Meet Richard Garriott, The Millionaire Who Builds Fascinating Video Games And Still Has Time To Fly To Outer Space

richard garriott

Photo: Richard Garriott

For a man who cares very deeply about telling interesting stories, it only makes sense that Richard Garriott’s life should should be so compelling.Son of an astronaut, early video game entrepreneur turned multimillionaire, and the sixth private citizen to travel to outer space, Garriott is the brain behind the famous Ultima computer game series, including the groundbreaking Ultima Online.

Working under the imprint of his new company, Portalarium, he’s currently at work on his latest game, titled New Britannia.

BUSINESS INSIDER: When did you realise that computer games would become your thing?

RICHARD GARRIOTT: It was a very fortunate rapid-fire series of events.  I entered high school in 1974 and within 2 years, my sister-in-law gave me a copy of Lord of the Rings. That was when the game Dungeons and Dragons was first published and my little group of friends became some of the first hardcore followers. That’s also when I found computers.

Those three things worked in concert. I immediately began writing little medieval fantasy role playing games on my computer.  I was normally a B/C student, but I competed successfully at science fairs so the school knew I was a good independent student, and even thought there was no such thing as independent work projects, they let me have my own class. No teacher, no curriculum. Every semester I said, “I’m going to make some games and I’ll show them to you when I’m done,” and they said, “Go for it.”  I wrote 28 games throughout high school.

BI: If you could go back to visit yourself in 1979 before releasing Akalabeth, your first commercial game, what would you say to that person?

RG: I’m actually pretty happy with the journey I took.  But if I missed in some areas, it was only in certain technological revolutions and picking certain platforms to believe they should or should not win out over time.  For example, I was a huge Apple II fan when the IBM PC came out, and I nearly put my company out of business by betting on Apple when the PC took off.  And early on, it’s pretty easy to program in Basic, and I tried to hang on to it longer than would have been useful.  I should have learned a simpler language in C.

Hanging on to the past would be the thing over time that’s caused me the most issue.  I abandoned and re-wrote stuff all the time but my advice would be to always look over the hill, don’t get nostalgic.

BI: If someone were to look at your life on paper, they might say that Ultima Online is the gamechanger. Is that accurate?

RG: It’s the most recent gamechanger.  I would argue that Ultima 4 was a bigger gamechanger for me personally.  The reason it looks so big on paper would be because of the scale.  When I was selling Akalabeth, I sold 30,000 copies. By today’s standards that’s irrelevant, but then it was huge.  My royalties were $5 a unit, which was $150,000.  For the total revenues it doesn’t sound like much until you realise I made it by myself, in my closet, during high school, for 6 weeks, after school.  In fact, it was dramatically more than my father was making as an astronaut at the time.

BI: He was supportive?

RG: Oh, yeah. As my income level went up, my GPA went down, and one day I flunked a programming class.  Technically I was probably a better programmer than anyone in the class but it was obvious I couldn’t do both.  My family was like, “Of course, Richard. It would be illogical to abandon the games that are continuing to grow. Instead you should pursue these games until the windfall profit ends, which will surely come soon, because it’s so outrageous, the amount of money these games are making, that this will come to an end soon. And when this ends, you can go back to school, finish your degree, and get a real job.”

It was probably a decade before I realised I wasn’t going back to school.

BI: How did you come to sell Origin to Electronic Arts in 1992?

RG: We were looking for a bigger partner.  Origin was always one of the top 10 game makers from the beginning, and as an industry matures, 10 isn’t enough.  As the big box retailers like Wal-Mart were coming into existence, they would buy their games from a variety of sources, they would talk to big companies like EA and other big distributors but they didn’t want to talk to every game maker that existed or buy the product from every game maker because suppose you’re a small game maker that shipped them one game but it didn’t sell, and they may need to return them, but if you only have one product in your stable, it’s too risky to buy from you.  You really needed to be in the top 3 as the industry began to shake out and it became obvious to us that since we weren’t in the top 3, we had to find a consortium of a group of us to create a top three or sell to a top three.

For a six-month period we went on a diligent process of looking for options, we debated on merging with Broderbund and a couple of other smaller companies that would have put us in the top three but at the time, EA was the best match.

BI: As part of that deal, did you relinquish the rights to the Ultima brand?

