The State of Shroud of The Avatar: A Backer’s Perspective
To begin, I am a day one Kickstarter backer of Lord British’s Shroud of the Avatar. I’ve been following along with the weekly updates, monthly playable releases, monthly post-mortems, fundraising telethons, New Britannia News Network, Avatar’s Radio, et al. I’ve increased my pledge a few times since the crowdfunding campaign began. I’ve even purchased a few add-ons, and gifted three pledges to family and a friend.
Am I invested in Shroud? Absolutely. I’ve been a Richard Garriott fanboy ever since I realized he was the creator of the Ultima series many, many moons ago. As soon as I heard Shroud was becoming a thing, and there would be a Kickstarter campaign, I was all in. I was sold before the campaign even went live. So am I a little biased in how I view Shroud’s development? Probably. But I’ll try to keep my glasses as rose-free as I can in what follows.
I want this game to be everything. And I really want Richard, Starr, and the whole gang to take as much time as they need to make it exactly that.I am certainly not one of the Lord of the Manor-tier backers, but I would say I’m pretty invested in the game overall. I have all of the Grand Tour hats back to Release 10 (including the current R26 hat.) I’ve logged in for almost every single Pre-Alpha Release since the very first one way back on December 12th, 2013, even if it was just to get the monthly hat. I am really, really anxious for this game to become everything I’ve hoped and dreamed of in a post-Ultima IX Richard Garriott game. And I am one of those people who falls more on the single player Ultima side of the coin. That said, I am completely amazed by the community that has sprung up around this game. And I fully intend to spend lots of time in the online space, as well. I do have a rent-free row lot deed, after all, and hopefully I can coerce my IRL wife into spending lots of time with me making something great out of it. I want this game to be everything.
And I really want Richard, Starr, and the whole gang to take as much time as they need to make it exactly that.
So…there: after an excessively long introduction, I’ve stated my premise. And here’s why: over the last few months, I’ve been seeing tweets and SotA forum posts complaining about the development process and how the game is taking way too long to finish. Even during Episode 19 of the Spam Spam Spam Humbug podcast (bonus: amusingly, this is the same episode WtF Dragon gave me a shout-out for some Tweets I posted about how much I enjoyed SSSH, and why I am now a part of the UDIC fan group) there was a lengthy discussion about the state of the game and future expectations.
I started to see all of this during the time period of the now-infamous Insane Membrane debacle, and yet more and more major backers seemed to be jumping ship. And everyone had an opinion why. Now let’s take a moment and refer back to the Kickstarter campaign. The estimated delivery date was October 2014.It is now February of 2016. The game is still not finished. In fact, we just recently got the Final Wipe and Lot Selection announcement. July will be when the final wipe occurs; after that, Shroud of the Avatar will be going permanently online. Official lot selections for backers will begin the following month. And that STILL doesn’t include an official release date (during Episode 35 of SSSH, Starr Long said he hoped release would be by the end of this year, but no guarantees.)
And you know what? I am okay with that. Why? Because, in my opinion, the game isn’t finished yet. I mean really, it isn’t an opinion; it’s a fact. If the game had released in October 2014 like it was supposed to, we would all have been pretty disappointed with it. But what I really want to talk about is why I’m OK with the game not being done yet, and what I think a lot of people are missing or not understanding about the development process of this game. And I should add that I respect that people feel a little burned that the game still isn’t finished after all this time. I really want it to be complete as well, but I understand why it isn’t.
Before Shroud hit Kickstarter, I had never seen a game that pulled back the curtain as far and as early as Portalarium has. Since then, more games are trying out this approach, but I feel Portalarium really blazed the crowdfunding / crowdsourcing / crowdeverything trail.I read some comments on the forums that basically said some other game was given a deadline, and it reached that deadline as a much more polished product: more fun, more features, and whatever else. But that game wasn’t made the way Shroud of the Avatar is being made. This is a whole new world of game creation. Starr Long has tried to explain this over and over again in various interviews, Hangouts, updates, and everywhere else. And I feel like he just hasn’t quite squarely hit the nail on the head yet, because a whole lot of people still don’t get it.
Before Shroud hit Kickstarter, I had never seen a game that pulled back the curtain as far and as early as Portalarium has. Since then, more games are trying out this approach, but I feel Portalarium really blazed the crowdfunding / crowdsourcing / crowdeverything trail. It’s not just a Kickstarter project. It’s not just being funded entirely by the fanbase. We’ve gotten to see and be a part of everything since the very beginning. Every release since R1 has been built on our feedback, suggestions, and complaints. Why do we have use-based advancement now? Because the community complained so much about it that Portalarium put everything else on hold and cranked out a use-based system in one month. Was it perfect? Of course not. But it was there. And they’ve been improving it ever since. What other game developers have this kind of reactivity to their player community?
