MMO Chat: Richard Garriott

August 16th, 2011

This is the moment you may or may not have been waiting far too long for. Following the publishing of part 3 of The F-Words of MMORPGs: Free to Play, I've also published my full interview with Richard Garriott of Ultima fame. The topic is, of course, more about MMORPG economies. Enjoy!

Richard Garriott: I actually find MMO economies, still to this day, to be one of the most fascinating aspects of MMOs. It continues to cause upheaval, even the economics about how people try to charge for these things. It's a fascinating subject.

Soulrift: Yeah! I've been talking to a lot of people and they're all like "Oh, yeah, how come no one's ever written about this before? It's fascinating?" And others are like "why would anyone do an interview about my game's auction house?"

Haha, exactly.

So, this seems kind of unnecessary, given who you are, but why not take a moment to introduce yourself and some of the MMOs you've worked on.

I'm Richard Garriott, often known by my pen name for the Ultima series: Lord British. I started writing the Ultima series back in the 1970s. The first big successful massively multiplayer game arguably was Ultima Online. As long as people have been connecting computers together, of course, there have been multiplayer games - MUDs, Multi User Dungeons, that sort of thing through dial-up services etc. - but from a true scale standpoint I think Ultima Online was the first tens-of-thousands then hundreds-of-thousands and ultimately millions of players massively multiplayer game. I worked on a couple of others since then, Tabula Rasa being the other big launch title. And it's still what I do now, I'm working on a new social gaming / casual style platform for an MMO right now.

Starting with Ultima Online, I was curious how the development of the economy from the single player Ultima games came into the Ultima Online world-space. Was there a lot of thought into changing that given that players would be trading with other players as opposed to NPCs?

We of course knew there would be a difference. What we had very little ability to predict was what those differences would be. When you're creating a solo player game, whether you're talking about advancement in your character's attributes or advancements in their wealth and what they can buy with that wealth - the next armour or equipment - those are quite controllable, quite containable. In other words, we can very tightly constrain the ways that they have to earn money so by the time that they reach a certain point in the story we can know with pretty good authority what we call the relative scale of money they have in their pocket is. If we only give out single gold pieces when they're fighting level 1 monsters and they can't defeat level 2 monsters until they're level 2, we can pretty much guarantee that no matter how hard they work they're only going to have "ones" of gold pieces in their pocket. And we can say that when they get to level 2 that they have "tens" of gold pieces and at level 3 "hundreds" of gold pieces, etc. You can increase the scale of wealth and the scale of where they are in the story and you keep them in quite close lock-step. It has fairly little to do with what I'll call "value" in the real world, it's just a game mechanic.

Well, when you generate a massively multiplayer game, the ability to tightly control and constrain things goes out the window. Even if you start with a basis of saying at level 1 you get 1s of gold and level 2 you get 10s and level 3 you get 100s, etc., the problem then becomes that anyone of high level can basically hand that value to a person of low level. And, as you're probably also very aware, once you get into a massively multiplayer arena - I'm a devout believer in "time is money" so therefore if you create a game mechanic that takes a hundred hours to generate a hundred gold pieces, then whatever your real worth is in the real world that you pay yourself for a hundred hours of work, most people are willing to pay that amount of real dollars to avoid having to do that amount of real work in the game. So you immediately get into the issue of - exactly - real money transactions. So the ability to keep things balanced, at least in what I'd call the traditional way, crumbles.

Not to mention, as I've argued in some of my articles, that the currency in a game isn't really a currency like we think of it in the real world because it's created and destroyed by processes in the game; because you get it in the game and spend it in the game it's more of a resource, like growing wheat. From that perspective MMOs always have a sort of barter economy because you're bartering a good that you could otherwise consume.

In Asheron's Call, the value of the Pyreal kind of crumbled and players resorted to a barter economy with quest items. Did Ultima Online suffer any similar problems?

