Richard Garriott is the kind of man game writers love to talk to. He’s the embodiment of The Dream: a young man coding computer games in his bedroom, distributing them by hand in plastic baggies, who made it big, started his own company and became a legend in his own time. Called Lord British for a time (he’s now General British), Garriott’s flair for the dramatic has helped catapult his games (and his image) into the stratosphere of gaming.

Best known for his Ultima series of games, Garriott has recently reentered the MMOG space with Tabula Rasa, a sci-fi action MMOG set in a possible future after the devastation of the planet Earth by an alien race known as The Bane. Tabula Rasa features shooter-style combat, a refined user interface, fully solo play (a first for an MMOG), a save point system (another first) and a story as rich and deep as any recent single-player game.

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Wednesday night, publisher NCsoft drove about 100 journalists and guests to Richard Garriott’s home in the Texas Hill Country. The event, called “The Logos Academy” after the magical language of symbols created by Garriott for Tabula Rasa, was scheduled to last six to seven hours. Only a fraction of that time was devoted to viewing the game. The rest was playtime.

Tucked away in the hills above Austin’s Lake Travis, Garriott’s Brittania Manor Mark 2 (Mark 1 was his original home in New Hampshire, Mark 3 is currently under construction) is the home of a man obsessed with games, puzzles, magic and play.

There’s a waterslide attached to his pool, accessible via a wrought iron balcony that runs the length of the second story. If sliding isn’t your thing, a section of the balcony opens like a gate, and you can jump right into the pool from the second floor (it’s 10 feet deep at every point, for just this purpose). If neither diving nor sliding is your thing, you can float to the bottom of the pool and look out the side via a handy underwater window with a view of the “beautiful” Texas Hill Country.

If that doesn’t tickle your fancy (or if it’s raining) you can swim under the wall adjoining the house into the indoor section of the pool. Or perhaps you prefer hot tubbing. In which case, the hot tub is simply a step away, fed by a cascading waterfall as tall as the house. If you get too hot, sprinkler nozzles installed in the ceiling emit a showery spray of water (hot or cold). If any of the above happens to bore you, well, there’s an extensive collection of medieval weaponry to play with …

Next Page: “We’ll Need Your Cell Phones Because of the Blasting Caps”

“We’ll Need Your Cell Phones Because of the Blasting Caps”

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The evening began much like any event of the scope of Logos Academy: 100 or so people, having met at the predetermined place at the predetermined time, milled about in a hotel lobby far too small for the purpose. The assembled guests were a motley collection of professional and amateur journalists, peppered lightly with various game industry dignitaries and friends of the Garriott family. We were wearing nametags and handed a sheet of paper with a Tabula Rasa logo and a few indecipherable symbols on it. As we waited, a homeless man wandered around handing out flyers covered with a seemingly random collection of hand-written symbols and gibberish.

For those unfamiliar with North Austin, this was not the sort of place you’d typically find a homeless man, but even if it were, hotels have security and one of their favorite things to do is remove transients form their property. The bum, therefore, was obviously part of the show, and a careful inspection of the flyer revealed it was a key of sorts, explaining various symbols on the other sheet of paper.

The symbols are part of Garriott’s invented language, called Logos. Matching symbols from the official sheet to the one provided by the hired bum revealed that the fancy piece of previously indecipherable paper was actually an invitation to the party, explaining, in Logos, that if we arrived at a certain place at a certain time, we’d be transported by bus and fed. It was our first taste of what the evening had in store. It was only after we’d boarded the buses that they asked for our cell phones.

It should be noted that in spite of the fact that we’d been asked to set aside seven hours of our time, we’d been told practically nothing about where we were going, or what we’d be doing when we got there. Most of us assumed we’d be driven to Garriott’s mansion for an extended preview of Tabula Rasa. We were wrong.

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“One of the locations we’ll be taking you this evening is a construction site,” said the NCsoft representative at the front of the bus. “Because they’re using blasting caps, there’s a very real danger of injury. So we’ll need to collect your cell phones.”

