Amid the excitement of all the Virtual Reality gear (Oculus), Microsoft Hololens, and numerous AAA game announcements at E3 2015, I found E3 to be a bit of a bore in 2015, with one exception: Getting to meet the man responsible for some of the best PC role playing games ever made: Richard Garriot, aka “Lord British”.
Richard Garriot, also known as “Lord British” to his fans, is best-known as the creator of the iconic PC role playing games Ultima (1-9) and Ultima Online. I also got to talk to Starr Long, the former director for Ultima Online, Garriot’s long-time right-hand man, and the executive producer for their newest project Shroud of the Avatar.
A little (personal) history with Ultima
Ultima III: Exodus was the first PC RPG I ever played, along side a close friend. And I continued to play and complete every Ultima game thereafter, culminating in the completion of Ultima IX in 1999. I still remember when I ‘conveniently’ (but legitimately) contracted chicken pox, which enabled me to miss a week of school and pour time into completing Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.
If I recall, I went on to finish Ultima 5 on a Commodore 64 or 128, and then Ultima VI on an Amiga. I would eventually get an IBM PC, and play Ultima VII (both parts) to completion, along with Ultima VIII and Ultima IX. Ultima IV through VII (Parts 1 and 2) are arguably and widely considered some of the best Ultima games. Ultima 8, because of its changes to the gameplay (you didn’t have a party) was a little more divisive among fans. Ultima IX was ambitious, but also radically changed the familiar formula to a 3D engine (think of a primitive Skyrim) and also lacked the familiar party-based mechanics of the earlier games. More importantly, however, Ultima IX was very buggy.
These were games largely made when you had to fill a notebook with your own maps and notes, which really invested you more into the game. (In retrospect, it was a bit of a “Virtual Reality” in its way–because if you lost your real-world notebook, you essentially lost your entire “Quest Log” for the game.)
Suffice to say I was excited to talk to a man whose games are probably one of the reasons I’m still a PC gamer and lover of RPGs even to this day–or for that matter, to even have a line of communication to him. He may have gone into space in recent years, but he seemed very down-to-earth. I may have even (inadvertently) suggested a feature that might make its way into Shroud of the Avatar. (Whenever a suggestion was made or an idea struck him, he quickly made note of it in his smartphone to review later.)
Starr Long, executive producer for the game, was also very cool to talk to. As it turns out, I have a friend who even worked for him at Disney Interactive, who also told me that Starr was a very cool guy to work for.
In this era of “rockstar” game developers it’s strange to think that one of the first “rockstars” (Garriot) is largely unknown to many (possibly most) gamers these days, aside from the minor news tidbits he shows up in (such as when he spent millions and went into space in 2008).
Will Shroud of the Avatar be successful? I suspect it depends upon how you define success. I doubt it will thrust Garriot back into the forefront of gaming, which is currently dominated by MOBA games (League of Legends, Dota 2, SMITE, etc.), FPS games, and big-name MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. But I can easily envision it commanding a relatively small but fiercely loyal following of dedicated players that will be strong enough to sustain it.
And I think Garriot is fine with that. His games were cornerstones of the entire gaming industry. He helped build the industry. He’s made his mark (and his millions) and is free to pursue the things he’s passionate about. Truthfully, it seems like a good place to be in.
MEETING LORD BRITISH
For all intents and purposes, Shroud of the Avatar is Ultima Online 2—or at least its spiritual equivalent—and like its inspirations emphasizes exploration, storytelling, and a heavily player-driven ecosystem. Can the men responsible for Shroud of the Avatar’s spiritual roots revive a much-loved franchise (or at least its successor) in the increasingly crowded MMORPG space?
Shroud of the Avatar is being developed by Portalarium, the studio founded and by Richard Garriot, the creator of the original Ultima games best known to his fans as his in-game persona “Lord British”. Starr Long has been a frequent collaborator with Garriot over the years, and was the director for the original Ultima Online.
The classic PC role playing games Ultima (1-9) and Ultima Online were created and published over the course of 18 years (1981-1999) by Richard Garriot and his company, Origin Systems. For fans of the series, the title clearly draws a line back to Garriot’s earlier work.
