Game Design

From Ultima to Shroud of the Avatar: The Starr Long Interview

Starr Long

Ultima is a legendary franchise in the gaming world, and one that has been sadly neglected for years. But thanks to the funding possibilities provided by Kickstarter, Lord British and Darkstarr have joined forces again at Portalarium, where they are working to bring the Ultima experience to a new generation of gamers.

That experience is coming in Shroud of the Avatar, the crowd-funded RPG from Ultima creator, Richard Garriott. After raising almost $2 million on Kickstarter, the Portalarium team is planning to release the game, which includes both single- and multiplayer content, this year.

As a lifelong Ultima player, I was naturally keen to speak with Starr Long, one of the industry’s more accomplished game developers, the original director of Ultima Online and the executive producer of Shroud of the Avatar.

The Escapist: Did you study game design in an academic capacity or did you pick it up through actual game development?

Starr Long: Your assumption about my age is very flattering, but there was no such thing as a professional game design program when I was in school over 20 years ago. I think game design as something you could study did not come until much later. Now I want to go research this, as it would be interesting to know when the first game design programs came online. I want to say that it wasn’t until after 2000, but I could be wrong.

The Escapist: I don’t know either. I was self-taught myself, so I can’t help you.

Long: My degree is actually in technical theater, specifically in lighting, set and sound design, as well as stage management. I got my degree, decided to take a year off, and moved to Austin. I did some work in Community Theater, but there wasn’t a ton of money in it, surprisingly [sarcasm]. I needed some steady forms of income and there was this ad in the newspaper. It was literally these words: “Video game testers wanted” and a phone number. That was all. My friends and I joked that it had to be some kind of psychology experiment at the University of Texas to see who would show up for something like that. But I showed up and it was Origin Systems. I got a job testing video games, and within a week, I had decided this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

The Escapist: I’m an old Origin fan, so I’m curious to know which was the first game you were testing.

Long: I was testing multiple games at the same time. I was testing Ultima Underworld, Ultima VII Part 2: Serpent Isle, and Runes of Virtue, which is the GameBoy version of Ultima.

The Escapist: You were thrown right into Ultima from the beginning.

Long: Yeah, I became an Ultima guy pretty fast. I got pulled onto some of the Wing Commander projects periodically, but mostly they had me on Ultima products.

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The Escapist: You worked your way up from being a tester. How would you say that affected the development of your design philosophy?

Long: As a person doing QA, your job is to be the customer: to play the game as if you’re the customer, not the game designer. In other words, you have to pretend you don’t know how the game is supposed to work. So I hope that one of the things I’ve been able to do in games that I’ve made is that I’ve tried to represent the customer, to create a compelling and easy to understand (considering the complexity of the games) experience for the user. Another philosophy, which is more of a meta-philosophy and may not be specific to design, is my mantra: “Stable, Fast, and Fun: in that order”. That means that nobody cares how fun your game is if they can’t run it, if it crashes, or if it doesn’t perform well enough. Only after those things are solved can you worry about making the game fun. The other thing I think is important in my designs is intrinsic reward versus extrinsic reward. I feel very strongly that the actual play should be as rewarding as the rewards you get for play. Me fighting a monster, the actual moment-to-moment fight, should be as fun and rewarding as the gold I get off his dead body.

The Escapist: I thought your mantra of Stable, Fast, and Fun is interesting because one of the things that really struck me about the success of World of Warcraft versus Age of Conan was the way that Blizzard intentionally set the graphics at a level where people with much slower systems could play it. Whereas Funcom went in the opposite direction.

Long: Yeah, and who won there?

The Escapist: Who are some of the game designers you most respect, other than the obvious?