We were then informed that the evening would consist of a guided tour of Richard Garriott’s home, that we were on a schedule, that we would be fed, but that we’d be informed when we could eat, when we could drink and when we could use the restroom. We were also informed that once the buses departed, we would not be allowed to leave. This is the kind of experience writers live for. Fully expecting to be horribly mistreated, I nevertheless remained on board, confident that at the end of the night, I’d have a hell of a story to tell. I wasn’t wrong.

Next Page: “We’re Being Pulled Over”

“We’re Being Pulled Over”

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Ten minutes down the road we passed what looked like a speed trap. Two Sherriff’s cars sat on the side of the road. When we passed them, they turned on their lights.

“We’re being pulled over,” said the bus driver. “Maybe I was following too close. I don’t know.”

As we left the road for the soft shoulder, a black SUV sped around the front of the bus, stopped, and emitted a couple of suited gentleman wearing sunglasses. They boarded the bus holding pictures and scanning our faces. One of the pictures was of the homeless man from the hotel. Luckily, none of us resembled him. We were released and went on our way.

Salt Lick
There are two things you need to know about Texas in order to attune yourself to the vagaries of Texas living: 1) It is very hot here, and 2) There are a lot of cows. On the surface, these things may not mean all that much to you and may seem wholly unrelated, but I assure you, they are important and integral to understanding why Texas is the way it is.

First, as to the heat, in addition to a number of psychological and behavioral idiosyncrasies attributable to the weather, the fact Texans spend a majority if their year suffering under 90-plus degree heat explains the state’s obsession with the margarita and the extra long line at the margarita table in Garriott’s back yard. Margaritas are typically frozen, but when served on ice form a formidable barrier to the Texas heat. Either that, or the icy, limey tequila goodness goes down so well that before long you don’t even notice the heat. Also, considering the fact that our bus barely made it up the hill to Garriott’s home (it took two tries – there was some screaming.), we all needed a couple stiff ones to take the edge off.

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As to cows, their profusion explains why eating beef is somewhat of a national pastime in Texas, but add the heat factor, and you have Barbecue. Meat spoils quickly in the heat, and in pioneer days Texas, the easiest way to preserve it was to smoke it, often with the abundant, thorny wood of the mesquite tree. In some places, barbecue is about sauce, but in Texas it’s about meat slow smoked and lightly spiced until the juices themselves are enough to satisfy any appetite. Add on a little sauce after the fact, and you have heaven, pure and simple.

One of the best barbecue joints in Texas is The Salt Lick, and under Garriott’s backyard tent we ate their style of Texas barbecue, drank margaritas and spent around an hour forgetting that we were essentially prisoners in the home of a man who designs adventure games. We were informed that this was only the beginning, warned again about the dangers of cell phones and blasting caps, and sternly informed that we were not to be separated from our groups. I couldn’t help but feel I was being kidnapped by a hospitable madman.

Next Page: “The Power of the Mind”

“The Power of the Mind”

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The next part of the evening revolved around a tour of Brittania Manor. We were shown the room above his garage (three-car) containing all manner of automatons – marionette-like toys activated by hand cranks and reduction gears. Most were made of wood, and some were hundreds of years old.

There was the flying fish, the woman giving birth, at least a few execution scenes, a dog eating something or another, a giant bird and countless others. We were set loose on them but there were too many to keep track of – the toy room of a millionaire with a taste for antiquities. After we were through playing, we met Max the magician.

Max explained the theory of ley lines; invisible lines of force spanning the globe. He explained that in the presence of a ley line, strange things were possible. He gave a demonstration of the mind’s ability to unconsciously act against your own will by giving us each a washer on a string and asking us to merely think about moving them. He demonstrated the use of dowsing rods. It was fascinating. It was also a highly staged farce.

