Meet the Real James Halliday
  • Meet the Real James Halliday


    Ready Player One posits a future where billionaire James Halliday creates a virtual world that encompasses every form of gaming. He's actually inspired by a real-life game developer who made a fortune off of his games: Richard Garriott.


    Richard Meets D&D

    Richard Garriott was the son of Owen Garriott, a former Stanford physics professor and Navy officer who was tapped by the manned space flight program in 1965. The younger Garriott's backstory is covered in detail in Dungeons & Dreamers by Brad King, but of particular note is how he came across Dungeons & Dragons at a computer camp in Houston:

    After several minutes, Richard leaned down, tapped the leader on the shoulder, and asked him what they were doing. “It’s Dungeons & Dragons,” the boy responded, not looking up. “It’s a role-playing game.” That didn’t help much. Richard had never heard of the game, and he associated role-playing with the occasional acting he’d done in a local theater. He stuck around for a little longer, listening to the game unfold as the dungeon master, the person who created the story with which the players interacted, wove the tale. Other students drifted over, and before long the original group had to stop and explain in more detail. Richard and a handful of others soon joined a game. By the second night, the little lobby was filled with several gaming groups, all telling each other stories of dragons and skeletons and orcs. Girls were as eager as the guys to play, and threw themselves into character with just as much bravado.

    Given Garriott's creative endeavors later in life, it's no surprise that he tried his hand at Dungeon Mastering. He was happier as a player though, frequently playing as his D&D persona, Lord British -- Garriott was born in Cambridge. His D&D games became legendary affairs with over a dozen players showing up:

    The Garriott home became ground zero for weekend gaming. Adventures would stretch into early Saturday mornings, and after brief rest periods for food and catnaps, they’d slowly pick up again in the afternoon. With so many players, the sessions took on a diverse personality. What had started as a small group of hard-core geeks turned into a social cornucopia. By early 1978, parents started showing up with their kids. The front porch became the recreation area for smokers and drinkers. The group garnered enough attention that the notoriously conservative Boy Scouts even asked Richard’s eclectic group to become part of its organization.

    But Garriott's true passion was for the nascent field of video game design, and he was continually frustrated by the limited processing power of the computers at school. So Garriott made a deal with his father:

    “Dad, if I can make this game work at school, without any bugs, then you buy me an Apple II,” Richard said, handing his dad the D&D 1 notebook with 1,500 lines of code, scribbled symbols, and charts outlining the mathematical rules for determining the results of combat. Owen laughed. He’d long ago stopped doubting his son’s ability to attack a problem until it had been solved. “If you can make it work without any flaws,” he said, “I’ll split the cost with you.”

    The results of that bet would change the future of computer role-playing games forever.

    D&D and DND

    Garriott was driven. His first version of that D&D-style game was titled DND #1. The rules of the bet required Garriott's game to "work without any flaws" and Garriott took that bet seriously -- his final version was completed with DND #28. Owen honored the bet and Garriott got the computer he wanted, an Apple II. He rewrote DND #28 as DND #28B on his new computer. That game would be commercially released as Akalabeth and set Garriott on the path to become one of the most renowned computer role-playing game designers in the industry.

    Garriott's firsts are many, as represented by the above graphic. He created the Ultima series, an immersive fantasy land that helped coin the terms "MMORPG", "Avatar," and "shards" with Ultima Online. He built three leading gaming companies: Origin Systems (sold to Electronic Arts), Destination Games (sold to NCsoft) and most recently Portalarium. He was named "Game God" by PC Gamer in 1999, the ninth inductee into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame in 2006, the sixth recipient of the Game Developers Choice Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, and named an "Industry Legend" at the UK Develop Conference in 2007.

    This made Garriott a lot of money. We don't know exactly how much he's worth, but one indicator of his wealth is that he spent $30 million on a 12-day trip to the International Space Station. Garriott's success emboldened him to create a new virtual world known as Shroud of the Avatar on Kickstarter, a spiritual successor to his Ultima series. Over 22,000 backers pledged nearly $2 million. It could have been the equivalent of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) in Ready Player One. Garriott even launched a contest that, like Halliday, required the players to go back to his gaming roots:

    Starting April 15th 2014, just past one year into the development of Shroud of the Avatar, and running for 1 month through May 15th, Richard via Portalarium will be accepting submissions of DND1 Resurrections in each of two versions. Submissions may be a Unity Version, and or a no-plug-in Browser Version. Winners will be announced shortly after the submission deadline. Best Unity Version & Best no-plug in Browser Versions will receive a Citizen Level Pledge Reward worth approximately $550. 2 runners up in both categories will receive $165 Collector level pledge each.

