Of all the studios I’ve visited, Portalarium is the coolest. There are others that are up there, and a couple of them are also in Austin. Portalarium is special, though. It’s not uncommon for Garriott, Long, or Spears to throw out concepts they’ve been working on for the game, so I take a great deal of personal pride in that professionals of that caliber would care in the least for my opinion. I’m not too shy to offer it more that I probably should, but it’s also a testament to their professionalism that they take all feedback seriously. The folks at Port aren’t just okay with dissenting opinions when they discuss ideas for Shroud of the Avatar, they’re genuinely appreciative to receive them.
That shows a level of professionalism far superior to a lot of other developers I’ve met over the years, an yet it’s nothing when you think about a couple of other facts. They’ve been going for just over two years, releasing major updates every single month without missing a beat. And no, Starr… Being less than a minute late with a single build for one of the less common operating systems does not constitute a break in that record in my book.
Despite that absolutely amazing feat, they’ve done all this without once taking the servers down for an unplanned outage. When is the last time you played an MMO of any complexity without having an outage at least once in a two-year period? Not one that I’ve ever heard of, but that’s not even the reason I like this studio as much as I do.
Today, we’re going to take a quick look at some of the new content you’ll find in December’s release for Shroud of the Avatar. This release includes the typical new scenes, but also introduces the first pass at the agriculture system. Then, I’ll tell you why I think so highly of Portalarium as a development studio, and wrap things up with how that relates to some major news about the game.
The Shroud of the Avatar team continues to grow, as a new sound engineer joins the crew. It was recent enough that we won’t see many new sound effects in this pass, but you can expect the audio quality of the game to start catching up with the rest of the production over the next several releases. Sound is one of those subtle things that doesn’t often stand out, but done well can go a long way towards the depth of play that Richard Garriott claims as his hallmark.
As in every release, this one will also introduce new scenes as the team works to fill in some of the empty areas around Novia. Starr’s mentioned a couple times how glad he is to have brought on board some solid new level designers. It’s allowed some of the senior designers to spend extra time on some of the more complex scenes, like the Hilt.
The Hilt won’t be completely wired up in this month’s release, but you’ll have a chance to experience a good chunk of it. Deep inside the ancient fortress, avatars will find the Obsidian Forge, which will eventually be used to produce some of the most powerful items in the game. The team was pretty excited to tell me about this new addition, and where it’s going.
Eventually, the Hilt will feature a control point which players will need to hold in order for the forge to be active. A master crafter can then use the forge while the point is in friendly hands. Besides only functioning while the control point is held, the forge also damages those foolish enough to attempt mastering its secrets. That means those how want to craft the best gear won’t be able to do it alone and will require a solid team to be successful. As the only place in the game where obsidian can be worked into weapons and armor, crafters will likely find plenty of adventurers willing to trade protection for a favor.
Undead powerful enough not to be easily killed by simple iron will no longer resurrect themselves, but will rather be resurrected by nearby skeletal mages and liches. They can still be dispatched more effectively via the employment of magical damage, which disrupts the mystical fields holding the constructs together more effectively than mundane arms. The effect is still mostly the same, except that players now have the added choice of targeting the magic wielding enemies in an effort stem the tide of summoned creatures.
There’s life-related news, as well. Feeling that tamers were a little disadvantaged due to needing the Resurrect ability from the Life tree of skills to preserve favorite animals, Starr tells me the team has implemented some changes. The Taming skill tree now features veterinarian versions of healing and resurrection. These skills will work on non-animals, but not as efficiently. Similarly, the healing and resurrect skill from the Life tree will still work on tamed creatures, but not as well as it does on players.
I’m a little on the fence about this one, as I told Starr while we were discussing it. On one hand, I do completely understand their desire to not create a situation where animal tamers are required to master an unrelated tree to ensure the preservation of their creatures. On the other, I’m not crazy about creating a set of skills in one tree that effectively mirror the ones in another. It doesn’t quite sit well.
I think it might be more appropriate to create the new skills in the Life skill tree and make them more accessible as lower-tiered skills, or perhaps to move away from magic entirely, and make the solution something craftable. Either way, I’m sure they’ll find a good balance. Chris Spears loves combing through data, and I’m confident that they’ll spot the problem if the system ends up being a little unbalanced.
The big change in this update is the new inclusion of crops, and they have a pretty cool system planned for Shroud of the Avatar. This is an update that had Richard Garriott literally cheering as we got to it in the conversation. Crops can be planted in pots, raised beds, or furrows. Players can place pots inside houses, but raised beds and furrows require contact with native soil.
As Starr pointed out while we were discussing the new system, this will now create a reason for players to actually have plots larger than their houses. Up to this point, a player simply plopped down the largest house a plot would support, but now there’s a reason to do otherwise with the option to use extra space for growing crops. As with many other small updates to the crafting and housing systems, this should go a long way towards creating some diversity in the game world and making it feel more immersive.
Players will plant their crops, and then those crops will mature over time just as you’d expect. Agriculturally inclined players will be able to impact the yield of crops by tending them through their maturation. Fertilizing and watering may not be absolutely required for every type of crop, but the extra effort will definitely have an impact.
As of its 25th release, Shroud of the Avatar will feel a much needed buff to the economic system thanks to this update. Players can now grow many of the food items previously only found on merchants, putting even more of the economy in player hands. Also, there’s an opportunity for land to start having value beyond the arbitrary rate the team sets for buying it from the NPC vendors or the online store. Crop producing land now has intrinsic value, which is directly impacted by proximity to population centers.
They haven’t specifically mentioned it, but I’m betting this is a major step towards Richard’s goal of putting more weight on food in the game. It’s a careful balance of fun verses interestingly complex mechanics and empowering player-driven economy, but I know the folks at Portalarium are eyeing the idea of making food an important part of the game with interest. Richard’s spoken before about how he’d like to see a system where master chefs were as valuable to players as master weaponsmiths. This feels like a very solid step in that direction.