Updated Thu, Jan 23, 2014 by ricoxg
Release 2 for Shroud of the Avatar is upon us and the dev team at Portalarium invited me up to Austin recently to take a look. Those with early access to Ultima Online’s spiritual successor will immediately note a lot of additions since the last release, not the least of which is the new ability to jump thanks to the tenacious efforts of certain members of the team.
Chests scattered around town will now include a slew of new items such as rugs, cloaks, and an assortment of other freshly added items to equip on your avatar and for decorating houses. Other improvements to the environment have been added such as reorienting the lunar debris field and adding wind-power generation systems to houses in Owls Head for powering the tesla coils that protect the city.
Richard Garriott proudly talked about something else you may notice. Backers with early access during the last release spent a lot of time chatting with NPCs and all those conversations were stored, parsed, and databased to improve on the AI’s communication abilities. Just as you’d expect of Garriott, this new song of the Avatar is taking on a sense of life due to his grasp of those subtle notes beyond most developers’ comprehension. NPC dialogue amounts to basic databases and scripts, yet in fifteen years of MMORPGs we’ve hardly made it much farther than a robotic “hail.” Static NPCs and light-switches you can’t interact with have been breaking immersion for years and Lord British says he’ll no longer stand for it.
One of the biggest additions is the opportunity to travel to a new village of Kingsport via portal, but all the new cool features and content aside, the true soul of the new update can be summed up into a single word. Crafting. I’m a firm believer that crafting makes or breaks big games, so I was particularly excited to talk to the guys about what they’re doing with Shroud of the Avatar. We talked about what to expect in Release 2, but more importantly we talked about some of the early design concepts for the eventual game.
All the new stuff aside, I expect reason you’re most likely chomping at the bit to play the new release is the chance to check out the crafting. I can tell you that you’ll be getting a strong dose of it in this early pass of the game. Crafting stations and chests with everything you need to get started can be found near the heart of Owls Head. You can also get functional crafting stations from chests and drop them in a house if you prefer more privacy.
I’d had a chance to see a little of the crafting in an earlier visit and the team has released a few videos showing off crafting as well, but I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was. The recipes have all been changed, so you probably don’t know what you think you do. In order to make it a little easier however, those folks with early access will be getting an email with a few initial recipes to get them started.
There’s still a lot to discover, though. There are at least one hundred recipes to be found through experimentation in this release, and the email will only start you off with a hand-full of them. You’ll need to play around with stations, tools, and ingredients to find others. The number of possible combinations is more than a little daunting, so there have also been some changes that make that easier as well.
In the earlier versions of the crafting system, there was no visual indication that you had met the requirements for making anything, even after dragging ingredients into the crafting area. Starr Long tells me the team talked about it quite a bit and in the end decided that was a little too time-consuming and for no good in-game lore, immersion, or other reason to keep it that hard. With the new system, when you have the correct items in the crafting area to make something on the combine, the craft button on the bottom of the GUI will light up and become clickable to let you know.
I’m more inclined to something more hardcore, so at first I kind of felt like that might be too easy. I have to admit to changing my mind after a closer look, however. Besides ingredients, there are also tools required for some combinations. For instance, a log on a table saw requires a cubit stick for measuring the length of cuts to turn it into refined materials. With all the various tools and crafting stations, I think there’s a better balance to the system now than there might have been otherwise.
Seeing the new stuff for Release 2 was cool, but the more enjoyable part of the afternoon came when I was able to sit down with Richard and Starr to converse about how the crafting will work in more detail now that they’ve started putting it into the game. There’s a lot more to crafting than the mere surface visible in this release, and I’ve always maintained that crafting was one of those critical pillars to a good MMO and the one that gets hosed up most often.
When the game is eventually released, one of the aspects of crafting will be that players never experience a total failure. When you combine the ingredients, there are percentage chances of success and failure, as well as critical success and failure. As you might expect, a success means you make what you planned to, and critical success means you make it better in some fashion.
You might expect failure to mean you don’t succeed and loose some or all of your materials based on how bad you failed, but Richard says that’s not what will happen. He used a baking analogy to explain it by pointing out that a baker combines salt, water, flour, and some sort of fat to make a dough. After kneading the dough it might be a bit soupy or too dry. The baker has failed a little and can choose to add more water or flour to compensate if he wants. At each step, he’ll either make it worse, fix the problem, or possibly nail it, making something better than he’d intended and possibly come out with bread that’s particularly good.
