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A New Hope

Red Thomas Posted:
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Shroud of the Avatar has been in development for just over three years with a team only slightly smaller than their comparative budget, and they’ve been incredibly successful thanks to a solid leadership team, a small team of fantastic developers, and one of the best communities I’ve ever seen.  Shroud has been an exercise in complete contradiction of the established industry norms from their start.

The game was funded by fans, and thanks to the open development concept that the developers adopted early on, even in part built by fans.  While some ideas (like localization) haven’t worked out as well, crowd sourcing portions of the game such as combat testing and balance have been very successful.  Plus, the tight-knit community of backers have constantly gone above and beyond to support the game through staging and decorating scenes, hosting player-run quests and storylines, and even forming an in-game support network for new players.

It’s been a few months since my last chat with the team, so it’s about time we look at what they’ve been up to, and especially get an update on what backers can expect over the next quarter.  With all the core mechanics in place, the last 25% or so of the development effort should move the needle significantly on some of the outstanding issues.

Since the Wipe

Portalarium has been hard at work since this last July.  Releases 33 and 34 were mostly given over to balances after the influx of players following the final wipe.  Though, that didn’t stop the team from rolling out an enhanced food system, which is now tiered to support enhanced bonuses and effects.  The higher the tier of food, the better the bonus and longer it’ll last.

Release 35 had a continued focus on food and added more agriculture to support the new system.  Twelve growable plants were added to cover nearly every available ingredient in the game.  The team also added in additional harvestable ingredients like mushrooms and nuts, which can be gathered from the obvious pre-existing resource nodes.  The ingredients support the expanded food system, continuing the push to put more economy in the hands of players.

Release 36 introduced new damage types and matching resistances among a host of other major back-end changes.  Many creatures previously had no resistances to given types at all, meaning players really felt little impact from specializing in one school of magic over another, but that’s now changed.

The most controversial change was the tweaking of Crowns of the Obsidians, and how their effect in repairing gear has diminishing returns with each use on an item.  Crowns can be used for several things, but most importantly are used to repair the maximum durability of gear.  While they do drop in the game, the main avenue for acquiring them is through the cash shop.  It’s a really good move by the developers that may not produce much in the way of revenue for the game, but does have a major impact on encouraging the in-game player-based economy as items become harder to maintain and new player-crafted ones are needed.

They’ve accomplished all that, while also continuing to create new scenes and polish storylines.  Shroud of the Avatar has also seen the first pass at in-game regional culture, as the Perennial Coast adopts a distinctive Asian feel and the Northern and Western coastlines begin to see more Nordic influences.  Buildings are beginning to become more regionally distinct, and NPCs in those regions are more culturally attired.

New scenes like the Midras Ruins continue to be added in each pass.

Economic Indicators

There are more than enough updates over the past few months to talk about all day, but what can we expect over the next quarter?  Starr let me take a peek at what the team has in mind for Shroud of the Avatar over the next three months, and I saw the word “crafting” appear a lot.  I’m a huge fan of crafting in MMOs, so you can be sure it got my attention.

Enchanting and masterwork level will start having a greater impact on end results.  Skill levels will improve the chances of a successful outcomes, and improve the stat increases and even number of available effects.  The effects of enchanting and master-worked items will also increase proportional to the number of already applied enhancements, which should help make those additional attempts worth the risk of breaking the item.  Grandmasters will also have a chance at improving the maximum durability of items, yet another way crafting-focused players will have meaningful impact on the game.

The next quarter should also see updates to crafting that create more visual diversity in how weapons and armor look, as well.  Molds will drop from NPCs, allowing players to craft gear inspired by Elven, Kobold, Norgard, and Obsidian styles.  It’s a system with potential for easily adding styles later, as well.  The visual variety should significantly help player diversity, and is another layered improvement for the player-based economy.

New molds will allow crafters to create distinct items, helping in-game gear diversity and supporting personal styles a great deal.

Fishing, brewing, and additional agriculture updates will also be coming out over the next few months, so don’t think crafting updates are restricted to just gear.  Knowing the Portalarium team, we’ll see other crafting improvements beyond what Starr says they have planned, too.  The planned improvements often create opportunities to enhance other features or components of crafting, which are often easier to pick up due to programmers already being in that portion of the code or database.

