Choose My Adventure: Shroud of the Avatar in summation

All the time through playing Shroud of the Avatar, I found myself wanting to like the game a lot more than I did. And my brain kept turning back to Minecraft, which seems like a worthwhile comparison to make.

Much like SOTA, Minecraft is a game strongly based on the concept of making your own fun. You are definitely making your own adventure in the game. But at the same time, it seems very relevant to point out that the game starts by giving you a clear set of parameters to work within. Monsters will spawn at night, there are resources under ground, you break things to get better things, and then combine those things to make still better things. From there on out, much of the game is devoted to figuring out how these various elements play off of one another.

So they’re both sandbox-ish titles in which you make your own fun. Except that one of them starts by showing you the fun that you’re supposed to be having and giving you a goal, and it does so with absolutely no story to guide you along that route. It shows you exactly the sort of game it’s trying to be and lets you start working at meeting it halfway. But SOTA never quite got there, at least for me.

The votes for this Choose My Adventure game were definitely tilted toward having me make my own fun, and hey, I am all about that. The problem is that the game never points you toward the fun. In fact, several parts of the game seem woefully user-unfriendly to the point of being borderline unplayable. I’ve grumbled about most of that over the course of several weeks, so it’s unnecessary to re-state all of that, but the problem is still there. It just never quite comes around to being fun.

You have a lot of grinding you can do, but not much indication of what you’re grinding for. The story lacks much in the way of pointers or guidance or even investment. Heck, starting out in the game I wound up in the aftermath of a massacre and had NPCs there telling me it was sad rather than my actually experiencing anything sad about it. There was no chance to feel sympathy for anyone except “oh, lots of elves are dead here.”

There is a metaphor here somewhere.

Compare that to almost any other starting experience. Blade & Soul, for instance, had a new experience when you started that rushed you at high speed through several stereotypical characters dying, and it didn’t really elicit much connection. But the effort was there to make you feel for these people, to forge that connection of “this is a sad thing happening” instead of having someone walk up to you and tell you “this happened and it was sad.” You had agency and connection.

So the story never really connected, and yet there was very little guidance about doing anything outside of that story. I could see that it was there, but even the game seemed to have little interest in showing it to me. Grinding was there, and there was a fun to that, but there wasn’t an end goal beyond grinding. Grind more stuff here, then keep grinding, then grind even more so you can grind harder things even faster. And all in a style that obscures most of how you’re gaining skills or abilities, so you never really seem to know how each bit of interaction affects anything else.

Everything seems built with an eye toward increasing “immersion” instead of providing necessary information, but looking at a page of stats doesn’t demolish my immersion, it enhances it. It lets me know if what I’m doing in the game is actually working. Why does the game seem so afraid to show me the fruits of my labor? I don’t know.

There’s also stuff that I didn’t actually even brush up against, like the player-owned towns. Yes, the wiki lists a lot of those as actual ghost towns. How accurate is that? I don’t know, but based on my own experience seeing only a handful of people running around even in the city, it seems plausible. While the concept is beyond neat, the actual execution is something else altogether, and it implies to me that either not many people are playing the game or that the player-owned towns are rather oversold.

There truly are some cool ideas for housing and having an open plot in SOTA, but the actual requirements for doing so seem prohibitive. That isn’t helped by the fact that the game doesn’t seem to actually be built for other people; it felt like a single-player title that had multiplayer access bolted on after the fact, probably a consequence of its original potential for offline play.

Oh, and let's not forget this freaky lady.

And the part that I kept asking, back and forth, is the eternal question of how much of this comes down to bad design and how much is just design that isn’t personally resonant for me. But after a month of playing, I’m honestly of the mind that even if this is exactly what all of the game’s backers wanted, there are just too many fundamental areas where the game is actively hostile to new players. So much of the game made me feel like I wasn’t wanted in the title at all, that all I had to do was grind to earn… a reward so vague as to be functionally nonexistent.

I’m going to assume that the game has some form of cosmetic outfit system, but I certainly never saw any sign of it. There’s lots of space to explore, but precious little reason given to do so; at no point did I even find myself think that heading down into one cave or another would produce some valuable upgrades. Why would I need better equipment? Why should I go work on crafting? What is any of this actually going to get me?

Maybe it’d have been easier there were some sort of a regular map or something, even just something to point me toward relevant points of interest outside of a community-designed out-of-game map. Or better storytelling, or clearer goals, or just something. Something to mirror that aforementioned Minecraft push of “here’s what you’re doing and why, go have fun with it.”

