Shroud of the Avatar: Partying with Portalarium, countering pay-to-win, and the state of the game

The day is finally arriving: Shroud of the Avatar is formally launching next week. It’s been a long journey. The path to this new old-school MMO started back on Kickstarter on March 8th, 2013. Now, five years almost to the day, SOTA is emerging. On March 27th, release #52 will be the official launch of episode 1. And fans didn’t have to wait until the end of the month to celebrate; Portalarium hosted a launch party this past week in Austin, Texas.

Besides hanging out with devs and fans at the shindig, I visited the studio’s offices for a tour and interview with Richard Garriott and Starr Long. There, I got to see memorabilia from the very beginnings of Garriott’s game-making career as well as a sneak peek of the events that will occur at SOTA’s launch. After that, it was celebration time at the awesome From Pong to Pokemon exhibit at the The Bullock Texas State History Museum (which happened to have a display of some of Garriott’s early gaming goodies!)

Before the party got underway, I went to the offices (not the original small cabin by the lake, sadly) to have a chat with Garriott and Long. We talked about how far the game had come, the benefits of the open development (instant feedback!) as well as the negatives (why isn’t the game done when I can play it?), the team’s pride in never missing an on-time launch of any of the 51 releases, communication, and the upcoming marketing push that will happen right after launch. I also queried them about housing, finances, in-game spreadable diseases, the possibility of mobile companion apps, and combat. I got to tour the results of the in-game launch event as well as tour the office itself. (I also learned a couple of fun facts: Ultima IV was forged from the desire to make a game about virtue after getting fan mail from Ultima II and learning that people were killing off all the NPCs and Lord British; and Garriott’s favorite cover is Ultima VI, because of how it relates to the game.)

[Editor’s note: This meeting took place before the account migration situation, about which we are still querying the developers.]

A look at history

During the interview and tour, Garriott admitted that he was a fellow packrat, and I was able to see a chunk of his personal and professional gaming history. I saw the actual teletype that his first-ever game called D&D 1 was programmed on (you can actually play this teletype game inside SOTA!), a tote full of all the floppy disks of game updates (when floppies were a thing), and thumbed through the notes and sheets of the first-ever Dungeons & Dragons campaign he ran along with his first D&D character sheet. (Fun fact: He has actually run fans through that first campaign when they visit the offices. I sure wish we had more time before the party!) I also got to see original artwork of the entire span of Garriott and the company’s game-making careers, including one cover created by his then art-director mother. Many fans will soon be enjoying replicas of some of these items thanks to the collectors boxes, which I was able to preview.

Speaking of those collectors boxes, early backers who got the limited editions collectors game boxes will get their items right after launch. However, those who missed out then who still want the items like the cloth SOTA map will have a chance to do so. Garriott said they are going to over-manufacture the boxes and offer a limited supply of regular editions (sans special land grant certificates, etc). A few thousand of these new regular editions will be available.

An earth-shattering launch (mild spoiler alert!)

Let’s start in the reason for the season: launch. Many players have correctly surmised that the massive meteor currently flying through the sky, showering the map with smaller meteors, is going to touch down on the launch date. What they may not realize is the scale of destruction that will entail. No, there won’t be a wipe or loss of land (although Garriott emphasized that players will be able to reset their current avatar to restart the story over or to create more characters). One entire section of map, however, will get decimated. The landscape will be forever altered, so if you’d like to see Quel as it is now, you’ve got only one week to do so! I know I need to.

I have to say, the new adventure zone taking its place is pretty awesome-looking. Now called Quel Shardfall, the land has a massive crater with the bulk of the meteor driven into the ground and smaller shards hanging in the air. More than just a cosmetic change, the meteor’s path also unearthed, as Garriott put it, “an ancient evil that had been buried and locked away here.” If you are ready for the challenge, there are some unique rewards waiting for players who explore this area.

We also toured The Lost Vale, a special map that appears for only one hour every 28 hours. It is a ghostly zone that basically retells the story of the cabalists — the prequel history 200 years before SOTA. I can’t wait to play through this on my own (but only after I finish the prequel book, Blade of the Avatar.)

