Before You Drop Money on Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar

I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon, except yes I do: Being Richard Garriott isn't enough to persuade me to hand someone cash to make a game.

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Some things you remember better for odd reasons: Ultima VI: The False Prophet was the first game I played on an Intel-based computer, a CompuAdd 386SX 16MHz I picked up in 1990 as I was entering college. I couldn’t name half the bleeding-edge parts I jammed into the dozens of later desktops I hand-assembled, but I’ll always remember that CompuAdd: 1MB of memory, a 40MB hard drive, 5-1/4-inch and 3.5-inch floppy drives, and a VGA monitor. The whole thing cost $2,195.

I was born in 1972, so I grew up parallel to the Ultima series, but my family’s home computer lagged behind the times: a Commodore B-128 geared toward business use. But it played text games (downloaded by another local who had what I didn’t: a modem and BBS access), so while the world experienced the very first Ultima games, I was playing translations of Colossal Cave, Haunted House, Hammurabi and trying to figure out how the heck Calc Result — a crude spreadsheet program for Commodore computers — actually worked. To visit Britannia (nee Sosaria), I had to travel by way of my elementary school’s green-screen Apple IIs during recess or in the late afternoons. High school was thus a treat: a computer lab with color-screen Apples and a sudden flood of games like King’s Quest, Wizardry and Might and Magic.

My first personal computer was actually a Commodore 64; the first game I threw at it was Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. True story: I rented it from a computer shop in Council Bluffs, Iowa that dropped the floppy disks, cloth map and manuals in a giant plastic ziploc bag, then let you have it for a week at a time. Around this time I started paying attention to game magazines, learning more about Ultima creator Richard Garriott as well as other developers at Garriott’s Austin-based development studio, Origin Systems. Chris Roberts had just released action-RPG precursor Times of Lore. That went on my C-64, too.

My gaming memories in the fall of 1989 are of two things: Playing Castlevania: The Adventure on Nintendo’s just-out original Game Boy, and reading an interview with Richard Garriott where he hyped the sort of tectonic changes coming in Ultima VI. I can’t remember where I read it, but in the interview he talked about stuff like knives and forks you could individually pick up or drop (each with discrete weight values) and doors you could either lock-pick or break down — about designing a world, basically, that was interactive such that the interactivity dovetailed with the gameplay. Nowadays we’d laugh at a game that pitched itself as having smash-able objects because we’re on the other side of that particular design shift, but in 1989 it was heady stuff. I picked up the CompuAdd a few months later and Ultima VI that spring.

Ultima VI was where I fully engaged with Garriott’s mid-series design philosophy, reveling in the Worlds of Ultima games — both Savage Empire and Martian Dreams; the brooding black movie-style poster for Ultima VII: The Black Gate that came in Martian Dreams‘ hardcover-book-sized box, promising a “voluntarily rated” MP-13 experience; the unexpected sequel and arguably its high point, Serpent Isle; the endless tip-line phone calls (and surprise phone bills) to solve brain-crippling puzzles; the Doom-trumping majesty of both Ultima Underworld games; the sprawling promise of Ultima Online (I was a pre-release beta tester); the point the series went off the rails with the wondrous strange and yet strangely flaccid Ultima VIII: Pagan (mockingly dubbed “Super Avatar Bros” for its crude stab at platforming); and the gorgeous 3D train wreck of a finale that was Ultima IX: Ascension.

Then came the lean years, the weird years: the dalliances with online roleplaying games like Lineage, a mediocre me-too MMO grind-a-thon, and Tabula Rasa, another mediocre MMO that fared poorly and shuttered early, culminating in a multimillions lawsuit in which Garriott claimed he was wrongfully ousted by publisher NCsoft (an appeals court eventually upheld a $28 million verdict favoring Garriott). Somewhere in there, Garriott managed to spend an estimated $30 million on a ticket to the International Space Station, becoming the sixth tourist in space. Ultima Online had continued under EA’s guidance, but without Garriott’s involvement. The prospect of future Garriott-led games, much less games in the Ultima mold, seemed unlikely.

Well, until last week. Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, Garriott’s surprise Kickstarter, emerged from the ether a little like the Guardian’s face poking through a sea of blue static. It’s not being formally billed as the spiritual successor to the Ultima series, but the title does the job with a single word (and what a word — in my youth, I assumed the term “Avatar” was simply made-up before making the connection to Hinduism and beyond).