This galls me when combined with the sort of weasely statements akin to “the story is going to be complete, but the game isn’t launching at this point.” It feels like the game equivalent of far too many people I know in real life who have frozen themselves in perpetual adolescence, forever making changes but not actually working toward any sort of goal. Instead of reaching a point of standing up and taking responsibility for what works and what doesn’t, the game seems poised to just forever remain “in development” as if it can’t ever adjust or improve after launch.

But the real reason is that you can always claim that there’s a beautiful and magical version of the game waiting just over the hill as long as it’s still in development. Eventually, it’ll all come together and be fun and have a purpose, you’ll see! But that point only seems to get further away, not closer.

The notes are there, but not the music.

On some level I can understand why people would like the game. I can understand the appeal in broad strokes. But in practice, SOTA doesn’t seem to actually deliver on any of that appeal for a modern MMORPG player, moving instead into the territory of just retreading older design pitfalls without ever moving above them.

Another analogy that springs to mind. When Hasbro launched Transformers: Armada, one of its biggest goals from a toy design standpoint seemed to be based around going back to the mid-’90s and following toy design down an alternate path, one that favored blockier joints and gimmick-based design over the “highly posable, intricate transformation” style that had dominated the line since Beast Wars first showed up. It was a throwback, but it was a throwback with a goal, an attempt to follow a different sort of development.

Shroud of the Avatar feels like a throwback, but rather than trying to head back and try something new, it’s content to just be a throwback. It feels outdated before it has even launched, and while it has minor things to recommend it, the best thing I can say about it is that parts of it remind me of an old-school roguelike with more modern graphics. If that seems like damning with faint praise, it kind of is.

I know there’s a fun game buried under there somewhere, and I really want to like it. But as it stands, it’s just not sealing the deal. The inaccessibility of housing, user-unfriendly interface troubles, and copious grinding for no real end goal kills that fun dead pretty quickly as the title stands right now.

During the introduction, the core story conceit is that you get sucked into a vibrant world where you’d like to live. It’s a pity, then, that the actual game seems more like a series of paper cutouts masquerading as a world.

It's HOT uptown.

I fell into a burning path of fire

The next CMA title is not one that is going to involve voting… or, perhaps more accurately, it’s one that people already voted on months ago. Because it’s time to head to Guild Wars 2 for the expansion.

Back in the middle of exploring Neverwinter, you may remember that I posed a question to the community about revisiting games I know. The consensus – by a notable if not overwhelming margin – was to do so in the event that the changes to the game were substantial enough to merit it. And shock of shocks, I think that the GW2 changes are significant enough, seeing as how I haven’t played the game since before Heart of Thorns.

So I’ll be heading back into Tyria again… but we’ll learn more about that next week. For now, you can leave feedback in the comments below or send them along to eliot@massivelyop.com. Right now, I need to start thinking about which of these many class options I want to go with.

Welcome to Choose My Adventure, the column in which you join Eliot each week as he journeys through mystical lands on fantastic adventures — and you get to decide his fate. At no point was it specified that you would decide that fate for next week exclusively. Sometimes it works further out. Life is hilarious!
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16 Comments on "Choose My Adventure: Shroud of the Avatar in summation"

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Iron

UO had none (zero) of the goals or direction you seem to be missing. In the end these games; sandboxes — like D&D they were born from — are about letting gamers lose in an environment that allows them to do what they want with the least possible constraints and barriers. The present generations of gamers have grown up expecting more, they NEED to know the goal they are supposed to rush towards, zerging through the games “content”; they are uncomfortable with making their own fun, because every MMO they play is a giant McGuffin designed for them to blur past. And every NPC dialog is really just there to give the illusion that there’s a purpose to rushing to the end.

I wont pretend that UO was an MMO with mass appeal, back in that day a single player RPG was successful if it sold 50-70k copies and a smash hit at 100k+, it was and is a niche market. Unlike the mass market MMO which is geared towards games that don’t take their immersion serious and against a game that doesn’t try to calm the “if I play this will I will feel like a nerd” fears of the casual gamer who want cell shading, and cartoonish visuals so they don’t feel like they’re going “Full D&D Nerd”. The hand holding rushes them past the nerdy part where they might be tempted to chat with one of those renaissance fair nerds who’s role playing in the game. SotA is for those renaissance fair nerds and so will have a limited audience.

