September 6, 2007 / 3:32 PM / 10 years ago

Lord British returns with blank slate

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters Life!) - Lord British is back, only this time he’s wielding an energy cannon instead of a sword. Oh, and you can call him General British now.

Richard Garriott, the acclaimed game designer who pioneered the genre of massive multiplayer online games, has finished his latest work, “Tabula Rasa”, a science fiction-themed title he reckons will alter the way such games are played.

Massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs, are so called because they allow thousands of players connected through the Internet to explore a virtual world at the same time.

Garriott’s “Ultima Online”, launched a decade ago, was one of the first MMOs to feature rich graphics and is credited with leading the way for popular games such as Sony Corp’s “Everquest” and Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft”.

In fact, “World of Warcraft” has amazed the gaming industry with its ever-growing global legion of loyal fans -- 9 million active players and counting.

Yet Garriott was troubled by the dedication “Warcraft” and other online games demanded of players, who must devote dozens of hours to building their in-game characters.

“‘Tabula Rasa’ really is a fresh approach to MMOs,” he said. “Some of the design changes we’ve put in ‘TR’ will set the standards for next 10 years.”

Garriott’s answer was to make advancement in “Tabula Rasa” based on working through the storyline, rather than killing a certain number of monsters or defeating a powerful enemy.

“We believe we’ve created a game that is much kinder to casual play,” Garriott said.

An undated screenshot of "Tabula Rasa." Richard Garriott, the acclaimed game designer who pioneered the genre of massive multiplayer online games, has finished his latest work, "Tabula Rasa", a science fiction-themed title he reckons will alter the way such games are played. REUTERS/NCSoft/Handout

The basic story is that in the near future aliens invade Earth and destroy almost all of humanity. Players are the only survivors and they must travel the stars to defeat the aggressors.

“One of the first things we decided when we started was not to do another medieval fantasy game. We were eager to branch out and try something new. There’s still way too much fantasy in the genre right now,” Garriott said.

Another thing Garriott is known for is imbuing his worlds with moral dilemmas. In Garriott’s games, players could not kill or steal and expect people around them not to notice. The choice was still there, but it came with a price.

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“Tabula Rasa” has a similar mechanism dubbed the “ethical parable”. In one case, a player must ferret out who is stealing medical stimulants from a military clinic. It turns out that soldiers are using the drug to give them a badly needed edge in battle. The player must decide whether or not to turn them in.

“The game is just peppered with moments that are intended to be thought provoking, not trying to preach any angle or social issue, but are intended to provoke thought and challenge a player’s personal beliefs,” Garriott said.

The game’s name, Latin for “blank slate”, was originally a working title meant to encourage Garriott’s team to rethink the rules. But the name stuck due to a game element that is one of the most intriguing parts of its entire design.

Garriott envisioned an alien writing system that could be read by any player and would reveal secret knowledge to help their characters. In essence, that meant Garriott had to create a universal language, a task that led him to spend months studying Egyptian hieroglyphics, ancient Chinese script and even signage for international events like the Olympic Games.

As players decipher the alien words, symbols are added to a tablet they carry, granting them powers and new abilities. The “blank slate” turned out to be crucial to the game’s plot.

Garriott, 46, was famous for wandering the worlds he created in the guise of his virtual alter ego, Lord British, an identity he is carrying over to “Tabula Rasa.”

“Tabula Rasa” is being published by South Korea’s NCSoft, whose “Lineage” online games are among the most popular titles in that country. The game is to be released on October 19 in the United States and Europe.

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