I kind of expected this release to be mostly polish and correcting issues after a major skill system overhaul last month, and there’s certainly plenty of that being done. As you probably realize by now, the folks at Portalarium don’t stop with good enough, though. This release for Shroud of the Avatar also includes a lot of cool new stuff, too.
This month, we’re going to take a look at some of the new content in this month’s release. I also had a few conversation with some of the developers and picked Starr Long’s brain about what we can expect from them over the next several months. Some of you may not like the answer, but I think there are some interesting points to consider before the flames are fanned.
If you’re like me, one of the most immersive parts of Lord of the Rings Online was the fantastic music system in the game, and the ability of multiple players to take up instruments and engage in more complex forms of musical entertainment. Personally, I thought they did an absolutely brilliant job of building the system into the game, and really liked how their ABC file-based solution made it so easy for fans to write and play multi-part arrangements.
Well, I am most definitely excited to say that Portalarium has elected to use the same files as the foundation for their system in Shroud of the Avatar. What I find even more awesome, is that they’re adding it to the game using an API developed by community member Eniko, just another phenomenal example of the development team allowing their community to contribute to the game in really significant ways.
The system I saw was still a little rough, using slash commands and still having a few bugs playing in groups. That said, conversations about an in-progress UI that should resolve most of the problems and make the system much easier to use were happening around me during the actual demonstration. Thus, you’ll be able to play with the system in this release, but don’t is as anything near complete (the mantra of any other Early Access game, so no surprise there). Despite being an early iteration, you should still find it fairly approachable since it sounds like all your music files from LOTRO, Starbound, ArcheAge, and other games that use similar formats, should all work in Shroud of the Avatar pretty easily.
It looks like the only instruments they have in the game right now are the Piano and Lute, but Starr Long tells me others will be along behind them. Specifically, he mentioned a kettle drum as one of the instruments they’re looking into adding. In context, it sounded like that’s really just one of a longer list that they’re just not ready to be public about yet in case the specifics change.
For those who are big on the employing each emote in their arsenal, you’ll find the selection of available slash commands a bit different this month. Emotes were wiped, and players have now been given specifically-selected selections of emotes. About a third of the existing emotes are generic and known by all new players. Another third can be discovered by exploring the world, talking to NPCs, or by advancing reputation or skills in some cases. The remaining third of emotes are backer awards. Not that those are specific numbers, but rather a rough approximation of the current state.
Don’t worry, though. You can learn most emotes you’re missing by talking with someone who has them. Emotes are now trainable! Not all emotes will train equally, though. There are teachable, non-teachable, and re-teachable emotes, and the difference is that some emotes (teachable) can only be taught by the person who knows them to another person. That other person can’t pass along the learned action to another player. Thus, teachable emotes can only be directly spread by the first generation and the second generation of emoters have it as unteachable. That means while no one is specifically prohibited from having these emotes, they won’t be as common.
More common, but still not universally known, are the re-teachable emotes. These can be discovered or learned, and then retaught ad nausium. They’re still not as common as the universal set that all players start with, but they won’t be too hard to pick up since anyone who knows them can teach them to you.
You might be looking at this section of the article and thinking emotes are hardly important enough to spend this much time on, but I kind of disagree. In effect, this is more emblematic of a Lord British game than just about anything they’ve done to date. There’s nothing in this system that gives you any specific advantage over another player, but the minor tweak to functionality creates an enormous impact on the overall immersive experience.
Additionally, there are loads of cool directions this can be taken with the system over time. Imagine a character that yawns, which causes a sympathetic yawn in characters around them. Perhaps a twitch, symptomatic of some curse or disease that starts a questline, but doesn’t have any specific debuff associated with it. This opens the doors to a load of cool ideas for content that don’t have to be shoved in front of the user’s face.
For the outdoorsmen among you, fishing is now in the game, as well. Currently, fish are angler-agnostic and all types can be caught from any body of water deep enough to swim in. Starr tells me that fish will be homed in more appropriate bodies of water later on, though.
