Shroud of the Avatar: A good example of a bad beginning

With the official launch of Shroud of the Avatar — a game that has been in a persistent world state for at least a year now — I made a vow that I’d come back and give it a good try. At the very least, I’d check in with it. I even thought about doing a first impressions piece for Massively OP, but then when I got some time with the game, I had such a negative experience that I knew I wasn’t going to get far enough to even justify such a piece.

I came to it with some energy and curiosity, looking forward to seeing what I could glean out of this Ultima Online spiritual successor. On paper, it has a lot that interests me: a really strong legacy, a more immersive world, a PvE-focused experience, and actual effort toward alternative systems and roleplay. But an hour into the game, and I felt trapped. I couldn’t wait to log out and put this behind me.

What happened?

The first couple of hours in any MMORPG are absolutely crucial to get right. You have to hook the player while introducing them to the game world, entertaining them, and teaching them the new systems. And to be fair, the best thing that Shroud of the Avatar does is integrating character creation into its own little pocket zone that teases and hints at some weirdness (mechanical oracle, little watcher robots, a bridge between Earth and this other planet, a moon that exploded) while seeding a few of the game’s elements.

I honestly liked the keyword-focused NPC dialogue system — it feels interactive and much more like old-school RPGs than the streamlined MMO quest text. You could sort of fool yourself that you were talking with the character. And I also appreciated the nod to Ultima with the moral dilemmas that the Oracle gave you, although those are (pun intended) ultimately meaningless since you can choose your path regardless of your answers.

But it was in the opening zone — or “scene” as this game calls them — that SOTA started to lose me. The game doesn’t handle well, and that comes through in a lot of little interface and control actions. Jumping is weird and wrong. You have to hit an additional key to go into combat mode, which got me into all kinds of trouble when I kept forgetting to start and stop that at key moments. Combat itself was plodding and disconnected.

And while there were some general directions, I felt like the area wasn’t as focused or informative as it could have been. Should I be picking up everything I see? Is there a story I should be absorbing here? And why do the elves look like something out of a horror novel with their bald heads and beady black eyes?

Compared to how much I loved exploring the opening moments of Project Gorgon, which also encouraged you to look around, experiment, and interact, Shroud of the Avatar simply didn’t click with me. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t telling me all that I wanted to know, and it was loading me down with questionable inventory and these inventory documents that read like someone took a tech manual and ripped out pages to deliver piecemeal.

Another quibble: There was no zone map. I saw that you could collect maps for areas, but I never had one of the places where I was at, so I had no external point of reference for travel. I hoped that my character would perhaps make up her own map, but nothing doing. It’s amazing how much a lack of a mini-map or zone map changes how you play — and not in a good way.

By the time I was in the second area, I pretty much gave up hope. Oh, there were MMO staples, like questing and killing, but again it felt sloppy and weird. SOTA does its own thing its own way, and I get the impression that the devs were trying to reinvent the wheel instead of absorbing what worked well in similar titles. I had no idea how to best level up my character. I was a mage who only had one attack spell that worked on a 10 or 15 second cooldown, leaving me helpless unless I wanted to wack at things with a staff for a while. Should I use a staff? Or is a sword OK? I had no idea.

I probably would have benefited from reading up on a beginner’s guide or watching some player do a tutorial on YouTube, but you know what? If a game in 2018 can’t teach you properly while you play it, then that’s a failure on the part of the devs. I shouldn’t have to do homework to know how to play a game and derive enjoyment of it.

From my very limited perspective, Shroud of the Avatar isn’t as engrossing or connected as it should be. And it really should be, which is the shame here. It has so many elements I really do look for in online games, but something went askew in the development process, and I’m wondering if Portalarium was listening too hard to its “yes” fans and customers and not enough to its critics.

Oh well. There are plenty of other game worlds that want my time and attention and are willing to bring me into them without this level of frustration.

Shroud of the Avatar: Tabula rasa redux

s1

Now that Shroud of the Avatar has reached Release 32, the game’s moved into a persistent world state. This confusing bit of terminology means both “no more wipes” yet “it’s still in some sort of alpha.” For the life of me, I can’t imagine why you would want to step over this threshold with a game that’s not nearly ready for release unless you were concerned that players were going to leave or you wanted to make more money somehow.

Anyway, I thought it was time to at least roll up a character and poke around, since I’ve only played this game a couple of times in the past and that was a while ago. Hopefully the game would be in a much more finished state.

Every online game feels like it has to do something a little weird with its setup and controls so that there’s a period of learning adjustment. I acknowledge this and simply hope it won’t be too weird. SOTA isn’t terrible, but there are a few little “quirks” from the get-go, including a mouse-look control scheme. Took me a few minutes to figure out how to disable that (hint: tab) and to remap a few keys so that it handled more like a traditional MMO.

