Welcome to My Dungeon
That's what Richard Garriott, 30, imagined before his knack for creating state-of-the-art computer games, including the wildly popular Ultima series, made him rich enough to turn his dream home into reality in 1987. Built on a three-acre hilltop outside Austin, Tex., the 4,500-square-foot puzzle palace, where he lives alone, is packed with his extensive collection of scientific and primitive artifacts. It also boasts a state-of-the-art stereo system, an indoor swimming pool with artificial rain effects and a collection of esoterica that includes a gorilla skull, a stuffed cobra and a human skeleton. The latter, which Garriott has dubbed Pedro, once belonged to migrant Mexican farmworker, explains Garriott. Holding up one of Pedro's bony hands, Garriott says, "See? He had arthritis!"
Garriott's penchant for the unconventional also extends into his backyard, which is equipped with a trampoline, dirt bikes and a 1,150-foot-long suspension bridge that leads over a canyon to an observation tower. Garriott, a bachelor, hopes to add an amusement park-size train that will carry people around the property.
The only things missing from Garriot's giant playpen are computers. Those, he says, are strictly for the office.
The larkish spirit of the house befits a man who has made his fortune designing devilishly sophisticated computer games. The son of space-shuttle engineer Owen Garriott, who flew aboard Columbia in 1983, Richard was in high school near Houston when he designed his first computer game, a brainteaser called Akalabeth. He developed his second, Ultima, while studying electrical engineering at the University of Texas. Both games are set in a medieval fantasy world in which the main character must work his way through an elaborate universe of villains and demons. When Ultima look off, Richard quit school lo pursue his mouse-driven muse full-time. "As my income went up, my GPA went down," he says with a laugh.
Garriott's company, Origin, was born in the family garage. "I was the entire art department for the first six months," recalls Richard's mother, Helen, who is divorced from Owen and now works as a public-school art teacher in Enid, Okla. In 1983, Garriott incorporated with his brother Robert, now 36, an M.B.A. from the Sloan School of Management at MIT, who helps him run what has since grown into a $14 million-a-year business. These days Origin is housed in a 23,000-square-foot building in Austin, where some 140 employees help to produce several computer games, including the Ultima series, now in its seventh generation.
Though Origin's headquarters will never be mistaken for a branch of IBM, employees in both companies tend to emulate their bosses. Garriott, who sports a ponytail and drives a Mitsubishi 3000 GTVR4, usually shows up for work in black jeans and cowboy shirts. Among youthful staff members, shorts and T-shirts are the rule; a few even go barefoot. When things get too tense on the job, Garriott has been known to lake his staff out for an afternoon of bungee jumping.
Perpetual adolescence has its practical advantages. "It is his playful, little-boy attitude that has enabled him to be so successful," says Richard's mother. "He couldn't write these games without that sense of fantasy. But he is also a perfectionist."
Meanwhile, Garriott seems determined to keep pushing the farfetched frontiers of original fun. His newest high-tech diversion is virtual reality, an experimental process whereby a participant dons special goggles and gloves to enter a three-dimensional, interactive world. The only possible hitch is that people might enjoy themselves so much that they'll never want to come back to ordinary reality. "It does have the potential for creating a situation where there would be no incentive to ever end the game session," Garriott admits. "When the simulation becomes so good that you have to disconnect the machine to eat or you'll die, you've gone too far."
ANNE MAIER in Austin