Hurrah for housing

Housing isn’t just one of my all-time favorite features in a game; it’s one of the features that many folks interested in Shroud of the Avatar are keen on. Before we delved into questions, Garriott showed off the decorating system. I’ve known about the in-game phonographs and radios, and now I have learned about the in-game teletype machines. (I love the fact that players have designed and developed roleplay enhancing features!) During our demo, I also got to experience a special item that follows the exact positioning of the heavenly bodies so players can track things like the cabalists.

What I didn’t know at all was that gravity is actually a force when decorating. Garriott demonstrated that when you move any item that has items placed inside/on top of it, those items move as well! Man, that would have saved me many decorating headaches over the years. And the clocks in-game actually show real game time. “I think that we have created the most sophisticated and easiest to use decoration system that exists.” Garriott said. Additionally, he pointed out that although some items are purchased and placed as whole pieces, many items are created and crafted by players and then placed. Those decorative planters had to be planted with a seed to display a plant.

SOTA housing is a beautifully deep system. I had to agree when Garriott stated, “If you add that to all the crafting we do from raw materials to finished product, I personally find [the system] quite impressive.” That said, can average players fully experience it? There is worry that folks can’t participate unless they fork over tons of cash, or couldn’t find land even if they did. Is housing pay-to-win? Is all the land gone? We addressed these two big concerns. Garriott and Long’s answer in short: Yes, land is a limited resource, but there are opportunities for housing for all who want it.

Addressing property as pay-to-win

The P2W concern is not lost on Garriott and Long. Garriott said, “The concern of pay-to win, whether it’s the housing or power, I think is not just fair, it is a reasonable concern for anybody to have about every game that allows you to pay for anything going into it.” In regards to negating pay-to-win in SOTA, Garriott said, “I think we did it well.” Long expressed that he felt communication was a factor in the pay-to-win concern, adding:

“We’ve been very, very, very careful along the way to make sure that [for] anything that’s on the store there is the equivalent in the game — and always more. So for everything that is on the store, there are at least two of the same thing in the game that can be crafted or found from looting. I think the issue for us is on communication. I am firmly on the side that we are not pay-to-win in any way. And that people have decided perhaps that we are, and that is on us that we probably haven’t done a good enough job communicating all the ways that we’re not.”

True, there isn’t enough land for every player in game to own it, but there are still ways to for those who want housing to obtain it. “Because it’s a single world, there is a limited amount of real estate. Real estate is a valuable commodity.” Garriott said. Then he emphasized:

“We want to make sure that anybody who wants real estate and is actually going to take the time to maintain it, we want you to have property. What we don’t want is somebody to own property and then just kind of leave it fallow because now they’re burning space in the game that would actually be more fun for everybody if it was put to use.”

Can players acquire a house and property without paying Portalarium cash? Absolutely, both Garriott and Long vowed. Long pointed to players on the forums who have guides for what they did and how long it took to build theirs. According to these guides, it takes about a month of play time to acquire a home and property. And that housing — no matter how it is acquired — has value, so that players can also turn around and sell theirs in game in order to get another item they might want, such as a boat. Garriott and Long explained that the whole idea is to drive housing into the player economy, so players can supporting the needs of other player and the devs can step out of it as much as possible.

This philosophy is also manifested in renting. Folks who don’t want to worry about property ownership and maintaining it can still enjoy housing thanks to the new renting system. Long noted that some players rent out houses (or rooms in an inn) while others on the forums advertise that they are giving out free housing. This information is now communicated to players via a flier they find in their backpack when starting the game. Players can also find information on town bulletin boards. And with this system, even if players leave game and are evicted, all of their stuff is sent safely to their bank. Does renting work? Well, thanks to a connection made at the launch party, I might be running a vacant inn for another player until I can gather enough raw materials in game to build my own.

Funding and finances

With the game switching from Early Access to launch, that bring up the question about changes in funding and finances. Although all of the revenue used to come from the web site, most will move into the game. New players will still be able to buy the game and starter pack upgrades on the site, but most all of the economy will move into game – that’s according to Garriott. “The way that we are already starting to move the economy is to where most players will trade with other players for just gold in the game that is normally dropped,” he added. Most transactions in game will be gold, but players can also use the intermediary currency, COTO, for transactions. (Note: COTO does drop in the game as well and also has other functions, including being an ingredient in potions and such.)

