Ready for a Few More Rounds
Waiting for Richard Garriott in the lobby of Origin, I'm hypnotized by what's playing on a nearby screen. A wormhole opens up in rich, black space and a monstrous glowing pod emerges from it to blast a cruiser ship to pieces; it's awesome destruction. This is the intro sequence to Wing Commander, one of Origin's most popular games. While I watch, a skinny fellow with bright blue hair splaying out beneath his baseball cap eyes me as he walks out for a smoke break. Suddenly, in bursts Garriott, being pulled along by two dogs on leashes in his hands. He's smiling on his way into the office. His denim button-down is open wide enough to show off a large silver serpent medallion and two thin, long, braided tails bouncing up and down off his back as he bounds into the elevator.
Garriott is living the American entrepreneurial dream. What began as a garage-run family business based on Apple II coding (his first game, Akalabeth, sold 30,000 copies in 1980) has turned into one of the country's top game development enterprises. Perched atop a hill overlooking West Lake Hills, Origin employs more than 200 people and sells games in the 100,000-unit range.
With the release of Ultima IV Quest of the Avatar in 1985, Garriott sliced himself a niche of the gaming market. He did so by creating a game that remembers whether you've played naughty or nice -- by paying attention to details. Remember, this was the Eighties, about the time when all parents thought that if you played Dungeons & Dragons you were going to kill yourself and disembowel the family pet as well. So, having read letters from crazed parents worried about the impact of his games on their children, Garriott decided to write a game that did not reward wanton destruction. "Before Ultima IV came out," he remembers, "I was really nervous that fans of my games would say 'Who's this guy on his high horse?'" Fortunately for Garriott, gamers appreciated the newly complex, rich world of Brittania, and Lord British (Garriott's alter-ego in Brittania) secured his place on the throne.
Garriott no longer develops games to make his living; he's done that. The challenge for him now is to produce games that push the envelope. Ultima IX Ascension, released last year and programmed all in 3D, is Origin's last non-online game for awhile. The focus at Origin now is to continue forging ahead with online gaming while coping with the challenges of a mostly slow Internet. It's a roadblock Garriott anticipated, and four years ago, he bet against his employees and won, sure that Origin would not be developing games for a market proliferated by high-speed, low-latency Internet connections by the year 2000. Nonetheless, Garriott boasts, "UO2's (Ultima Online 2, scheduled to come out sometime this year) graphics are already better than Ultima 9's, and it's all in 3D." Also in the works is a deal just signed between Electronic Arts (Origin's parent company) and AOL to take over AOL's online games link. And you can expect more than solitaire and checkers from EA.com. In between all the projects, though, he'll be boxing a few rounds at Lord's Gym or playing old board games in the conference room with Origin's team leaders, dreaming up new games and strategies, always driven to one-up himself.