Interview: Creator Of Ultima Online’s Next MMO Leverages Blockchain and NFTs To Allow For Real Ownership Of The World
What if you could own property in Ultima? This was a question Ultima developers Richard Garriott and Todd Porter posed to each other when syncing up on their latest venture. The idea is simple, at least in theory: What if you could actually own land, a building, and more in a game like Ultima? And not just own it, but tangibly benefit from that ownership?
Digital ownership of items in games isn’t a new concept. In the genre’s early days, players were selling accounts, castles, and more on sites like eBay. The idea that digital items have real-world value to some isn’t new. However, the rise of technologies like blockchain protocols, non-fungible tokens, or NFTs adds an intriguing element to the mix.
Richard Garriott, Lord British himself and the creator of MMOs and RPGs like Ultima Online, Tabula Rasa, and, most recently, Shroud of the Avatar, is one such creator who is intrigued by the space. Together with veteran game designer Todd Porter, who worked with Garriott on the Ultima series and has gone on to have a highly successful career in both video games and even dabbling in the online casino space, the two are teaming up to create a new game. This new massively multiplayer online game leverages blockchain and NFTs to create a compelling world where all who participate can benefit in a tangible way.
It starts, though, with the two at the helm. Bringing decades of experience, Garriott and Porter aim to create a good game above all else.
“Todd and I have been making games for some time,” Garriott told MMORPG last week. “During the golden era of Origin and some of the best periods of time for Ultima. If I look back at the Ultima series, I would argue that Ultimas V, VI, and VII, IV from an idea standpoint, but [as] complete game worlds, Ultima VI and [Ultima] VII are pivotal. And of course, Ultima Online set up MMOs and MMORPGs as a standard. Todd and I have both gone on to do separate things now for the last couple of decades, but we both saw this interesting opportunity coming up.”
Garriott describes the opportunity as similar to the path technology takes over the years, especially in games. New technology releases and developers rush to see how it can be implemented. Garriott uses the CD-ROM, Hard drives, the Internet, and more as examples of these disruptive upheavals in technology that change how games are created.
“As I look at Moore’s Law, which has made computers faster and faster and faster, even though the clock speeds move up evenly year upon year, there are definite plateaus and steps that happen. And I would describe some of those major step functions as things like when the hard drive came out, when the CD-ROM came out, when the Internet made things able to be multiplayer. When 3D graphics cards first started shipping.
“And every time there was a major one of these upheavals, which is sort of like when a new console machine is shipped that is substantially more powerful than its predecessor. There’s basically a big race for all developers to figure out how to take advantage of all the bells and whistles that you can do with this new platform. And that tends to drive gaming, in my mind, back to relatively simple, first-person shooter-style gameplay that takes advantage of all the bells and whistles.”
However, Garriott mentions that during periods of what he sees as “stability,” we tend to see more depth, more storytelling more investment in technologies like better AI.
For many in the MMO space, the best and brightest graphics aren’t necessarily what brings many fans to the table. Whether it be storytelling, world-building, multiplayer content, and more, that depth drives many fans in the genre. And it’s here that Todd and Richard both feel they have a chance to create something special. The idea to leverage technology, but in a way that it really highlights and brings the “modern sensibilities back to some of the core aspirations” the two worked on when they were developing Ultima.
Porter describes his initial hesitancy of the NFT space, stating that it looked “gimmicky.” However, NFTs themselves are, as Todd puts it, a “tool that you can use if you can use it effectively.”
“When I first started, people were bringing up to me the NFT space and ‘What do you think about it?’” Todd stated in the interview. He continued: ‘You know, ‘How do you feel about it?’ I really looked at NFTs as gimmicky and I wasn’t really sure that people were building real games with them. And I kind of look at it, and I know Richard does too, as NFT is, simply, a tool that you can use if you can use it effectively.
“And so I brought it to Richard. It might be interesting if we could imagine what it would have been like if you could have owned land in Ultima, and buildings in Ultima, and really own them and really have a vested interest in the game.”
Building Their Next MMO
The two are teaming up to create an MMO where players can help to invest and build the MMO with the creators. While the MMO doesn’t quite have a name just yet, the team is still in the very early stages of development and world-building, and the framework of what they are trying to do is established.
As both Todd and Richard describe it, the game itself takes influences from myriad sources. Ultima and the design philosophies that defined the legendary series are central to the MMO, though they also draw inspiration from modern titles, including games like Minecraft and Roblox.