The original Ultima games created by Garriot spanned 10 single-player games (Ultima 1-9, with Ultima 7 being done in 2 parts), as well as a number of spin-offs throughout its long, storied history. Ultima (1-9) and Ultima Online are largely considered the most iconic of the series.
Shroud of the Avatar may be careful not to run afoul of intellectual property rights, but it’s not shy about clearly showing its roots.
“Electronic Arts still owns Ultima, and all the characters and lands in it, except Lord British. Richard retained ownership of his character when Origin was acquired by Electronic Arts. So we can’t call this an Ultima. It’s not a sequel to Ultima. There will never be another Ultima—not without Richard at the helm. But if you are looking for a genuine Ultima experience, that’s what Shroud of the Avatar is.”
Starr Long, Executive Producer, Shroud of the Avatar
The resurgence of ‘core’ gaming
Ultima games largely existed in an era before the modern refinements of accessibility we’ve come to know today. Many of the crutches upon which modern RPGs currently lean simply didn’t exist.
There were no exclamation points and objective markers. You frequently had to take your own notes, draw your own maps, and there was no ‘checklist’ quest log or journal. This made the games more difficult—but arguably more satisfying, because you were a more active participant in the game. (I still remember filling entire notebooks from playing Ultima games.)
It’s a stark contrast to an era where we’ve largely learned to just follow exclamation points, click a button, and then follow objective markers to complete a quest that we (at most) half-read. Accessibility is important, but in the rush to embrace it one might argue we’ve lost some things as well.
But in recent years, ‘hard core’ gaming has had something of a resurgence with games like Demons Souls. And Ultima fans have always been something of a special breed, particularly dedicated to the intricacies of their second life.
“We would be more concerned about accessibility if it weren’t for what I call a sort of a ‘return of the hard’ – games like Dark Souls and DayZ, for example. We think there is a segment of the audience that wants more of a challenge. That’s not to say we’re going completely ‘old-school’, but we will make you think about what is going on.”
Starr Long, Executive Producer, Shroud of the Avatar
For example, there is a journal in Shroud of the Avatar that contains a record of what you’ve done, information you’ve discovered, and whom you’ve spoken with. You can filter it to display key bits of information to nudge you in a direction—but it can’t be used as a checklist of quests for toggling objective markers on and off. You have to read between the lines—and better still, talk to other players.
The Ultima(te) player-driven experience
A quality unique to Ultima Online was that you didn’t have to grind through monster fighting and quests to enjoy the game. Many players took as much—or more—pleasure simply building and decorating a house, and crafting and selling mundane items to other players. If you wanted to be a world-class donut-dipper, bread maker, or blacksmith, you could.
Shroud of the Avatar is built on similar ideas, but expands it even further.
Garriot explains: “In a Lord British-styled game, what separates us from the World of Warcraft model is that if you think about those games, everyone that plays is first and foremost a combatant, and might also have some crafting skills. In our games, while the majority of players get involved in some level of combat, there is a substantial percentage of people that never get involved at combat at all. They live entire, complete role-playing lives in other things—running pubs, being miners, fisherman, or blacksmiths—whatever it might be. “
The crafting system in Shroud of the Avatar is possibly one of the most intricate systems ever created for an MMORPG. It’s also unique in that all loot in the game—except for some starter items and resources used for crafting—is created by players.
And nothing you can loot from a monster will ever be as good as something a player can craft. Furthermore, items crafted by players are marked with that player’s name—becoming an artifact of sorts—and can change and improve over time as you use them. For example, if you smash a lot of skeletons with a magic hammer, that hammer may eventually gain increased effectiveness against skeletons, in addition to whatever other enchantments it may have.
“If you think about the typical online game,” Garriot tells us, “the best treasure in the game is usually some loot drop off of some big raid—not something a player created. So we decided not to compete against the player economy. In our game, when our monsters need loot to drop, they get it from the players’ shops. So basically all of the loot in the game, with the exception of some starter stuff, is created by players.”
Regaining a sense of exploration
One key goal for Shroud of the Avatar is to foster a sense of exploration and discovery.
“When you think about many modern RPGs, we’ve taken the sense of exploration out of the long-term process by making too much of the game brain-dead. I don’t believe we should abandon all modern UI—but we tried to rethink things from the ground up to decide what the best play mechanic is.”
