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Release 29 - The Great Divide?

Red Thomas Posted:
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It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of this project, but there are definitely some months that make for more entertaining articles than others.  I really kind of expected this one and the next couple to be relatively slow as several members of the dev team switch to working on some of the underpinning that turns a cool project into a sustainable game.

Obviously, the majority of the team is still working on content for the game, so there’s always going to be new stuff to talk about.  All the major systems are pretty much in the game by this point, though.  Iterations on existing systems and mechanics should be just a matter of fleshing things out, adding complexity, and making things more intuitive and new-player-friendly.  Well, you might think that…

This month’s update is going to be a little different than most.  I’ll go over a few of the things you can expect from the 29th release for Shroud of the Avatar, which frankly deserves a lot more time than I’ll have to give it.  Then we’ll take a look at one really major change that has me a little on edge, and finally get into some drama.  Man, I hate drama, so you know it’s something worth talking about if I’m willing to endure it for the sake of an article.

All Some of the Things

There are just too many things in this release to list them all.  The team has added just shy of 40 new scenes in this release, including the Brittany and the Crypt of the Avatar story-related scenes.  Brittany is a huge city and the capital of Novia, and it’ll eventually include a graveyard and four additional housing areas in addition to the soon-to-be-released central zone.  Then of course there’s the Crypt of the Avatar, a scene featured in the Blade of the Avatar book co-written by Tracy Hickman and Richard Garriott to tell the early story of the game world.

The huge city of Brittany took a lot of effort, but man does it pay off.

There are plenty of performance tweaks in this pass, a list of new audio effects, and several existing scenes also received a bit of polish.  Some of that polish went underground as passages under residential areas were added connecting various sewers in each region to each other, and connections between individual regions have been added. 

Don’t expect it to be easy, though.  This is meant as an alternative route between regions for those who don’t want to fight or sneak their way through the more dangerous choke points in the over-world.  Finding the NPCs who can give you the key to unlock routes to new areas is just the start, though.  After that, you have to find the path there, many of which are hidden behind secret doors, or deep a maze of dark tunnels.

There’s also a wipe this release, the last one before the final wipe in July.  One of the reasons for the wipe is to test the land-grab system, which will be done in 30-minute increments, rather than the 24-hour windows that will be used in July.  Unlike Oklahoma, there will be no sooners in Shroud of the Avatar, so no cheaters!

Your lot selection group can be found under your account information when you login on the SotA site.

All that barely scratches the surface of a pretty cool release.  For instance, alchemy now gets access to an engraving system for upgrading weapons and armor.  The initial system is just a random opportunity to add a semi-random bonus, but the number of bonuses will be increased over the next several months.  Even cooler, the bonuses you get will be region-specific in time, and then eventually will also be tied to astrology.  As always, the team has posted a more comprehensive list in their forums, so it’s worth checking out if you’re a backer.

Great Change

The big change in this pass is a major reversal on how targeting works, and it’s going to be noticeable in the extreme.  Up to this point, players were required to hold down the right mouse button in order to use mouse-look, which made for sore hands after play sessions of any length.

The reason they chose to go with the control scheme they have used up to this point was a feeling that the interactive mode was more immersive.  I suspect there may have been some unintentional nostalgia around it, as well.  The bag-mode looting and inventory system does make sense when you interact with the world through that original control scheme. 

The problem is that when you switch away from that to a more modern system with lists and more intuitive UIs, that style really doesn’t make as much sense anymore.  It also tends to make combat a little more wonky, as the team has found out.  In the end, Starr says they had to deal with so many edge cases to make it work, that they finally realized they were spending cycles fighting the inevitable.

There are a number of new recipes in Release 29, including this epic plate, which can then be engraved by an alchemist up to three time to become even more epic.

I kind of grilled Starr about the change, if I’m totally honest about it.  It wasn’t entirely intentional, but it struck me as infinitely poor timing to be making a change of this magnitude a few months before their final wipe.  Changing the way targeting works isn’t just a simple control switch.  It means combat flows differently, which means skills may need to be rebalanced.  Looting things needs to updated, and there are a lot of lootable items in Shroud of the Avatar.

It’s not like there aren’t good reasons for doing it, though.  Right off the bat, it’ll make the game far more approachable when it comes to new players.  The modal system they’re now adopting, where the player hits control or some other button to toggle between modes, is the de facto standard setup these days.  Using another system does add to the learning curve of those new to the game.  Modal systems have also been done enough time by now that most problems have been sorted out, and that cuts down on time developers spend trying to figure out how to make some aspect of the game feel more intuitive.  Think of it like pinching a touch screen to zoom out on a mobile app.  Do it differently, and you confuse your users with no real benefit.

I actually think the new system is the best way to go, and I’m a little irritated with myself for not realizing the old system wasn’t working as well as it should to begin with.  Frankly, I don’t often play in long enough chunks for the old system to bother me, and I just never really thought about it again once I was used to it.  My only problem is that the old system stuck around as long as it has, though I can’t exactly throw rocks at folks for not catching something I’ve never realized, either.

To his credit though, Starr Long is an absolute rock star.  Plenty of other teams have flopped because their leadership refused to reverse bad decisions before it was too late, but Portalarium is made of sterner stuff.  Starr took my minor interrogation like a champ, and did so with the calm air of someone who doesn’t allow mistakes define them.  That’s exactly what I look for in folks leading teams like this.  Defensiveness is the realm of the incompetent.

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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.