Offline is On
Shroud of the Avatar has been a strange development from the start. Not only was the project one of the first teams of industry veterans to try crowdfunding a new game, but they also pitched both online MMO-like and offline RPG-focused experiences to backers. As interesting as the idea is, I’ve never really thought the offline bit was worth much effort from the revenue side of things. I want the game to be healthy and have always thought the offline portion should just get a nod with the extra development put towards other things.
Richard Garriott, Starr Long, and all the other folks at Portalarium have always taken a stand on the other side of the question, though. I don’t think I’ve been onsite once in three years or so of interviewing the team that offline gameplay didn’t come up in the list of things they were working on. For Richard especially, the offline portion of the game has always been every bit as critical to the initial vision as providing space for player communities online.
Up until this year, offline work was mostly just about making it functional and leaving the balance and ensuring the “fun-ness” until later. Then a lot of focus was placed on making the offline game more playable in the last quarter, though some of that was story work that obviously benefits online players, as well. This next quarter will see plenty of specific offline development to make the game feel much more like an RPG for the players that want to enjoy Shroud in that way.
At this point, the majority of the three quest lines are in the game and the fourth culminating storyline, as well. Some polish is left to do, with some additional side-quests along the way to add depth. The polish pass over the various story-related NPCs will also include some additional visual enhancements to make NPCs and regions more distinct. The storylines can be completed now, and some players have done so, but there’s some talk about an option for players to reset their story-based progress once this last polish is in place.
A recent addition to new player experience in the game are the outskirt regions, which new players first land in after leaving the Isle of Storms. These regions will be populated with level-appropriate encounters and quests that specifically introduce new players to game mechanics. Some of these outskirt scenes already exist and will be getting additional looks, but a new one called Highvale outskirts will be coming online in a couple months.
With new side quests to make the game feel a little deeper, the team will also continue replacing place-holder scenes with custom scenes. These scenes will take advantage of the several new creatures being created over the next few months to expand the SotA bestiary, and new crafting patterns. All of it will help the game to feel more diverse and interesting, and I think new patterns for gear will be particularly good for immersion and the player-economy.
There’ll be a number of offline-specific updates in the next few releases, too. For one, Chris Spears is already looking into how to balance combat in offline encounters versus the online versions. A big difference is obviously that AI isn’t as inventive as a human, and rarely as effective in combat. To balance the power differential, NPC companions will be getting some buffs to make offline parties viable against some of the end-game mobs.
Spawning rates will also be adjusted in offline play to account for the lack of players, and to give a sense of progress in offline game-play. Quest-related dungeons and other areas with unique mobs can be cleared out by players, leaving offline spaces permanently cleansed of said evil. Starr and Chris said they still plan to have plenty of general areas with decent respawn rates to support offline crafting.
Which brings us to offline economy. The current economy is balanced so that player-to-player transactions are more valuable than player-to-NPC transactions. This is great for an online economy, but offline it creates a bear market. If the margins between raw materials and finished products are bad, for offline players they’ll be way too slim to allow for wealth accumulation. Since everything in the game is available for in-game currency when playing offline, that wealth is critical to how the team wants Shroud of the Avatar to play in the single-player experience.
With economy balance and combat balance coming in soon for offline players, the game should be in pretty playable state for the less social backers. I’ve actually been thinking about starting an offline game, since playing offline will be so much more viable soon. As much as I enjoy the background and emergent culture in online games, sometimes I’m just tired and really want to experience a bit of the game alone. I may not be a fan from a business perspective, but my gamer side definitely appreciates the desire for a little solo time.
Maybe the biggest news for Shroud of the Avatar is that the team has decided to start a Title III equity funding raise. I won’t rehash it here, but I’m not a big fan of equity crowdfunding. As I stated in previous articles, I think this form of investment is too dangerous to be a common capital-raising tool. As long as people are throwing money at a game that they would have spent anyway, it’s a great way for companies to share success with early backers.
That said, I just can’t in good conscience ever recommend it as an investment strategy because I’m afraid of encouraging folks to spend more than they would have otherwise. My objection is far more concern for consumer protection than it is any objection to it as a form of raising funds from Portalarium’s perspective, though.
As the team moves from a developer position and takes on more of a publisher’s role, the need to market the game and spend money on things outside of development will increase. I definitely wouldn’t approve of using crowdsourced money from the earlier campaigns towards anything along those lines. I, and I’m sure plenty of others, gave money to develop the game, and while some player acquisition is a part of making games, I don’t really feel that a major push for increased market share with the same cash would be entirely ethical.
Portalarium obviously has the same feeling for how backer money should be spent, because the shift towards marketing has impacted their method of generating capital. I happen to think Regulation D raises would be more appropriate, but I also know plenty of backers have asked for Title III. Ignoring what your community wants is a bad idea, and I know the folks at Portalarium weren’t looking to do a Title III campaign until they got requests. I’m not going to call a company to task for doing what their audience is asking of them.
Besides investments, we should be looking to see Port work to make deals with regional partners in the next several months. Expanding the game into Chinese, Russian, and other markets should bring in additional revenue and help to wrap up this portion of a cool new story from Lord British, with obvious help from the phenomenal Tracy Hickman, of course.
I’m not totally sure what impact the new regions will have on the game yet. Localization efforts have been underway for some time, but support from partners in those markets would improve translations a lot. I don’t know how servers will work, as far as region locking or being selectable, and how they handle that could make a big difference in online experiences. I’m also curious to see what it’ll mean for a future release of the next episode of the game.
Whatever problems newly opened markets would create for the team, the stability of the client and pace of development gives me a certain confidence in it being handled, though. From community to developers, this has definitely been the most impressive development project I’ve watched to date, and now I’m starting to get excited about what they’ll be doing for their second chapter… and when.