The Ultimate Collector Facebook game Richard Garriott's newish company Portalarium announced today is a front to test technology that will power his new Ultimate RPG - a spiritual successor to Ultima Online.
"Ultimate Collector really is the backbone of the next game," Richard Garriott told Eurogamer.
"None of the art is the same, of course, and there are absolutely no roles in Ultimate Collector, like there will be in the next game, but the tool-suite is continuing to evolve."
Rather than develop and test all of the necessary Ultimate RPG features at once, Garriott had Portalarium make simple casino games to establish (and help fund) "fundamental" back-end tools like friends lists, buying and selling, real-money transactions and Facebook integration.
Ultimate Collector expands Portalarium's capabilities to avatars, houses, secure trading, object collection "and all these other kind of things that are more role-playing-like". But still no combat, no magic, "not the diversity of roles to play".
Ultimate Collector resembles an early Sims game, both in colourful look and in tone. Avatars scour the game world one flea market or garage sale at a time, acquiring and renovating objects to turn into valuable collections to either sell or to decorate their homes with.
"I have five vampire hunting kits, three shrunken heads, two mummies, two full-size - three actually now - skeletons in coffins. I have human hearts, a human foetus."Richard Garriott
What a strange idea, you may say. Except that for Richard Garriott, a self-confessed "sick collector", it isn't at all.
"I don't know if you know, but I am personally a big collector," he shared.
"I have collections of automatons, scientific instruments, space artefacts, natural history artefacts, fossils.
"Well I don't have any, quote, aliens," he answered, "because I'm not really sure they exist. But I do have a dungeon filled with macabre items. I have five vampire hunting kits, three shrunken heads, two mummies, two full-size - three actually now - skeletons in coffins. I have human hearts, a human foetus."
"You might call it weird; I call it fascinating."
And its that fascination Garriott hopes Ultimate Collector can encourage, because when you find objects in the game, you learn about them. Theoretically, Ultimate Collector can help you become an expert.
"If you collect fossils enough to finish all of our 12 quests in fossils, your actual expertise in fossils, truly, has gone way up," Richard Garriott explained.
"And by the way, this is true for every collector of real objects on earth. If you ask me about the history of automata, I promise you I truly am one of the world's experts on this art form called automata, which are mechanical art models.
"If you ask me about the history of scientific demonstration apparatus and 'quack' medicine apparatus, I assure you I really am one of the world's foremost people on it, because I've been a collector of it for 20 or 30 years."Richard Garriott
"If you ask me about the history of scientific demonstration apparatus and 'quack' medicine apparatus, I assure you I really am one of the world's foremost people on it, because I've been a collector of it for 20 or 30 years.
"You're not just collecting fluff," he declared. "Some of it is just things you find visually interesting. But if you collect art, you really are going to learn art history. And your appreciation for art as an object to see in the real world and as an object to collect in the game, your passion for it really will be deepened and enhanced.
"Ultimate Collector works at a level, at a depth, that all these other alter-life games don't."
Objects available in Ultimate Collector span McDonald's Happy Meal toys to plastic replicas of the 101 Dalmations dogs - something Garriott is interested in for real.
"You can build collections out of anything you like. I truly, personally happen to be a Barbie collector, of all things," Garriott also revealed.
"And you can build a Barbie collection that is all Barbies missing one arm. You can! Perfectly valid collection.
"In fact," he added, "while an individual Barbie might be worth less than normal because it's missing an arm, when you build an entire collection of 25 Barbies, all of which are missing their arm, the fact that you've managed to do that consistently across the entire collection now means its collection value has gone up.
"Do you follow my meaning?"
Aiding the notion of learning are embedded links to real-life knowledge databases. Garriott used an example of Disney animation art within Ultimate Collector, which links out to a woman who sells Disney animation art in the real world.
Ultimate Collector will also deal with real-world shops, and have them appear in 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.
Check back on Eurogamer later this week for the rest of my adventure into the eccentric mind of Richard Garriott, and to find out much more about the Ultima Online-style Ultimate RPG he's making.