We didn't have that particular problem. I would actually say that our virtual economy sort of ran the other way. We had the circumstance where, I think one of the most interesting emergent value assets that came up in Ultima Online was how quickly and how valuable virtual real-estate became. I think that the reason why they became so valuable and the impact on the economy kinda goes like this: Ultima Online, to this day I think, is the only MMO that did such a good job of giving players non-combat roles that were so thoroughly simulated that people had entire lives that they would live out in the virtual world that had little or nothing to do with adventuring. The classical case is the blacksmith. There were people who would literally spend their entire virtual life online buying ore that would be brought by adventurers in dungeons, smelting it down into ingots, taking those ingots and forging weapons, and selling those weapons back to the adventurers who would go back into the dungeon and get more ore. Well, if your joy in this game was to be a blacksmith and make weapons, well your blacksmith shop sorta needed to be somewhere on the beaten path between the dungeon and the city centre where the players usually had their caravans of player groups going for safety. And that real-estate, of course, was almost immediately bought up by players early in the game, so late in the game the only place to build a new blacksmith shop was way out in the woods somewhere, which was, frankly, no amount of advertising would bring people to you. So the real-estate suddenly became the thing of value.

We anticipated that when we sold players deeds to this virtual property, we sold it for what I'd call dozens of gold coins which we thought was an incredibly exorbitant price, but quite quickly players began to trade them for hundreds and then thousands of gold coins and then the gold coins weren't sufficient so people began to move almost all their trading out onto things like Ebay where they would trade... within the first two months we began to see screen-sized plots of real-estate selling for many thousands of US dollars.

Wow. That's interesting because I noticed that, in the early stages of MMOs, the position of designers on real money trade changed rather significantly. Whether or not they allowed their stuff to be sold. What was the official policy in Ultima Online at launch? Did that change while you were working on it?

Yes it did change, and I still think that it's a complicated enough story that I have mixed feelings on it even to this day. Officially, we had no stance on the subject. We didn't really mind it. The only thing we knew early on was that we shouldn't get involved in the actual transaction ourselves because we knew that if we had hosted the transaction, we would somehow be responsible for the transaction. And since we weren't a bank, we weren't keeping our data at any level of protection, we knew that we did not want to get in the middle of it. However, over time, it then became clear that there really was what I'd describe as quite a serious black market that came in to being around gold to where not only were you supporting potentially organized crime or at the very least sweat shops in third world countries to generate gold, that you'd begin to be concerned about what I'd call "FBI-Level" issues we would have if money laundering occurred in any significant way in our games. So official our stance became against it. That being said, even though our original policy has been against it, I will easy confess that when I was a WoW player, I had no trouble buying as much gold as I wanted to online because it saved me time and my time value/money is very high.

*laughs*

And what that told me in the long run is that I'm a big fan of real-money transactions. I just have a difficult time seeing how to cross the gap. But if we really did do an Ultima Online type game with foundationally supporting RMT, I believe it would allow people who I would call "creators": player creators of really good content, whether that's play or art or newspapers within the game, if they could get paid with currency that they could ultimately cash out from the game back into real money I think that the player contribution in the world would go up dramatically. But its still a very difficult thing to support without real serious legal trouble.

So do I owe you ten thousand gold for this interview?

*laughs* Not at all. If you found a way to publish it in the game, we'd find a way to send YOU ten thousand gold!

It's interesting to see how players find things to do. You were talking about the blacksmith in Ultima Online, how players can take a small part of the game and make it into their whole game experience, something that must be shared with other players in order to become whole. This seems to have changed a lot in modern games such as WoW, where the game expects you do to do everything yourself: you have to craft for yourself, harvest for yourself, fight for yourself, do all the quests and dungeons yourself. And it feels like this devalues crafting in the game because you don't have a sense of being a "crafter", it's just another progress bar you have to fill up. What are your thoughts on crafting as an economically-motivated activity? Crafting to make a profit, as a core focus of gameplay?

I quite agree with your statement in that I do think that crafting is and should be as well-supported and powerful as it was in Ultima Online and pretty much has not been in pretty much every game that has come out since. The good news for me is that since I'm the guy that helped create that hopefully I can go back and re-create that and still find a strong audience base. That's my intention as a developer: to go and rekindle that flame. The thing that I think is really interesting and powerful about it that kind of was a discovery - maybe some people on the team knew this was coming - but I had no idea of the power of these levels of activity that were not combat within Ultima Online until I was a game master within the game itself and I would do things like... I remember a day that I was running around in the Help Queue and just responding to complaints, people getting stuck somewhere or whatever their problem might be, and I would teleport in as Lord British and help them out and feel very proud of myself.

