Lord British - Past, Present and Future
I doubt its any secret that the gaming community has more than its share of elitism, and nowhere does it become more evident than when describing or discussing MMO games. Well, perhaps when discussing the utter inferiority of consoles compared to PCs, but then thats just fact, not elitism at all. No, I think its that conversation that usually begins with someone discussing a game, followed by a remark along the lines of, its just not as good as WoW, or some other such nonsense, that truly shines the light on this dividing line in our community.
The problem isnt actually World of Warcraft. The problem is that the game was such an explosive success, that it pulled in new members to our community who have never had the pleasure of some of those earlier titles and developers that we more mature members have deified over the years. WoW has become their battle standard because these poor newcomers just have no other frame of reference. Upon that realization, I thought it was time someone make an effort to introduce our newer peers to Richard Garriott.
To that end, I made a trip to Austin in the great State of Texas. The goal? To interview Garriott, known to many gamers as Lord British, to discover why those who may have never played his games should care about his newest title in development, Shroud of the Avatar. What I hope youll find is that his long history of innovation, style of games, and the deeply intelligent twists he puts on them, give you a reason to pay at least a little attention to the new one.
The Father of PC RPGs
In many ways, Richard Garriott is the father of modern computer-based RPGs. I asked him about his early years. In 1979 I designed Akalabeth for the Apple II as sort of a hobby as a high school kid, he said. After selling the game for a short time in a local store where he was employed, he was contacted by a publisher wanting to take his game to a larger audience. It was a pretty impressive trick for a high school kid in a world that had yet to really even see a glimmer of what computer gaming would eventually become.
That game eventually launched the Ultima series of single-player games. Each of the nine games in the line where innovative in their own rights, and each holds a special place in Garriotts heart. The pride in those games was obvious as he walked me around the office telling a story of each while you look at cover art and mementos. What matters to me, though, is that these games eventually lead to Ultima Online.
UO was released in 1997 and is still running today. How many games have you played that got it so right the first time that they continued online 15 years later? None, because there were none before Ultima Online. UO opened the door for the massively multiplayer concept and set the standard for games that would follow. UO was the first MMORPG [Ed. - I await backlash from the Meridian 59 purists], the first sandbox MMO, and the first to handle player issues through a staff of online Game Masters (or GMs).
For many of us, Richard Garriott was the name we heard for years any time someone was trying something new. Even with something as challenging as defining an entire genre, he was so successful that Ultima Online is still running strong all these years later.
Question of Style
Theres a deeper debate in the MMO community and weve all engaged in it, the old sandbox vs. theme-park argument. Interestingly enough, this argument started right from the beginning. Where Ultima Online used a skill-based progression system and focused on crafting as much as combat, EverQuest came along a couple years later and focused on just the opposite. Thus, the first division in the MMO genre was born.
As Ive pointed out in other articles, Class-based games with level-based progression systems are just easier all around. Theyre easier to play, easier to design, and certainly easier to run. They also historically make a lot more money. All that adds up to a market saturated with the obvious win because thats what big publishing companies want. Risk is for indie developers. Enter crowd funding and Richard Garriotts desire to shake the gaming industry up again. We hope to accomplish this partly by providing tools to the players to develop their own emergent stories, he says.
While the name Lord British may stand for virtue, but the behavior in his games is sometimes anything but. On the surface, that may look like a bad thing, but theres a deeper truth to it that Garriott himself had to learn in the early days of UO.
Over the years, hes told the story a few times of how he encountered a player stealing from another. Catching the thief red-handed in his online persona, Lord British questioned the ruffian and forces an oath to turn from his evil ways. Shocked when the thief promptly broke his word, Lord British confronted him again and threatened a ban. Richard tends to smile a bit in the retelling and goes on, So, the guy breaks character and says, Listen here, Richard Garriott. You made the ability to steal a skill. Im using it within the rules of the game you set, and Im playing my character. Im a thief. If Im confronted by Lord British, of course Im going to lie and say Ill never do it again.
Thats the point where sandbox games were truly born. Richard could have worked with the team to prevent players from picking on other players, but he says, You cant blame people for playing with the rules you created. They went on to find better ways of protecting new players that didnt keep them totally safe, while still giving them a chance. However, had they stopped and decided to take a heavy-handed approach to the situation, we would not have the sandbox games we have today.
The Moral Conundrum
But Richards style isnt just about the freedom to experience the world as you wish, and this is another lesson we older gamers have learned about him over the years. He also likes to twist your mind in knots and make you question yourself on a level far deeper than any game ought to. I really enjoy forcing players to face their own preconceived notions of right and wrong, he says.
Richard grinned in twisted delight from across the table as he leaned in to regale me with a tale about how he forced players to question their own bigotry in Ultima VI: The False Prophet, starting with the actual cover art. In the modern age, he said, we all think were all beyond bigotry. but not if its red and leathery, winged and clawed, and has horns! After the initial shock of the statement wore off, I realized he was right.
And thats the genius of Garriotts games. In each of them, he challenges us to take a hard look at ourselves and engage in the painful process of introspection. As hard as it can be, and while it might not be the most sale-boosting idea in the world, the result is a game that makes us better people by playing it. Just as a great book might cause you to consider a point from another angle, games can challenge you in the same way. Richard Garriott has used his games to help us become better people for years, and I think thats cool.
Its not just the difficulty and complexity of Richards games that draw us, its the intellectual stimulation. I think that says a lot about the quality of gamers you see enjoying these games. And now you can start to really understand how deep the divide in the MMO genre goes. Those who have never had the chance to appreciate the depth of these skill-based sandbox games cant know what theyve missed, and that makes it hard for them to understand why those who love them cling to them so passionately. Then, perhaps thats some of the bigotry at work that Richard is hoping to expose and excise.
Return of the King
While he may style himself as a humble lord, those who have enjoyed his games over the years would humbly beg to differ. Richard Garriott has proven time and again that he can break from the standard flow and establish genre-defining mechanics or twist existing structures in ways no one thought of. Every time hes done it hes been massively successful, and Im personally very excited to see it happen again. In fact, the only time you could say Garriott hasnt been successful was with Tabula Rasa, but for those who care to research the story, I think youll find publisher issues created most of the problems with that one.
Now Lord British is back and is resolving the publisher issue through crowd funding. Those among us, who loved UO and have been hoping for a strong sandbox type game, should find a lot to love in the new Shroud of the Avatar. For those who joined our community more recently, I hope you take a little time to check the game out. Sandbox games arent for everyone, but for most who give it a chance, I think youll find a more rewarding experience than youd ever expect. Then, should that sandbox game be from Richard Garriott? Well, that would just be a ludus ultimum.