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Full STEAM Ahead!

Ryahl Smith Posted:
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Disclaimer: I am a backer of the Shroud of the Avatar project.  I put up $25 as a first responder on Kickstarter.  I have since escalated this to a $45 backing using a promotion through Alienware.  I think the team at Portalarium is capable of delivering a good game and I am following its development both from my enjoyment of this team’s past work as well as the opportunity to see a crowdsourced MMO develop.

Shroud of the Avatar, along with Camelot Unleashed, Pathfinder Online, and Star Citizen represent the upcoming crop of crowdfunded MMO’s.  The Kickstarter for the project raised $1.9 million from over 22,000 backers and the project has since raised about $5 million in total crowdfunding from nearly 132,000 backers.

This is the spiritual successor to the Ultima series, with Portalarium led by none other than Origin games founder Richard Garriott.  The project has reunited Lord British with other early Ultima Online collaborators like Starr Long.

SotA has MMO attributes like a shared world, but it’s not exactly a traditional MMORPG.  Portalarium refers to it as “a third-person fantasy RPG that combines a single player narrative with a sandbox MMO.”  The game is built around a buy-to-play model, pay for the “box” (an episode of the game) and everything else can be earned with in-game gold. 

The game features a single player mode, a friends only mode, and a traditional MMORPG shared world model.  Think of it as Ultima IV met up with Ultima Online and incorporated a co-op mode.  It’s just a matter of finding the mongbats now I suppose.

The project is coming off of Release 11 of its pre-alpha and about to go live on Steam early access.  While it has previously only been available a weekend here or there, with Steam access in November, the game should go to 24-7 uptime (minus updates, patches, and all the things you would expect for an early development).  With that in mind, I thought now would be a good time to share some of my observations about the game and where it seems to be going.

World Design

Shroud of the Avatar is a world of zones, where zones are referred to as scenes.  Scenes can be open plains, dark forests, mysterious swamps, abandoned keeps, or cryptic caves.  Some scenes have instances within the instance itself with dens and hideouts permeating the environment.

These scenes can be entered in single player mode or MMO mode for now, the friends only mode is still a ways down the road.  Scenes feature an array of creatures, harvestables, and other interaction points.

Leaving a scene takes you to the overhead map.  On it, a zoomed out camera displays your avatar wandering around the map itself.  As you reach the locations of different scenes, you are prompted with the option to enter, or you can ignore the scene and continue on.  In this way, the world is easily traversable or deeply explorable as you wish.  Some locations, at least currently, are only available via portaling stones currently located in Owl’s Head, a town in the northern parts of the alpha game world.

One thing that jumps out at you early on is that this is a dark world.  I don’t mean Game of Thrones dark where everyone dies, I mean that at night it gets bleeding dark.  Carry a torch in your offhand or stumble headlong into trees. You have been warned!

The world is pretty, with a pseudo-realistic art design.  Landscapes are sweeping and caves layered.  The scenes are often designed for exploration.  A keep in the distance may have a front door with guards too strong to overcome, but a back entrance for those willing to explore around a bit.


Shroud of the Avatar is well on its way to being a crafting paradise.  In its pre-alpha state, the game promises (with more than a few realized examples) a deep, interconnected crafting system.  Food, for instance, has proteins, carbohydrates, and fats each of which influences a different resource pool.  Recipes are modeled off of real, or real-seeming procedures.

Gathering is an important part of the crafting system. Resources are available in the wild, butcherable off of game (including the critter type animals wandering about in towns), or grown on your own farms.  Some resources can only be harvested in specific states: nightshade as the name implies isn’t available in the daylight.

You couldn’t grow your own vegetables without a plot of land and housing is deep and rich in Shroud of the Avatar.  There are a variety of houses, plots of land, and decorative placements for your homes.  The most recent build featured a large (yard-sized) chess set with opposing chairs for people looking for some in-game gaming.  Shroud of the Avatar is very much hearkening back to the “living world” model of MMO’s from the first generation of titles.

Other than EVE, there hasn’t been a deep crafting system in MMO’s since Star Wars Galaxies closed shop.  While a lot of development remains ahead, the current state of crafting in SotA suggests that this will be a destination game for players seeking to launch their medieval crafting and merchanting empires.

Combat and Character Advancement

Avatar boasts “a new way to prepare and fight in an RPG by building custom decks of skills and spells in over 20 different skill trees.”  This part of the pre-alpha is where the game absolutely feels pre-alpha.  The deck system is very much a work in process concept right now. 

The game uses a level based, skill-system which exists somewhere as a hybrid between Asheron’s Call and Ultima Online without the benefit of skilling up via skill use.  Leveling up yields skill points which can then be spent freely in the various different skill trees.  The skill system is pretty wide open, build the character you want to play. 