I remember one time I was invisible and just walking around the coast line and there was this man standing along the shore and he had decorated and adorned his character very carefully, he was wearing cut-off short and a holey shirt and a big straw hat and he was standing on the beach with a fishing pole catching fish and laying the fish out beside him on the dirt. At that time, this was very early in Ultima Online, the simulation for fishing was precisely this: use fishpole on water, 50/50 chance to generate a fish. End of simulation. So there really was no simulation. I did not think of fishing as a profession, I did not think of fishing as something we were simulating, I just thought everything you can see that is a decoration in Ultima Online, it should work. So if you saw a typewriter - not that we ever had one - but if we did, it should work. If there's a telephone, it should work.

And if there's a chair, you should be able to sit in it!

Exactly. Everything I've ever put in every Ultima, one of my hallmarks, it should do what you expect it to do. So when you use a fishing pole, there's a chance to get a fish. While I was standing there watching this guy apparently enjoy himself with fishing, another guy walked by covered with the best plate armour and carrying a gigantic great sword. He walked up to the fisherman and spoke in text something like "Ah! Poor fisherman. I am a great adventurer, I just returned from the dungeons where I had fantastic exploits and now have great treasures and weapons. I can see you are poor and destitute, let me help you." And he laid down on the ground beside the fisherman a shield and a giant sword and quite valuable materials he laid out on the shore. The fisherman replied: "Ruffian! Be gone! Take your evil weapons of war with you! What need of those have I? I am a fisherman. In the morning I come down here by the sea shore and I cast my line into the sea and catch my share of the sea's bounties. In the afternoon, I take them into town and I sell them in the local market and with the money that I earn I go to the local pub and sit with my friends and share drinks and play chess. I have no interest in your ways of war." Well the guy who had tried to be so generous kinda grumped and stormed off.

That was a very important lesson for me, when I saw that. It really taught me that people were already playing Ultima Online for reasons that I had never in my wildest imagination have thought that people would desire, much less pull off an entire existing around fishing. But because we were devoted to "everything works" and you really could fish and you really could sell that fish in the market and you really could go into the pub and not only, of course, buy drinks but there was also a board game, you could sit down and play - I can't remember if it was chess or backgammon or whatever - but there was this little board game you could play in the pub. So everything he described, we really did do that simulation. They were modest simulations, but they worked, they worked well, and because people were using it we then focused on it. We began to make the fishing simulation much more sophisticated. We made the buying and selling of trade goods, including fish, much more sophisticated. So by doubling-down and supporting that emergent behaviour that players had within the economy of the game we really richened it and broadened it very quickly.

So what were the marketplaces like in UO? If you're that fisherman and you go into the market to sell your fish, how would you describe that to someone who's played WoW and used their AH?

Auction Houses and buying and selling is another thing that if you ask lots of designers they will argue and make some philosophical arguments about how it should be done. I'm a believer in what I would call "regionalization" of auction house or sales so that the player has to... if you want to buy the best sword you have to go up north where they sell those swords and if you want to buy the cheapest produce you have to go down south where they have the cheapest produce. Not only does that give players an excuse or a reason to traverse the land, but it also means that players can earn a living by identifying market inefficiencies and transporting the goods. There's lots of other designers that go: "Look, as a player, I'm really just looking for the optimization path of levelling, so just put everything in the general market place, let it come to its free-form market value and be done, rather than make me go through the hassle of transporting goods." And a lot of the modern MMOs have gone that way, where they generally have individual giant auction houses that create efficiency but don't create these emergent behaviours as well.

One of the things we stumbled into in UO, and as I continue to build new games I will hopefully continue to support, is that regionalized value and accessibility of items is a good thing. It creates these micro-economies that build up inside the marketplace. It's the same thing for the fisherman. For the fisherman, it cost him nothing, his fish only cost him time. When you would go to a store, a store in every city would sell food, but it would sell it at some base cost, be it 5 gold or whatever, and it varied from place to place, but the point is that there's a floor as to what price the game itself would sell food. Food was actually a needed consumable to keep health up and regenerate hit points and that sort of thing. Everybody did need to eat something and a fish was just as good as an apple or anything else; we didn't bother studying vitamin and mineral content...

Don't have to worry about a balanced diet...

Nope! No balanced diet stuff. But you did at least have to eat. So the fisherman could easily go around and undercut the local economy, what I'd call the "fixed resellers", and make as much money as he chose to bother with in spending time fishing. And it turns out that that price was sufficient for him to go into the bar and hang out, tell stories, listen to the adventurers coming in telling their stories, and play some chess. That was just the sort of life he wanted to have. For him, seeing the world evolve around him, seeing the maimed populace come in from the wild outbacks, get themselves patched up and tell their stories, was apparently sufficient for his virtual life within Brittania.

