Like so many role-playing pioneers before him, Richard Garriott has joined the boom-or-bust gold rush that is Kickstarter. However, unlike literally all of those same pioneers, Garriott's kinda, you know, been to space. He also owned an actual, factual castle at one point. The fates, in other words, haven't been unkind to his rather formidable fortune, and it stands to reason that he's not in what mere mortals like ourselves would refer to as "dire straits." So then, why all this Kickstarter hoopla for Shroud of the Avatar? Moreover, how will its episodic structure work? And Garriott's gone on about how the pseudo-MMO is actually single-player at heart, but how will the teeth of one puzzle piece interlock with the sawblade edges of another? Click past the break for Garriott's best attempts at explaining some of his Ultima successor's stickier issues.
RPS: First off, why Kickstarter? I mean, you've kinda been to space. You also owned a castle. Have all your years of extravagant Texan hedonism finally taken their toll?
Richard Garriott: I have and continue to invest millions into Portalarium. But to properly fund Shroud of the Avatar, we either needed to consider a publishing partnership with a large distribution partner, or go directly to the players.
As I reflect on my own work of the past, my favorites are Ultima IV, Ultima VII and Ultima Online. All three of those were different enough that my publisher - often my own company - did not support or understand what I was doing until it was finished. But since I finished it "my way" I'm pleased with the results, and they were landmark successes.
But there were some games I made where our publisher forced us to ship before the product was finished and those results were never good, even though they had plenty of potential. By going direct to the players, we can not only avoid becoming beholden to outside influences, but instead build a relationship directly with players, for whom we are building this game.
RPS: OK then, onto the game: if I don't want to deal with all the multiplayer functionality, I can just turn it off, right?
Richard Garriott: You can play single-player, absolutely. You can play the entire game solo.
RPS: What will happen in terms of there being shops and stuff like that, player-owned stuff?
Richard Garriott: If you literally never went online, you would never see a building that was hypothetically owned by another real player. Of course we’ll provide plenty of NPC ownership. Even in the empty lots, a lot of those will be originally owned by NPCs. They’ll just be available for sale if you really want one. But as long as you go online at all, even if you ignore other players, if you are at least connecting online you will see the economy change. You’ll see new blacksmiths show up in the middle of town.
You’ll get to see all the artistic results of the most contributing players. By having villages being cheaper than towns and towns being cheaper than cities, and then some of the cities actually being… I don’t know if you saw that whole electrical field that was over one of the towns, but that’s a kind of protective dome that makes it particularly safe. The most expensive area will be very interesting to visit and see, because there won’t be a lot of chaff there. It’ll be people who can afford to build in a nice part of town, and therefore it should be interesting to visit.
RPS: Obviously it’s a fantasy world, but what sort of fantasy world is it? How close is it to Ultima, and how different?
Richard Garriott: We started with traditional Tolkien-style medieval fantasy. What we’re laying on top of that is... we wanted to bring in a little technology. We’ve brought electricity into existence, for example. But we specifically did not bring in gunpowder. We didn’t want guns. That technology does not exist. But a little bit of the mechanical age does, and a little bit of Nikola Tesla is also a big inspiration.
Are you familiar with the movie Forbidden Planet? Old movie. In the movie Forbidden Planet, they land on an alien planet and set up a little energy field around their encampment to try to keep out this monster. Our big cities are generally built around sources of easy power – wind or hydro or geothermal. They run little generators which those, to which they’ve built these Tesla-like fields to offer a little protection for everybody who lives in the town. If you can afford it, you want to live in one of those towns, because it means that you’re not marauded as much.
In our case, when you’re in town, it’s pretty easy to have the convenience of electricity, but the further away from these Tesla towers you get, the more you have to start hand-cranking to provide yourself with additional energy. We do have energy weapons that we’ve brought in, too. We’ve invented a whole new pantheon of magnetic rail-shooters and little fog guns. I’m not quite comfortable with the term “steampunk,” but it does have a bit of that steam-powered flair on top of the traditional medieval world.
RPS: It sounds like a pretty dangerous world, but you've been talking a lot about how you're designing the game with many non-combat roles in mind. Can I go through single-player by entirely non-violent means?
Richard Garriott: That’s a very good question. If you play truly solo, you will likely have to do some significant amount of combat. It still means you can lean heavily on other resources, but the way this map is designed to unfold: First of all, this is only the center tile of a three-by-three set of zones. This is what we’re launching with first. Then we’ll launch a second zone, a third strip, a fourth strip, and finally a fifth zone. There are five episodes that we’ll launch this with, and this will be the centerpiece.