Richard Garriot, Lord British, Shroud of the Avatar
To that end, a number of interesting systems are being implemented that reward more attentive, invested players—and again fosters a greater sense of a player-driven world.
The current NPC conversation system, for example, is based upon typed input for communication—a system that harkens back to the days of Ultima 4. You can type complete sentences—or just keywords—to gain more information from an NPC.
In Shroud of the Avatar, you can type a complete sentences, such as “Hello bartender, my name is Lord British. What drinks do you have on tap?” And the bartender will respond appropriately.
But don’t worry—if you really don’t like typing responses you can just click keywords (underlined text in the conversation window) to gain the information you’re looking for.
But who is to say all possible keywords are always be displayed? This system enables you to explore by typing things that may not be available in stock choices—a password to open up a quest perhaps, or a secret branch of conversation. (And again, you may need to learn the keyword or words from another NPC or another player.)
Similarly, an NPC won’t display a name over their head until you ask them their name. So to learn more about the world, you need to explore—everything—right down to learning the name of the local barkeep.
Build your own adventure
This same level of creativity also extends to quests. Players can leave their own notes and books (clues) in the world to essentially create their own quests.
This part of the game is still in early development, but the Ultimate goal is to enable players to essentially create their own quests that will lead players to a public cache chest. “Over time we will make different kinds of rules—requiring people to put something in to get something out, for example,” Garriot explains.
So what about potential abusers for such a system? “Games that have gone with fully player-created content often end up with a world full of half-finished garbage. Our system requires enough time, money, and effort to get started with to help weed out a lot of half-hearted attempts,” Garriot explains.
Garriot also plans to potentially introduce a rating system where players can rate everything from the quality of your house decorations to the quality of your quests.
Online and Offline play
Perhaps one of the most interesting qualities of Shroud of the Avatar is its distributed server model, which enables you to play offline or online in a variety of game modes.
“About half our player base is more interested in playing through the story than playing online,” Garriot explains. “For me personally, the real advantage of solo or offline play is that I can play when I’m on an airplane, for example. One of my greatest disappointments in games is when I can’t play them because I don’t have an Internet connection.”
So Garriot and Long started down the path of making Shroud of the Avatar available offline as well as online—and the only way to do that are if the server and client are both on the same machine.
“This unlocked a number of incredibly powerful side effects, one of which is that you can play solo offline. In solo play, you play in a static rendition of the world that won’t have changes made to it by other players. Once you’re online, your installation will essentially get updated with all the changes made by other players.
You also have the option of playing in a ‘friends only’ mode—another way to further weed out griefers from your experience. Or, you can play the game like an all-up MMORPG—and all the good and bad that can imply.
And because everyone’s client is also a server, the game benefits from being essentially a distributed platform (the ‘player cloud’ if you will), meaning the backbone for the global game can be pretty minimal—possibly as low as 6-12 machines. (By way of comparison, every Shard of Ultima Online required 15-20 servers, although servers were scarcely as powerful as they are now.)
To prevent cheating in such a platform, the Shroud of the Avatar performs validity checks between servers. “If you figured out a way to give yourself a bunch of gold, for example, the game would give it to you for a moment. But as soon as you tried to spend it (online), the game wouldn’t recognize it,” Starr Long explains.
Player driven inside and outside the game
So dedicated is the Ultima—er, Shroud of the Avatar—community that they’ve already begun creating in-game events, and an App to track them with. Using an app, you can view what is going on in the world at any given time, and decide whether or not you want to jump in for an event of some kind.
“I use this app throughout the day to decide if there’s anything going on that would be cool for Lord British to arrive at. The community-run, in-game events are already astounding.”
For now, development continues and updates roll out at a very steady pace—something Garriot was quick to credit Starr and his efforts for. You can sign up and back the game at the Shroud of the Avatar home page.
The game is still in an ‘alpha’ state, although Garriot expects any official beta—once it begins—to be a relatively short run. “Once we get to a point where we don’t have to do any player wipes, then we should be ready for a beta phase,” he says.
So what are you waiting for Ultima Online fans? Go check out Shroud of the Avatar—and build something cool. There’s only a one-time fee to buy and play the game, and no subscription fees.