As for finances, Garriott said that concurrency numbers over the last few months have been steadily increasing, even without real marketing. True, the studio does try to convert the free trial players to a paid account that isn’t limited. Other than that, however, word of mouth, some press coverage, and a tiny bit of test marketing is pretty much all that has happened. Garriott said they didn’t want to draw in the massive crowds before the game was finished, knowing that would turn many potential players off. However, once the game launches, there will be a massive marketing blitz. He said, “A sizable chunk of money will be spent to try to bring in new players.”

Other tidbits on disease, apps, and combat

As time was winding down and the party was nearing, I slipped a few more questions in. Here are the answers to those:

Spreadable diseases were actually in game for a time, but some players had used them to grief others, so the system was removed. Garriott and Long did discuss that it could be re-implemented by perhaps tying to being PvP flagged only.

What about mobile companion apps? The community has made some already; one has the community calendars, avatar radio stations, maps, and more. Garriott stated, “Long term, do we want to see this become bigger and richer and deeper, and may even assign some of our own time to it? Absolutely, if we get to a state where we have the ability to add some of our own time and money to it.” Long added that the team has talked about a companion app that has something like managing the stock of your vendors. (Please, please, oh please yes!) “Anything that didn’t involve having to navigate the 3D space is a candidate for a great companion app,” Long said. This includes, managing tenants, updating message boards, and maybe making books.

Lastly, we talked about the seemingly divisive feelings about the game’s combat; some like it, and some really don’t. “I think much of the love/hate is from past players,” Long suggested. But is it still that way after the combat changes? Long explained that SOTA can now be played like a traditional MMO by dragging and dropping skills on the hotbars and using them. However, players can also specifically choose to play the dealt deck combat and have that added challenge and utilize those combos. This happens by unlocking a slot and loading it up with which skills you want to be shuffled in that slot. Each slot is unlocked independently, so players can always leave one locked that has a must-have skill, like healing.

Celebrate launch times, come on!

After the interview, it was time to hang out with other fans, chat about the game, eat some Texas bbq, chat with devs, and listen to a mini concert from Shooter Jennings (whose music appears in game). There was camaraderie and cosplay. Players were able to meet back up with other fans or put faces to names for the first time. Folks also got to check out the museum exhibit, Pong to Pokemen, which had two items from the Portalarium offices on display — an original teletype and Garriott’s own Apple II that he did his early programming on. You could even play a number of the games. It was a relaxed affair, even though everyone was excited about launch. 10/10 would do it again.

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144 Comments on "Shroud of the Avatar: Partying with Portalarium, countering pay-to-win, and the state of the game"

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Paulie Walnuts

Nice read MJ. Thanks for the hard work.

It’s unfortunate that the usual suspects are here to trash it in the comments. :/

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Roger Melly

When I gave it a try recently I thought it had a certain charm . The combat is a bit clunky but that hasn’t stopped me playing the likes of lotro or TSW in the past . I just don’t think its worth 40 dollars to me but if and when its on sale I’ll give it a whirl once the price is right .

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Victor Didra

Player numbers are going up up up! It’s very exciting, and very busy!

Welcome aboard, new Avatars!

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temp starcitizen

I can confirm this. Six months ago, last September, steamcharts showed an average of 119.8 players, and today it’s up to 176.7!

Raleigh-St-Clair
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Raleigh-St-Clair

Indeed! Play along at home folks. Check those Steam charts for yourself.

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Victor Didra

Please do. New record today, highest since October 2016!

http://steamcharts.com/app/326160#1m

BAM!

Raleigh-St-Clair
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Raleigh-St-Clair

Peak players 336! Can the server handle it?!? WOW.

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Victor Didra

So far so good. Yes, the non-stop upward climb is pretty amazing. It’s great seeing people in the towns finally, seeing the public vendors full of goods, and all so nice! Fantastic.