The game itself will feature a central, mono-scale map like Ultima Online. Here players will be able to purchase land and stake their claim in the world that the two are building. On the map, location, biome, travel distance, journey times, and more matter much like how they matter in Ultima Online.
However, the MMO will also feature what the duo are calling “adventure zones:” instanced areas on the map that support multiplayer, party-based, or even solo adventures. This is where the influence from titles like Roblox comes into play, as the MMO will give players the tools to build adventures and dungeons.
Garriott told us that one of the challenges in game development, especially in an MMO environment, is creating content that is both fresh and “ever-changing.” This is where the Roblox analog comes into play.
The team with Porter and Garriott will be creating a world with compelling stories and things to do, but the developers will also place design tools in players’ hands to build what they find fun and entertaining. Users will be able to create content for other players to take part in – while also earning some money in the process.
Garriott also explains that the developers behind the MMO can help to curate the content, making it easier to find good, compelling content, much like a Minecraft or Roblox top 100, versus having to wade through the rest.
Additionally, areas can have themes, with Richard using the example of a “Lord British-style” area complete with virtue quests that thematically fit the zone, with not just developer-created arcs but community-created content and arcs on top of that. Zones here will also reflect the styles and themes of their individual owners, giving rise to potential “benevolent dictatorships” or democracies or other political and story themes and styles.
It adds up to an MMO whose players will hopefully help create experiences as diverse as the biomes that dot the main map.
The idea here is to build a game in which the foundation of the gameplay is centered on the cornerstones of “player participation and ownership,” according to Garriott. Many games nowadays are built on high-quality storytelling, both in online multiplayer titles as well as solo RPGs. Garriott says he’s “heartened by the quality of narrative that is going into role-playing games” being released nowadays. And as such, they are looking to build a world with high-quality content built not just by the team behind the MMO but also by incredibly creative players.
“What we’re trying to do is kind of have our cake and eat it too,” Richard said.
Ownership is at the core of the concept, though it’s tied back to some very long-standing taxonomies of game design. Some players, as Porter mentioned, will want to be shopkeepers, while others will want to be crafters who can provide a service by creating powerful magical items. And while some players might be eager to jump in on the NFT-ground level, not every player will even interact with the crypto aspects of the MMO. The game is being developed with all these different classifications in mind.
“[There are] people who want to be the guy that has the weapon store, of the guy that owns the quarry, or the guy that supplies wood for the building of the buildings,” Todd said. “And [there are] people who want to be the adventurers, you know, [there’re] different classifications of people who want to participate.”
Building the world first, wallet second.
One thing in speaking with Todd and Richard is that this feels like they are bringing all of their game creation knowledge to bear first, and blockchains and NFTs are simply the tools in their belt to be used to create the MMO. Nowadays, other NFT and crypto games can feel like nothing but a way to dump cryptocurrencies into a game. They feel tacked on almost as if they are simply there as a way to make some extra money while confusing and frustrating players who want nothing to do with them.
However, Garriott and Porter’s upcoming MMO feels different even at this early stage. The statement Todd said at the outset of our interview has stuck with me: NFTs are simply a tool. Between the two developers, they have built out over 45 different games and helped create a genre that is still going to this day. Memories of Ultima Online still capture the minds of MMO players of yesteryear. The two developers are looking to bring their combined experience to bear to create a great game, not specifically a vehicle for crypto investment.
“The thing we bring to the table is that we actually built games,” Todd said. “A lot of the players you see out there now that look like scams, they don’t even know what kind of game they’re building. […] But, I mean, we know how to build games. And so we’re bringing our credibility to the space, which we hope people understand that we do care very much about our fan base. And we don’t want to get them involved in something that would be anywhere near a ‘bad actor’ type situation.”
While the team has been working on this for a couple of months, there is a lot to show for it already, from terrain and biome assets to concept art from the world they are building. In addition to a “Lord British” style zone, other personalities and caricatures will appear in some of the zones, lending their flavor and style to the game world.
There will also be what Todd calls “limited multiplayer online aspects,” where players can just go adventuring with guilds or friends in a world slice that is, in every respect, pristine. While the towns, shops, and more that players own will benefit, those in these limited slices will be able to adventure in dungeons that haven’t been explored and reap the rewards.
