Rounding out the Kickstarteriest week in gaming history, Richard "Lord British" Garriott has emerged from his castle of silence to reveal his oft-hinted-at Ultima spiritual successor, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. It's chugging along quite nicely, too, already having charmed more than $300,000 (of a hopeful $1,000,000) out of wary wallets in a mere few hours. But how will it actually work? Sure, Garriott's promising he'll essentially combine single-player storylines and sandbox-y MMOs, but what does that entail? I recently met up with the ex-ruler of Britannia himself to see an early prototype of the game in action and find out all about his plans for world-building, questing, combat, real-estate, farming, and duck-economy-despising skeletons. All (and I do mean all) will be revealed after the break.
It's early on a Monday morning, but Richard Garriott greets me with a self-assured smile and a stack of dusty, faded role-playing materials. Cloth maps, old copies of Ultima in ziplock packaging, manuals, and even the sloppily scrawled grade-school paper (Garriott proudly points out that it earned him a “rare A”) that birthed Ultima's now-legendary universe. On one hand, it's quite overwhelming – like I'm in the midst of some mobile museum. I'm staring down PC gaming history made manifest, primordial ooze writ large on unassuming scraps. And it's being fondly rifled through by a man who was at the heart of it all.
On the other hand, however, the whole scene feels so rehearsed. Because honestly, it is. Garriott's got another appointment shortly after me, and I have no doubt he'll give them the same exact spiel, eyes still twinkling like he's cradling a newborn child for the first time in his life.
It's a slightly off-putting juxtaposition of sincerity and what essentially amounts to a sales pitch, but it actually fits what I ended up seeing of Garriott's long-awaited Ultima successor, Shroud of the Avatar, bizarrely well. After all, we're talking about a profoundly old-school-influenced RPG that's – cue up the drum roll and prepare paramedics for injuries caused by terrifying plummets from the edge of your seat – going to Kickstarter. Garriott has to sell me on it, just as he does you and any other diehard fan who might aid his cause.
So he's brought his stack of PC RPG relics and plastered every piece of Shroud promotional material with Lord Britsh's hallowed name, because that's just how the Kickstarter game is played. But I think – or at least, I hope – there's something real underneath it all. Even at Waaaaaaay Too Early For Nathan Grayson 'O' Clock, Garriott's excitement is palpable. And sure, maybe he's just a really good actor, but together, he and his game tell the full tale. Garriott's not thrilled because he stands to make a little extra bank by repackaging his best ideas from yesteryear. Rather, he's getting to pick up precisely where he left off. He can finally move forward.
“It’s been about 15 years since I’ve gone back to my fantasy role-playing game roots in particular,” he tells me. “I think that the industry has evolved and the genre of role-playing games in particular has evolved in a direction that has left a large opening for me. I kind of put role-playing games into two general categories: One I’ll put my work into, which is sort of sandbox realities, where you get invited into this world.
“Not only is there a deep, rich story that unfolds, but also you can do all kinds of things at your own pace, whether that’s to be a shopkeeper or to be an adventurer or to be a blacksmith. They’re all richly detailed ways in which to play in that world. Whereas if you compare that to, say, EverQuest or World of Warcraft, in those games, every player is first and foremost a combatant.”
So Shroud of the Avatar is, in large part, about looking back. But it's not just a slightly-prettier-than-we-remember stroll down memory lane. Garriott wants to push the needle forward as well, but he plans to do it his way – current genre giants be damned. This, in other words, is basically the Next Great Fantasy RPG as imagined by the late-'90s. It won't be a servant to the whims of countless cinema-quality cut-scenes, and it certainly won't hold your hand.
“Anybody who has played the older Ultimas, they’ll get it,” he explains. “But anybody whose time in role-playing games has started with Everquest, or especially if their whole spectrum starts with WoW, then yes, I think they’ll be shocked. 'Where are all my aids to tell me what to do next?' Because we’re not going to tell you what to do next. It’s a real, living, breathing world. You can figure out what to do next.”
Which all sounds very nice, but what's actually new here? Well, the answer to that question lies in Garriott's repeated callbacks to the likes of EverQuest and WoW. Eventually, I wonder aloud about how exactly you'd classify Shroud: as an offline single-player RPG or an MMO? Garriott's answer? Both.
“Ultima 1-9 games were all single-player,” he points out. “Ultima Online and its various iterations have all been massively multiplayer. But I actually think there’s a great opportunity for a game that’s neither one of those. Shroud of the Avatar is a game that first and foremost can be played both offline and online, so it’s a very high-quality story-driven single-player game. That being said, if you are online, it will also search for people you know, by whatever means it can, whether you give us access to your contacts list or your social media connections. We’ll search for people you know and automatically bring them into the purview of your game.”