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Master Vallo

Well I have to weigh into this…

It is seriously the games main problem that they were unable to manage and create a big community that clearly could rally behind the game despite having different playstyles.
Main reason for that was the absolutely over-moderation of “words” out of context, favoritism due to ONBE or other Dev supported player activities like Hospitaller’s and some charity activities that apparently are more important than the games integrity. While overall those things are good things in theory, the way they were managed was bad and there was enough evidence around blogs or other player fansites around proofing this.

I for example was threatened when I had a screenshot going viral on imgur that proofed they ban without providing a reason. I received an email that they would teminate my account permanently if I do not delete it. From that point on me and the Management never became friends again. But actually it was other devs that reached out and today I kinda made my peace.

However not their Management. I received several emails threatening my ban from the forum over the years if I ever give them another reason to ban me… In the end I was banned for “public contradiction of a dev”… which is in itself funny coming from a game that wants player feedback. And if a very active player and contributor of your game can contradict you with facts you should appreciate it.

I was called dumb in their twitch chats by people close to them in RL, nothing happens. My signatures where moderated for being to long, I changed it and showed them 50 people who had longer signatures… nothing happened to them of course. It is stuff like that that gave people creating alternate SotA communities like those on reddit credit in the first place. And there are hundreds of people who had the same experience in their forums.

If you are white knighting the game, for whatever reason you get a free pass it seems. ONBE members can call people assholes, something I would have instantly be banned for and this time with a real reason that actually violates one of their community guidelines.

That being said, the game isn’t as bad as people make you believe and the current reviews might indicate. Speaking solely from the MP aspect they have a base now to build from. Would I have hoped for more gameplay features and less PAY TO “WIN” content like POT building. POTs should be available through gameplay means and thats about the only thing that is still P2W… I put the “win” in exclamation marks because, yes it can render you a economic advantage – but that’s about it. Depending on how much you weigh this fact, people can decide on their own if this is too much pay to win or not.

The game needs sandbox content now. UO is their number one metric and even if new people come in now they will pretty much come to a point where the grinding lacks the meaning which UO provided. I hope for the Q2 announcement to address issues like lack of conflict, an oversaturated economy where you don’t need others and lack of player impact on the world itself because things like factions or real guild politics/wars/alliances and territory control are missing.

I like the changes they did towards the combat system, getting away from a stance to balance for 1v1 encounters more towards “enforcing” a need to group up for content and also enable group PVP more. Changes to Shardfalls (PVP Zones) are another step towards the right direction.

Overall I can say my influence on the game as a DEV+ backer has been significant from my perspective because other people at Portalarium reached out and actually take the time to listen, even though on their official forum I was more or less persona non grata.

So long,
Vallo.

Codex39
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Codex39

Hi everyone. Will this game be going on sale on Steam for launch? I played the be F2P online version and found it charming but have a little hard time dropping $40 on an indie game that still has a long way to go before you can call it polished.

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Roger Melly

Yeah I agree . But I will pick it up when its on sale at some point . I quite liked what I saw of it but not enough to spend 40 dollars on it .

Raleigh-St-Clair
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Raleigh-St-Clair

It’s been on-sale regularly during its 600-plus days of persistence (prior to launch), so far. So I’d say it will likely be on-sale at some stage. Probably sooner, rather than later, given its word of mouth and bad reviews.

Codex39
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Codex39

I’m going to give it a good review since it’s a neat game. Y’all people ****** about houses or whatever need to get over it. Making yourself look bad.

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Mikka Hansen

good review? neat game? lolololol, trying to save the crash train from happening? good luck

Codex39
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Codex39

I’m sorry but you’re hurting no one but yourself with these comments and negativity. I genuinely think it’s an interesting game and have enjoyed it so far I’m the free trial.
You want to figure out who posted it? My name is Jason Revell and I live in Torrance, CA. Nothing to hide here. Just a comment on a game.

Raleigh-St-Clair
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Raleigh-St-Clair

If you think that, then you have no idea the range of issues people have with this game. Starting from original Kickstarter backers who backed an entirely different game, and going from there.

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rune_74

Look at the name, figure out who posted that.

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Vagabond Sam

In the final month pre-release, I have been giving the game another, fair, shot.

With a reasonable level of 55, and 60k gold, I decided to investigate getting a house again.

