Richard Garriott’s team at Portalarium has been steadily moving forward with their new game, Shroud of the Avatar over the last month, and another release is upon us. Last week I had a chance to sit down with the guys based in Austin, Texas and get an early demo of this month’s release. Today we’re going to take a look at what’s in this release and what’s not in it, and see what it says about where the game is heading.
Starr Long noted right in the beginning of our conversation that the biggest push in this release was a hard pass at performance issues. Multiplayer was introduced in last month’s release and participating backers noticed their share of resource-related craziness. Since then, the folks at Portalarium have taken a number of steps to resolve those issues with the assistance of their Dev+ backers at a number of impromptu test sessions.
A hard look at performance had been planned for a later release, but the team wisely decided to do it before introducing the more complicated combat and magic mechanics, which we should be seeing next month for the 5th release. Delaying combat for a month has the added advantage of allowing them to input the stats for the weapons, armor, and clothing already in the game. Also, there’s an initial pass at loot-drops, which will be important for the developing crafting system as well.
Knowing there would be a fair amount of disappointment at the combat system being pushed back a bit, Richard Garriott was quick to point out that they have added the ability to initiate combat in this release with the basic auto-attack. They’ve also added in a fair number of new creatures to attack, but then there’s also nothing preventing you from laying into the NPCs and animals that inhabit the settled areas, as well. He also pointed out that the elven NPCs are combat-ready, with a selection of AI behavior to make them interesting opponents once the full combat system is released. These guys look more than creepy, which fits with their origins if you’ve been reading Tracy Hickman’s novelization of the game’s history, Blade of the Avatar.
The biggest visible addition to the game this release will be the seven new scenes available for exploration in addition to Owl's Head, Kingsport, and Braemar. The new scenes will consist of wilderness, caves, and dungeons where you’ll be able to find a lot of the new beasties. These new scenes will provide opportunities for backers to collect resources for crafting with harvesting also being added to the game.
Getting to these new areas required the developers to also allow backers access to the travel map, which makes its first appearance since the early trailer before the crowd-funding campaign. What they have now isn’t the intended product as far as the map goes. The plan is to have the map look more like the old cloth maps Richard has become known for over the years, and if you’ve been getting the emailed updates with the puzzle pieces in it, you have a good idea of what it’s planned to eventually look like.
Player housing will also make it back for this release, though ownership will be resetting every hour or two due to the limited availability of lots. Along with houses on land, the new frigate and house boat options can be explored in Kingsport’s harbor. To go with the new nautical options, the team has also added the ability to swim in this pass.
So no combat in this pass, which bummed me out a bit, but the artists have been busy and added a solid amount of new content for this month’s release. I played around in the demo a while the other day, and the programmers’ work behind the scenes is pretty obvious compared to the last build, so their contributions are not unnoticed. As interested as I am in trying out the new combat/magic system, it probably would have been a lot harder to get a feel for it without the improved performance of the game, so I guess I’ll just have to rein in my excitement a bit.
As it stands, the new release for Shroud of the Avatar manages to keep the game’s development progress moving along well. It’s tough to judge well because we, as the community, are seeing this game at a much earlier period in the developmental progress than we normally would. They’re certainly improving existing content and adding more to the game month-to-month far in excess of what I’ve seen come from nearly every other team out there, including teams much larger than the one at Portalarium. If your benchmark for success in continued improvement in existing systems and increased content after each cut at the product, then I’d have to say they’re doing well and chalk the latest release up as another success for Garriott, Starr, and the folks at Portalarium.