“You will literally be able to see them walking around in the world with you. You don’t have to party. You don’t have to group. It just happens automatically. So it’s not exactly massively multiplayer. We’re not going to bother putting 10,000 people you don’t know on screen in front of you. But if we can’t find anybody you do know, we will put some people you don’t know on screen in front of you, so the world feels rich and full. But it’s in this interesting line. It’s not, strictly speaking, single-player, but definitely not massively multiplayer.”
But other players won't just be nameless, faceless extras in the background of your epic, multiple-continent-and-episode-spanning quest to defeat someone who Garriott will at this point only reveal is really, really mean. From Shroud's top-down Civilization-esque exploration map, other players will be able to hop into scenarios you've encountered, which will be represented by little flags over locations where battles or, er, gypsy wagon dealings are going down.
Further, since players can devote themselves primarily to non-combat roles like blacksmithing, creature taming, and farming, playing online will yield a partially player-driven economy, with other techno-magic-linked fleshcreatures able to purchase and occupy pieces of real-estate (shops, etc) that'd normally be NPC-owned. Some plots of land, by virtue of location and scarcity, will be more expensive, while others might be more within the price range of those who've yet to become grizzled wads of scar tissue and XP.
The end goal, however, is for all of it to be completely variable. Do you want a fully single-player adventure, like the Ultimas of yore? Go for it. Do you want to hop into a populated world, but largely keep to yourself? It's a viable option. Are you unable to function unless you're protected by the warm, dragon-repelling chain mail that is friendship? Well then, invite real-life compatriots into the game and explore together.
Or at least, Garriott claims all of that will be possible. Watching a single-player demo unfold, however, I'm skeptical. This is, after all, apparently going to be a single truly persistent world, but you'll only have a few hundred players populating your adventure at any given time. “How?” I wonder of the seemingly complicated system. Naturally, I get a very complicated response.
“If you’re thinking of an MMO, there’s 10,000 people on the same map in theory,” Garriott says. “You have a very complex server structure where all 10,000 people have to be shown on the same map. We have a map server that says, 'Here’s the status of this map. If you need it, here it is.' But there’s only, at most, a couple of hundred homesteads on a map. So all we really need to know is who those couple of hundred people are. We tell you and you can run your own client. The client and server are both on your machine, if you follow my meaning.”
“Otherwise it is a single persistent universe. I won’t see a version of a town where you own that corner and he sees a version of the town where someone else owns that corner lot. If you own that corner lot, that is universal.”
Hm. Well, good luck buying a house, I guess.
But let's say you want to fight. Especially if you decide to go full single-player, you'll pretty much have to. Garriott proceeds to pull up an example scenario involving an impoverished farmstead under siege by some truly jerky wolves and outlines Shroud's classless, context-based combat system using the most relevant example possible: modern day military combat.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is avoid more simple, hack-and-slash, Diablo combat. Although I do like that. Nor are we trying to do classic MMO, where there’s a shortcut bar and all you’re really trying to do is figure out your best damage over time.”
“The US military, prior to invading Iraq, would go off and do desert warfare simulations. So how to do desert warfare is fresh in the individual soldier’s mind. In theory they’ve been trained for swamps. In theory they’ve been trained for the desert. But you go simulate the one you’re going to use to bring it back fresh in your mind. We’re doing the same thing with our combat skills. We’ll let you basically create a deck. Out of the pantheon of skills that I’ve learned, here are the things that I’m going to keep close in my mind. Those will show up as available to me at times where it might come to my mind, or where it might be appropriate. For example, if you want to do a first strike, you might need a) to have not done any other combat and b) it might be only useful if the other person is not aware if you’re about to first-strike them.”
Once again, it's a rather confusing-sounding system on paper, and sadly, all Garriott has on hand is a simplified version without any real skills implemented. He notes, however, that it's like a deck in more ways than one, with challenge stemming from the fact that your skill bar won't be fixed. Instead, you'll essentially be drawing hands in the midst of battle, though it'll be semi-contextual as opposed to entirely random.
My brain mostly reformed after churning itself into a sludgy stew over potential logistics of Garriott's claims, we then move into the scenario itself. Unlike the exceedingly complex, potentially fun-obfuscating systems he's described so far, quests aren't attempting to reinvent the wheel. Rather, they're taking Ultima IV's classic set to the chop shop and then giving it the cinder block treatment. Garriott explains while clicking through a sordid tale of hard times, desperate measures, and hilariously antagonistic wildlife:
“Ultimas, especially Ultima IV, tended to watch your behavior, but not tell you how they were watching your behavior. In this little example, I can come over here, and you’ll see that this woman Susan is saying, 'Man, those wolves over there that I just go baying are really scary.' That’s a subtle hint that says, 'Hey, maybe you should go over to help them clear out these wolves.' Once I clear out the wolves and come back over to her, she says, 'Wow, it looks like our luck is turning around. We’ve been having a hard time. Thank you very much for saving us from the wolves. Look, I’d be happy to give you my wedding ring as a reward for helping us out.' Now, I can either take it or not. If you’re purely interested in min-maxing, take it. However, once you realize that I’m watching your behavior, you might not want to. That’s a pretty dang big reward. A bit lopsided and very personal thing for just having gone and axed a couple of wolves for these people.”