I previously had a Tax Free Row lot, Taxed Row Lot and Taxed Town Lot. The first two were purchased, one as a Kickstarter Reward, one as an Add-On reward. The Taxed Town was mostly me taking all my Kickstarter ‘rare’ items and trading them for COTO with a bit of a grind and topping up COTO from the store.

I sold them last year when the people I planned on playing the game with left but I kept my account reasonably ready to pick up.

Anyway, as at Release 51, I can grind maybe 2000 gold per hour. I searched vendors in game for Player Owned Town Row deeds and found one for 500k gold. I advertised on the forums and got an offer of 300k. Now, my personal preference is to not be in a POT because I’m not really interested in being tied to another player’s virtual item. But, this is the cheapest entry point so…

I need 240,000 gold. 120 hours of grinding, give or take. That’s likely to be between nine and twelve weeks of grind. Alternatively I can skip the grind and just buy the COTO. Somewhere around $85 worth off the top of my head.

Bear in mind the best way to grind gold is to kill weak enemies on mass and ignore resources so in this time you aren’t getting XP, skills or crafting items. Stopping for anything beyond killing packs of trash is less gold/ph.

Once I do, I then need to grind 3500 gold each week to keep the deed up (Even if I paid real money). Or I can skip the 2ish hour per week grind by paying the $1 COTO instead. My Town Lot was 14,000 gold per week (seven hours or $4 in COTO)

COTO are essentially just a premium currency too since I haven’t seen one drop in nearly 400 hours of game time since the game went persistent and Portalarium aren’t sharing the drop rate info so players can be informed about just how easy it is to get a 5 COTO item from the vendors.

That seems pay to win to me.

On top of that, if I had property already I could use a Vendor to sell materials and post an ad in the main forums like I used to. Sadly, one of my IRL friends who played sold their vendor and deed after I did so I no longer have access to that part of the game. So I have another disadvantage for not having property.

I also can’t use my decoration items I got in quests and I can’t garden/farm things like cotton, reagents, cooking or alchemy ingredients.

More disadvantages and locked off content

Of course I could rent property to access all this but that will, in the long run, just cost me more money, while providing land owners with more gold simulating the real world lord and serf relationship.

I also don’t want to have to rely on another player’s wealth to experience the game’s content. Not to mention some of the ludicrous prices players started advertising a month ago.

As for Fallow land. I see lots and lots of unused plots because the rent free deeds don’t expire quickly enough. That burden of grinding for your house rests solely on players that haven;t purchased the expensive bundles that start at $299.

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Anonymous

”Bear in mind the best way to grind gold is to kill weak enemies on mass and ignore resources…, I can grind maybe 2000 gold per hour”

Thats your mistake ..if you farm resources you can sell them to other players and easily make 15k -20k gold/hour … So you can get the gold need it for a house deed in just 15 -20 hours of playtime…

The rest of your post is in error because you are trying to prove a player cant make more then 2k gold/hour , which is totally FALSE.

You have choices about how you want to spend your time ingame. You wanna make tons of combat XP you go kill stuff non stop, you want to make tons of craft XP you go harvest, chop trees, mine whichever you like… you wanna make lots of gold mine silver, gold, harvest beetles then sell it to players. You can do them all at once but not as effectively .

”COTO are pay to win”

Win what ? With Coto you can buy cosmetic items , so what do you win ? A nice dress ? A blue house ? A Hat ? A Pipe ?

”I had a Tax Free Row lot, Taxed Row Lot and Taxed Town Lot, I sold them last year”

So you sold your deeds , were freeloading your friend vendor and deed, and after he sold his too things went down hill for you..i get it but how is that Portalarium fault ? I find it ludicrous to complain that you dont have access to stuff anymore because you sold it for cash..even more to try and pin it on the game.

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Vagabond Sam

What do you recommend I farm to get 15k per hour?

The devs even target 3.5k per hour maximums last I saw them reference gold gain.

Cotton sells about 5g each so in an hour i’d need 3k cotton to make 15k. Assuming 2 second harvests if I was standing in front of an infinite cotton plant it’d take 1 hour and 40 minutes so cotton is out.

Silver and gold ore tends to be more valuable so maybe that’s what you mean. The commodity forum mostly lists these for sale for US$ on the first page though. So let’s figure it out based on earning $85.

