Release the Kraken
Starr Long crushed the dreams of a small segment of the player base like so much playdough recently when he announced that the bag inventory system would be dropped from the game. While the system is iconic of Ultima games and creates a great deal of nostalgia, it also added a significant cost to development. Starr and Chris Spears noted during my recent visit that maintaining and testing two different inventory systems just wasn’t going to be sustainable.
Personally, I’m a little bummed about it. Chris pointed out that they tested to see how many players were actually using the bag inventory system and found that it was used less than 3% of the time. I’m in the 97% that have using the list-based system, and probably among others who really hated seeing the system go despite never (or at least rarely) using it. It was one of those things that reminded me of my younger days, and there was something cool and comforting about knowing that it was there.
That said, from a business perspective, I get it. I want the project to be healthy, so that they can keep doing cool stuff. Tough choices like this is about running a healthy company, and it does free up some development effort for other things. It’s still a little tough, if I’m honest with myself about it. Bags are so iconic. My therapist is definitely not going to understand this one, though.
Skills, Combat, and Crafting
A big effort over the next couple months will go into the continuing refinement of combat. With optimizations hitting pretty heavily over the last several releases, combat should be more fluid in general. Chris has been watching the data and making relevant adjustments, as well. The data has also shown additional rough spots in the single-player balancing in the game, that is also being addressed.
I won’t mention the specific scene since there could be some spoilers, but it’s one that in multiplayer needs friends to defeat. In single-player, the deaths were through the roof and it’s blocking some players from completing the story. Thanks to player feedback supported by data, that scene will be redesigned to be hard, but actually possible, while offline.
Crafting is also seeing attention as Portalarium adds the typical batch of new recipes to Shroud of the Avatar, but there’s more in store than just those few extra bits of gear. New expertise skills will allow crafters to refine resources in bulk. Those skills have required a new balance to the number of resources in the game, which is something that I’m particularly excited about.
Skilling up in crafting has felt like a bit more of a chore to me than it should have been up until now. It seemed like I managed to level up my combat a lot faster than my crafting, despite really trying to focus more on the crafting. I often found myself able to fight tougher creatures because I had better combat skills, more than having better gear from my efforts at the crafting table.
The increased resources should help balance that out a bit. Also, along with increased amounts of raw resources, several resource visuals are getting some work. Harvestable trees will be replaced with new assets that are much more appealing, ensuring that pine trees and maple trees will no longer look like they’re the same tree.
Shroud was developed using a lot of Unity assets that were barely modified as they came out of the store. The result was a number of creatures in the game that weren’t really the best looking. As artists are freed up from other tasks, they’re taking part in a specific push to correct some of the less sophisticated assets, bringing them up to par.
Wolves and female peasants have been replaced already, and a new better-looking version of bears should be in the next release or two. The team is also continuing to add new creatures, like the recently added wild boars. More assets will be added or replaced as more artists pick up the push.
Part of looking good is behavior, though. For instance, aggro problems have been causing creatures to swap aggro between players too often. Chris Spears pointed out during our conversation that, visually, it was particularly problematic with the larger creatures, such as dragons. The rapid swapping of aggro caused the creatures to constantly pivot during fights, which looks really odd, to say the least.
Aggro issues also impact playability, detracting from players that want to build their characters up to fill more of a traditional tank role. Some fixes for that problem have already made it into the game and are being evaluated. The feedback so far seems fairly positive as armored players are able to better defend their damage-dealing colleagues.
The road to launch is short, but getting there means delivering on kickstarter promises, to include the physical rewards. The cloth maps are going into production soon, so folks should be getting information on when to expect their backer rewards pretty quickly. I know Richard Garriott needs to sign at least some of them, I’m not if that reward was for everyone or not. Either way, it’ll be a lot of signed maps and will take some time.
I don’t remember it being mentioned in the campaign, but personal heraldry was definitely mentioned in those first few months of development, and that’s another thing coming online leading up to launch. The details are still being worked, but backers should have a process for getting personal heraldry into the game soon. It’s more of a policy question at this point than a technical one, I believe. The developers have already started working on in-game assets that would allow players to show off their coats of arms.
Another change inbound as part of the pending release will be a much-needed website revamp. The current site has been sufficient for development, but a nicer website after launch will help market the game as new audiences are reached. Those new audiences will be exposed to a different version of the store, as well.
The Shroud of the Avatar cash shop will be reworked to better appeal to audiences composed of non-backers. Richard pointed out during my last visit that the current shop is geared more for those who backed the game and typically know what they want going in.
Newer players won’t be looking for the high-dollar items, so the store will be changed to present newer players with packages geared more for getting started. I haven’t seen exactly what those packages are, but virtually every MMO these days has something similar, and thus I expect it’ll be pretty typical.
I’m glad to see launch approaching for Shroud of the Avatar, and I’ve really enjoyed covering the game from the start of the campaign to the release. Whether crowdfunding remains a viable path for independent developers or not, I can’t say. I do think it’s been a wonderful opportunity for those interested to get a very close look at how games are developed. I suspect that it’s been rather eye-opening for the developers, as well.
Either way, I’ll see you in the game, Avatars. May you all find your shrouds, and may they all be white.