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Release 12: Undiscovered Country

Red Thomas Posted:
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There are actually a couple reasons for my selecting the above title this month, as Shroud of the Avatar stretches in new directions.  The big news being that you’ll be able to purchase Shroud from your Steam account starting on 24th of November, but there’s a lot more to this release than just how you can get involved with it.  New scenes and lots of additional content will provide even existing backers some new feel to the game.

I gave Executive Producer Starr Long a call to get the specifics, and I’m finding myself more and more excited about Shroud.  From a player standpoint, and as a fan, the game is really starting to fill out.  From the point of view of a guy who writes about games and looks at the business side of it a bit more, I think there have been some very intelligent decisions made to this point that are really shining through in this release.

Getting Steamed

I’m really excited to see that the guys decided to offer their game via Steam.  I think it advertises the game well, and creates a potential to pull from a new audience that they would have missed otherwise.  I’ll grant you that there may be some risk to it.  One of the most attractive features Shroud of the Avatar has going for it, is the fantastic community surrounding and supporting it.  I think it’s fair to worry a little about what impact the influx of new players might have on the game and existing community.

Portalarium makes community a critical part of their process, and it shows.

There’s potential for problems there, but I don’t have concerns that it’s a huge threat.  What I hope for, and expect to be more likely, is an infusion of family-based gamers.  For instance, I use Steam as a tool to make birthday and Christmas gifts to the  my horde of nieces and nephews, to orchestrate play sessions with them, and to help their parents a bit in monitoring the games said kiddos are playing.

With its deeply rich story and the plethora of hidden morality lessons Richard Garriott has become known for, I think Shroud has a lot of potential appeal to favorite uncles and gamer parents everywhere.  What makes the game even more family-friendly is the ability to play in offline mode and avoid all the negatives that come with any multiplayer experience.  A feature that’s particularly great for those littlest ones who want to play what Uncle Red and their older siblings are playing.

De-Curving the Learn

If I pointed out one barrier to entry for Shroud of the Avatar, it would be the initially steep learning curve.  One of the founding principles behind Shroud is that it should be as much sandbox-oriented as possible, and I’ve yet to find a true sandbox that didn’t have pretty serious problem with new player experiences.

If you’re potentially attracting in a bunch of younger players to Shroud, and who knows how many other Steam demographics that aren’t quite as hardcore as the initial audience, the new player’s introduction to the game is something you need to deal with.  With his typical penchant for stating the incredibly complex like it was simple, Starr dropped their new tutorial system on me.

There are basically two parts to the new system.  The new character will start off at the Battle of Solace Bridge, where you’ll learn the basics of equipping gear, attacking, and interacting with objects as you escape the undead assault via a moon gate.  While you progress through the rest of the game, tips with additional information will continue to pop up as you encounter new game elements for the first time.

Starr confirms that the system actually started with just the informational popups, and the new character tutorial was added when they realized they needed something more.  It still stands as another example of the experience behind this team.  You might think about taking out the old system once you have the new one, but they didn’t.  It’s a good thing, too.

One of the worst things I’ve seen an MMO do, even worse than no tutorial, is to have a tutorial that’s too long and too “complete.”  The problem is that players need at least some sense of discovery when they figure out how to do something new.  By teaching them every single thing, you take that sense of growth away from them.  Using the two systems, I believe Shroud will capture the best of both.  New players will get an initial introduction to the game that gets them going, and then still get additional vital knowledge as they progress through the game without damaging their ability to experience the reward of discovering it for themselves.

Also, in preparing for the arrival of new players to the franchise, the team has continued to add more quests to the game.  NPCs will call out to you with suggestions on where to find those who might need help, which I like a lot.  It helps you find said quests, without requiring that giant yellow punctuation marks mysteriously hover over any heads.  That always breaks immersion for me, and it’d be counter to what I expect from a Lord British game.  

By adding English subtitles beneath the runic lettering, Shroud becomes much more new-player-friendly.

What might be more controversial with the existing fan base, is the decision to include place names in English under the runic forms on the map.  I can see the potential argument that the game’s runic alphabet is easily learned and central to the experience.  That’s fair, and a completely valid point.   Frankly, I’m a bit sad at the idea of making it easier myself.  Though I’m not that upset, because I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become optional at some point.

It’s an important change though, because in order for the game to be healthy, which we all want, Shroud has to be approachable by multiple demographics beyond the initial hardcore supporters.  Younger kids, folks with reading disabilities, and all the others who just don’t have the time or desire to decrypt the runic code will find the game much easier to play now.  That’s a really good thing, because it means more new players and a higher retention rate.  More players means a better game experience for everyone.

Alien Effects

So it’s probably not a big deal to a lot of folks, but Starr mentioned something during our conversation that I found seriously cool.  Because the team has a strong relationship with the folks over at Alienware, they’ve also added in some new peripheral code to the game.  The new code ties into the lights in Alienware keyboards and cases to change them based on the character’s status.  