When you start up a new character, you only pick a male or female before being dumped into the character creation area. I actually like this zone, the Isle of Storms. Very atmospheric and it moves you through creating your character in somewhat of a reasonable progression.

A lady greets you when you phase in, and I guess this is supposed to be the wife of Lord British, which means that she’s standing in for Richard Garriott’s real wife? It’s a little odd, like you log into the game and the wife of the game’s creator is there to make sure you wipe your feet and mind your manners.

s2

Of course, there are little SauronBots roaming around, scanning things like they escaped a cyberpunk thriller and landed in this fantasy universe.

s3

This visual creation mirror kept crashing my game, to the point where I threw my hands up and walked away for a while. A Twitter helper mentioned that I needed to disable the cloth simulation (which is in the game menu). That did the trick and I was able to make up SOTA’s version of Yeti Yesterday.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the visual choices. Sure, there were lots of facial sliders, but raise your hand if you like sliders in character creators and you’ll look around and see that you’re one of a few. I don’t want to fiddle with nose length and jaw positioning, I want preset options so that I can mix-and-match looks. There were a decent number of hairstyles but most looked more like plastic than not. SOTA’s visuals are a step up from many indie games but still have a ways to go to get into the same sphere of, say, Guild Wars 2.

s4

I might not have been impressed with the character visuals, but I did find world touches like this reading altar well-done and worth examining.

s5

The last part of making your character is to talk to this creepy robot head, AKA the Oracle. Is there a steampunk element to this game? I’m starting to think so. Seeing the Oracle jerk around as it “talked” to me (through the chat box) was a little unnerving. In a good way.

Like the Ultima games, SOTA gives you a handful of hypothetical situations and you choose which response your character would take. It’s a neat little bit of immersive roleplaying, although ultimately it just funnels you into one of three class archetypes (bow, sword, or magic user) and then lets you choose a different one if you aren’t happy with the pick.

The game strongly recommended that I went with bow, since that was the most finished area. Nothing like having a game shoo you away from its messy rooms to impress you with its accomplishments.

s6

I bucked the game and went with magic user anyway. After that, I walked up the hill and went into mini-Stonehenge to head down to the world proper. Nothing much to say about this other than it was quite pretty.

s7

OK, this got a laugh, and not in an intentional way. A literal “under construction” sign in a tutorial area? Are we visiting a GeoCities website in 1997?

It’s even funnier with the sign juxtaposed with all of the dead bodies scattered about. I can imagine some imp hobbling along with a pump, inflating the corpses so that they stand up and start waving.

Early access bites games in the butt, period.

I have made no secret that I am not a fan of this “era of early access” that we seem to be in, both in MMOs and general gaming. It’s starting to bite games in the butt and I think that studios are blind to the damage it’s causing in their pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Let me first say that my feelings on the matter are not directed toward the trend of increased open development and communication on behalf of the studios. I actually think that’s pretty great and I’ve been enjoying seeing the studios more open about the development process and fostering a stronger community through it.

But this early access thing? It’s gone from being a sporadic fad to having its own section on Steam, which means it’s now entrenched and The Way Things Are Done. And I can’t see anything but more negative than positive arising from it.

My main beef with early access can be summed up in four points:

  1. It’s letting the judgey crowd in way, way too early, which means that people will formulate opinions (that are very hard to change) and share testimonies based on the game in its most incomplete state. It’s not good word-of-mouth for the title, is what I’m saying.
  2. It’s a blatant attempt for studios to get a payday for a product that is still in the making, which is ridiculous. I used to think that paying to get into a beta was silly, but now we’re past the looking glass into a truly bizarre wonderland. Propped up by these sales, studios have less financial incentive to get a good product done in a reasonable time frame.
  3. It’s absolutely stealing any excitement and publicity from the game’s eventual release. You hear that “early access is the new launch” and it’s totally true. We make a big deal when a game hits early access, but when that game eventually crosses the barrier to an official release, no one will care. It’ll be old news, an old game, and the studio will lose a valuable opportunity to sell the game to a wider audience than early adopters.
  4. It’s pressuring interested players into making a decision to either play the game now in an incomplete state or to get left behind waiting for launch as others play and talk about it.

Of course, there are always exceptions to point to, and I won’t deny that games like Minecraft and ARK have benefited greatly by letting audiences into the alpha, pre-alpha, early access, or whatever you’re calling it. Project Gorgon has built solid word-of-mouth by keeping its (non-paid) alpha open to all.