Story and Character

The next quarter should see the finishing touches to the Path of Love storyline, and the Paths of Courage and Truth will start seeing some work.  As those storylines get attention, the work will spawn passes on NPC dialogue in those regions and generate general improvements to regional cultures.  Storyline updates are more than just dialogue, as additional clothing, buildings, and even entire scenes are created and updated in support of them.

In addition to story-driven development, other characters in the game world will see some improvements.  Citizens of the Perennial Coast will have updated Asian-influenced clothing and guards will be updated with multiple types of armor based on position and function.  A similar pass will be made over the peoples of Norgard and Verdantis later in the quarter, and players should start seeing more Viking-inspired culture in those regions.  In particular, backers will start seeing a difference in how nobility, merchants, the general citizenry, and guards dress according to their respective stations and regions.

New region-specific clothing will start giving Novia a sense of depth and history.

Of course, player-owned towns and player housing will get a number of updates, as well.  Those updates will include things like new housing themes based off the Asian and Nordic cultures being expanded upon while updating the storylines in those regions.  NPC buildings and player-owned buildings are often the same thing.  Then, you can expect new housing decorations as more themed items are rolled out to support the cultural overhaul.

If you’ve wanted your own living space, but haven’t wanted to bother with lot deeds, you’ll soon be able to rent individual rooms.  I wasn’t aware of a driving desire for Airbnb in Novia, but Starr tells me that there’s been a lot of chatter about it amongst backers, so they’re working to implement a more robust lock system in the game to support sub-lets.

A few new creatures, like the clockwork dragon, should be introduced over the next few months to round out the Novian beastiary.  Also, NPC dialogue will get some help as a new chat system comes online.  Guild alliances, improved UI, new scenes, and plenty of additional combat updates are in the pipe, as well.

As storylines are updated, opportunities for other enhancements are created that enhance the in-game world, like NPCs meeting for Tai Chi sessions.

A Fast Quarter

Richard Garriott and Starr Long each made a comment when I spoke with them about how close they were to what they’d consider a commercial release of Shroud of the Avatar, with the feeling that they’ve only about 25% over the overall work left to do on the game.  It’s a significant 25%, though.  Whether simple applications or large games, the roughest part of development is often the first half. 

The interfaces and backend systems are designed, put into place, and then redesigned based on feedback.  Because so much of that is done behind the scenes, it’s sometimes difficult to explain progress to the customer, or potential customers in this case.  The pace picks up dramatically in the last portion of the project, which is when all the tools and systems created earlier make it easier to start snapping more complex systems into place.  Simple updates to a database and whole new components come online, and the bottleneck begins to form around artists instead of programmers.

Crafting recipes are becoming tradeable, and like emotes, have versions that can be shared or can only be learned from specific NPCs.

The next few months should be the beginning of a very fast-paced year for Shroud of the Avatar, though I don’t doubt there’ll be a few growing pains yet left.  I suspect the hardest part will be players used to systems that haven’t changed much since they were implemented who must now adapt to new balance updates.  Damage types and resistances completely change the way magic is used in combat, for instance.

There are a host of reasons for why the project might not have gotten this far, and the team really stepped out to define a new paradigm for development.  Very few projects have subjected themselves to working in a glass room the way these folks have, and certainly no MMOs of this size.

There are a few detractors, and certainly not all unjustified.  There’s no such thing as being right for everyone unless you make the product so generic as to be meaningless.  One thing the team has done undeniably well, and that’s their policy of keeping their blinds open to their backers and developing in the open.  The amount of control you give to feedback is up to the individual company, but I’d submit that the open development method is critical to a successful crowdfunded project of this level.

Transparency is how backers know their money is being used responsibly, and Portalarium has done a good job of keeping their community aware of what precisely they’ve been working on every step of the way.  Even for those of us who tend to have better access to these projects, it’s been far more open than most, and I’ve certainly learned a lot from covering them.  Hopefully you have too, and are as excited to see what they do next as I am.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.