During my recent trip to Austin, Starr Long and I had a chance to have one of those bigger picture conversations about the state of Shroud of the Avatar. One of the cooler points discussed was how the game has most of the major game systems built and in place, and the team is really able to start testing some of the more complex ideas they’ve had. These are the sort of subtle things that really add depth to a game.
They’ve certainly had their share of experimental ideas to this point, but the plethora of tweaks they have in mind, many of them being community inspired, can now be applied to the game with measurable results. The next few months should see the last of the major overhauls of critical game mechanics, and I think the game is starting to feel much closer to being production ready than the team would probably rather me brag on them about.
Of course, the one remaining leg of the standard Lord British milk stool of exceptional gameplay, is story. While there’s an ever-expanding amount of context and atmospheric quests in the game, the central storyline has yet to be turned on. It’s certainly had some development effort, but as Richard and Starr have said from the beginning, it won’t be turned on until the game moves beyond the early-access phase.
I’m looking at the game and thinking that day isn’t too far off, though. This next release demonstrates in many ways just how far they’ve come, and is a great example of how small tweaks of major systems produce big results.
Probably the biggest lesson learned from Ultima Online was that people want to have their own housing. The second biggest lesson was that players would rapidly turn intended wilderness into trans-Britannia suburbia in rapid order, and quickly kill some of the intended atmosphere in the process. Portalarium took a hard look at the problems created by that desire for personal space and implemented a solution.
They solved the issue by creating instanced communities, with some of them being NPC controlled and central to game plots. Far out numbering the set communities are the player-owned versions, though. It wasn’t enough, and again, there were problems inherent in the system as they roughed out the initial concept.
It would be distinctly contrary to Richard’s standards of immersion to just create a generic template for player-owned communities, or even a handful of them, and then to call it good. Up to this point, developers have been working with town owners to customize each instance, and that’s taking up a lot more time than anyone really expected or desired. Additionally, the results are set and limit future customizability without developers getting involved once again to make changes.
Now, players have the option of selecting from an expanding pool of scenes for their community, where the town owner or their personally selected representatives have access to an in-game tool that allows them to place any number of varying sized lots in any of the flat areas around the map, and then change the placement of those lots later as they desire.
That flexibility, combined with no longer needing a developer to personally work on the scene, has allowed the team to add over a hundred new towns to the map in this pass. That sounded like a lot when Starr gave me the number, but then he showed me a map with the new towns labeled. The number doesn’t hold a candle to how impressive that map looked, and all possible due to a tweak to the existing system.
Starr would want me to point out that this system isn’t final and this really is more of a proof of concept. That said, I’m pretty dang impressed with how well this “test” has been pulled off, and while it’s bound to be updated, I’d be shocked if it doesn’t replace the old way as a new standard. There is more to be done with it, though. For instance, the ability for community owners to place communal objects such as statues, street signs, and even NPC buildings hasn’t been added yet. Still, it’s enabled the map to expand at an impressive rate, and is a fantastic option for backers who want their communities in the game sooner, rather than later.
Another constant goal the folks making Shroud of the Avatar have, is to continue pushing the economy more and more into the players’ hands. This may actually be the best example of how small changes to the larger system have dramatic impacts to the game. As more crafting recipes and skills come online, the vendors stop being auto-populated with those items. A good illustration from this next release would be the pavers.
Pavers are bought by players to help dress up the courtyards and other outdoors spaces of their personal abodes. Up to this point, those pavers were seeded among various NPC vendors for purchasing. They now will be joining the long list of cosmetic set pieces players can make on their own through the in-game crafting system. Combined with the introduction of player-owned vendors, it’s just part of a larger trend in making the economy player-driven almost in its entirety.
Expect the economy to really start mattering a lot more in other ways in this pass, as well. The control points that have mostly just been for fun to this point will now start blocking access from one part of Novia to another. Starr’s been telling me about how the team has really worked to make the instances rewarding in several ways. They’re not just about making them fun, but also have worked on more tangible benefits like creating special vendors and loot options that are only available when players own those points.
Don’t worry if you get caught on the wrong side of the pass, though. The folks at Port have put in various alternative routes through those instances. It might take a little exploring, money, or possibly a certain moral flexibility, but there’s always more than one way to skin a troll. Just don’t expect choke points to be window dressing anymore, they mean something. Combined with increasingly regionalized resources, you’ll be seeing more reasons to transport goods between regions going forward.
Player-Tamed Pets and Skill Updates
Pets are tough, and that’s one of the first points Starr makes when bringing them up. He and Chris Spears will point out when the subject comes up, that pets basically amount to another source of DPS, and working out a way to make them fun without being overpowered isn’t easy. I think they’re on the right track for this release, though.
Players will have access to a new set of Taming skills. With that addition, there are a few other changes you need to know about, as well. Skills from the Tactics and Focus trees will be moved with the Taming skills over to a new tree consisting of the more strategic skills. Taming didn’t really fit well in any of the existing trees, so the guys decided to move it to a newly created one with other skills that don’t all directly contribute to combat as specific actions.
Besides the actual ability to tame animals, players will require crafted goods, further contributing to the player-centric economy. You’ll need a collar to actually tame the animal, and then a whistle to summon it. Just be sure to add the skills to your bar once you have the required items. As humorous as it was to watch that wolf eat Starr’s lunch when he forgot to, it’s not very conducive to a career as a professional critter-tamer.
There are still a few questions about how taming will work in the long term, and they’re really good ones that don’t have easy answers. For instance, should players be able to resurrect pets that have ceased to be, or should they throw off the mortal coil for good and be no more? On one hand, folks may get really attached to their pets and it’d be cool to support that level of role playing, but allowing pets to be killed for good would really contribute to a new aspect of the in-game economy.
Also, how many pets should you be able to tame or summon at a time, and should you be able to sell them to other players? They could certainly be game-breaking if not handled well, but the developers already have some systems in play that might be used to implement a cumulative effect making too many pets, or a pet way beyond a player’s ability, difficult.
However they end up solving the array of problems facing the taming of creatures, the team has a load of plans to expand the system moving forward. Again, the main system has been established, so the small tweaks from here just serve to make the system more robust and interesting. The even cooler thing about this, is that whatever they decide on will go through the crucible of community feedback, and this team has a track record of really paying attention to that feedback.
Of course, not all tweaks in this release will be small ones. The new troll is certainly on the larger side of things. The team at Portalarium continues to implement lots of new recipes, gear, and skills. Considering the size of the team, it’s really a testament to their experience and quality that everything comes together so fast, and in nice bite-sized month-long segments to boot! Just another reason why I really have enjoyed watching this game come together.