Before You Drop Money on Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar

I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon, except yes I do: Being Richard Garriott isn't enough to persuade me to hand someone cash to make a game.

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Portalarium, Inc.

Some things you remember better for odd reasons: Ultima VI: The False Prophet was the first game I played on an Intel-based computer, a CompuAdd 386SX 16MHz I picked up in 1990 as I was entering college. I couldn’t name half the bleeding-edge parts I jammed into the dozens of later desktops I hand-assembled, but I’ll always remember that CompuAdd: 1MB of memory, a 40MB hard drive, 5-1/4-inch and 3.5-inch floppy drives, and a VGA monitor. The whole thing cost $2,195.

I was born in 1972, so I grew up parallel to the Ultima series, but my family’s home computer lagged behind the times: a Commodore B-128 geared toward business use. But it played text games (downloaded by another local who had what I didn’t: a modem and BBS access), so while the world experienced the very first Ultima games, I was playing translations of Colossal Cave, Haunted House, Hammurabi and trying to figure out how the heck Calc Result — a crude spreadsheet program for Commodore computers — actually worked. To visit Britannia (nee Sosaria), I had to travel by way of my elementary school’s green-screen Apple IIs during recess or in the late afternoons. High school was thus a treat: a computer lab with color-screen Apples and a sudden flood of games like King’s Quest, Wizardry and Might and Magic.

My first personal computer was actually a Commodore 64; the first game I threw at it was Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. True story: I rented it from a computer shop in Council Bluffs, Iowa that dropped the floppy disks, cloth map and manuals in a giant plastic ziploc bag, then let you have it for a week at a time. Around this time I started paying attention to game magazines, learning more about Ultima creator Richard Garriott as well as other developers at Garriott’s Austin-based development studio, Origin Systems. Chris Roberts had just released action-RPG precursor Times of Lore. That went on my C-64, too.

My gaming memories in the fall of 1989 are of two things: Playing Castlevania: The Adventure on Nintendo’s just-out original Game Boy, and reading an interview with Richard Garriott where he hyped the sort of tectonic changes coming in Ultima VI. I can’t remember where I read it, but in the interview he talked about stuff like knives and forks you could individually pick up or drop (each with discrete weight values) and doors you could either lock-pick or break down — about designing a world, basically, that was interactive such that the interactivity dovetailed with the gameplay. Nowadays we’d laugh at a game that pitched itself as having smash-able objects because we’re on the other side of that particular design shift, but in 1989 it was heady stuff. I picked up the CompuAdd a few months later and Ultima VI that spring.

Ultima VI was where I fully engaged with Garriott’s mid-series design philosophy, reveling in the Worlds of Ultima games — both Savage Empire and Martian Dreams; the brooding black movie-style poster for Ultima VII: The Black Gate that came in Martian Dreams‘ hardcover-book-sized box, promising a “voluntarily rated” MP-13 experience; the unexpected sequel and arguably its high point, Serpent Isle; the endless tip-line phone calls (and surprise phone bills) to solve brain-crippling puzzles; the Doom-trumping majesty of both Ultima Underworld games; the sprawling promise of Ultima Online (I was a pre-release beta tester); the point the series went off the rails with the wondrous strange and yet strangely flaccid Ultima VIII: Pagan (mockingly dubbed “Super Avatar Bros” for its crude stab at platforming); and the gorgeous 3D train wreck of a finale that was Ultima IX: Ascension.

Then came the lean years, the weird years: the dalliances with online roleplaying games like Lineage, a mediocre me-too MMO grind-a-thon, and Tabula Rasa, another mediocre MMO that fared poorly and shuttered early, culminating in a multimillions lawsuit in which Garriott claimed he was wrongfully ousted by publisher NCsoft (an appeals court eventually upheld a $28 million verdict favoring Garriott). Somewhere in there, Garriott managed to spend an estimated $30 million on a ticket to the International Space Station, becoming the sixth tourist in space. Ultima Online had continued under EA’s guidance, but without Garriott’s involvement. The prospect of future Garriott-led games, much less games in the Ultima mold, seemed unlikely.

Well, until last week. Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, Garriott’s surprise Kickstarter, emerged from the ether a little like the Guardian’s face poking through a sea of blue static. It’s not being formally billed as the spiritual successor to the Ultima series, but the title does the job with a single word (and what a word — in my youth, I assumed the term “Avatar” was simply made-up before making the connection to Hinduism and beyond).

Some of us have been waiting since before the final installment in the Ultima series (late 1999) for Garriott to make this move. And yet as I watched Garriott’s splashy, scripted pitch video on the Kickstarter page, I couldn’t help but worry. Why tout Ultima as “the longest-running RPG series in the history of gaming” when you weren’t involved with it for the last decade-plus (and its subscriber base has been on life support for years)? And why, while promoting the Ultima series as a “pioneer” in the creation of  “interactive literature,” did the pitch team use footage from Ultima IX, the unmitigated dog of the series? (That, and how does “interactive literature” have anything to do with discovering the world “at your own pace”?)

But okay, I guess my real issue with Garriott’s Kickstarter pitch is his sweeping oversimplification of what’s rote about roleplaying games today. In the pitch, he argues:

Yet there are also other areas that have not advanced as surely. Most modern RPGs for example have digital storytelling within them, but all a player generally needs to do is to speak to every NPC with a tag over their head, click on almost all the options provided and then follow the arrows on the map until they reach their goals. Players of most modern RPGs have almost identical experiences to one another, just as the designers scripted.

That’s maybe true if your entire experience of modern RPGs is Diablo and Torchlight, which have no compunction about being precisely those kinds of games and pandering to that completely legitimate audience. But is it true of The WitcherFable II? Final Fantasy XIII? Fallout 3? The Elder Scrolls series (arguably the apotheosis of what Garriott was up to in the 1980s and 1990s)? Dark Souls? Persona 4The World Ends with You? Dark Cloud 2? [Insert your own I'm surely forgetting]?

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, except yes I do: Being Richard Garriott isn’t enough to persuade me to hand someone cash to make a game. Garriott’s track record — and I think I’m being generous here — has been pretty spotty since the early 1990s. I don’t believe in patronizing celebrity designers for nostalgia’s sake, or that someone who knew how to design something 20 years ago necessarily understands what it takes to break the mold today and simultaneously dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved Garriott’s Ultima games up to Pagan (and I recall mostly liking Pagan in spite of the platforming criticisms). And I love the idea of a guy like Richard Garriott rising from the ashes to school lazy designers like a video game version of Robert Smigel’s X-Presidents, e.g. “Ultima: Quest of the Trendsetter!” But I worry about whether Garriott’s up to the task. RPGs hardly ossified after Serpent Isle. The mid-1990s dry spell the last few Ultima games contributed to notwithstanding, RPGs actually blossomed, and with recent fare like Xenoblade Chronicles, Dragon’s DogmaThe Last StoryGuild Wars 2 and Ni No Kuni — to say nothing of all the other Kickstarter RPG-related projects on the books, including at least two promising to ricochet design-wise off fan-favorite Planescape: Torment — it’s hard to argue RPGs need a messiah game at this point.

Fear not, Garriott loyalists, Shroud of the Avatar is going to happen: It’s nearly three-quarters of the way to its $1 million goal as I’m typing this, with 27 days to go. And so I’ll stand by, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and mostly hoping that the game’s going to be more than the sum of its cliched bullet points, e.g. “fully interactive virtual world,” “classless character system,” “player housing,” “crafting system that avoids busy work,” “meaningful PvP that also minimizes griefing” and so forth — all stuff we’ve been living with, and in several cases celebrating, for over a decade.