Quite a while back, I visited Austin to hear about this new game called Shroud of the Avatar. That was the day I met Richard Garriott and Chris Roberts for the first time, and I’ll admit to being a little star-struck. I’d been writing for a while by then, but that was my first time meeting iconic people in the field who’d helped shape what video games look like to the degree those two guys have done over the years.
I’ve also been a huge sandbox guy ever since Ultima Online defined what sandbox games even were, and so meeting Richard was a particularly awesome experience for me. I say all this so you know how inept I was at that first meeting because the context really matters here. When describing the skill system they had imagined for Shroud of the Avatar, I immediately balked despite being overwhelmed a little by everything else because it wasn’t the use-based skills system we’d all come to know and love. It’s actually something that’s so definitive of the genre that I couldn’t stop from actually expressing my surprise and asking about it.
So yeah, this article is part celebration and part I-told-you-so, as the folks at Portalarium switch from their old skill system to a new use-based model that’s much more in line with that we’d all expect from a sandbox game. It’s also a bit of an ovation to a team that pulled off such a dramatic change to a core system in a single month. Lastly, we’ll talk a bit about how the fans have been contributing to the game, because like the over-achievers at Portalarium, the fans don’t do things in half-measure, either.
Practice Making Perfect
While I’ve been telling everyone that nearly two years of my prophetic caution against turning away from a use-based skill system has been haunting the back of Richard’s mind, the truth is there are people with far more pull than I can claim. Backers in the Dev+ community have a lot more clout than you’d expect to see in any project under development, and the team at Portalarium takes their community very seriously.
Thus, despite my joking about it, the truth is that the community has had a lot of conversations about how skills work in Shroud, and in a monster display of integrity, Starr Long and Richard Garriott charged their team of developers with implementing the overhaul of the existing skills system. The new system has some pretty intelligent design choices that I think will make for an incredibly viable solution in the long term. What they had before was cool, but I think the system they’re going to will make for a much better game over all.
The gist of the new system is that you’ll have two pools of experience. As you harvest resources and craft things, you’ll gain crafting experience. Obviously, you’ll get adventuring experience for specifically killing stuff. Questing will give you experience for both, and it all goes into the two respective pools.
These two experience pools are sort of your current mental capacity for learning new stuff. As you use skills related to either pool of experience, you’ll get better at that skill. Let’s say you attack and kill a bear with your sword. You’ve been using that sword, so you’ll certainly be getting better at that by spending a bit of experience there. The remainder experience will also be stored in your adventuring experience pool.
As you practice with your bow on a training dummy later, that experience will be spent from the accumulated adventure pool to help you develop your skill in archery. The more you practice with a given skill, the more experience gets converted from the pool, except there’s a catch.
Each time you use a skill, converting some experience to get better at it, only a percentage of that experience is converted. That means you get diminishing returns over time, unless you’re replenishing that pool. Practice dummies will only get you so far, so eventually you have to actually go out and kill something.
The old system was introduced because Richard, Starr, and their team didn’t like the idea of a player doing things like weighting their space bar down to build up their jumping skill, or engaging other immersion-breaking things like that. The genius of the new system is that it fixes that problem, while still keeping the sandbox feel of a use-based system. You can still keep working on your jump by bouncing everywhere a la Tigger, but it stops being worth it as the returns get progressively smaller.
This new system encourages the player to get out and experience the game in the way that contributes to the environment, while still preserving the opportunity to get better at a new skill by knocking the stuffing out of a practice dummy for a while. Sandbox games are all about the freedom of choice, so I’m really glad to see the guys putting a system in that encourages players to engage in a certain way without actually locking them into it.
There’s an economics to the skills game, too. Interestingly, this harkens back to a previous conversation I’d had with Chris Spears about tracking data in the game. They track the creation and destruction of gold in the game, because creating money at a rate near what’s absorbed makes for a solid in-game economy. If you create money at a rate above or below the rate it’s being used, you create inflation or depression, respectively.
You probably haven’t thought about it, but skills and experience are exactly the same. If experience is generated in the game and not subtracted or spent in any way, then developers have to keep adding more and more content of higher levels to challenge max-level players. But the Shroud of the Avatar team made another really awesome move. They’re implementing skill decay.
