Yeah, I missed last month’s update, but I do have an excuse. I was floating around in the Caribbean on my annual cruise with Jonathan Coulton and about 1200 other hardcore nerds. Interestingly, I find there’s a lot of parallels between the folks on that cruise and the sort of people you find in Lord British games, and I think for some similar reasons.
In both cases, pools of people are drawn together to appreciate a form of art, and in both cases the supporting teams enable that crowd to define a lot of their own direction. The JoCo Cruise ends up supporting a ton of shadow events that have nothing to do with the headline entertainers, though you often find them participating. In the same way, Shroud of the Avatar players dramatically out-pace the developers in the creation of their own events and tend to have devs quietly participating along with the fan-base.
Another parallel is the team that supports the cruise and the one that supports Shroud both work incredibly hard to create an optimal experience for their communities. After my trip to Austin, it was pretty clear that hard work would be a running theme in this month’s look at the project. I often take opportunities to try and show how amazing the community around Shroud of the Avatar is, but I may not spend as much time focusing on the insane amount of work this small team of developers is able to accomplish in very short blocks of time.
Starr Long really enjoys bragging on his team during my visits, and that’s probably not something I do a great job of expressing in these articles. Last week during my visit, he was grinning hugely as he pointed to the amazing work his team’s accomplished over the previous month and saying, “We’re so efficient at this point. We’re making progress so fast.”
He’s not kidding either, 39 new scenes are being added in this release alone, and that means a solid majority of the scenes for Novia are now in place, and that will go a long way to making Shroud of the Avatar fill much more complete. A lot of these scenes are the smaller villages and adventuring areas that give the in-game world its body, but there are also several new story-related scenes to give it depth.
Malice, The Shores of Malice, Skrekk, and Caverns of Skrekk will be pivotal points in their respective storylines, but they’re also good examples of the talent the Portalarium team has been cultivating. All four scenes, and a fifth scene in particular called The Rise will showcase new techniques the team is using to employ Ultima-style scenes with all the secrets and surprises that go with them.
In large part, the rapid deployment of new scenes is due to tools and techniques the team has put together over the last couple years of developing Shroud of the Avatar. The critical story-related scenes tend to take a bit longer, but of course the general environmental scenes for filling in empty land tend to be easily adapted by modifying existing scenes. Without the need to ensure specific story features are present and the rigging to support it, the more general scenes are rolling out at an epic pace.
The rapid pace of scene population isn’t the only example of how these guys are doing more and doing it faster, either. This release will feature enhancements to Skill and Crafting systems, as well. Both are mature enough systems that adding or modifying content isn’t nearly the challenge it once was.
On the crafting side of things, the changes are mostly cosmetic and a little utilitarian, but they should really help with improving the polish of the game. The in-game recipe book needed to be touched up to make it more readable and functional, so the team did just that. The new version of the book will be much easier to read with increased font size, better contrast between text and background, and ingredients you don’t have will now show as a different color.
They also redesigned the table of contents to make it easier to find the recipe you might be looking for. New sub-categories under major crafting schools are now selectable. You’ll now be able to skip directly to swords or axes, for instance.
Another huge change and time-saver is the ability to bulk salvage material. They’ve also added the ability to bulk craft, which will help with things like arrows, potions, and food, to name a few, but I think the salvaging is the largest gift by some measure.
Loading the table and then pulling off the salvaged components just to do it again was a pretty draining process, or at least it felt that way to me. It was made worse because there was no “recipe” for it in your book and no single place you could click to just “salvage all the things.” Yes, I think the salvage in bulk will be a definite benefit to me personally, and I expect fellow crafters out there will concur.
As I said, the Skill systems also saw some attention in this release. Players living the literal high life may want to take a look at the Subterfuge skill tree where they’ll find a new skill called Safe Fall. The skill reduces fall damage, allowing players to leap from greater heights. The Novian Ballet Company has apparently lost a number of “swans” in recent weeks, and this should help.
There are loads of other skill-related tweaks, you’ll find in Release 28. There is now an option to untrain old skills, level caps have been removed, and some serious UI changes have been implemented. Immediately noticeable visual changes are the Skill Tree icons, which have been redesigned to use the sigil-like graphics that are more immersive.
Players will also now see icons along the side of their screen showing which skills have been leveled during a play session, which is something I always tend to lose track of, myself. Then, if you look at those newly leveled skills, you’ll have an easier time of figuring out what stats and gear effect it as you find the new tooltip design. Chris said there’ll be more work on it going forward, but you shouldn’t be swamped with useless information going forward.
This release was actually really hard to write about because there were so many cool things in so many directions, that I just had a tough time pulling it all together. For instance, I haven’t even mentioned the new in-game sheet music yet. Now, players can trade ABC files in-game via in-game producible sheet music. Mind. Blown. How fricking cool is that?
They’ve done tons of things like that since the last time I visited them in Austin, and I just don’t have room for it. I could literally have written this article as a list. In fact, Starr did just that, and it’s over in the forums, so go check it out if you want all the details.
The amount of work this tiny team of 30 is accomplishing is staggering. They’ve taken a game from concept to nearly complete in just over two years, while games with way more funding and international teams of developers haven’t been able to accomplish nearly so much.
The massive list of adds in this this release is even more impressive knowing that the Portalarium offices suffered from the Flu Pandemic of 2016 over the last month. Even Starr, who’s well known for getting off his deathbed and coming to work sick in order to ensure maximum exposure, stayed home for a whole week of recovery, and he was hardly alone in that regard. Despite that, they have what I think is the largest list of adds of any release to date.
Richard, Starr, Chris, and I talked a bit about development trends last week. It’s an on-going conversation that’s lasted years at this point, but the comparison of what they’re calling co-development verses the traditional development process is really interesting. With only a handful of games to go on, the sample size is too small to know if what we see with Shroud of the Avatar is typical or not, but it’s still worth thinking about.
A comment from that conversation stuck in my mind, though. I had remarked on how much content a small team had managed to crank out in just thirty days. That’s when Starr mentioned that the typical pattern for projects is high productivity followed by a long slope leading to launch. In large part that downward slope is due to increasing demands on developers to attend conventions and promotional events, but also because player feedback begins to come in and necessitates adjustments.
I think the consistent and constant feedback from players from the beginning has given the impression of a more slowly moving project, but in reality has eliminated a massive amount of the late-game adjustments that plague most projects. I have to say, and even with acknowledging my own bias, I think Shroud is running strong and on track for their final wipe.
This month alone is proof that even the Phlegms of March can be weathered in stride by a really solid team with a vision, and even if it wasn’t a genre with great appeal to me, I think that I’d still be supportive of that sort of project. No matter what, I think Portalarium has been a great influence on the industry, and I’m glad to see them rocketing forward. So take that, flu.