"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Lord British, immortal sovereign of all Britannia, is sitting on a squeaky chair in my apartment, sipping a glass of water. He’s about to lead me through the domains of his new realm, one that stretches across continents and oceans — as soon as his publicist can get a solid connection to AOL on his laptop.
If it’s momentarily difficult to separate Lord British, the computer game character who’s been around pretty much since the medium existed, from Richard Garriott, the Austin-based game designer who created him, that’s because Garriott himself has helped to blur the distinction. Lord British, typically residing on his throne in a jewel-encrusted castle, has been a ubiquitous presence throughout Garriott’s line of Ultima fantasy role-playing games, as well as in Ultima Online, the groundbreaking, massively multiplayer role-playing game (or MMRPG) that still enjoys an active membership in the hundreds of thousands.
Lord British was a pseudonym Garriott chose for his own role-playing persona, way back in high school Dungeons & Dragons sessions (shortly before he began creating computer games in his parents’ garage), as a nod to his English birth. The pseudonym became a persona he was even willing to play in real life, as his Ultima games grew in popularity.
“I’d often go to trade shows in Lord British attire, signing game boxes as Lord British and Richard Garriott,” he tells me a few days before his appearance in San Francisco. “In my first almost 10 games in the computer game industry, most people actually didn’t know who Richard Garriott was. The Lord British moniker was so pervasive that it clearly superseded the knowness, or whatever the right word would be there, of who I really am, Richard Garriott.”
Even for me, there’s a momentary disjunction, trying to square my previous mental image of Richard Garriott — the guy who seemed to be taking it all just a bit too seriously, dispensing copies of his games while wearing a crown and a robe — with the guy now in my apartment, a solidly built, blond Texan in light blue denim shirt and jeans. (His only visible connection to the Ultima universe is the silver, serpentine pendant dangling from his neck.)
Today, Lord British is no more, at least in the Ultima fantasy lands, a victim of a corporate takeover and, in Garriott’s view, shortsighted management.
It hasn’t been easy. “I’m 40 years old right now, so literally half my life has been invested in the creation of that property,” he tells me. “So yes, to step away from it is clearly somewhat of a traumatic, big deal for me.”
Then again, he says, Ultima and Lord British have also been a creative burden, an economic gold mine that made it difficult for him to do anything apart from that franchise. “Yes, it’s sad to have left it behind, but boy am I excited to be finally doing something not called Ultima.”
He’s talking about the aptly titled Tabula Rasa, an online game currently in development, which he says will draw from the teachings of the Dalai Lama and Plato’s “Republic.” But that’s not why he’s in my apartment. At the moment, he’s overseeing the American debut of Lineage: The Blood Pledge, an online role-playing game that entertains millions of Asian game players.
Lineage, through a bizarre confluence of addictive gameplay, globalization and international historical grievances, is a huge phenomenon in its native country of Korea. The game is so popular there that its online conflicts often spill out into real-life fistfights. It’s also, at first glance, far too foreign to ever make a truly successful crossover title in the United States.
But Lineage is the game Lord British has tied his fate to — a surreal position to be in, when you consider the kind of astounding tectonic shifts, culturally and financially, that have happened to make that possible.
Garriott’s P.R. blitz comes after the end of a one-year noncompete clause in his contract with Electronic Arts, the company to whom he sold Origin, the Austin game studio he founded to develop his Ultima games, in 1992. Now he works out of the Austin offices of NCSoft, just 300 yards or so from his old headquarters.
“The way the hills are structured,” says Garriott by phone a week before his visit to San Francisco, “we can’t quite see each other, though we can probably shoot water balloons on longer rubber bands back and forth.”
Garriott’s return to the gaming industry after parting ways with EA in late 2000 was supposed to be at a start-up called Destination Games, a company he planned to run with his brother Robert. But soon after registering the domain, he was offered the opportunity to merge with the Korean-based NCSoft, developers of Lineage: The Blood Pledge, the most popular subscriber-based online game in the world. (As of this writing, Lineage boasts a staggering 3 million-plus players, mostly in Korea, Taiwan and other Asian economic hubs. By contrast, Everquest, the most popular American subscription-based online game, has a mere 400,000 or so subscribers worldwide.)
This reversal of fortune must seem like a vindication for Garriott, who departed Electronic Arts, as he tells it, in protest at the company’s intent to shape its online services in a way that wouldn’t readily accommodate his world-building talents.
