their work. A rising tide raises all ships so let's give each other something positive.

"Then I'd go home and hear from the back-channels that as soon as we left the room Studio X, Y and Z started lambasting us and demanding our budgets be cut in favor of theirs. It was inappropriate. We weren't there to defend ourselves. But we began to see ourselves being marginalized by what I thought was mean-spirited, spiteful activities."

There's also a chapter on Tabula Rasa, an unsuccessful MMO he made for NCSoft. The fallout from that game was a lawsuit in which the publisher paid Garriott millions of dollars. But rather than getting into the weeds about legal battles, he spends most of this chapter carefully explaining the entire new language he invented for the game.

This is one of his strengths and, I imagine, one of the things that must be infuriating about him for colleagues He's always focused on the stuff that makes him happy, even when perhaps his mind ought to be elsewhere. Tabula Rasa's invented language was cool. But the game needed a lot more heart.

As the avatar Lord British, Garriott has also enjoyed a second, digital life. He tells some revealing tales of his time as an inhabitant of Ultima Online, where he was, to all intents and purposes, a living god. Like all good anecdotes, there's a neat twist to his apparently limitless power and the hubris this engenders.

He also gets a kick out of surprising players. All his games have some variation on the theme of releasing an innocent from bondage, only to find that the innocent is surprisingly, violently ungrateful.

This love of tricks played out in his long-standing Halloween hobby. Each year he'd spend an unholy amount of money reforming his home into a ghost mansion. People would line up to "enjoy" the experience. Garriott reports cackling along with his team as intrepid visitors literally wet themselves with fear.

Shroud of the Avatar
Portalarium

Shroud of the Avatar

I ask Garriott about Shroud of the Avatar. My question is framed along the lines of "people seem to be pretty disappointed and underwhelmed by the game." As evidence, I point towards a raft of bad reviews on the in-development game's Steam Early Access page as well as negative comments on its Kickstarter page. I wonder if things are perhaps not going as well as might be hoped?

He looks genuinely amazed at my prognosis. "I don't think so at all," he says. "We've had naysayers since the beginning. But I think what you're seeing is a side effect from open development from day one."

Shroud of the Avatar is an ambitious attempt to create a fantasy virtual world in which players can be the digital person they want to be, rather than a slave to leveling up. Since its announcement back in 2013, and its subsequent raising of millions of dollars via crowdfunding, Garriott's development house Portalarium has attempted to keep supplying backers with builds along the way, no matter how rudimentary those builds might be.

"We feel the obligation to show you how we're spending your money and for you to be able to speak up when you feel thing are good or bad," he adds, pointing out that new builds and updates have been released on schedule for "the last 38 months in a row."

"Players have told us what they don't like and we've fixed those thing, and they've been universally positive," Garriott says. He believes that arrivistes who bought the game relatively recently, and who expect an Early Access game to be completed, are the ones complaining.

"Everything was pretty hunky dory until we went up on Steam. Then we found a different type of customer who hadn't been with us from the beginning. They see that the game looks unfinished, unpolished, with only a few weapons and an obtuse UI and we get a backlash."

SOTA's Steam page now features a warning that people should not buy the game if they do not wish to get involved in its open development process. But the voices of discontent are loud, and clearly irritating to Garriott. Like Star Citizen's Chris Roberts, he's finding that the public is an even harder task-master than traditional games publishers. And controlling the message is easier said than done.

When I ask why backers are also showing discontent — the Kickstarter comments are blistering — he says: "We do a pretty good assessment of all the backers across all the different media and we do believe that the vast majority are still with us and content."

He's clearly not about to change direction. "Do I think we're behind in time? Absolutely. But the mistake we're not going to make is doing it wrong. We are going to take whatever amount of time it requires to get it right. I'm a believer that the last 20 percent of game development is when a game goes from being a raw collection of semi-related engine pieces to being something that really sings."