Now, don’t blow a gasket. It’s capped, so you don’t log out and come back a month later to find you lost everything, but you will find that your character is now a little rusty and needs some practice to get back to peak performance.
Here again, they chose to use a percentage-based system that impacts you more the higher skilled you are. This means players will have natural equilibriums where their skills gained balance the atrophy of not using other skills. This means that players who have time and invest more effort in practicing will be able to perform at a higher level, but not so much higher as to not be competitive.
The great thing about this is that it’ll allow for new skills to be added indefinitely. There’s no reason for the game to have a finite number of skills, because no one will ever be able to accumulate so many of them that they’re over-powered. Conversely, any new skills can be picked up easily and taken for a test run to see if you want to put effort in working down that line. That makes adding new skills much easier and less game breaking.
It’s absolutely brilliant, because it also offers tons of flexibility for the players. I’m not stuck with whatever skills I’ve selected, and I don’t even have to “reset” my skill points to change my player design. I just start practicing with something else, and I’ll get better at it.
Advanced AGILE and Great Management
I don’t know of another game that’s managed to pull off a major change like this mid-stream outside of Shroud of the Avatar. I couldn’t even imagine a game like World of Warcraft trying it, and Star Citizen is proof that major design changes don’t always go so well, even during the development phase. To make a change this sweeping in a mere few weeks, while still adhering to the existing framework the old system was built around, is just completely unheard of.
It’s not a sexy thing to talk about, but this really is a testament to the agile philosophy the team at Portalarium take so seriously. They stick to their monthly releases with an almost religious zeal, and the results are speaking for themselves. It says a great deal about the professionalism of the people involved in a project, and at least as much about the quality of their leadership.
I can’t just point to the developers when acknowledging this point, though. Again, I get to brag on the community around Shroud of the Avatar. It seems like I’m doing this a lot, but I like supporting good people who are engaged in great things. The community directly and consistently contributes to the developers being able to accomplish as much as they do.
Dev+ backers spend a great deal of effort giving good feedback with each release, enabling the developers to more easily spot and correct problems. More importantly, they also engage in-game to make other players’ experiences more meaningful in very significant ways. This is often in the form of events and time spent helping get new players acclimated to the game, but sometimes their efforts are much more subtle.
Last release, Starr Long created a new town called Hometown. He populated this new town with examples of all the houses and basements in the game’s store. It was actually a really cool idea, because you could go look at all the options and walk through them before you decided what you wanted to buy. The community decided empty houses didn’t represent the game well enough and took action, though.
With permission from the developers, they took turns decorating the houses in Hometown. Not only did this make the houses more attractive and interesting to walk through, but they decided it was a chance to test decorative objects, as well. The developers placed down chests with all the available decorations, and players went to work. As they found decorations that didn’t work, they dumped them in a separate chest for developers to take a look at. It was a simple act with little fanfare that made a dramatic impact on the game.
A Lot Has Changed
As crowdfunding gets more popular, it’s getting harder to decide what you should help fund or shouldn’t. I have two tests that Shroud of the Avatar passes with flying colors. First, I want to know that the people I’m funding are professionals with a proven track record of excellence and a history of well-run projects. Portalarium certainly fits that bill, and they prove it each month with massive updates that blow away any other development project I’ve ever seen.
My second test tends to be the community around the project. A community that actively supports the developers and works hard to be pleasant and helpful to new members is what we called “force multipliers” in my former profession. Big gee-wiz stuff attracts people to look at your game, but it’s the little stuff that keeps them around and playing. A solid community is the anchor many of those little things are hitched to.
Even if I weren’t just a fan of the genre, those things alone would have made me take a serious look at Shroud. Frankly, it’s made a skill system that I’ve never been all that crazy about much more palatable. The old system certainly had its merits, and I always respected it as a design choice. That said, I am super excited to see how the new change works out, and even more excited to play with it over the next couple months as they work out the kinks.
If you tried Shroud of the Avatar a while back and weren’t that crazy about it, you might give it another go. So much has changed over just the last six months that the game is almost unrecognizable. You should definitely give it a shot if it didn’t feel sandbox-like enough for you. If nothing else, you get to interact with pleasant people while you do and there’s definitely something to be said for that.