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E3 2014: Shroud of the Avatar's Garriott and Long emphasize immersion

Touted as the spiritual successor to Ultima Online by its creators, Shroud of the Avatar aims to fill a sandbox-shaped void in the modern MMOverse. Judging by the successful crowdfunding campaign and continued support by backers, I know there are plenty of players who are eager for that to happen and believe SotA is the game to do it.

Are backers getting what they paid for? One weekend every month they can jump in and experience a new release of the game and offer feedback to the development team. And thanks to E3 2014, I also got to jump in and get some hands-on time with the latest release of the game. On top of that, I spoke with Richard Garriott and Executive Producer Starr Long about everything from player economy and pay-to-win concerns to combat, immersion, and player-contributed content.

A different kind of development

From its Kickstarter campaign onward, SotA has followed a different development path from the established standard. And one of the biggest differences is developing the game right along with the community's input. Garriott told me, "We're very pleased to be going back and rekindling that fire of what MMORPGs could be with the community." He elaborated, explaining that the monthly releases where players get in and check out the game is actually really helping development instead of wasting lots of time and resources making systems and things that players don't want, like the virtual ecology in UO that was ripped out because not enough people cared about it. "In this case, since we are showing it every month to players, we know immediately if this isn't what they're looking for," he stated. "Instead of wasting time, we can change tracks and go somewhere else." He emphasized that the backers are partners in the development process.

Although the original crowdfunding campaign is over, the game remains in active fundraising mode, and players can make pledges or buy addons. Garriott explained that the game could have been made with just what was raised on Kickstarter, but backers wanted more in the game: "For us to be able to respond to player requests, that all takes money. We look at it as pre-selling the game. We manage the team size to the pre-sales."

In fact, the model of the addons in the store is intended to directly to accommodate player requests and gauge how much a change is desired. For instance, Garriott described how players wanted mounts, so a package was added that gives riding clothes, a horse house-pet, and a saddle. If a set amount is reached, mounts will be added; if not, players still have the other items. "We're actually building very efficiently in time and total team size compared to what we have in the past," he said. "I think it's a good value, both from us and for players."

Is there any upper limit to what the game takes in? Not according to Long: "The reality is that we will make as much content as the players want to consume, and we will make it to the level quality as much as they ask for."

One world for all

One key aspect of Shroud of the Avatar is that it will be one single metaverse, not split into multiple servers. The game -- in Garriott's words, "a fully story-driven solo player game wrapped in new form of massively multiplayer" -- will utilize shards to propagate new zones when one fills up, but it also adds a welcome twist. The new instances of zones will be sorted according to friend networks, so "it should be relatively invisible" to players. Players won't have to hoop-jump to get to their friends.

A player economy, really

Perhaps the greatest aspect for me is the emphasis on a player economy. That phrase gets tossed around often, so how will the SotA team achieve it?

With the recent announcement of (expensive) player-owned cities, a fresh crop of pay-to-win concerns have sprouted. Garriott and Long addressed these concerns, pointing out that the team is very clear that all things obtained by purchase can also be obtained in-game. They also noted that players requested the city feature so that guilds could be assured a cohesive area; with 120 village lots, the city (which is equivalent to owning an entire zone in another game) is actually much cheaper than getting all of the lots individually.

As for P2W, Long told me, "We are passionate about the player economy: Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot by making it completely pay-to-win? That would just be defeating ourselves. We are 100% committed to a player-driven economy. We want everything made by players to be the best stuff no matter what. We firmly believe that none of [the purchased rewards is] going to have a large statistical impact on the game or economy."

Players will make more than just armor, weapons, and tools. Player books will be in-game come release 9, and after that, printing capabilities for mass production will be introduced. Garriott detailed how SotA will go to extra lengths to have the items in game all be player-made:
"Any time you discard something in game or sell it to a shop keeper, most games destroy that object. It's gone. It gets erased from the game. Instead, we're putting it in the bank. Therefore, when the boss monster needs some loot, we go to that bank and pull out those real objects with real history made by real people and put it back in the game."
This system will not be just for the most impressive epic loot, either. Long expounded on it further, referring to the junk daggers a crafter might make when leveling up skills. Even those daggers, when sold to a merchant, will get recycled out for loot, such that even the lowest-level content will be player-made. Long then also detailed how disciplines will need one another. With taming, for example, the adventurer will not only need the strength to capture the animal but will require a collar made by a tailor and must have the animal enchanted by an alchemist to help it bond.

