The last several months for Shroud of the Avatar have been full of technological updates and game system overhauls as the team at Portalarium make this last mad dash towards a relatively finished product. It’s swung the game dramatically from a cool idea with solid bones to a game that’s rapidly acquiring the polish one would expect from a mainstream game.
In all that time, I’ve been missing something I couldn’t name, but Richard Garriott and Starr Long could. The two have tasked their crack team of developers to focus more on putting the Lord British feel into Shroud of the Avatar over the last month, and what a job they’ve made of it. All this despite a hefty release last month that required some pretty significant post-release patching to get up to their normal standards.
The developers powered through the fixes and moved right into their return to implementing the immersive content that’s been the hallmark of most members of this team since they worked together at Origin Systems. For this release, the developers have continued building out on the game systems implemented over the last several months, they’ve taken another crack at their innovative concept for combat, and they’ve pulled in the framework for some seriously cool new systems that I think will set Shroud apart from its contemporaries.
Release 17 was a little rough for Shroud of the Avatar. Well, I say rough, but it’d be almost par for many other projects, and certainly normal for this stage of development. Animation bugs caused the team to devote the first week and a half of the new release cycle to correcting issues from the last patch. Despite those problems, Starr tells me they managed to get a whole lot done over the last few weeks.
One system that’s been in need of improvement is combat. I’m one of the folks who have been a little on the fence about the system, though as I’ve said a few times, it’s started grow on me a bit. Starr and Richard both noted in our conversation that they’d sort of gotten combat in and functional, and then focused efforts back over on other critical systems. Now, they’ve had time to revisit combat again, and there are some really cool changes.
The card system to this point has been a cool idea, but one of the common player complaints is how you have to constantly look down at your action bar during combat. Richard’s never been fond of that aspect either, because of course they want you to be able to look up and enjoy the visual cues and effects in combat. At the same time, Portalarium just isn’t a team that’s okay with that standard “good enough” approach to things, so they didn’t want to completely toss out their existing system for the standard hotbar.
The solution was to implement skills that allow you to lock abilities to specific slots, but still get the random draw aspect from the existing mechanic. Sort of a hybrid of the two ways of handling skills now, and I think the best of both. Basically, you can choose to add specific runes to specific slots as you build your deck, and then when those runes are dealt, they appear in that slot. Starr shows me how he has his first slot set to various stuns for instance, and his next couple are devoted to faster strikes. He then has his slower attacks, spells, and then consumables mapped to later slots.
The result is that you can see tiles go active out of the corner of your eye, and then not need to look down to know generally which skill it is. Combined with their new system integrating Razer’s Chroma keyboard with the game, I think combat has gotten much more intuitive. I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet, but what I’ve seen of it makes me think the new system is going to really push things over the edge with respect to my being on board with it.
I was playing a bit before writing this article, and found myself reminded of another spot needing attention, and one that’s getting it in this pass, the questing experience in the game. For new players especially, as the fellow I was helping find his way could have attested to, figuring out what to do when you first get into the game can be a really tough barrier sometimes. Though in true Ultima fashion, the community has banded together to create a number of player-run events to help get new players acclimated, but Starr says they really needed to take a look at it as a project, as well.
Starr began by pointing out that the game was already pretty hardcore in a number of ways. For one, players don’t find quests via magical floating punctuation. That sort of gimmicky silliness has no place in this sort of game, but then the questing was additionally complicated by players not really knowing for sure whether they’d gotten one or not from the context of their conversation with a given NPC. Not wanting to further obscure something already more difficult than most were used to, Starr says they’ve gone into this pass specifically looking for ways to point players at quests.
New players leaving the enflamed Solace Bridge and taking a boat to Soltown will now arrive on the banks of a marsh and find the tents of refugees a head of them. Talking with NPCs in the campsite will introduce the player to a number of quests and game mechanics, teaching new players how to better interact with the game world. Besides making quest dialogue just a little more obvious in most cases, this idea of presenting players with quests in a context that makes them a little more obvious should begin to become more common throughout the game.
What’s Your Sign?
The team is doing a lot to help new players get into the game, but some of what else they’re doing will help keep them there. Release 18 will include some significant changes to the skies over Novia, and spell even more significant changes on down the road.
This release will feature an improved night sky with brand new astronomical bodies to populate a new astrological system for Shroud of the Avatar. To make the system functional, a system of in-game time has been introduced, as well. Beginning around the first release for the game as year 400, time is now tracked as a day every hour of real time. That means about 26 years for every real one, and that’s about to matter in Shroud.
They’re adding in the astrology system in this pass, but a lot of other systems will be tied to it later. Crafting will use astrological periods to apply additional bonuses to custom gear, along with bonuses for specific material, and even location-based bonuses in some cases. Then of course, there are the moon gates, which will also be tied to the system at some point.
What might be more important is that some ingredients, like Nightshade, will eventually only be found during certain periods like under a new moon. You should also expect certain creatures and in-game happenings to coincide with specific astrological events, as well. There’ll also be seasons to the game, and weather will eventually be tied to the system to bring more rain or snow, depending on the time of in-game year.
About the only thing that’ll be in for the 18th release are the stars, planets, sun, and moon that all rotate independently of each other. The rest of it is coming, but don’t feel cheated just because it’s not in yet. When you see your first eclipse or planetary alignment over the next few weeks, you’ll get just how cool this first step really is. Plus, it’ll give you time to start figuring out how to use astrolabes and compasses. You’ll be needing them before long!
A Charitable Note
Let me wrap up with a quick word about some of the more noble actions of our Lord British, and his merry team. I’ve had some experience with corporate charity, so I was pretty interested in some of the recent charities Portalarium has engaged with and how it all was working for them. Selflessness is hardly a new thing for the folks at Port. Finn Staber, designer and U.S. Army veteran, and I often talk about the myriad of military-related philanthropies he works with, for instance.
Finn’s hardly the only one with pet projects, but this time it was Portalarium as a whole getting engaged, and in a big way. They’ve partnered with Rize Up Gaming to support water.org, an organization that helps get clean water to those who would otherwise struggle to do without, and they’ve been selling several in-game items over the weekend and splitting proceeds with the charity.
By splitting, I mean 50/50, which is just something way beyond normal. Like Starr was telling me when I asked about how they came to that number, he’d checked with several very large companies to get an idea of what their policies looked like and found that a 5% donation was considered generous. As these folks tend to do, good enough wasn’t acceptable and they set their own standard all the way up at half.
This month was another reminder of why I really like writing about Shroud of the Avatar and visiting the team in Austin. Portalarium is made of genuinely good people who aren’t afraid to take a few risks to bring something awesome to the world. I really think things like the new astrological system are going to prove incredibly successful for them, but it’s not all shiny and gee-wiz stuff for these folks. Their track record and pace of development shows they have a solid handle on the technological piece as well.
Next thing you know, they’ll decide they want to do something like introduce some sort of zombie plague to the game, just to see how players handle it. Whatever they do, it’ll be awesome, immersive, and deeply philosophical. That’s just how Lord British does it, and that’s why I play his games.