PAX East 2016: Richard Garriott discusses Shroud of the Avatar’s ‘launch’ and future

It might seem as if Shroud of the Avatar has been in early access for a very long time, probably because it has. Technically, it’s still in an early access state. But according to Richard Garriott, whom I spoke to at this year’s PAX East, a great deal of that has to do with the fact that our traditional terms for test phases have little to no meaning any longer. The game is on Release 28, its servers have been up aside from scheduled maintenance for more than a year, there have been no unexpected patches of downtime. In every way, it’s ready for something closer to release.

So this year is the year of its “release,” but it’s also not really that big of a change. In July, the final character wipe will take place, freeing players from any concern of lost data and marking the de facto launch of the MMO side of the game. By December, the first episode of the game’s story content will be fully released. At that point, the game is out and it’s launched, so if you want to mark your calendars accordingly, it’s 2016 as the year of the launch.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the game will be finished; again, there’s the issue of our traditional terminology not working very well in light of the changes to how games are developed and tested. The game state is being controlled in part by the need for marketing, using early test terminology so that players don’t expect something the game won’t deliver. A marketing push will accompany the full story launch, but it’s still not quite the same as a launch, and much of that comes down to the nature of software terminology as we understand it.

Garriott sees the issue being one of having set most of our publicly discussed goalposts at certain points. Classically, he stated that an alpha was feature-complete but not content-complete, while beta testing was complete but buggy, and launch was complete and (hopefully) not buggy. The problem becomes that all three stages of development are very close together to one another, all taking place right before the game is ready to go live.

The result, then, is a situation wherein there’s no real terminology for markers that are further apart, especially in an environment where launches are more or less not launches, since there’s always the possibility of patching later. The existing terms no longer mean what they once meant, but that just means we collectively need better terms to describe the reality of game development and release.

And now, a jaunty tune.

So why is SotA launching this year? Several reasons, starting with the simple reality that most people don’t want to start playing the game seriously until the wipes are done and over with. It’s understandable, of course – why would you build a house if you know it’s going to wiped out? So that’s good enough reason to find a date and declare that there will be no more wipes to be had.

There were, of course, some players who argued that the end of the wipes should coincide with the release of the story, delaying one if necessary to come along with the other. Garriott doesn’t feel that serves the game, however; there’s still valuable testing data that can be had by people playing and experiencing content before the story is ready. It’s more useful to have more people playing.

It also means that the team gets to convert its monetization model earlier and finding what does and doesn’t work. That’s useful for both players and developers moving forward, and it’s a thorny issue, but it’s also a complex one.

The plan, as has been stated elsewhere, is that as of July all of the game’s “pledges” are gone. To pay for server fees (and keep the development team paying its rent and eating food), there will be an in-game store with cosmetics for players to enjoy, along with the one-time fee for people who want to get in on the game. These cosmetics are also meant to rotate rather than being permanent, with older items expiring and new ones being added over time.

Despite that plan, Garriott is aware that there are players who would rather just play a flat fee on a regular basis, and nothing is yet set in stone. The goal is to start finding out what works and what feels positive for players while also succeeding at the aforementioned goal of making money. Players are meant to be able to earn anything they want in offline play, barring very specific pledge rewards, so if you wish to play the game as a single-player experience you won’t have to still be paying for the MMO side as well.

No one said it would be friendly.

That brings up the issue of the game’s extant balance, which has been tweaked over time but still faces the challenge of a single game balanced for both social MMO play and single-player experiences. The initial balance of the game is more as an MMO, with spawns of both resources and enemies set to be reasonable for one or two parties hunting in an outdoor area. For solo players, the game is both throttling down stats as appropriate and offering companions to players in the manner of the older Ultima titles. Such companions are technically possible for the MMO side as well, but the amount of resources required to keep companion AI going means that it’s not very helpful to add them into the multiplayer side right off.

The throttling of the game is also applied to how many other players you see, even in the multiplayer space. Garriott has specifically stated that even when playing solo, he personally prefers the online mode, just because that allows players to see and interact with others more freely. However, the game is meant to throttle down how many players are out in the world at any given time, so a dungeon might be scaled to feature just two parties while a story area features nothing except your immediate party. The game is still meant to have a long-term reason to keep people in the game as an MMO, using long-term faction interplay between player factions and villainous NPC factions as a motivator.

So what about future releases? The first story episode will have a very definite end, with future storyline updates being released as separate purchases in the future. Building the next episode will mean rolling out new stuff for all players, but there will be things only accessible to players who own the second episode due to storyline progression.