Some of us have been waiting since before the final installment in the Ultima series (late 1999) for Garriott to make this move. And yet as I watched Garriott’s splashy, scripted pitch video on the Kickstarter page, I couldn’t help but worry. Why tout Ultima as “the longest-running RPG series in the history of gaming” when you weren’t involved with it for the last decade-plus (and its subscriber base has been on life support for years)? And why, while promoting the Ultima series as a “pioneer” in the creation of  “interactive literature,” did the pitch team use footage from Ultima IX, the unmitigated dog of the series? (That, and how does “interactive literature” have anything to do with discovering the world “at your own pace”?)

But okay, I guess my real issue with Garriott’s Kickstarter pitch is his sweeping oversimplification of what’s rote about roleplaying games today. In the pitch, he argues:

Yet there are also other areas that have not advanced as surely. Most modern RPGs for example have digital storytelling within them, but all a player generally needs to do is to speak to every NPC with a tag over their head, click on almost all the options provided and then follow the arrows on the map until they reach their goals. Players of most modern RPGs have almost identical experiences to one another, just as the designers scripted.

That’s maybe true if your entire experience of modern RPGs is Diablo and Torchlight, which have no compunction about being precisely those kinds of games and pandering to that completely legitimate audience. But is it true of The WitcherFable II? Final Fantasy XIII? Fallout 3? The Elder Scrolls series (arguably the apotheosis of what Garriott was up to in the 1980s and 1990s)? Dark Souls? Persona 4The World Ends with You? Dark Cloud 2? [Insert your own I'm surely forgetting]?

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, except yes I do: Being Richard Garriott isn’t enough to persuade me to hand someone cash to make a game. Garriott’s track record — and I think I’m being generous here — has been pretty spotty since the early 1990s. I don’t believe in patronizing celebrity designers for nostalgia’s sake, or that someone who knew how to design something 20 years ago necessarily understands what it takes to break the mold today and simultaneously dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved Garriott’s Ultima games up to Pagan (and I recall mostly liking Pagan in spite of the platforming criticisms). And I love the idea of a guy like Richard Garriott rising from the ashes to school lazy designers like a video game version of Robert Smigel’s X-Presidents, e.g. “Ultima: Quest of the Trendsetter!” But I worry about whether Garriott’s up to the task. RPGs hardly ossified after Serpent Isle. The mid-1990s dry spell the last few Ultima games contributed to notwithstanding, RPGs actually blossomed, and with recent fare like Xenoblade Chronicles, Dragon’s DogmaThe Last StoryGuild Wars 2 and Ni No Kuni — to say nothing of all the other Kickstarter RPG-related projects on the books, including at least two promising to ricochet design-wise off fan-favorite Planescape: Torment — it’s hard to argue RPGs need a messiah game at this point.

Fear not, Garriott loyalists, Shroud of the Avatar is going to happen: It’s nearly three-quarters of the way to its $1 million goal as I’m typing this, with 27 days to go. And so I’ll stand by, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and mostly hoping that the game’s going to be more than the sum of its cliched bullet points, e.g. “fully interactive virtual world,” “classless character system,” “player housing,” “crafting system that avoids busy work,” “meaningful PvP that also minimizes griefing” and so forth — all stuff we’ve been living with, and in several cases celebrating, for over a decade.

26 comments
BlakeBlackstone
BlakeBlackstone

For anyone who is going to at least try the game, at perpetual online release, 01/01/15 and can PvP, is invited to fight up the bracket system, held throughout the world. The final bracket will be held at the bottom of the castle arena stone basement of the casino in the town Im developing for sale.


The rules are pretty simple:


Carry with you what you are willing to lose.

The Immortality Fruit in the center is able to give one heal to the person who gets it first.

Fight to the death.


Rewards: 

The other guys stuff.

The seed of Immortality Fruit that you can plant and use continuously.

A Rent Free Home in the town that you are the Champion of. Until, you lose of course.


No need to apply. You will know where to sign up.

Bruce_Wayne
Bruce_Wayne

Just got into the alpha, it's awful. I want to like it based on the concepts, but it's ridiculously not good. 