If you look at this map, the place we were walking was these two towns. But then there’s this ridge of mountains that goes right through [the general area]. There are two dungeons. These dungeon passageways – you might think of them as the Mines of Moria – allow you to go from one side to the other. You must go through this to have access to this next area of the map. To do that, you’ll probably have to get involved in combat. So the solo player experience would require combat.
But let’s suppose I’m a blacksmith and I really want to smith over here. Well, it still means I have to go through Moria. That means that if I’m not a combatant, I have to at least partner with somebody who is for that period of time. Which would be another way to do it, by the way. If you’re a blacksmith you might need an escort to get somewhere sometimes.
RPS: Are you considering adding NPC escorts, something like that?
Richard Garriott: We haven’t yet, but that’s probably a reasonable thing to suggest. That’s also one of the reasons why we’re doing this Kickstarter and getting people involved so early. I don’t know if you know, but when we shipped Ultima Online, probably a third to a half of all the features put into the game had one of two problems. Either it was a feature that we’d put almost no time into that was so amazingly popular that we should have put a lot more time into it – like fishing, which was enormously popular, even though a 50-50 chance of getting a fish was the entire simulation.
On the other hand, we had put in this virtual ecology. Very sophisticated. Tons of work. No one noticed. No one cared. I eventually ripped it out. That’s why, for example, your suggestion is excellent.It hadn’t crossed my mind, but it’s definitely one thing we should consider doing. That’s the sort of thing we have to pull out through getting the players involved in this early.
RPS: In the main single-player story, what’s your goal? What are you trying to achieve?
Richard Garriott: Since it’s a five-episode story, I don’t want to give away too much. But one of the things that I’m big on is that instead of the bad guy waiting for you in the final level, you need to see the bad guy in action. You need to therefore feel that the bad guys are bad. You’ll see why the townsfolk think they’re bad and it gives you a motivation to be the hero.
In the world you uncover here, not only at night and in the dark forests are there monsters and creatures that would do you harm. There’s a very specific, conscious harm. Every certain period of time, an entire city – including the ones the players are in – is put under siege. It’s obvious that the bad guys are looking for something. But that’s the first mystery that you encounter. It may feel arbitrary to you at first, but there’s a pattern by which the bad guys are laying waste to town after town. What they’re looking for is your first mystery that you have to figure out.
RPS: Will there just be a point where players have to put together that evidence, or will the game lead them along a path where it will eventually reveal, “Hey, this is why the villain’s been attacking these cities in this way”?
Richard Garriott: The player will figure it out. They can even share it with you. The way we’ve designed the story, it works well to not make it a problem to share information. Fairly quickly, players who want to know will know fundamentally the pattern I’ve just described to you. They’ll know fundamentally why they’re doing it. I don’t think that will change the power of the reveal to you individually when it becomes personal. But this first episode is really to understand who the bad guys are and what their mission is and what you can begin to do about it. That journey is episode one.
RPS: You say “episodes,” so will this be a kind of episodic setup along the lines of, like, The Walking Dead? Or do you mean more like you’re going to release a series of expansions over time?
Richard Garriott: It’s a series of expansions over time. We’ll even do little things in real time. For example, if we decide we want to put a city on this island to meet demand for player housing, we’ll do that. If we want to invent a new island in the ocean, we will do that. For the main story arc, there’s a whole ‘nother chunk of story to do with the map that’s over here to the right of this map. We’ll release that whole map all that once.
RPS: Will that be free, or will it come at a price?
Richard Garriott: It will likely come at a price. Likely. We’re not going to charge a subscription. The fine-tuning of the economics we’re still working out. But fundamentally, there will be a trial version of the game that you can play as a download for free. To get the full version of the game, including unlocking the skill trees, there will be a nominal cost. Like, "Oh, hey, I need some power here to start this. Let me give this machine some kindness and let it get up to speed here."
But as you were saying about finance. The trial version’s free. Unlocking the main game and getting access to some of the base skill trees will be what I’ll call the nominal price of the game. But then, if we create a whole new skill tree – like if we create an alchemist that didn’t exist to begin with – we’ll probably have a cost to unlock that skill tree if you want to have access to it. We’ll bring in whole big chunks of content and those may have a cost to access. The precise billing structure for that is to be determined.
RPS: Is it going to be like microtransaction-based? For things like that skill tree and smaller bits like that?
Richard Garriott: Well, the answer becomes “no” when you use the word “smaller.” Our intention is that it’s for big pieces of content and big decisions that you make. What we’re not trying to do is become a social game where, “Oh, look, if you want the blue cow instead of the pink cow, it costs 25 real cents versus 25 in-game currency.” We’re not doing that.