“They thought Ultima Online was just kind of a niche or a fad,” Garriott says. Instead, he says EA was trying to steer its content toward casual, nonsubscribing gamers. “Instead of making more epic games like Ultima, they were asking me and our team to participate in the creation of Java applet Web games … which didn’t fit with my vision of either what I liked to do creatively, personally, nor my vision from a business standpoint of what would really be the place to target for revenue generation in this segment.”
Since then, the idea of converting casual Web gamers into useful revenue streams has become one more discarded business model. “Electronic Arts is writing off about $250 million of failed strategy last year, and I suspect they have a fair bit more to write off,” says Garriott. Among those gone in the shakeout are many of his own former employees at Origin. “Which is perfect for us — those are all the people who worked with us for the last 20 years. So as they slowly let them go, we slowly hire them.”
Electronic Arts disputes Garriott’s interpretation of the events leading to his departure.
“EA did not ask Richard to make gamelets,” said Jeff Brown, V.P. for corporate communications at Electronic Arts, via e-mail. “We simply wanted him to finish Ultima Online 2, which had languished in development without progress for a considerable time. In the end, we found his product was not commercially viable. Reasons surrounding his separation from EA are confidential.” Regarding Garriott’s claim that EA’s online business strategy has cost the company about $250 million in losses, Brown says: “We have no idea how Richard would come up with something like that — but it’s just not true. Richard’s history suggests he’s a lot better at creating medieval fantasy than he is at math.”
That said, Brown offers his regards for Garriott’s new venture with EA’s Korean competitor: “We wish him success in his next project and we hope his new partners show patience in directing his creative energies.”
In any case, while the competition to capture (and hold) the lucrative fees of subscription-based MMRPG games has grown ever more frenetic, Garriott believes it’s still underexploited. “As my noncompete ran out,” he says, “I was very pleasantly surprised to find out, no, in fact, EA never did turn that corner in that whole time, Microsoft [Asheron's Call] has yet to focus on this space sufficiently and Sony [Everquest and the upcoming Star Wars Galaxies], which I think is doing the best job of our competitors, frankly has overextended itself.”
This opens up a potential berth for Garriott and NCSoft, starting with Lineage, which became available in U.S. stores, game magazines and as a free download at the end of November. It’s a Diablo-style, top-down, hack-and-slash game with a mouse-driven interface — easy to learn, simple to start. But at first glance, Garriott still has his work cut out for him. In terms of visuals and sound, the game seems just slightly more polished than the original 1997 game from Blizzard Entertainment.
And while Garriott says the game is aimed at a more casual, younger demographic (15-25, by his estimate, as opposed to the 20-35 that’s the more typical segment among MMRPG players), its shortcomings are still conspicuous.
In a genre where the fashion-plate aspect of role playing is such a draw, Lineage characters and their adventure kit are disappointingly inconsistent. (Make your character wield a small dagger, for example, and it suddenly looks like he’s dragging a six-foot sword behind him.) Garriott says more appropriate equipment visuals will be patched into the game, in later downloads. What likely won’t be changed, however, is the androgynous, Japanese anime quality of the character classes the player has to choose from.
Experimenting with gender roles has always been a powerful appeal of MMRPGs; female gamers often enjoy the casual subversion of embodying a male character, and vice versa. But offered the choice between a knock-kneed blond Elf and a male Warrior who looks about as butch as Michael Jackson during his Captain Eo period, it’s hard to imagine that kind of gender hacking will happen here.
“That probably won’t be changed,” Garriott acknowledges during my house demo. “I think the anime style is a choice that [the Lineage designers] have made and they’ll probably stick with it.”
But the real area where Lineage shines involves the meta game, a sort of role-playing capture the flag, set against a backdrop that makes the kingdom seem like a mythical Afghanistan. In Lineage, the realm’s king has been lost, with many roaming the land claiming to be his true successor. A player can choose to play a prince or a princess, and gather other players to his Blood Pledge, leading them to conquer castles, depose competing princes and gain wide swaths of territory. Succeeding at that, you get to tax the local shopkeepers, generating more revenue to finance even more conquest. The fights over castles are savage, Garriott promises, involving thousands of players at one time, in the same geographic space.
“That will set the stage not for Lord British to enter the game, not to try to claim rulership,” Garriott says, “but rather to become a sort of arbitrator — a very Merlin-like figure — in the process to determine who the one true king is.”
Enthralled by the legend of Lord British, NCSoft sought out Richard Garriott as the man with enough status within the American gaming community to bring Lineage to the States and re-create its success in Asia.
