Richard Garriott: Space Cowboy
In October 2008, Richard Garriott became one of the first space tourists in history. games™ catches up with the industry’s very own Starman, and talks about his games, his future, and looking back at the Earth from orbit.
Tabula Rasa was in trouble. A year into release, the world’s former-most anticipated MMO had barely retained enough subscribers to sustain itself. While early critical appraisal was more than encouraging, by October 2008, several still-mysterious factors – a slightly muddled class system? General unfamiliarity? – were leading to the game’s downfall.
To the outside world, Tabula Rasa still held promise, but its creator, Richard Garriott – also known as General British and Lord British – knew better. He announced his imminent departure from the development team in an open letter. NCsoft, Tabula Rasa’s publisher, soon followed suit. One month later, it revealed a February 2009 closure date. Some criticised Garriott’s abdication, accusing him of shirking the inevitable questions about his ailing successor to Ultima Online. But while this may have been a contributing factor, it was by no means his primary reason. You see, from 2008 onward, Richard Garriott’s head has been in – or, in this case, above – the clouds.
You may be unaware of Garriott’s history with all things astronomical: his father, Owen Garriott, was an accomplished astronaut; the first two Ultima games featured extensive sci-fi content; and Garriott became one of the trustees of the X-Prize. You may also be oblivious to his penchant for the grandiose: parties with a replica Titanic as the centrepiece; a mansion with a custom-built dungeon; and a painstakingly crafted, full-contact haunted house for the citizens of Austin, Texas, every Halloween. However, if you do understand the depth of Garriott’s eccentricity, you’ll know that space travel was never out of the equation. Nor would you be shocked by the ambitious thrust of Garriott’s so-called ‘Operation Immortality’, where he would single-handedly save humanity during his regular duties as a civilian spacefarer in the International Space Station.
What you might have missed, however, was the desperation underlying the supposed operation. Struggling through a 50 per cent fall in profits – blamed somewhat unconvincingly on the Beijing Olympics – NCsoft needed to find a way to use Garriott’s much-publicised, albeit not exactly timely, space adventure to Tabula Rasa’s advantage. As such, it was decided that Garriott would not only bring the sequenced DNA of various ‘notables’, including Stephen Hawking, into orbit with a view to preserving them – lest the human race be nullified by extraterrestrials or reality TV – but also the character data for every single active Tabula Rasa account. Garriott hoped to boot up General British while in space, too, but ISS personnel nixed the idea, citing both cost and security threats.
As videogame publicity stunts go, it certainly outdoes sacrificial lambs, tombstone billboards, and Turok babies. Sadly it didn’t work, but Garriott isn’t as despondent about it as you might imagine. In fact, he almost expected it. “When you’re working on a game,” he sighs, “even fairly early in a game’s development, you can get a feeling for how easy or difficult it is to achieve certain goals. Usually, a game that you have trouble starting, you’re also going to have trouble finishing. That doesn’t make it a lost cause by any means… But it does at least mean you’re fighting an uphill battle, and once you’ve started fighting on an uphill battle, you’re going to be in an uphill battle for some time.”