The present generation of players grew up thinking that the FUN of an RPG is the hacking and slashing and advancing as fast as possible within the Skinner’s box. EQ taught them how an RPG is “supposed to be played”. Where the previous generation learned from D&D just how amazing a game could be when imagination was the point and also the goal, and also the only limitation. The present generations gravitate towards MMO’s that hold your hand and take the nerdy self conscious edge off by giving you a pretend content area to level through (kill 50 wolves here, now kill 50 larger different colored wolves over here) that is designed to be rushed through without reading or being immersed (because immersion makes them feel self conscious) so they “lel read the NPC dialog? I’ll just follow this brightly colored line to the next area until the game instructs me what to do” Never wondering if that line they are following is really a path or more of a leash?

I have about the same dim view of the mass market MMO’s you prefer, being lead around by the quest leash, yanking my collar towards “end game”. The amusement park MMO’s that are more your speed feel insultingly well … amusement park like. Even the ones I’ve liked have always felt like “gamer lite” titles with too much coddling of casuals and too much game design compromise in the name of getting more players. If anything your article has motivated me to finally get SotA so thanks for that.

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Adam Zacharias

Good summary of the game.

I’ve backed a lot of games on kickstarter, and I’ve gotten a lot of early access games on steam, and even though there have most certainly been flops, or bad games… this is the first one where I actually feel like I”ve been scammed.

They consistently put in the least amount of effort possible into making the bare minimum of a game, just enough to hit their bullet point versions of the early promises.

A prime example is guild wars. They made the guild leader able to set all members to be flagged for open pvp, and call that guild wars. Even UO had the technology 20 years ago to declare war on a guild and have your guild members and their guild members flagged to each other but not everyone else. In SotA it’s just the bare minimum to be able to say that guilds can ‘technically’ fight each other, therefore we have guild wars.

Pretty much all of the promises and stretch goals made during and after the kickstarter have ended up the same way as guild wars. Bare minimum effort, check a box so that it’s ‘technically’ been met, and stick a hand out for more and more money.

Oh, and what about those ones that they don’t want to meet, or don’t have the programming know-how to meet? Well those end up just as “shitty promises made by someone probably not with the company any longer”. You can’t make this stuff up, that was actually a DEV saying that… wtf?

Then there is RG himself who doesn’t seem to even have a clue about his own game. When they went to seedinvest to crowdfund yet more money, it was full of outright lies about what is in the game, like how “players can conquer a town” and when asked about it in an interview he doubled down and said that since npc towns came under seige randomly from npc enemies, and the player could go in and fight those npc enemies to lift the seige off the town, that was just like conquering the town! The devs in the announcement thread regarding it said they would go back and clean it up and clarify things and remove the inaccuracies, but of course that never happened and the lies stayed up.

I don’t know how this game still has any supporters with all the shadiness and blatant dishonesty over the last couple years. The examples go on and on and on… and the game just continues crawling along in utter mediocrity as the population dwindles.

Raleigh-St-Clair
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Raleigh-St-Clair

I don’t know how this game still has any supporters with all the shadiness and blatant dishonesty over the last couple years.

Because as PT Barnum once said (allegedly): “There’s a sucker born every minute”.

Raleigh-St-Clair
Reader
Raleigh-St-Clair

Thank you for writing this series. What you are saying is very similar to what many of us backers have been saying for some time but we are either ignored and/or called haters and/or most bizarrely of all, get labelled as “Steam gamers”, because Steam gamers are always negative, apparently, and so the reason we hate the game isn’t because it’s bad but because we’re Steam gamers. Do you feel like any of those things, Eliot? We don’t either, but it’s what we – and presumably you will – get called. Thank you, again, for simply telling the truth.

Reader
TotalCowage .

Raleigh sadly knows this, as he’s been a victim of it too, but it’s worse than just names; there’s a particular sociopath that Portalarium can have no illusions about, because we reported how he was threatening people’s children, and had tried to hint Portalarium were helping him to do it… but because he’s a high level backer, he remains untouched.

And this article, and discussion of how the game is riddled with bots to exploit the RMT and people hate that has sent him into a colossal rage, and he’s back to real life harassment once more. In my case, he’s bombarding my Origin account today with false log in attempts to try and get it locked for security reason. He did that on August 31st too, and got the email address it’s tied too and hacked it some time in December last year. He’s declared a “Total War” against me, whilst posting weird incoherent, hate filled ramblings towards me and the rest of the critics.