But the original phenomenon of Lineage is a fascinating tale in itself, a fun-house case study of globalism that’s intrinsically tied to, of all things, the policies of the International Monetary Fund.
“Right at the time this game launched [in 1997-98] is right after the IMF had kind of cratered the economy,” says Garriott. “The Korean currency devalued dramatically. Tons of layoffs occurred, tons of middle managers were out of jobs, and what a lot of them did is they started little PC game rooms.”
Due to fractious relations between Japan and Korea, console games (a major Japanese export) are not readily available to Korean consumers. Personal computers were also too pricey for most Koreans — but they could afford to pay $1 an hour to play PC games, even though at first, these venues were makeshift, “literally people’s living rooms and family rooms.”
At about the same time, Korean game designer Jake Song created Lineage, with T.J. Kim, NCSoft’s CEO, mortgaging his own house to ensure its completion. The game’s popularity grew geometrically — one in 30 South Koreans have played it at least once — and with it, so have the game rooms, especially in the polluted, vastly overcrowded streets of Seoul, where they’ve become oases of leisure. Now, says Garriott (recently back from a visit to the city), “They look like miniature casinos, with snack bars, and little couple’s couches so you can play with your girlfriend … these game rooms and Lineage grew up together.”
The struggle for castles and territory is so intense that the conflicts often rage offline in brutal melees that resemble something out of a William Gibson novel, with members of competing Pledges rumbling into rivals’ game-room turf, out for real blood. The Korean police even have a term for these crimes, instantly recognizable by multiplayer gamers worldwide: “off-line PK” (player killing).
And now that Lineage is growing popular among Japanese players, historical conflicts between Korea and Japan — World War II occupation, the use of Korean “comfort women” — are affecting Lineage’s gameplay, says Garriott. “The bad blood, so to speak, that exists between Korea and Japan is surprisingly present from the Korean side,” he says. Retribution for past grievances goes down online. “The game players in Korea are very well organized, and usually win out over other countries when it comes to castle sieges and other activities, and they take particular vigor in tromping on the Japanese players.”
All this makes me wonder if the cultural divide is too yawning for Lineage to work in the West. If the Asian ethos is more geared toward the group dynamic and the strict hierarchy demanded by the game, what will Americans make of it? Garriott acknowledges the challenge. “People in the U.S. are taught to be individuals, and find creative solutions to problems, and a bunch of other things that make the U.S. great in many ways. However, a downside is that it’s very difficult for U.S. players to swear fealty or swear their allegiance to some random other person for long periods of time when they generally think of themselves as superior.”
Still, he insists, the game’s fundamental appeal is universal. “Is it fun to advance your character? Is it fun to quest with friends? Is it fun to join a pledge and fight over the territories of a castle? Is that fun factor and accessibility the same in Korea as it is in the United States? I think that fundamentally the answer to that question is yes.”
To spur them on, Garriott is sending out e-mail invitations to the player guilds of Ultima Online and Everquest, among others, to join him in Lineage, and help him overthrow the pretender princes.
Which brings us back to what Garriott’s persona actually signifies, for himself and for the games he creates for his near-omnipotent alter ego. “Lord British really is my personal emissary into gaming,” he says.
“But what about you does he represent?” I ask.
“The evangelist for specific philosophical objectives within gaming, which I’ll call parables. … Lord British is the promoter of the identifying heroic attributes within individual players — promoting their true heroism vs. mindless slaughter or mundane behavior.”
I point out that Ultima Online was notorious for that very thing, with noxious gamers hell-bent on slaughtering hapless newcomers to the game, while other players sat around catching virtual fish, or sewing leather tunics.
“You’re quite correct,” Garriott says. “Player killing, as well as what I’ll call repetitive, monotonous behavior, are rampant in these online games. … Even worse than Ultima Online are games like Everquest, which is, despite its popularity, largely based on standing around holding your repeat button down to kill monsters over and over again until you finally level up. … And I just think that’s not the way to create the future of gaming.”
Having wasted a few dozen hours on the Everquest gerbil wheel of illusionary progress, myself, I’ll subscribe to that. It’s a flaw Garriott hopes to address in Tabula Rasa, which is now in development, but about two years away from completion. Among his goals are “finding ways to reward players for the quality of their contributions, not the quantity of monotonous behavior they’re willing to endure.” While he won’t go into particulars, he says this means “a highly scripted series of events, to lead you to the next level of specialness within the world.” Linking these is a space shared by all Tabula Rasa players, a compact hub from which to launch off into further adventures.