And what other game has player-made content to this extent? All kinds of music was made by the community. The musical instrument system was entirely developed by a community member (who I can’t thank enough on Twitter, if you haven’t seen my interactions with @Enichan recently.) Books, stories, art, and all kinds of other content in the live game were made by community members.
The other thing I was reflecting on while looking back at the Kickstarter campaign was the stretch goals. I had kind of forgotten about them, more or less, over the last almost three years. And almost every single one of them is in the game now, in some form or another. And due to the iterative process Portalarium is using to create features and improve on them, sooner or later they will all be in-game and complete. Musical instruments (that we can play our own music on and in sync with other musician players), pets, taming, castles, player-owned towns, cloaks, the Tracy Hickman novel, the interconnected underworld system, and so much more are already in the game. This game is huge by any standard, and the team working on it is not very huge.
Which leads me to the money part. It’s not like Portalarium is spending our money on parties and beer. They are making our game with our money. They have a vision, and it is being refined by our input. And they are making it as fast as they can with the people that they have, who are already so devoted that they’ve basically given up their own lives to get each release out to us on time every time. That, to me, speaks volumes about Portalarium’s commitment to the game and its community. While I’m certainly no expert on how game development should go or how other studios do it, the trip we’ve been on for almost three years has been worth the price of admission alone. And we don’t even have a finished product yet.
This game isn’t being made by a studio with 300 developers and a $300 million budget. They’ve made a little over $8 million in this time and have a handful of people working on the game. And the progress they’ve made since the little trek around Owl’s Head in R1 is pretty outstanding as far as I can tell.Portalarium decided to let players buy all kinds of add-ons to help fund the project. Which also meant they had to figure out how to handle all the requests related to changing, refunding, and transferring these add-ons. And someone had to do all that work. And be paid for that work. And somewhere along the lines, Portalarium had to make the decision that they were throwing way too much of our money at the problem and they needed to change their approach accordingly, much to the chagrin of a few people. It didn’t really affect me, because I have no intention of changing what I’ve already purchased. But certainly people have a right to be concerned by the sudden change in policy.
This game isn’t being made by a studio with 300 developers and a $300 million budget. They’ve made a little over $8 million over the last three years, and have a handful of people working on the game. And the progress they’ve made since the little trek around Owl’s Head in R1 is pretty outstanding as far as I can tell. I’ve read some complaints about how the dev team has handled certain things, or not been open about certain things, but think about it this way: Portalarium is making up this new process as they go. There was no manual for how to crowdfund and crowdsource a game while building it right out in the open before they started. What studio have you seen, prior to Portalarium, where the developers had to build the game with their fanbase breathing down their necks the whole time? I can only imagine what that is like for Portalarium. And frankly, my hat is off to them for doing it.
My best friend (whom I gifted a copy of the game to) won’t play the game until it’s done. The Early Access part does not interest him in the slightest. And not being an Ultima-crazed lunatic like I am, he is not in the same kind of rush to see it completed. When it’s finished, he’ll play it. And that’s fine in his eyes.
But like Starr said during SSSH 35, the usual terms for the different stages of development don’t really apply to Shroud. The game will forever be in development. The stories will be completed, but the game will be polished indefinitely. New content and features will be added every month for as long as there is money to keep the electricity in the office turned on. Release and live don’t mean the same thing. The game already is live and it has been for over a year. But with this new approach to development, when the game does become officially official, we’ll still get improvements as time goes on without losing our place in the world. We’ll continue getting new features and polish for as long as the game exists. And that seems pretty cool to me. Sure, we don’t get everything on Day 1 (which, in this context, doesn’t have any meaning.) But there’s always something new to look forward to.
So for everyone who is feeling uneasy about the amount of time Portalarium has taken to make Shroud, and whether or not we will actually get all of our promised deliverables, I ask you to be patient. Not for Portalarium. But for all of us who are interested and invested in the game. Watching all those really expensive pledges get sold off by community leaders started to make me feel uncomfortable, as though something was happening behind the scenes that I was missing. In a way, it made me start to question if I had made the right choice by backing this game, and continuing to do so unquestioningly for so long. Were conditions at Portalarium really so dire that we ran the risk of not getting what we were promised? I don’t believe so. And I’ll continue to support Shroud for as long as I can.
Of course I want the game to be what I think the spiritual successor to Ultima should be. Of course I want it to be finished sooner than later. But in order for the former to be possible, we have to concede a little on the latter. Games take time to make. Especially with a small team who essentially reinvented the way video games could be made, and they have had to continuously refine the process as they go. I didn’t back this project because I thought it would be a small undertaking. I backed it because the expectations are astronomical. And I have faith that Richard, Starr, Chris, and the whole crew at Portalarium can meet those expectations if we allow them the opportunity to do so.
Derek Gray (@darkskwerl)
AKA: Nerasus Elvenstar (SotA)
AKA: Deathblade Dragon (UDIC)