When pressed for a launch date, or a point at which the game can be called complete, he predicts sometime in the middle of this year. "There will be games systems completed before then, including all the spells, combat, economics, crafting and all of the MMO-like systems. But to me the game is not done until I can start a new character and play all the way through to the end of Episode One [of five]. That's when we will 'launch' it but of course you can argue it's been launched for 38 months now."

Portalarium

In a subsequent statement on the state of the game, requested by Polygon, Garriott added that “most [backers] remain very happy, but we do go through cycles of happiness and frustration, which we believe is natural based on people experiencing the full development process in ways that are very unlike a normal game. They are learning, as new QA staff does, that game-making is messy.”

We also received a statement from SOTA’s executive producer Star Long who argued that there are “actually only a few Kickstarter comments” that are negative. He added: “The nature of Kickstarter and Early Access means we must provide backers a rather detailed description and feature list of the game before we start working on it. This means those backers then create their own vision of what they imagine the game will be.

“This vision is often very different from the creator’s vision. Then when their own internal vision fails to match the actual product they accuse the creators of failing to deliver on the promise. Additionally when people love a franchise as much as they love Ultima they have some very passionate feelings about what they want a ‘spiritual successor’ to be. They build up in their minds all sorts of visions about what that game will be like.

“In our case we have been very clear that the game would be a combination of an MMO and a single player game and that is exactly what it is today. We have an offline single player mode as well as multiple online modes just as we described. In fact we have added features to both offline and the online modes so not only are we creating the original vision we have added to it. Again while it may not match some of our backer’s internal visions it very much matches exactly what we described bullet point by bullet point and it matches what our own vision for the product was to be from day one.”

On his way to the ISS in 2008
AFP / Getty Images

Getting older and making changes

I'm curious about his views on politics in games, especially as Garriott has been a part of game development since its earliest days, when such things were rare. I ask him for his views on the notion that games are just entertainment, that their function is not to reflect society, but to provide an escape. He is scornful of this idea.

"Frankly, it's hard for me to be empathetic about people who are complaining about losing their teenage boy games," he says. "There's room and reason to have any kind of art people want to make or any kind of art people want to consume. I think that we succeed as an industry when we are more diverse. Games are better if they sell to a broader audience. Games are richer and more fun and more entertaining if they include diversity."

But he's also used this shift in emphasis to examine his own ways of making games. "My office is filled heavily with developers from the past which also means they're more male and more Caucasian then they ought to be, statistically," he says. "When I visit younger groups of graduates who are doing startups, they are way more diverse. They are at least 50 percent not male or not white. Frankly, I was embarrassed to realize that I'd somehow inadvertently remained a developer of the past versus finding a way to cross that bridge."

He tells a story of a time he asked a developer on his team (a man) to create various stock characters, like an innkeeper, a bartender, a guard and so on. When they came back, all the characters in positions of power or property ownership were men, while the servants and powerless tended to be women.

"And so we began this statistical stratification of the early characters being assigned to historically common gender roles," he says. "We didn't do it on purpose. We like to think of ourselves as above that. And yet we fell into the same trap. A woman [backer] called us up and and pointed out our mistake and we were, what the fuck? So we slapped ourselves a few times and made some changes."

Explore / Create

Explore / Create is a collection of Garriott's favorite war stories as well as his own philosophy that curiosity about the world is a path to well-being. I ask him what he would have done with his life, if there had been no computer games.

"I would have found a way to make physical interactive entertainment," he replies. "I love learning through experimental things. I would have still been creating virtual worlds but just in the more practical, physical sense.

"I'm sure I still would have been an explorer too. You can see in the book how much joy I've got out of making connections with explorers. They're not only inspirational but we've banded together to open up new frontiers for ourselves and for others, whether that's Antarctica, the deep sea or space.

“If I couldn’t have done those thing, I would have explored in my own backyard, perhaps caves in Texas or Mexico. I still would have found it."