In the beginning there will be at least one of every tool and recipe that players can use to make more. "We need to put in only the very basic beginnings and seeds, and the rest will be player-driven," Garriott emphasized. In fact, at the start of the game, player-created items from beta might be used as seed items.

Card combat

Long detailed plans for a new type of combat in development. He told me, "We're going to make a valiant attempt to make a different-than-the-standard-shortcut combat system. We want people to have to think a little bit more and have combat be a little more dynamic."

Although combat still features classic tab targeting and hotbars, the devs don't want you to be able to sleep your way through a memorized skill rotation. Long discussed how skills will actually be put together in decks and how the skills will appear in a random order from your deck on your hotbar and be replaced with a new card once used. This way, players have to constantly be paying attention to combat as what skills are available and what position they are in will constantly be changing. For those who just absolutely have to have some sense of recognizable order, there is the option to lock a certain skill to a certain slot. This way, if you want to be assured that your heal is always in the first slot, it's always there. However, doing this has consequences; if you lock a skill, you remove the ability to use that skill in combination with others for a special result.

Using this deck building idea, players will be able to sort skills into multiple decks to focus on special needs or wants, such as healing or tanking. Players could even concentrate in just a certain school of magic.

And here's a quick note on PvP (which will be coming at the end of the year): If you die to another player, the victor gets to select one item from your inventory as a reward. You, however, can decide to pay a ransom instead -- if you have enough cash, that is!

Immersion: It's all in the details

One point that particularly impressed me during our conversation was the attention to little details that offer deeper immersion in the world. Long described how everything provides interaction; you can pick up all the game's items and eventually put them anywhere. In other words, if you want to find a secret door, you'll have to physically search for a loose brick or other trigger. Remember in tabletop gaming when you would say, "I search the room," and then roll your dice? Well, in SotA you physically have to scour the walls and floor with your eyes to see if you come up with anything. There are no special glowy icons our outlines to alert players to hidden switches.

Lighting also plays a big part in immersion. For one, all lights in the game turn on and off. And when the lights are off, it is dark! As in you-can-scroll-in-as-far-as-yo- like-and-still-not-see-your-avatar dark. Long wasn't kidding when he said, "We want lighting to be part of the gameplay." Bring a torch!

Another immersive aspect of in-game lighting involves cities. In most games, when the sun goes down, the lamps in the city automatically pop on. In SotA, however, NPCs must literally make the rounds and turn them on. Long noted that such a task was difficult but that it was done to make the world more believable.

Player-created everything

To round out our discussion, Garriott and Long noted what has surprised them most during the development of Shroud of the Avatar. Long confided that the most surprising was that how great the community has been, responding positively and constructively even when critical. For Garriott, it was how the community banded together to make items that are going into the game. After constantly rejecting player-submitted things, the team released guidelines as to what would work. "From that day forward," he said, "when the community began policing itself, 100% of everything that the players have created has been perfect and we've dropped it directly in the game. I had no idea that our community was that powerful not only in competency but in organizational capability." Now, 90% of the music in game is crowd-sourced.

My time in SotA

After discussing the game, I was eager to jump in and play. I decided to get a taste by experiencing one of the party-based dungeons. And I can tell you that everything said previously about lighting and searching for hidden levers is spot on! The combat system as it is envisioned is not yet in game, but I could still dodge around and beat the skeletons to death.

My favorite experience of the play session illustrated the immersion best. After I looted a chest, Long and I were talking about mimics masquerading as treasure chests. I'd asked if the mimics here were obvious as in other games by looks or targeting. He assured me that while there was a visual difference, it was very slight. Fast forward one hallway, and I approached a chest sitting out in the open, grinning at the idea of securing more loot relatively easily. As soon as I clicked the chest, it leaped toward me and I jumped! That's right: Even after just talking about mimics, I was completely and totally taken by surprise! Suddenly I had to fight to stay alive, my heart still racing from the shock. I did, however, note that the mimic is seriously adorable (see above). I'm telling you, I want one as a pet or maybe to put in my house to discourage nosy visitors. And I am not alone; Long said players are lobbying to make the mimic chest a pack animal.

Although the playtime was much too short and the game is pre-alpha, I am looking forward to seeing the new outdoor map of release 7 and testing the combat system when it comes out.

Massively's on the ground in Los Angeles during the week of June 10-12, bringing you all the best news from E3 2014. We're covering everything from WildStar and Landmark to Skyforge and H1Z1, so stay tuned!

This article was originally published on Massively.