Richard Garriott’s keynote speech on the opening day of the LOGIN Conference 2011 held in Bellevue, WA covered what he called the three grand eras of game development and that what made a good game then has not changed. The games industry then was the leading edge in technology and it continues to be. A good game encompassed good game mechanics and design, but a great game created a lasting IP. To do that, it had to have social relevance, iconic imagery and a reactive, pro-active world.
He illustrated what he meant with examples drawn from his own work as well as that of movies. Social relevance may sound like a lofty ideal but need not be hard to achieve. In Ultima V – Quest of the Avatar, the message contained was that virtues were worth defending. Ultima VI – False Prophet was a commentary on social and racial tolerance. Most fantasy games have them; it is the age old struggle of good against evil.
Iconic imagery is harder, but he illustrated that with several simple line drawings of a rocket ship, a flying saucer, a tie-fighter, the Death Star and the Millennium Falcon. He also admired the ships in Wing Commander I, before they turned into “lumps and blobs with turrets sticking out here and there” in the later series.
A reactive, pro-active world touched on design. He opined that too many RPG players settle for battling a lot of yard trash until they got to the boss at the end. “Simple story, right?” he asked, “If he’s that mean a boss, why isn’t he interfering and doing nasty things to me because I’m wiping out his henchmen? It’s more realistic for an evil overlord to maybe wipe out my family and my village to warn me away.”
Lasting IPs also captured the imagination using what Garriott called Cultural Evidence. With that, he cited Tolkien’s use of pictorial runic languages, the created Klingon language that came out of Star Trek, his own creations in Ultima Online and Tabula Rasa, and the fascination that many have with Egyptian hieroglyphics and even modern day Chinese words.
The first grand era was that of the solo player, he opined. Games were complex. Gamers were wealthy young male nerd able to afford the game consoles and the games, and the market was in the single million of games sold.
The second grand era was that of the MMO. What made a good or great game had not changed, but for the dynamic of being able to play with many others. Garriott illustrated that with the success of Ultima Online. “EA,” he said, “was not willing to put a single cent into this game.” Garriott stuck his neck out to create the game, using old technology and dated graphics. “We basically exported all the graphics from Ultima VI and made it work.” He also got his own funding by asking players to send in $5 for the privilege of beta testing Ultima Online, and received $50,000.
The lessons of the MMO era are:
- Developers will build a city and people will come and complain about potholes, which necessitates that a communication hierarchy is essential
- Emergent behavior is the most interesting
- Player behavior drive design decisions, but a metrics driven feedback loop is essential, i.e. the vocal minority should not be the only drivers.
This second grand era was that of being able to play with others online. Games were still complex, Mostly gamers were still young wealthy male nerds, there were some women, and millions of games were sold.
The third era which we are currently in now has moved to games that are cheap or free to acquire, simple to play. Gamers are of both genders and all ages, and tens of millions of gamers are playing. Each era shift has created a lot of industry upheavals, where new companies emerged. The MMO era allowed NCSoft, SoE and Blizzard to rise, and this era has seen the new giants, Zynga and Playfish.
Garriott also questioned whether gamers have change or if it were simply the industry tapping the formerly unserved or underserved gamers. MMOs are not all about combat, and almost every MMO has seen fans that prefer to do things other than combat. To wit, he illustrated with a comparison of Ultima Online activities to current social games. Farming / Farmville, Pets / Petsville, Crafting / Café Life.
He predicts that free to play, virally distributed games are here to stay. Gamers are no longer playing with strangers in MMOs. Perhaps you first met them playing MMOs, but this is an era where friends are playing with friends and introducing each other to games they play. In short, this is the era of Social games.