Richard Garriott, creator of Ultima and Ultima Online, has launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new RPG series called Shroud Of The Avatar. While it’s not set in the world Ultima, it builds on the key tenets of the pioneering series – it is, in every sense, a spiritual successor to Garriott’s previous work. We spoke to the Portalarium founder about the underwhelming state of fantasy RPGs today, the future of online multiplayer and why grinding should be a thing of the past.
Why is now the right time for you to return to fantasy RPGs?
It’s been 15 years since I wrote a medieval fantasy RPG, and if I look at what I still think is the state of the art of most genre offerings, while there are a few examples of greatness, on the whole we’re still retreading the same ground – especially with MMOGs. There’s tons of great MMOGs that have been released, but there have been a few of enormous flops in the last couple of years, too. But whether they failed or not, these are games that people spent three to seven years creating and upwards of $100 million.
And if you look at how they play, the first thing you have to do is still decide on what your character class and race is before you play – and it’s a permanent decision – then you have to develop the look of your avatar, then when you finally get dropped in the world, you go, “Okay, well here I am in a nice looking town, and sure enough there’s the weapon shop, and the magic shop and whatever else, and oh look, there’s the explanation point over the quest-giver’s head, and if I click through all the obvious answers in his conversation tree everything’s now in my quest log, and now there’s an arrow on the map that takes me out of town to go and start farming my level one monsters”.
And then you just repeat. And that’s still basically all MMOGs and solo-player ones are often worse where you’re really just unleashed into a world to go kill the bad guy and you min/max your way to become powerful, often in a morally ambiguous way. So I think the time is right to really push a strong story-telling RPG out there, as well as to reestablish what multiplayer can be like – to make multiplayer compelling instead of just obligatory.
So how do you intend to do that?
We have a fresh interpretation of multiplayer that I believe can set the stage for what RPGs can be in the next ten years or so, which is automatic, ad-hoc multiplayer. So as you’re traveling around the landscape the game is always searching for people to bring into your play space. If a friend of yours happens to be online and playing nearby, you’ll see them. And we’ll try to match people who are at a common point in the game arc, to give you some reason that you might want to adventure together. But we might also look for people who are on opposing points in the story arc. And if that all fails, we’ll still bring strangers into your purview to give you a richer world. Which is very different to MMOGs which try to manage the problem of 1000 people all entering the same space at the same time. We think our take makes it a better play experience, as well as a more manageable piece of technology.
Have Journey or Dark Souls influenced your design?
I’ve never played Dark Souls, but I really like the descriptions I’ve heard. Dark Soul’s approach, at least as I understand it, is a little bit different, but it’s kind of fascinating, and it’s a game I now want to go find and play! But I think both Dark Soul’s and SOTA are tackling the same problem. And I think the next generation of games needs to solve that.
How does the game world work with these ideas?
The first episode is called Forsaken Virtues, and we have a two-scale world. You’ll walk around in our world map, and then when you come to a point of interest, be that a town, a roving band of monsters, or a gypsy wagon, you can zoom in to a scenario scale and a thirdperson view. Each of those scenarios is encapsulated in five to 30 minutes of gameplay where you can explore, discover and adventure, while interacting with a highly detailed world.
As you’re playing, whether you’re in the outdoor map or a scenario, if you and I are friends I’ll see you walking around the map. If I watch you go into a gypsy wagon encounter, I can walk over behind you and enter, say, two or three minutes afterwards, and I’ll see you in that scenario however it’s unfolding for you. You don’t need to party, or do any other activities; we’re trying to really streamline how much you have to tell the game before you’re allowed to go in and start having fun.
The Forsaken Virtues map represents about ten per cent of what we think the total play space will be when we finish the currently planned five episodes. And we think we can release one approximately every year.
You’ve promised to minimalise griefing in the game’s PvP. How have you approached that problem?
We don’t want to make it fully open, nor do we want to make it segregated and opt-in. And so the initial proposal we’re working on right now that we /hope/ serves the player community, is that nominally, PvP is turned off: you can’t just walk up to somebody and attack them. However, throughout the story we’re building in activities where the game encourages you to participate, and if you do it changes the nature of the potential activities between you and other people.
Can you give an example of how these kind of encounters will work?
Let’s suppose you’re down on your luck and you need some money. We purposely present you with the opportunity to start working for an organized crime syndicate. So these guys say look, we’ll pay you a ton of money, but what you have to do for us is take this contraband from the east coast of the world to the west coast. If you accept, it forewarns you that by the way if you do this, once you’re running this contraband, you’re operating outside the law, and other players will be able to attack you.
Not only are you now vulnerable, but we’re also going to immediately kick off an announcement to half a dozen people that we know are on, or along, your obvious path saying, “By the way, there’s a rumour that the syndicate has a courier running contraband across the world – keep your eye out for them”. So now you want to be as sneaky as possible – you know there’s going to be six people along the path who know who you are, but you have no idea if they’re going to be higher or lower level. So do you stick to the roads, or risk more monster encounters by venturing into the forests and over mountains?
How deeply will player choice, and their associated consequences, be integrated into the game?
The effect of your gameplay on your own future is similar to what I did in the middle of the previous series of games where the game is largely playing big brother to observe your behaviour. So unlike most RPGs where you check things off in your quest log, in this game not only do we not intend to have a quest log, but even the definition of a quest is much looser. We’re constantly presenting you with options to show your mettle, so to speak. For example, at one point you can save this young woman from some attacking wolves and in thanks she offers you her wedding ring as she has nothing else of value. You can take it or not, and there’s no apparent judgement on you. The game just keeps a statistical record of your pattern of behaviour and based upon that, other individuals and factions in the game slowly change their attitude towards you.
In the persistent world, there’s both your contribution to it – which is the housing, shops, farms or taverns players build which are visible to everyone else in the world – but also the concept of control points , which I explored we Tabula Rasa. There are key pinch-points around the world where fortresses have been built, and if those fortresses are ever overrun by the ‘dark side’, so to speak, then that is their status to everyone until a player or a group of players go in and clear that space.
The Kickstarter campaign promises a crafting system that “avoids busywork” – could you go into more detail?
This is also a plan right now, so it’s important to point out that this could change with player feedback. But there are a handful of possible approaches to crafting, and one interesting one we can reflect on is what we did in Ultima Online. The more times you wove cloth, the better you became at weaving, and the same would be true for basically every other skill. The thing we liked about that system is that the game is largely classless – you don’t have to decide up front that you’re going to be a fighter or blacksmith or magician.
You can learn all those skills in time if you wish, and you’re free to play the game in whatever way that you want. That being said, as opposed to having to sit there and repeatedly weave over and over again – which became a mind-numbing level of effort to raise your skill in a particular category – we’re making it so skill is something that comes directly out of your broader experience. You can apply that general experience to whatever category of skills you wish, and that way we think that we can allow people to migrate their style of play more pleasurably than the busywork of old.
And encourage players to take more risks with their play styles?
Absolutely – if you spend you’re first ten days pursuing sword play, you’ll be that many days skillful as wielding a sword. If you spend the next ten days worth of experience on advancing your crafting ability, now you’re level ten in sword activities and crafting activities. We’re perfectly fine with that.