Do You Want to Play?

Richard Garriott set out to design an online game that would shake up a genre he helped create. It has taken six years-with time off to train as a cosmonaut, hunt shrunken heads, and study magic.

Richard Garriott is watching comets from the observatory atop Britannia Manor, his home in Austin, when he sees a shadowy figure scale the security fence and cross the lawn. The gargoyles with the glowing eyes on the roof don't deter the intruder; neither does the working cannon at the front door. Then the prowler hurls a large stone through a glass door leading to an indoor grotto, the one with hot-and-cold-running rain showers. Although the foyer under the observatory stairs is filled with crossbows, battle axes, armor, and swords, Garriott reaches for his Uzi. ("It's the only weapon I know how to load," he explains later.) The intruder is climbing the stairs, ignoring warnings to stop, so Garriott fires a warning round above the intruder's head. The bullet blows a hole clean through the house.

If this sounds like life imitating a video game, well, that would be appropriate. Garriott is one of the world's premier game designers, and the unwelcome visitor--who undressed and climbed into bed in a guest room, where the police arrested him--is a deranged fan of Garriott's alter ego, Lord British, the ruler of the virtual realms of the Ultima game series.

It has been 10 years since Garriott, now 46, and his then-publisher, Electronic Arts, released Ultima Online and popularized the genre of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Today, millions of people worldwide spend $1.9 billion a year--much of it in yen, or renminbi, or euros--to play Ultima or its newer rivals, including World of Warcraft, Lineage, Eve Online, and EverQuest.

Garriott himself has become a legend, and not just to his rabid fans. He visited the Titanic aboard a Russian mini submarine as an investor in a company that sells deep-sea tourism. He accompanied British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking on a ride on the "Vomit Comet," a modified Boeing 727 that soars and dives in parabolic arcs to create a simulation of the weightlessness of space. He is an investor in that business, Zero Gravity Corp.

He is also a board member of Space Adventures Ltd., which is hawking $20 million tickets for a short stay on the International Space Station, via a Russian rocket. (Former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi was the most recent client.) Garriott himself has taken cosmonaut training at Russia's Star City and hopes to follow his father, former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, and become the world's first second-generation space traveler. He even bought at auction a derelict Russian Luna rover that is now parked on the moon, making him, he says, "the world's only private owner of an object on a foreign celestial body."

Garriott has just released his first new video game in years, and online gamers have been buzzing with anticipation. The game, called Tabula Rasa, has been in the making since 2001--an inordinate length of time, particularly for someone whose first game design, as a 17-year-old, took just six weeks (and hauled in more than $150,000). Garriott and his older brother, Robert, now CEO of NCsoft North America, cofounded their first company in their parents' garage. "Richard's the creative guy, and I'm the business guy," says Robert, who holds an MBA from MIT's Sloan School of Management. They sold their company to Electronic Arts in 1993, then broke away in 2001 to hook up with NCsoft, the South Korean maker of the wildly successful (in Asia) Lineage online-game franchise.

The launch of Tabula Rasa "is very significant in the game community, primarily because of Richard's involvement," says Stephen Butts, executive editor of IGN PC, an online network devoted to video games. "Richard Garriott is finally coming back. He's got quite a legacy."

Observers say that 95% of new massive multiplayer online games don't recover development costs. That said, the few titles that become megahits are enormously profitable. Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft, for example, earned $400 million in 2005. Based on Garriott's reputation alone, observers say Tabula Rasa is likely to reach the 100,000-subscriber level that defines a modest hit in the multiplayer category.

The hope is that Tabula Rasa will entice a million or more regular players. World of Warcraft claims to have 9 million paying customers. (Reliable numbers in the game industry are notoriously scarce.)

In the Tabula Rasa that went on sale in October, Earth has been overrun by an evil alien race called the Bane. You are one of the survivors, recruited to join the Allied Free Sentients in a desperate fight against extinction that initially spans two different worlds. And, of course, your character gets to go on missions with other players and use all sorts of big-ass exotic weapons to blow things up and splatter the Bane into green goo.

Tabula Rasa's postapocalyptic story line clearly falls into the player-versus-environment camp--PvE in game lingo--but it also has the kind of player-versus-player elements that are hot in today's online world. "PvP is in the game now," says Richard. "It includes one-on-one duels, squad-versus-squad battles, and clan-versus-clan wars."

It didn't start out that way. Richard originally set out to create a game that would appeal to both Eastern and Western gaming tastes. The brothers assembled a star team of top game writers, artists, coders, and database wonks, including NCsoft's top Korean designer. But cultural differences--and compromises that satisfied no one--soon threatened to turn Tabula Rasa into the Ishtar of the online-gaming world.

"In the United States, if we're going to make the hero, he's going to be the tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, muscular kind of guy, the embodiment of that Captain America-style hero," Richard says. "In Korea, a person built that way is always the bad guy. The good guys are always skinny little computer nerds who succeed because of their inner strength." Two years in, the Garriotts removed the Korean half of the development team, the top Korean designer left the company, and about 75% of the code was junked.

Tensions arise in any business, especially, says business-guy Robert, "when things take longer and cost more than you might expect." Like Tabula Rasa? "Obviously." He says Richard "went down the wrong path."

Sibling rivalry is clearly an issue here. Coworkers recall hearing a screaming match between the brothers in Robert's office-Robert was using a No. 2 pencil that Richard claimed was his. They wrestled over the pencil until it snapped. "And then we realized how stupid that was, and started laughing," Richard says.

"In general, we've been able to work well together and enjoy working together," Robert says. Still, he gripes that his brother cheats when the two play test versions of Tabula Rasa over the company network on Friday afternoons. Not that Richard sees it that way. "Robert," he says, "is a wimpy player."

Now that Tabula Rasa is finally out, Richard can turn his attention back to the new, bigger house he's building to replace Britannia Manor. An entire room will elevate to the second floor at the touch of a button. And to accommodate his girlfriend Kelly's decorating style--he favors a look one might describe as medieval grotesque, while she prefers more conventional surroundings--he's creating a master-bedroom wall that rotates, à la the Magic Fridge in the Budweiser commercials, revealing either his or her side of the room.

What's to become of the current Britannia Manor? "I'll put it on the market," Garriott says, confident that there are buyers who have always yearned for a dungeon. He's already patched the bullet hole.

Peter Lewis is a freelance writer. This is his first article for Fast Company.

Add New Comment

0 Comments