StephenPage
StephenPage

Trouble is brewing on the SoTA forums, the developers have recently released Release 4 and boy people are upset to say the least with the game's World Map, suddenly with no notice the team have completely done away with the map promised and replaced it with a basic, 2D, non-interactive map seemingly drawn by a child. The devs responded to the outrage by stating the game's WM would only be a 'travel system' used 10% of the time rather than the fully-detailed, interactive and zoomable 3D map they were expecting as promoted and promised by Mr Garriot.

Essentially, you are presented with a dull grey and brown empty map with the occasional minimalist sketches of trees and mountains, you click a mouse to travel, you being represented by a flag and double click when you arrive, that;s it, nothing like the Ultima games whatsoever, in fact investors are starting to wonder exactly WHERE is the Ultima dna in the game.  


https://www.shroudoftheavatar.com/forum/index.php?threads/world-maps-the-minimum-expectations-of-21st-century-rpgs.8765/

Victor13
Victor13

I am holding final judgement until it comes out but at this point I am seriously disappointed.  Richard and team completely embraced the casual gamer.  No real risk exists in the proposed ruleset. PvP is nerfed.  Game appears to be headed towards being significantly gear based.  


Sota is 100% NOT a UO spiritual successor.  I pledged before the details started coming out, I wouldn't have if I'd known how it was going to shape up.

Greebo
Greebo

Some things I think you are overlooking;


1. Crowd sourced means that the devs and fans are developing the game; it isnt some big corporate production getting in the way.

2. Unlike corporations which 'hide' details of their game for public scrutiny.... SOTA staff lay it out there, for people to see for all its glory ... or not:)


3. This is of course my subjective opinion; but recently Ive restarted playing the player run UO servers... and been reminded of the pre-UOR world. Pre-WoW. IMO the big changer of the genre was the DAOC series by Mythic. But UO will always hold that special place of first among the pack - and OG to the core. All the core elements of mmo since that time take many themes from UO. And many of us wish that they would do MORE like UO sandbox theme!


That alone makes Lord British someone worthy of respect.

TimothyHurst
TimothyHurst

Tabula Rasa was great, I wish I could still play. Definitely not mediocre, just underrated.

Batlin
Batlin

I guess time will tell if your completely wrong and this game becomes a huge success Matt.


I would suggest you ignore Matt's opinion and pledge to support Shroud of the Avatar.


2.5+ million now pledged


Most people who have played Richard Garriot's Ultima series have been affected in a good way and would gladly support an endeavor of his - weather it be the depth of the story or the virtue system Richard knows how to make a great game....

itschadlol
itschadlol

Great article and a very good write up on why not to trust Richard.  I grew up in the "Ultima Online" age and missed many of the original Ultima games (born in 85, didn't even own a computer until 97), but UO holds a very special place in my heart.  Perhaps it was the fact that I was a preteen/early teen, but there was nothing quite like logging into Britannia.  Whether I was taming White Wyrms and Nightmares or working over at the smith shop in West Brit, many memories are left in those lands of old.  I've attempted to go back many times, but as you said, that game and it's subscribers are on life support. 

I was very excited when I first saw this Kickstarter.  I hope for a game that can bring me back to the excitement that I felt in Ultima Online.  Realistically, I realize I am chasing my first "high" from the MMO genre, but I will hold the faith that Richard can bring it back to me.  His last two MMOs were not what I expected from him and were quite the disappointment, however I am not ready to write him off just yet.  Thanks for taking me back to a universe I had all but forgotten.  Cheers.

Connor
Connor

EA has a history of releasing games before they are finished and thats what they did to garriott in the 90's. The budget they gave him for UO was $250,000 because their initial estimated sales report was a measly 30,000 units... the beta had 50,000 signed up. EA short handed him for his last 2 ultima's and UO. It was not Garriot's fault but EA. I cant believe you call yourself a journalist, do your homework buddy. Oh and name one game that is competitive online and offline that does not have DRM.

RussellGusto
RussellGusto

RPG's need to have conesequences these days!!  Stop trying to make everyone a special snowflake and lets have some winners and losers, it's a game after all.  If Richard goes back to his roots he will have a great game on his hands.  If Richard bows down to the casuals it will fail imo.

Also Richard is a WIZARD!  Honestly look out he's the real deal with hexes.

