We’ve heard Ultima creator and private astronaut Richard Garriott’s “three eras of gaming” keynote speech before, so his reworking of it for GDC in Cologne this week certainly won’t shock regular readers with its content or thesis. Garriott looks over the history of gaming and splits it into three broad eras: the single-player era, the MMO era, and the social/mobile era (which we are presently in), and notes his achievements and experiments with each paradigm.
His GDC keynote, though, is worth remarking on for how much focus it puts on the Ultima games, particularly Ultima Online; Tabula Rasa doesn’t even merit a mention in the quotes that Gamasutra took from Lord British.
On single-player gaming, Garriott had this to say:
“One thing that I really lucked into was creating storylines with what I will call ‘social relevance’,” he said, pointing to the moral choices inherent in the Ultima games.
The “save the kingdom” story of the original games in the series is no longer enough, though it still has traction in the industry, he said. “The first Ultimas were very simple stories… And if you look at most games today they still are. Personally, I don’t know about you, after I told that story a few times I was done with it.”
“That story has no value in the future. It’s the antithesis of what I try to do and what we as a development community need to do,” said Garriott.
“I have found that it’s much more challenging and much more successful for a long period of time, if you can a find a storyline to embed into a game that speaks to current contemporary social issues, but cast in a storyline that is appropriate to the style or fiction of the world that you have created.”
He also cautioned audiences to not miss what he considers “an essential element” of games — “a visual style is easily identifiable and easily memorable, and thus easily able for you to recall.”
And the Ultima games certainly delivered on that last point, especially from Ultima 6 onward.
Moving on to MMORPGs, Garriott revealed a few details about Ultima Online’s history:
When he launched the Ultima Online project, EA’s “faith in the team and faith in the project was so low,” he said, that “projected sales were 30k lifetime.”
“Sales and marketing were not in favor of us working with the game,” he said. “It wasn’t until we put up a prototype and put up a web page… 50,000 people signed up to be beta testers in the first couple of weeks. When it finally did ship it was the fastest selling PC game in origin and EA history at the time. Within about two years had outsold all of the other previous Ultimas combined.”
Even so, he said, “Despite the success, lots of people were not convinced that this was a good future for gaming in general.”
This is because the game had dated graphics and a lack of story — putting it behind the current state of the art of single player games. “When a new era starts with graphics that are five or 10 years behind the state of the art, very quickly that changes.”
MMOs quickly caught up. In fact, new era games — while behind the times at first — “catch up and supersede the era… Which is a very important message when you talk about the third era” of social and mobile games.
Of course, we know that Ultima Online went on to quite a bit more success than that…but it did start from behind. And it’s worth noting that MMOs today still have the tendency to lag behind graphically when compared to single-player games. Then again, that’s not really a surprise; MMOs run for years, and their visual feel stays constant for most of that duration.
Moving on to social gaming, Garriott had this to say:
“I am now much more of a gamer than I ever been been in my whole life, but the vast majority of the gaming I have played has been on this machine,” Garriott said, while holding up an iPhone.
“I’m a devout believer that this is the current and near-term future of games.”
The key points of this era, according to Garriott, are:
- Games are free or very cheap to acquire
- Simple to use without instructions
- The people who you meet at first are the people you know really well in the real world
- The ability to engage your friends asynchronously
“The combination of these features have scaled the market tenfold… Crossing the threshold of hundredss of millions of players in each game,” he said.
“Just like with MMOs, [detractors] are not recognizing the power of the new era, and how they can not only be great contributors to this era, but even as players how much you will enjoy this new era.”
People — both developers and players — used to say about MMOs, “the graphics aren’t very good, there’s no story.” Today, the same groups say that social and mobile games have bad graphics and unappealing gameplay. But watch out, said Garriott: things are rapidly evolving.
As I noted previously: I agree with Garriott’s assessment in general. Regular readers of Aiera will no doubt have noticed that I’ve been quite open in voicing my belief that social and mobile games — despite the relative fluffiness and primitivity of the current crop of social/casual titles — are a field in which there will be explosive growth (both in terms of the number of games available and the quality/engagingness of these games) in coming years.
My first mobile was a primitive little Samsung flip phone, with some version of Solitaire and a primitive little driving game installed on it. And these were, admittedly, terrible games, and very poorly implemented. Now, though? I’ve got Infinity Blade (an Unreal Engine 3-powered game) on my iPhone. And Galaxy on Fire 2.
That’s exactly the sort of revolution that’s about to take place in the social gaming space. And Garriott will likely be at the forefront of it.
Extra Reading: UO Journal links to this interview with Garriott at Soulrift, in which the father of Ultima goes into even more detail about the three eras, and about Ultima Online in paticular.