But every other day we’re getting notices of early access, as if this is the golden ticket to ensuring a success, and it’s going to end poorly, mark my words. Look at Landmark, for example. Now, there’s a lot of reasons why Landmark is completely bombing right now, but the fact that Daybreak pushed it out the door of early access years ago really didn’t help. People who were possibly interested in the game checked it out for a month and then, upon finding a buggy and incomplete game, wandered away, ne’er to return. The launch, when it came, was about as exciting as trying to light soggy fireworks. It was a non-event followed by savage Steam reviews (again, other factors such as the backlash about EverQuest Next must be considered here).

I’m also starting to develop an eye condition due to how many times I’ve been rolling mine over Shroud of the Avatar. If you haven’t heard — or don’t really follow the title — this spiritual successor will be sort-of-but-not-really launching next month with Release 32. Character and data persistence is going to be turned on with no further wipes planned and the game is already taking money, so this is launch in any sense of the definition except for the fact that the game is not in a launch state. It’s still early access. It’s still alpha or whatever.

So Portalarium is trying to make a big deal out of the launch while throwing its hands up and going, “Whoa WHOA this isn’t launch! Don’t say it’s launch! Don’t treat it as launch! But get excited about it!” and general confusion over it reigns supreme. Once again, early access has made a muddled mess out of what used to be the clear-cut lines dividing an online game’s testing period and its launch state. It’s ridiculous because early access can also be the new “you can’t criticize this, it’s still in beta!” argument we used to see. Oh sure, the game is sort-of launched, but you can’t lob criticisms at it, it’s still in development don’t you know?

Silliness.

Studios, stop trying to make a fast buck on early adopters. Have your limited alpha tests, sure. Build that community. But don’t flip the switch for a launch — no matter what you call it — until you’ve got something that’s worthy of being called that.

Shroud of the Avatar: Lost and bewildered

My days of being highly enthusiastic about sitting down to learn an entirely new system, product, software, or game have receeded into the distance in my life, along with my free time. I’ve found that I’m a LOT more impatient now when it comes to wanting to know how to do something right away. Fortunately, most MMOs are easy enough to pick up if you’ve played others, but there are a few outliers, and Shroud of the Avatar is kind of one.

Sure, there’s enough that’s familiar to allow me some measure of navigation, but it’s not 100% WoW compatible (if that’s a term). The combat system is… weird and hinky and will take some understanding. As will the character builds. And the crafting. And all of the other little touches that are meant to get back to a roleplayer’s world but are sometimes inconvenient.

What I really need to do is carve out a swath of time to play SOTA and nothing but, to REALLY learn this game and not just dabble in it. Of course, that thought comes about the time when every other MMO on the planet has dropped some major update, so this imaginary swath might be a long time coming. I suppose that’s okay; SOTA isn’t planning to launch until later this year, if that.

ac1I had to roll up a new character due to the newest release. My goal is to futz around enough so that I can hopefully do the Release 17 tour (and get my fez hat!) before Release 18 comes about.

I didn’t notice the above tutorial tip the first time I went through this. Huh. So you’re saying that looting dead bodies might have a consequence? INTERESTING. I like it when a game doesn’t take standard mechanics for granted.

ac2Water graphics, you… aren’t quite there yet. That’s a nice way of saying that you U-G-L-Y. It’s like wading into mediocrity.

I guess one of the changes that came with this update is that to leave the tutorial, you no longer have a convenient glowing portal, but have to take a hidden boat. Boat it is!

ac3NPCs apparently are more complex than mindless questgivers and vendors. For starters, you don’t know their names until you ask, after which the game will show their name instead of a generic description. Also, according to the help window, NPCs will react to you based on your various virtues and decisions. I can’t lie, this is pretty cool, although I want to see it in action. Reminds me a bit of what they were angling for in Ultima X Odyssey, with the virtue choices and whatnot.

ac4After selling off the rusty swords I looted from those skellies, I bumped into this clockwork man, whom I correctly assumed to be the tour guide. Also, that was its name. He mentions a half-dozen places that I have to visit and find the other tour guides in order to win that dorky hat. Ohh, I want it bad. So bad.

ac5This happened. Killed it. Dressed it. I am such the woodsman.

I have to say, the most disorienting thing about SOTA is the complete lack of a radar or easily accessible in-game map. Sure, I have three maps in my inventory, but none of them are for where I’m at. I’m afraid to wander far and get lost, and I really want to methodically explore this town.

