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Layoffs Hit Portalarium

Red Thomas Posted:
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I was on my way to Austin for a data conference, so I reached out to Richard Garriott to see if the team had time for me to stop in and say hello.  They did and were going to be still at the office when I got to town, so it worked out.

The office had an odd vibe as I was walked in and met Starr Long.  I recognized the tired look I’ve seen in my own mirror a few times and asked what was going on as we walked back to Richard’s office.  That’s when the two let me know that just the day before they’d had to let half their team go.

Layoffs could impact new content like creatures and scenes, but they should have little impact on the enrichment of systems that already exist.

The team ramped up their production budget in anticipation of picking up new customers in the new marketing campaigns in new regions, but the numbers haven’t been at the anticipated levels.  The increased effort had the obvious impact on operating capital, and cuts needed to be made in order to balance the budget back to a more nominal level.

The bad news is that art and design teams have taken a serious hit, though Richard pointed out that they were also the teams that saw the largest pre-launch growth.  The good news is that most of the actual programmers were retained, which leaves the team resources to correct user interface and experience issues, continue work on conversations and quests, as well as continue combat updates.

I asked Starr and Richard how they felt this impacted their Kickstarter commitments, and they noted that they’ve delivered on all the development goals they expected.  Anything not delivered from the original Kickstarter has been replaced or modified as best the team could.  Richard specifically cited the custom heads promised to some backers, which the team never found a viable solution for, from technical and cost perspectives.  Instead, backers at those levels are being offered alternative rewards.

Physical goods haven’t shipped yet, but I’ve heard from multiple sources that it’s being worked and seen proof of it myself.  I didn’t see it, but I’ve also been told Richard was even live-streaming at one point while autographing cloth maps for backers.  The waste bin full of markers gave certain corroboration.

We’ll probably see the expansion of Shroud’s bestiary slow down with the reduction in the art team, but there’s nothing to stop programmers from expanding the systems and mechanics available to existing creatures in the game.

Richard and Starr say that they believe their current challenge is marketing.  Conversion rates have been statistically encouraging, but they’re just not getting the number of new visitors they’d expected.  They’re looking through the data and working to enhance their current strategy.

Though Travian is somewhat new to the demographics they need to target for Shroud of the Avatar, they do have a very experienced marketing team with a solid success rating for other types of games.  It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there are a few targeting issues as they work to put messaging in front of the right audience for a game like Shroud.  Hopefully, they’ll adjust to the right formula and get things back on track.

Fewer artists should mean fewer new items for the cash shop. The question is what impact will that have on revenue.

In the end, I debated on writing this article.  Mostly because I didn’t find out about it in anything resembling an interview, but more like three business guys talking over a current problem.  I wasn’t completely comfortable writing about something I’d learned through that sort of conversation, but in the end, business is business.  Part of that is looking hard at failures where they happen and parsing through them.  Plus, backers that haven’t already heard should know about it in the interests of transparency.

Thus, I put hands to keyboard as soon as I got back from Austin to get this article out.  It’s not a great sign for Shroud of the Avatar, but examining the data and taking a closer look at what clearly hasn’t worked could result in a better long-term strategy.  Failure is far more educational than success, after all.  When the team gets ready to ramp up into Episode 2, issues like this will be critical to finding the correct strategy to get there.

Until this period has been resolved, I feel for those who’ve lost their jobs, but have confidence they’ll not be side-lined long.  Many of those laid off have still continued to show up to support the project while they apply for other positions.  That says a lot about how much this team cares about their product, but it says even more about the quality of people who’ve been brought on to work on the project over the years.  Those are the sort of people every employer bends over backwards for.  They’ll either go back to Port once the team works out the marketing issues, or they’ll soon be hired by another project.

Whatever the result, it’s an exemplary group of people that I’ve been proud to know and for whom I wish the best.  Everyone gets kicked down on occasion, but the exceptional don’t stay down long.  I’ve found you all to be exceptional over the years and wish you all luck going forward.


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.