RPS: What happens after those five episodes end? Do players just go on adventuring and starting small business enterprises, like all the greatest fantasy heroes? Or will there be some kind of more specifically tailored endgame?
Richard Garriott: They do still exist. The story you will discover is really a personal story. The fact that one person has finished it doesn’t mean that the game is over, if you see what I mean. Since that’s also a personal story, it means that your character has now achieved that particular goal. That doesn’t mean you don’t still live in the world. That doesn’t mean you can’t help people achieve their goals.
RPS: Is there an endgame, though?
Richard Garriott: There is not an endgame currently planned. The main story thread will have concluded for you, but the broader story will still be going on around you. Whether, at that point, we come up with an episode six or seven, or whether we say enough is enough and we build the next game… That’s far enough away that we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
RPS: Did Shroud of the Avatar start life as an Ultima game? Did you sort of envision it that way in your head?
Richard Garriott: Oh, I’ve made no secret over the years that I’ve talked to EA about collaborating on that property. I think it would be good for them and good for me. But we haven’t managed to put anything together on that down through the years. I was off doing other things, also, these last few years. Now is the time, though, so I’m going back with or without them.
RPS: Why weren't you able to get the old band back together?
Richard Garriott: I think that it’s because they already have their own people with their own plans for that property. Let’s suppose you had been the person who was given charge to go build an Ultima game and you’re already two years into it. Then the guy who invented that wants to take it back over. Who knows? But that’s my speculation. They’re doing their own thing with it now and they want to continue their own work.
RPS: Theirs is a pretty direct successor to Ultima IV. Have you seen it?
Richard Garriott: I have. By the way, I know the team well. I’ve talked with them all in detail. I believe those guys are passionate Ultima fans. They’re passionate believers in the work that I’ve done. They very much want to fulfill the legacy of Ultima IV in particular. So I wish them great success. They are really doing an Ultima IV. I don’t see it as competitive to or in conflict with what I’m doing. I’m really trying to do the next step.
RPS: You’re using the Lord British name again. Does that make this world directly connected to Ultima, or is it just the name?
Richard Garriott: I can’t directly connect it, other than through myself. Fortunately, for me, when you look at the story of the trilogy of trilogies, Ultimas one through nine, it basically ends with the destruction of the world. While Britannia has now come to an end, what we might call the new Britannia is just beginning.
RPS: There have been a number of Britishes. There’s Lord British, and then in Tabula Rasa there was General British. Are they all related?
Richard Garriott: They are. Here’s my theory for that. The fans know that they are an Avatar, a person who lives here on earth who finds a portal that takes them through to the mystical realm of Britannia. So am I. I am Richard Garriott, but I am also Lord British, in that he is my projection into the virtual world.
The other fiction that I’ve been keeping through this is kind of like Narnia. When the kids are outside of Narnia, Narnia advances by hundreds of years. But they don’t age much at all because they’re on Earth. You and me age at the exact age you and me age. When we’re not in the world, the world does whatever it wants. So that’s why Lord British is still around, because Richard Garriott is still around. He doesn’t age at the same rate as the people in that world.
RPS: So there aren’t any terrifically awkward British family Christmases or anything? It’s all one guy?
Richard Garriott: All one guy. General British, Lord British, all the same.
RPS: Awww. I like imagining a bunch of yous uncomfortably poking at turkey dinners. Oh well. In your head, have you ever tried to link the continuities? Tarantino-style?
Richard Garriott: Oh, yeah, of course. In my heart of hearts, I think they are all part of the same pantheon of realities. Whether or not I can write it out that way, I can connect it together in my head. Even Tabula Rasa and other things, too. The name of our company, Portalarium, comes from these portals to different worlds. To me, this is always you and me, real people from Earth, getting a chance to go adventure together in new worlds where we’ve found these mystical gateways to go play in them.
RPS: But can we kill Lord British this time?
Richard Garriott: That will be interesting to find out. As you may know, I’ve tried always to make Lord British not killable. Ultima III was the first game we published as Origin, so it was the first time I knew that people were trying to kill me. We got mail from people that had gone to my other publishers before. I was like, “What?! People are killing me? Better fix that.” Every time I’ve tried to find a way to make myself immortal, people have found a way to kill me. In Ultima IX, we actually put in a way to kill me on purpose, as a joke. But we’ll see here. I will attempt to make myself immortal. We’ll see if I can pull it off.
RPS: Thank you for your time.