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Release 31: Nearly Move-in Ready?

Red Thomas Posted:
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Just a month until final wipe.  In many ways, the 31st release for Shroud of the Avatar is summed in that simple statement.  So many things are right, a few things aren’t quite there yet, there’s a certain anticipation of finally being able to play in a truly persistent game-state, and yet there’s this nagging concern in the back of my mind that the concept might be a little too ambitious.

Of course, it’s too ambitious.  No one creative enough to develop video games is going to limit themselves to realistic expectations.  Whatever mental switch most people have that warns them of projected danger, it’s non-existent in the minds of entrepreneurs and game developers.  It takes experience and great mental discipline to drive entire teams of that sort of people towards some semblance of a marketable product, a process made even harder when it’s done right in front of the player-base and with all the opportunities for comment that entails.

With one month of development left until the final wipe, there are legitimate questions about whether the team can reach the expected state or not.  In this month’s article, we’ll take a look at some of the bigger updates in this release, as well as a couple of other major shifts in direction for the team.  Unlike the last major trajectory change with the targeting system, I’ll explain why I like these a lot and why some people may not.  Lastly, I’ll also be spending a bit of time exploring the current state of the game with how it relates to the final wipe.

Stuff of Newness

The standard pace of new scenes continues unabated as the team rolls out a solid list of both player-owned towns and player-run towns (The latter being developed towns that are not owned by a specific player, but don’t have any particular story element located in them.  Think of them basically as empty developer-placed space to drop a house.).  New story scenes, mostly around Brittany, have been added.  Also, several cloned scenes have been placed in the more remote areas to even out resource gathering and adventuring space.

The cloned zones are a potential sticking point, and the source of another change in this release.  Scenes that have been cloned will now have signs designating them as being under construction.  The idea is to let players know that the scene is just a place holder and will be replaced later by another hand-made version.  These scenes are in place to ensure players basing their operations out of the less-developed parts of the continent have equal access to resources and adventuring experience.  Though it’s not unfair to note that some players may be put off by the signs, which will probably be a little immersion-breaking.

New scenes like Brittany Alleys continue to flesh out the game world, and new AI behavior makes them feel even more alive.

I’m a sucker for crafting systems, though.  That means the new hotness, to my mind, are the updates to crafting.  Starr Long and Richard Garriott were frank in admitting that the system had obviously been in a less-than-desirable state in the last release, and will only be a little better in this one.  That’s so that the new and far more complex system of bonuses and condition/durability could be applied, though.

Having done a bit of programming myself, I’m not really worried about the current state of crafting.  I know a lot of people will complain and accuse me of being an apologist on this point, but the base fact is that the new system is complex and is going to be really ugly as long as it’s only half-rigged.  Once it’s in, it could be one of those truly defining aspects of the game, though.  That’s why I’m okay with the current state, along with knowing that the team is on track for having the system wipe-ready in time for the next release.  Nothing I’ve seen on their list of tasks related to crafting seems problematic, just time-consuming.

This new system trades item durability for bonuses and enhancements, and that’s going to be a critical part of implementing a true player-driven economy.  The only reason blacksmiths have to make more basic swords, is because people need them.  That need has to be driven in some fashion, and having equipment wear out is without doubt the best way to do that.  The complexity of the new system will also create needed diversity in player loadouts, and that’s also great for immersion.  Best of all, the basic mechanics allow for a great deal of growth overtime, which leaves a lot of room for more crafting post-wipe.

Stuff of Oldness

Two major pillars in Shroud of the Avatar’s development are being challenged as of this update, and both are pretty key to the path forward for the game.  First, is the change in story focus.  A key component of earlier Ultima games was the ability to wander the world stumbling into multiple stories and plot lines without being stove-piped into a single narrative.  No, Oblivion was not the first game to employ that technique, if some the newer readers were about to object in righteous indignation.

It seems simplistic, but adding more clothing to the game goes a long way towards making the world feel more immersive by creating needed diversity.

Richard was set on SotA giving players the same experience, and that hasn’t really changed.  What has changed is the development strategy to get there.  Initially, the plan had been to develop all three major storylines in parallel, knowing that none would really be totally up to snuff until post-launch, or whatever term you want to use for the event.  This hasn’t gone as well in practice.  Frankly, I play for the immersion of the game and don’t often pay as much attention to the storylines around me as other players, so it hasn’t bothered me much.

The unfinished, and certainly unpolished, state of all three storylines has been an issue for a significant number of backers, though.  Demonstrating yet again why the Agile pace of monthly releases is so fantastic, Portalarium pivoted to a new philosophy of focusing on the new player experience and on a single storyline at a time.  Focusing on the Path of Love, the team is working to get that storyline in place and working to a much more appropriate standard before final wipe.

The other old pillar of development has been the cash shop.  At some point after the final wipe, the team will have to switch their funding model away from a “backer” concept and to something more resembling an actual cash shop.  Obviously, cosmetic and decorative items will continue to expand and be a large portion of continuing revenue for the project, but Richard and Starr explained in this last visit that Crowns of the Avatar, while still dropping in-game, will become a new source of revenue via the cash shop.

With the only way to repair total durability (as opposed to condition, which can be repaired in several ways) of an item requiring the rarely dropped Crowns of the Avatar, I was initially very opposed to the idea of selling those Crowns in the cash shop.  In fact, the guys were probably nervous as I left because I wasn’t shy about vocalizing my concerns.

An expansive world is necessary to support the large number of player towns, but might it have been better to focus on a smaller area initially?

Then while driving home down the windy backroads of the Texas hill country, I thought about it a bit more.  Shroud isn’t the first game to do something like this.  Guild Wars and others have implemented systems that aren’t too different.  Plus, these Crowns can be bought and sold via in-game stores for in-game gold, allowing players multiple avenues to attain them.  Lastly, despite how offended my inner-crafter is at the idea, the reality is that this is not giving anyone any advantage over anyone else other than the ability to continue using a favorite sword or piece of armor.

Thus, if I can’t really find a good reason not to do it, other than just not liking the idea of repairing durability at all, I have to pay more attention to the reasons to do it.  The only reason that really matters is revenue, though there are certainly others.  Obviously, players having the ability to continue using their lucky cod piece or favorite staff beyond it’s normal lifespan is a win for that player.  Plus, it’s a process that’ll encourage in-game trading and help stimulate the digital economy, which is also good.  However, the big win for the game is opening up a persistent revenue stream to keep the company, and game, healthy.

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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.