Max and several other people we met at Brittania Manor were posing as “experts” in various fields of parapsychology. The overarching theme was that during the construction of his third home, half a mile away, Garriott unearthed several alien artifacts exhibiting strange mystical powers. The “official” story is that these artifacts inspired his design of Tabula Rasa. As marketing schemes go, it’s inventive. Each “Logos Instructor” we met that night was to impart some clue that would correspond to the story of the game. At the end of the night, we were promised, there would be a demonstration of the power of the unearthed artifacts. At the construction site. With the blasting caps.

The next expert was posing as Garriott’s wine buyer. He was witty and bent spoons with his mind. Then he picked a shill out of the audience and taught him how to do it. His performance was conducted in Garriott’s living room. I kept getting distracted by the suits of armor in the corners and the crossbows and swords hung along the walls.

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Just off Garriott’s living room is his private astronomical observatory. It’s fully functional and supported by a giant superstructure of steel beams. Richard is, apparently, very proud of this. We were not allowed inside. We were, however, allowed into his dining room and showed the Rube Goldberg-esque contraption he constructed to grind pepper. It involves ratchets, gears, springs and a catapult. It was exceptionally messy, violent and wonderful.

The third and last Logos Instructor was an Indian swami, who threatened to make rings hot and slow his pulse until it was undetectable, merely with the power of his mind. He summoned guests from the audience to bear witness to these feats. Unfortunately they were not nearly liquored up enough to comply.

The rings did not get hot, and the pulse did not quite disappear. The unwilling participants, after arguing with the man for several minutes, both acquiesced to his demands that he had achieved the desired result and withdrew. It was the most lame of the three performances.

Next Page: “Can Someone Please Find Richard?”

“Can Someone Please Find Richard?”
Inside the house, we were shown Richard Garriott’s private study. NCsoft’s head PR flak called it “mini-Smithsonian.” There were ancient mathematical texts, scientific instruments dating back to the dark ages, first editions of The Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz and more, and a curious assortment of curios acquired from all over the world, including a piece of The Great Wall of China and an antique stained glass window.

The tour led us to a balcony overlooking the first floor of the study. There seemed to be no way down. Our tour guide picked up a piece of art, placed it in a new location, there was an audible click and a part of the wall gave way, exposing a secret passageway and a spiral staircase – and the dungeon.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get in.

“Can someone please get Richard,” screamed the PR flak. There was a note of panic in his voice. I couldn’t tell from where I was standing if someone had gotten trapped in an iron maiden or if there was simply something wrong with the door, stranding all of us in a room with no way out.

Richard arrived promptly and remedied the problem. I’m not sure if secret words were whispered or if he performed some arcane feat of magic with a wand and a pair of pliers, but the door swung open and we all clambered inside.

The worst part about the dungeon tour was being crammed into a space smaller than my bathroom with 20 other people. The best part was all of it.

A quick list of the curios found in Garriott’s dungeon: a human skeleton, a human fetus, severed hands, shrunken heads, an ancient mummified falcon, a bat, numerous dead animals and a collection of tombstones. On the whole, it was one of the most awesome spectacles I’ve ever beheld. Another secret door led us back outside.

Next Page: “The Bus is Dead”

Live Beta
Back under the tent, we were asked to sign a waiver. It was the standard “in case I’m injured, I won’t sue you” kind of thing. We were also warned again about the problems with cell phones and blasting caps. We would be warned thrice more before the end of the evening.

After the waiver signing (and more margaritas), we were finally shown Tabula Rasa. It was essentially the same presentation given at E3 in Santa Monica. We were shown the way users can control the game world by owning control points. If the enemy forces controlled these points, missions and services in that area would be unavailable. They explained the nature of the game’s combat system, the story was revealed and in general, we were shown how and why it was the most innovative, user-friendly MMOG ever created.

Considering how much theater went into the rest of the evening’s presentations, the Tabula Rasa demonstration was surprisingly bullshit free. The game is gorgeous, the innovations to the genre are truly innovative and I can honestly say it’s the first MMOG I’ve seen that would make me want to play an MMOG. Garriott and team set out to make a game that eliminated level grinding, experience farming and standing around whacking a monster for hours on end just to get the few scraps of story offered by most MMOGs. As far as I can tell, they succeeded. Tabula Rasa is currently in live beta, but is scheduled for retail release on October 19.