Long: That’s a great question, which, believe it or not, no one’s ever asked. I have a ton of respect for Harvey Smith and Warren Spector, who did Deus Ex and then Dishonored, although Dishonored was actually Harvey and Raphael Colantonio, for whom I also have a lot of respect. They’re very firm believers in a high level of simulation in the experience and I very much like that. I really like the work that Brian Fargo, Feargus Urquhart and the design team did on the original Fallouts and I also like what’s been done on the new Fallouts as well. That entirely lineage has benefited from great design. In fact, one of my favorite features of that whole series was in the last one, New Vegas, the Hardcore Mode. I’d never tried it; I just assumed it was a harder difficulty setting. But Harvey Smith mentioned to me that it’s not a difficult setting, you simply can’t carry as much stuff, you have to drink water, you have to eat, and you have to sleep. I just ate that up, I thought it was freaking brilliant. Of course I can’t carry 10,000 rounds of ammunition and 40 different weapons. I can carry a long gun, a short gun, and maybe 100 rounds of ammo.

The Escapist: That reminds me of something I liked about the pre-Ultima, Akalabeth, the way you’d usually lose the game by starving to death somewhere in a dungeon.

Long: So those are some of my definite inspirations. Diablo and World of Warcraft, those are games that have been very inspiring for me. And Grand Theft Auto, for that open world feel of how you can go and do anything. Even though you can’t, it sure feels like it. They do a great job at creating that illusion.

The Escapist: Aside from Ultima Online, which was your favorite Ultima and how will that impact your design for Shroud of the Avatar?

Long: I would say it would be a tie between Ultima IV and Serpent Isle. Those are the two that I would say are my favorites. IV for all the obvious reasons, the fact that your choices really mattered; you could argue that was the first graphical RPG where that was true. Also for the level of simulation in the world, what you could do. It felt very real. As for Serpent Isle, even though there were two Ultimas after that, I really felt it was the ultimate Ultima. It had the best expression of that level of simulation and pushed it further in a lot of places. In Serpent Isle you could choose to be a female avatar; you could also choose to be a Black or Hispanic avatar. That was pretty revolutionary at the time. The thing about Serpent Isle is that it took everything that had been done in previous Ultimas and then added a few new twists. It’s actually one of the bigger Ultimas, with more content than previous ones.

The Escapist: Will some of that make it into what you’re doing now?

Long: Absolutely. The game we’re building has all the Ultima hallmarks of ethical dilemmas, where you have to make a hard choice and there may not be a right answer, belief systems like the virtues, that high level of simulation and commitment to everything seen working as it should work. So, if I see a light, I should be able to turn it on and off. If I see a candle, I can blow it out. If there is a door, I should be able to open and close it, to lock it and unlock it. I should be able to take that cup off the table, hold it in my hand, and drink ale out of it.

The Escapist: If you can see it, you can interact with it.

Long: Exactly! But it comes at a price. That requires a lot of computing horsepower and a lot of memory, which means you have to take it from somewhere else. The easiest place to take it from is the graphics, but I would always much rather have a high degree of simulation than the best, newest graphics.

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The Escapist: I tend to agree with that. I think one of the strong points of the Ultimas is that they give you those moral dilemmas, they give you those ethical choices, and that makes the games all the more real since we face them every day. Let’s go onto your post-Origin career and talk about Tabula Rasa. It was a game that I was anticipating quite a bit, but it wasn’t as successful as a lot of people had expected. Was that more down to design flaws, production issues, or something else?

Long: I’m 99 percent certain it’s because we shipped too early. It’s really that simple. To this day, I think some of the things we were doing from a design perspective, in isolation, those things were very successful. Some of them we’re actually going to be doing in Shroud. The idea of a control point, this point where humans can own a spot on the map or the enemy AI can own it, and depending upon who owns it, that has an effect on the state of that space. If humans own it, then shopkeepers and quest-givers show up, but if the enemy takes it over, then those people are killed, they’re not there anymore, so you can’t access this quest, you can’t buy from that shopkeeper until you retake that fortification. The biggest issues for Tabula Rasa were, first, that we didn’t have enough of an elder game. There was plenty to do as you were leveling up, but there was nothing to do at the end. There was no sort of recyclable content for you to consume. We also didn’t have a lot of social structures to tie into the space. There was no property ownership, guilds were just a name. I also think that by placing all of the action off-world, it introduced a level of unfamiliarity that we didn’t need to take on. Even with the story we had, we could have had the story take place on an occupied Earth, not off-planet, and it would have been just as interesting and more familiar.