I'm also a fan of regionalized markets. Some MMOs have done this very successfully, for example EVE Online... though PvP also plays a big role in making those regionalized markets meaningful. But on the other hand, there's also this sense that the information players get from the markets, from products and prices, one of the sort of starting points into this whole endeavour into MMO economies was Final Fantasy XIV, where they decided to create a marketplace with no central searching tool, so if you wanted to find out what was for sale you had to walk to each merchant on your own and see the prices. Their idea was that if they take away this information from players, it will make the game more rich for sellers. But players just complained: they didn't want to have to click on 300 different retainers just to find out what the cheapest price for an item is, or if that item is even available. How much information should players get access to?

I think that as long as the data exists, which it of course does, that if the game doesn't provide some players to scan all the data to optimize perfectly their journey, then third party tools will find a way to take over and do it. There's so many plug-ins for all these big MMOs to do this searching and sorting and things for you to give you the perfectly optimal path that I think it's pointless to fight against at least some fraction of your community wanting to have access to that kind of tool. That being said, I actually agree with the critique that, as a general rule, I don't think that the fun part of at least my journey in virtual worlds comes from finding the exact to the penny best price on the shoes I'm buying. Rather, I want to make sure I'm not getting ripped off, that I get a reasonable price, and that the shoes I bought are cool. That's what I really care about. So I do believe that, for the majority of players, you want to find a way to give them fairly priced goods they can see without having to sort through stuff and get on with life quickly.

The fun comes from knowing that regions of the world or universe that you play in specialize in certain areas so if you want the best trade goods of a certain type, travel east! To the Silk Road! And that's where you know you'll get the best price and highest quality variety. As a general rule, pouring through long long long lists at auction houses is antithetical to good, fun gameplay.

You bring up an interesting point, this whole sense of secrecy as it were, how some of the older MMOs - I was talking to someone at Turbine and one of the interesting things in AC was their transport network was this secret network of teleporters that you'd go through. Of course, someone comes along with a third party tool that maps every single one of them, you pick two points on the map and it calculates the shortest route on the network. Even if you never knew those portals existed! You just follow the map. And that's changed dramatically over time. In World of Warcraft, you don't even have to look for the monsters: it's got a dot on the map and an arrow and it practically plays the game for you.

Yes, in fact, this is actually, this "playing the game for you", both storyline-wise and economy-wise, is something also I find has gone a bit off the rails. If you look back at my earlier works, and my earlier works you literally had to keep a notebook. If you did not keep a notebook that said "a guy named Tom in this town told me to go speak to a guy named John in this other town on the subject of pearls." If you didn't remember that, even if you got to the other town and found John - first of all you had to remember that you were looking for John - you have to remember to ask him about pearls.

Because you had to type it in with the keyboard, right.

Yes, exactly! So if you didn't remember both those pieces of data, you're stuck. Go back and get the clue again in the first town. So people very quickly learned that they had to keep their own notes. And while, on the one hand, I can understand how most players today just won't tolerate that (even though I still like it)... to me there is a sweet spot. I just played Monkey Island 2 again on my iPad. Monkey Island 2 is a great game, great art, I really enjoyed it... EXCEPT for the fact that I constantly had to go online and find the clue that there was NO WAY for me to have figured out because I didn't happen to think the same thing the designer was thinking of when he made it. So if I didn't think to use the shovel on this exact particular random spot of dirt there was no way I could proceed in the game. So on the one hand, I don't like games that give you what I call insufficient information needed to proceed other than trial and error or look it up online.

On the other hand, I also don't like games that are now so self-playing, as you describe, that you just go talk to every person who has an exclamation point over their head and then you follow all the arrows that show up to their destination and you will be well-managed through the level one monsters until you're level two and then you'll be well drawn through the level two monsters until you're level three, etc. There's some magic that has been lost that I sure hope that we as an industry and me as a creator find a way to put back in to these role playing games.

Especially because they seem to be focused on this idea of a "quest grind". In World of Warcraft there would be this series of quests from the first level to the last level and you'd never go off that rail. You'd go all the way through with these simple, easy quests, but it just doesn't go anywhere after that.