Wait, after looking closer, one of the maps — Braemar — is for where I’m at, even though my compass says Soltown. That’s not confusing at all. According to the map, only four of the buildings are the actual computer town, while the rest of the structures are player housing. Well, four is better than forty for a start.

ac6The local tavern is a warm familiar-type place, so I hang out in here for a bit, people-watching. Lots of weird masks. The barmaid doesn’t have any quests other than the quest to sell me drinks. I’m poor, so no thanks.

ac7A chamber pot! Even in SOTA, you gotta take bio breaks.

ac8Time to blow this one-stoplight town. Feels like there should be quests to do, but I can always come back.

ac9Here’s another example of SOTA’s breaking from the MMO norms: it’s overworld map. When you leave an area, you appear on this map where you can physically move between points of interest (and see others running around too). It’s kind of neat but does make the world feel more fragmented.

ac10You can also get attacked on the map, Final Fantasy-style. Thanks for the free XP, wolves!

Shroud of the Avatar: Welcome back, Avatar!

sh1The desire to check out Shroud of the Avatar’s been growing in importance to me over the past couple of months, if nothing else than seeing how much SOTA has going on with its community these days. I’m not normally a beta guy, nevermind a pre-alpha peeker, but if there are already dev-led events and player gatherings, then it looked to me to be more than just a mere test. Besides, out of all of the crowdfunded projects, SOTA has been speaking to me as the MMO that I’d most like to try.

I was never big into the Ultima series (or even that aware of it), nevermind Ultima Online. But people speak so highly of the creativity and actual roleplay of those worlds that I didn’t want to miss out on this spiritual successor. So yesterday I used my allowance to grab a copy and take a few timid steps into this “construction zone” (as the loading screen warns).

sh2The opening movie has a strong Ultima vibe, blurring reality and game fiction as it posits that you — the gamer — have somehow accessed this fantasy land for real. I love how the movie assumes that you’d be surfing Richard Gariott’s Facebook page as part of your nightly excursions. That is not creepy at all. No sirree.

Cheezy movie aside, can I say that I am in love with the music already? So cheery, so renaissance faire-like. I’ve had the character creation theme looping while writing this portion and I haven’t gotten sick of it yet.

sh3Here’s my test character. The character creator is decent but not astounding. There’s about a half-dozen hair styles, two genders, and a while lot of sliders for facial features — and that’s it. Still looks nicer than I’d have assumed.

sh5Here I am moments after entering the game. The lighting is nice — not great, but again better than I would have thought. How low are my expectations for these indie games again?

sh4There’s definitely a heavy old-school vibe going on with SOTA, and I’m not just talking about older MMOs. Right from the start, you have to actually type replies to NPCs. Whaaa? Where’s my brightly colored dialogue wheel with mood icons? Anything more complicated than a Denny’s menu, I can’t handle it (just kidding).

I like these immersive touches but I’m a little worried that it’s going to be so foreign as to be off-putting. For example, I dig how you actually drag objects from the world into your inventory, but I am not thrilled with the camera controls or the laggy movement. It’s functional, just not great right now.

And the combat? I don’t even know where to start. The tutorial tells you to go up to a training dummy and hack away for a while, but it’s not intuitive at all. There are several skills that won’t light up and my character doesn’t automatically scoot forward a couple steps when I target the object in order to get within range. When I do get close enough and find a skill that lets me swing, the sound effects… phew. Well, this is pre-alpha, right? Everything I write here has to have that caveat, because these are the most pathetic sword sounds I’ve heard since the IBM PC-Jr from the mid-80s. It’s like someone crushing a small turtle. Pfft. Pfft.

One thing that did please me greatly, however, is that my inventory not only had a full manual but also a guide to player-run events. Like, a multi-page book FULL of dates and events for that month. Egads, SOTA is hopping with stuff.

sota1I’m a fencer!

Oh here’s a little tip: “Z” is the button that takes you from non-combat mode to combat, which is important since you have different hotbars for each. Also, when you’re in non-combat mode, you heal up faster.

Not to keep picking on the sounds, but they don’t even sync up to combat actions, which makes them all the more noticable.

sota2OK, getting more of a grip on combat. One skill to inflict a bleed, one to help me dodge, one to do two quick attacks. Skeleton, you are toast!

While the skelly doesn’t drop loot, I discover that the corpses all around me have some gold on them. When I click to loot, their bodies jerk in a disturbing way that I think is meant to represent me moving them… but it comes off as “oh my goodness, you’re alive! No wait, that was a death spasm.”

solaceThe (temporary) tutorial quickly over, I’m ported to Soltown to begin my proper multiplayer adventures in a much more lush setting. I’m glad I’m taking my time to poke around the settings and controls, because I do feel that I’m a little more steady on my feet than I was at the start. Now what? The game told me to find a guard, but I might have to go exploring.