The Escapist: I think it’s as important to understand why things didn’t go the way we expected as it is to understand why they did, if not more.

Long: Absolutely. I think we would have gotten to all those things over time, but we just ran out of time. 20/20 hindsight, I would have tried hard to hold it over and let it percolate some more. Other than Planetside, there is still nothing like it out there.

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The Escapist: We still haven’t seen the big first-person perspective MMO. We haven’t seen the epic, legendary FPS-MMO combination yet, it doesn’t exist. Why do you think that might be?

Long: I don’t know. I think it’s very challenging to get the balance between a shooter and an RPG right, especially in a multiplayer environment. The newest, most expensive stab at that is Destiny, which falls closer to the FPS end of the spectrum but definitely has some MMO aspects to it. I think we are seeing entries into the space, but they’re not what you would consider a traditional MMO. Star Citizen is going to have some ground action to it, so that’s something to see how that plays out. The only other one was Planetside; Eve made a foray into it with Dust, but again, nothing has made scale. I don’t know what the barrier there is, but I know it’s hard to make. It’s a hard balance to strike there, between feeling as if every shot counts without any dice rolls taking place behind it while also giving players a sense of progression and being able to account for variable latency.

The Escapist: A few years ago there was a tremendous flood of money into MMOs. Everyone was chasing the World of Warcraft space, but despite some moderate success at places like NCsoft and Turbine, we haven’t seen anything replace WoW the way that we traditionally have seen one game succeed another in the past. Why do you think serious projects like Warhammer Online, like Age of Conan, like Lord of the Rings Online haven’t been able to do so? Do you think it is because of the way Blizzard has been able to continually add content or do you think it is just hard to build a product of that size?

Long: Blizzard was really smart. They made this barrier to entry so high for everyone that came after them that it would be almost impossible to catch up. They came out of the gate with so much content, at least 10 to 100 times more content than any other virtual world to date had come out with. Just the square meters of space to run around in, and the number of characters and creature types… no matter what number you look at, no matter what direction you look in, they made more than anyone else had ever made before that. By an order of magnitude. That alone made it so that anyone coming along after them had this really big hill to climb. They also spent more time than anyone else was willing to spend on making it super easy and accessible for everyone to use. Even to date, no one since then has been willing to spend that much time on iterations making their game easier to play.

I would argue that there will never be another WoW. I think WoW represents a moment in time where that opportunity existed and that opportunity no longer exists. They have built such a critical mass of users. Think of World of Warcraft as more of a social media platform and less of a game. The way social networks work is like gravity. The more you have, the more you attract. The less you have, the harder it is to attract more. I also don’t think there is ever going to be another social network. What are compelling difference are you going to be able to offer that Facebook doesn’t already offer? How are you going to build it? Look at Google+. One of the largest tech companies on the planet decided that they wanted to make a competitor to Facebook and how has that gone? It’s not that Facebook is necessarily any better than Google+, but who is ever going to build up that critical mass? I think Facebook and World of Warcraft are kind of the same thing. They built up a critical mass the size of which no one is going to be able to build up again. They fill that space and there is no room for anyone else there.

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That doesn’t mean you can’t build smaller ones, several hundred thousand or even a million users. It’s funny to hear people say they’ve only got one million users. Before Ultima Online, 30,000 users was a big deal. Then Ultima Online came along and had 200,000. Then, with EverQuest, you had 350,000 or 400,000 users. And then WoW came along and now everyone thinks you need to have 5 million users to be successful. Well, no, just don’t spend so that you need that many users in order to make your money back. I think that’s where people got in trouble. They spent money assuming they’d get 5 or 10 million users and I just don’t see it happening again. I read a great article that posited how part of the reason for WoW‘s success was that it came out before Facebook was big. There was a generation of players who used that as their social network. Now that we have Facebook and Twitter, you don’t need a game too be a social network anymore. Coupled with the rise of more casual mobile play, people are getting more specialized in their tool use.

The Escapist: Speaking of money, how has being funded by Kickstarter, with its various stretch goals, affect the way you went about designing Shroud of the Avatar?