In the bread analogy, you never really lose any of the ingredients. You may make terrible bread, but you’ll still have bread, or something that at least resembles it. Crafting in Shroud of the Avatar will work in the same way, with a slight tweak. At least for things like weapons and armor, players will have the chance to improve crafted items based on their skill. So if you really skunk it up when making a sword, you can take the crude blade that resulted in the previous attempt and try to improve it up to the best you can make at your skill level.
I’m a little on the fence about this, personally. I’m a firm believer in the idea that great success loses meaning if there’s no chance of great failure. Also, I’m concerned that this system could prevent a decent market for player-made goods from forming due to an over-saturation of product.
I expressed those concerns then, and Starr Long pointed out the flip side of my point, which is how much it hurts to lose a rare item on a critical fail. That’s not fun and something they want to try to avoid if they can. According to Starr, because items have what amounts to quality and condition values in this system, it allows the player to experience a failure while avoiding being left with nothing.
In the sword example, if a rare gem had been required to make it and you failed, you haven’t lost that gem. The sword you ended up with may just not be as good as you’d intended, but then you have the option of trying to improve it from there. The risk comes in because there’s a chance you could make it worse.
Starr and Richard managed to lessen my concerns considerably, but balancing risk with reward in crafting when you’re not willing to destroy critical ingredients is going to be tough. That said, the ability to improve and upgrade items creates some pretty cool opportunities, and goes a long way towards balancing any drawbacks. Finding a weapon or armor that you like as a new character and being able to improve them as you grow will really help with adding color to the world. We won’t see everyone wearing all the same stuff because it’s the best because anything can be upgraded to be great.
While I may question occasional specific mechanics, one thing I’ll never question is Portalarium’s desire to create and incredibly deep and intelligent game. Crafting is intended to be so deeply ingrained into the eventual game that it’ll make up a significant portion, if not all, of the eventual loot from creatures and quests.
Another point that both Richard and Starr reiterated during this last visit was their commitment to making player-crafted items the best in the game. Other developers have paid lip-service to the same ideal, but there’s no doubting the sincerity in these guys when they talk about it.
Proof is the in the player-crafted custard (and fish sticks), to paraphrase an old expression. The folks at Portalarium don’t just talk in nice printable statements like you might hear elsewhere, they talk in specifics. When player-crafted items are sold to vendors, some will remain in inventory to be sold by that vendor. That means players shopping in a particular town could begin looking for items created by a particular craftsman if they wanted.
Product not held by the NPC vendor for selling locally will be shipped off, perhaps to be found in other towns. Far more interesting is the alternative, which is that those shipments might be robbed. That creates a cache of player-made items floating around among the lawless elements of the land, just waiting to be recovered by an adventurous player.
So you might kill an outlaw to find a cool-looking sword made by the smith in another village, and if it’s damaged or the stats aren’t quite as good as you’d like, no problem. You take it to your own local smith to have it repaired and possibly improved a bit. In my case, I’m more of a staff sort of guy, so maybe the sword gets sold to the nearest vendor and the cycle starts over. Either way, it’s a simple idea that creates a much richer world, and that’s what keeps me excited about what Portalarium does next.
Ultima Online has defined sandbox crafting for the last decade and a half, and this release might be the most important of those published in the schedule for telling us whether SotA will become the new standard or not. Despite my concerns about the eventual player economy, I think it’s obvious these guys have put a lot of thought into what they want to do with this aspect of the game. This release will give us a taste of what they’re planning, but conversations along with developer blogs and posts demonstrate it’s just the smallest nibble of the whole feast.
Additionally, I think Release 2 for Shroud of the Avatar says a great deal about this development team. It’s very early in development still, but what we already have in front of us still suggests that there are great things to come. There’s a lot of attention being paid to small details that might never even show up on another team’s radar. There have also been dramatic changes based on backer-feedback, which goes to show that these developers really do listen and react to what players have to say.
All those items together suggest that this is a team working on something that they truly care about and enjoy being involved with. It’s a team with big ideas and high standards, led by a core cadre with the experience to pull ambitious projects off. More importantly, this is a team that’s willing to build on past successes while still excitedly blazing their own trails when they think they have an idea that’s better. In short, it’s a crafty recipe for an epic game. Let’s hope they get a critical success on the roll.