Oh, I agree. It's wash-rinse-repeat. You do the same basic behaviour all the way through your existence. That being said, it's pretty hard to argue with success. World of Warcraft is ten times or more bigger than Ultima Online ever was, even at its peak, shows no sign of fading its popularity, the newer additions they put into the game have proven to be extremely popular, and, ultimately, we as creators, as an industry, have to do what the players want. The Blizzard guys have done a brilliant job of refining their model and providing players what they want.

I guess ultimately it comes down to designing a game for a different kind of market. I just sort of hope that the original UO market, those of us that like that difficult game, can still find some MMOs that will be interesting.

Yeah, but here's to me what I hope the path is going forward, or at least this is my intention on how to tackle this. Create a game where the first moments of gameplay, the beginning of the game, is extremely well led. There's no excuse, in my mind, for a game where not only do you have to pay fifty bucks in advance and bring this whole thing home and install it and then sit down with an instruction manual to figure out how to move and buy and sell and trade. That stuff should be self-taught through the game at no cost, no hassle, no effort on the part of the player. A lot of MMOs, by the way, still kind of throw you off the deep end, where you land in the city and there's millions of kinds of shops immediately you can interact with, just creating a character can take an hour or two before you can get in and start playing.

Especially with the appearance of the character.

Exactly. And, by the way, on the one hand I love having all that ability to be detailed, I'm just going "it shouldn't be a requirement before I really know if your game is actually any good." Especially if I go through the hours of character creation that I'm not going to be able to repeat once I'm actually in the game.

You go into a game with a certain set of expectations, build your character around those expectations, then come out the other end realizing your expectations were all wrong. No way to change them without re-creating your whole character from scratch.

Exactly. I see that all the time. It's interesting, there's something that I'll broadly brand as "Asian MMOs" that have done very well in Asia that people are now publishing in the United States, a lot of them have very beautiful art, a lot of them have very complete RPG systems in them in the sense of a huge diversity of shops, huge diversity of quests, very World of Warcraft-like quest system with the arrows and the exclamation stuff, what I'll call, from a quality of production standpoint, hard to say substandard by any means. But when I look at them, at first it takes me a few hours to get set up and started, and once you get started you're going "wow, you know, it's just another endless sea of bad guys to go and harvest for experience points, and I'm just dropped in the middle of this expansive virtual world where I have no reason to know why I have any interest in or care about." I play for a dozen hours before I go: it's just another generic fantasy...

Just another one of "these".

Just another one of "these"! It's very good! The visuals are nice. But it's not compelling. A lot of these games have lost what I think is the first stage of the battle, which is: "why do I want to be in this world? Why is this world unique and compelling?" Sorry, we're a little off the topic of economy...

Don't worry!

Economy's a big part of it, yeah?

Back on the topic of economy, with the fisherman and UO's regional marketplace, how did that all come together in Tabula Rasa? Or... did it?

Tabula Rasa expanded upon some of the things I believed we did well in UO and then was also missing parts, at the time of its launch, and economy was unfortunately one of the areas that I'll call "thinner on"... The first area that we focused on that I thought we did pretty well in Tabula Rasa was associated with what moment-to-moment felt like in the MMO. Things like movement and combat. What I mean by that is that one of the things I don't like in most MMOs is the "you walk up to a bad guy, you highlight the bad guy, so now they are your known target, and now you just kind of stand there at a fixed distance from each other and not worrying about what I'll call terrain or cover, then you look at your shortcut bar and you manage your maximum damage over time command sequence.

Ahh, yes, the spell rotation.

Your spell rotation, exactly. So then you're not even looking at the 3D world anymore, the 3D world is irrelevant. It's just sort of playing out what card you play on the bottom. So you're almost playing Magic the Gathering with cards on your bottom tray, the 3D world is largely irrelevant and now I'm really just doing this optimization path and the creature's AI is irrelevant, you know, it's really just mathematical optimization. So I really wanted to create a game where, if I was shooting at a bad guy, the bad guy would move out of the way.

Take cover?

Ahh, good idea! Or, y'know, if you're standing exposed, that's worse than if you're standing half-covered behind a brick wall. And if the bad guy sees that you're standing half behind a brick wall, he'll move around to the side where he can get a straight line of sight on you. It sounds pretty simple but I wanted to create a game where the "real time" gameplay - but still a role playing game, still statistically based on your attributes and equipment - but also you have to pay attention to what's going on in the 3D world and not just stand there dumbly doing this maximum damage over time calculation. And I thought we did that pretty well in Tabula Rasa.

