In the final keynote of GDC Europe, Ultima creator and MMO pioneer Richard Garriott urged developers to grasp the potential of the mobile social era before they are left behind.
The talk was a mixture of a history lesson and a look toward the future, as Garriott explored the teachings of what he called the "Three Grand Eras of Game Development" -- solo player, massively multiplayer, and social/mobile.
The Single Player Era
He started by tackling the first era, which pegged at running from 1980 to 2000.
Not all lessons were positive. "Something that people still focus on too much these days is how technological leadership that especially for the hardcore audience gives them something that they will like," he said. "Technology is actually fleeting."
"Instead, if you can focus on game mechanics, or what I'll consider deeper aspects of game design, I think you can create something that is much more lasting and much more defensible" from competition, Garriott said.
One major way to do this is by "the careful crafting of the IP that becomes the basis for a game you're creating."
"One thing that I really lucked into was creating storylines with what I will call 'social relevance'," he said, pointing to the moral choices inherent in the Ultima games.
The "save the kingdom" story of the original games in the series is no longer enough, though it still has traction in the industry, he said. "The first Ultimas were very simple stories... And if you look at most games today they still are. Personally, I don't know about you, after I told that story a few times I was done with it."
"That story has no value in the future. It's the antithesis of what I try to do and what we as a development community need to do," said Garriott.
"I have found that it's much more challenging and much more successful for a long period of time, if you can a find a storyline to embed into a game that speaks to current contemporary social issues, but cast in a storyline that is appropriate to the style or fiction of the world that you have created."
He also cautioned audiences to not miss what he considers "an essential element" of games -- "a visual style is easily identifiable and easily memorable, and thus easily able for you to recall." He pointed to the iconic ship designs of Star Wars as an example of this.
"If you're going to create a reality within a game I believe it's extremely important to make sure that the game is not only internally self-consistent, but also has a sense of history and truth that goes far beyond the story you are telling in the main plot of the game," he said. He did this by creating whole languages in his games.
However, many other games that do this simply throw up nonsense symbols. "If a player can tell at a glance that it is fake, then you've destroyed the suspension of disbelief."
In your stories, you can simplify real world issues, because while questions such as politics are "very hard to wrap up" in reality, "if you create a truth in a game that is a simplification of the real world, it actually makes it easier to believe than reality itself."
"Part of the human condition is to want to try and explain the truth of life," said Garriott. It's "something people want to embrace and can embrace" and should be part of your games.
Another key is "creating worlds that are reactive and proactive versus just passively waiting for you," he said. "One where the game actually observes your behavior, understands your journey through the game, and in some way reacts and applies leverage against you."
The MMO Era
The audience for a single game grew from high single millions to tens of millions when MMOs launched, said Garriott, "despite some additional difficulties" such as expense (subscriptions) and complexities (long playtimes to determine whether a game was even interesting, for example.)
"That's a real testimony to the power of playing with other people," he said.
When he launched the Ultima Online project, EA's "faith in the team and faith in the project was so low," he said, that "projected sales were 30k lifetime."
"Sales and marketing were not in favor of us working with the game," he said. "It wasn't until we put up a prototype and put up a web page... 50,000 people signed up to be beta testers in the first couple of weeks. When it finally did ship it was the fastest selling PC game in origin and EA history at the time. Within about two years had outsold all of the other previous Ultimas combined."
Even so, he said, "Despite the success, lots of people were not convinced that this was a good future for gaming in general."
This is because the game had dated graphics and a lack of story -- putting it behind the current state of the art of single player games. "When a new era starts with graphics that are five or 10 years behind the state of the art, very quickly that changes."
MMOs quickly caught up. In fact, new era games -- while behind the times at first -- "catch up and supersede the era... Which is a very important message when you talk about the third era" of social and mobile games.
New design principles were learned during this era, though, such as the fact that "when you launch the service begins."
But he does feel that the complexity of the games is going to keep the appeal of these games limited in the future. "The fact that you have to spend hours playing it before you even know if you're going to like it is the main reason that I think MMOs will never be the truly global democratized game that all of humanity will play together in the future."
He noted that the single player era lasted 20 years, but the MMO era only lasted 10 before the industry shifted to its next sea change.
The Social/Mobile Era
This era is "relatively early but moving quickly."
"I am now much more of a gamer than I ever been been in my whole life, but the vast majority of the gaming I have played has been on this machine," Garriott said, while holding up an iPhone.
"I'm a devout believer that this is the current and near-term future of games."
The key points of this era, according to Garriott, are:
- Games are free or very cheap to acquire
- Simple to use without instructions
- The people who you meet at first are the people you know really well in the real world
- The ability to engage your friends asynchronously
"The combination of these features have scaled the market tenfold... Crossing the threshold of hundredss of millions of players in each game," he said.
"Just like with MMOs, [detractors] are not recognizing the power of the new era, and how they can not only be great contributors to this era, but even as players how much you will enjoy this new era."
People -- both developers and players -- used to say about MMOs, "the graphics aren't very good, there's no story." Today, the same groups say that social and mobile games have bad graphics and unappealing gameplay. But watch out, said Garriott: things are rapidly evolving.
Here's the evolution of Zynga's games per Garriott:
- FarmVille "Definitely was not for me, and I didn't really understand it."
- FrontierVille More familiar territory for a PC gamer -- "I can understand how it has evolved."
- CityVille "Frankly for me, it's actually too much going on on screen simultaneously for me to want to keep up with."
The takeaway here? "The players are evolving to tackle much more complex activity than they had 18 months previous," said Garriott. "Both the products and the players are evolving."
During periods of industry upheaval, new companies are born, like Zynga, he said. "Now, there is a brief window -- that is barely still open in my mind -- in the casual and social space... That truth is that it's going to be very short-lived."
"My main message to the development community is don't get left behind," he said.
The Past and the Future
"There are only two games I look back with some sense of regret... They happened under similar conditions and I made the same mistake twice," said Garriott.
They were both the first games he worked on after selling his company to a new publisher. Ultima 8 was rushed to hit a holiday release window, and it's his biggest regret.
"Tabula Rasa -- the original vision we had for the game, I wish we had stuck by... The vision was seen as too strange and far out by sales, marketing, and international concerns... It put us further and further behind before we even really got started."
His word of caution here: "If you have a true clear vision of what you want to make, and what you need to make, and the difference you want to make in the world of game design, then you really can't settle for anything less than that vision, if you truly believe in it."
He's hoping to approach that vision with his new company, Portalarium, via a new paradigm in gaming.
"The most important piece of information of the era is that the social graph that connects you to your friends, and them to their friends, and connecting all of humanity together across the internet... Understanding and leveraging this is the most important and interesting thing we can do in games today."
However, the audience isn't yet ready for his next fantasy-based virtual world, Lord British's New Britannia, which is his ultimate goal. "Of course our plan is to make great games, but we are doing that in a series of steps," he said.
"I want to create a reincarnation and reinvent roleplaying yet again," he said, but "to get there, we're creating a series of products."
Said Garriott, "Hundreds of millions of players who haven/t played a serious roleplaying game and don't know they want to play a real roleplaying game, so we not only need to groom our own skills in understanding the new player, but we have to move the new player along in their evolution."
His company's first stepping stone is its Facebook game Ultimate Collector, which has a similar gameplay loop to popular casual social games but introduces some new elements to prime the player for gaming evolutions.
One important problem with today's MMOs is that "every player is a combatant", he said. "In Ultima Online, that was not true."
"We're going to see a much wider variety of types of games created like there are in movies," he promised.