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The Right Amount Of Depth: Lord British Goes Social

Lord British holds court on his plans for his social games developer Portalarium, describing his thoughts on game design and UI, audience and testing, and explaining why he no longer plays the "kinds of games you might think I would make" anymore.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

June 10, 2011

19 Min Read

Last year, veteran developer Richard Garriott -- aka Lord British -- founded his latest developer, Portalarium, to create social games. Like many long-term PC developers, he's come to see the social space as the natural evolution of the platform, and has chosen to embrace it. Recently, the company secured $3.6 million in funding.

In this extensive interview, Garriott speaks about his plans to bring an "Ultima Online-like experience" to social gamers, and how he sees a need for this to be platform-agnostic and accessible as well as deep and meaningful -- and how he thinks social gaming audiences have been trained up by Zynga to be ready for deeper, richer experiences.

"Even the kinds of games that you might think I would make, I don't generally play, because they're often just too much of a hassle to get into them," says Garriott, of the current crop of MMOs.

Instead, he says, he spends his gaming time with the iPhone, and believes that the true evolution of games will be one that allows mainstream gamers to touch the depth of design that he and his compatriots are capable of.

What's the state of Portalarium now?

Richard Garriott: So we started the company just over a year ago. It's what I'll call my "usual suspects", it's you know... Got my friend David [Swofford] who you just saw, who's our PR/marketing guy, Fred Schmidt who's kind of our business side, and Dallas Snell is running product development.

And a bunch of the developers, all of us who have worked together at Origin and NCsoft -- or Destination Games, which became NCsoft -- Origin, EA, Destination Games, NCsoft, now Portalarium.

You know, our first year has been largely building infrastructure and technology. Our belief about social media games is that not only do we believe we can create great games, but delivered through free-to-play, pay as you go, and, you know, click on an email link to start playing, which we think is the kind of critical aspect of the new delivery.

But also we believe that... one of the key aspects of what is not being done well now that we believe can and should be done much better -- and hopefully we'll lead the charge in this area -- is that if you look at most of the companies making casual or social games right now they... even if you're playing the same companies' games, you're largely siloed from each other.

Now if you're playing one Ville-like game and I'm playing a different Ville-like game, we don't know about each other's activities during those games until after I log out and look at my posts on my wall and I go, "Oh, at the same that I was playing, my friend was playing this other game; kind of wish I knew that."

And so we've created an infrastructure -- a standardized messaging system between all games -- so that while you're playing a game, I can get notifications of what you've done that I can either ignore, tell you congratulations or whatever else, or click on a link that lets me change games and jump right in and play right alongside you. So we believe that we're trying to deepen the connections between you and your friends across all the games that you play.

Portalarium's Port Casino Poker

And so that's what we've been building so far. We've shipped two very light games -- just a couple of casino games that we used to test that backbone. We're just about to release our first truly original game, which is still a very light game in a sense of social media type game, but not a farming game, not a café operation game, not a pet management game, but a truly original game; it's still quite light by what people might expect from Lord British standards.

That game is called Ultimate Collector. And then we're going to roll into what I call the next, you know, big Lord British virtual world game (Lord British’s New Britannia).

Can you tell us a little more about these?

RG: Ultimate Collector, set in a contemporary world/theme, will be out sometime this summer and is a unique social media style game which will have some of the same conventions (asynchronous play, sharing accomplishments and information with your friends, etc.) that are part of successful social media games today.

I will soon begin development of my new Lord British-style RPG for social media and mobile platforms in the very near future. Lord British's New Britannia, which was mentioned in our SXSW Accelerator presentation in March, is a working title for that product.

It sounds like you're doing this outside the confines of Facebook a bit?

RG: Well, we're what I call platform agnostic. So far we deliver on Facebook, Hi5, we will do independent web, but it's not out yet. We have the iPad version already in test about to release, iPhone version's underway. So we're going to deliver on all of these kinds of platforms.

Why build a lot of infrastructure when you could actually sort of build that into Facebook? The iPhone has infrastructure for gaming as well.