1000 gold ore seems to get you $7.50. So I need about 11300 ore. 200 gold ore per hour is my best guess at how fast it respawns plus combat time and harvest tone in the mines. So that 56 hours and is less time but requires a high level character and risks the market changing if it floods.

Also that’s based on doing RMT but it’s hard finding in game gold prices on thru player market place because there is so much paypal trading happening.

If anything I’ve said is wrong i’d appreciate specific examples and correction rather then a long rambling “You’re wrong” reply with no insight.

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Anonymous

”What do you recommend I farm to get 15k per hour?” – Read my first reply again i already made reccomandations. “Cotton sells about 5g each so in an hour i’d need 3k cotton to make 15k” Cotton has a byproduct named carapacian beetle. When you harvest cotton in instances those beetles have a chance to drop also and they sell now for 900 gold each that coupled with mining silver,gold nodes cutting trees can net you a hefty gold amount/hour .

“With a reasonable level of 55″ – You do realise you can get from level 1 to 55 in a week max by killing stuff ?

”it’s hard finding in game gold prices on thru player market place” – Its not hard at all …all you have to do is join some of the trade channels where people spam what they buy or selll and you can ask there for a price check on any item that confuses you.

((Edited by mod to keep info but remove the attacks.))

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rune_74

This, exactly this.

When the game first went live almost two years ago, people were making a lot more gold then they are now. So, you have these barons that have a ton of gold with which they can manipulate the lot raffle.

I would be very interested in seeing someone set up a trial method of buying one lottery deed over ten characters and see how many win. I guess this would depend on how many buy into the lottery. I would also love to see the number of lottery tickets sold.

I brought up a long time ago that they should limit players to one ticket each and limit all players to a maximum of 3 lots per account. That was not looked at as a favorable idea. It limited certain groups from profiting as much as they could.

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shathiell

I recently did the whole craft/IGG/loot thing and found out that not everything is available through that method. Things you can’t craft/buy for gold/loot in-game without COTO’s or buying on the store:

  • hot tubs
  • toilets
  • small fountains/birdbaths
  • trees
  • That comment above which mentions that everything is available in-game through crafting/loot drops is simply not true.

    Raleigh-St-Clair
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    Raleigh-St-Clair

    Worth noting the game has been persistent for over 600 days at this point in time. Just repeating that for those who probably can’t believe it, nothing’s been wiped, and a core of people has been playing, for over 600 days, here at “launch”.

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    Tandor

    I see a lot of discussion here about the housing system and how the obtaining of lots is restricted with lottery tickets etc. This is presumably because with no instancing the supply of housing is limited.

    But what happens in the single-player offline game? Is housing still available and how is it obtained?

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    rune_74

    You can buy it from merchants I think. The problem with offline is a whole nother level.

    There will be empty villages full of empty houses. You cannot advance time. The game is not balanced at all for single player and very little work has been done on it.

    I guess the biggest thing you could say is they made three pet like companions to follow you around….one at a time.

    Karma_Mule
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    Karma_Mule

    Oooo, interesting question!

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    Tariva Sparks

    Unfortunately SotA is a complete and total disappointment after being delayed for well over 4 years now. It seems the developers spent more time creating microtransaction and macrotransaction hell rather than a fun immersive game that was in the spirit of anything related to Ultima or UO. It seems like it was made by people who were not fans of Ultima at all.

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    Ailsa Nordstrom

    I feel the same way. As a huge Ultima fan (and a fan of Richard Garriott), I Kickstarted a considerable amount for this game. Red flags popped up in the last hours of the Kickstarter campaign when they were seemingly promising everything to everyone. The game I ultimately played was very bare-bones but that is to be expected from a game in beta. What bothered me was that every. single. update. includes yet another virtual item being sold for more money. Around the time they announced there would be no more character wipes, only one of the 3 main story paths was complete enough to play through. I couldn’t help wondering why they hadn’t spent more time on the core game rather than coming up with more RMTs to push.

    I’ll forever be a fan of the Ultima series and am thankful to Garriott for creating that world. But my experience with this game and its updates have tainted my opinion of him.

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    rune_74

    Yep, pretty much the boat I’m in.