At GDC this year, we got the chance to talk with Richard Garriott about Shroud of the Avatar and the progress being made on the project. He showed us some prototype gameplay video which was very strong and gave us a good sense of the philosophy behind the game. Richard sites Ultima 4, Ultima 7, and Ultima Online as some of his highest achievements in creating RPGs. With Shroud of the Avatar he is setting out to create a game that meets or exceeds those three on multiple levels.
He started out by saying that Shroud is not just an MMO and not just a solo game; it falls somewhere in the middle. That is a trend we are seeing with a lot of games coming out over the next few years. Richard explained that Shroud leverages your friends list and the power of social media so that you can connect in with your friends as well as their friends to build on a large group of people. This allows for groups to form up in both PVE and PvP scenarios without complete strangers getting involved in your game. The only thing this system does not support too well is large scale raids. However, we talked a lot about Ultima Online and the sandbox effect it had, which is something many MMOs are returning to.
The prototype we saw had two scalable maps. The first has your character as a large sort of Paul Bunyan type of avatar which can be used to explore the greater map world, similar to RPGs of old. If you see encounters on the map like dragons flying over or goblin camps, you can interact with them to start the encounters. The large scale map is there really for exploration and to support players who have less time to explore than the other players running around on the more direct map interface. The second map is your typical 3rd person view of the game which allows you to run around in towns, camps, dungeons, or even the open areas. Keep in mind that everything we saw was a playable prototype and changes can occur as development continues.
Richard next went into real estate and how he wants players to get housing. He also wants to support crafting (more on that later), as well as the old school player vendors. So if you own a house, they will be contained in towns, you can put vendors out front for people to interact with. This system is truly a throw back to UO for players who only did crafting and not much adventuring. He wants to have the whole system supported in Shroud of the Avatar. Because of this, real estate will definitely be at a premium.
Next we talked about Ultima 7 as the true single player sandbox. Richard wants to make sure that the multiplayer sandbox effect is felt in Shroud. His team is working very hard on balancing the story lines to make sure every player gets the single hero impact as well as the multiplayer experience. Because the multiplayer supports friend lists and you will be playing with many people you know, Richard is putting a lot of the discovery of skills and game mechanics into the game. So information, skills, and even emotes can be discovered by players, but they can also be taught by players who have discovered them. No hand-holding here.
Quests are another big part of Shroud. They want to make sure you are not just doing boring kill ten monster quests. They also do not want you to get overwhelmed with quest text just by talking to an NPC. So the quest system is built into the world itself. If you see wolves attacking the farm, you can fight them off and learn more from there. You have a quest journal which remembers everything for you. This way you can always reference things when needed. Also while you are doing quests, Richard promised that there are Ultima-like virtues in the game. Players may not realize they are being tested, but there are consequences to every action you take. One more point: the game has a day/night cycle. It definitely gets more dangerous to venture out into the open during the nighttime.
So the big question comes in the form of PvP, as Ultima Online is one of the most hardcore PvP systems ever seen in MMOs. Yes, there will be PvP in the game. However, there are zones that are scaled to it. So early on in the zones you adventure you will not be able to kill each other. As you reach the mid-level areas there will be story driven PvP which will send players out after different objectives.
The dynamics are there but it is still relatively safe to journey around. Once you reach into some of the higher level zones you will not be safe. Richard feels very strongly about certain parts of the game making players take a risk to achieve. So some of the high zones may be dangerous, but the rewards will be worth it. He still stands strong about making sure there is a sense of fairness, but he wants players to accept the danger and go forth into the high zones reaping great rewards from them.
So when does Shroud come out? Richard said that they are working hard to develop the core alpha build now and the version we got to see was only a prototype. However, it looked really strong and we wanted to play it right away. Following the philosophy many other developers are working with these days, Richard is aiming for the first episode to launch in the fall or year end of 2014. Again this is subject to change, but the team is making strides every day. This first episode will be followed up by four more making it a total of five episodes for the game. Think of an episode as a full-on game in and of itself. Looking forward to more in the near future as Richard will join us for some live interviews this week!