Gamespot’s Desslock has posted an interview with Richard “I’m Lord British and I gots the castles to prove it” Garriott. Most of the interview focuses on the upcoming Ultima IX: Ascension but some space is given to Origin’s future direction;

Desslock: After initial teething problems, you’ve had great success with Ultima Online, and Origin has indicated that it is now going to focus solely on online games after Ultima: Ascension. Since Ultima: Ascension is going to be the last single player Ultima (and Origin) product, at least for the time being, what does the future hold for the Ultima series?

Richard Garriott: Yeah, Origin is 100 percent committed to capitalizing on the leadership position that we now have within massively multi-player online gaming. I have a personal drive to be a storyteller, which is a lot easier to do in single player games than it is in massively multi-player games. In fact, our storytelling in Ultima Online is negligible, but in Ultima IX, the whole point of the game is to tell a story. We really believe that one of the reasons why Ultima Online has had its success is because the single player Ultimas created this rich fictional backdrop for the world. So in fact we need to be able to do the same sort of storytelling in a massively multiplayer game that we can do for single player games.

We have 130,000 subscribers of Ultima Online now and we’re gaining about 500 per week and have been as long as we’ve been operating the service. Ultima Online is now the most profitable and highest revenue generating PC product in Origin’s and Electronic Art’s history — that’s how important the online market is financially for our companies. We want to drive up to about a million subscribers by bringing in additional Ultima, Wing Commander and battlefield games and new properties in the online space. Our mission is to get that level of activity done before we consider doing other single player games. But interestingly, if you’d asked me this question about six months ago I actually would have said I don’t know how to tell the sort of compelling stories that I tell in the lineage Ultimas in massively multi-player settings. However, over the last few months, as we’re wrapping up here on Ultima IX and we’re beginning to get our thinking hats on to start talking about how can we best apply our storytelling skills in multi-player environments, we actually believe we now have the answer to that question. We think that we can create what you might consider a hybrid game, which is a place where people have a persistent life where they can collect treasures, socialize with other people and go on adventures either on their own or with groups of people –and that those experiences can be orchestrated in such a way that they are just as compelling as a “Quest of the Avatar” style mission in a single player game. If we can pull that off I actually think that it’s a win-win for everybody in the sense that we can put the best of both worlds together and really create the ultimate virtual world entertainment experience.

Desslock: That’s interesting. Ultima Online wasn’t the first massively multi-player online game but, when launched, it certainly was the most ambitious and it brought the online industry to the forefront of gaming. Now that the genre’s matured a bit, worthwhile competitors are starting to arrive. EverQuest has been released and it’s doing well. Asheron’s Call, by Turbine and Microsoft is on the horizon. How is Ultima Online going to respond to this competition?

Richard Garriott: It’s interesting that when competition finally showed up, we anticipated seeing both a slowdown in the growth rate of our service or even a downturn in subscribers. And in fact, interestingly as successful as EverQuest has been, we’ve continued to add 500 subscribers per week. We did see a brief diminishing in the number of hours per day that people were playing the service, probably because people were playing both. However, fundamentally EverQuest hasn’t affected us really much at all. Which is the same result that games before Ultima Online, such as Meridian 59, noticed — new products have generally not diminished the market for previous ones.

The good news is that means our market is really growing and we haven’t even come close to tapping the potential massively multi-player audience yet. For Origin that’s particularly good news because we already have a highly profitable service at 130,000 subscribers. While of course we’re extremely proud of Ultima Online, we also realize it’s just a first baby step and there’s just so many things that we will do differently in our follow-up products that we’re confident we can attract many more people per product with our future releases.