Reality Bytes

For a decade, Richard Garriott has been the most innovative computer-game maker in Texas. But now that the competition has caught up, he’s learning some hard truths about the software business.

FOR RICHARD GARRIOTT, real life sometimes looks a lot like a computer game. Consider what happened one night last March at Britannia Manor, his custom-built home in the hills of Northwest Austin. Garriott had retired around midnight, after an evening of watching comets from the observatory at the top of the house, when the doorbell rang. Using a lens from a telescope to see into the night, he peered out the living-room window and spotted a stranger circling the house. After watching him for an hour, Garriott loaded his Uzi—“The only gun I was sure I could make fire,” he says—and started to close the remote-controlled front gate; the visitor took the hint and left the property. Relieved, Garriott went back to bed.

But at three-thirty in the morning, the stranger was back. From his bedroom, Garriott heard a glass door shatter, then the sound of the glass crunching beneath the intruder’s shoes. Garriott got his Uzi again, grabbed a cordless phone, and dialed 911. After describing his situation to the operator, he said he had an Uzi and asked, “If this guy comes upstairs, what should I do?” If you feel threatened, he was told, you may use deadly force. When he saw a bare-chested, tattooed man start up the stairs, Garriott yelled out, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” He held the man at gunpoint while waiting for the police, but after some three minutes, the intruder shrugged his shoulders and began strolling away. Garriott fired a warning round into a wall, but the stranger kept walking toward a guest room, where he shut himself in. A few minutes later, four Travis County sheriff’s officers arrived and carted him off to jail—where they learned not only that he had been inside Britannia Manor before (on Halloween, when Garriott transforms his home into a spectacular interactive haunted house) but also that he is a big fan of Ultima, the signature series of medieval-fantasy computer games that helped launch Garriott’s company, Origin Systems, and make him a multimillionaire. The stranger told investigators he had seen a hologram of his own face in front of Garriott’s house, beckoning him as “the chosen one.”

Apparently, the man had a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality. In the introduction to The Official Book of Ultima, which doubles as a guide for players and a biography of Garriott and Origin, Garriott wrote, “[Y]ou journeyed to the world this Garriott of Lone Star calls home. There thou must infiltrate Garriott’s ‘Tower of Knowledge’ in Oztin and unearth the secrets of his reputed powers to make and shape new worlds at will.” The intruder, it seems, took the invitation literally.

The incident seems especially fitting given the kind of year Garriott has had, because like the intruder, the realities of the computer-game business are not just knocking on his door, they’re crashing in. In the past six months he has seen four top lieutenants leave Origin, including his brother, who started the company with him, and the creator of the Wing Commander series, the company’s best-selling space-combat games. He’s facing stiffer competition than ever before—especially from companies such as Mesquite-based id Software, which has won national attention by designing games to be played over the Internet, a market Origin has yet to crack. At the same time, Origin’s production budgets have skyrocketed from several hundred thousand dollars per game just a few years ago to an average of $2 million today. And last March, following a decision to spend more money on fewer projects, Origin canceled several games in development and laid off twelve of its roughly three hundred workers. For a decade the company has been Texas’ leading computer-game firm, with anticipated sales of more than $50 million in 1996, but the entertainment software business is changing fast. The question of the moment is how well Origin is keeping up.

Stiff competition is not something the 35-year-old Garriott used to worry much about. He was only 18 when he wrote his first hit, a medieval adventure called Akalabeth that was distributed by now-defunct California Pacific and sold 30,000 copies, earning him $150,000 before he started college. During his freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin, he wrote the first game in the Ultima series; as sales rose, his grades fell, and he quit school after his junior year to pursue game writing full time. In 1983 Richard and his older brother, Robert—who had earned a master’s degree in business from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—founded Origin in their parents’ garage in Nassau Bay, near Houston. (Their father, Owen, is a former astronaut who flew on Skylab 3, and their mother, Helen, is an artist.) The brothers moved the company to Austin in the mid-eighties, and in 1992 Electronic Arts, a software giant based in San Mateo, California, absorbed it as a wholly owned subsidiary, a deal worth $30 million to Origin’s co-founders. Over the years, more than 2 million copies of the Ultima series have been shipped to stores and mail-order houses, making it one of the highest-grossing series in the history of entertainment software and Garriott one of the world’s most successful game designers. “He has been able to live in this fantasy world, which is also his business,” Robert Garriott says. “What a great opportunity: not only to live your dreams, but to work your dreams.”

One element of fantasy in Richard’s life is his name: Around the software world, he’s known as Lord British, a moniker he picked up years ago at a computer camp where the kids thought he spoke like an Englishman. Not coincidentally, Lord British is a character in the Ultima series. Then there’s the ultracasual atmosphere at Origin’s offices: Garriott typically shows up in jeans, sneakers, and a work shirt and wearing his blond hair in a long, tightly braided queue. Employees—Garriott included—ambush each other in the hallways with rubber-band pistols and find inspiration in an arcade furnished with “ancient” games like Space Invaders and

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