Posted on November 20, 2014, Marcel Helion Starr Long Interview: From Ultima Online to Shroud of the Avatar
Ultima is a legendary franchise in the gaming world, and one that has been sadly neglected for years. But thanks to the new 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 multi-player content, in 2015.
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.
GAMEFRONT’S MARCEL HELION: Did you study game design in an academic capacity or did you pick it up through actual game development?
PORTALARIUM’S 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.
MH: I don’t know either. I was self-taught myself, so I can’t help you.
SL: 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 . 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.
MH: I’m an old Origin fan, so I’m curious to know which was the first game you were testing.
SL: 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.
MH: You were thrown right into Ultima from the beginning.
SL: 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.
MH: You worked your way up from being a tester. How would you say that affected the development of your design philosophy?
SL: 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.
MH: 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.
SL: Yeah, and who won there?
MH: Who are some of the game designers you most respect, other than the obvious?
SL: 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.
MH: 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.
SL: 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.