    Unfortunately for Lord British, reality wasn't quite so kind to Shroud of the Avatar.

    Reality Sucks

    Shroud of the Avatar was supposed to break the D&D mold of leveling up, allowing players to be anything they wanted to be -- echoing the plans that went awry with Ultima Online. It was not nearly the breakout success of Garriott's earlier creations, but then a long development cycle funded by the public is very different from the previous games he led. Shroud of the Avatar officially launched last month.

    Garriott's challenges in creating Shroud of the Avatar shouldn't diminish his contributions to gaming as a whole. When Ernest Cline wrote Ready Player One, he already had a template to build eccentric game designer James Halliday. Lord British has never forgotten his roots as a player and game master, sitting around a table with friends. There are several billionaire game designers, but of them all Garriott is most recognizably a tabletop gamer who followed his dreams.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 11 Comments
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Has anyone here actually played Shroud of the Avatar?

      Apparently he also has a new autobiography, Explore/Create, out. Haven't read it yet, but I'm certainly curious.
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      I'm installing it now. Probably won't be able to play until the weekend. I'll try to post back some first impressions.
    1. Allen Schwarz's Avatar
      Allen Schwarz -
      I have it. Played it for a few hours. It's difficult to get into and the controls are awkward (IMHO.) And this is from a huge fan of the old Ultima games; played them all when I was a kid.
    1. Rygar's Avatar
      Rygar -
      Another article with a lot of research problems.

      1. He didn't write the first CRPGs, The Dungeon was the first in 1974 or 1975
      2. He didn't invent MMORPG's. Neverwinter Nights on AOL, and several others, predated Ultima Online by years.
      3. Tile graphics were introduced in 1976 in Sega's Blockade arcade game
      4. He didn't create Avatars based on personality tests, you chose classes, and there was no actual roleplaying. The questions were basically "Pick one of these three virtues" not a personality test.
      5. You didn't test players ethics, you had a set of specific actions you had to take. There was no real roleplaying, so you didn't make ethical choices. Additionally the "Ethics" consisted of "Give coins to a beggar?" or "Don't bother chasing fleeing monsters?" or "Don't flee battles?". Not like it was any real ethical choice.
      6. It wasn't free form interactive conversations, it was keyword driven responses.
      7. Considering that Atari games only came in boxes, I think it's safe to say that the bit about boxes is dead wrong.
      8. I strongly suspect he wasn't the first one to use the word "Shard" since databases were quite common.
      9. Selective Multiplayer is quite common.
      10. There's 0 evidence provided that there's any connection to Ready Player One's character.

      Respectfully, please research articles prior to writing them. Most of this stuff is available even on Wikipedia.
    1. darjr's Avatar
      darjr -
      Shard I do think is their invention. There were databases but I never heard of sharding until more recent times. But I could have just missed it. Also as far as I know there isn’t a competing alternate origin story for the term.
    1. Nostalgia Ward's Avatar
      Nostalgia Ward -
      Cline based Halliday on Willy Wonka, only with video games and 80s pop culture instead of chocolate, according to an interview with Audible when "Armada" came out. The interview was part of the audio book release. The connection between Garriott is an interesting idea and I enjoyed the piece.I wrote an entire series about Cline and RPO leading up to the movie release, so it's nice to see in-depth stuff like this.
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Rygar View Post
      5. You didn't test players ethics, you had a set of specific actions you had to take. There was no real roleplaying, so you didn't make ethical choices. Additionally the "Ethics" consisted of "Give coins to a beggar?" or "Don't bother chasing fleeing monsters?" or "Don't flee battles?". Not like it was any real ethical choice.
      I can mostly agree with your other points, but this is not how I recall it.
      In Ultima IV your task was to become the embodiment of eight virtues, thus becoming the 'Avatar'. This was far from easy since you often had to make choices that were in accordance with one of your virtues but conflicted with another.