What I felt that we didn't get in the game - what I know we didn't get in the game - at the time of launch that I felt ware a major shortcomings were things like player housing, guilds to be able to own a guild location and therefore allow, by having virtual real-estate ownership, that that would really drive the UO-style economy. And that was really just because MMOs are very big and very hard to produce and in the case of Tabula Rasa we had a multi-year false start where we had started the game as a collaboration with half the team in the United States and half the team in Korea and after about two years we lost the Korean half of the team and that caused us to go back and kind of re-think the game rather significantly.

We were about two years behind schedule after starting at that point, we largely started over, but although we knew we were two years behind schedule, the sales and marketing arms still go "well, you got two years done, we expect our game out next year." So we shipped that game shy of its, what I'll call "optimal" market target by a pretty good margin. Especially in the area of virtual economy.

Also, if I recall, it seemed there was a great emphasis on combat in Tabula Rasa. That seems to contrast with Ultima Online where you had the fisherman who could say "I'm not going to fight, I'm just going to fish."

That's correct.

In Tabula Rasa you spawn into the game: "here's a gun, go shoot stuff."

No, that's correct. And it's not because our intention was not to provide the other UO-style traits, it's just that you optimize and complete one part of the game at a time and the part of the game we completed first was the combat part. We were working desperately to get in the economy part but we couldn't get it in fast enough for the game to find its market.

What about what you're working on now? I guess it's still under wraps...

Well it is largely under wraps, but I can give you some broad strokes. What I've found is that, as we've been talking about, I think Ultima Online still stands as quite a unique game in the history of MMOs. Not only is it market-drive but there are so many of these roles beyond combat that were simulated at a sufficient depth to allow a significant part of the population to want to live their life out in a non-combat way. And there are other examples of parts of that, like you mentioned EVE Online which I think is a great economy game, the transports of goods and raw materials and discovery and acquisition of the raw materials is kind of the core of some of its best features. But the vast majority of MMOs now are in what I'll call the "Everquest and WoW Style".

The "Themepark" games.

The games where you're literally motivated and driven by the level-up wash-rinse-repeat. So I think there's great opportunity for me, as the creator of the Ultima series, to really go back to my roots and provide a game that is, at the very least, the spiritual successor of my previous work, even without regard to whether I can secure the title of my previous work, which, well, who knows, you never know what might happen on that front. At the very least I can create the next Lord British game. So that's my intention, to go back and do that.

Some more specifics on how I'm approaching it is that I do also plan to do it through what I'll call the "distribution" method of casual gaming. A lot of people, when they hear that, they get some fear in their head and they go "gee, what are you going to do? Are you not really going to create the next Ultima-like experience for me?" The argument that I would make goes like this: let's suppose, when Ultima Online shipped, there were two versions available at the exact same time. Once you're in it and playing the games are identical. However, one of the games you go buy and start playing the way you did originally, you drive to the store, you pay $50, you bring it home, you install it, you immediately sign up to pay $10 a month - or $15 a month these days - and then you start playing. Version two of this game somebody sends you an email that says "Hey I'm playing this new Lord British game, how would you like to play with me?" You click on the link, it immediately streamingly downloads onto your machine so you're in the world instantly. You did not have to go to the store, you did not have to pay in advance, you did not have to sign up a subscription fee, but you're now playing the identical game.

Sounds good!

So which of these do you think will reach a wider audience? Well I would argue the second one is going to reach the wider audience. So when people hear that I'm going to market and distribute the game through casual media, whether it's through email or web or facebook and probably all the above, don't worry. And I would also make the following argument: if you look at the kind of roles and things that were popular in Ultima Online, the things like being a blacksmith and a shopkeeper and a pet-handler... AND an Adventure! Farmer... all those different activities. Well, look at the things that have proven to be popular in causal and social media: it is farming, it is shop-tending, it is pet-management...

Clicking on cows?

Exactly. It is all of the things that were proving to be popular in Ultima Online but then made into individual games. So I actually believe that not only can I distribute through "Freeware", largely, and reach not only my old audience, I think there's a pretty good chance I can pick up some of these new players that didn't use to call themselves gamers but in fact are and probably really enjoy having their baking shop in a virtual world where there are lots of hungry adventurers who would stop by each afternoon and go "Phew! I just got done killing five orcs. Can you give me a nice celebratory cake?" So I think not only can I create a game that will fulfill the desires of the players of my previous work, but I believe I can expand the market as well.