Being in or out of combat or near death creates a given state, and the lights change to match.  Considering Shroud’s minimalist UI, I think that’s a really cool idea.  I haven’t seen anything outside flight sims take advantage of peripherals like that before, so I’m really excited to see how well it works.  I’ve been told that those who’d like to try dancing will be in for a particularly cool show.

Even without the new peripheral effects being dead is certainly a bit more obvious in this release.

Alienware has done a lot to support the project through hardware and the like, I think.  It’s not something that I ever really talk about with the guys, but their use of the Alienware systems at tradeshows and conventions is good advertising for both companies.  It’s not surprising, and rather cool, that the guys would also demonstrate their appreciation by using the Alienware APIs to create some neat effects for the game.  

I really like seeing simple things like that done as a thank you, because it strikes me as being particularly classy.  It’s also amazing to see them actually use something like that as a game-design element.  I’m sure other games have done something similar, but this is the first time I’ve seen it used this well in an MMO.  Once again, Richard, Starr, and team do something quietly cutting edge and understated.  Very classy indeed, gentlemen.

Greater Depth

As they expand the skill and advancement systems, the game continues to gain a great deal of depth in this release.  This pass will finally include trainers for combat skills.  You’ll see just basic trainers for combat vs magic initially, but Starr tells me the plan is to eventually have a much more robust set of trainers.  In future releases, you can expect to find lots of trainers added that focused on specific skill trees and some highest-tier skills will be isolated to single trainers.

The plan is to create a situation where players will need to travel to remote locations and actually find the master of a given craft to learn rare skills.  The team at Portalarium also want to use their unique quest system as part of the process of gaining access to these skills, though I hesitate to actually refer to it as that.  When you hear “quests,” your mind gets this idea of killing a set number of rats.  At least mine does, but Starr says this will be different.

Starr gave the example of the fire elemental skill during our conversation.  The player will need to track down that one master of elemental fire magic, but that master may be unwilling to teach the unworthy.  The player might be asked to go meditate at a volcano, defeat a series of related elementals, or complete some other task to demonstrate their understanding of fire.  

Sure, if you just want to blow right through it, that option will probably be there.  But these guys are trying to ensure the rare trials like this have meaning and significance to the game, rather than being generic time-wasters like you find in some other games.  For role-players, and those who care more about immersion, I expect you’ll find a difference in the depth and story around these “quests.”

Along with skill advancement tweaks and an expanded polearm skill tree, work continues with the combo system.  Last month they included some basic weapon-based combos.  You’ll see more combinations that work to blend some form of magic and a combat ability into a more powerful maneuver.  Using the Flame Fist and Thrust abilities might create a smoldering wound on a target and do some damage over time, for instance.

The sweltering swamps around the Tower of the Shuttered Eye are home to some of the rarest reagents.

New scenes are making their way into the game in this release, as well.  Each specific location on the map has its own unique scene, so whether you enter North Ravenswood or South, the scene will be different.  The only scenes that I believe are repeating as of now, will be the ones generated when you get ambushed while traveling, and those will be drawn from an additionally expanding pool, as well.  

Of course, that also means ambushes are supposed to be in now, though I’m not sure what your chances are of actually being caught in a random encounter.  Starr says he thinks it adds a lot more life to traveling in that over-world, which has also benefitted from some tweaks to make it more user-friendly.  I suspect he’s correct about that, and that it’ll just get better as they expand the list of potential encounters.

Ramping to Release

Portalarium has also spent time on crafting in this release, and players should find increased depth there.  Quality of materials will count when creating things from here on out.  Player-crafted armor for instance, might be made lighter than normal and give bonuses to movement.  They still have a lot more depth to add on that front, but the fact that it’s already starting to be introduced to the game says a lot about where they are in the path up to release.

With the game being added to steam, Starr says they’re moving away from the weekend-long access events and into something a little more stable.  Backers will have the chance to play nearly any time they want from here on out.  The game is still in development, so there will still be the odd character wipe and occasional down time, but it won’t be as frequent going forward.

Even a couple months ago, adding Shroud to Steam might not have been a great idea.  The type of player who’s willing to engage with developers that early in the process and work to build a better game, isn’t common.  That’s the sort of player who’s gotten the team over $5 million in funding, though.  It’s also the sort of backer that’s helped them over the earlier rough spots in the process.  I’m sure they have a few rough edges left to work on, but it’s a pretty dang impressive community that’s been there for them through the hardest of it.

New players will be logging in to a much more refined game than most would be at this point in the development cycle thanks to backers who’ve donated their time and talents to help make Shroud a reality.  It’s been impressive to watch, and I’m really looking forward to this next stage.  Stabilized by the strong and deeply rooted community that already exists around the game, I think the new influx of players is going to be really good for Shroud of the Avatar.  I also believe that because Richard Garriott’s hand is in it, you can expect the game to be good for them, as well.  


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.