“The Bus Is Dead”

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The words “dire” and “peril” used in conjunction with the term “blasting cap” is usually enough to scare even the most stubborn hold out into complying with spoken directives. This evening was no exception.

As we were loaded onto the buses once more and asked yet again to surrender our phones, very few, if any, refused. Margaritas downed, game seen, scheduled bathroom break taken, we were now on our way for the climactic demonstration at the construction site of Richard Garriott’s new castle. And then the bus died.

There were two buses chartered for the event, each holding about 40-plus people. The one I was on refused to make the journey. It was just another glitch for what must have been a monumental entertainment undertaking, but understanding is hard to come by at midnight, after a six hour tour of a very large home.

As we waited at various points (first on the bus itself, then later at the construction site, while the remainder of the tour members were crated in separate trips aboard the single remaining bus), it was hard not to wonder just what the final reveal might be, and if it would be worth the wait.

We were escorted through the construction site where actors dressed like workers complained about not being told of the visit (in spite of the elaborate effort to make the areas as safe as possible) and shown a collection of artifacts unearthed during the excavation. We were then crammed under an awning on the far side of the property, near a white, three-pronged obelisk. We were instructed to remain under the awning at all times, roped in with caution tape, and asked to wait – again. And that’s when things got weird.

Next Page: “Something to Write About”

“Something to Write About”

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The various shills who’d been party to the magical demonstrations were called onto the stage and asked to touch a silvery orb which appeared to be floating in mid-air. Sparks shot from their hands. The man holding the microphone (he claimed to be a professor) got very tense and practically screamed at them to keep touching it. They did. It looked painful. And then the lights went out.

Sparks erupted from nearby computer consoles, explosions went up and a siren went off. The glowing obelisk changed color. And then … nothing. It was as if something was supposed to happen, but didn’t. Perhaps someone missed a cue, or perhaps that’s all there was. I started wondering when the buses were leaving for the hotel.

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Garriott took the stage and sheepishly explained that we’d activated a control point, just as we would be able to do later this year in his game. He again explained the importance of this activity, the meaning of ley lines, and how it all related to the six hours of demonstrations we’d been given all night. Then he thanked us and told us good night. As far as climaxes go, it was very “anti.” And that’s when the aliens invaded.

A projection of an alien being appeared on a section of wall near Garriott’s head. The alien told us we were all doomed, that activating the control point had allowed him to pinpoint our location and that soon a squad of alien commandos would arrive. And then there were flashing lights, and rocket explosions and laser beams and a genuine honest-to-Vishnu alien appeared out of a cloud of smoke and shot a guy holding a camera. The guy fell to the ground, sparks erupting from his chest, and the alien trundled toward Garriott’s castle, I assume to destroy his new pool house.

Gigantic balls of flame erupted from the parking area. The heat so intense we could feel it hundreds of feet away, sweat beading on our foreheads. A helicopter flew over the scene, shining a light on the castle below, searching for the alien. The gunfire increased. A few more things exploded. There were screams. It was quite a lot like a gunfight in a Hollywood action movie, except it was all happening right in front of us. We could smell the gunpowder.

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Finally the alien was felled. The soldiers rejoiced, the caution tape came down and Richard Garriott thanked us all for coming. It was as close to a fitting climax to a (now) seven-hour kidnapping/marketing event as I could imagine. Garriott announced that the helicopter was being flown by his brother, Robert, CEO of NCsoft America, and that the actors, pyrotechnicians and crew would all be available near the refreshments table for interviews. He also announced the buses would be leaving soon. It was 1:00 a.m. The last announcement was the only one I heard.

“I hope we’ve given you something to write about,” he said. There was a general murmur of assent. He had. But it was definitely time to go home. Luckily, they’d managed to procure another bus.

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