Starr Long had mentioned during my last visit that they’d start rolling Shroud of the Avatar over to Unity 5 this month. When I bumped into Finn Staber, one of the Shroud developers, at a hub for Austin startups, I wasn’t surprised when he told me they’d been working on it. The shocking part was when I asked how much they’d managed to get rolled over for the updated engine over the last two weeks. “All of it,” was his reply. Needless to say, I was blown away and immediately called Starr to let him know I was on my way over to their offices to take a look.
Richard Garriott had the team’s JIRA page open as I walked in, and the rocket-launched red line of open tickets mirrored rapid succession by a green one showing tickets closed was proof that Finn hadn’t been exaggerating. You might expect that’s all they did this month as I did, but Starr took to the white board in Richard’s office to prove otherwise.
Things that Dropped
There is one thing I’ve come to know about the guys at Portalarium, though. They’ve been doing this long enough to be comfortable with a shifting schedule. It doesn’t happen often, but when things slip to the right on their calendar, they don’t make excuses or throw each other under the bus by blaming it on something random, like net code issues.
Right out of the gate, Starr lead the conversation off right with what had been intended for this pass, but got dropped to update the game’s assets to take advantage of the new Unity 5 engine. None of it is really new if you’re following the forums, and it’s just one more example of why I hold this team up to everyone as the standard for open development. I don’t think there’s a thing that happens in that office, good or bad, that isn’t communicated to the community first. Frankly and unlike most projects, their Dev+ backers know pretty much everything before I do, and I believe that’s pretty awesome.
Dyes were first on the chopping block. It’s a shame because the alchemy folks have been a little short on love over the last several months, and the ability to dye cloth and armor would have finally given the profession a place of distinction amongst the crafting pantheon. Plus, the ability to dye armor would have brought some much-needed diversity to crafted goods, not to mention those that wear them.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. That said, I don’t see it as a major problem and suspect that we’ll soon see dyes in a future pass. My hope is that this finally heralds the alchemical renaissance and we’ll see more for alchemy coming down the pipe. I ask about poisons nearly every time I’m in the office, but all I get is laughter. However you must account for the fact that Starr is the Lord of Chaos, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he’s stalling it just to aggravate me.
Another thing that fell out of the schedule is the ability to teach emotes. This one is a feature that Richard Garriott is particularly passionate about, so I’m surprised it didn’t get in this pass. In retrospect, I think coding it probably requires a bit more heavy lifting than most features, and by multiple divisions in the team. My guess is that it fell off the plate because it would have leeched cycles across the board and wasn’t something a single developer could be tapped to do.
Things that Stuck
Shockingly, there was a lot that didn’t get dropped, though. First on the list are the Sun and Moon schools of magic. Unlike other points on the magic glyph, those that specialize into these areas find they get bonuses depending on the time of day. Acolytes of the Moon will get bonuses at night, and of course those of the Sun will see their benefits in daylight.
Two big things the Moon school of magic is adding to the game is night vision and stealth. Both go a long way towards giving those who’d like to play more rogue-like characters a chance to do so. Also, true to their Ultima roots, stealth-activated characters won’t be completely invisible. They’ll just be really hard to see.
Richard likens it to the hidden doors of Ultima IV, where you had to look closely to spot the single pixel out of place. That was the clue that something was hidden behind a given wall, and then there are similar techniques applied to the dungeons of New Britannia. If you look hard, you can spot the hidden doors already in place in several dungeons.
Stealth for characters will work the same way when Shroud patches up to Release 15. Starr says that players who get into a room first and then stealth will be virtually impossible to detect. Those that attempt to move past take a greater risk, though. I didn’t think to ask while I was up there, but it sounds really similar to how they created the ghost effect. Starr explains is as a blurred effect in the air that’s not very noticeable, even with the character moving. Players that pay close attention however, have a chance to spot the stealthy back-stabber and engage at their pleasure.
