An interview with Richard Garriott

From Akalabeth to Tabula Rasa, from Origin to Destination Games. The ex-Lord British speaks

Richard 'Lord British' Garriott has been away for too long. An outspoken eccentric with a passion for videogames, he was one of the first people to bring RPGs to the PC with Akalabeth, which grew into the nine-part Ultima epic. He co-founded developer/publisher Origin, arguably one of the most important developers of all time. Son of an astronaut and an artist, he gives the impression of being genuine American royalty.

They don't make them like Garriott any more, which makes his return with Tabula Rasa all the more important. An online sci-fi RPG that attempts not only to introduce a whole new world to gamers, but to make them care about it. Can he pull it off?

You've clearly designed the world in great detail. How do you convey this to the players? Is this depth necessary?

Richard Garriott: I'm a big believer in what I call 'Tolkien' game design. I believe we - as developers - must know much more about the science and the philosophy and language and history than ever comes out in the game. That's a big part of my work on the game - I have a whole research library.

When I developed the Logos language [Tabula Rasa's in-game sign-script of a long-gone alien race - Ed], I did a lot of research into hieroglyphics and other pictographic historical languages, contemporary languages which are used to communicate with the handicapped, and ancient Chinese calligraphy.

Similarly, how wormholes work or the Force-like superpowers. They aren't like magic powers I've just made up. They have a basis in a science-fiction history that we built. We've done that again through culture, history, ecology and the sciences that built each planet.

Games often end up being either stereotypical or unfathomable. Do you worry about people not 'getting' it?

Garriott: We had one substantial false start for the first 18 months of development. While the gameplay principles persisted throughout, the visual and historical wrapper we put around it was completely scrapped - specifically for the reason you describe.

We originally set out to have one universal visual and historical archetype... and it really was so new and so different, you couldn't even cursorily tie it to contemporary Earth, or Star Wars or Star Trek. What we came up with was so missing in important touchstones it wasn't really successful. We unwound being quite that different, then rebuilt.

We were originally much further in the future with much more Eastern philosophy. Instead, we backed up to something more contemporary, in terms of military and interpretations of science fiction. Start with things they find familiar like pistols and rocket launchers... then move onto the more exotic weapons. We still have them, but you grow into them.

You were showing me your display of Asian-culture characters... How do you go about developing a game for multiple cultures?

Garriott: When we first started building the game we thought that since we have such expertise in the Asian market and the US and European markets in the company, we felt that surely we could come up with one game which is powerful for everyone concurrently. Over time, it's interesting to see what happened.

For example, when we tried to do temples, putting in a curved roofline, which you may think of as an Asian roof style, we would constantly get commentary back from our Asian office saying "We see what you're trying to do... but it really doesn't look right." Eventually they told us why. Imagine we were trying to make a nice European castle, and instead of giving it straight edges, we gave it marshmallow ones, so it was a little puffy. Puffy crenelations. We would look at that as comical, but they would look at it as a castle.

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