It’s also about selling the fantasy of what players are looking to get out of the world. Taking inspiration from game development aspects like Bartles’s Four Player Types, the idea here is to create a world that allows each type to flourish and succeed, whether you bought into the crypto aspects or not. The other thing the team is very consciously incorporating into every design decision is how to avoid “pay to win.”
“So what you have to then decide is how do we build a game engine where what people are buying is not power,” Garriot explains. Using Bartle’s taxonomy as an example, he talks about the player types who want to adventure, those who are “there to level up” and get as high as they can.
“Those are the people that would be most offended by pay to win. But can I really buy my way to superiority? And so that’s what we will try to avoid.”
Instead of selling what could be seen as pay-to-win mechanics, the idea here is to create an environment where each player type can take part in the fantasy of living out your preferred style in the game.
So say you want to be a landowner with political influence over a region. It’s not simply buying land in the form of crypto – how does that land work to help further the adventure for those there? How much do you invest in your character in building up the land and managing resources well enough that players are frequenting your zone to get the materials they need to build? How vibrant and alive does the town in your care feel? All of these play into the adventure, not hinder or circumvent it in the end. It feeds into the roleplaying aspect of the RPG, from all sides.
Leveraging the Blockchain
But how does this all fit into the blockchain underpinning the whole experience? Since the early days of MMORPGs, it’s been clear that digital goods have real-world value to some players. Selling castles and keeps from Ultima Online on eBay, or even selling account credentials armed with amazing gear from World of Warcraft is nothing new in the MMO space.
Garriott uses the example of selling a magical sword that took over 100 hours to obtain – obviously to someone else it would be worth it to pay money for that 100 hours rather than spend them grinding themselves. These types of scenarios would crop up around Ultima Online, where money was changing hands for digital goods in a game when it was never intended to happen.
However, these transactions happen outside the game’s boundaries, meaning that if the developers do something that changes the item, account, and whatnot, it’s done without the knowledge of the outside transaction.
Blockchain helps go a long way towards protecting player transactions, whether with Garriott and Porter’s company as an official purchase or buying an asset from another player. Rollback protection, Garriott calls it, helps to ensure that if a server rollback happens, the blockchain technology underneath everything allows the team to track every transaction from every side to ensure that no one loses out.
With recent reports of blockchain games being hacked for millions of dollars, protecting players’ money is at the forefront of the team’s minds.
“I actually think one of the first safety features of a blockchain is the rollback protection; it is the thing that says the database is unified in time. And so, therefore, if there is ever an argument, we have a very well timestamped history of the reality of everything, and that includes the financial transaction.
“And so, we haven’t worked out the details of this even remotely, but the fact of the fact that we have the full transaction history, there should be no money or objects traded that are not historically recorded. And that should mean that we should be able to, in the structure of mechanics we build around our blockchain, we should be able to build around protections to say, if there was a hack, we should be able to unwind both sides of the transaction.”
Todd takes it a step further, researching the recent blockchain and NFT hacks and working with their head of technology, Chris Spears (from Shroud of the Avatar) to ensure that their protocol is set up to protect players’ money. Having spent years working with companies in the online e-casino space, where regulations and protections are legally required to be in place to protect players’ investments, that approach will be in place with their new MMO.
“We’re not going to go off and try to invent a new way to do this. We’re going to leverage those ways that are proven that are stable, that are secure,” Todd explained.
He also mentions that this also goes back to the funding already with large crypto investors like gumi Capital and Griffin Gaming. Having established leaders in the space already investing in Garriott and Porter’s vision gives just even more experience and helps leverage the best and most secure aspects of the space. Additionally, by working in the casino space for so long, Porter has the contacts to help ensure that the way they go about handling the security of players’ wallets is top-notch.
However, there isn’t much we know about the specific blockchain protocol the team is choosing to leverage, as those decisions are still in their final stages. What we do know, though, is that the team is looking at protocols that aren’t just good for players, but address very real and valid concerns many have with blockchain and NFT tech, especially the environmental impact.
“We’re heavily invested in green as our systems,” Todd mentioned when asked about the type of protocol they would be using. “Richard’s president of the Explorers Club. Obviously, if you’re [in the] Explorers Club, you want to have places to explore, right? There are some new, emerging green NFT technologies. That’s come up in every discussion we have with this.”
