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Shooting Solo

Red Thomas Posted:
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Shroud of the Avatar has been making major strides towards completing much of the vision backers funded four years ago, this April.  While the online and multiplayer of the game has been critical to the financial success of the project, plenty of people backed the project anticipating a more solo experience.  Development over the next quarter should go a long way towards delivering on that expectation.

I recently spent a day in Austin talking with the team and getting the scoop on what their plans were for the next few months.  A lot of the last quarter was spent working on the economy, improving character models, expanding the diversity of weapons and armor in the game, and putting more story into the game.

The next quarter will see the rest of the story from the three lines put into place, and a good amount of content polish.  Economy polish will also continue, with specific focus on making the offline economy more viable.  Shroud will also be getting some major help in the new player experience, with new scenes and concepts specifically implemented to introduce new players to the game.

Polish and Performance

While there’s been plenty of work done on performance to date, it’s mostly been focused on improving combat, framerates in specific situations, and issues involving general functionality.  Over the next several months, the team at Portalarium will be working on a lot of the little things that tend to make a bigger difference when added up.  For example, when I walked in to say hello during my recent visit, Chris Spears was looking for bloated objects in memory in order to optimize the game’s foot print.  Additional work will be done along those lines across the game to improve CPU utilization, framerates and general stability, and more noticeable, load times between scenes.

Cabalists ( anti-virtue cultists ) drop unique artifacts that grant massive bonuses, but with specific disadvantages. Also, some potentially unspecified disadvantages….

Combat will continue getting some attention.  More effort will go into looking at the PvE aspects of combat, somewhat neglected after plenty of iterations over the PvP portions of the system.  Backers will also start seeing improved combat effects and visuals, which should help with making the game feel a lot more finished.

There’ll be additional polish on the crafting system, with new recipes, skins, and patterns coming.  If you haven’t checked out crafting in Shroud of the Avatar in a while, there’s been a lot of work on it.  I really liked the idea of patterns, which gives a backer a choice after looting rare artifact.  Those artifacts can either be used as is for their unique stats, or can be turned into a pattern for future crafting.  So, the robes your wearing aren’t actually the ones evil cultists were wearing, but they’re based on the same pattern…  I wonder if the townsfolk will know they’re not the real deal, or if they’ll treat you like a loon anyway.

Offline players should be particularly excited for the next several months of development.  The offline economy will be getting a lot of attention, for one.  The current economy is balanced to make trading between players profitable and to encourage a player-based economy.  That doesn’t work in offline mode, though.  Thus, NPC vendors will be rebalanced to not only start paying better rates for crafted goods, but will also start carrying more of the things you’d normally have to get from player-supplied vendors.  That should really help build up the offline mode and make it more viable for those who’d prefer to play that way.

Kas, a new PvP scene, takes the fight vertical and grants advantages like traps to the team that manages to secure the summit first.

New Players

With Shroud developers testing a new demo system that allows potential players to try a restricted version of the game, there’s a lot of potential on the horizon for new backers.  That’s only true if those players convert to a paid account post-demo, though.  There are some challenges along those lines.  If we’re honest, the new player experience in Shroud of the Avatar could be quite a bit better.

The team is on it and plans to address a lot of the issues with that experience as we pass into the summer months.  One huge new system that will make a big difference is contextual help as you hover over items, skills, and other components of the user interface.  SotA has some new systems and concepts, making contextual popups pretty critical for anyone who hasn’t been around for most of the development period.

Also, Starr Long and Richard Garriott tell me they’ve decided to revamp the entire initial story for new players.  Even with improved transitions, the guys have realized that transitions should be minimized as much as possible during the early game.  The problem is that early scenes were among the first, and therefore smallest, developed.  New scenes called “outskirts” are being developed to hold a lot of those early quests and game tutorials.

Solace Bridge Outskirts features a fallback point for the defeated guards as the player’s initial base of operations.

Outskirts will be massive maps with a base of operations from which new players will venture out to complete objectives.  It’s a chance to add a little more story to the game, and will also cut down on the need for early transitions by keeping much of the first quests in one larger scene.

The skill system will also be getting a bit of a tweak in order to help new players learn the game.  The option to add additional skill bars and then to create customized decks will be gated to certain levels in an attempt to not overwhelm players with too much early on.  Obviously, as someone who already knows the system, I’d like an opt-out option, but that might not be fair to those who don’t know about it.  It’s something I can deal with and is the right decision if it helps more people find the game enjoyable, though.

Every virtue has it’s opposite, and sometimes the area between the two can be pretty grey.

Telling Stories

Richard Garriott is known for his complex stories that pose deep questions about complicated philosophical topics and morality.  Perhaps the most important part of offline gameplay, and still certainly a big part of the online gameplay, are the stories created with Tracy Hickman for Shroud of the Avatar.  Split into three main storylines, the players experience virtue-testing adventures through the Paths of Love, Truth, and Courage.

The Path of Love is pretty much complete with polish at this point, and work is moving to the polish stage for the Path of Truth.  The Path of Courage will get a lot of work through the next couple months, and be in a polished state by the end of May.  The fourth installment of the story, a finale that will tie the disparate stories together, explain some of the details behind the Oracle, and reveal the major forces at play, will be completed by the end of the quarter.  Polishing on the final component of the story will likely extend into July, though.

To support the stories, questing, and just general dialogue with NPCs, a new chat system that tracks conversational options will also continue being refined.   It’s a cool system that reminds the player which topics have been discussed versus mentioned, and adds new topics to the list as they come up in conversation.  I think it’s something that’ll be handy for most backers, but the biggest win will probably come from making the game a lot more approachable to newer players.

Going Offline

Starr Long bluntly admits, “Offline is not a playable experience right now.  It works, but [Shroud of the Avatar] is tuned for online play.”  For plenty of backers, that’s been an issue for quite a while, and not totally unfairly.  That said, online play nearly always must be developed first.

To my mind, it’s first because it’s the major foundation of revenue for the project, and thus a sustainable project needs early focus in that area.  Starr pointed out that it’s also just as true from a development and balancing perspective.  I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it does make sense.

Towns can adopt devotionals to get specific buffs for residents, but may come under siege by forces opposing that specific virtue.

It’s easy to account for a global economy in a single-player experience, because there’s only one uncontrollable influence in the system.  Online, players revel in the opportunity to game the economy, and that creates unique challenges as new systems and economic processes come online.  Developers need to be able to implement sweeping changes as they spot issues under player-load.  Once the systems have been stressed and the right balances reached, it’s a simple process to retune to an economy sans player influence.

I mention the point not make excuses for offline-mode’s development pace, but to highlight Starr’s comment.  It’s really refreshing to see a studio stand up straight and be frank about where they are with a topic as touchy as offline mode has been for them.  I see it as another clear indication of the quality and integrity these guys have brought to the industry, and just another reason for why I’ve been proud to have backed the project.

Shroud of the Avatar may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it seems like this level of integrity is the sort of thing everyone can get behind.  It wouldn’t be the first project I’ve supported just because I appreciated the artistry or ethics of the developers, but I happen to actually enjoy SotA, as well.  It’ll be interesting to see how many others find they like the game as well, as the next few months of work combine with the demos to give access to new players.  If nothing else, it makes the game a lot more playable by those who don’t want to be online, and that’ll be a really good thing, too.


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.