In 2018, Portalarium is mostly associated with Shroud of the Avatar, the controversial multi-million dollars crowdfunded MMO / Single Player computer RPG. With all the noise it has caused, it’s easy to assume this game was Garriott’s comeback project after his long post-Tabula-Rasa hiatus.
However, before diving into the first new millennium iteration of his “Ultimate RPG” dream, Richard was strong on taking his newly founded company, “Portalarium“, into something completely different: games in social networks, and their efforts ultimately led them to partner with one of the biggest names on the scene: Zynga.
The game is now long gone… it actually never managed to have a broad public launch (although a couple of videos in youtube about hacking the game indicate it might have been shortly available to the public). Portalarium removed all information about the game from their website and killed all of its presence in social media, and it seemingly never made it past the threshold to be included on Zynga’s social games portfolio.
Still, the history of the development of this game is intertwined with Richard plans for the “Ultimate RPG”, so when examined, it is possible to imagine what Shroud of the Avatar could have been, or what a future iteration of the Ultimate RPG dream might be like.
Garriott’s return to video games with his new company Portalarium was announced on February 2010. Labeled back then as a “Social Media Company”, he intended to go back to his roots, working with “small development teams, low barriers to entry, affordable budgets for quality projects“, something completely different than his ill-ended experience with NCSoft. […]
After some initial probing of the market developing some unremarkable “casino” style games, he started disclosing his ideas for the next “Lord British project“. On February 2011, in an interview with gamesindustry.biz he would describe social games as follows […]
“Instead of having to go pay $50 up front you find it virally by friends of a friend, you don’t pay anything up front, you don’t have to install anything up front of install anything up front. You just sit down and start playing.
I think that’s the key model along with making sure the experience is designed in a light enough way and an attractive enough way to reach the broader audience. Not the millions of gamers we had with solo, not the tens of millions we had with MMOs but the hundreds of millions for social. That’s the market I’m now tapped into.”
Early 2011, he kept pushing for Social Gaming […], saying that “those who dismiss social gaming as too simple are ignoring history’s examples.”
Although Garriott acknowledged that some social games are indeed too simple, he also warned against over-complicating the issue. He mentioned Farmville as a game at the simplistic end, Cityville as over-complicated, and Frontierville as a perfect balance, and “a lot deeper than most people who aren’t paying attention are giving it credit for”.
Shortly afterward, at the SXSW 2011 event, Richard would give further details about his plans for social media games, announcing the first two titles Portalarium would be working on:
Lord British’s New Britannia (working title) will be a social networking game built around Garriott’s famous alter ego, which he wholly owns – as opposed to the Ultima universe, which Electronic Arts has the rights to.
The title is set to come out after the second quarter release of Ultimate Collector, the company’s first original game, which will take the form of a social network game paired with a television show hosted by Garriott, the pilot for which has already been shot.
The remaining of 2011 went by without any major news about the game, this is where presumably most of its development took place.
In December 2011, Portalarium at last released more info about it. […] The game was renamed to “Ultimate Collector: Garage Sale“, and was described by Garriott as being “fueled by cable television programs such as American Pickers, Pawn Stars and Storage Wars,”
“By the broadest definition, this is an unregulated multi-billion dollar industry in the real world. Ultimate Collector spans the gamut of that entire activity and is a way for treasure and bargain searching people to transfer that enthusiasm – that passion for the ultimate hunt – into the social network space.”
An avid collector in real life, Garriott wanted to convey his passion as a social game. He reported “…the game is nearing initial launch completion and will be moving into closed beta service just after the holidays.“.
Details about the game left many Ultima fans puzzled. This was something very different compared to Garriott’s previously led fantasy adventures. A popular perception among the community was this being an intermediate step to fund what they really wanted to see: Lord British’s glorious Ultimate RPG. […]
This was ultimately confirmed by Richard himself […], who said all the work they had been doing back from the casino games on 2010 was progressively building the infrastructure for the having Ultimate Collector has “the backbone of the next game,”
Ultimate Collector will come out first on Facebook in Q1 2012. A launch on iPad will follow, then browser, “executable”, Android and iPhone, Garriott told us. That’s the plan.
How Ultimate Collector tied with Ultimate RPG was further elaborated in his second part of the interview […] containing some evident big differences compared to the direction Shroud of the Avatar went.
The evolution of setting from Ultima Online to Ultmate RPG doesn’t necessarily mean 3D. Ultima Online’s isometric presentation will likely be preserved, Garriott revealed.
“All the tools we’ve been building to date, all the world building – they assume that it’s isometric. But feasibly that decision could evolve, but pretty quickly that will be set in stone in a way that you can’t change and presumably isometric.”
The interview is full of insights of Garriott vision of the project as a continuation of his efforts in social media. Considering all this, it would seem that Shroud of the Avatar is not really the planned iteration of his “Ultimate RPG” dream, but rather a result of different circumstances.
