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Release 9: More Combat, More Everything

Red Thomas Posted:
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The neophyte to Shroud of the Avatar might expect things to slow down over the last month or two.  After all, two key members of the team have newborns and all the sleepless nights that come with them, but like a freight train of awesome, these guys just keep on trucking towards Epic City.  They’ve got a schedule to keep, and everyone knows you can’t stop a train.

This month’s pass will include a host of things, but with some continued focus on combat.  Last month was the initial rollout of PvP, and the data gathered should make this month a lot of fun for those lucky enough to have access.  Speaking of which, don’t forget to check out the sweepstakes for your chance to win a chance to play this weekend.

On the Attack

The team continues to improve their combat system through a focus on PvP.  Now, I know some folks aren’t crazy about PvP, so don’t get too upset just yet.  Just as I explained last month, Shroud of the Avatar will most definitely not be a PvP-centric game.  Only about half the horror stories you’ve heard about UO’s launch are true, and Portalarium is composed of a fair number of that original team, who all assure me that they learned a whole lot of lessons from the experience.

One of those lessons was that unrestricted PvP is fun for some people, but most people prefer to have a little choice about the matter.  Players fighting other players has been a focus over the last couple months because Richard and Starr feel it’s the best way to refine their combat system.  Truth is, we’ve all pointed out at one time or another that an AI just can’t be as creative as a human.  That means if you want to find as many ways to break your combat system as possible, let players have a crack at it.

The results should already be visible in this second iteration of combat, as the guys add more skills and tweak existing ones based on feedback, something that would be a lot harder to do had they already invested a lot of time building and balancing combat against AI opponents.  You should see more ice and water-based spells, along with more bludgeoning skills available this time around.  Most trees have had new innate skills added, as well.  That should help balance some of the difference between skill trees that already had them, and those that haven’t until now.

Group-based combat will be a bit more of a focus in this release as well.  Those who played in the grand melees of last month’s Shroud of the Avatar will get a chance to team up with their chosen side to layeth the smack down en masse.  This release will feature more of a team-based deathmatch style combat where players walk through a doorway to pledge themselves to either Virtue or Chaos, while a little team-balancing happens behind the scenes.  Think Quiddich, only no golden snitch, fewer brooms, and a slight emphasis on random dismemberment.

The Complexities of Defense

Sun Tzu tells us that victory grows from the fertile gardens of a strong defense.  Just as the wise farmer knows when to stay his hand at reaping, so does the great general.  Knowing that a strong defense is fundamental to combat, in this spin Shroud of the Avatar will feature improved skills outside of attacking, as well.

The new ice elemental has a very distinct brutish quality to it.

The light armor skill-tree got a lot of work in this last month.  The big new move is the missing medium armor tree, though.  Starr tells me that the team realized the medium armor tree didn’t quite fit for them, and Portalarium being manned by a cadre of perfectionists, the off-kilter feel of the tree just couldn’t stand.  The skills once housed in the medium skill tree have been revamped into the new Tactics tree. 

Placed across the combat skills sigil from the shield skills which focus more on being able to take and deflect shots, the new tactics skill line focus more controlling the fight.  Runes like Trip can be accessed via the tactics skill tree, along with passive boosts to off-hand weapons for those who chose to dual-wield.  The tree will likely be light for this coming release due to just being re-worked, but Starr and Richard say they have at least a few skills that should make it in.

With over 20 new skills being added this month, and a significant number of them the missing passive skills for tweaking how you engage in combat, fighting styles this time around should feel a lot more diverse and more individualized.  The additional work on the defensive skill lines will go a long way to adding a little more complexity to it as well.

More Than Combat

The new release is much more than combat, though.  I’ve heard some folks complain about the recent focus on combat, which happens to have come up in my recent chat with Richard Garriott and Starr Long.  They point out that while combat has been a recent focus of effort, well over half the team is still engaged in other things outside of that single aspect of the over-all game.

One new feature for instance, is the new mini-map idea being worked on.  As you’d expect from Lord British though, that simple feature common to nearly all modern MMOs has had a much deeper level of thought applied to it.  I should have known better, but when it was mentioned in our conversation, I groaned a bit.  I’m actually pretty sure it wasn’t entirely with my internal voice, either.

Mapmaker as a potential player-profession... Who besides LB would come up with an idea so awesome?

