A Year of Portalarium: 2013 in Review

It has been a busy year for Richard Garriott and Portalarium, primarily due to the unveiling (and successful crowdfunding) of Shroud of the Avatar, formerly known as the Ultimate RPG. The Ultima Codex takes a look back at some of the developments with Richard Garriott and his new project during the past year.

January

Richard Garriott ended 2012 with an “Apocalypse Party”, which was also an X Prize fundraiser. And the Roadside Report got a look inside Britannia Manor early on in 2013.

It was also announced that Richard Garriott would be presenting a talk on spaceflight at the Austin Forum in February.

February

Early in the month, Richard Garriott updated his Google+ page with a short statement that he and his team were hard at work on Portalarium’s next FRPG. Of course, I blithely assumed that he was still referring to a Facebook-based Ultimate RPG; how wrong I was!

Garriott also defended Ultima 8 and Ultima 9 to an irate fan via Twitter.

As the month closed, a teaser message was posted to the Ultimate RPG’s Facebook page, promising “exciting stuff” in the near future. And as we all know, it was very exciting stuff indeed!

March

The month had barely begun when a countdown appeared on a new website entitled “Lord British Presents”. The week-length timer fueled rampant speculation, which was bolstered by Richard Garriott’s answers when fielding questions on Twitter. It was in this month that we were first given confirmation that the Ultimate RPG would, in fact, be a PC title rather than a Facebook game.

Several puzzle pieces were released via Facebook, fueling speculation as to whether the game would boast a monoscale or dual-scale map. A fourth puzzle piece appeared shortly before the countdown ran out, and the full map for the game was revealed soon thereafter…along with the new incarnation of the Ultimate RPG, now known as Shroud of the Avatar.

Not a Facebook game.

Not a Facebook game.

The Kickstarter campaign for the game kicked off at this point, and would go on to raise over $1.9 million by early April. Portalarium delivered a full court press of content to promote the game, including prototype gameplay footage, screenshots, and concept art. Richard Garriott even agreed to be interviewed by the Ultima Codex, in an effort to promote Shroud of the Avatar to Ultima fans.

And as the Kickstarter campaign rolled along, we saw more. Seamless building interiors were promised. David “Iolo” Watson was interviewed by Richard Garriott. The game’s single-player features and hybrid online/offline capabilities were confirmed. UStream sessions were held. Developer insight blog posts were published. Kickstarter rewards were expanded. A dual-scale world was confirmed…and defended! More concept art was published, and author Tracy Hickman joined the team at Portalarium to work on the game’s story.

And then…controversy. Richard Garriott, in an interview with EDGE Online, had some harsh words to offer concerning console gaming, and then failed to choose his words carefully enough when commenting on the state of game design as a career. As you can well imagine, this didn’t go over well, prompting some clarification soon thereafter.

Even so, by mid-month, Shroud of the Avatar had reached its $1 million goal, and Portalarium continued to promote it. We were treated to an interview with Greg “Dupre” Dykes, shown more concept art, and even a low-resolution video showcasing an example town in the game, to give us a sense of the scale of the world. PayPal payment support was added to the game’s official website, for those who wanted to back the game without using Amazon Payments as the transaction gateway.

Of course, since Shroud of the Avatar boasts a multiplayer gameplay option, player housing became something of a big deal during the Kickstarter campaign. Richard Garriott also held an AMA on Reddit, and Portalarium continued to expand the list and range of backer rewards as the month drew near to its close.

As March wound down, we were treated to another interview, this one with Dallas Snell, and then an interview with Chris Roberts as well. As well, it was confirmed that players would be able to play as female characters…which should, I suppose, have been a given for a Richard Garriott game, although obviously counter-examples to that statement do exist.

Sergorn Dragon also had the opportunity to interview Richard Garriott, and also penned an excellent editorial about the game shortly after its announcement. It was also announced that Richard Garriott would be giving the keynote presentation at Quo Vadis.

And thanks to some concept sketches published by Polygon, there was reason to suspect that the setting of Shroud of the Avatar might well be a place called New Britannia.

April

As April began, Portalarium gave us some details about weather systems and technology that will appear in Shroud of the Avatar, and a massive update to the game’s Kickstarter campaign revealed all the stretch goals and announced that those who backed the game at the $125 level and above would get the entire Shroud of the Avatar series for no additional cost. Because, you see, it was earlier revealed that Shroud of the Avatar would, in fact, be a five-episode series of games, the first of which would bear the title Forsaken Virtues.

