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.
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.
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.
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.