Following GDC Europe we were lucky enough to talk to the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award Richard "Lord British" Garriott and we talked to him about Shroud of the Avatar, an upcoming fantasy MMORPG that builds on the legacy Lord British has created in the past.
Garriott wants it to differ from the usual formulas and trends for RPGs, in part drawing upon his older games as well as trying new things. He believes that modern trends in RPGs can be a bit lacking in some aspects and so we started by asking him what the overall mission was for Shroud of the Avatar.
"In homage to my previous work", Garriott said, "there are things that I think that my team and I have done uniquely and uniquely well in the thirty or forty years of writing fantasy role-playing games that we've done and those would be detailed, simulated worlds where the NPCs have full lives, where there's weather and astronomy that predicts what might be happening in the world, that there are character classes that are very deep". He continued "we have done that in the past and I think we are doing it now as good or better than other games that have been offered. But there's also some things where the state of the art has moved into some areas where I'm somewhat critical of, that we're trying to find new solutions to with Shroud of the Avatar."
"So for example if you look at my games or some of the other early fantasy role-playing games, there was very little help to find your way around the world, you had to make hand notes, you had to write your own maps out, you had to write down what everybody had told you to do or say. That of course was fairly painful and kind of prevented games from reaching a broader audience and so companies have been looking for ways to make it easier to approach a game. But I actually think these features have gone too far, and not just a little bit too far, a lot too far. In this way, what I would describe critically, is games that first make you spend minutes or an hour or two making you create character detail before you ever play the game at all and when you finally get to play the game, what you discover is that it's sort of the same as all the other games. There's exclamation points over all the people you need to talk to, you're given a quest that shows up in a quest log, you click on the quest long there's arrows that tell you where you need to go to farm the first level monsters and the quests are usually structured in something that is easy to put into a log like go to this location."
"That all made it easy for players but I actually think it made it sort of braindead for players. I think you're no longer really paying attention to the environment or what's going on, you're not even really paying attention in conversations, you're just clicking through them to force the data into your questlog, and so in our game if there's someone that wants to talk to you they're waving to you and calling to you because they have something they want to talk to you about. In our game, when you get a mission or a task or sometimes I've seen it called an action, it just happens. In fact it's not data that can be put into a log in the traditional way, but we do record it for you, we record every event for you in a journal"
In this way, he says: "it feels helpful, it still feels natural and part of the world and isn't holding your hand so explicitly as many games do these days". He went on to say that crafting the journal takes more time but that it's worth it for more memorable entries that are created by the designers placing themselves in the mind of the player.
Currently in the version of the game that's open for backers there has been a land rush of players picking their lots on the game and so we also asked about the game being open to these backers, the land rush itself and what these mean moving forwards.
"For 33 months in a row now", Garriott responded, "on the third Thursday of the month, we have released the latest version of the game to all of our backers, however, that started when there was literally one person in a room with a chair and so it wasn't much of a game and you definitely didn't have many attributes as a character. During the development process of course we periodically have to purge the database so we have to erase everyone's home and everyone's characters for the last 33 months every few months".
"We wanted to quit doing that, we wanted to let the players who want to play continue to live there forever and so what we just passed was our final wipe and so we've now committed.... that was the last wipe ever. So reality has begun, shall we say, and the land rush is because during this month we're letting in the people who have backed the game the strongest, who gave us the most money, get to pick their lot first, and the people who gave us the least money get to pick their lots last, all during this month".
In fact, the rush had been so huge that Garriott wasn't originally planning to attend GDC Europe, but did so to advertise this as well as clarify where the game is at and that it isn't launching, but instead in the process of a soft launch. Judging by Steam reviews all players aren't too keen on the current version, but hopefully further polish will be added along with new features ahead of the proper launch.