The folks at Portalarium are getting ready to roll out their 14th release for Shroud of the Avatar, and of course they timed it just as PAX South was kicking off. I’m sure it was a diabolical plot to force me into cramming this article in before I get sucked into the pending media storm that follows any PAX. That’s why I drove up to Austin this week. I wanted to look Starr Long and Richard Garriott in the eye when I told them just how rapid a turn around this article was going to have to be in order for me to slip it out before all the PAX coverage.
Unfortunately, it ended up a little one of those breakups in high school. You have every intention of giving the other person a serious telling off, and then you get there and before you can unburden your soul, you get reminded of why you fell in love with the girl in the first place. Just like it happened as a teenager all those years ago, the reminder came from watching another girl go nuts and reminding me how good I really have it. In this case, the head case in question happens to be a young lady named H1Z1.
It started with a chance remark by Starr when he and Richard noted in passing that they’d be doing a character wipe as they were pushing release 14 out to the public. That lead to a conversation about how stable Shroud has been. Servers switched on last November and have been running constantly since that time with no wipes or outages. I can’t think of another game that’s had such a stable launch.
You could point out that Shroud of the Avatar had nearly a year of monthly tests leading up to their launch on Steam’s Early Access program. That’s true, but it’s also true those tests were all incredibly stable other than the performance issues you have to expect before a serious optimization pass. Then, the release to Steam was accomplished sans any authentication or connection issues.
Considering other companies far more experienced with Steam’s API, not to mention MMOs in general, have found the process so problematic, it’s another testament to the crew Richard and Starr have put together in Austin. Since Starr is so heavily involved in promoting technological education programs and giving talks in the area, I have no doubt that it’s in large part a return on the intellectual investment they’ve made into the community over the years. I’m glad to see loyalty to their city and their “Origin[s]” paying dividends.
Starr points out that the longest delay they’ve ever had going public with a release was when they were 20 minutes late getting their Mac version of the client out, one of the three they release each time. Starr notes, “I’m incredibly proud of the discipline this team shows,” as Richard Garriott explains how late their crew stays some nights to ensure the latest build is functional before it going live the next day.
Growing the Economy
This visit wasn’t all humble-bragging, though. The team is making huge strides forward towards a final version. They wouldn’t let me pin them down on date, as experienced developers Starr and Richard know better than to announce anything until they’re absolutely certain, but I would be really surprised if we didn’t see SotA’s final wipe sometime this year. If the last two months are any indication, my impression is that it’s possible the last wipe might be way sooner than you might normally expect.
Wipes play havoc on in-game economies, which is why I think we’re closer to the last wipe than I expect after seeing that the big moves behind the scenes have been in large part economy oriented. It’s really cool to see developers putting a lot of emphasis on a strong and diverse economy, and I’ve really had a blast talking with Starr Long about their plans to encourage diverse regional specializations. Shroud of the Avatar should support a robust trading ecology as their system of control points cause significant swings in prices.
Contributing to that economic model, Richard Garriott pointed out that release 14 will see the first implementation of an expanded crafting system that tracks materials for complex products from start to finish with the intent to modify stats on completion. Richard uses the example of a bow or sword with copper verses iron wire for the grip. Iron is sturdier, which would allow for more durability and make the weapon more functional for a typical warrior, but copper transmits power better and might make a weapon more suitable for a mage.
The plan is to create a system of sufficient diversity that players seek master crafters for highly customized gear. Crafters might analyze a player’s desired style or character build and create an item personalized to be most effective for the individual. Different woods, ores, and other materials in the various stages of the crafting process will have significant impact on the end result. While combining it all might not be that hard, the mastery comes from knowing the best combination for a specific client and having access to those materials.
Combine that with how the team is starting to enforce the regionalization of resources. Sulfurous ash being more prevalent in volcanic regions is the example Starr tends to point out while explaining that there’s a depth to the game the current players haven’t even felt yet. Starr says that the team is continuing work on the Novia map, and players will finally be able to travel the main continent in the next release. Part of that work involves a resource pass to ensure resources appear where they’re supposed to and where it makes sense.
Continuing the thread of cash flow, there are other updates in this pass that will have some serious economic weight. Encumbrance could have been added a while back, but Portalarium wisely chose to hold off until they had a bank system in place. That’s finally happened and both will be applied in this update.
Some established businesses have been relocated like the Hearth of Britannia, the seaside tavern in Kingsport. Initially placed in the wrong building, the Hearth has been moved next door where it had originally been intended to be, and the old premises now boast a bank and host of other administrative offices for the city.
Encumbrance is the other side of the newly minted coin, and players will now have to make choices about what they carry with them. Heavy armor verses lighter armor now has more significance, and that means we’re less likely to see caravans of merchants in full plate migrating from city to city.
Speaking of transporting goods, I’ve been told bank deposits aren’t going to work like magic FedEx drop-offs in Shroud, and I think that’s awesome. Mining a hundred metric tons of iron and throwing it in the bank, only to pull it out when you get across the continent is one of those little things that have irked me in other games for a long time. There’s some talk about an in-game mechanic for transporting goods, but whatever the eventual solution is, it won’t be an instantaneous and free transfer from point A to point B.
That’ll be important in this release as merchants don’t buy everything you’re trying to sell, and prices will fluctuate around availability. It’s just a taste of the robust system to come, but starting in the 14th release, players will be able to start getting a feeling for how plausible being a merchant will be in Shroud.
Combined with the regionalized availability of items, and the especially localized availability of certain rare items, this really should work well to create a diverse and sustainable in-game economy. I think it serves as one more reminder that players are central to the world of New Britannia, rather than just guests in it.
As always, Shroud of the Avatar is more than just the sum of the developers. Not a visit goes by that Richard, Starr, or one of the other developers doesn’t brag about how awesome their community is. The community has helped guide development in so many subtle ways. New assets like the maze pieces are obvious forms of impact, but more subtle are the conversations in Austin about how to empower the community to do more.
Richard brags, “There’s not a time now that I log on and there aren’t community events going on.” Then, while he’s logged in and turned around to gush about how proud he is of what the community has built and is doing, two different players wander past in the background. Both stopped upon seeing the Lord British avatar and bowed in respect before moving on.
Perhaps I’m reading a bit into it, but there is just so much that strikes me about that simple picture as I review it now in my mind. The fact that both obviously recognized the avatar and yet moved on tells me that these weren’t people seeking to gain any sort of favor. They weren’t crowding some rock star in vain attempt to add significance to their lives, thinking somehow that self-worth could be gained through some form of osmosis. I’ve seen that when devs are spotted in other games.
These were players who were living a virtual life of their own, and without needing any justification for their digital existence from an even icon like Lord British, they still had such deep respect for what he stands for to offer that simple tribute. The subtle nobility of that simple act was made even more poignant by how unassuming and unobtrusive the gesture was. Each immediately proceeded along their way without even waiting for a response, knowing full well he might not have seen it, and expecting nothing from him in return.
I thought it was particularly cool that Richard was busy telling me about how proud he is of his community, so he was turned around both times players walked past his character. Richard didn’t see it… but I did.
I think they’re pretty proud of you too, Lord British.