AndrewTheExperienceDixon
AndrewTheExperienceDixon

I want to contribute to it, but as Matt points out - Grriot's track record since he started teaming up with big name publishers is horrendous. He got scammed out of his franchise by Electronic Arts and NCSoft turned him into a laughing stock (even though he did win millions). Either way, a lot of that had to have been bad decisions he made dealing with those companies. I actually found out about Shroud of the Avatar because I was going to tweet him about how he feels about what EA did to his Origin trademark nd how they are using it to scam customers like they once scammed him.

My original plan was to give him the $60 I saved on SimCity, but the guy is eccentric and terrible with money so I cannot justify that. With that being said I hold the man in great respect. Im sure if he found the right publisher (one that wouldnt screw him over and one that wouldnt fire him when he lost it) I have no doubt that he could reinvent the RPG, and even easier so - the MMORPG. The modern day RPG may not need  messiah but I would contest that the MMORPG is in desperate need of one and has been for nearly 10 years.

And I have to ask, Matt, what about FFXIII was there to like? I tried so hard to play it. I put bout 6 hours into it and it was NOT getting better! I do not mean to bash your opinion of the game it's just that I regard is as one of the worst (read: disappointing) games I have ever played. And as I agreed to the T with just about everything you said in the article I hve to admit I was taken aback when you mentioned it as a good one.

JamesSmith
JamesSmith

Looking forward to it. Ultima Online still remains as my best gaming experience ever.

LanceLarka
LanceLarka

This game is going to get funded for sure. Whether it ever sees the light of day is another matter. RG's track record on RPG's is pretty thin post 80's. Even the strong games from Origin Systems in the 90's (Wing Commander, System Shock, Jane's series for example) were a departure from RG's methods when developing games in the 80's when he was basically a one man shop. I don't know for sure, but I have a strong suspicion that he wasn't involved with those games in the 90's while he worked on Ultima Online starting in '95 according to wiki.

When I watched the kickstarter video and read the page the first thing that came to mind was "Oh, it's SIMS....medieval style"

I won't be pledging money on this one, nor will I buy the game when (if) it is released. Other projects have much more potential and a better proven track record.



Tbirdsey
Tbirdsey

Some good points here, and its always nice to read about other Ultima fans' early experiences with the series.  However; when Garriot criticized the modern questing mechanics of rpgs, he was quite clearly referring to MMOs, which you completely ignored in order to make your point seem more valid than it is.  You did mention Guild Wars 2, but I'm not sure why, since it has a lot of the same failings as every other contemporary MMO, at least in the context that Garriot was speaking.

While Shroud is not going to be an MMO in the traditional sense, it will indeed be competing with them, which is why Garriot made that comparison.  Still, an enjoyable read, even if I disagreed with the main thrust of the article.

RudraChakraborty
RudraChakraborty

I had to comment here. I can agree with a few of your points, the fact that they showcased Ultima IX was both shocking and amusing to me. That said, the late 90s was hardly a dry spell, if you recall Daggerfall, Baldur's Gate, Fallout 1/2, and Planescape Torment. I would in fact say that the late 90s up til about 2006 was a great era for the genre. 

Furthermore, Fable II and Fallout 3 were not examples of what Garriot was referring to? I seem to recall both of them more or less having the exact features Garriot was derailing (quest markers, marking of important NPCs/objectives, clear implicit directions on where to go). And Final Fantasy XIII was a travesty. 

Not to say I don't have some apprehensions as to the quality of Garriot's new title. I do. That said, the genre (minus rare standouts like the Souls series) is in desperate need of some new ideas. The argument for a savior of the genre may not be as hard to make as you think. 

AndrewTheExperienceDixon
AndrewTheExperienceDixon


@ConnorRG shares responsibility for it. No one knew how big it was going to be and from a financial standpoint (EA's) why would you throw money at a project when you had no idea how successful it would be?? That would have been very irresponsible to do as a company at that time. I will give you that since then EA does not appear to have learned anyhting, but let's hope Garriot has. But, again, we have no guarantee of this game's success (and I REALLY want it to be successful) so just throwing money at it might not be a good thing. Anyway, this article is about Garriot's track record not EA's so that's probably why he ommitted anything about it.