RG: By the way, I almost do all of my gaming now on iPhone. But the infrastructure that's on there... I'm not talking about the infrastructure that allows people to post on the Wall with OpenFeint-type results. I'm talking about real time data streams to where, in real time, we're aware of each other's activity so that we can find each other more ad hoc, and interact on a real time basis.

Well, in fact, let me give you this analogy. I was on LinkedIn before I was on Facebook, so I have a whole friends list on LinkedIn, I have a different set of friends on Facebook, and I have another set of followers and followees on Twitter.

Well, in my mind, all I really care about is who my friends are. And I have no personal tie to Facebook, I have no personal tie to Twitter, I have no personal tie to LinkedIn -- I only have a personal tie to my friends.

And so what we're trying to do is obfuscate the platform, because I don't think you care about that platform; what you care about is your friends. And so we, part of our tool suite people will actually help you integrate all of your friends into one friends list, and as you move around in life, your friends list is for you.

And you don't want to be spammed by all the crap that comes from people who aren't actually your friends, and you do want to, at least, have the choice to follow in on the activities of the people you have elected to be your true friends.

And how do you do that from a UI perspective?

RG: If you have any game open, or the web browser open, or a plugin installed, there's just a little window that pops up that just says, "Hey, your friend so-and-so just conquered three bad guys and you got three sacks of gold." And that'll just be a little briefly popped up window that will close on its own.

But also what's on that little placard, it could say "ignore", which means you won't see anymore from that particular data stream. Or reply, which you could say, "Hey, congratulations", but that's the end of it; you'd still have a real time interaction. Or "play", and that means it will immediately launch that game and drop you in the world right next to that person.

A lot of these games send too many notifications already. You could maybe do a ticker...

RG: Well, way too many, I think. But these are small enough and frequent enough in our minds that I don't think it'll become overwhelming. But, by the way, if it was basically a constant stream, a ticker would by far be the better choice. But at this point, we don't anticipate that the frequency will be that high.

But yeah, one of my frustrations with social media games is how basically everything I do, a placard pops up that says, "Sure you don't want to post it to Facebook to every one of your friends?", and I'm going, "No, I really don't."

Xbox Live is kind of analogous, and actually I do get annoyed by the popups like, "So and so is online", and they're having some network connectivity problems so like every few seconds...

RG: It starts up over and over again?

Yeah, every minute. It's like I'm trying to look at something and it's like, "Heeey!"

RG: "Hey, hey!" Yep, yep. Well, that's why our little ignore button will kind of remove that whole stream. And once you've kind of indicated your interest level of following along with that person today or not, that'll be the end of it.

Talking of like the deeper level stuff, last year we had a brief conversation about directed narrative in social games and whether it was possible. Now that you've been working with these platforms a little more, what do you think about that now?

RG: That's one of the things I think that's going to be interesting to see how it plays out in this new era. If you think about it right now, most of the games that have proven to be popular on social media are not actually what I call massively multiplayer; they're not people concurrently playing in the same world. There are people whose activities in a world can leave a trail which can be adopted, or impact someone else's trail or activity in that virtual world, if you follow my meaning.

And actually in that particular, I think linear narrative is actually pretty easy. Because frankly that you can do a solo player Ultima that [notifies] whenever I've achieved something, or left something in your world for you to pick up next time you were in there. So you can actually do directive narrative pretty easily in the way that most social media games are currently popular.

Now that being said, one of my personal goals is to create a more what I call an Ultima Online-like experience with the game that I'm hoping to do -- the big game coming up. And that will again go back to making linear narrative somewhat of a challenge, just like it was a challenge in Ultima Online.

As a person who does not have very much interest in the current crop of social games, maybe I would be interested in something like that; I'm not sure.

RG: But here's the thing -- and by the way, I don't have very much interest in the current crop of social games -- but you know like you said, you're also an iPhone gamer. Previous to the iPhone I would describe myself as a PC gamer, but I probably played one PC game per year, really, a lot. I mean, I looked at many, but I only really got into one game a year.

