Ultima creator and NCsoft executive producer outlines his vision for online games

Q&A: Richard Garriott on the future of MMOs

Earlier today, we announced that NCsoft’s Richard Garriot was to be Guest of Honour at this year’s Develop Industry Excellence Awards. He’s also keynote speaker at the Develop conference and expo which takes place along side the awards in Brighton this July. So we sat down with him to find out what’s tempted him to come to the UK and what his thoughts are on the online category, a genre he helped invent thanks to his game Ultima…

What attracted you to speaking at the Brighton conference?

RG: The EU has grown to be an equal and occasionally dominant market for PC gaming and most recently and importantly for online gaming. To that end, we must pay close attention to the market, nurture the market and participate as fully and locally as we can. The Brighton Develop Conference is the logical first step in supporting this key area.

Without spoiling anything, can you tell us what you’ll be talking about?

RG: My keynote speech is entitled The Rapidly Maturing Genre of Online Gaming. In this, I will be outlining my vision for the future of massively multiplayer online games, and exploring some of the infinite possibilities the medium presents to both developers and gamers alike.

You created Ultima and saw that blossom into the online world; how has that massively multiplayer arena changed from your point of view as a developer?

RG: The MMO world is both the same and different. It is the same, in that I believe MMO game design has not evolved nearly as fast as it should have in my mind. Nearly every MMO to date is still built in the mold of Ultima Online and EverQuest, which laid the design foundations ten years ago. People still level grind in the constantly replenishing static respawn zones, carefully managing their D.O.T (Damage over Time). I believe Tabula Rasa will shake things up and address this issue! What has changed is the dominance of MMO’s as the growth area of PC gaming. A truth that I feel very few companies foresaw, and I am pleased to be part of one of those few.

What can you tell us about Tabula Rasa’s design philosophy and how that plays into those online changes?

RG: Tabula Rasa makes major forward leaps in MMO design in four essential areas I can mention here.

Firstly there’s combat – Tabula Rasa has fast paced, tactical, RPG combat. While the combat is fundamentally based on characters’ attributes and equipment, players must also consider environmental conditions. Hiding behind cover is a massive aid in survival, as is crouching to assist in targeting accuracy. In most MMO’s you just stand toe to toe and trade blows with your opponent and ignore what is happening in real time around you. In Tabula Rasa, players and creatures will continue to jockey for optimal positioning in real time, adding greatly to the excitement

Secondly, dynamic world. The creatures and NPCs in Tabula Rasa have clear military objectives and move to take and hold strategic areas of the map. Making the world different each time you return. Whole outposts with all their NPCs, missions, shops, hospitals, waypoints etc, will come and go depending upon player control of the battlefield. Tabula Rasa is unlike the typical MMO, where you go ‘farm’ in the level one hunting grounds and creatures respawn right back where you last killed them for the next XP farmer to get in their level grind.

The third is real stories. Solo player games do a great job, relatively, of letting the players become the lead actor in an epic story, while most MMOs settle for letting no one ever really ‘win’ and the level grind becomes the point of life. Tabula Rasa again has a new and I believe better approach. In Tabula Rasa we use instanced spaces as party based story telling centers, where you and your friends truly become the stars of the story and complete epic puzzle and story crafted spaces that culminate in grand cataclysms and profound success! It feels more like a Party based solo-player game than a ‘traditional’ MMO.

Lastly, class trees with Load/Save/Clone. In most MMO’s your class choice is permanently made at the beginning of the game, so if you decide to try a different class, you must start over again at level 1. I think this is bad for players and the developers. In TR everyone starts as a recruit and grows their character through a branching class tree. When we couple this with the ability to save and clone your character anytime along the way, you can always explore new classes by just loading up a save of your character before the branch and going down the new path.

Many developers think MMO and think ‘online world’ and ‘community’ – and certainly that’s a lot of what people refer to when they say Web 2.0, as well – is it that simple or is there more to it than that?
Nothing is ever that simple. Community is in many ways what makes MMOs different from other types of games and what also makes them so compelling. Supporting the community includes everything from supporting permanent player groups inside the game (such as clans, guilds, etc.) to dedicated employees who support the community directly.

NCsoft is actively expanding into Eastern Europe and of course has popular support amongst players in diverse territories from Korea to the USA – do you have to take that mixed audience into account when designing a game for an online audience?

RG: Yes, but we also have experienced great difficulty trying to serve too many cultural ideas at the same time, so we are first making the game we know we would buy. Secondarily we are localizing all the content as required per region.

Lastly, we’ve seen MMOs pretty much dominate the PC market of late – any plans to take your ideas to PS3 or 360?
RG: As games consoles start to support increased hard drive space for regular game content downloads (a necessity of any MMO title) and strong Internet services and connections, the possibilities of MMOs on console platform’s becomes more viable. The future development of this current generation of games consoles as a means for MMO play is certainly interesting and I will be watching keenly. At this moment in time, for me, the PC still remains the strongest format to experience true MMO gaming and as such Tabula Rasa was designed purely with the PC in mind. However, we would not rule out a possible collaboration in the future.

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