I finally managed to get to another of Warren Spector‘s design seminars last night. This one was with Richard Garriott.

Okay, I’m going to be up front here. Richard is one of my Favorite People. He’s the reason I moved to Austin – when I decided to leave home to get a game development job, I felt that my two options were to move to Austin to work for Origin Systems or to move to San Mateo, California to work for Electronic Arts (please note that this was back in 1990, before they became the Borg). So I’m not going to be particularly objective about his talk.

My one real annoyance was that while Warren started with Richard’s chronology of games, Ultima IV was the last game in the chronology they got around to talking about (other than Tabula Rasa, of course). This was disappointing because I wanted to hear more about the development of Ultima VI and VII myself. But at one point Richard answered a question about dealing with his staff by mentioning that he is very easily swayed by the last person who has talked to him. This neatly explains why he and Warren kept getting off-track.

As a result, the session was a mish-mash of Q&A and Warren and Richard discussing whatever came to mind – Richard gave no formal presentation. That doesn’t mean that the session was boring or pointless – quite the opposite. What it does mean is that the summary that follows is basically going to be as random and haphazard as the session itself.

Richard and Warren did start off with the chronology, with Richard talking about his upbringing. His father was a NASA scientist who later became an astronaut and was constantly bringing experiments and equipment from NASA home that Richard got to play with; he mentioned that one time he got to use a image intensifier tube years before it found a commercial application in night vision goggles.

His mother, on the other hand, was an artist. She was the inspiration behind the silver serpent necklace he now wears.

And in high school he was exposed to the three things that combined to lay out his future path – computers, Dungeons & Dragons, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He became obsessed with the idea of programming a computer to play a role-playing game.

The first computer he used was a PDP-11 terminal. The terminal was never used, and Richard really wanted to try it out. In the first of many benign cons, he actually managed to convince his teachers and principal to let him have complete access to the terminal every day as a school class. The class had no teacher, no tests and no other students – it was just Richard playing around with the computer unsupervised. All he had to do was show progress on a program at the end of each semester to get an easy A. Not only that, but he managed to con them into considering this his foreign language credit – that’s right, the foreign language Richard learned in high school was BASIC. This was what made it possible for him to write his first RPG.

Writing that RPG wasn’t easy. The PDP-11 wasn’t actually at his school; he had to use a terminal and punch paper tape in order to program it, and it took forty seconds for the PDP-11 to respond to input while the program was running. That gives a new meaning to “turn-based”…

The first program he wrote (which he simply called “D&D 1”) was effectively a Roguelike (and dammit, I meant to ask him if he’d played any other Roguelikes before he wrote it, but I forgot). It was so complicated that his father actually bet him that he’d never finish – if Richard did manage to finish the program, his father would split the cost of an Apple II with him.

Of course, Richard did manage to get D&D 1 finished, but it took a while for him to get the Apple – by the time he did he was up to D&D 28! He converted D&D 28 (which he called “D&D 28B”) to the Apple and continued to improve it. This led to him later publishing that same game as Akalabeth, which started his professional game development career.

Richard is pretty proud of his latest game, Tabula Rasa. Now, before I get into this, I just want to say that I really like what NCSoft has been doing in general…even though I don’t play any of their games. They are proving that MMOs don’t have to be fantasy-based and they don’t have to require subscriptions and they don’t have to be Everquest clones. Yes, it’s easy to snicker at the failure of Auto Assault, but NCSoft more than any other company is trying to break the mold of MMOs. And Tabula Rasa is the latest iteration of that. It’s an RPG, but it’s one where positioning is important, you can actually get behind cover, and you don’t roll for damage until you actually pull the trigger on your gun – there is no “auto-attack”.

Tabula Rasa also uses a very interesting system to handle instances and big events in the game. I seem to recall a long time ago mentioning that World of Warcraft would probably have been the best RPG I ever played…if anything I did in the game actually mattered. Anything you do gets undone five minutes later so that someone else in the game world can do it again. Tabula Rasa actually fights this by having things appear differently in the game world for different players based on their own actions. So instead of the world continually getting reset, it appears that the world is moving forward…just at different rates for different players.

