This past year, Shroud of the Avatar moved from a monthly weekend-release cadence to being online 24/7, but the major updates have been no less frequent and new features are introduced regularly. Perhaps even more impressive is that the open communication philosophy between the developers and the players has remained constant throughout the entire process. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still secrets to learn about the game. We caught up with Portalarium’s Richard Garriott and Starr Long at E3 2015 to discuss the state of the game and see what things are in store. And yes, we learned a few new tidbits the pair hadn’t planned on sharing!
SotA will be the game people want
With the history that Garriott and Long have in the gaming industry, it’s not surprising that many players have high expectations for SotA. So do the devs worry that the sandbox won’t be able to live up to them? Garriott doesn’t. “I am extremely confident that we are going to deliver the game that people want, he said. “You can ask any member of our core community whether we’re going to deliver the spiritual successor to our previous work that they’ve been waiting for, and I am confident they will tell you, yes.”
Part of that confidence comes from the fact that supporters have been involved in the development this whole time, from suggestions to testing and feedback to discovering new game play. Long expressed that he is still surprised by how much the players come up with in the game given what the devs have provided. Last year it was the internet radio station and corresponding in-game radio that is used to narrate plays and more. This year his favorite surprise creation is Gust Ball, a sport invented by players that uses a human ‘ball’ that gets driven around a field and through goals using the gust magic spell. The sport even uses the Avatar Radio for live commentary during matches! Because of this creativity, the devs are looking at making a round pet creature that could be utilized as a better ball instead of a player.
Of course, Shroud of the Avatar is far from finished. So where is the game now on this road to being what players want? Garriott reports that at this point the team is turning the corner from the implementation of foundational systems — which are now mostly in place — and moving into the refinement and quantity phase. By this, he means getting all the data in (such as building all the maps) as well as “sweetening the Lord Britishisms of the game.” He continued, “We are getting to the point where all the little things that make it a game that people will recognize as coming from our history are going in now.” These things include player-created quests, weather, writable books, and astronomy, a new system that affects plot happenings, crafting, resource gathering, and more.
While there are certainly many facets to SotA, a large part of them involve player-generated content. And some upcoming features will do much for supporting player-driven events. But there has always been one hitch: The quest-giver and/or his representatives had to be online in order to disseminate information, clues, and items necessary for participating players. That’s all changing in SotA. Starting with the soon-to-be added public cache boxes and writable books, SotA will be getting a long list of features that will enable player-made quests to be permanent additions to games that can be run even when the creator is offline.
We know what the writable books are, but what exactly are these boxes? They are public chests that are open for players to put things into as well as take things out of. In the first iteration, anyone who stumbles across a box can add in or take out as much as they wish, just like with geocaching (which the feature is modeled after). However, Garriott said, “It’s set up to improve the functionality as we go.” The system behind the scenes is already prepared to expand into making it more of a vending machine, where a player would have to insert something in order to get something out of it. Just think of the possibilities of needing to supply some item/clue from a quest line to receive the next clue to advance or even the reward. These chests can be placed in houses, player cities, and can even be found out in the world. One thing Garriott assured us will not happen is a box becoming an infinite gold spawn with which to grind wealth. “We’re making things zero-sum: In order to put anything in a chest a player has to have already earned it,” he said.
And now for one of the secrets the pair let slip! When discussing player-generated content, I asked about the possibility of having mob encounters be a part of the adventure. Like the chest that can’t spawn rewards out of thin air, players won’t be able to generate mobs out of thin air. However, Garriott revealed that he’d like to see players be able to utilize things like spider eggs, which generate spiders until destroyed, to add mortal challenge to their quests. The quest-makers expend the effort to harvest the eggs from the wilds and can then transplant them into their PvP-enabled area, such as their home or a PvP-flagged player city or their basement. The team is also exploring letting the governor of a town place things around the town in between lots. This is a much bigger deal that anticipated because player-owned cities are significantly more popular than either Garriott or Long had predicted; Long admitted the team expected to sell maybe 20 cities, but there are over 200.
What about having the mobs in another part of your house? SotA is serious about players having the choice to participate in PvP; so players will never be mistakenly wander into an unsafe area — it will always be a conscious choice. For that reason, PvP-enabled areas are currently limited to spaces that must be zoned into. However, Long described how the team is looking at a way to make it so that full individual lots will could be flagged. This would be accomplished by making a very physical visual barrier; think of it like surrounding a property in barbed wire.
Speaking of PvP, Garriott acknowledged that currently there isn’t much of a downside to it because players don’t win/lose anything tangible from a fight. However, in the next couple of releases devs will be implementing the looting and ransom system so that the victor in a PvP battle can choose to take one item off the defeated, or the defeated can opt to pay a cash ransom of twice the item’s value. Another possibility that devs are discussing is adding an additional level to the flagging system. There are players who are lobbying for full-loot, and a flagging option that would allow consenting players to risk everything during a fight is one way to offer that without inflicting it on those who aren’t willing.
Even with a flagging system in place, some players may question why PvP is necessary at all. Those players may not realize that the game’s story is actually interwoven with PvP. Garriott shared that the main part of the story is about a prophecy involving a specific moment in time, and the prophesy says that one of those folks (players) who are returning to New Britannia is going to emerge as the next Dark Lord. he added, “How you comport yourself in this game will deeply affect your long-term play mechanic.”
Spilling the secrets
Finding out little treasures of knowledge can be as rewarding as finding a treasure in game. Besides the aforementioned note about using mobs in player-made adventures, Long and Garriott talked about a few other spoilers.
One thing Long really wants to see is airship homes! Currently players can live in stationary boats, but he wants to live in an airship tethered to his property. Related to that, ships and hot air balloons will also become available as transportation, though not anytime soon. Long noted that the features being implemented first are ones whose impact can’t be totally predicted, and the team already knows the technical impact of moving ships. Garriott added that “ships will show up eventually, one way or another.”
Garriott also noted that New Britannia is larger than the current map. In fact, Lord British’s castle is not on the first map; it’s on an outlying island and won’t be found until the second episode. The plan for episodes two, three, and four is to expand to other islands not on the current map. This is where airship and boat transportation would come in handy!
Another developing feature is a system that will create a leaderboard for houses. Using this, players would be able to get directions to visit certain published properties and could then vote on the house using the sign already posted in the front. Those interested in being on the leaderboard would have to opt in to this feature. And leaderboards wouldn’t be just for housing. Garriott said, “We are going to try and make sure we put them in for all the different types of game play aspects we can.” That includes PvP tournaments, decorating, and player quests.
A fun fact Garriott and Long shared is that when it comes to what types of features go into the game, their ideas are often the opposite of what their in-game personas are. Garriott illustrated it this way:
“We have opposite real personas to our gaming personas. Lord British is always the guy about virtue and ‘everybody be nice to each other,’ while Darkstarr is more about chaos and ‘do your own thing.’ Yet I’m the one always lobbying for more cannibalism in the game and ‘we really do need that plague and it really needs to be pretty nasty.’ It’s funny that we lobby for opposite things than you think we might do internally. All the way down through the combat and everything.”
Garriott noted that he is the one in favor of adding roguish skills that push the line and could even potentially be abused by bad players whereas Long keeps things in check so they won’t be catastrophic to the community. As Garriot emphasized, SotA’s development really is a team effort!