Your choices of gear influences the effectiveness of certain skill combinations.  So, while a heavy armored, shielded, tank-mage with self-healing is feasible, there’s enough spell-fizzling and other obstacles (slugs, or dead cards) which might make this uber-combination a bit less effective than a more traditionally focused character archetype.

Currently, the combat system has three possible modes all tied to the idea of the deck building system referenced earlier.  Skill points buy glyphs (cards) which can then be added to a deck which is drawn randomly into your hotkeys.  This open deck model is the basic game design model and offers options for combinations of abilities via stacking of glyphs.

The open deck system is going to be very confusing for players of traditional MMO’s.  Further, at least in its present state, it still needs a bit of oomph and polish to make it stand out as a preferred combat model.  Wisely, SotA features a locked bar and hybrid model of combat, each of which which serve as alternatives to the open deck system.

The locked bar model is a traditional MMO hotkey system.  Choose up to eight abilities, set them up on your hotbar, use your keybinds and cooldowns exactly as you would in any modern MMO.  This is currently the default starting model for character development, which should help experienced MMO players transition easier into Avatar.

The hybrid model is simply a combination of the locked bar and open deck systems.  Using skill points, players can designate a small number of locked ability hotkeys and leave the remaining ones floating in the open-deck model.  This would, for example, allow a healer to lock in a heal and utility spell (or more) to cover a combat role while allowing the remaining buttons to float in the open deck model which enables use of the combo system. 

I used the open deck model throughout release 11, the final release prior to Steam early access.  I play a tank in MMO’s, favoring heavy armor, sword and shield, and treating subtlety as a unique and special way to smash something in the mouth.  For me, the open deck doesn’t quite feel right just yet.  Perhaps with iteration in the remaining development it will catch my fancy.  But going forwards into R12 and beyond, I plan on playing with the hybrid deck.  I’m going to lock in my taunt and shield-smash (stun) and I will let the other hotkeys float in the open-deck model.

Grand Tour

One of the interesting things the Portalarium team has done in the pre-release is the recent Grand Tours.  Starting in release 10 and repeating again in release 11, a series of tour guides occupied scenes in the realm.  Visiting all of the tour guides during a release unlocked a special, wearable reward. 

Release 10 featured visits to some of the newer scenes added in that build.  Those included the PVP arena (there is open-world PVP in Avatar, but early testing is in a pit-fighter style arena) and a Dark Elf battleground.  Tourists in that release received a one of a kind tricorner hat replete with the avatar symbol.

Release 11 repeated the tour guide model, but this time with a bit of a twist.  Where release 10 featured tour guides easily reached on zoning into a scene, the release 11 guides were hidden, locked away, and outright under attack in different scenes.  This required working your way through skeleton riddled keeps and ruins searching for passages and caves.  The reward, in the spirit of Halloween, was a tricorner hat with mask.

These Tour Guide wearables will be available in launch of the game.  This turns out to be a nice way to get testers to the new content, encourage them to interact with the new systems, and provide them with a nice in-game thank you for their efforts.  I’d offer to tip my hat to the Portalarium team, but that would require lifting up the mask.  Maybe in Release 12...

Closing Thoughts

Shroud of the Avatar will be available on Steam Early Access very soon, it’s on schedule for late November.  At that time the game is supposed to go into a persistent state.  Up through Release 11, full wipes have occurred between builds.  Once early access starts, we should see some level of persistence through possibly the beta of the game.  Steam Early Access is also most likely to hearken the end of pre-Alpha and the commencement of Alpha.

The game is very much in an early stage of development.  Character advancement is in a fledgling state, combat has a lot of rough edges, and there are many parts of the game still unseen.  Even so, the game is already showing a lot of promise.  Fans of housing should find Avatar to be a great experience and crafters are certain to find the promise of this crafting system sublime.

Shroud of the Avatar is an old-new MMO.  The Portalarium team is clearly an experienced group with members from the dawn of the genre.  Their design also provides a call back to smaller development teams and more focused design.  Avatar is new too, in that it’s a crowd-sourced MMO.  That’s not just crowdfunding, there are plenty of ideas and designs working their way into the game built by players eager to live in Lord British’s next creation.

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Ryahl Smith

Ryahl / Ryahl is a columnist for MMORPG.Com. He is also the host and primary author for Eorzea Reborn and TSWGuides. He has been playing MMO’s since 1999 and remembers when the holy trinity didn’t involve DPS. You can follow him on Twitter @EorzeaReborn or just argue with him in comments anywhere he posts.