Richard was quick to point out that the new mini-map will be wildly different from the image that appeared in my head.  For one, it’ll depend on maps created by and purchased from other players and vendors.  Maps will have quality associated with them, and thus some will not be complete.  So you may find a map of a given dungeon, but with portions of it missing, it could conceivably lead you into greater danger than you would have experienced without it.

Higher quality maps will be much less common, and thus have significantly more value.  Most importantly is that Portalarium is once again demonstrating their commitment to a people-driven game by putting the power of mini-maps in player-hands.  Starr also points out that they don’t plan to have mobs or players show up on the maps, because they’re not supposed to function as radar.  Though, it did sound like they plan to add functionality down the road.  Possibly the option to make notations on maps, and that sort of thing.

New creatures are making an appearance.  After the backers last month seemed to love the chest mimic, Starr was excited to tell me about the barrel mimic they’ve created this time around.  I was expecting something like the chest mimic, where the barrel splits down the middle.  Starr tells me they instead flop onto their sides and the ends open up with a gaping maw of teeth a la sandworm.

Fire and Forget

I once had a Sergeant tell me that the ultimate compliment to an Army NCO was to take joes who could barely function, and train them into self-guided missiles.  When your Soldiers executed their mission with precision and alacrity on nothing more than a general idea of the commander’s intent and sound grasp of tactics, you knew you had saved some lives.  It’s something I look for all these years later, and not really something I expected to find in a video game developer, but there it is.

One of Richard’s standard soapbox talking points is that he wants creatures in his game to find unique.  Not just unique from other games, but he wants them to feel unique from each other.  “He wants the uniqueness to go beyond cosmetic, to the way they fight, move, and behave,” Starr tells me while introducing one of their newer critters.

Starr points to their new slimes and how most of the development was done while Richard was out with his newest child.  Even without him standing over them, the team came up with ideas that were so distinctly Lord British in flavor, you’d have thought it came out of one of the Ultima’s.

These new slimes will fight with an almost ant-like hive behavior.  As you’d expect from slimes, they potentially split when damaged.  The new slime spreads out the attacking line with any additional ones in an attempt to surround the player, which is a pretty cool behavior.  Even cooler is their plan to create in some self-preservation components into the slimes.  Damaged slimes will move back from the front line to heal, while more healthy slimes should move to the front.  Smaller slimes will even try to merge with other smaller slimes to make larger ones, given a chance. 

The blending of styles gives SotA a different, yet hauntingly familiar look. Also, it’s a hint at game lore.

On the surface, it seems like fairly complex AI behavior for a typical MMO.  I haven’t had a chance to play against them yet, but after thinking about it a bit, I don’t know that I should be all that surprised that they think they can do it.  Most of the basic behavior is already in the game, and Tabula Rasa had similar ideas for AI behavior.  This sort of seems like the natural next step in progression, when you look at it in that context.  The impressive part is that Richard didn’t demand it.  His team thought of it and put it together while he was out of the office.

Much More

I easily spend an entire article talking about some of the major selling points behind Shroud of the Avatar virtually every month.  For them it’s a labor of love, but it’s also a business and how they make their livelihoods.  It’s not shocking that they tend to focus a lot of effort on the big wins, and some of the more visible changes, and frankly that’s what you get with any other company doing the same sort of work.

I think the difference I note in Portalarium is in the details, though.   The very subtle things that they fix, add, or change, and you may not even notice.  For instance, in this pass you may notice that during the day, the shutters on houses are open and street lights unlit, where at night the opposite is true.  What you likely didn’t notice, were the NPCs walking through the town lighting or snuffing out lamps and manipulating shutters.  It’s not obvious and no one waves a flag at you to point out what’s going on, but it’s that detail that lends a sense of life to Shroud that I think tends to be lacking in other games.

You’ll be a little more careful when approaching barrels from now on, won’t you?

I think Tracy Hickman hit right on the mark during a conversation I once had with him about Shroud of the Avatar.  He pointed out that like himself, Richard Garriott is a storyteller.  Richard doesn’t make stories to entertain you.  He entertains you because he makes stories.  In that same sense, I realized that games are a lot like operas.  You know there are stage hands behind the scenes, but the great story keeps you from realizing they’re back there.

The difference is that Richard Garriott and his team are so good at what they do, that they make you forget that there’s even a stage.  It’s a testament to what a good team can accomplish, backed by a great community.  If you haven’t taken a look at the game yet, take advantage of the new sweepstakes to get a peak this weekend.  You might forget you’re at a computer for a while.


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.