Starr Long

Executive Producer, Portalarium and Stellar Effect

Designer Perspective Starr Long.jpg

Starr Long has been making videogames for twenty years. Starr started his career with Richard Garriott at the legendary studio Origin Systems, where he was the Director of Ultima Online, the longest running MMO in history. In 2010, UO was inducted into the Online Game Developers Conference Hall of Fame, the first MMO to be so honored. In 2000 Starr co-founded Destination Games with the Garriott brothers, and later that year it was acquired by NCsoft. In 2008 Starr released Tabular Rasa and was named one of the Top 20 Most Influential People in the Massively Multiplayer Online Industry by Beckett Massive Online Gamer Magazine. In 2009 he joined The Walt Disney Company as an Executive Producer, where he produced the Disney Parent App for Facebook, 8 learning mini-games in Club Penguin, Club Penguin mobile 1.0, 5 Educational Game apps for iOS, and the Disney Connected Learning Platform. Starr currently is working with Richard Garriott again at Portalarium on Shroud of the Avatar and is also doing video game consulting through his company Stellar Effect.

 On getting into the game industry: I was working in live theatre in Austin (I have a degree in set/lighting/sound design) and not making very much money. I needed a steadier income, so I answered an ad in the local paper that said Origin was looking for playtesters. I have always loved games of all kinds, and I had no idea that people actually got paid to play games. I got the job and went on to project direct Ultima Online, the first large-scale success in online gaming.

On favorite games:

  • Diablo II: I have spent more time playing Diablo II than any other game. The game is very simple but incredibly deep. The item and monster generation in this game are some of the best ever. Each time I played, I found some new combination of weapon attributes or boss monster abilities. When combined with the multiplayer aspect, there are few games that can match this one. They also provided stellar support over many years on Battle.net.
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City: The immersive quality of this game was truly groundbreaking. The possibilities the designers built into the game for emergent behavior were almost limitless. Being able to solve almost every single mission in a myriad of ways (drive-by shooting versus sniper, moped versus semi, etc.) was thrilling. Just driving or flying around the game was fun. To top it all off the radio station soundtrack of 1980s tunes was a stroke of genius.
  • Rock Band: Many of my friends are musicians, and I have done lighting for many of them over the years. I have always wanted to be under the lights, and for a brief time I did get to play in a band but I was never a rock star. Rock Band made me feel like I was a rock star as much, if not more, than actually playing in a band. On top of that Rock Band was a very social game and like many others my wife and I hosted many Rock Band parties. This game, more than any other, fulfilled a fantasy, and in fact this game supplanted my previous fantasy fulfilling games: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Guitar Hero.
  • Command & Conquer: The first real time strategy game to truly leverage multiplayer. While the game only had a few units compared to recent titles, each of those units was very differentiated so strategies from session to session could vary immensely. They also nailed the luck factor through their “crates” so it was possible to come back and win even if you fell really far behind. To this day I have yet to see another RTS that you can come back from behind like this.
  • Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar: The first role-playing game where what you did in the game actually mattered. You could not just go around killing and stealing to win the game. You really had to be a good guy by following the virtues or else the game would become unwinnable: a game with a conscience if you will.
  • FTL: To me FTL represents the very best of the indie games and crowd funding. It’s an incredibly tight little game that did something very few games have accomplished: fun failure.

On game influences:

  • DOOM: This game was the first to really open my eyes to the possibilities of multiplayer games. For the first time, I truly understood how human beings were infinitely more entertaining and unpredictable than any artificial intelligence. This game, more than any other, was my inspiration for Ultima Online.
  • Diablo: Diablo showed me how an incredibly simple game mechanic in an RPG could be so captivating. The mechanics of starting up games with small groups and having that play space to yourself is what has inspired the focus on instantiated spaces in my current project.
  • Medal of Honor: To me, this game, more than any other, showed me how you could create a feeling of actually being in the middle of a war via wonderful NPC interactions. This game was the direct inspiration for our battlefields in Tabula Rasa.

On the design process: It is a highly collaborative process first of all. Many people working together come up with all the ideas that go into the game. For our ideas we play lots of games, read lots of books, and watch lots of media (film and TV). We then decide what kind of experience we want to create for the user. Then we try to figure out how we can make that experience happen. In the game I am currently working on, Tabula Rasa, our fundamental goals were to create an MMO where it feels like there is a war on all the time and where the pace is much closer to an action game even though the game is a role playing game at its core.

On starting in QA: I am most proud of the fact that I worked my way up from the very bottom of the organization to leading multimillion dollar projects. The perspective I gained from having to test broken games informed every aspect of how I make games today. My QA experience inspired my mantra: “Stable, fast, and fun: in that order.”

On Ultima Online: Ultima Online started out as the bastard child of EA/Origin. At one point they had us sitting in a hallway while they were remodeling an entire floor of the building around us. Despite the hardships, I supported my team and kept us going. The result was the first large-scale success in online subscription-based gaming. However, what made me most proud was a letter we received from a physically challenged individual who thanked us for giving him an alternate world that he could live in where he could run.

Advice to designers: Play every game you possibly can. Then analyze them carefully. Ask yourself what you would change if you could. Figure out what feature was best executed and which one was the worst executed. Finding inspiration from outside of games is extremely important. Read books, watch movies, see plays, look at art, listen to music, watch people interact with each other—there is inspiration everywhere. We take books and mark passages for directing level design. We show each other clips from films for art direction ideas. Finally, always make sure you are having fun. If you are not having fun making your game, then your customers will not have fun playing it.