We were also treated to some details about the game’s crafting systems, and to an interview with Warren Spector. It was also announced that backers of the game would have the opportunity to contribute to its development directly, by way of contributing 3D models of scenery.

Near the end of the Kickstarter campaign, more reward tiers — and more backer rewards — were unveiled, and the game’s crowdfunding effort ultimately finished with just over $1.9 million in backing via Kickstarter; contributions made via the game’s website proper pushed it north of $2 million in total. Portalarium were reasonably pleased with the result, and also announced that they would continue accepting contributions and backers via the game’s website for another year.

As the Portalarium team transitioned from fundraising mode to full-on development mode, we were treated to more concept art, an interview with Starr Long, and still yet more concept art. A new form of player housing, the Galleon home for Barons, was also revealed. More concept art came next, in the form of a lighthouse, and Portalarium also released a fansite kit; the Ultima Codex was allowed to be the first point of release for that.

Said lighthouse.

Said lighthouse.

Portalarium also announced the shut down of Ultimate Collector during the month; the studio would be dedicated full-time to Shroud of the Avatar’s development going forward. To further save on costs, they also moved to a new office on the outskirts of Austin.

As well, Richard Garriott was interviewed by Video Game Sophistry. He also delivered his keynote address at Quo Vadis, as had been announced. While at said conference, he gave an interview to PCGames, the German gaming magazine, and to FreeGamesList as well.

Finally, at the end of August, Richard Garriott confirmed what many had been speculating: the world of the Shroud of the Avatar series would indeed be New Britannia.

May

As the month opened, we were treated to concept art of a houseboat, as well as some kind of castle-like structure.

As well, the Portalarium team grew quite significantly in this month; Scott Jennings joined the team to work on its web presence and dialogue. Former Origin developer Scott Jones, who served as the art director for Ultima 9, also signed on with the team.

As the month drew to a close, we got a look at a first mockup of player housing lots as realized in-game. It became clear, at this time, that many cities and towns in Shroud of the Avatar would have significant numbers of player-owned buildings.

A prototypical town; note all the empty lots.

A prototypical town; note all the empty lots.

June

Matt “Chat” Barton interviewed Richard Garriott in a multi-segment chat, and Garriott also spoke with Cool Interviews about space travel. He also took the opportunity to once again offer some kind words about, and his best wishes for, Ultima Forever. He was also announced as a keynote speaker at the Unite 2013 conference, hosted by the Unity development team.

Portalarium opened up their Developer+ forums early in the month, and also continued to add staff. They even put out a call for a Unity programmer at one point, although the position was filled quite quickly.

The bbPress-based Shroud of the Avatar forums were retired in mid-June, in favour of a XenForo-based solution. A Team Bios page was added to the game’s official site, and the several calls for 3D art were published on the new forums. Another call for art was published toward the end of the month. Some of the community assets became the focal point of a Pen of the Avatar session, in fact.

Fan-made brazier assets.

Fan-made brazier assets.

It was also announced that Richard Garriott would be presenting something at RTX 2013 in early July. And toward the end of June, one particularly informative Hangout of the Avatar session saw the revelation of some of Shroud of the Avatar’s minimalistic UI elements…and the New Britannia runic language. It was also confirmed that the team were internally testing a Linux build of the game.

July

Another call for art — this time concerning chairs — went out at the beginning of the month. As well, Scott Jennings let slip ahead of RTX 2013 that the Shroud of the Avatar demo which would be released thereat looked way better than the prototype footage released for the Kickstarter campaign. And, indeed, he did not lie; the RTX demo showcased a game that had matured significantly in just three months. We saw a game that looked a lot more like an Ultima title, right down to the use of gumps for character stats and container inventory. A little later in the month, we even got a look at the tools being used to build the game (namely: Unity). And because it was so well-received, Richard Garriott held a special Hangout in which he narrated his way through the RTX demo one more time.

It was just that good, really.

Richard Garriott also celebrated his 52nd birthday, on Independence Day (July 4th, for those of us who aren’t American). He evidently spent at least some of the day playing Ultima Forever. And toward the end of the month, he also hosted a Creative Mornings breakfast in Austin. And once again fielding questions via Twitter, he expressed few regrets about the way the Ultima series shaped up.

This was also the month in which Starr Long joined the Portalarium team, to serve as Shroud of the Avatar’s executive producer. A special in-game moondial and metronome were made available for purchase to celebrate the occasion. Long was also interviewed by IHateMMORPGs toward the end of the month.