Reddit, Reddit! of all places find him so repellent that they’d automatically global ban him if they could, that’s how toxic and abusive Shrouds backers can be; but he spent a few months researching how to get around their net security and just makes loads more alts when they catch and manually ban each new one…

… Meanwhile at Portalarium, he’s considered a core part of the community. Oh, Portalarium will ban you for what you say on third party sites … but only if it’s directed against the game. If it’s done to critics, they absolutely don’t care.

I honest to god think kickstarting this horrendous, greed driven, truly Cult like project was one of the worst mistakes of my life; simply because it took something dear to so many people, including myself, something which taught the concept of Virtue to me as a child… and polluted and degraded it with outright blind hatred in the service of real world avarice.

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Kickstarter Donor
Tandor

“It’s a pity, then, that the actual game seems more like a series of paper cutouts masquerading as a world.

That was my conclusion after many attempts to get immersed in the game. It just fails for me on so many levels, but that is a key one.

Nice article, thanks.

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Paul

To be fair the immersion improves greatly if you do get into an active player owned town / guild, which I was fortunate enough to achieve fairly quickly without having to RMT. That was an excellent experience, for a while. The guild was active, lots of people logging in regularly and stuff happening.

But then over time there were not enough reasons for me to continue playing. The PvE content just isn’t developed enough, the crafting is not engaging (both imho of course) and most of the PvPers have left (just look at the ghost town that is the official forums PvP section). It seems I wasn’t alone as the numbers playing just got a little less every month. Often the dips in players coincided with yet another design decision implemented that cut a few people off from their ‘fun’. The posts on the forums from such players largely get argued against / ignored and a lot just stop playing. The last few times I logged in for a look the guild was down to a quarter of the actives in my time slot that it was when I started – and it was one of the largest.

It then came down to paying real money or logging in for x hours a month to grind out tax money just to keep the property. After a while, I lost hope that the game would evolve in the foreseeable future to a point where there would be enough other reasons to keep playing and just stopped logging in.

Reader
TotalCowage .

He does address this in the review though; if he joined a guild, he’d be reviewing the guild, not the game. Of course being with good people is good, friendship is magic and so forth… everything is better with friends. Even terrible movies are made fun by sitting around with friends mocking the awfulness within them. This is the tautology he’s referring too.

It’s indicative of just how little the game has to offer though that people are treating “I can talk to my friends in it” as a positive. You could set up a chat room and have the same communication. You can be active on forums. You can roleplay in any other MMO, and you’ve still got Ultima Online, where you can these days place your own home quite easily…

In my own case, I’ve one group of friends getting ready for Elite Dangerous introduction of Thargoids next week. I’ve another, separate group I used to play UO with, who now are looking at setting up a Blood Bowl 2 league around a shared love of the Warhammer IP. And then of course there’s the real life friends for meals and nights out, the dating…

But I honestly think that the reason so many people need Shroud in particular to succeed lies parallel to the same reasons the community can be so toxic to outsiders… they don’t actually have many friends in other locations, and their social life is based entirely around Shroud and its survival.

In the case of the high end backers, there’s also the financial investment; they’ve committed in some cases $60,000 into the game, probably far more since in the year and a bit since I saw one player admit to that figure as already spent.

There’s quite a few who are ideologically invested in Shroud, who are using it as a way to claim superiority over the unwashed masses, hence all the masochistic design decisions to drive away the Steam ubermenschen and the MMO crowds by making the game grindier, harder to parse, more “Immersive”; but also weirdly need the game to at the same time get a million players at launch to quietly prove their wisdom.

And then they all pile into the critics projecting their own lack of wider support, experience, or even awareness onto them. Doubling down on alienating everyone else. As I say… it’s deeply weird.

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A Dad Supreme

“Instead of reaching a point of standing up and taking responsibility for what works and what doesn’t, the game seems poised to just forever remain “in development” as if it can’t ever adjust or improve after launch.”
========
This could be the motto for almost every Kickstarter MMO made thus far and many made with corporate money.

Fans of almost each one give this same excuse: “Game is only X old, look how long it too Y game to get good and you’ll see it’s doing fine.”