This sounds suspiciously like Everquest’s generic theme park version of a fantasy world, but Garriott insists this ability to leap from one quest to the next will be consistent with the game’s internal narrative. “The whole logic as to why the hub space is compact and how you get to these instantiated adventures is of course part of the theme of the whole game … your accomplishments on those adventures all add up to a grand accomplishment for you and the grand civilization within the hub space.”
Linked to this will be an in-game philosophy, to give these accomplishments a deeper meaning. This concern for morality is a recurring theme in Garriott’s games. In the Ultima series, he went so far as to invent eight cardinal virtues of good player behavior — which, to my mind, sometimes came across as presumptuous moralizing, coupled with a vaguely creepy, pseudo-religious feel. (Though, granted, both qualities had the effect of generating a cultish fan base around him and the games.)
But as he tells it, the ethics associated with Tabula Rasa will have far more substance. “In the new game we’re actually trying to more closely relate things that we believe are defensible as a truth or fundamental philosophy. … The Dalai Lama is probably our No. 1 source at the moment.” While Garriott’s not a Buddhist himself, “I absolutely have much more affinity for Buddhism than for any of the other major religions in the world … with its philosophy of life where the purpose of life is happiness, and the path to happiness is compassion toward other people.”
His team is also drawing upon “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell and the work of Lebanese mystic Khalil Gibran (“Actually, his writings were also very influential for the Ultima series”). Garriott also mentions Greek philosophers, and even puts the phone down to check the current stock of classic references in his NCSoft office. “We’ve been pulling from ‘The Republic,’ ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey.’” Also Dante’s “Inferno”, though “less for that sort of inspiration and more for game mechanics … We do not intend to take it as far as, if you go murder somebody, your character gets sent to character hell and tortured … however, we do intend for there to be examples of things to see and interact with that might give you that overtone.”
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the game industry (like Hollywood) went through a brief bout of soul searching, trying to decide what kind of games it can and should develop in this newly resensitized era. So I ask Garriott how recent events might have changed the kind of games we want to create. As with EA’s failure to capture the online market, Garriott greets this ethical reorientation with a sense of vindication. “[I] already was on the side of feeling that social responsibility and ethical parables were the right way to go in online gaming … I just think that role-playing games in particular, where you’re creating these virtual realities, and especially to the degree they’re played by younger and younger people, do have the innate ability to teach behavior, whether you like it or not.”
“In the real world, people role-play all the time. If you think of kids out role playing in the sandbox, that’s how they learn the good and bad kinds of social interaction. They learn that when they push each other and they fall down it hurts, and that they cry, or how feelings can be hurt; they learn to not enjoy doing things which take away happiness from the people around them … And I believe that there is a danger in creating an artificial reality that does not have those social feedback mechanisms in it. Even if it’s not a moral imperative to put it in every role-playing game that exists, it is at least an opportunity missed not to.”
After the Lineage demo, I walk Lord British and David, his P.R. rep, back to their rental car. About this time last year, San Francisco’s Mission district was one of the city’s focal points for dot-com excess, crowded with Internet start-ups built on foolhardy business plans, lined with upscale restaurants to serve its employees. Now, money and start-ups gone, it feels like a rougher place than it was before that rush of moneyed hubris came rolling through town. And it occurs to me that Garriott is standing here on 19th and Mission, a street corner caked with garbage and human poo, as one more refugee of that receding tide.
Electronic Arts wanted a way to convert his content into sticky eyeballs, to use last year’s gibbering parlance, and instead, for whatever reason, he bolted. That’s why he’s here, in his new role as a kind of cultural emissary, for his new partners from the Far East. Which provokes another chain of thoughts, rooted in Lineage’s provenance.
Summarizing wildly, an Oxford scholar named Tolkien wove Northern European and British folk myth into a fantasy trilogy published in the 1950s that was acclaimed by America’s alternative subculture in the ’60s, which in turn influenced Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons in the late ’70s, which then went on to influence Garriott’s Ultima games, beginning in the ’80s.
These games became a worldwide phenomenon that eventually inspired a Korean programmer, in the late ’90s, to create Lineage, a game acclaimed throughout Asian popular culture, despite (or because of) a European mythology Asians only know fourth- or fifth-hand.
And now Garriott’s working for the Korean he inspired. It’s not coming full circle, perhaps, but it’s close enough. Just one more thumbnail sketch of how far we’ve come, as a global culture, and how interlocked our imaginations have become, during the journey.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)