Before there were virtual farmers in FarmVille and virtual shop owners in CityVille, there was Ultima Online.
Considered to be one of the first successful massively multiplayer online computer games, Ultima Online changed the way many developers and players thought about gaming.
While it was created to be a place where people could adventure — fighting goblins, raiding castles, hunting through dungeons — it also became a place to set up virtual shops, dye clothes or go fishing.
What started out as an online version of an adventure game became a social experiment, one that showed that in-game entertainment doesn’t always have to be so violent.
“Most of the games at the time were about combat,” said Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series. “But Ultima Online was a place where people made careers that had nothing to do with combat.
“It was a bit like some Ville-style games — there was shopkeeping, farming, managing pets and displaying things in your house.”
When Zynga broke into gaming with its incredibly popular FarmVille title, it tapped into that desire to do something social and simple. But Garriott believes that Zynga’s games are already getting too complicated, in some ways missing the point of casual gaming.
“When I first saw FarmVille I thought it was too simple,” he said. “The repetitive nature is too obvious and the depth too minimal. FrontierVille was much better designed. CityVille is already too complicated. There’s too much stuff happening, so many bells and things going off.”
Garriott’s next game, developed by his new company, Portalarium, finds the sweet spot, he says.
“It’s a smallish game, in sense of scale of features, diversity and depth,” he said. “It’s not farming, it’s not pet management, it’s not shop management. It’s something original, but right in that niche.”
The unannounced title is “targeted right at the heart of what we believe to be popular social gaming.”
“Once we get that game built, then we’re going to move on to the next grand Lord British game,” he added, referring to the name of his in-game persona for the classic role-playing games he’s made in the past. “It will be the spiritual successor to the Ultima legacy.”
Portalarium was founded around the notion that social gaming is the next “grand era” of gaming. Garriortt says that all of his companies were “devoted to one of the grand eras of gaming.”
Origin Systems created and published the Ultima series of computer games, titles that flourished during the age of single player titles, he said. Destination Games partnered with NCsoft to developer and produce games like massively multiplayer titles City of Heroes and Tabula Rasa, games tied to the growing popularity of online gaming.
Portalarium is dedicated to social gaming — a grand era of gaming that also is marked by low cost or free titles, he said.
“Single player, multiplayer, with each of these eras the market has gone up dramatically,” he said. “Social-media games are about to pass a threshold to the hundreds of millions of players.
“That basically means everybody. Everybody is now a gamer. The magic of this era is that we literally have all of humanity in the gamer pool.”
But that means that developers need to find new ways to entertain those of us with gaming experience while still capturing and entertaining this new blossoming audience. It will, Garriott says, lead not only to a change in the games we play, but in the way those games will be made.
“Now that we’ve brought in all of humanity there is going to be another upheaval of the rules.”
Brian Crecente is managing editor of Kotaku.com, a video-game Web site owned by Gawker Media. Join in the discussion at kotaku.com/tag/well-played.