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Release 30's Big Changes

Red Thomas Posted:
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We’re only a couple releases away from the final wipe for Shroud of the Avatar, and that means the team is now working with a hard-stop time constraint.  In actuality, the Agile development philosophy that they’d adopted at the beginning of their development and monthly release schedules are probably the best possible preparation for the run-up to final wipe they could have asked for.  That said, throwing in last-minute major changes to major systems like targeting tend to toss the scariness factor off the scale.

Today, we’re going to take a look at some of the fallout around the decision to make that dramatic design shift and how it impacted some of the changes we’ll see in Release 30.  We’ll then get into what I’m most excited about, which is some potentially controversial updates to the crafting system, and we’ll also talk a bit about what their choices suggest about the health of the game.

Targeting Elephants

There is no doubt that the move to modal targeting was a critical design decision, and I’ve made no secret of my doubts about the timing.  Do I think the idea behind the new system is superior?  Absolutely and without question.  My concerns are strictly related to the timing of such a massive change, and those questions are not without merit.  This last month has gone a long way towards demonstrating the validity of my concerns, but the next release looks to provide comfort in equal measure.

Looking in the SotA forums, there was a significant level of consternation in the first couple weeks of the new targeting system going live.  You could probably debate whether the negativity was the result of actual problems, or just general irritation at having to learn a new system.  The fact that the complaints started to fall off rather quickly might suggest the latter, but I don’t think that’s the case.

Vahold, a key scenes in the Path of Courage, will also reveal more of the story behind war with the Kobolds.

Let’s face it.  The first iteration of the new targeting system was not great, and the forums quickly built up a list of reasons to not be happy with it.  Ranged combat in particular became more difficult, and healer support became virtually impossible.  Problems differentiating between targets and holding a specific target “locked” made doing anything outside of melee incredibly problematic.

All that’s not to say that I don’t like the new system.  I think it’s much better, or it will be.  It just needs some love, and a lot of those problems are being addressed in the next release.  What I like best about the fixes being implemented is that they’re simple fixes which compound into a more complex solution.

The main changes are “sticky” targeting, target locking, and target cycling.  These three changes alone will dramatically improve the system.  Sticky targeting should allow archers and casters to more easily “latch onto” their chosen target.  As you mouse near a target, it’ll become selected and stay selected as long as your reticule is generally close to it.

Using shift+click to select a target will lock on to it, making healing far easier than it has been over the last month.  Along with that, players can use “G” to cycle through targets, which will help healing and ranged combat, both.  And combined with a new over-the-shoulder view mode, combat in general should be far better in the next release.

The change I found to be particularly interesting was the multi-targeting feature that’s being added in Release 30.  Using an area–based weapon, skill, or spell will be far more effective from now on, because you’ll be able to tell who all will be impacted as the reticle displays all potential targets in the area of effect.

Crafting Elephants

My favorite change in the next release, and potentially the most controversial, is centered on crafting and supporting the player economy.  In the current system, weapon bonuses and modifiers come from alchemical engravings and slotted gems.  To support those systems and make them more worth-while, the bonuses from critical successes were removed from the crafting process.  A critical success while forging a new blade netted the player additional XP, but that’s about it.

That created a situation where mastering a craft was pointless.  If a critical success while forging a sword has no impact on the resulting item, and the only reason to skill up in crafting is to increase critical chances, then…  Why bother?

Use and wear of equipment will drive crafting as replacement gear will be needed after this release.

The solution was durability and turning it into a form of item-crafting currency.  Critical successes while making an item will result in increased durability.  Enchanting the item still has a compounding chance of failure and risk of ruining the item, but now each successful modification also decreases the maximum durability of that item.  This means that the more powerful a weapon or piece of armor is, the faster it’ll wear out, and thus why it’s so important to start with an item with that increased durability from a critical success.

Crafters also get back into the enhancement game this release through a Masterwork skill.  Masterwork allows crafters to pad specific stats, like increased strength or dexterity, but at the expense of maximum durability (and like alchemy, a risk of destroying the item).  Simple stat bumps will be the initial implementation, but the next release will include more finite control, such as bonuses to speed or damage.  I like this, because it means crafters have options for tweaking items sans alchemical assistance, and can do so with bonuses that are unique to their system.

The controversy will likely be with how durability now works with respect to repairs, though.  Repair kits will repair the condition of an item, and repairs at a crafting station will do a more efficient job of it.  However, neither will repair maximum durability.  The incredibly rare Crowns of the Obsidian are needed to bump max durability back up, which means it won’t be cheap.

Brittany Fields will be an important location for the agriculture-minded.

In the new system, it’ll almost always be cheaper to buy a new item of the same type, rather than to attempt to repair the maximum durability.  Some will likely be upset that they can’t permanently use their favorite sword or breastplate without a massive financial investment, but there are really good reasons for the change.

If the only time you ever need to buy a new sword is to buy a better sword, what’s the point of any crafter making the same sword more than once?  Under the old system, no one would have ever been able to be a full-time armorer, because no one would ever need anything but the best suite you could build once.  The new system gives you the choice of economy verses quality and a viable reason for either one.

More importantly, linking that system to a downside in equipment modifications is brilliant.  Creating an actual cost/benefit system at the core of crafting will not only drive more crafting and stimulate the in-game economy, but it also will create additional in-game diversity as choices are offered to players.  Choice is always good in anything, but in order for it to be a choice, one option just can’t be obviously superior to all others.

Feeding Elephants

Major changes in this release include the implementation of things like the rest of the Path of Courage storyline, plenty of new scenes, and swath of performance work that make the game run much better.  That’s not even getting into the load of subtle work being done on the backend to make the game “production-ready.”

One of the little things – the gear you choose to wear says a lot about you… and your loyalties.

It was during a conversation with Richard Garriott and Starr Long that other subtle details emerged and gave me a good sense of where the project may be right now.  While I do like the project a lot and support some of the development ideas to emerge out of it as a positive impact on the industry, I do still make a conscious effort to gage the health of the overall effort.

Even if I like a team, I’m not going to suggest anyone invest in the effort, emotionally or otherwise, if I feel the investment is either mishandled or unlikely to pan out.  Thus, I always try to look for indications of problems.  Some of which problems may show up as slips in schedule, as an example.  Could be nothing, or it could indicate either a design problem or trouble hiring the needed developers to accomplish a task.  There are no shortage of potential warning signs when watching any development effort.

Indicators of healthy projects aren’t as easy without detect access to financial records.  No news is sometimes good news, but it’s also sometimes just a solid strategy of obfuscation.  That’s actually one of the reasons I support the co-development strategy being popularized by Portalarium.  A team that buys into the process fully will find it extremely difficult to hide problems, whether design-related or anything else.

So the lack of any major indications of problems in Shroud of the Avatar’s development is good, but news that the team is working on things like clothing design and chat UI tweaks could be great.  Richard’s stated before, and reiterated last week, that he really wants clothing to either be period and realistic, or have specific differences that echo the in-game world’s story.

The reason I like that they’re working on that sort of thing is that it suggests they’re on track with where they think they need to be at the current point in their development plan.  If the Starr felt the project was behind schedule, I don’t think developers would be worried about re-clothing NPCs and guards.  True, those are the small details that make a game much better, they’re not things that are critical to making a game playable right before launch.

When a team devotes development time to pure polish, I think it’s a fair sign of the project’s health.  That said, it’s worth restating that this isn’t definite proof that everything is great.  You never know what you don’t know, but I do think it suggests that the game is on the right track and that the team will be ready for their final wipe at the end of July.


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.