“The game is building a profile of what kind of person I am. If you think about most MMOs, or frankly most role-playing games, you’re the hero because it tells you so. You’re going to kill the bad guy who’s waiting for you at the end and generally doesn’t do anything but wait for you to come kill him. We try to do something much different.”
Garriott decides to turn down the reward based on his unflinching moral compass and winning smile. After that, he proceeds to buy a duck from another member of the family, as that's how they butter their stale, moldy scraps of bread. BUT THEN skeletons strike from the forest, because a strong duck economy is in some way detrimental to their existence, I guess? (It is here, once again, that Garriott reminds me this is only a quick mock-up example quest.) So Garriott grinds the bony assailants into a storm of snowy flakes, at which point he's offered the scenario's most optimal reward: a big ol' chest of loot. I briefly question him about a skin-and-bones (perhaps even more so than their skeletal nemeses) family's ability to obtain such a thing, but again: mock-up example.
Regardless, it all seems fairly simplistic at the moment (be a goodie-two-shoes and unlock better boots!), but Garriott insists that he's definitely aiming for something a bit more nuanced.
“Compared to the brute force of a lot of MMOs and a lot of quest systems, there’s no quest log. There’s no exclamations over anybody’s head. There’s no arrows on the map. The right or wrong thing to do is purposefully obfuscated, to where you really do need to think more in-depth about whether it’s really in your best interest and the interest of the people you want to help to do something before you proceed.”
Which is pretty reductionist in the grand scheme of RPGs – or even games – given the recent proliferation of moral choices, many of which aren't even black-and-white anymore. But it all goes back to this unshakable feeling that Garriott's designing as though he never left 1999, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I mean, there's a reason why the most successful crowdfunding drives have made no bones about digging through the bones of Western role-playing's so-called “golden age.” Still though, Garriott's basic philosophy seems primed to yield a game that's got its nose buried deeply in the history books, blind to both the advances and problems of the present - not to mention games like EVE Online and Wurm, which have taken similarly open approaches to the construction of their worlds.
What I find most fascinating, however, is that Shroud of the Avatar is a definite attempt at moving the genre forward. It's just coming from a very different starting point than just about everyone else. I watch as Garriott demonstrates the world's detail by messing around with a fully interactive piano, and I feel like I'm back in the days when our collective utopian vision of Videogame was a massive, meandering place littered with bits and bobs that lit up or flushed or opened when you touched them just because. These heaving canyons of discovery, teeming with secrets for secrets' sake. Childhood.
Gaming's grown up into a very calculated thing. Skyrim, Far Cry 3, and World of Warcraft present colossal “living, breathing worlds” as well, but every system is honed for optimal convenience. You don't hop off the water slide and get back in line. The water slide just leads to another water slide. And another and another and another. Forever. There are obvious benefits to that approach (It's compulsive fun! Also, hello, multi-billion dollar industry), but the goal is no longer to emulate our reality. Instead, we idealize it until it's just a series of robotically intertwining reward loops.
Garriott, then, is charting a course to a missing link in gaming's evolution. What would've happened if we'd picked up right where Ultima left off instead of following the Knights of The Old Republics and Elder Scrolls of the world into a more willfully “game-y” tomorrow? For better or worse, we're about to find out.
“With Ultima IV, I wanted this to be you in a virtual world,” Garriott concludes. “You’re not puppeteering Conan the Barbarian. This is you. That’s why I did research on the Hindu belief in the concept of a deity’s projection into the real world being an avatar. I said, 'This is your projection into the virtual world, so it’s your avatar.'”
“Whether it’s the word 'avatar,' whether it’s a box, whether it’s role-playing games at all, whether it’s massively-multiplayer games, I think I can lay a pretty good claim to having built a bunch of the standards. There’s many firsts that this series of role-playing games I’ve written was able to establish. With the new game, my goal is to do it again.”
And then he packs up his books, papers, and boxes and walks away. A man carrying his past.
Check back early next week for a massive interview on Shroud of the Avatar's episodic structure, the game's story and world, the lack of an endgame, why this isn't an Ultima title, EA's own Ultima IV successor, and the trans-dimensional Lord British family tree.