Shroud of the Avatar's Richard Garriott and Starr Long on MMO community

Some Assembly Required:  Garriott and Long interview shows Shroud of the Avatar wins at community

If you've been making a list of sandbox features and checking it twice, chances are you'll find many of those items in Shroud of the Avatar. And if player-generated content and a great community are near the top of that list, then this crowdfunded title might very well be the present you want to get yourself! While still under development, this sandbox has already grown exponentially from its humble beginnings of a chicken in a room to a current state that includes a bevy of features -- with more arriving like clockwork every monthly update. And plenty of those features are tools and systems that allow players to make the game a personalized experience for themselves and others.

What about Shroud of the Avatar makes it so great for player-generated content? What makes the community great? And how has Steam affected the game? I sat down with Portalarium's Richard Garriott and Starr Long to talk about the move to Steam, updates, PGC, and the amazing community that's supporting the game. These guys had so much to share that this is only part one!

Shroud of the Avatar just became available to a wider audience with its launch on Steam early access (it also boosted testing from one weekend per month to 24/7). These new folks stepping into the game now are finding themselves in a half-finished game, but that's nothing compared to how it all started! Garriott told me what players were greeted with on the very first day of the first release: "We launched with an avatar in a room with a chicken. The second day, you could walk around a bigger map, but the team wanted to make sure everyone could load in." Even with such a humble beginning, the community response portended how people would see the game and what they would expect. Garriott said,

People were immediately running around trying to find secret doors out of the chicken room, or things of this nature, which of course there were none. People were trying to figure out what clever ruse we had going, which of course didn't exist.

Now, after a perfect record of monthly content releases (12 and counting!), the game has so much more in it. Skills, crafting, dungeons -- there's so much already playable and much more still on the way. The team isn't taking the Steam success as a cue to rest on its laurels; the devs plan to continue work at even a brisker pace in order to keep the game running continuously. "There's nothing like running on crowdfunding that makes every month feel like it's do or die," Garriott mused. "Because pretty much it is do or die! So it gives you great focus to make a lot of forward progress, where there's no doubt in anybody's mind that you are making forward progress."

The community has grown as well, and that's not because of marketing. Garriott emphasized that the team has done very little marketing for SotA; other than attending a couple of cons, the studio has limited itself to pretty much just the official website and the Kickstarter campaign. That led to the reason for the most recent population explosion: Steam.

Garriott described how folks at places like E3 would pass by and upon recognizing them stop to see what was going on. He noted that these old Ultima Online and sandbox fans didn't know about the project but were very interested once they did. As Garriott put it, the question was, "Where can we sit that will put us back in front of gamers at large, who very likely have not gone out of their way to find us? We need to go find them." The answer? "If you really want to get in front of the masses who buy and play games, there's really nothing better than Steam." That sure rang true: SotA landed for a time in 11th place on the Steam top sellers list. Garriott also noted that the game made it into the top 100 in less than 48 hours; the fastest the team found any other game making it was five days. And it should be noted that all those Steam players are new because previous backers automatically received Steam keys.

What would the devs attribute the Steam success to? The consensus was none of that could have happened without the fanbase, and both Long and Garriott praised SotA's community. Although the team worked for six to eight weeks to prepare game for Steam Early Access, Garriott emphasized that it's the community that decides whether or not a game is worth supporting. He said, "You're really in the hands of the players at that moment. There's nothing you can do to force it into existence." Judging by the Steam response, the community has given its thumbs up. Long told me, "Steam does not let us talk about numbers, but we've done well. The response has been great." Long also gave credit to the devs on other projects like DayZ and Wasteland 2 as well as Steam's staff because they offered the team great advice. But by and large, success came because of the community.

Such quick growth via Steam actually highlighted the quality of the game's community. Garriott described what he saw as two main kinds of players who join SotA: One group are there after hearing friends talk about what a great experience it is participating in the game's development, and the other jumps in cold turkey, not knowing what to expect at all. That second group is the one that he says gets a bit of culture shock when logging in; they haven't seen the game grow from a single chicken, so they might expect SotA to have all the usual MMO features (banks, anyone?) when it is still incomplete. "Most people don't get access to a game that is this early in development," Garriott noted. "And even though now we're on the back half by all means, we're still not finished. And many people are not familiar with stepping into a game in that circumstance." Cue the community.

Both Garriott and Long described how the existing community rallied to welcome the newcomers. Long said, "I've never actually interacted with a community like this." He qualified that by stating that even though some members are from back during the Ultima Online, "they're even more powerful now in what they can do, what they are willing to do, and what they're able to do, and the support they give each other." He further illustrated with the example of the the guild that dedicated itself to hanging out in the starter town to answer questions and help all the new folks joining.

On top of that, the current players also set up all their regular player-run events -- taverns, mazes, PvP ladders, and new player quests -- and made a schedule. To help all the new players know the who, the what, and the where of these events, the dev team actually published the schedule in an in-game book and deposited it into everyone's inventory. Garriott noted how he'd like to make this a permanent feature in the game, and Long said the goal was to have it constantly refresh to stay up-to-date.

It's plain to see that the community is passionate about and supportive of SotA. That doesn't mean there aren't detractors, but Long believes that they are a minority; of the comments on Steam, over 80% have been very positive.

So now the question is, what does this community once it is set loose in this sandbox? You might be surprised! It's some pretty awesome and creative stuff. Join me next week as we conclude this interview with why Shroud of the Avatar should be crowned king of player-generated content and a look at what's ahead for the sandbox.

Once in a blue moon, Massively's MJ Guthrie takes a break from her themepark day jobs to delve into the world of player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!