Origin created worlds, from the battle-ravaged world of Wing Commander to the spooky space station of System Shock to the involving fantasy world of Ultima. The swift, merciless death of Origin around the turn of the century left the studio a hollow shell of its once great self. Quasi-mythical founders Robert and Richard Garriott were left to wander the earth, like Caine from Kung Fu. The wandering years took them to their own company and, eventually, to NCsoft's Austin operations, where they preside over the mysterious Tabula Rasa and NC's other titles. Our writers caught up with the brothers Garriott at a recent conference, seeking insight into the past, present, and future of the MMOG world.
Richard opened with a critique of the present, saying, "You know, if you look at the online games that have come out to date, and it's almost been ten years since Ultima Online ... Frankly, the fundamental game design structure of most that have come to pass is pretty similar to what I consider first generation thinking. There's been very few groups that have really published a game successfully and then gone on to create a new game having learned the lessons of their first game, if you know what I mean.
"We've really only just begun to scratch the surface of what online games can become," he said, adding, "Most online games have the same fundamental design premise, in contrast to solo games where you get to be the one great hero that saves the world and everything about the game is there to make you believe that. Online games, on the other hand, your life is pretty average," echoing the famous lament of Star Wars Galaxies players who wanted to be Luke Skywalker, but instead found themselves a nameless farmer on Tatooine. "You know, half the people are higher level than you; half of them are lower level than you."
The typical game design is still the same as it has always been for first generation MMOGs. "You tend to grind levels; it's really your whole goal," he says, capturing the experience in just a few words. "Your play cycle paradigm goes something like this: Your first mission is to go out and fight level one monsters. You go out there to the fields where level one monsters continually respawn and you farm them for XP and a little more weapons or equipment. You go back to town and cash it in and you get sent out to the level two creatures, and then you just repeat this process. That, interestingly, is already compelling enough to have brought in millions of people into the online games race."
While some are content to rest on that particular design until the end of time, you can sense a bit of dissatisfaction in Lord British when he says, "But, fundamentally, I think it's not particularly elegant." Looking to the future, and including his own Tabula Rasa, he sees developers learning from and expanding beyond this model. He continues, "Most of the developers who have built one successful online game realize the error of their ways and now have moved on and said, 'Okay, what can we do that's bigger and better than that?' And so some of these answers, which to me should sound pretty straightforward these days, are things like, as opposed to demanding a level grind where the only way you can feel successful is to be doing it for 12 hours a day, we've got to create games where people can have 30 minute play cycles. You get in, you get out, and [you] don't feel that while [you're] out, [your] friends are going to level beyond [you] to a point where you can't even play together anymore."
The problem with the first-generation model of gameplay is it's, well, kind of boring. Richard sums it up as, "[You're] going out in a field and farming/grinding on the same monsters that respawn in the same area again, and when you're farming, you're just standing in front of each other seeing who does the most damage over time, if you've heard that phrase at all. Most games now even provide you the calculated damage over time, which is horrible. It's indicative of the fact that the whole point in this game is just to raise that one number, and then you go close your eyes and mash the buttons some more." In summation, he says, "Horrible, horrible gameplay."