The first Shroud of the Avatar Unity Asset Kit was released to those who backed the game at or above the Developer level late in the month. It was later announced that the Asset Kit would be made available via the Unity Asset Store as well. And on the very last day of the month, we got our first look at the female Avatar…or, at least, concept art for her.

And the final sketch, more or less.

The female Avatar.

August

Early on in the month, Richard Garriott held a Google+ Hangout to outline his vision for Shroud of the Avatar’s music. Technical director Chris Spears, meanwhile, began holding Unity tutorial sessions in about the second week of the month.

Toward the middle of the month, Portalarium released a second Unity Asset Kit to Developer-level backers, this one containing dungeon scenery. A video of the 3D female Avatar model firing a bow was released soon thereafter, followed shortly be a second video of the female Avatar wearing armour (as opposed to underwear). The male Avatar got his turn to appear on camera a couple days later. And 3D artist Isaac Oster also posted some notes about his process for creating the base female Avatar model.

The female Avatar base model.

The female Avatar base model.

Portalarium also announced, in this month, the Challenge of the Avatar, a series Unity Scene Jams that they would be hosting later on in the year. Participants would be invited to create a series of scenes using the Unity engine, which would then be judged by the Portalarium team, with the winners receiving some considerable prizes.

Later in the month, details about the game’s crafting systems were released, and Richard Garriott also paid a visit to Mythic Entertainment. We also got some details about the game’s magic system toward the end of the month.

And in the wake of the success of the Telethon of the Avatar, Portalarium announced that Rustic Dragon would be catering the first Lords of the Manor event (a reward for those who backed Shroud of the Avatar at the highest level) at Richard Garriott’s New York City home. Which, by the way, is every bit the house of treasures that his Austin home is.

At the Unite 2013 conference, Richard Garriott heaped praise upon the Unity engine, noting that its Asset Store in particular allowed Portalarium to accomplish in months what it would have taken the studio years to do on their own. Starr Long was announced, a few days later, as a Captivate Conference speaker, while Richard Garriott and his father Owen were announced as speakers at an Explorer’s Club event in New York.

And to finish the month, Portalarium released yet another Asset Kit, this time containing content useful for building cave areas.

September

Early in the month, a set of Village-level homes were revealed. These provided our first glimpse of Portalarium’s way of distinguishing, ever so slightly, between Founder and Benefactor backers, and also brought us the first “add on” home that could be purchased as a standalone item via an online storefront.

The first Unity Scene Jam was formally announced, and some further details about the nature of the competition and the prizes available to participants were given. A practice challenge was released prior to the event, to give participants an idea of what was expected. Chris Spears, in the meantime, kept hosting Unity tutorials, and we also got another look at the male Avatar in action. More housing designs were released later in the month,

Richard Garriott, for his part, appeared on stage in the Stool Pigeon comedy act, sold off a bunch of his collectibles, and hosted an…interesting talk at the Explorer’s Club in New York. Oh, and he gave an interview to AskMen, as well.

Around the middle of the month, Portalarium began selling additional housing lots, prompting what some termed a “land rush”.

The Scene Jam splash image.

The Scene Jam splash image.

The first Scene Jam — the theme of which was New Britannia’s Lunar Rifts — kicked off as expected, and Portalarium even managed to snag some Unity Pro trial keys for people to make use of. We also got some details about the Rifts themselves, which was nice. And after the Scene Jam, Richard Garriott took some time to discuss his vision for the Virtues of New Britannia in yet another Google+ Hangout.

Portalarium also updated the Shroud of the Avatar website theme toward the end of the month. The winners of the first Scene Jam were announced soon thereafter. We were also treated to a look at the Magic Sigil and some details about the game’s magic system, as well as some details about its crafting system in September’s last days. The first Unity Asset Kit also found its way onto the Unity Asset Store, and a special Collector’s Edition coin was revealed; these could be purchased as standalone items, and those who backed the game at the Collector level or above will receive one as part of their pledge rewards.

Cha-ching!

Cha-ching!

October

As the month opened, Shroud of the Avatar reached a fundraising milestone of $2.5 million, and the Portalarium team announced that they’d be participating in Movember come November.

The second Unity Scene Jam was held, as well — its theme was the Underworld, and entrances thereto. Contra the delay that attended the first Scene Jam, the winners of the second Jam were announced in a timely fashion.

Additionally, Portalarium gave us a look at still yet more player home designs, as well as outfits for the female Avatar. A short while later, the first basement add-ons for houses appeared.This was also the month in which snippets of the game’s backstory started to appear in updates from Portalarium.