Long: The slippery slope of a stretch goal is that it is a very powerful tool to incentivize people to give you more money. It’s proved to be quite effective, and people don’t even remember that when Kickstarter started, the idea of a stretch goal didn’t exist. It was an evolution of the original model. The danger of the slippery slope is that in your effort to incentivize people for more funds via stretch goals, you can overstretch yourself and commit to things that are beyond your reach. You have to be very, very careful as you’re creating these stretch goals that they’re actually achievable. That’s why I’ve pushed against us having them. We’ve got an experiment which has been going… sort of… okayish which is this idea of a stretch goal store, where people buy into specific stretch goals rather than one general stretch goal for the whole project. Only once that goal gets fully funded do we actually build the feature.

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The Escapist: That sounds like GMT’s P500 program. So, computer games are still borrowing from board-and-counter wargames! Anyhow, what, in your opinion are some of Shroud of the Avatar’s more interesting design elements? I’m not talking about the marketing side, but the mechanics and features that are of particular interest to you.

Long: The idea that we can create a truly player-driven economy. I’m really excited about that. It’s very hard to do, there is a reason no one is really doing it, but we want to go for it. We want to make it so all the best gear is made by players, not dropped by monsters you fight. Players actually make the best weapons, the best armor, the best food, the best potions, the game itself generates virtually none of that. It generates mostly raw goods and materials, the base level items, and the players have to make all the special, cool stuff. We’re taking it to the point where player-made items will appear in the loot tables. So, if you do kill a monster or open a treasure chest, we want what you pick up to be something that a player made, not something the system generated. So, that’s the thing I’m most excited about.

The other thing I’m really excited about is how we’re handling how players play with each other, which I feel is a nice sort of evolutionary step in multiplayer games, which is what we call “Selective Multiplayer”. You basically get a little dial which lets you determine how you want to play. Do I want to play single-player offline and play a single-player RPG like an old Ultima or do I want to go into the online modes and play with other players? Even those online modes have multiple versions, so there is a single-player online mode where you’re online, you’re playing by yourself, but the things that other players do in the world affect the persistent state of the world in which you’re adventuring. So if another player puts down a blacksmith shop and puts a vendor in that shop selling weapons, you can buy a sword from that shop’s weapons vendor even though you’ll never see that other player. We have “Friends Only” mode, where the only people you will see or interact with are people on your friends list, and then we have “Open Multiplayer” which is the closest we come to a true MMO, but even in that mode we have sorting algorithms that sort you based on your friends list, who you’ve traded with, who you’ve gone adventuring with, who is in your guild, etc, so that you’re more than likely going to be seeing and interacting with people that you know.

The reason we can do that is everyone is going to play on the same server and the way we handle large numbers of concurrent users is that we simply instantiate copies of current scenes as we need and collapse them down when we don’t need them. But all those copies of the scenes share the same metadata. So that blacksmith shop that I was talking about, if it’s Darkstarr’s blacksmith shop, that same blacksmith shop appears in the same space in every copy of that one scene. That way, when we expand and collapse them, they’re all sharing that same data. If you sell an item in one copy, it disappears in everybody else’s copy too.

The Escapist: What are you doing for multiplayer combat?

Long: We have multiple ways you can engage in PvP. One is just one-on-one duels that can happen anywhere in the world at anytime. One metadecision we made about PvP is that it is always consensual. There is no non-consensual player-versus-player activity in our game. You always know what you are about to get into. We also have this idea which is open PvP zones. If you enter that scene, you are now flagged open PvP and so is everybody else in that space. Some of those are fixed, so you know on the map that where those fragments of the moons crashed down, that space is always open PvP. But some spaces can appear dynamically, you’ll see them appear on the map and you’ll see a big crossed-swords symbol over that area on the map so you know it is now an open PvP zone. That open PvP flag can turn on and off on a space based on meteor falls, volcanic activity, undead army invasion, and so forth. And then there are the guilds. Guilds can declare war on each other, guilds can flag themselves as open PvP, and players can choose to flag themselves individually as open PvP as well.

GameDesign is a new column series on The Escapist featuring a game designer tackling industry issues from their perspective. This column was originally published on The Escapist’s sister site, GameFront, in November 2014.

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