“There are some things that we’re taking into those discussions that I think are interesting to point out,” Richard explained. “Which is another one of the real, fair criticisms, is how anti-environmental in many ways [cryptocurrencies] are. And so we’re also exploring what can we do about that? Can we find a blockchain to hang on that both solves the gaming needs we have, but it doesn’t have these reasonable criticisms to levy at them? So we’re trying to get the tool of an open ledger blockchain, and a tool of actual, individual ownership for players. Ownership as both a funding mechanic and ownership as a reward mechanic.
“For the players long-term, we’re trying to manage that to make it as easy for people to use. Meaning don’t force them to go into the crypto world if they don’t want to. And make sure that the basis that we’re using in coins and blockchain technologies are ones that are the most beneficial.”
The idea of ownership as both a funding mechanic as well as a reward mechanic is intriguing. For example, players who choose to buy in early won’t simply be buying into a game like a traditional Kickstarter pledge might. Instead, Garriott talks about building the game as it’s being funded with the players. He stresses that those who invest aren’t just a backer, but real owners, a “beneficiary of the game, as the game is played.”
However, everything goes back to how players will be protected. This means one of the key benefits of the blockchain underlying everything is the ability for the company to create what Garriott calls “smart contracts,” which should help make transactions of digital goods more defined. It also helps with dispersing the profits, where the company keeps a percentage of the transaction, the seller keeps a percentage, and more.
Ease of use is key to ensure that there is as little friction as possible, especially for those who are simply getting their feet wet with crypto or don’t really have any interest at all. Many NFT or crypto-infused games require players to set up complicated wallets on the blockchain, jump through hoops, and much more just to get started. Richard and Todd’s vision ensures that that isn’t going to be an issue.
“Any monetization loop, the name of the game is making sure it’s simple enough so that people don’t have to jump through hoops,” Todd said. “Anytime you get stickiness it becomes friction, it becomes a problem in getting players. So we want to make sure that’s not done. The second thing is too is you can completely participate without ever buying an NFT.”
This goes a step further that if players don’t have an established crypto wallet, or have just started to get their feet wet in the space but maybe don’t have a way to store the digital asset, the MMO will have a wallet where it will be housed as an option. This way players don’t have to go through the messy task of building a wallet just to participate, though Todd mentions that if you’re already heavy in the space, you can simply transfer the digital good to your own wallet from the get-go.
“I’m a big believer that, in the modern age of any gaming, even a game that was not on crypto, you have to have a database that you believe is banking-level of strength,” Richard mentions.
“Otherwise the game will fall apart no matter whether you’re hacked on the inside or hacked on the outside. Point being is we’re going to have our own crypto wallet where when people buy something from us who have never crossed over to the side of crypto and really have no interest. We’ll just hold that [NFT] in our own wallet, and it will be tagged too with their player’s identifier. So we’ll just hold it internally ourselves in our own internal wallet. And when they ever want to move that to their own wallet because they have created one, and they just feel better about having their own wallet, they are welcome to move it there. But in the meantime, it’s literally invisible. There literally should not be any need for the player to know or care that fundamentally this is on the blockchain.”
As far as the rollout is concerned, Todd mentions that it’s set up to start in three phases, and players should be able to learn more about each at some point this month. The first phase is the all-too-familiar land sales, which will allow interested players to snap up the 1000 plots of land available in the MMO. This is being planned to take place sometime between May and June of this year. From there, phase two will allow players to start by creating shops, building the towns out, and even renting the land they want to build on from those who purchased the deed in the previous phase.
This will also allow players to start building and setting up dungeons to create adventure experiences for players to enjoy on their land.
The third phase is when the doors will be opened and players will be able to start exploring and adventuring. Porter estimates this is probably about three years away, though it could be sooner.
One thing Todd stresses, though, is through the first two phases, everything purchased and created will be NFTs, so those who decide to participate won’t really be losing money in the process as they will have real value.
At the end of the day, while in the early stages, the MMO that Todd and Richard are building seems to be aimed at including players at every part of the process. From getting in on the land front early to help build the content players will enjoy for years to come, it’s about taking players on a journey with the developers themselves.
“We want the adventurers to help us fund this thing. We know how big it is. It’s going to be under a [Decentralized Autonomous Organization], so they’ll actually have voting rights in terms of how we operate. We really do want to take the fan base on the journey of how you build the game and let them be very involved in each phase.”