Richard Garriott was interviewed by GamesIndustry, and took the opportunity to praise the crowdsourcing model that had furnished Portalarium with numerous high-quality assets to include in Shroud of the Avatar. He also spoke at the New York Comic-Con later in the month.

Around the middle of the month, the third Scene Jam was announced; participants were asked to create a village scene. We also got a look at the Crafting Sigil that described the game’s crafting system, and were treated to still yet more story details. Clothing for the male Avatar was revealed, basements for Town-level lots were made available for purchase, and sigil T-shirts were made available for sale.

The Lords at dinner.

The Lords at dinner.

The first Lords of the Manor dinner was held at Richard Garriott’s New York City home also took place this month, and was catered by Rustic Dragon. The Benefactor Lord of the Manor home was revealed at the same time, and proved to be a massive structure indeed.

The winners of the third Scene Jam were announced at the the end of the month. And, in a flurry of news, Portalarium revealed the name of the setting of the first Shroud of the Avatar game (Novia), gave us a couple more glimpses of the game’s backstory, released new home and basement add-ons…and treated us all to a demo of their progress on the game after six months.

Looks great!

Looks great!

November

The Portalarium team rang in the month with a pre-Movember shearning of beards and other bits of facial hair. The fourth and final Unity Scene Jam was also held over the first weekend of the month, and challenged participants to take any scene illustrated in Shroud of the Avatar concept art and show what lay beyond it. Winners of this Scene Jam were announced soon after its completion, although the grand prize winner wasn’t named until later in the month.

Story excerpts continued to feature in updates published to the game’s website, and these started to contain names of geographical features and regions on the island of Novia. More backer reward items and add-on items were revealed, and the schedule for the first few early access releases of test builds of the game was detailed in a forum post.

Richard Garriott gave a lengthy interview to About.com’s Game Industry portal, and also met with Noah “Spoony” Antwiler; we saw the first part of the resultant interview later in the month, followed closely by a second part and a video tour of the Portalarium offices.

Toward the middle of the month, puzzle pieces began to appear in project updates, which revealed not only the names of certain features of Novia, but also showcased a few changes that the map had seen since the Kickstarter campaign. Starr Long took to the official forums to deliver a lengthy summary of the combat, crafting, and magic systems that the game would feature. Map pieces continued to be included in news updates from Portalarium through to the end of the month, and into December as well.

And, of course, more homes and basements were revealed as the month drew to a close, including backer reward homes and various in-game items. Richard Garriott also held a special Google+ Hangout with members of the Ultima Dragons, to address concerns that the group had expressed about Shroud of the Avatar’s direction and development.

The Blade of the Avatar cover art.

The Blade of the Avatar cover art.

The prologue to Blade of the Avatar was also released at the end of the month.

December

Spoony’s interview with/roast of Richard Garriott continued into the final month of the year, culminating in a very silly parody video. Richard Garriott also gave a second interview to About.com, in which he talked about the selective multiplayer concept behind Shroud of the Avatar. He was also the subject of a multi-part interview at WarCry, and gave details about a number of the game’s features and systems thereat.

And he even took a bit of time to talk about space again.

Toward the middle of the month, we were treated to a preview of Karelia’s Song, a David Watson piece selected for use in Shroud of the Avatar. While not as instantly memorable as Stones, it still brought a very familiar musical feel to the game’s first early release build, where it served as the menu screen music. Overall, Portalarium were quite satisfied with how this first release went, although several changes were made to their plans for the second release thanks to feedback received from players.

During the course of the month, the first, second, and third chapters of Blade of the Avatar were released to project backers. More map pieces were released as well, giving us further insight into the island of Novia. A Pen of the Avatar session held toward the middle of the month also gave us a glimpse into the moon-shattering cataclysm that occurred prior to the events of the game.

Crashy crashy!

Crashy crashy!

Oh, and Portalarium also revealed the glass crystal sword that early backers of the game would receive. Other backer reward items were unveiled as well, and a rumour even surfaced that Bill “The Guardian” Johnson might voice a character in the game. More backer homes and various add-on items were released just prior to Portalarium’s Christmas closure.

It was, in other words, nothing short of an incredible year for Portalarium and Richard Garriott-related news. A year ago, almost all of us expected the Ultimate RPG to emerge as a Facebook or mobile-focused game with a heavy emphasis on social media integration. What we got, instead, was the promise of a full-fledged PC RPG, intended to be a spiritual successor to Ultima 4Ultima 7, and Ultima Online.

I know I was floored. Wert thou?

3 Responses

  1. Sanctimonia Sanctimonia says:

    Hell of a write up there. Nice job.