But the strange thing is that despite the fact that it’s “Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa”, Richard deliberately pulled back from doing a lot of the design work. He described the backstory and game world and made a few key design decisions, as well as creating the Logos language for the game, but after that he mostly oversaw the design and kept it on track rather than doing it himself. He called himself more the “creative director” of the game, saying that Starr Long was the actual director and producer.

He’s actually very proud of Logos, which is a pictographic language (not merely a substitution cypher like the Runic, Gargish and Ophidian languages were). He wanted a language that was just as easy (or rather, just as hard) for an English-speaking person to read as a German-speaking or Korean-speaking person. He based the language heavily off of pictographic languages for handicapped people and considers Logos to be superior to many of them. And he showed us how to read it…it’s actually not hard. For instance, the Logos on this screenshot means, “the fight for control of the universe begins now”. Logos is usually read top-to-bottom rather than left-to-right, though.

It’s pretty obvious to me that Richard has a Reality Distortion Field. When he mentioned convincing his teachers to let him at the PDP-11, Warren interjected that Richard did stuff like that all the time…which jives with Mike McShaffry’s anecdote in Game Coding Complete where he and the other programmers on Ultima IX went into a meeting early in the project with the express intention of convincing Richard that an Ultima VII-style streaming world just wouldn’t be possible in 3D…and came out of the meeting convinced by Richard that an Ultima VII-style streaming world in 3D was obviously the right thing to do.

Then came the question-and-answer session. I asked Richard if he’d ever consider doing a single-player RPG again and he said yes, but that his next project would be another MMO. Much later I asked him if he ever thought we’d see MMOs with the deep world simulation of Ultima VII and he said that hopefully I’d see one when he made one, and that’s probably what his next project would be. So if Richard’s next project turns out to effectively be an improved Ultima Online, I am taking full credit. I put that idea in his head. It was all me, baby.

Let’s see…what else did he talk about…oh, he said that they put up with player-run Ultima Online shards until some of them started charging money, at which point he simply picked up the phone, called the FBI and had them arrested. It’s kind of stupid to do something like that when it’s so easy to find out through your ISP who you are.

Also, to his credit, he took exception when Warren called Ultima Online the first MMO, but pointed out that previous efforts were either very difficult to get into like textMUDs or were linked to proprietary online services like Kesmai and thus had very limited markets. Ultima Online was the first mass-market, internet-based MMO and proved that genre’s viability. Richard had been turned down by EA again and again when he proposed UO to them and was only able to start the project by cornering Larry Probst personally and applying the Reality Distortion Field, which got him $250,000. He was able to create a viable prototype with that $250,000, but in order to get beta testers they needed more money to duplicate and mail CDs, which they didn’t have. So Richard & Co. put up a web page, one of the first Origin and EA ever had, to tell people, “Hey, we’ve got this game and we think it’s going to be great, but if you want to get into the beta test it you’ll have to send us $5 to cover the cost of shipping you a CD.” All their co-workers said they were crazy, but within a week they had 50,000 takers – and this was when the biggest MMO in the world had 15,000 subscribers. That was the point at which Electronic Arts perked up their ears and actually started investing in the project.

He also said that one of the most touching moments he ever had was when he was GMing UO invisibly. He said he was near a player who was fishing (fishing being one of the most popular activities in UO) and was actually wearing shorts and a straw hat to look the part. The fisherman was approached by an adventurer who had obviously just come from a dungeon run and who said something like, “Ho, fisherman! It is obvious that you are poor – you have no armor and weapon! Here, take some of the spoils of my latest adventure!” and started laying money, armor and weapons out on the ground for the fisherman to take (player trading having not been implemented yet).

At which point the fisherman player said, “Stop! You misunderstand! I am a fisherman. I catch my fish, take it into town and sell it, and then spend the money with my friends at the pub. I like this life and desire no other. Be off with you, warmonger!” Richard considered it one of the great accomplishments of his life that he had created a game that people could get so far into.

And I think that’s all I can remember…for now, at least. Like I said, it was a great evening.