On the iPhone I play one new game a week, a lot, to completion usually. And I probably have 50 games installed in this iPhone right now and I've played them all to completion. I'm much more of a gamer now than I ever was in the past, but I consider this: these are clearly casual. Not exactly social, but they still fit my definition of the future, [which] is games I can play on this.

And so the analogy I often give is I go to people who are worried about "are casual games ever going to be things they want to play" and I go, "Of course they are going to be."

Because imagine two games, one of which is Ultima Online the way it was shipped. You go to the store and pay 50 bucks for it -- well first of all you have to drive to the store, pay 50 dollars, bring it home, install it, then you have to sign up to pay 10 dollars a month, and then you can play it.

Or here's version 2: same exact game, but your friend sent you an email, click on this link and you can play. You click on it, you begin playing immediately, it's streaming download -- you don't have to do the huge install to begin with, and only if you play past level 5 do I then find a way to charge you for it -- for hopefully about the same amount of money.

Which of those games are you going to enjoy the most? Presumably, you're going to enjoy them the same -- because it's the same game -- but which one do you think is going to spread more easily? Well, clearly the one that you can just click on an email and play is going to spread more easily.

So that's what I'm saying -- don't worry about the content of what you see so far. Think of it as a distribution method and a platform of access. The reason why I play so many games on this platform is because it's so easy, and two to five bucks is an impulse purchase. I don't even think of a price that I'm paying to play these games, even though in total, in a month, I pay a lot more for iPhone games than I ever did in PC games because I just buy a lot more of them. And so that's fine.

It seems like there's potential for more cross platform interactivity than there has been.

RG: Well when people are doubters, here's another thing I like to point out. Let's look at three Zynga games: FarmVille, FrontierVille, and CityVille. So when I looked at FarmVille. It's super popular. You go play it and you go, "Wow, this UI is actually pretty damn clunky." It's actually hard to use, it's confusing to use, so if I was a beginning user, a light user I'm going like, "Wow, it's just not that elegant."

I mean, I'm surprised that people can get through the awkward frontend to have an appreciation for this game that, frankly, is still pretty simple -- in fact, a little too simple for me. Not enough going on, not enough depth. I'm shocked that it's so popular but it is.

Then move to FrontierVille -- much better designed. User interface works a lot better, it's actually consistent in its design, much more reliability. The depth of the game is considerably more fleshed out, the animation's better. I go like, "Wow, now I can really appreciate it; that's a real game." Still not exactly what I want to play, but it's a real game.

Now more recently you look at CityVille. CityVille has surpassed FarmVille, even in popularity -- which was the most popular game in the world. But I look at it and go, "It's actually too much for me." Literally, there is so much going on the screen concurrently; I can't keep up. I mean there are stars bouncing around and things to click on and, literally, I find the game overwhelming.

And so it has actually exceeded my personal capacity of being able to manage what's happening all on the screen at one time. And these are the brand new, beginning players, who've never played games before in their life, prior to these other games -- who now are pushing out a hundred million users in one game -- and they're already now managing to handle more complexity than, frankly, I want!

And so when people go like, "Oh, these games are gonna be too simple and these new users are never going to be able to handle the depth and sophistication", I'm going, "That's bull; they already are!" And so, just give it some time, for people to mature in their experiences and their expectations, and understand this diversity. The pace of their journey through gaming -- these new 100 million people -- is going at a phenomenal pace. And so the convergence absolutely will happen, just like in the movie industry.

You know, great movies are seen by everybody. But there's lots of romantic comedies -- are mostly seen by the women who are dragging their boyfriends there. There's lots of adventure movies -- all seen by the guys and some girls that get dragged there by the guys.

And the same thing's going to be true now for games. There's going to be a nice stable of breadth of games, all delivered to now all of humanity, globally, all ages, all walks of life. That's a great thing, and all of us as traditional gamers should not fear this, should not pooh-pooh it. Life is going to be fine. We're going to give the games you want to play in the new medium.