One of the biggest changes in this pass will be to crafting in general. Crafting advancement will finally be going into place, and there’ll finally be a reason to invest points in areas outside of combat. Experience is divided into crafting and combat, but with a twist. As you gain experience in either, you’ll get a little of the other. Killing spiders will give you mostly combat experience, but you’ll still get a little crafting experience, for example.
Richard pointed out that it made sense if you consider how skills might be related. Smithing tends to make you stronger and teaches muscle memory that might come in handy on the battle field. Perhaps striking that elven archer gave you an idea for how to reinforce leather armor better. Either way, you learn more about what you’re doing, but it also contributes in small ways to skills that are otherwise unrelated.
Starr explained that crafting experience will come in three ways, gathering the initial materials, refining those materials, and then eventually crafting stuff. Unless they change before release, you’ll only get experience as you gather, but that makes sense since most of the initial pass is composed of gathering-related bonuses anyway.
Gathering will now have a progress bar and take more time, but one skill will allow you to speed that up. There’s another ability that gives you a chance to reset a resource after harvesting it. For instance, you may mine through a copper vein, then there’s a role against this skill as you hit the last time with your pick. If you win the roll, the vein is preserved and you get to harvest it again. Otherwise, you’ve gotten all you can and have to move along to find another node to harvest.
Things that Improved
Of course, the big news of the month is the roll over to the Unity 5 engine, which should initially be subtle. As the team has time to go back over assets and take advantage of the Unity 5 improvements, I expect the difference will be much more obvious.
One simple improvement that’s already in is the cloth modeling and physics. Before the update, Shroud cloth physics required a plugin, but the new engine has that feature built in and does a better job of it. It never occurred to me to try doing it, but Starr says that had I found a way to stand on my head before now, I would have seen my cloak defying gravity. Now, the cloth cloak will fall around my shoulders and bunch up. Because the effect is native to the engine, I suspect the physics to handle it all will take less CPU as well.
Another plus will be a significant improvement to lighting effects when there are multiple light sources. In Unity 4, each light source required two passes to calculate the effect, and when you multiply the number of torches, fires, and whatever else might be casting shadows in the area by the number of times a scene has to be redrawn as the player moves through, you get a really large number. Unity 5 cuts that number in half by only having to do a single pass per light source, and that should account for some solid performance benefits going forward.
All that said, I really am blown away that the guys managed to get so much done in a month. Richard says they think they’re pretty confident that they’ve solved their stability issues. Though you should realize that Portalarium’s notion of stable is a slightly higher standard than most, but I’m still not all warm and fuzzy about it.
Switching engines is a really big deal, and I’ve yet to see it done without a whole lot of effort and not a few glitches. We are talking about the guys who’ve had every release out on time down to the minute and not had a single unplanned server outage to date, though. If anyone can pull of a smooth transition, it’ll be these guys.
Things that End
You might ask why I spent time writing about things that didn’t make the cut in this release when they’ve added so much more to the game. With over 40 new scenes, a portion of the main continent now ready to be explored, plus all the things mentioned above, and more besides, you can hardly say they took a break. I actually have two reasons for pointing that sort of thing out.
First, it goes to demonstrate the character of a team that’s as open and frank about their problems as they are their successes. It’s really easy to broadcast wins and take all the praise, but it’s a show of true professionalism to embrace coming up short on a goal. It’s even more impressive when the admission isn’t followed by an excuse. More than anything I’ve seen, the way the guys on this team comport themselves continues to show the level of transparency I expect from a project that I’ve backed, and I applaud what it takes to open yourself to the world like that.
From a more practical standpoint, I think it goes a long way to showing where Portalarium actually is on the project. They really haven’t missed many release targets, and the stuff they missed this time when compared to what they still managed to get in is really telling. It’s indicative of a team that has a solid handle on what they can deliver, which makes me trust their stretch goals that much more.
They may have slipped a bit this time around, but what they managed to accomplish instead will have a huge impact on the game going forward. Starr once told me that there are days that feel like the pace of development is too slow to him. I’m telling him now, he’s crazy.