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PAX South 2015: Garriott and Long talk Shroud of the Avatar

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In 2013, Ultima Online creator Richard Garriott took to Kickstarter in the hopes of funding an old-school, sandbox-y MMO. Titled Shroud of the Avatar, the new project would be built in Unity and aimed squarely at those MMO fans who longed for the days of player-driven economies, crafting as a focus instead of a side activity, and the ability to impact the game world in a real way.

The plan worked. Shroud of the Avatar pulled $1.9 million on Kickstarter alone, almost doubling its $1 million funding goal. Since then, the team has been hard at work bringing Garriott's vision to life (and keeping backers happy).

I spoke with Garriott on the PAX South 2015 show floor about crowdfunding, loot, and the mistakes of the modern RPG. I also got to play a bit of SOTA with the help of executive producer Starr Long, who kindly did not make fun of me when I was killed by the second mob in the demo.



The crowdfunding experiment

Richard Garriott is kind of a big deal in the MMO world. Ultima Online is one of the most famous and important MMOs ever developed. But that doesn't mean Garriott felt that a crowdfunding project would be an automatic home run. Says Garriott, "Before we did it, I was in horrific fear of it. It was one of these things where you go, 'If we go do this crowdfunding thing and it does not work, my career is over.' It was a very scary thing to go do." According to Garriott, watching the Kickstarter funds ebb and flow (along with backers through the SOTA website) was terrifying. Garriott paints the funding process as all-or-nothing not just for the project but for the future of him and his company.

Of course, the end result speaks for itself. SOTA hit its goal handily, and Garriott told me that the funds being generated by backers now are enough to cover current ongoing development costs. As for why the idea of Shroud of the Avatar might resonate with current MMO players, Garriott explains, "Shroud of the Avatar is a game where you can have a full life, full career, and full role-playing as a crafter or merchant who never has to enter combat." Combat is available, of course, but the Portalarium team is trying to bring back a different type of MMO model. "I would personally say that the World of Warcraft and EverQuest model is the model that almost all roleplaying creators have chased for the last decade or so. What they have not chased is the Ultima Online model."
Portalarium is attempting to step into the as-yet-unfilled void (according to Garriott) Ultima has created.

Player-driven everything

The core of Shroud of the Avatar is its players. It is built around crafting, gathering, and a player-driven economy. Portalarium is doing some interesting things with the concept of unique items. For example, every item will carry its history of repairs, sales, and crafter through its life in the game. If the item is sold, it goes into what Garriott refers to as "the bank." The next time you and your friends down an ultra-hard raid boss (or a medium-hard raid boss), the boss's loot table will pull from the bank instead of from developer-crafted items. The Portalarium team has already began to pull back on the basic items it created to kickstart the player economy -- people are making enough stuff to go around.

Shroud of the Avatar is decidedly old-school. Garriott explains, "We have no quest logs, we have no arrows on the map, and we have no exclamation points over NPC heads." Exploring the world and finding things to do will require exploration on the part of the player; you even talk to NPCs through the chat box as if they were other players. I didn't hear any "hardcore" grandstanding from anyone on the team, just a sort of wistful longing for gameplay models of old.

Updates and assets

Shroud of the Avatar is an impressive study in how to handle a crowdfunded project. Garriott gleefully heaps praise on Long for his management of the game's development, boasting, "Fourteen months ago we released an avatar standing in a room. Starting in December we're now live 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 14 months of releases, the servers have crashed exactly zero times, and we have published every month on the day we've said, at the hour we've said."

One of the reasons the game has been able to move so quickly is its use of the Unity engine. In fact, Portalarium has taken a little heat for relying on Unity's enormous asset market. Some commenters view the studio purchasing readymade trees, rocks, buildings, etc. as evidence of laziness or financial mismanagement. When asked about this, Garriott isn't shy about Portalarium's point of view. The studio loves those assets and loves that they're available, and it considers them a boon to development. Garriott claims Portalarium also makes a habit of tossing improved versions of those assets back to their original creators. "We finish it or improve it, and then we give it back. We're so happy to have it."

Garriott notes that all of the single-player, unique story content assets are created in-house, but likens the purchasing of assets to making a movie. "You make a TIE Fighter because that's unique. You don't make a tree; you go to a prop house and you rent one."

Moving forward

My time with Shroud of the Avatar was short, but what I saw was an interesting role-playing game that will likely appeal to a specific niche of players. The idea of talking to NPCs via text or not having classes is weird and scary to me -- maybe to you it's news you've been waiting to hear. The game I experienced plays smoothly, has pretty environments (which are being upgraded to Unity 5 soon), and stands out as a work of pure passion from a team with a verifiable MMO pedigree. There's still a ways to go, but color me impressed.

Massively's on the ground in San Antonio during the weekend of January 23rd to January 25th, bringing you all the best news from PAX South 2015. Whether you're dying to know more about Guild Wars 2's Heart of Thorns, hoping to catch a glimpse of Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus Rift, or angling for some rumors from the SWTOR cantina crawl, you can bet we'll have it covered!

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