Impressions of “Explore/Create: My Life in Pursuit of New Frontiers,” by Richard Garriott with David Fisher

Explore/Create is an odd book in need of a better episode. It is composed of episodes from two of Richard Garriott’s passions: making computer games and space. These two stories eventually converge, with exciting and unexpected results. Because of the nearly-random ordering of chapters, though, most of the dramatic tension is lost. The story is still fascinating if you care about either — or better, both — of these passions, however. Garriott is a legitimate pioneer in both fields.

I knew Garriott from computer games, where he is known as “Lord British.” Garriott was the writer of one of the first commercial computer games — Ultima — and the founder of one of the first successful games publishers, Origin Systems. Even before I had a computer I knew of his work through Ultima IV, a computer game where the moral “alignment” of the player character is under continued development. Likewise, I remember following the launch of Ultima Online in high school, as well as the famous assassination of Lord British.

But while this is happening a loving but titanic figure looms in the background — the astronaut Owen Garriot. Richard had grown in up Houston near Mission Control. A number of chapters which at first seem to be self-indulgent narcissism lead to Richard’s contributions to human space flight: his company Space Adventures was an early funder of the X prize

I greatly enjoyed the episodes of the history of computer games. Growing up in Houston near NASA, Garriott was part of the Texas computer scene (indeed, he founded Origin around the time that Compaq was founded.) But while California was a golden light for the Compaq founders, for Garriott it was a warning: the flightiness and drug-use of early California entrepreneurs served as things to avoid for Origin.

I wish Garriott spoke more about the transitions Origin made. He writes about the painfulness of transitioning from Apple-based to a PC-based clones, but has few details. Origin is sold to EA, but beyond making shelf space easier to get, little is said to why.

While at EA Garriott created Ultima Online, the first large-scale massively multiplayer online role playing game. Garriott describes some of the corporate politics that went into creating the game, including the unexpected consequence of people selling in-game “gold” for actual money. Even though the creation of Ultima Online is one of the most detailed parts of the narrative, I was left wanting more of these details (And less of, say, Garriott’s Titanic themed party in Austin).

Much more is said of why Garriott left NC Soft, and the subsequent lawsuit. And here’s where the two threads of Garriott’s life — attempting to reach space and making computer games — clearly interacted. Richard was fired immediately upon returning from the International Space Station, while still in quarantine. His $32 million victory would be the highlight of many lives — Garriott’s life is exciting enough that it’s a transition from one chapter to another.

So I wish these threads were better connected. Garriott’s love of space, and his skill at the game business, lead him to dramatic climaxes at nearly the same space and time. In my mind I organize the stories in the book this way. But instead the book begins at a seemingly self-indulgent tale of Garriott viewing the Titanic, and events that make the lawsuit with NC Soft more meaningful (like previous experience at Origin) is treated only superficially.

I also wish there was more on Garriott’s space exploration work. I don’t know if what appears to be a gap between what Garriott describes (funding for early space companies, a role in the creation of the X-Prize, etc.) and what I can find elsewhere represents Garriott’s grandstanding in this book, or his unfair marginalization in other work. Frustratingly, not enough detail is given in this book to even have a clear idea.

Last, it’s too bad that Richard did not narrate his own book. Garriott is charismatic and a good speaker, and many of the events in this book are better told in Garriott’s interview on Retro Tea Break. Richard Garriott is justly respected in the history of of computer gaming, yet an openly admiring interviewer is able to extract a more coherent narrative out of Garriott than he presents of his own life.

I really want to read an Explore/Create 2.0. I want to know more of Garriott’s work at Origin, more about EA, more about space, more about NC Soft. Hopefully, one day I will be able to.

I read Explore/Create: My Life in Pursuit of New Frontiers in the Audible edition

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