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Concerns Worthy of Note

Red Thomas Posted:
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Those who have read my articles about Shroud of the Avatar likely know that I’m a fan of the project.  I’m a backer...  well, twice a backer since I actually have two accounts.  I’ve been a Richard Garriott fan for decades, and have an enormous respect for the magic that happens when he teams up with someone like Starr Long.

Nothing and no one is perfect though, so I thought it might be a good idea to set my fandom aside for bit and take a critical look at Richard’s new work.  If nothing is perfect, then there must be some flaws or challenges worthy of conversing about.  Besides, it’s through examining the imperfections that we sometimes come to truly appreciate art and all its true complexity.  As their 10th release approaches, it might be a good time to take that sort of look at Shroud.

A Saturated Market

There’s no escaping the fact that Portalarium is building a game in an incredibly saturated market.  It’s a conversation that’s come up more than once during my periodic visits to Austin, and it’s something the team up there is well aware of.  This point is actually sort of a positive and a negative for the developing game, though.

It’s a negative because they’re competing for a share of this genre’s market against a host of other games.  EverQuest Next is on the horizon along with the US release of ArcheAgeWorld of Warcraft is still running strong in the market with their pending expansion.  Also, games like Elder Scrolls Online and Final Fantasy are recent enough on the field to attract their share of potential customers, cutting the pie chart into even finer wedges.

Just like with Ultima Online, Shroud will have competitors in the market.

Besides the fight over a new share of the market, I see some potential problems with general burn-out.  We’ve had over a decade of rank stagnation when it comes to fantasy MMOs, and I think the strong showing from games like Wildstar and Star Citizen are in large part due to the community’s desire to see something new and unique.

The other side of the same coin is that as much of a challenge as it may be, this could be an equally great time for Richard Garriott to step into the spotlight.  Several members of his current team worked at Origin where they defined sandbox games with Ultima Online, and the once vocal minority who enjoyed those sorts of games have seen an increase in their numbers over the last several years.  With more games helping to generate a widening player-base, a standout game could attract a fairly sizable following in short order.

I think the rash of fantasy MMOs and associated burnout have been due to the lack of originality.  WoW is pretty much EverQuest with updated graphics and simplified gameplay, ESO is Skyrim: With Friends, and no one has really stepped out to do something different and new on the triple-A scale in quite a while.  That’s pulled a decent number of converts from the heretical teachings of theme-park MMOs, and could be good news for Portalarium and Shroud.

Strange Combat

A go big or go home moment for the SotA team came when they decided on how they wanted to handle combat.  I’m still a little on the fence on this one, though I really do like that they’re stepping a mile away from the norm and doing something different.  The idea of using a card-based combat system isn’t completely new, but it’s fairly foreign to the vast majority of their targeted audience.  Additionally, the new system creates a ton of opportunity to do completely different things with the mechanics.

True, you haven’t seen anything like this in any other game, and Richard Garriott is very well known for inventing crazy new ways to do things, just as Starr Long is known for figuring out how to implement them when most people would have quit and gone home.  This is precisely the bravery and creativity that we’ve needed for a very long time, and I have an immense respect for guys that’ll swing for the fences like that.

Cards (also called Runes) are foundational aspect of combat in Shroud of the Avatar.

There’s a reason for all the stagnation we’ve suffered from up until now, though.  Big publishers invest a lot of money in trying to figure out the best way to make as many people happy as possible.  If they’re doing something or not doing something, it’s because they’ve invested a lot of money in determining if it’s a good idea or not.  Big changes are historically proven to be risky.  It’s possible this is too big a shift from the norm and could feel a little disjointed to some players, which is why most big publishers would likely avoid it.

It’s also possible there could be balance issues with this form of combat, and that could be frustrating to some players.  There is some luck involved in getting the cards you want when you want them, so I could see how losing due to a series of bad draws might turn some players away from the game.  Plus, not being able to memorize which keys to hit in order to perform a given attack may create some frustration as players constantly have to look down to see what attacks they have available on which keys at any given time.

Skills and Trees

Out of all the decisions they’ve made with SotA, I’m most torn over the game not using a skill-based system.  I actually like the combat system a lot, though I worry it may not appeal to everyone.  That’s specifically why I’m as conflicted as I am about the decision to use skill trees, rather than individual skills for character progression.  The tree system fits in perfectly with the card-based combat system, and I don’t think there would be a skills-based way to duplicate it very well.

The problem is that I really fell in love with skills-based systems back in UO, and I’ve just grown even fonder of it over the years.  There’s just something that feels right about getting better at a skill or attribute when you use it.  The more common alternative, the level-based system, has just never felt as immersive to me.  In real life, you rarely slay your fifteenth rat to the reverberating sound of some mystical gong and then suddenly find yourself better at blacksmithing.  Though something similar did actually happen to a cousin of mine, but we’re fairly sure at this point that it was more likely due to an aneurysm.

The Skill-Trees tie directly to the combat system, but I really liked the UO system a lot.

Sans medical maladies, the skill-based system does seem to better mirror how we improve ourselves in real life, and that’s likely the biggest reason I’ve always preferred it.  Shroud of the Avatar, as you might expect from Richard Garriott, takes neither approach.  Doing something completely different instead, players earn ability points as they play which can then be invested into skills trees to learn new abilities, increase the chances of getting a given ability in combat, or passively improve various abilities and attributes.

You could point out that since there are no levels in Shroud, the current system is more akin to the skill-based method that I prefer, but I find myself unconvinced on that point.  There are some cool mechanics with the new system, and the team works hard to make sure it all fits in with the lore of the game.  Combined with the combat, I definitely can’t say I completely dislike the skill-trees, and I do think there are some advantages, such as getting away from the grinding you find in most skill-based systems.

Final Cut

I set out last week trying to really put some extra thought into Shroud of the Avatar and find some decisions or components that I didn’t care as much for or thought might be problematic for Garriott and his team in the long run.  I’m one of those folks who feel you should never be 100% onboard with any product or idea.  Also, it’s through examining what you don’t like that you sometimes find help in defining what you do like.

Today’s look at Shroud demonstrates that happening pretty well, I think.  While I have concerns about how well received the combat system might be by new players and about the difficulties they may face if players associate SotA with the last decade and a half of rubbish, the only real gripe I personally have with the new project is the decision to use skill-trees over a skill-based system. 

When I look at it honestly, I have to admit that it’s mostly due to my having come to the point of associating a skill-based system with the freedom you find in sandbox games.  Through the examination of that specific issue, I’ve realized that it may actually be an associative property and not an entirely fair one.  Even if it is effectively the result of an unfair personal bias, it is still an important point worth noting, however.  I’m unlikely the only one to draw subconscious corollaries between skill-based progression and the freedom of sandbox-type MMOs.  Portalarium will need to be keenly aware of that potential issue and address it if they’re to protect their share of the fantasy MMORPG audience.

In the end, even when you set out to look for flaws in Richard’s new game, you have to search hard.  You could latch on to a few superficial issues like the bugs you find during alpha or preferences in artistic styles, but it’s the deeper mechanics that really make the game.  When it comes to ingenious gameplay, you can bet the developers behind Shroud of the Avatar have that in spades.  If they happen to push the envelope a little too hard, they’re also a team that listens closely to their community and has shown that they’re willing to set aside their own hubris and adapt.  And it’s pretty hard to find anything wrong with that.


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.