RG: I did.  Up until that moment, I owned Ultima personally — Origin didn’t own it.  When we began the talks, EA didn’t know I owned it personally.  They said, “If we acquire Origin, the only value of a company other than it’s people, are it’s intellectual properties.”  That was Ultima, which I owned, and Wing commander, which Chris Roberts owned. They said, “The discussions are going to stop here unless we roll those into the deal, because otherwise we’re acquiring nothing.” It was clear that was the only option.

BI: What was your experience in 2001 when the dot-com bubble burst?  How did that effect you?

RG: There were a number of heavy ramifications to me at that moment.  All my wealth was in dot-com stock, like EA.  I was in the middle of two major transactions, I was building a house which is still not finished and I had arranged to be the first private citizen to ever fly into space.  Suddenly, where I thought I had tens of millions of dollars in the bank, suddenly I had ones of millions of dollars in the bank.  Ones of millions of dollars does not pay for houses and space trips that costs in the tens of millions.  Immediately, all my life planning crashed.

I had to sell my seat to a guy named Dennis Tito, who became the first private citizen to fly into space. I stopped construction on my house, which to this day has not resumed.  That was very tragic in many ways because I had spent so long in pursuit of making that happen. Of course I’ve circled back and completed that particular one but I still have this slight frustration of missing out on slot number one.

BI: If it did, how did space travel influence your thinking about games?

RG: Space travel influenced my outlook on life dramatically, but not so much on game design.  I developed a dramatically deeper appreciation for the environmental causes associated with the Earth.  Seeing the Earth from space, you get a fantastically detailed view of how the large-scale systems of the world work.  Everything from weather, tectonic plate movement, erosion by water and wind, and ultimately, how humanity is everywhere on the planet, in fertile areas in either in a farm or city, and all the desert and mountainous and swampy areas all have roads criss-crossing them.  So that’s what I call the biggest effect of my flight.

BI: What games do you play today?

RG: I do all my gaming on my iPhone or iPad and what I find, if you go back to the early days, it’s rare I’m inspired by a game to play a lot, like to completion.  The first game I played to completion that I did not write, was Myst.  Then it was once every two years this would occur.  The original Medal of honour, the original Battlefield 1942, the original Command and Conquer, the original WarCraft.  That’s largely it, but I did play a lot of World of Warcraft.

On the other hand, I’m now much more of a gamer then I ever was before, from a number of hours played.  In the last two years, I’ve finished a game a month, requiring the same amount of time.  Starting with a game called Spyder, that was the first game I played on an iPhone and went, at last we have a device that’s going to allow gaming to occur.  My favourite game to this day is still Plants vs. Zombies.

BI: What can you reveal about your latest project, New Britannia?

RG: When people hear I’ve moved into the mobile and casual space, a lot of people argue that there are no good games there, especially in social.  They look at the “-ville” games, and say, “I don’t want to play those.”  To which I respond, “Wait, back off. Lets suppose you have two games that ship at the exact same time — one is the original Ultima Online and one is the original Ultima Online except you don’t have to go to the store and pay for it, you don’t have subscribe in advance, and instead of spending an hour before you know if it’s any good, what if I make sure you know if this is a good game in the first five minutes instead of the first five hours?”  Don’t look at the “-ville” games, look at the distribution model. That’s part one.

My friends that still play WOW, every night they go online at exactly 6:00 PM to go on their raids together, and if anybody falls out of being able to do it on a regular schedule, they’re out of the group.  One of the great discoveries of casual games — social games — is the ability for asynchronous gameplay. Regardless of if we’re online at the same time or not, we can still find each other in the game.  I think that’s very important and powerful.

BI: What else appeals to you about social and casual gaming?

RG: If you look at the early “-ville” games versus the more recent ones, the sophistication of them is going up very rapidly.  While now we permanently have as part of our gamer mix, middle-aged soccer mums and everybody else also, which absolutely will change permanently the kinds of offerings that will exist.  I think this a very good thing.  If you think about the movie industry, there are the hardcore action flicks for the guys, and the romantic comedies for the girls.  In computer games, we’ve pretty much only had the action flicks, because we were historically only selling to relatively young males.  And I think now what we’re going to see is a much better diversity of high quality offerings, finally.

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