While it’s been about two and a half years of monthly Shroud of the Avatar releases, it’s actually been closer to three years of trips to Austin and meeting with the Portalarium team for myself. Shroud kicked off their campaign just after Star Citizen got going, and since I’d managed to make a few friends in both studios and lived just down the road from them, I’ve had the opportunity to make periodic trips to that distinctly weird city and watch Shroud grow from a rough idea to the game it is today.
Despite the run-up to final wipe, the team has still been working to pull together new content and tweak systems. Today, we’re going to take a quick look at what some of this new content is, note some of specific information you’ll need to know for this critical release, and then go into some of what backers can expect from the next phase of development.
Portalarium developers have been working over the last month to get the final pieces in place for Greater Brittany, namely the final scene of Brittany Estates. Walking the Estates, one can almost hear Robin Leach narrating the stroll from one massive gate to the next. While wealth may not be one of the virtues per se, the residents of Brittany Estates will make a good run at convincing you otherwise.
In addition to Brittany Estates, two previously cloned scenes, Spite and Xenos, have been replaced by scratch-built scenes. This is in keeping with previous posts and comments by the team noting that while several scenes in the game were cloned from others and used to flesh out some of the less inhabited sections of Novia, there is a plan to revisit and update them over time. Starr Long repeated in this recent visit the team’s commitment to continuing these updates post wipe, and noted that they won’t even considering calling the game launched until scenes are up to standard and all benchmarks from the crowdfunding campaign have been addressed.
The Path of Love storyline and new user experience have been revisited and polished a great deal. Richard Garriott walked me through the first several minutes of the player creation and introductory storyline in this last visit, and I definitely felt that it was far more polished than previous versions. NPC dialogue related to the Path of Love set of quests have also been edited for content. Conversations should flow more smoothly from now on, and it should be easier to stay on track while pursuing that particular storyline.
Players should find Soltown in particular far more polished and nuanced than it has been to this point. In fact, the team tells me that Soltown and Ardoris are much closer to their targeted standard for all cities in the long run, which is good since players following the Love storyline will be spending a lot of time in the two communities.
Loads of changes to crafting the economy made it into this release, as well. Check Starr’s post for the list of details, but the big changes are the introduction of minimal skill requirements for certain recipes, introduction of new recipes, and the addition of several new enchantments and visual effects. Skill requirements are being implemented so that players don’t burn truckloads of material on something they have less than a one in ten chance of crafting. It’s not exactly something I would have preferred, but Shroud isn’t very good about expressing difficulty sometimes. I can see how it’ll save a lot of people some frustration, and thus is certainly a good move for the game.
The coming release will include a full wipe, excepting social information. You’ll keep your guilds and friends lists, but all other online information will be gone. Chris Spears noted during our meeting that those playing offline should be able to load their saved game, so it sounds like this release will be mostly new content for them. For everyone else, it’d go-time!
One thing to be prepared for, is slower experience gain after the next release. Experience bonuses that have been around for most of the last couple years will be gone, and players will advance at a much more reserved pace. Also, expect some of the previous money-making opportunities to be adjusted as loot has been refined in order to get rid of some unintended drops, but crafting in some cases should be easier as low-tier resource nodes should be more numerous.
The land rush starts at 11:00AM CDT on Thursday, the 28th of July. Lot selection will be divided into groups, and you can check your account to see what group you’re in. From the Shroud of the Avatar website, login and click “Account” in the top right corner of the screen. The box in the middle of the screen will give you some account details, to include your lot selection group (or groups, if you have more than one) and what day and time your window begins. The selection period will iterate through all groups between the 32nd and 33rd release dates, so don’t be shocked if you have a date several weeks after launch.
Lastly, be aware of how actions impact your virtues and perceptions of your virtues. NPCs will have theft detection enabled, and will eventually report bad behavior to the guards, if it persists. Guards and other NPCs will also begin to react to how virtuous an avatar is through salutes or scowls, as appropriate. It’s a fairly simple system now, but expect it to be expanded in future iterations. More importantly, just be aware that virtue-impacting actions will now be tracked, and will now matter going forward.
Speaking of forward, what lies ahead for the development? Champaign? Parties? Well, nothing like that, it turns out. While this release is significant due to the last major wipe, Portalarium doesn’t consider the game done by any means. In fact, I’ve taken to teasing Starr a bit about what “launch” even means. As I’ve said in previous articles, the term is pretty much meaningless in the current era of crowdfunding and open-development.
Starr and Richard put me in my place, though. It’s a term that means something to the folks at Portalarium, and that’s what matters here. They use the term “launch” to signify a state in which they have introduced the intended content, and the scenes and stories are polished to a standard that upholds the Ultima name. That includes enough content to make the offline version of the game enjoyable for those who want that experience, as well.
Starr adamantly stated that they didn’t want to trick people into buying their game. For many fans, the rough state and last full wipe are perfectly acceptable benchmarks, and folks who are okay with that will jump in and love the game. For those who would rather wait until a more complete state, the “launched” flag will be your signal.
To grasp the distance between where Shroud of the Avatar is currently, and where that finish line for this chapter of the game is, Starr has a rough post-wipe schedule in the patch notes for Release 32. More detailed road maps should be rolled out quarterly, as they’ve been doing up to this point. Though, the team is still moving forward at their steady pace, and those benchmarks should get ticked relatively quickly.
Since this release is a milestone of sorts for the project, it seems appropriate to be a bit reflective, and one thing that I’ve particularly enjoyed through the process of following this project, is the virtually unfettered access Richard Garriott and Starr Long have allowed me to have to the game, the developers, and to their community. I don’t know many writers who’ve had the chance to watch a game develop from scratch like this, and I think it’s a pretty amazing thing to be able to observe.
It’s even more amazing when the company is taking such a bold step away from traditional development practices, and yet not one time did they ask me not to write about something mentioned or observed. Nor have they been anything other than appreciative of the few negative comments I’ve made since covering their development.
This game just isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. It’s something the Shroud of the Avatar team is certainly comfortable stating, and I think the idea of building games targeted towards a core base is something we’ll be seeing more of in the next several years, in any case. In many ways, it’s reflective of how the myriad ways that now exist for watching “TV” has driven that form of entertainment away from targeting the general public and instead focused more on smaller core audience groups. The opportunity to be an observer to that process, and with the level of access that I’ve been granted, has just been absolutely incredible.
I’ll definitely be looking forward to the next several months of development, as Portalarium wraps up the first chapter of their grand story. Even more importantly to me, is letting the leash off of the player-base and watching what they do next. Developers can create all the systems and content they like, but contrary to popular opinion, it’s the players that create worlds.