“Building a giant MMO, for example the Star Wars MMO – which I really have no idea how good, bad or otherwise that was going to be – has been an enormous amount of money and time,” Garriott said.
“If I were the investors or the publishers, it’s just scary – it’s a lot of work and it’s really scary. And that’s definitely not the way that we are intending to go even if they have great success. I hope they’re very successful – I know they’ve put a ton of work into it and I hear very good things. But that’s not the route we’re choosing.
“As soon as we have a viable game, we will immediately get it into players’ hands so that they can be a part of that creation process.
Also, on December 2011, a fan who was able to get a closer look reported some interesting information to the Ultima Codex: the game was going to go beyond a single video game experience, into an interactive integrated portal where “[…] you could for instance have a card table in your house that you click to jump to the Portalarium poker game… and when the “ultimate RPG” appears, you’ll travel to it through a moongate in your back yard […]“.
Reportedly, it is possible that the Ultimate RPG was going to be an item to acquire inside Ultimate Collector, and then you’d able to play it.
Early May 2012 a private beta was announced through it’s now long gone facebook page […]. It seemingly had a positive reception, and at least there is an account of hardcore Ultima fans having fun completing their virtual collections (One can’t help but think this was probably one of the main things Richard wanted people to be able to do).
The game continued development, getting close to an open beta around June 2012. By then players could already acquire a “Britannia Manor” inside the game […], and Origin’s fan website “Wing Commanded CIC” reported the game was full of “fun Ultima references and quotes“. Richard continued strongly advertising Ultimate Collector as a predecessor to his next project, while still being a fun game on its own.
What’s interesting about Ultimate Collector, for us it’s a stepping stone. It’s an MMO-lite in my mind. Very lite, with more what I will call classical leveraging of casual game mechanics than you will probably see in the RPG, but compared to most casual games, to most social games, it is far deeper. It is far richer as a lot more story is involved in it.
End of June 2012, Zynga announced to have partnered with a Majesco, 50 Cubes, and Portalarium. What this was about in practical terms would not be known until September 2012, when it was revealed Zynga would act as a “publisher” for the game, which was still in closed beta.
“Ultimate Collector is really three games in one,” Garriott says via press release. “It’s a collecting game where players go on a major hunt for collectibles ranging from toys, gadgets, historical weapons, novelties and famous art and display those collections in their homes. It’s a shopping game where players can visit shops and stores in our game, some of them from national retailers, to purchase items and add to their collections. And it’s a world building game that allows players to outfit a home, show off their collections to their friends, sell virtual items to other collectors and make in-game money to upgrade their house and grow it even larger.”
The game was planned to be published by Zynga in “six to eight weeks”. Garriott would later state that Zynga could be either an enemy or an ally, saying that one of the reasons why they sought the Zynga partners programs was to make use of Zynga’s social reach.
“If Portalarium has such a great game on its hands, then why turn to Zynga to (hopefully) make it a success? The answer is simple: It’s easier and less costly for a developer to side with the likes of Zynga than to spend millions upon millions of dollars trying to compete in terms of player numbers.”
Interestingly, probably as part of the pitch to get Zynga on board, something new appeared: the possibility to buy real-world items things with real-world money.
One of the cool things about the game is that it has connections to the real world. You can look up a miniature toy car’s real details by clicking on a link. That link might bring up an eBay auction for the car. You can purchase the real thing if you want. If you do so, Portalarium stands to make money through affiliate partnership deals.
A lot more details about the game and Portalarium’s intents could be found in the official press release including their new relationship with retailers
Macy’s, one of the nation’s premier retailers, and Simon and Schuster, a world publishing leader, are two national brands with stores in the game. Other retailers include music lifestyle store, Wild About Music; online antique retailer, Go Antiques; and animation art retailer, Wonderful World of Animation. More brand partners will be announced soon.
The game had a positive review by Gamezebo, where it was ranked down by its “simplistic” graphics while praised for the many different activities available.
The premise behind Ultimate Collector isn’t unlike what’s already been done in Pawn Stars: The Game, but Ultimate Collector is admittedly a much deeper experience. You don’t sit back and wait for the bargains to come in. You need to read the papers, get out there, and see what’s what.
Gamezebo also did a pretty complete walkthrough, which is really enlightening to see the mechanics of the game.
Once you’re at a garage sale, click on a box, toy chest, etc to rummage through it, looking for collectibles.
The “Buy a Collectible” tab will appear, in which you can view the item you’ve find.
By default, it will have an asking price, which will be equal to what it’s worth. On the right, there will be a box labeled “Traits”, inside of which are buttons that say “Appraise Me!”.
Some appraisals are free, and others will require energy to use. You can also use PortCash to do a full appraisal all at once, without wasting any energy.