AndrewTheExperienceDixon
AndrewTheExperienceDixon


@RussellGusto Watch some interviews RG has on the subject. He thinks that we are in the age of the casual gamer. He had an interview with Markee Dragon about a year ago in which he talks about wanting to integrate elements for casual and hardcore gamers and everyone inbetween. It's clear he still has a vision...let's just hope its the right one for this time.

mattpeckham
mattpeckham moderator

@Tbirdsey Thanks for the feedback Tbirdley. He obviously wasn't referring exclusively to MMOs, and as you say, Shroud of the Avatar isn't strictly an MMO. Just because it may, in theory, compete in that market doesn't somehow validate his still-misguided critiques (nor does it address the MMOs far less guilty of the things he's alleging, or any of the other points I'm making here).

mattpeckham
mattpeckham moderator

@RudraChakraborty Thanks Rudra, I meant more the mid-1990s. You'll recall that multi-year run leading up to Fallout during which it seemed CRPGs had atrophied.

Neither Fallout 3 nor Fable 2 fit easily into that mold, and no, FFXIII wasn't a travesty. It had (and still has) one of the smartest real-time combat systems yet devised in an RPG. If you can look past the linearity complaint and see the game for what it is (instead of what people wanted, e.g. FFVII remade endlessly, or maybe FFXII part two) I think it's actually pretty solid.

JessicaPurdy
JessicaPurdy

@mattpeckham It seemed pretty apparent that he was referencing WoW all-but-explicitly with that particular comment, so I'm not really sure why you opted to go from there to take offense on behalf of the entire genre.

RudraChakraborty
RudraChakraborty

@mattpeckham I do indeed. 

I'm confused as to how they don't fit into that mold. With the removal of death from Fable 2, a lot of the challenge was removed. I also remember the golden trails and such that would lead to quest objectives, I never really got stuck or had to search for anything except on very rare occasions. All in all Fable 2 felt very streamlined to me.

As for Fallout 3, I did enjoy exploring quite a bit more. The post apocalyptic setting was well done, and the strength of Bethesda has always been (at least in my opinion) creating immersive environments to walk around in. That said, especially with VATS, quest markers, and fast travel, I often found lots of cool stuff, but rarely felt much of a challenge. Not to say I didn't enjoy Fallout 3, but it wasn't too much of a challenge. My understanding was that these things were more or less what Garriot was bemoaning.

To address the part about Final Fantasy XIII, it wasn't particularly involving at all in terms of combat. My main grief with it was not only the linearity, but the poorly developed and unlikeable characters, and padded/poorly weaved storyline. My thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII seem to be more humorously expressed by Yahtzee Crosshaw in his review of the game. 

DavidRoberts
DavidRoberts

@mattpeckham He was mostly referring to MMO's such as WoW and assorted everquest model WoW clones anyway more then single player RPG's, I think he actually clarified that in a later interview. But he is right to an extent regardless.

It's not so much that the RPG's we've been getting lately are bad, they just haven't innovated as much as he'd like and have instead polished those existing concepts to a peak (Which makes them the best made to date as a result). Also even in the single player RPG's there is way to much hand holding going on.

I love the recent fallouts but it is a victim of the magic quest marker compass... and lately in skyrim, functions that will draw you a trail along the ground of exactly which way to go... The only time you are really exploring is when you are wandering off and ignoring quests. The rest of the time you are been lead about by the nose.

It's not just the interface conventions, either. I've lost track of the number of times in recent games I've been ticked off by the dialogue because they spell out the solution for a puzzle to you, before you've even had a chance to examine the puzzle, thus denying you any satisfaction from figuring it out yourself. The hand holding needs to stop.

But again... The clicking through without even reading the dialogue and just following the quest marker thing is a commentary on how in MMO's even the quests have devolved into mindless grindfests.

mattpeckham
mattpeckham moderator

@RudraChakraborty Well, Garriott lays out clearly what his gripes and proposed remedies are. I've quoted the main ones above. I don't recall him saying anything about difficulty/challenge.

My point was just that, firstly, the presumption that RPGs sporting tags over NPC heads and designer-intended gameplay are somehow stultified doesn't make it so (I'd argue he's straw-manning that particular genre iteration), but more importantly, that nothing he's proposing in the video hasn't already been done, and in plenty of cases far better than any of the original Ultimas did (that's not a critique of any particular Ultima, just, you know, "games evolve").