A lot of games these days seem to use "grind-based" craft systems, where you have... say you have blacksmithing. You have a skill point value in blacksmithing and you have to level it up by making something. So if you want to get from level 100 to level 110 you have to make 10 swords. And then of course you're stick with 10 swords. And every blacksmith in the game wants to get from 100 to 110, they ALL have to make these 10 swords so the market gets completely flooded with these swords. What are your thoughts on whether or not you like the grind-based craft system, and if you don't like it what alternative would you use?

I think there is a place for doing some activities with some repetition to understand the mechanic. However, in almost all RPGs these days, that grind mechanic has been repeated in every facet of your virtual life to the point of, for at least me, distress. So just like you said that's the case with making swords, it's the same with making each level progression of swords and it would be the same for potions and it's the same for, quite frankly, killing level 1 monsters to get experience points to get to level 2 and it's the same for, basically, slice the game any place you want and you'll find that exact same game mechanic used over and over again. And, by the way, it's an easy game mechanic and it works and people seem to enjoy it, so good luck bucking the system too much.

That being said, I'm with you in that not only does it flood the game - although, by the way, I think you can get rid of the flooding system just by making sure the game absorbs a lot of that work sufficiently.

EQ2 does that; it has writs where you make stuff for NPCs so it never enters the market if you're just trying to level up.

So I think that's a perfectly good solution to the economy flooding. However, I would still argue that what you're really doing is having people spend time. You're making them waste time in order to level up. That's one of my real problems with a certain kind of role-playing game. It's interesting that even I, today, on this call, have alternatively said the phrase "role-playing" and sometimes said "RPG" and even though those really mean the same thing, when I talk about a true "role-playing" game I'm talking about a game where you play a role. So, for example, the game Thief was a game where the role which you played was to be a thief. Now, what was cool about being a thief was not practicing your thieving skill 10 times in a row until you got a level 1 up in it, the thing that's fun about being a thief is skulking in the shadows and picking a lock and getting in to places you're not supposed to be. That's what's fun about being a thief.

So in my mind, a truly great "role-playing" game is a game where each of those roles that you play, blacksmith or otherwise, you're constantly doing something that's cool. Why is it cool to be a blacksmith? Well the reason that it's cool to be a blacksmith is when you can create a sword like... do you remember the movie The Princess Bride? You create the jewel-encrusted sword for the six-fingered man that is balanced perfectly and has your name attached to it so when people buy and sell and trade it they go "wow! What a cool-looking sword!" and it has your name so you can be proud of the fact that you created that sword. I'm a devout believer that the best role-playing games, instead of giving you repetitious behaviour, give you a way in which your role is celebrated and interesting, which is why I think it works so well in UO and why roles have only been kind of a secondary issue in other games.

But that said, obviously, if you're going to create that jewel-encrusted sword, it's only going to be special if there's not too many of them. If everyone can create the jewel-encrusted sword then no one's going to say "oh yeah, that's a Simon Ludgate jewel encrusted sword, I really want that." I guess one of the ideas of the grind-based systems is that, unless you grinded your way to the top, or theoretically fewer people will, so you can have at least some differentiation between the good crafters and the not-really-good crafters.

Yes, but don't forget, you can still, without just saying "crank out 10 and crank out 10 and crank out 10"... you can still say that that jewel-encrusted sword, in order to make it, required parts and pieces and recipes and skills that were still very difficult or expensive or took a long time or you had to wait until somebody brought you the right piece in order to exist. So I'm not saying that things shouldn't be rare and special, I'm just saying that I'd rather be sent on a mission or have me do something other than craft 10 more and 10 more and 10 more to get the skill points or the ingredients I need to do that particular recipe. The problem with the way I've described, and the reason why again most people don't pursue the Ultima model I think, is cuz frankly it's a lot harder.

