Game developer and private astronaut Richard Garriott is well-known for his three decade-long career in the video game industry. He’s now working in the social and mobile games field and recently talked with us about how he believes these platforms represent the “third grand era of computer games,” what he thinks current social games are missing, and shared some of the details about his company’s upcoming project Ultimate RPG (working title).
For Garriott, each “age” of computer games is marked by dramatic market upheavals and the current popularity of mobile and social titles represents the beginning of a new era. “Solo player games sold to millions of players and still does,” he says. “MMOs sold to tens of millions of players and still do and now mobile and social games are right on the verge of crossing 100 million players per title.”
Portalarium is the third company Garriott’s founded. Like his previous companies, it corresponds with one of his industry ages and works with leaders in the field in which it exists. In the 1980s he established Origin Systems with his brother, Robert, and the developer became famous for putting out titles like Ultima, Wing Commander and System Shock. Nearly a decade after the company was acquired by Electronic Arts, the Garriott brothers left to start Destination Games in order to work with Korean MMO behemoth NCsoft in the newly popular field of massively-multiplayer online role-playing games. Garriott left NCsoft in 2008 and founded Portalarium, and in June Zynga announced at its Zynga Unleashed event that Portalarium was part of its latest round of publishing partners.
Until now, Portalarium’s stayed relatively quiet, releasing a few casino-themed Facebook titles, its plugin was used in the 3D MMO A Mystical Land (though the plugin isn’t being used in Portalarium’s development proces anymore) and the collecting game Ultimate Collector: Garage Sale on Facebook. Last week, the company secured $7 million in Series A financing. Portalarium is planning to invest the money in further development of Ultimate Collector, as well as to launch its new cross-platform MMO Ultimate RPG. In the meantime, Garriott says Portalarium is using Ultimate Collector to test out elements and technology for Ultimate RPG.
Correction: We originally reported that Portalarium developed A Mystical Land. This is incorrect: It was developed by Mad Otter and published by Neonga.
Social games’ uphill battle with core gamers
Ultimate RPG is being designed to appeal to both casual and core gamers, something that Garriott doesn’t think most social titles have been capable of over the past few years.
“If you look at the hundreds of millions of new players coming in on Facebook and the games they have to play — I’ll call them ‘Ville Clones’ — if you looked at a great many of those, they had some potentially interesting minigames and some new features that have been discovered … but they made the genre worse for the hardcore audience,” he says. “But if you look at those games also, their user interface usually was not very good in the first few years and the depth of play was almost completely lacking. What I think a lot of players and developers have missed over the past few years is the power of the delivery mechanism … a way to reach an audience through an app store or the concept of free-to-play to allow things to spread virally and not demand up front what we do now: Put a lot of money down up front, spend hours creating a character and finally hours later finding out if the game is any good. While hardcore players are willing to put up with that, it doesn’t make the game better. I believe the fact that new players will not put up with that. If you can fix it and make sure that every person can click on a link, get in and get rewarded quickly, then everybody wins.”
Garriott describes Ultimate RPG as a successor to his previous games, and players will have the option to eschew combat entirely. In Ultima Online, he says, many players had characters who were combat-focused, but there were also many others who created characters working jobs like bakers or blacksmiths and never had them enter online battles. “MMOs fall into two categories: Ultima Online-style games and everything else, like World of Warcraft and Everquest,” Garriott explains. “[In the latter category] every person is first and foremost a combatant with secondary skills. The world itself is largely a backdrop to combat and advancement.”
The power of asynchronous play
Ultimate RPG is set to be released for both tablets and social networks and will allow users to play asynchronously with their friends. Garriott is enamored with the power of asynchronous play, believing it’s the next stage of the multiplayer experience established by MMOs. “Giving people ways to asynchronously interact with each other but still support each other and share with each other is so much powerful because you can leverage the friends graph in that way. I believe it’s one of the main reasons for the great success that social media games have.”
Garriott says Ultimate RPG will allow players to interact with their friends even when they’re offline. This mechanic allows users to visit other users’ virtual property An example of this is that a person can visit their friend’s shop in the game, regardless of whether or not they’re online. If the shop’s owner happens to be present, the player can interact or chat with them in real time. If the shop owner isn’t logged in, they’ll receive the in-game benefits from any transactions that occurred while they were away.
There isn’t an announced launch date for Ultimate RPG yet, but Garriott tells us the game will first be released for iOS and Android tablets first with web version (on platforms like Facebook, Google+ and the open web) following later.