      It's also patently wrong that there was 'no real roleplaying'. In fact there's hardly any CRPG on the market that features better roleplaying. Most modern CRPGs reduce 'roleplaying' to multiple choice dialogs. Ultima however, as you correctly pointed out, allowed you to talk about whatever topics you wanted by entering keywords.
      And 'real ethical choices'? Well, apart from 'This War of Mine' I don't know of any example for this. It's something that's even rare for pen & paper RPGs.
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Rygar View Post
      Another article with a lot of research problems.

      1. He didn't write the first CRPGs, The Dungeon was the first in 1974 or 1975
      2. He didn't invent MMORPG's. Neverwinter Nights on AOL, and several others, predated Ultima Online by years.
      3. Tile graphics were introduced in 1976 in Sega's Blockade arcade game
      4. He didn't create Avatars based on personality tests, you chose classes, and there was no actual roleplaying. The questions were basically "Pick one of these three virtues" not a personality test.
      5. You didn't test players ethics, you had a set of specific actions you had to take. There was no real roleplaying, so you didn't make ethical choices. Additionally the "Ethics" consisted of "Give coins to a beggar?" or "Don't bother chasing fleeing monsters?" or "Don't flee battles?". Not like it was any real ethical choice.
      6. It wasn't free form interactive conversations, it was keyword driven responses.
      7. Considering that Atari games only came in boxes, I think it's safe to say that the bit about boxes is dead wrong.
      8. I strongly suspect he wasn't the first one to use the word "Shard" since databases were quite common.
      9. Selective Multiplayer is quite common.
      10. There's 0 evidence provided that there's any connection to Ready Player One's character.

      Respectfully, please research articles prior to writing them. Most of this stuff is available even on Wikipedia.
      1-9: Richard Garriott disagrees with you. That doesn't make it true of course, but those claims are made by Garriott himself (that graphic is directly from his web site): https://richardgarriott.com/gaming/
      10: You're right, this stuff is available on Wikipedia: "James Donovan Halliday a.k.a. Anorak: creator of OASIS. A big fan of 1980s culture, he announces in his will his plans to leave his entire fortune to whoever can find his Easter egg that he had hidden in OASIS. His character was initially inspired by Willy Wonka who Cline described as a "rich eccentric holding a fantastic contest". Cline used the personalities of Howard Hughes and Richard Garriott, and placed Halliday's birth year around the same as his own so that his pop culture interests would coincide with Cline's "and the other middle-aged uber geeks I know".[10][9]"

    1. jaycrockett -
      To me Halliday seemed to be a Steve Wozniak analogue, in contrast to his partner's Jobs-like business acumen. I'm sure it was an blend of a lot of different people.

      While Garriott is definitely known for self promotion and this article is a bit of a stretch, don't sell him too short. He was a pioneer for his time. And the term shard did originate from Ultima Online, at least for MMO's. It's a reference to the villain Mondain's shattering the Gem of Immortality, creating mulitple copies of the Ultima universe.
    1. Phasestar's Avatar
      Phasestar -
      Interesting article - I definitely thought of Wozniak, Garriott and a bit of Hughes when I read the book.
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      Quote Originally Posted by Allen Schwarz View Post
      I have it. Played it for a few hours. It's difficult to get into and the controls are awkward (IMHO.) And this is from a huge fan of the old Ultima games; played them all when I was a kid.
      So, I've played through character creation and the first location. Just took the boat to the second location. I won't say anymore because of spoilers.

      I have to agree with Schwarz. I want to like it because I'm looking for a multi-player fantasy game to play with my kids. I like the story so far. But I'm just not a fan of using keyboard and mouse. I don't like having to remember all of the keyboard shortcuts. For something I want to do to relax, I don't want to bother with the learning curve.

      I would much prefer support for a game controller. Also, on my computer it is very glitchy when moving around. Moving and combat is not fluid at all. It may be my computer is not up to snuff, but if Skyrim plays smoothly on it, I would think this should as well.

      I doubt I will buy the game unless it comes out for a console with much better performance and a more pleasant, controller-based interface.

      After games like Skyrim, Witcher III, and Legends of Zelda: Call of the Wild, I just don't see why I would play this game.
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