If you look at Ultimas in general - not just Online but Ultimas in general - Ultimas have very customized storylines. A customized storyline is very expensive to build and takes a lot of time and effort. To do "10 more and 10 more and 10 more" is something you can create algorithmically and it works very well. So as much as those hard core "role-playing" gamers in us might complain, the level grind works astonishingly well. So I really think that the best selling games, and if we at least want to fund our habit of making games you gotta sell enough of them to be relevant and to cover your costs, so it really is important, in my mind, to have the right blend of foundational mechanics that allow a progression of advancement that are not too grind-oriented but still restrict what I'll call immediate access to all facets of gameplay so you have to put in a little effort in order to traverse the tree of possibilities in the game. Then intermingle that with real role-playing, to where you make sure that if you're going to bother to put blacksmiths in the game, you make sure that being a blacksmith actually allows you to do some stuff that's actually cool, not just mechanical. Not just give you the "now I've got a sword with more plusses on it than you do" but that I've got a sword that has what I'll call story value. Whether or not if it has unique icons in the game, at the very least it has text and flags and attributes that set it apart and hopefully set me or you as the known creator and perhaps even its ownership history. I think that the blending of "role-playing" and game mechanics is the one that will win the day.

One of the ideas I had was with player skill based crafting. It's arguable whether or not player skill is important in combat but its rarely an issue in crafting when the mechanic is just click craft all and you wait for the bar to fill ten times. If you had, imagine, a puzzle game, like puzzle quest, where some players are actually better at it than others and they could potentially become better crafters than others. Would that fragment the player base too much? Players whine "Oh, I wanted to be a good crafter but I can't beat your minigame" versus players who are like "I'm going to go to this crafter, because he's a pro at this minigame."

The one that I'm toying with, which is a little different than a minigame, has to do with what I will broadly call dissemination of knowledge. What I mean by that is... lets take something very simple like dance moves or other individual animations that become popular in games, to where you have your little victory dance or just a meaningless but interesting way for your character to act in the world that doesn't really serve any function. A lot of games just put those into the world so everybody has access to the same dance move or whatever else it might be at the same time. I'm a big believer in the idea that if you're going to keep making these over time, just tell... lets say it's also an icon that you put in your shortcut bar and click on it and your guy goes through his silly dance. Well if that's something you can teach another player, then all you've gotta do is teach one person and eventually everyone will know it. So I'm big on disseminating information not through a "hey I'm level 5 so now immediately I have all the level 5 knowledge because that part of tree opened up and I can see there's the healing recipe and now it is known to me" and instead put the healing recipe into the world that you're not allowed to open or look at until you're level 5, but even once you are level 5 you've gotta go find a good healing recipe.

There might be multiples in the world. You might have a healing recipe that you use as a healing spell that you found from a friend of yours who was a healing, but later on you might hear from someone else who might say he's got a different healing recipe; his is called Healing B versus Healing A. They use slightly different ingredients and you contrast the two and, you know what, his really does do better healing than yours. So even without minigames you can still create what I'll call "Master and Apprentice" knowledge systems to where there is not only reason for players to interact with other players, which is always a good thing for players to need and desire to share their information, and for people...

Right now, when you open the level 5 tree of spells, not only are they all identical, they're all clearly the optimal and only ones. The real world that we're in there's only a few schools of mathematics where there's only one correct and optimal way to add things together. When you think of making bread, how many different bread recipes are there? There's literally probably an infinite possible bread recipes on earth. One of the directions that I'm toying with right now on the next direction of skills is to take it more into a knowledge, player-to-player knowledge sharing.

But wouldn't the advent of the wiki, of player sharing over web pages, kind of damage that? Wouldn't people take all the healing recipes, as soon as they get one, go to the game's wiki and add it there. If everyone wants to know a healing recipe, you've got every single healing recipe in the game within days.

There's no question that people will publish optimized lists on the web, where if your goal in life is to know what the optimal healing recipe is, here's what the recipe is. That does not mean you will know a friend that has it or be able to acquire it. Don't forget that, unlike the dance move where all you have to do is teach someone it and now you both have it, in this particular case I'm also assuming that many of these things are non-replicable. Meaning that if I have the page of my spell book that is healing-type-B which is better than healing-type-A, you might have to pry it from me. It might not be something I can just make you a copy of. It might be that I have that one and it's a limited resource. Healing-A might be enough, but if you really want my Healing-B because for some reason you think you really need it, now we've gotta talk price.

So skills become a tradable good, almost like equipment.

Right. Exactly. Well these are the kinds of things that I'm toying with.


PS: I might be able to release the recording of the interview as a podcast. If you have some interest in this, let me know on Twitter.

Posted by: Soulrift

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