Shroud of the Avatar to put roleplaying back into RPGs, Garriott hopes

By Kat Bailey, Mar 13, 2013 11:00am PDT

Richard Garriott is not the first great designer to turn to Kickstarter as a means to fund his work. But while Shroud of the Avatar, his long-awaited return to game design, directly references the classic Ultima series, Garriott is banking on more than nostalgia.

In typical fashion, Garriott is aiming for a complete rethink of not just online RPGs, but RPGs in general. It's not quite an MMORPG like Ultima Online, but it's definitely not strictly single-player either. Basically, it's a single-player RPG with a really extensive online component.

That online component, among other things, entails things like player-run cities, a massive in-game economy, and skills that are distributed virally. However, as much as it might seem to have in common with other online RPGs, the similarities largely end there. Put another way, Shroud of the Avatar won't be relying on exclamation marks--the traditional marker for a quest giver. Rather, Garriott wants its main hallmarks to be organic exploration.

For the most part, that will mean simply wandering from village to village on a large overworld map. Within these villages and campgrounds are NPCs like gypsies, who may be under attack by wolves, or in need of some other form of assistance. Fend off some wolves, and they will offer whatever they have on hand. It may sound like a bog standard quest, but the point is that the scenario can play out in a number of different ways depending on your actions, which hearkens back to the behavior-driven gameplay of Ultima IV.

It's in part designed as a response to traditional MMO design, which is generally gated by level. Garriott is quick to praise Blizzard and World of Warcraft for what he terms "phenomenal" reward cycle design, but he also finds what he terms the "monster fence" to be limiting and frustrating: "There's literally a series of encounters beyond the perimeter of an area designed to absolutely forbid you from moving forward. It's a perfectly fair way to deliver content, but it ensures your exploration and my exploration will always be the same. There's no way to proceed except as you unlock each level gate one at a time."

With Shroud of the Avatar, Garriott hopes, every player will ultimately have a different experience.

The other point of having the hero wander the world lending a hand is to make it feel as if evil is an active force in the world of Shroud of the Avatar. You are the hero, and as the forces of darkness close in, your services are required to save the local villagers (among other things). It's part of an attempt by Garriott to address an RPG trope that has bugged him for years now: "There's no real reason for you to hate [an RPG villain], because he's not been active in the world. He's just waiting for you to come kill him."

One of the main points of the Shroud, he says, is that evil is definitely being proactive in the world, and will periodically terrorize the local public by attacking and burning cities in unscripted events. In fact, much of Episode I of Shroud of the Avatar revolves around trying to figure out why exactly evil is running amok, and what their motives might be (apart from simply being villainous).

The decision to present Shroud of the Avatar episodically is due in part to another crippling weakness that Garriott perceives in the online RPG genre: "One of the big mistakes of MMOs is spending three to five years and hundreds of millions developing the thing, then having no one like it. I think you need to start smaller, get players in earlier, and have the game grow along with them."

Granted, it's not as if Garriott actually has three to five years and hundreds of millions dollars to dump into Shroud of the Avatar. But even if he did, he seems to have learned his lesson from the abject failure of Tabula Rasa, which was a money pit in every sense of the word. His notion of having the game grow with the players has a certain appeal, as it affords the development team more flexibility when it comes to the design, and thus more of an opportunity to respond to fan feedback.

Given the direction Garriott is taking Shroud, such feedback figures to be plentiful, too. One of the more controversial mechanics ought to be the battle system, which Garriott describes as something like building a deck of skills. It's less like Magic: The Gathering though, and more akin to real life.

Before going into battle, players will be able to select from a pool of skills, which will become available at random during a fight. Garriott compares it to his time fencing, when he would occasionally remember to step and parry properly, but also sometimes lost his head and forgot what he was doing entirely. In other words, that skill you desperately need might not always be readily available.

It's an approach that's destined to drive some RPG fans crazy, not the least the min-maxers who take skill optimization extremely seriously. And for the most part, Garriott is okay with that.

"I'm totally okay with driving min/maxers crazy," he says. "Min-maxing shows a certain level of mastery; so for the people who have mastered it, they have good reason to feel proud. But for everyone else, it means that the only way to remain competitive is to follow down that path of statistical analysis, and I'm really trying to make a roleplaying game."

Garriott continues: "Being one of the earliest adopters of D&D, most all of the people who were attracted to it right off the bat were pretty good storytellers. Pretty much universally, no one paid attention to the rules. No one cared if I rolled a D20 or a D6, it did not matter. What mattered was whether I could tell a story, and you could respond with something funny, or plausible, or something that worked.

"On the other hand, if you did something clearly stupid like using a stick to poke the eye out of the 20 foot tall monster, it failed. Rules were largely irrelevant. But as D&D grew in popularity, we ran out of good storytellers, and it devolved into a game that became about having a +1 sword and +3 armor and having initiative and rolling a die ... and missing. That's not roleplaying. It's min-maxing, but it's not roleplaying."

Garriott's response to this quandary is an oddly innovative and yet retrograde approach to RPG design; a sincere attempt to take the genre back to its tabletop roots. For those desperate for some strategic depth, however, there is in fact a method to Garriott's madness. One element players will definitely have to keep in mind is the risk of running a smaller pool of skills versus the reward of getting what they need on a regular basis. In that, it's easy to see the germ of what could be some interesting strategy.

Of course, It's not all about the battle system though. In fact, one could argue that Garriott is trying to make it as little about combat as possible. In true RPG fashion, Shroud of the Avatar is a game that rewards exploring, and more importantly, learning. It's a world, potentially, where Garriott will give one player a unique skill they can teach to others, then watch it spread. Or, he may distribute a dozen keys to treasure vaults around the world, which in turn may become lost to legend when players leave the game or forget about them in their inventories.

"We're trying to create this player economy in knowledge, where just because you can post it on the web, you don't necessarily have it," he says.

It's a game of ideas, which has been Garriott's stock in trade going back to Ultima IV. Some of them may not work. Some, like the notion of "viral skills," could become the newest trend in RPG social networking.

Garriott's pitch has thus far resonated with fans. With 25 days to go, his Kickstarter is up to $846,000, and has almost 13,000 backers.

"It is clear that people are very excited to see Richard get back to his roots with the spiritual successor to his earlier works," says a Portalarium Studios representative. "We have found there are two distinct groups of players backing this project, those looking forward to playing Shroud of the Avatar, as a completely solo player experience, and those looking for a [Ultimate Online] like experience from when Richard was in charge."

With the team fast approaching $1 million, the team will be "divulging our stretch goals at that point and we think people will be excited by what we have planned."

At the moment, it's hard not to be intrigued by what Shroud of the Avatar has to offer. Not just the exploration or combat, but the prospect of being able to craft one-of-a-kind swords and sell them as a master blacksmith, and player housing with substantive real-world value. Best of all, it won't be limited to online fans or offline fans, mainly because Garriott himself wants to be able to play it while on one of his many cross-country trips.

It all adds up to a potentially welcome return to form for a designer who has been largely quiet since the Tabula Rasa debacle back in 2007. In his own way, he's going back to the beginning, when he was still programming games on an Apple II. And he's going back to the fans that made him famous.

"For Ultima fans of the past," Garriott says. "I'm making this game for you."

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