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Release 19: Player-Centric Development

Red Thomas Posted:
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This month’s release of Shroud of the Avatar, much like the last, has a significant focus on combat.  The team has been hard at work updating several areas of that core component of gameplay, but they haven’t done it alone.  According to Shroud of the Avatars Technical Director, Chris Spears, the team has invited several members of the community to special scrum and play sessions as the developers work to dial in the combat system.

The results speak for themselves as the team deals with a number of exploits, balance an array of skills and skill trees, and roll out a slew of new combos.  Several of these new combos came directly from the players, and it’s a real testament to how seriously the team takes their community.  While talking with Chris it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t a marketing ploy, but rather a genuine desire to use their community as a part of the development process.  There’s a level of respect here, in both directions, that’s really awesome to witness.


When Starr Long and Richard Garriott are otherwise engaged, it’s often Chris Spears that gets saddled with the Red-Wrangling for the month.  I know he hates anything that takes him away from being hip-deep in code, but I love it.  Richard and Starr are seriously cool guys in their own rights, but Chris is a technophile of the highest order, and I get the chance to geek out with him on a level that Starr and Richard are typically too busy for.

It may sound boring when I tell you that we spent a chunk of our time this month talking about databases, datasets, and indices, but that’s the stuff that actually defines awesome games.  Any newb can whip out a bunch of methods and call the various interactions gameplay, but it takes a real pro to go beyond the simple functionality and turn it into something consistently fun.  Data drives it all, and these guys are doing it right.

Etceter Mine has been in the works for nearly two months, and promises to be a new favorite after this release.

Tracking the 10,000 interactions a second that currently occur in Shroud and then doing something with it, is in large part the genesis of this new “Combat Scrum.”  It’s also something that the whole team takes a great deal of pride in.  Spears tells me it started with a quick look to see how skills were being used, and who was using them.  Several players stood head and shoulders above most others when the results were graphed, so it wasn’t long before the five developers had added fifteen players to their number to form the new scrum.

Data drives the weekly sessions as players and developers work together to find a good balance.  Chris gave me a great example of their work when he told me about graphing skill utilization.  In a balanced system, skill usage should be about level.  Better skills are placed deeper in the tree, so that their value is roughly balanced with the resources and difficulty required to attain them.

If one skill, Deathtouch in this case, is being used more than twice as much as the next most common, then the skill is either too powerful or too easily accessed.  Putting the skill a layer deeper in the skill tree, as the team did recently, means players will have to spend a few more points to get it.  Being on par with skills in other trees, a fairly even distribution of players will choose Deathtouch as chooses one of the other options.  Skills that are used too much or too little are indications of a design problem, and data is how the pros spot it.

Doin’ It Right

One 90-minute session a week over the last five weeks, and the new scrum is proving its worth several times over.  Chris tells me that one of the things they’ve done is to ensure players focus on problems, not fixes, during these sessions.  Since players really don’t know precisely how things fit together and what’s easier or harder to implement when compared to the developers, this allows them to really focus a lot more on spotting issues.

The developers then propose solutions or implement them for the next test to see how the ideas worked out.  They’ve really found a great balance that leverages the capabilities of both sides of the team extraordinarily well, I think.  With about ten items being addressed per session, I’d say there’s solid evidence to back that opinion up, as well.

Some great examples of how this has improved the game besides skill balance, are things like their changing how armor works.  Chris says they’d changed hits around a bit to impact random locations on the player-model, where they were using the armor in that location for calculations.  Testers expressed concerns about the system penalizing players for wanting to wear unique armor pieces.

The devs are empowering players to contribute to feel of the game in a whole new way this release, above is a hint!

Shroud of the Avatar is a game about immersion, and looks matter.  The developers don’t want the game to be a matter of min-maxing any more than the player-base does, so the system was rolled back and rethought.  Chris tells me that they’re now putting in armor set bonuses, but are ensuring that many of the quest and backer reward hats are universal, and thus count as part of any set.  There are other feedback-based ideas being kicked around that may allow even greater flexibility with those set bonuses down the road.

Players made another massive contribution this month, as well.  Developers wanted to add in new combos to continue fleshing out the combat system, and once again turned to their combat scrum guys for thoughts.  I’ve seen the list, and these guys came up with some awesome ideas.  One was to combo Summon Skeleton with Enlighten to summon a skeletal mage, or another was to combine Healing and Death rays into a spell that sacrifices a portion of the caster’s health to heal the target.

There are several others across a wide array of schools, and that should really go a long ways towards giving people the chance to play their own styles of combat.  It’s also finally pulling me off the fence about this combat system.  It makes a lot more sense now, and last month’s changes are making it much playable from a design perspective.  I’ve been pretty worried about it to this point, but I should have known better than to question Lord British.

Rollin’ & Scratchin’

Players outside the scrum have also made a cool contribution this month, and data played a part in this one, too.  When there are massive spikes of a single spell being used by numerous players in the same area over a very short time span, you would be forgiven for thinking someone may have just found an exploit.  …except what in the world could they doing with Gust?

Chris told me that they recently found several players engaged in their own form of soccer.  By meeting in a PvP zone and designating specific features as “goals,” the players then proceeded to Gust the designated “ball” (a volunteered player) around the area in attempts to score on each other.

Gust Ball is all the rage in Shroud, and it just got better.

In true Portalarium fashion, the Shroud of the Avatar team loved the idea and asked themselves how they could make this awesome player-created pastime better.  The answer was to give them an actual ball.  In the next release, the players will now have a summoned pet “Gust Ball” with tons of health that can be used in lieu of the player volunteer and now enabling everyone to have fun.

Community contribution hardly stops there, though.  This pass will also introduce player-written books, with the printing press to follow along later.  This will allow players to start populating the world with their own literature, poetry, and is a pretty strong step towards the player-driven quest system that the team is working to implement.  That’s right.  You’ll go out and kill ten bears, not because it filled a gap in quest content, but because a specific player needs the pelts and is willing to pay for it.

There’s sure to be plenty of community members creating more story-driven quests, as well.  This is a community that thrives in their role as a pseudo-development team, but I’m super excited about the economic side of it.  I’m sure the player market will continue to exist as an auction-like form of exchange, but economic demands are perfect catalysts for tons of quests.   Quests that will make sense and exist within a context that makes them feel much more worthy of a time investment.

As much as the last release demonstrated the team’s return to their standards of immersion, this one spotlights the outstanding relationship players and developers enjoy around Shroud of the AvatarShroud will never count players in numbers like some of the other massive MMOs we’ve seen over the last decade, but it’s steeped in a culture born of the longest running MMO in existence and a community that manages to make even PvP a positive experience at times.  I may be bragging on them a bit for what this release showcases, but I’d say it’s really just something everyone around this game has known for a very long time.


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.