I found it rather amusing that this is the 13th major release for Shroud of the Avatar, and that it comes after their hugely successful debut on Steam. Last month saw the game added to Steam’s list of available Early Access titles, and the results were a sweeping victory for the team at Portalarium. With a whopping 87% positive reviews, and really strong sales that put the game in the top 10 on Steam’s list of top sellers, it’s been a fantastic month for Shroud of the Avatar.
Today, we’re going to take look at what the team’s been up to over the last month, what that means for this and future releases, and I’m also going to go a little into the Steam experience from the developer’s point of view. It’s a side of Steam that we writers and players alike rarely get to see, so I think you’ll find it pretty interesting.
Coming Steam Clean
What I’ve really liked a lot about this game is that it’s in Austin and because it’s a fairly small project, Shroud of the Avatar has mostly flown under the media radar up until more recently. That’s allowed me to get a lot more personal time with developers than you would normally expect, and form a certain professional friendship with several of the folks at Portalarium. This cool situation has allowed me to share in and see things on a level that I think very uncommon in this industry.
Part of that has been the road up to Steam, which created copious opportunity to see true colors revealed by all involved. First, I’m impressed by the folks at Steam. I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about the process of going early access in their framework, and I think that bodes really well for the indie game industry as a whole. Starr pointed out just this week that he felt the people at Steam were obviously experienced at what they were doing, ran a very tight ship, and were hugely supportive of the team getting their product out the gate.
More importantly to you readers, I think it was further demonstration of the quality of character you find with this development team. I’m not an investigative journalist, but I spend a lot of time watching the people around the person technically being interviewed, and asking questions to see how people answer them. I’ve also heard several frank conversations that would be inappropriate to repeat, but it’s all lead to a single conclusion. This team thinks you matter.
When discussing stretch goals, cash shop, and price points, you might expect the most common phrase to be something about maximizing revenue. Not with these guys, though. In every conversation I’ve overheard, and in every answer given to a leading question, I’ve gotten surprising replies. It’s a business, so of course money matters, but the first and last words in every conversation on such matters typically seem to revolve around which choice shows the greatest respect to the backers. It strikes me as just one more example of how these folks really understand how crowdfunding works.
It’s not all warm fuzzies with the last release and rolling the game out on Steam, though. Well, it’s not exactly bad, but there are obviously other impacts. To borrow a term from the “Agile” development philosophy and shamelessly steal wording from Starr, the velocity of development has certainly been impacted as they’ve adjusted to problems revealed under the influx of new backers.
As much as the bump in player population has revealed new problems, the increased number of streams has highlighted critical issues and graphics bugs that have needed to be addressed as well. An animation bug doesn’t seem to be a critical fix, but then you see it in a couple dozen video streams and it sort of becomes a larger priority. That would actually be my complaint about opening the game up to all the new audiences, though.
Shroud of the Avatar developers have certainly invested time in making things look pretty, but focus has been largely on mechanics and giving the game depth up to now. With the game being out on Steam, and attracting the new types of backers, the team needs to focus a little more effort on how things look in the game. For those of the older school such as myself, the graphics matter, but not quite as much as new skills, recipes, and content.
This is a business, and I think it’s a very sound strategy to devote a little more time to cleaning up the new player experience and work a bit more on graphics, though. I expect that in many ways, it’ll really help drive home how far the game has come over the last several months as the game gets a little needed body-work. Psychologically, it’s sometimes hard to really appreciate how much work goes into the under-the-hood stuff, so I feel rather certain that there’ll be a sense of the game’s development moving much more quickly as we go forward.
Major content will still be pushed out monthly, but helping push development along will be the ability to apply and test stability patches more frequently now that the game is in a semi-persistent state. It also helps that there’ll be time to collect solid data about the patches without having to cram them all into a single weekend. From my own limited programming experience, I know it’s often easier to tell how effective a change was after a couple days of monitoring. Looking at the same data over a couple hours can often be misleading.