It is interesting to see the evolution of these games. I saw a quasi tech side FarmVille postmortem and they really were bolting things on to it as it got more popular. "Oops! We gotta do some more stuff here."

RG: And it looks, and feels, bolted on.

Right, so that accounts for the strange UI. But it is interesting to see this as it starts to be more and more from a web development side, how the UI improves, because people have appreciated now that simple is better, and have figured out how to actually communicate this information a little better. I think that's the hardest thing to do.

RG: Well, and I think another big lesson for all games from social media is the constant teaching of the UI.

For example, a drag and slide bar pretty much doesn't exist in social media games. There's a right and left arrow to go to the next page, but there's not like a slide bar to go through a long piece of information, because what people have found is a lot of people just didn't figure it out, you know what I mean?

It's a level of user interface sophistication where they lose people. When people have done that, people buy all the stuff that's on the first page but they never buy the stuff on the second or third page, because they never really drag that slider bar.

And so, making sure your UI is really easy to understand, we're talking about it has to be, you know, when you walk up to a washing machine or a dishwasher, everybody knows how to operate it, because it's got a very simple set of standardized controls. And there's no problem with that, it's actually just a reality! If you're going to deal with all of humanity, just make sure that you hand-hold people through the utilization, and make things as standardized, and only one level of conceptual complexity, as possible.

It doesn't mean they don't appreciate good literary content, it doesn't mean they don't appreciate rich, detailed NPCs in immersive virtual worlds -- you just have to don't overwhelm them with it. Even as a hardcore gamer, I play some things -- like I download many of the free-to-play MMOs that are out these days. A lot of them are graphically beautiful, have really nice user interfaces, have NPCs of great diversity, have all the kind of what I call "feature complete" in the sense of avatars with detail, and just all these other kinds of ways that they're rich.

But I find them overwhelming -- you get dropped in the middle of this gigantic world, you have no idea what to do, you have no idea where to start, you're going like, "Oh my God, it's going to take me so long to even know whether I like this game, that I'm daunted to start!", if you know what I mean. I go, "Yep, looks beautiful! Okay, I'm done." [laughs] And I don't play 'em. Even the kinds of games that you might think I would make, I don't generally play, because they're often just too much of a hassle to get into them. And so comfortably introducing people into your depth is a lesson all games should learn.

Yeah, and they have the advantage there of metrics. Being able to see what people are actually doing, they're not just guessing...

RG: Right, and by the way we had that in MMOs also. So no MMO developer should be excused from not knowing the answers to these questions because we had metrics then, too.

I think back then there was more of a reluctance to do it because it felt like cheating or something, as a game developer. But it is quite useful.

RG: Yeah, well, I can tell you in Ultima Online we constantly used those metrics to redesign the game. For example, one of my favorite stories is, in Ultima Online, when the game shipped, you could use a fishing pole on the water and there was a 50/50 chance you'd get a fish. Beginning and end of simulation -- literately use a pole, on water, 50/50, fish. Lots of people did it, tons of people did it.

And people began to believe apocryphal information about fishing; they began to believe that if you fished in a river versus in the ocean they were better chances of getting fish, which of course was not true. I told you the simulation use fishing pole, on water, 50/50, fish. That's it!

But so many people were doing it, and so many people had these fictitious beliefs that we thought, "Wow, we should spend some time to make fishing better!" And we did. Over time we actually made the fishing simulation more improved, gave you different kinds of fish, and there really was a point to using different places, and then it became even more popular.

And there were things that we thought were really cool that we put in the game, that nobody noticed or cared about -- very sad and tragic. But we either fixed and adressed those, or often, we just removed them from the game.

And so, even from the beginning -- I don't think of the metrics-driven feedback to me as new at all; I actually look at it as, "Yeah, of course you're doing it." And they are doing some things that are new, like we would never do A/B testing on the color of text. But you know that's interesting and useful to know how to optimize your value stream, but it really is something we were already doing 10 years ago.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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