This will further enforce the regionalization of economy that will start getting more attention in coming releases. Besides saltwater and freshwater critters being in appropriate environments, the system will eventually factor in time of day and season, as well. A side component of this system that I think is kind of cool is that we’ll probably see some regional cuisine created in the game as certain fish become more prevalent in certain regions later on.
The existing system is pretty basic in this pass, but you can expect a lot more complexity later on. Skills and abilities will be added to fishing in future releases to make the experience more interesting, and to reward players who care to devote more time to practicing that particular skill.
Don’t expect a whole lot from the system in this pass. Like the addition of music, it’s just there and functional to provide some early resources or reasons for new recipes. Since expanding fishing will lean on other systems that already exist, it shouldn’t be long before we have a more complete system, though.
And speaking of more complete systems, why don’t we take a look at something a little more serious. As I’d noted in an article several months back, the team was really moving along pretty well, and it sounded like Shroud of the Avatar would be nearing feature-complete sometime late this year. It’s looking a little less likely as we approach the last quarter of the year, though.
In fact, I had a chance to ask Starr about where the game was and where they expected it to be over the next several months while I was in Austin. Nowhere in his response did he mention moving out of Early Release, though. Obviously, I asked him about it, and I actually liked how he responded quite a bit. Keep in mind that I am a fan of the team and the project here, and while I think I’m pretty fair in my evaluation of things, I’m not above admitting to some unintentional bias.
Over the years, I’ve spoken with a lot of devs, and while I won’t dime anyone specifically out, there are definitely some who are anything but frank when fielding hard questions. In their defense, they’re often working from the script their PR folks have forced down their throats, and often don’t have a choice in some of the larger companies. Shroud is a small enough project that the corporate culture has been kept at bay, and Starr was very frank about where they are as opposed to where they’d like to be with Shroud.
The switch to Unity 5 went great, but there have been some issues along the way that took more time than they expected, and ramping up hiring hasn’t gone as quickly as they would have liked. The hiring situation has been compounded by having to backfill a few positions as folks have left the team. Rock star teams like what they have at Portalarium tend to product quality people, and sometimes it’s hard to keep them around when they decide they want another challenge.
I am a little bummed about the delay in getting past a final wipe. As a backer, I’m starting to kind of miss the feeling of permanence I’d like to have in a sandbox game like this. I’d kind of like to be angry about the delay, and I expect some folks probably will be. I don’t think it’s unfair to note that they’ve probably realized before now that they wouldn’t make the end of the year, and maybe could have been a little more open with the community about it.
My problem is that I can’t help but look at numerous cases over the last couple years where I know for a fact that the team did a complete about face on some major design issue because they felt the community wanted something different. The most recent and obvious example is switching to a use-base skill system, of course.
I’m sure there are people waiting for something like a final release before jumping in, and it’s probably not very fair to them to divert development resources to something like their recent support for “gust ball.” Though, that’s the sort of thing that helps define the nature of the community/developer relationship. If you consider community a core component of the eventual game, which I know Starr and Richard do, then it is a pretty valid time expenditure.
I’m not just running out of rhymes here. I’m also aware that it sounds a little like I’m sucking up to the devs. I’m not really. If anything, I’m kind of sucking up to the community that’s built up around this game.
I keep feeling like I should just claim out-right to be biased. The truth is that it’s just really hard to be overly frustrated when you’re logging in to find a game populated by such fantastic people. I’m not sure UO could claim as positive a gaming environment, for all that many of these folks came from there.
Some communities are just so toxic that every problem is amplified, but not with Shroud of the Avatar. Every problem is addressed head-on and with an earnest attempt by the devs to ensure everyone understands the situation. The result seems to be a community that takes setbacks in stride, and even engages the devs to find out what can be done to help.
Is a writer biased who finds himself more enthralled by the community around a game, than the game itself? I’m not sure, but you’ll likely find me strumming my lute in one of the many Novian taverns as I ponder equally weighty questions once the new release goes live. …Now if we can just get them to put pipe-smoking in the game!