Richard Garriott probably needs no introduction to most Gamasutra readers. He's currently working as an Executive Producer at NCSoft's studios in Austin, and is, of course, best known as the creator of the Ultima series and the co-founder of Origin Systems with his brother Robert.
While Garriott continues to work on his own much-awaited Tabula Rasa, Gamasutra caught up with him at the D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas earlier this month to talk about NCSoft's strategies in general, including the company's in-development projects and plans for the future.
Gamasutra: First of all, we were wondering, how many internal studios does NCSoft Austin have, exactly?
Richard Garriott: Let's see...we have three in Austin, one in Seattle -- almost two really, now, in Seattle -- we have one in Los Angeles... and of course we have quite a few third parties that we're working with.
GS: And your Austin teams are working on new projects?
RG: That's right. Three new products being developed in Austin, including Tabula Rasa.
GS: Is NCSoft more committed to console development now than it has been historically? Are we seeing a change in strategy?
RG: We're big believers that we're slaves to the installed base, so where consumers go, we must follow, or we'll be out of business. So we think consoles are one of the places that people are actually playing online games. That being said, we actually believe that in addition to being where consumers are, you can only go to places where you have key developers who are particularly skilled at being successful in.
So we have historically been, clearly, PC-based, including myself. And so I personally don't think I could go console very successfully very quickly. And that seems true for say the Guild Wars folks, who have a history of success on PCs. And so we currently don't have a big project going in the console arena, but that is on our strategic agenda, when the right opportunity shows up.
GS: Tell me, what is Spacetime Studios working on for NCSoft? [The company has signed a deal with NCSoft for an MMO, but almost no information has been released on it.] What can we know?
RG: Well, one thing I can say is that they're in Austin, Texas. And most other companies in Austin, I would say two-thirds or more, are ex-Origin companies. And the founding members of Spacetime, most of their previous work was with games like Star Wars Galaxies for Sony, and most of that group's previous work was on the Wing Commander team back at Origin.
So it's a team we know the members of very well. We know their skillsets very well. I think they're one of the premier development groups in the world, generally doing things associated with sci-fi and space travel. And those guys are working in the general area of their comfort zone, and embracing the next generation of sci-fi games. So I have really high confidence in the team, but the details of the game are still secret.
GS: Besides that it's sci-fi!
RG: [laughs] And I think we actually haven't made that official before, but that's okay! But yeah, these guys are a really experienced development team. A lot of the principles of their design philosophy they can repeat easily. And they've done some really innovative stuff already.
GS: Let's get a little design-philosophical, if you don't mind, regarding the concept of an MMO in space. What can we do beyond what we've seen historically, beyond running around grass and hitting guys with swords and magic? How do you get beyond those standards and create an experience that is still an MMO, that takes advantage of space and sci-fi?
RG: I think one of the biggest challenges of space-based MMOs, or even something like Auto Assault, which used cars [is that] vehicles of any kind represent a whole other tier of challenge. Because then you have to have not only interact personally, but then you have to also get in a vehicle. And the vehicle presents movements issues, and now different combat issues. And I want to make sure that my personal character comes through in vehicular combat, in a way that seems consistent and relevant with the hand-to-hand game.
It's almost like taking two whole games and marrying them. In fact, I don't know how familiar you are with Ultima, but even then I used to have 2D outdoors, 3D dungeons, and sometimes 3D towns. All these different modes of operation that were really different games, that multiplied the complexity. So that, actually is the biggest challenge, is how to marry them and not either A) double the work, or B) fail on one side or the other, make one of them the one you invest your time and effort into and the other one superfluous.
I think the Spacetime guys are the right people for this challenge, in that this is the same problem they've been facing for twenty years. And I think they have some really outstanding ideas, especially now that the team's unbridled from previous intellectual property that had its own rules. They can create a game purely based on what the gameplay should be, and not based on needing to include components that support a particular IP.
GS: So the space sci-fi MMO that Spacetime is working on is an original IP.
RG: Pretty much everything that NCSoft does is new IP. Which brings me to another interesting story that you might enjoy! Origin was also about new IP, almost never licensed IP, and we think that that's important on a couple of levels. When a new genre or new platform exists, and there's no competition, in my mind there's no reason not to have new IP.
If you're the only cool fantasy role-playing game, people will buy it. And you now become the original IP. And so you've now created a sequelable intellectual property that you own, that you can then resell, you can license…you become the hub of the value.
However, later in the cycle, when you've already got your Ultima and your Might & Magic and you're going to do yet another Ultima game, you need Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings to separate you from the now hundreds of competitors.
The downside of that is, if you don't own the IP, you can't sequel it, you can't license it, you can't do anything else. So it's a one-shot deal that you can hopefully make some money off of. For example, going to Sony with their experience on, say, Star Wars Galaxies. They'll go, 'Well, it was cool to use it,' but they can't sequel it. And they split the profits, and so I think at that point they start thinking that original IPs are a better idea.
GS: Can we talk about NCSoft's recent encounters with the FBI? [The company closed down unauthorized Lineage II servers in conjunction with the federal agency.]
RG: I actually personally have very little information... something I think is "sayable," is that I think this kind of situation is relatively uncommon in the United States and, relatively speaking, easy to stop in the United States.
But where it gets complicated is outside of the United States, where it's still quite common, but much more difficult to sue, and much more difficult to prosecute. But still, very high on our corporate agenda.
GS: Finally, what's the current ETA on your big comeback, Tabula Rasa?
RG: It will definitely be this year. We're already now in the beta process where we've been inviting outside testers in, we started that just before Christmas. We've invited a few hundred at a time every couple weeks.
We're now moving into the thousands at a time range with the next build in about a week in a half or so, and then by the summer we'll have tens of thousands in, and then we'll be set for release shortly after.