Each time you click Appraise Me, a trait related to that collectible will appear, either decreasing the asking price, raising the value of what it’s worth, or both. There’s a Profit Meter above the Traits box that will help you keep track on how good the deal is. Once you’re satisfied, you can either choose to Buy the item, or leave it.
It would seem that, by this moment, Portalarium was basically handing over the release and operation of the game to Zynga. Pix adventures to the Portalarium offices in October 2012 reveal they were doing some minor tweaks on the game
[…] One of them was working on removing the Garage Sale text from the Ultimate Collector artwork so it looks like it’s going to have a name change. The name Ultimate Collector was apparently “borrowed” when a TV show of the same name contacted Garriott and he liked the name so much he thought he would use a variant on it.
Portalarium had some layoffs in December 2012, reportedly seeking to focus on the “Ultimate RPG”, which ultimately happened to be Shroud of the Avatar. Then the “Lord British Presents” campaign, the kickstarter, and the many other waves of additional crowdfunding happened, and then the long journey to the current state of things with a playable desktop game, distributed in a completely different way than was originally intended, and with little on it from Ultimate Collector except maybe some design choices.
Then, on April 2013, in a pretty unceremonious way, Portalarium announced the game would shut down for good without giving out any details.
It is with great sadness that we are announcing the end of Ultimate Collector. While it has always been our hope that Ultimate Collector would continue on, it is not possible any longer.
Without any official information, we can’t help but wonder why the game was taken off. What follows is a brief interview with Kenneth Kully from Ultima Codex, who was a witness to all the public history of the project.
Santiago: Hello Kenneth. Did you get to play the game? What did you think about it?
Kenneth: I did play Ultimate Collector for a while, yes; I got in on the beta and kept that access until the game was shuttered.
It struck me as very niche, I suppose; it had a lot of interesting mechanics, and had that colour pop that one expects from Facebook and mobile games. It wasn’t the most performant game; moving about the screen and interacting with things felt rather sluggish at times.
But looking at everything Richard Garriott said about Ultimate Collector — how it would form the basis for the Ultimate RPG, how the systems being devised for it would aid development on the Ultimate RPG… — it became almost a fun sport for me to play Ultimate Collector and muse upon how different systems and mechanics present in the game might be used in a fantasy RPG instead. I enjoyed seeing things that made me think about inventory systems, or merchants, or player-to-player trade.
Still, I’m not surprised that it didn’t last. It was, as noted, very niche; I happen to enjoy trolling the neighbourhood garage sales, looking for deals and hidden gems amidst the junk and worn-out eclectica, but that isn’t something that is to everybody’s taste. I’m not sure that the overall concept — essentially, that of playing as not-Richard Garriott, building up your personal home collection of weird and wonderful junk — was enough to draw a large-enough audience in.
Santiago: Do you have any idea why the game was shut down?
Kenneth: Not really, no. But I have a suspicion.
As noted previously, I think the Ultimate Collector was a bit too niche for its own good, and I expect that it struggled to bring in enough money for Zynga to consider it worthwhile. In fact, I expect that it didn’t bring in enough money. And while I’ve no evidence to support the conjecture that Zynga pressured Portalarium to shutter the game, I could see them withdrawing funding for it; I would not put such a move past them at all.
It’s also worth noting that Portalarium’s priorities shifted — rather profoundly, and rather suddenly — to the Ultimate RPG (which was later revealed to us as Shroud of the Avatar) . Moreover, it’s worth noting that the platform on which the Ultimate RPG was to be released changed rather unexpectedly just before Ultimate Collector was shut down; Richard Garriott spent two years (roughly) touting it as a social game which would heavily leverage the friends graph, and then all of a sudden was there on Twitter confirming that it would be a cross-platform desktop title.
And it just so happens that this was also a time when web-based games were losing significant ground to mobile games.
Taking all this together, my suspicion is that a “perfect storm” of circumstances forced Portalarium’s hand. The under-performance of Ultimate Collector, coupled with the diminishment of Facebook as a powerhouse platform for gaming, had left Portalarium in a bad state by early 2013; some estimates I’ve heard suggest that at the time of the Shroud of the Avatar Kickstarter, the company had enough cash on hand to keep the doors open another three months or so…at most. So, the Ultimate RPG was re-thought, and re-designed as a desktop game…and then hastily pushed to Kickstarter. Meanwhile, Ultimate Collector was basically abandoned, and was closed as soon as it became apparent that Shroud would be successfully funded.
Many thanks to Ultima Codex for providing the backbone of this research, without the information contained there it would have been impossible to reconstruct the history of the project, since as I mentioned, neither Portalarium nor Zynga provide any information about the game on their official websites, and a great portion of the sites containing interviews are now long gone.
Bonus! Here’s some gameplay video of the game, enjoy it while it’s available!