One of the most interesting things about watching the development of Shroud of the Avatar has been observing the interactions between developers and backers. I’ve seen a lot of games rolled out over the years. I’ve watched a lot of great communities develop around them. I have most definitely seen some awesome relationships created between players and developers. It’s always sort of seemed to me that guys like Matt Higby from SOE’s PlanetSide franchise were the model other developers and studios should look to for guidance on player-interaction, but I have to tell you, I think I need to change that opinion, now.
Richard Garriott, Starr Long, and the folks over at Portalarium aren’t just making changes based on community feedback, they’re going to the community for input before they even make those decisions public. Maybe it’s symptomatic of this crowd funding phenomenon, but whatever it is, I think it’s great for fans and devs both.
In the last week or so, I’ve witnessed one of the most amazing things. It started when the SotA devs posted an idea in their Dev+ forums. Starr began by laying out some data before the backers, he explained some of the financial analysis they had been doing on backer numbers, and he went on to post a graph which showed some of the gaps between which tiers people chosen when backing the game. Then the shocking bit, he told the Dev+ backers that the team had an idea for smoothing out some of those rough spots in the funding model and asked for feedback on it from the Dev+ community.
What followed was nearly 60 pages of some of the thoughtful feedback I’ve ever witnessed in a forum. Even differences of opinion between members was discussed in an amazingly dignified manner, with community members speaking civilly and showing a great deal of respect for each other, even in their disagreement. Starr and Richard have each remarked on the quality of their community a number of times to me in the past, but I guess I’d never really appreciated just how mature they are until now. The complete result of that contemplative conversation is way too complex to cover here, but let me go over some of the highlights of what resulted from it for you.
Backer Tier Adjustments and New Housing
The developers believe, and the backers agree, that one of the reasons for some of the gaps in the backer graphs has probably been due to some of the significant jumps between one tier and the next. The problem stems from the fact that a large part of the value of one tier over the next has to do with player housing choices. The idea was put forth that the limited selection of lot sizes and housing types created a lack of granularity and the team needed to space out those pledge levels a bit more evenly.
Thus, they came up with the idea to add row housing a la Venice and other period European cities to the game. The devs and Dev+ backers seem to agree that this will allow new and existing backers access to housing at a cheaper price point, as well as creating more flexibility with pledge tiers by alternating existing housing choices with additional row housing options. That means the team will be able to add new tiers to the mix as well.
If you’ve seen the pledge tiers before now, you’ll be going back to find some pretty big changes. Besides finding entry-level player housing at much more reasonable prices, you’ll notice the new Knight Marshall and Lord Marshall tiers have been added. Some might be shocked at the price tags on these tiers, but keep in mind they were created because there was a perceived gap between the tiers priced just below and just above them. Think on that, and it sort of puts things in a new perspective.
Partly based on requests from the community, and partially because Lord British enjoys periodically asking his team for the impossible, player-owned communities have just been added to Shroud of the Avatar. That’s right. You’ll be able to buy a whole town if you want to, and there are several levels available from the humble Holdfast to an entire city. Communities will be purchased as add-on items separate from backer tiers, however.
The town purchase also includes a number of really nice perks. Those who take advantage of the opportunity will have the chance to chat with devs to help design their town, picking things like which biomes they want them in, which lots are where, choice in the location in the game world, and even what to name it. Town owners will also be able to choose NPCs to populate the community, work on back stories for them, and also pick an NPC building such as an inn or smithy for the community.
While telling me a bit about how player-owned towns would work, Starr also mentioned what they were thinking price-wise. It’s actually pretty reasonable, if you think about it on a per-lot basis. Even more so if you happen to hear some of the numbers thrown around by earlier backers interested in the idea before it was really on the table. Let’s just say there were a solid number of players who were very serious about wanting to own their own communities. Besides, in his post to the Dev+ group, Starr pointed out that there will be in-game methods of acquiring player-owned communities, as well.
Stretch Goal Surprises
One of the things I was most surprised about, was at how little reaction there was to the new idea for stretch goals mentioned by Starr in his forum post. I’d like to be open about the fact that I really felt a little conflicted about what I was reading as I looked through how they were wanting to handle the new stretch goals. Richard and Starr want to give the community a chance to vote with their money on what goals they want the team to pursue. With that in mind, they’ve calculated out about how much it’ll cost to accomplish each of a series of goals, created a batch of add-on purchases related to each of the concepts, and if backers purchase enough of the add-ons to meet the goal, that additional feature gets put into the game.
It’s not that I think for a moment that these guys are anything other than sincere in their desire to create an awesome game for their community of players, and they’ve decided this is a cool way of finding out what feature players really want in the game. There’s a part of me that sort of stalls on idea and wonders how I’d feel if I bought one of the add-ons for a feature that ends up not making the cut. Then I also consider the choice involved in wanting one feature implanted in the game, while an add-on in another set is actually more interesting to me.
When Starr and I were talking about the idea, I think I may have worried him a bit with my deeply contemplative pause on the subject. I’ve had a chance to think on it since, though. After giving it a lot of thought, I think I’m okay with the idea. I just had to remind myself that I’m really just buying an add-on like any other in the store. It just happens to be that this one is tied to a batch of others that will let the team know if there’s enough interest in a particular feature to invest the extra time into working on it. It’s voting with your wallet in the truest sense, and that’s something I have no trouble supporting.
Regardless of my initial pause on the matter, the Dev+ community obviously doesn’t have a major issue with it. Nearly every complaint I’ve heard was related to what the stretch goals should be, not the system itself. Proof that while Richard Garriott delights in confounding the industry with his particular brand of genius, he does it while firmly grasping exactly what it is his fans want the entire time.
There and Back Again… With Elves
Another major announcement is that Shroud of the Avatar may have elves as a selectable player race. There are still a number of community questions on how this will actually work within the established lore of New Britania, though it’s also one of the stretch goals and could theoretically not actually happen at all. The inclusion of non-human races at all is a dramatic turn from the standard Richard Garriott games, since he last had them in Ultima III and has intentionally avoided them since. I don’t think anyone expected the chance to actually play a non-human was an option in Shroud before now, so it’ll be interesting to see how that shakes out.
Whether it’s elves, towns, or new pledge tiers, this is just barely scratching the surface of the changes in the new funding options for SotA. If you’re already a backer, not to worry, though. Starr assures me that they’ve put a lot of effort in ensuring existing backers don’t feel like they’ve lost any value out of it. Also, since the plan was vetted by the Dev+ community, you can be sure backers have had a strong say in it. If anything, Portalarium has probably increased the value of existing packages a bit, or at the very least, you now have less of a jump to move up to the next tier than you had before.
This sort of restructuring of products and sales is very common, and typically so is the community outrage at any perceived unfairness or diminished value of previously purchased items. I’ve seen it handled well and poorly in a number of games over the years, but I don’t know that any of them have compared to how smoothly this one looks to go. Once again, this sort of shows that there’s a lot of value in this style of development, where the developers are so closely tied to the community and offering this level of transparency. Though, I expect few developers would have the panache to pull it off as well as Richard Garriott and Starr Long apparently can.
I guess we, media-type folks, will just have to continue being startled from time to time as Portalarium swings for the fences with every crazy pitch of the volatile MMO market, and try not to be overly sensitive as their loyal fans smile smugly at our naiveté. It seems there’s some solid reasoning behind the commonly uttered motto, “In LB we trust.”