I am quite literally just back from Austin as I sit down to write this latest update on Shroud of the Avatar. I wasn’t able to make it up for my typical week-before-release hangout with the guys, so today was pretty much a drive by. It’s well worth staying up past my bedtime to hack this article out, though. Despite the brevity of my visit, I got a load of cool information to share with you folks, and I’m excited to do it.
Right… So a triple shot expresso later, and we’re rolling into paragraph number two, but my energy crisis isn’t what you’re here for. You want to know about the things coming up for Release 11, like character advancement and some of the new crafting changes. You probably already know about that stuff, and about the recent news concerning Steam. There’s even cooler stuff in store though, so read on!
Advancing the Character
Character advancement will be included in the 11th release, or at least an initial pass at it. The basic form is an accumulation of experience, which nets the player levels and attribute points. The attribute points are what you spend to unlock new abilities. Up until now, the team has just given players a set number to buy skills with, but you’ll have to earn the right to sling that fireball from now on, Soldier.
It should be pointed out that this is just a first shot at a roughing in the system, and this really illustrates one of the things I’m loving about this project. Nothing is set in stone with these guys. If they find something that works better, they do it and they’re open with their community about what’s happening. A prime example is that there are a number of ideas for tweaking character advancement being floated around, even as they’re implementing the current one. There’s even a rough idea for a system that would allow for use-based progression, which is a system close to my own heart.
Along with advancement, nearly every skill in the game has been touched in this pass, so expect some possible differences with your standard build. Specifically, the Death Magic skill tree has gone through some work to allow for summoning skeletons and liches, rather than the zombies and ghouls that had been there in previous passes. I also have to note here, I’m a huge fan of how these liches look in the game and think it’s definitely a trade up from ghouls.
Another character-based difference in the new release will be how ranged combat works. As Starr pointed out in a decent developer post on the Shroud forums, players will no longer have to equip arrows in their off-hand to use them. Instead, arrows will be pulled directly from your inventory when you fire them. Also, don’t expect as much accuracy while firing on the move as running now hurts your effectiveness at ranged combat.
Advancing the Game
The game world got a lot of attention in this last month, as well. There are several new scenes for players to experience in this release, including a whole new batch set in a swamp biome. The swirling mists and lightning bugs create a degree of ambience and demonstrate some of those subtle touches that the team is known for adding. Shroud is definitely a game where the subtle details bring extra life to the world and demonstrates the degree of professionalism among the members of the Portalarium team.
Another of the new scenes is called Vertas Pass, which also includes a new game mechanic. Though the Pass scene was added in the last release, this release has the control point mechanic for which it was intended as one of the various choke points around the map. In order to transit from one section of the game world to another, players must pass through these choke points. If these points are held by an enemy faction, the Dark Elves as in the case of Vertas Pass, then players can’t pass through that tile via the travel map. That’s not to say players are completely blocked from transiting the area, though. You can actually enter the tile’s scene and then exit the far side after fighting your way through.
The intent is to offer players a chance to pit themselves against an ever-increasing tide of hostile attackers, while at the same time providing some impact on the game-world. It begins when players fight their way to the center of the zone to capture an area a la king of the hill, and hold it against the AI onslaught for as long as possible. As long as players hold what some of my fellow San Antonians have dubbed the “Alamo,” other players will be able to move through the area in the over-map without trouble.
The capture point mechanic creates this sort of mode-switch in the given scene, but some scenes have much more dramatic shifts. For instance, some starting players will find themselves walking through the aftermath of an undead attack on Solace Bridge. Charred timber, corpses, and raging fires give you a definite sense of the sinister as you walk the area. Come back to the same scene later however, and you may find all the signs of war replaced by green trees and wandering NPCs.
Between the two, they demonstrate a capacity for dynamic changes to the world that may prove to be another defining characteristic for Shroud of the Avatar. Other games developers talk about the impact players have on the world, but I think this is the first I’ve seen to really develop a tool kit for actually changing the world on demand. That actually makes me pretty excited to see what they do with it.
Advancing the Scenes
I think you can expect Portalarium to do something cool with the new dynamic scene concept because of another recent change to the travel map. No longer is every hex a scene, but instead specific roads, swamps, and other areas of interest are the scenes. Think of it like a forest on your travel map. To enter the forest scene, you need to travel a bit to the named section of the forest, and then you’ll get an option to enter the scene rather than just double-clicking on it. Also, just being on the fringes may no longer work. You’ll need to be nearer to the named part.
I expect some of you readers will have the same initial reaction I did. I was actually a little… uneasy… about the decision and worried that it might limit the game world a bit. It could conceivably make it feel a little smaller, and that doesn’t seem like a good idea. I’m not sure how Starr and Richard interact with other writers, but since they’ve always encouraged me to be honest about things I found concerning, I spoke up.
Starr explained how the change started because it seemed to be more new-player-friendly and also made it easier to tell people where you were at any given time. Rather than trying to explain which hex to enter, you can just tell them to meet you in Greymark Forest. When they get to Greymark Forest, they enter and it’s the same one that you’re in at the time.
Richard went on to point out that the new idea also fit with their idea of random encounters well. More importantly and what started to change my mind on the subject, the new methodology allows them to dynamically change the map due to world events. Neither were ready to go into detail about how this might aid in a progressing world story, but Starr was quick to point out that the hexes were still there and only needed a flag enabled to make them accessible.
I’m not sure I’m completely convinced, though I am leaning towards liking it. We live in an age of plentiful MMOs, and there are generally accepted standards for that sort of thing. SotA is already bending one of those standards by making a world where you travel distances via map, rather than by actually walking through it. There’s a part of me that worries about how the new system might feel and be perceived. That said, there really is something seriously nostalgic about moving around the world via map to specific points of interest. It has a definite old school feel to it that I can’t help but grin over a bit. Either way, I think the community reaction will really be interesting to watch.
Advancing the End
All of that is just the tip of the typical test release iceberg for Shroud of the Avatar, and this pass will include a myriad of other miscellaneous things. Crafters will be happy to see the durability and condition systems implemented along with repair kits. The general kits initially available repair condition at the expense of durability, but specific kits that do a better job of it will be added later on. It’ll all need to go back to a craftsman eventually, though. No matter how good the kit, you’ll need to have a professional take a periodic hand to your gear to keep it in good shape.
More gathering options are added to scenes, so casters can more easily find reagents for their spells. Some of them will be in locations that don’t make sense, but it’s just for testing. Later on, some resources will be far more common in certain areas and certainly scarcer in others. I’m interested to see how that might create some regional specializations when it comes to magic eventually.
There’s even a new camera mode for when players enter into conversations with NPCs. The Portalarium folks are still tweaking it, but the idea is that it helps you to focus in on conversations with the NPCs to make handling quest-related dialogue a little easier. Other players will still be able to see you having the conversation and “hear” what’s being said, but it should help prevent distractions during important dialogues.
Of course, the big move this month was with the game getting added to the Steam catalog. With the holiday season coming up, that could add a whole new batch of players to the mix and seems to be a great move for Shroud of the Avatar. It’ll be a bit of a tightrope act to balance new price-points against the expectations of existing backers, but I have faith in the team and the great community surrounding them.
So existing backers be sure to register your steam account with Steam for an access key, and new players will have the chance to purchase early access directly from Steam starting late next month. No matter how you get there, this month’s release should have plenty of new things to check out, not the least of which is the cool new tricorn hat. Each release will have a similarly unique reward, and the Grand Tour is your chance to help the developers test new areas. I suggest you be sure to do your Grand Tour Quest in order to get yours. That’s where you’ll find me this weekend!