MMORPGs have been around for just over a decade now, so there was plenty to research when putting together my 3-part series on MMORPG economies; the final part of which, Free-To-Play, is now up here at Gamasutra. When I was putting together my list of people to interview for this series, there were a few at the top, a sort of "wish list" of who's-who in the MMORPG space. Many of them never responded to inquiries or didn't want to participate, but the one name at the very top of the list said yes. Still half-thinking it was some kind of elborate prank, I added him to my Skype list, and called him, and, much to my joy, I was speaking with Lord British himself: Richard Garriott.
We talked about the design of one of the founding MMORPGs, Ultima Online, and how RMT kind of came out of nowhere and suddenly became a big deal. We talked about how the in-game economy was built, and how cornerstones of what made Ultima so special seem absent from more recent games. We talked about Tabula Rasa, and how things went so wrong. And we talked about the present and future.
I posted the full interview on my blog at soulrift.com. Here are two excerpts from the interview, including a warning Blizzard might want to consider with their new RMAH in Diablo 3, and the kinds of things we can look forward to with the return of Lord British to the MMORPG world:
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.
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!
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-driven 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.
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.
Still want more? Read the full interview here!