Shroud of the Avatar. Courtesy of Starr Long


The Not-Quite Gaming Capital: Austin’s Role in Modern Gaming

The roots are deep for the city’s video game design industry

By Rob Preliasco





In addition to vaunted music and technology scenes, Austin can also claim to be the cradle of modern video game design. While the city hosts dozens of smaller and independent companies working on games and gaming technology, not to mention extension offices of heavy hitters like Blizzard, BioWare and EA, less well-known is the fact that much of the way that games are played and designed originated in Austin.

It all goes back to Richard Garriott’s Origin Systems. The company’s classic Ultima series of action role playing games (RPGs) brought the character-building elements of tabletop and pen-and-paper games like Dungeons & Dragons to video games. If you’re playing a game in which you choose traits and skills for your character, you can draw a direct line back to the Ultima series. Ultima Underworld was the first game in true 3D and Origin’s Wing Commander series set new standards for graphics. 1997’s Ultima Online was the first successful MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) and is still being played today.

Origin Systems had been started in the Garriott family garage before Richard, with his brother Robert, formally moved it to Austin in 1983, becoming the only computer gaming company for 1,000 miles. “We immediately began to have a huge amount of success, especially in the areas of finding great people to make games, and great leaders to lead games,” remembers Garriott.

One of those hires was Warren Spector. “Austin’s kind of the archetypal creative place,” Spector explains. “You have the perfect storm of locations to make games, which combine elements of tech, music, movies, writing and so on. All those elements still exist here, which is why Austin is still a center of game development matched by only a handful of locations around the world.”

Richard Garriott at SXSW 2013. Photo by Bobby Longoria/Getty Images

Richard Garriott at SXSW 2013. Photo by Bobby Longoria/Getty Images


At Origin, Garriott hired local writers, artists and musicians, including Spoon’s Britt Daniel. “In the very early ’80s, there were no such thing as computer artists,” Garriott said. “But there was already in Austin this great arts scene largely built around the music industry … the people who would make concert posters for Armadillo World Headquarters and things like that. They became the first generation of computer artists.”

Starr Long, who started with Origin as a playtester and quickly rose to become the director and manager behind Ultima Online, remembers Origin as hard-working and inventive. “It was still very early in the game industry, so it was total and constant invention of everything,” Long says. “Right now, when you want to make a game you have all these options: if you need a game engine you use Unity or Unreal, if you need assets you can buy assets in the Unreal assets store … back then you had to invent everything. Imagine trying to make a movie and having to invent a camera first.”

As often happens to developers, Origin’s relationship with its parent company soured, and it was closed. Though seemingly disastrous, events like this have a flip side for Austin’s gaming industry, as talented developers often head to other companies or start their own. Spector ended up at Looking Glass Studios and then Ion Storm, both of which had offices in Austin and created seminal games. His magnum opus Deus Ex revolutionized player choice in action games. Garriott went on to co-found Destination Games and then Portalarium, bringing Long and many other Origin collaborators.

"Back then you had to invent everything. Imagine trying to make a movie and having to invent a camera first.”

This is currently a binge time, with the city hosting the likes of Certain Affinity (which has worked on Left 4 Dead and Call of Duty), the U.S. office of France’s Arkane Studios (Prey and Dishonored) and companies like Alchemy and Virtuix that are leaders in VR development. Long and Garriott are particularly excited for Crowfall, an upcoming PvP RPG from ArtCraft Entertainment.

Portalarium is about to release Shroud of the Avatar, a crowd-funded successor to Ultima. The game features an innovative hybrid of single player and online modes, letting players choose their level of interaction with the wider community. Meanwhile, Spector is at work at OtherSide Entertainment on Underworld Ascendant, which also carries on the Ultima legacy.

“[Austin gaming has] become a monster,” Garriott said. “The skill demands have gone way up, but the opportunities are still very high… once you’re in the door of a gaming company, and they know you have skill, you can do anything.”

It's Here! Shroud of the Avatar and What's Coming Next at SXSW Gaming 2018. Watch below:

Shroud of the Avatar. Courtesy of Starr Long

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