"A Huge Enthusiast and also a Huge Skeptic"
The conversation started out with musings, Garriott recalling his company's (Origin Systems of Ultima fame) many attempts at working with VR efforts of the 80s and 90s.
"I actually think VR is one of the most [uses air-quotes] 'interesting' things happening. In fact, I would describe myself as one of the pinnacle VR enthusiasts, but I also appear to be one of the pinnacle VR skeptics. I go back: Even in the earliest days, like on the Apple II, people made some simple VR goggles that had a tiny view screen, had terrible lag – [they even made] even Data Gloves you could wear [...] every time one of those comes out, we get really excited about it. We'd convert whatever game we were working on at the time; we'd spend a couple of weeks making it work in VR just because we thought it'd be so cool. And as a demo, it was cool. Every time you'd play with it, you're going like, 'yeah, but the lag is just making me sick and the peripheral vision is just not there.' To think of actually playing a game that way, you're going 'it's not going to be a superior experience.' Every few years, somebody would make this run and we'd look at them and abandon it."
Garriott has been developing games since 1974, roughly, and has personally lived through the many VR attempts of the past (we've recapped a history of those). What's more, Garriott helmed one of the industry's largest and most influential companies, Origin Systems, through that early growth era of VR. The Origin team worked on System Shock, Ultima, and dozens of other games – like Wing Commander, a spawn of Star Citizen visionary Chris Roberts (who has expressed excitement for the natural fit of VR with a cockpit-oriented game).
Continuing the musings, Garriott spoke with us about the undeniable advancement of VR hardware.
"The Hardware is Way, Way Better. VR Hardware is Pretty Dang Good."
"Obviously, the latest run of VR has gotten an enormous amount of attention and investment and the hardware is way, way better. We now have VR hardware that is pretty dang good. Not only is it full visual area [indicates field of view], the tracking and response time is now very quick -- latency is low. I see demos now and I'm going, 'that is a really cool demo,' but I don't see many things where I'm like 'I would buy that game and ten more like it' – that I can see ten variations on the theme that will be interesting to explore different ways in which VR is being created. Or I go to different booths in VR and I watch them – this one demo might be to pick up something out of a bowl and set it on a table or a shelf, and I watch them struggling to do that. […] We're just not there."
"Some of these are fun -- I enjoy going booth-to-booth [for demos], but I haven't seen the killer app – not one, much less ten. And until there's ten killer apps, you're not going to sell $500-or-better hardware. To get the technical solution, you really need to be selling; the phones in cases are cool, and will be freely available, but [they don't] have the wide wrap-around view, don't let you see your hands in front of you, and so you really need to be buying multi-thousand dollar hardware to really solve the problem. And even with the problem solved, there's not yet the killer apps. So I remain a huge enthusiast and a huge skeptic, but I'm now at the point where I'm trying to build something. Not because I think I can solve the problem necessarily, but because somebody has to solve this problem – it's at least interesting enough to begin to toy with."
What About Non-Games – like Movies and "Experiences?"
Garriott continued, referencing filmmaker Chris Milk's "Clouds over Sidra" VR tour of refugee camps.
"Even if you skip games and you just go to more virtual reality experiences, movies, other things... there is a movie maker who shot a VR sequence in a refugee camp, and in that film I thought he did a really great job of exploring some new cinematography techniques. What I mean by that is, in this little VR tour of this refugee camp, he had told everyone whose spaces he walked through [not to] ignore the camera, assume it's a person, and assume it's a person you'd like to have an engagement with."
"[Garriott describes a sequence in which a bicycle passes the viewer on one side, and a person waves on the other side] You obviously can't look both ways for any length of time, but you felt engaged in both ways. So that's interesting – but it was just interesting. There's a new cinematic technique that wouldn't be normal in a more normal film, but it's only one piece of cinematic language. It's a step. I still think that there's – whether it's movies or games – there's a lot to learn from the language."
What Would You Want to Do with VR?
The designer recalled an interaction from moments before our meeting, when a passerby asked how he'd approach VR "in an Ultima way."
"What I'd want to do is I'd be locked in a room and there's a sewer grate, and I'd want to get on my hands and knees and pop the grate off and crawl through a tunnel. VR hardware won't let me do that. Even the first thing that pops into my mind that I'd like to do if I were really there – it still won't do, and probably won't do any time soon. I'm still a little stumped as to what the first great VR experience will be."
"We're Still a Generation Early – at least."
Having just interviewed former Deus Ex designer Warren Spector at ECGC, we prompted Garriott with Spector's previous VR skepticism.
"I'm actually closer to Warren [in my position]. I am not convinced that the billions of dollars that have been poured into this generation of VR will be paid back in this generation of hardware and software development. The matrix will eventually be here – or maybe we're living in it now [laughs] – and eventually we will have sufficient technology to be indistinguishable from reality. At that point, we will be there – [VR] will happen. But I'm not convinced that we're as close as the billions of dollars of investment would imply. If this generation of VR doesn't work, it's not for lack of effort or money – there's a lot of that going into it."
"I've mentioned my 'intriguement' with [VR]. One of my intriguements is if you're wrong, you don't want to be left too far behind! It would suck to be the naysayer while it all happens. And, by the way, I've done that before. If you look at my prognostications for the future, I'd say my hit/miss ratio is about 50/50 at best! My first one – my greatest lesson in business – was [when] I wrote my first games on the Apple II. You might remember that the first IBM PC that came out wasn't a particularly great machine. [...] When I saw it come out, I was like, 'well anybody who knows this at all is clearly going to pick an Apple, and this PC thing is not gonna work.' I kept our development teams working purely on Apple II and we'd probably port to PC if it ever became relevant. But then the PC took off so fast – and Apple cratered so fast – that we realized we would have no games to sell. There would be no market into which to sell those games. We had to completely change our staff."
"You can't predict what the public's gonna do. You can have an opinion, but it's groupthink – and trying to predict groupthink is fraught with peril. If I had to make a stand, I'm with Warren. We're still a generation early, at least."
The tone overall was critical, enthusiastic, and well-grounded in the realities that VR seems inevitable but faces significant challenges. If you're interested in hearing more from Richard Garriott, we'll soon be posting additional interview content which discusses his team's upcoming Shroud of the Avatar game.
Editorial, Host: Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke
Video Production: Keegan "HornetSting" Gallick