Magazin: interview

„Crowdfunding works, but only under specific parameters“

Creator of Ultima, space tourist, avid magician, haunted house operator and much more... Richard Garriott de Cayeux is a living legend. We met the 56-year-old American at the Quo Vadis dev conference in Berlin. An interview about good roleplaying game design, difficult fans and tax breaks for games.
IGM: Mr. Garriott, what was a bigger challenge: Training for the ISS or launching Shroud of the Avatar?

Richard Garriott: Once I started the training for space, that part was relatively easy. Before, there was some political intrigue between the US and Russia, and I was sort of halfway between that. But other than being a political pawn, launching a game is definitively more work – and harder work. Training for the trip to space is, frankly, a lot of fun.

IGM: You just launched the first episode of Shroud of the Avatar...

Garriott: Yes, and we're going to continue to release monthly updates – and about once a year or so, there will be new big content releases, which we're going to call separate episodes: two, three, four and five. We've got five currently planned, but we'll see if we do more after that.

IGM: Are you satisfied with the reactions to the game from its community?

Garriott: Yes! The game has been available in early access for the whole development cycle. And the people who came in very early understood that it wasn't a full, finished game at this time, that it was just a concept – and so they were happy. For them, every monthly update was like Christmas. There was something new, and something new, and something new, every time. The people that are joining now are also happy, because it's a finished game. The people that were the least happy were the people who joined just six to 12 months ago. Because it looked like a game, back then, but it was full of bugs. So those were our toughest audience. But new players are, again, now very happy.

„For them, every monthly update was like Christmas“

IGM: And how can you get a tough audience on board?

Garriott: On of the main ways is the free trial. You can just come in and play as much as you want for free, but you can't trade with other players. And so if you really want to participate in the game, you eventually have to become a paying customer. We've had a very successful conversion ratio. Once people try the free trial, a substantial percentage of them join and ultimately become paying customers. That seems to be the best solution for us.

IGM: In what way is Shroud of the Avatar a progress from the Ultima concept?

Garriott: You'll see what makes SOTA unique if you contrast it with almost any other online role-playing game. In most of them, the content is level-gated, which means you must advance through levels in order to see more and more of the game. There's basically a level fence, built of creatures: when you're level one, you can't go past level two creatures. But SOTA is not that way at all: you can explore it fully at any level. And as opposed to having this exponential graph for power – as you level up – our game is more or less linear. The result of that is that even if I'm level 100 and you're level 20, we can still play together, and we get a benefit by playing together. And if there's a bunch of you at level 20 taking me on at level 100, you can still beat me. And that's not common in a lot of other online role-playing games.

IGM: There are fewer and fewer new MMOs that prove to be really successful. What are they doing wrong?

Garriott: The great success of World of Warcraft was both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it brought ten times more people into MMOs than ever considered playing them before. The curse is that everyone believed that this was the model to chase – and so everyone started making WoW clones. The problem with that is: WoW is a very good game, and its developers continue to add into it constantly themselves. And so a lot of the people who chased WoW lost the race – not necessarily suprisingly. But a lot of companies who were doing that were left with the impression that they can't succeed with MMOs like that.

IGM: Do you think that crowdfunding in general is still a viable model, especially for smaller studios?

Garriott: Yes, but with some caveats. Crowdfunding works, but only under certain, very specific parameters. I'd give a go for crowdfunding projects if they're one of two things. One is you have to have nostalgia – which is our case. We have a track record of making a certain type of games that currently aren't being delivered on very much. And so people can go: „I liked that guy's games in the past, I can predict he'll deliver one like it again.“ So therefore you can fund it with crowdfunding.

IGM: What's the second criterion?

Garriott: The other kind of things that can be done with crowdfunding are much smaller and profoundly unique. So for example, if you were going to do a „Monument Valley“ – before there actually was „Monument Valley“ – you could probably have crowdfunded it. There's a variety of small apps that look and play in a truly unique way, I think those can also be crowdfunded. But if you're making another first-person shooter or a space simulator or a platformer – those I do not believe can be crowdfunded, because they're not nostalgic nor unique enough.

IGM: Your first commercial game was Akalabeth. It was sold in zip-lock bags in computer shops. Nowadays there are fewer dedicated game shops. What use can a brick-and-mortar game shop have for publishers and studios nowadays?

Garriott: The big box stores that are successful now are the ones that have become a social hub. This is true for paper gaming and for computer gaming. Those stores have become the places where the gamers like to get together, hang out and have a drink. Whether they're playing a LAN-based game or just hanging out is immaterial. But you have to make it a place where people go to share their hobby with their friends.

IGM: Let's talk about Quo Vadis. What do you like especially about this conference?

Garriott: One thing I like about Quo Vadis is that it's not a giant show. Once upon a time when I would go to, say, the Game Developers Conference in California, I might really enjoy it, hear a lot of things that were new to me and felt that I was contributing. But these days, those shows have become so big that to fill all the speaking slots, they basically have everybody and their dog show up to talk. And a lot of those people aren't at the top of their game. Many are not people I can learn from. They're often people that say the same thing at ten different shows every year. The thing I like about smaller shows that are more technically focused is the people who come here to speak are almost universally people I want to listen to. The products that are being demoed are also more carefully curated, and the ability to see and meet somebody for more than just a brief instant goes way up. So, I enjoy this kind of show a lot more – both as a presenter and as an observer.

IGM: What do you think about the German games industry? Is it advancing?

Garriott: As you know, we're now using Travian as our European partner. We think they understand and think about the games business in a similar way we do. Broadly speaking, from a market standpoint, Germany is by far dominant in Europe. But as developers, I would say that there's still some growth that needs to occur. But that seems to be happening right now in Germany. I think Germany is a very exciting place in its evolution of gaming industry. If you had asked me that question five years ago, I would have said that there was more happening in places like England. Three years ago, it might have been Scandinavia. But today Germany is one of the most interesting places.

„One of the key issues for Germany is going to be retention of your talent“

IGM: What are the main incentives to make the games industry stronger? In Germany we have a big funding discussion...

Garriott: I live in Austin, Texas. Austin has the same problem in contrast with the Bay Area in California, Seattle, or Los Angeles. So, Austin is the third, or fourth – at best – US development region. What generally happens with studios in Austin is that they work for publishers who are outside of Austin. The problem with that is that when the publisher has financial trouble, they'll lay off staff in Austin, not in their headquarters. And so I would speculate that one of the key issues for Germany is going to be retention of your talent, in both hard times and easy times. And part of that is to make sure that you keep your headquarters anchored here – versus having too many of your studios bought out – or ultimately work as a developer for somebody else. Continuity is very important.

IGM: And therefore it would make sense to have continuous funds and tax breaks?

Garriott: Tax breaks are perfectly acceptable, at least in the United States. I don't know what the setup is here, but all I can do is contrast it with the US. In Austin it has generally been too little to be that helpful. As you know, we're in a hit-based business. If you have a hit, you make a lot of money, and if you don't have a hit, you do not make money. So, if you think about tax breaks of 10 percent, that's not going to move the needle to success or not-success. It has to be much more. And it's very difficult to expect a government to pony up millions of dollars to help make a game. And so, while I don't disagree with it, I don't think you should have too high expectations of it, either. (feh)