I was a wide-eyed, naive kid when I first stepped into Ultima Online in 1997, and as it turns out, the developers were too.
That’s my takeaway from reading through the Ultima Online chunk of Raph Koster’s new book, Postmortems. Koster, as any dedicated MMORPG fan will recall, went by “Designer Dragon” back then as the creative lead on the game. Having come from a MUD background, he and his wife Kristin Koster were instrumental in shaping Richard Garriott’s seminal MMORPG and therefore the genre as we know it.
Koster kindly sent us a preprint of the book, unwittingly robbing himself of $35, as I was going to buy it anyway, and it’s massive, folks: over 700 pages spanning three decades and the majority of the online games Koster’s worked on during his long tenure in the gaming industry. Some of those games are definitely of more interest to our readers on Massively OP, in particular Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. It’s the Ultima Online chapters I aim to cover today.
Are you familiar with Geocaching? It’s a popular activity in which players hide and discover treasure caches all over the world (and is a favorite of Shroud of the Avatar’s Richard Garriott, who hid one on the International Space Station).
It turns out that Bungie is a fan of the game as well, as the studio team created its own special geocache hunt for fans to discover. Destiny 2 players discovered clues in the latest patch that eventually led to a secret message. This message contained GPS coordinates to a real-world location, which turned out to be a hidden cache on Sleeping Beauty Mountain in New York state.
The contents? A huge Valkyrie spear modeled after one of Destiny 2’s weapons and a note from the developers encouraging the finder to share his or her discovery with the community at large. The note was from Design Lead Rob Gallerani that thanked the community for its passion and hinted that more geocaches may be coming. Additionally, the team left a second, smaller container with gold coins for future hunters to take if they traveled to these coordinates.
If you’ve found yourself struggling with Shroud of the Avatar’s unique take on online gaming, you are definitely not alone. It’s not the most intuitive title, although fans do insist that once you put in the time to understand, it becomes an engaging experience.
Maybe you need a little boost to help with that? There’s no shame in learning from the experience of others. Shroud of the Avatar player Elaina Strongbow put together an incredible collection of 69 short (two to three minutes apiece) guides to walk you through all of the systems and features of Lord British’s newest title. The topics cover the starter experience, understanding your character, engaging in combat, taking part in the crafting scene, and creating the swankiest of pads.
Maybe it’s time to give SotA another try? Check out these videos and see if they might help the game click for you!
What to make of Shroud of the Avatar? The few MMO bloggers who have looked into this recently released but already long-running title have struggled to get a handle on Lord British’s latest RPG.
The Ancient Gaming Noob calls it “retroist hobbyism” and left him wondering. “What is this game that is by turns awkward, finicky, intricate, deep, slow, and clearly a work in progress?” he asks. “Where does it fit into the gaming world?”
Inventory Full found some merit in it but noted the extreme performance issues and other annoyances: “My willingness to struggle on was further undermined by the D&D style random encounters that dragged me into a private instance every time I tried to travel from one adventure area to another. Not to mention the fact that my weapon was broken and I couldn’t remember how the combat system worked anyway.”
Continue on with us in this edition of Global Chat, as we’ll read essays on altitis, EverQuest, City of Heroes, Elder Scrolls Online, and more!
The dust may be settling after Shroud of the Avatar’s final launch, but that doesn’t mean the game is done. On the contrary, Portalarium clearly means to keep right on its strict monthly update schedule.
As the title’s latest dev update explains, R53 – due out this Thursday – includes the rebuild of multiple scenes and locations (like Tenebris Harbor and Penmawr Island shown in the gallery below), plus the looking-for-group system, better loot, offline drop rate tweaks, additional side quests, heraldry, and new “plunderer NPCs,” plus the promised UI polishing pass.
The planned stress test on the QA server kicks off as this post goes live; as previously noted, a quorum of participants will ensure a double experience event come the launch of the update.
Meanwhile, if you’re into world exploration, swing by the Twitter feed of Portalarium’s Richard Garriott; he’s been chronicling a well-earned trip to the Arctic.
If all goes well, later this year we will finally be treated to an actual Harry Potter MMORPG in the form of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. While that will be a mobile ARG in the vein of Pokemon Go, it will still be a big step into the online space that MMO fans have been craving for nearly two decades now.
Obviously, Harry Potter continues to be a mammoth franchise for J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., and Electronic Arts, which has handled the video game license over the years. While there have been single-player Harry Potter titles, especially on consoles, no MMORPG emerged even at the height of the IP craze that swallowed up Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer, and more. So why not?
The truth is that Harry Potter Online almost did happen. Its brief existence and development isn’t too well-known, even today, but the wasted potential has always tantalized me with what could have been. Using a time-turner, we will go back to the late 1990s today and peek in on a possible future that came to fruition.