Even though while using this excuse, the game decides to never “officially” launch, but still has an open cash shop and players running missions, flying ships, killing ogres or whatever.

shibby523
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shibby523

The reason the scene with the Elves is setup the way it is is because it would be more work on them to actually put together something that had actual meaning to the player. The game is phoned in with the plan to create a least viable product that barely satisfies their list of promises and even then they barely get by and just throw out those promises that don’t fit in their ever changing vision any longer.

The game was only created because their company was in danger of going under so they quickly put together a design and popped it on Kickstarter before the lights were turned off in the offices for good. The game has suffered since with poor design choice and ever revolving systems that they just can’t get right and either scrap them or put a bandaid on them so they can just barely pass.

The devs have openly trolled players that don’t agree with the game. They encourage or just don’t stop the loyal players from openly attacking others. People had to create separate subreddits just to voice their opinions without fear of repercussion. Portalarium has a habit of sweeping any and all negative outlooks under the rug no matter if it’s constructive or not.

Monthly begathons on Twitch in order to raise money for the failing game. Crowfall has raised just about the same amount in crowd funding and has so far not resorted to this and has had steady improvements on their game. Not to mention all the other Indie devs out there that continue to chug along without resorting to any of the tactics employed by Portalarium. They will do anything no matter how low to keep the lights on just one more month. Seems those months are running out and fast.

Reader
temp starcitizen

You nailed it. I’ve been following this game and wasn’t going to touch it but then something felt familiar about so I tried it out and walked away from it kinda mad. Like once I realized that the game was exactly what it is on its surface, I was mad about having played it at all. Oh well.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Alex Willis

Glad you’re going back to GW2 — I recently returned (I stopped playing just as HoT was dropping) so I’ll be curious to see how your experience parallels mine. I personally feel like a lot has changed (mostly for the better), though my one gripe is that some content is peculiarly gated, even if you own the expansions that relate to that content. So while I don’t object to the idea that you need to own HoT to get your glider, the notion that I’d need to go specifically to the Silverwastes to learn how to use them strikes me as a little weird. Like…I can glide anywhere in the world. So, maybe let me learn how to do it anywhere? (The good news is, gliding is AWESOME.)

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Bryan Correll

There was no chance to feel sympathy for anyone except “oh, lots of elves are dead here.”

Of course you couldn’t feel sympathy, it was dead elves.

Reader
TotalCowage .

Dead elves that later on you discover is a ham-fisted satire of Donald Trump. Let’s face it, the writing in Shroud is appalling… and I say that as someone who despises Trump, but knows that an Elf Lord in another realm wouldn’t just be paraphrasing what the President in this one says so obviously.

Some of that terrible plot in turn will be because of the poor questing technology in Shroud that’s still based on the Word > Response technology of the 1980s… we didn’t mind it then because the limits of the time meant it actually seemed amazing in comparison to what we were used too; but also because it imposed a tightness of character plotting that left most NPCs as little puzzles to solve rather than attempts at fully rounded people… but you remembered them through the actions you performed for them, and that cleverly gave them deeper character; Finding a missing child becomes a worried mother in your memory, becomes their joyful re-union.

In Shroud you get a woman learning her husband is dead, and then teaching you the “Back flip” emote.

It’s Ultima nostalgia written by tin eared authors limited by developers that forgot what made their games so special in the first place and care only for putting Real Money Trading at the centre of everything, cheered on by a tiny Cult Bubble that were warned this article would be how the world saw the game they were demanding, but refused to listen to reason until it’s now far too late.

Reader
A Dad Supreme

“Dead elves that later on you discover is a ham-fisted satire of Donald Trump. Let’s face it, the writing in Shroud is appalling… and I say that as someone who despises Trump, but knows that an Elf Lord in another realm wouldn’t just be paraphrasing what the President in this one says so obviously.”

“In Shroud you get a woman learning her husband is dead, and then teaching you the “Back flip” emote.”
======
Just curious… is the NPC woman in the village named ‘Melania’?

Reader
TotalCowage .

I know you’re probably making a joke, but just so you can see how horrendous the actual plotting is, it’s the starter quest where apparently getting your daughter back cancels out the dead husband, so here’s how to do a backflip!

As for the Trump quotes, mea culpa, it’s the xenophobic anti-Elf leader Phineas Drumplemouth who is the very thinly veiled Trump parody. There actually was an NPC named that directly at one time. Can’t see any reference to his wife, so I presume not.

wpDiscuz