For example, Garriott discussed the plan to add mounts and operational boats in the lead-up to the second story episode. Everyone will have access to those, but if you don’t own the second episode, you won’t be able to take that boat across the water to the next major land mass. There may well be valuable artifacts that you can only get from there, giving players both functional and narrative reasons to buy the episode and start sailing across the water. It’s meant to be clear where the breakpoints are and exactly what a player is getting with each purchase.

Story arriving!

The simple fact that the game can tell a story, much less an episodic one, is one of the things that Garriott looks at with fondness in the years since Ultima Online. As he puts it, the team couldn’t figure out a way to make a story work with the game itself, so that wasn’t in the cards for development at the time; the tools to do that exist now. Things can be done now that could not be done at the dawn of the genre. The fact that there are more ways than ever to monetize the game, as well, serves as a positive force; players can have more ways to play and experience the game, and designers can approach the money aspect from more angles.

It’s a bigger world than it was when UO came out. But then, that was the start of something completely new. This year’s release of Shroud of the Avatar marks Garriott returning to the format after seeing what others have done with it, releasing something very new while at once familiar. And if you’re waiting until the game is promising no more wipes before trying out the new thing… you won’t be waiting much longer.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in Boston for PAX East 2016, bringing you expert MMO coverage from NCsoft, Daybreak, Square Enix, and everything else on display at the latest Penny Arcade Expo!
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44 Comments on "PAX East 2016: Richard Garriott discusses Shroud of the Avatar’s ‘launch’ and future"

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IddingsReva
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IddingsReva

Armsbend LordOfBread And fuckers like you quickly educated me how stupid, toxic and intolerant most modern day geeks have become.

Zheax
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Zheax

In every review that I’ve read about SotA I feel like I live in a different world. Do you even know what it means a crowdfunding project? How long does it take to develop a game, the process, the steps till it’s polished? The only mistake they have committed has been to have complete transparency since the first day with those who don’t appreciate the mechanics of a good game.

I really feel sorry for all the people with this hate inside. Let it go… take some yoga class.

rune_74
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rune_74

Be careful here.  The team is very unprofessional in how it deals with people.  The moderation staff led by a fan of UO listens to it’s high level backers in dishing out moderation.  If you say anything on the forums that they don’t like, especially if you do anything that brings attention from the high backers you will be banned.  It’s not even reviewed, it is banning without any checks.

Even if the game came close to promising what they originally promised, this is enough to avoid.

Recondelta
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Recondelta

Reading these comments and a lot of the information is based on previous builds.  
Anyone who visits the new Brittany and isn’t impressed must not like the MMOs.   The game still have a lot of rough edges but this is going to be a winner.

spider3
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spider3

I was hyped for Sota, put a good amount of Money, hoping it would become UO2.

But it was actually never advertised so, and I definitely did not found the Magic nostalgia of UO coming back. Could be ok, but I disagree to see it as spiritual successor.

Instead I’m considering shards online, after playing it, it gave me this missed Feeling.

So, I will pass SotA, but won’t hate it just for that reason. Except the P2W Land properties for those absurd pledges was definitely a no-go.
Uo was paying your Sub and have the same possibilities of everyone else to own a Castle, with a no-life playing style. Here it is enough real life wealth.

Ironwu
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Ironwu

Well, SotA was never put forward as a real ‘Massive’ Multiplayer game, just as a Multiplayer game.  Based on the Unity5 engine, it really would never have the  horsepower to support huge numbers of players in a single instance location.
I’m ok with that, I think there is a real place for this style of game, and am sort of looking forward to seeing how it all ends up.
That being said, I am still VERY concerned about the ‘random skills’ on the hot-bar mechanic.  I just don’t see how that can work in a real gaming environment (as opposed to to ‘test’ environment).  So much in combat relies on muscle memory, so one does not have to look down at the skills to see what to do.   How does forcing players to constantly be looking at the skill bar to see what is there make for a viable game?
In any case, will see how it all plays out.

Rozyn
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Rozyn

mindshadow Rozyn DugFromTheEarth Hey man, I’m just smokin’ the same thing Richard Garriot is.

Sliverstarz
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Sliverstarz

From watching these guys in their dev hangouts, I think I’ll pass on this one. They seem very unprofessional and disorganized, and from all the negative reviews I think I’ll just save my money.

Cramit
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Cramit

This game has made me question it for a long time.  I enjoyed UO, even though not to the extent of some, but I was still looking forward to Sota.  After all the talk over time now about how bad combat is with this combined development of single player and multiplayer, I am less convinced it can work.  I dunno, the entire solo mode scares me and even though I have a friend that plays and enjoys himself, I am not convinced at all.  This one I will probably wait for launch and for others to comment before I even look at picking it up.

Satyros
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Satyros

Meh..