If we judged MMOs by their numbers alone — and I’m not suggesting we do so — then the original Lineage would be the crowing rooster strutting about the hen house. It’s also been one of those games that I’ve always intellectually acknowledged was a huge hit for some reason but never gave much attention. I think it’s because, contrary to many western MMOs, Lineage is primarily an Asian phenomenon. That doesn’t mean it should be shunned, of course, but just that it may be difficult to understand when you’re on the outside of it.
So let’s back up the memory truck to September 1998, when a then-fledgling NCsoft rolled out a Diablo-style isometric MMO and struck virtual gold in South Korea. At the time, gaming rooms were becoming a huge thing in the country. A recession had hit, giving people a lot of time with nothing to do, and the government was rapidly expanding the broadband network. In the face of this perfect storm, titles like StarCraft and Lineage became overnight household fixtures — and remained so for decades to come.
Even if you haven’t played Lineage and you don’t know anyone who does, trust me: Millions and millions of players have. As former Senior Producer Chris Mahnken once said, “Lineage keeps going because it’s just plain fun.”
Plenty of panels at GDC are recorded and uploaded to the internet weeks after the event, including this one. It’s not quite the same as being there, as you miss a few things. For example, this year’s Ultima Online Post-Mortem panel was packed. It was international. It was fun, gross, nostalgiac, and sometimes groan-inducing.
And I’d hate to just summarize the talk, especially since some of you vets have heard these stories before, but since ya’ll couldn’t make it, I’ll do it. For you. But for this particular panel, not only will I try to summarize what was said before the panel will be viewable online in a few weeks, but I’ll dish out on the after-panel chat with Richard Garriott, Starr Long, Raph Koster, and Rich Vogel, including comments from the team on bad bans, kingslaying, VR, and the state of the MMORPG.
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!)
Is the buzz starting to grow louder for Shroud of the Avatar as it rounds the corner to launch? There are a couple of positive signs that player interest and involvement is picking up in these final weeks, at least according to creator Richard Garriott.
Responding to some players who noted that guild traffic and general interest has been on the rise as of late, Garriott tweeted, “Data backs that up! In addition to eight weeks of steady concurrency increases, the conversion rates of free trials to full citizens remains strong, even as less ‘indoctrinated’ folks are trying it out. Travian’s great marketing team fine tuning new player outreach.”
One of our commenters recently noted that the developers have been raining meteors down on the game’s population in these last few weeks — and that it seems as if there is something big planned as a launch event. Stay tuned!
A rather unique shindig is being planned for Shroud of the Avatar’s launch this March. Portalarium announced that it will be holding a release party on March 14th at the Bullock Texas History Museum. Only about 100 backers plus various press and guests will be able to attend and enjoy a short concert with Shooter Jennings.
Around that time, Shroud of the Avatar will also be present at SXSW Gaming Expo from March 13th through the 17th. Richard Garriott will get a special honor as a focus of a panel covering the game’s history and future.
Over on Reddit, an interesting poll is being conducted. A brand-new mod who took over r/shroudoftheavatar is now asking fans if they want the sub to remain open in light of several other subreddits covering the game and the sub devolving into a mess of trolling and outright attacks. “If you want this to stay open, posting is the second best thing you can do,” the new mod said. “Make your case not just here, but out there. Provide some things worth talking about. Win or go out swinging.”
With such a strong emphasis on player housing, Shroud of the Avatar has fans guessing as to what other interesting abodes the team is cooking up inside of Lord British’s lab. Turns out the answer to this is “log cabins.”
Over the next two updates, the team will be pushing out three new housing types. There’s a giant, hollowed-out horizontal log (hopefully worm-free), a giant, hollowed-out vertical log, and a very traditional Abraham Lincoln-goes-skiing log cabin. Two of these can be crafted in-game while the other will be a shop purchase.
“Players really liked the witch’s hollow log house that we introduced in South Longfall Wetland in Release 46 so at the suggestion of our players we have turned it into a house!” the team said. “The Hollow Log House is a single story village sized house that will be craftable via a recipe in-game that you will gain from a quest in Release 51.”
With a couple of months to go before its official launch, Shroud of the Avatar has more than a few challenges to overcome to deliver a solid, full-fledged game that appeals to a crowd outside of the small-yet-loyal community that has been financially floating this title for years now. But challenges are what Richard Garriott is all about, and the video game creator is not shy about sharing his long history of overcoming these in the industry.
In a recent Ars Technica interview, Garriott shared his war stories about the creation of Ultima Online and the surprises that the community whipped up along the way. The story he tells here focuses on the automated virtual ecology that was made for the sandbox. This carefully fine-tuned system was destroyed virtually overnight when player hordes came into the game and slaughtered everything.
Out of this (failed) experiment came a funny story and some useful lessons that the team used to shape MMO sandboxes thereafter. Check it out after the break!