⚔️ Abandoning Shroud of the Avatar
Come gather round my friends. Sit by the fire and have a hearty mug of ale. Let me regale you with a tale of deception, treachery, lies, deceit, vanity and ego. It happened right here, in these lands, not that many years ago…
Like so many others, I had huge excitement over Shroud of the Avatar and joined the Kickstarter campaign without hesitation. I was a big fan of the Ultima series, with Ultima III, IV, and V being my personal favorites. They were interesting and unique for their time, and great single player adventure games.
Ah, the joys of playing single player games on the Apple II.
The Kickstarter had a company startup atmosphere with the community getting a glimpse behind the scenes of the people making the game, the studio, and key players. It felt very close knit and kept the excitement going.
Of course, the more people that joined Kickstarter, and thus the more money they collected, the more outrageous the promises of what the game could deliver became. If you give us money, we’ll give you this…
But still, in came the pledges. Out came the outrageous stretch goals.
Finally, there was much rejoicing as the campaign not only met the original goal, but doubled it.
The game was going to be massive. It was going to be an epic experience, pulling in the best elements of previous Ultima’s and bringing in MMO specific mechanics. The adventure would begin where Ultima Online left off.
Then reality set in.
When we got the first build it was clear that Garriott and his team had no idea what they were doing. This wasn’t a game close to completion with the $2 million Kickstarter money bringing in the final touches and server machines powerful enough to host everyone. No, what we got was an absolutely, hardly playable, not even ready as a demo, alpha build.
It was hot garbage.
Make no mistake, I know how software is developed. I’ve been on teams building apps and websites from the ground up. I’ve been testing software for decades. Shroud was a mess.
The combat mechanics were terrible. The NPCs were dead and lifeless. Quests made no sense and were broken after step 2. The story was non-existent. There wasn’t a shred of cohesion in what they were building.
During that Kickstarter, it was presented that Shroud was a year away from completion, at least the first “episode” and the main area of work was the backend, to put the O in MMO. You got the impression the engine was done, and everything was in place to drop in the graphics and let players see the game.
That was clearly not the case as they obviously didn’t have a line of code written before starting Kickstarter.
Ok fine, there was a misunderstanding and Shroud needs more work before it’s complete. We were placated with an inside look at the studio, design session, and Live Streams talking about how great the game was and how much progress they’d made. I’m pretty sure everyone loved seeing Stephen Daniele work.
The team used smoke and mirrors and the promise of “rare” hats to keep people from taking up pitchforks while they scrambled to build a game loop.
Those hats are “rares” and will be worth something one day. Don’t lawyer me bro.
Make no mistake, they were still raking in money through monthly telethons, each one pulling in around $100k. And the more you donated, the more ridiculous shit you got! Let’s make flaming butterfly wings!
It became obvious that Shroud was willing to sell anything to anyone for a price-bigger plots of land, towns, pets, plants, clothes, dyes, and real world money for digital houses.
They were now spending huge amounts of time making these damn telethon trinkets instead of the game. I’ll get right on the game mechanics, after I finish the lava hot tub.
During this, the Shroud community forum began to grow and became a toxic cesspool. People complained about everything. What they didn’t complain about, they argued over. Every comment, idea, feature request, or improvement turned into a childish debate. Every question got answered with a litany of requests for justification.
Along with the constant, petty bickering, it was obvious there were favorites, and the more money you handed over, the more of a favorite you became. The game direction clearly changed because certain people and their guilds handed over sacks of cash. It became the “whale” problem, which itself led to petty debates, idiotic justifications, and petulant behavior.
That aside, everyone in the forum wanted “their” game. They pledged money so they should get certain mechanics, abilities, or the story should be shaped a certain way. When they didn’t get their way, they stomped their feet and went on childish tirades. Hundreds of forum posts either started with or ended with, “This breaks my immersion.” I put money into this game, my feature needs to get implemented before yours!
It took years to get to a persistent world where progress got saved and character development wouldn’t be wiped out. And then the endless, mind numbing grind began. The lack of game design was evident.
The “skill tree” is a convoluted mess where it takes real life weeks to grind levels to gain a 0.1% increase. It was also obvious they didn’t think through the level progression and how long it would take to release the game as thousands of people, myself included, obtained dozens of Grand Master, Level 100 skills, before hitting the end of episode 1. People maxed out all their skills before the game came out of Early Access.
From the days of old, Level 99 was the pinnacle, making you an unbeatable force. It was actually an Int issue where the next level would be 00 again. There was nothing more to learn, no new skills to max, you had it all. Even with Diablo II, one of the greatest D&D styled games ever made, 99 was the highest level across 5 Acts.
Not in Shroud, they just added Level 101, and said screw the GM moniker. The moniker which showed up next to your name for other players to envy. It also meant other players gained XP from your GM skill simply by being in the awesomeness of your presence. But, in reality, it was utterly pointless. So, by the end of Episode 5, your character is level 500? 600? Grand Poobah Uber Master +3? That’s just dumb.
It took 8 years to develop Episode 1, the amount of time they originally said it would take to release the entire series, Episodes 1-5. That’s 8 years of development to create 40 hours of game play. I don’t see how you can complete Shroud in 40 hours without cheating, help, or knowing the exact location of all the items ahead of time. It’s too vague and far too grinding. No one is ever going to speed run Shroud.
Reality was, people had invested over 2000 hours in Episode 1 and had completely overwhelmed and destroyed the game mechanics. They’ve taken so long to get the game out, players crashed into every ceiling. Their stats were off the charts. They maxed everything, with devastating results.
Well, just fix the problem by adding creatures that are 100x stronger. Give it 50,000hp and call the problem solved. No, don’t increase the difficulty of the scene based on the number of people in a party or their level of badassery, just throw in Uber mobs that make no damn sense. They’ll be so distracted in trying to kill it, it’ll buy us some time.
Nice scaling and balance.
Further, in those 8 years, the game was nothing like the Kickstarter marketing. Most ideas had to be scrapped because they didn’t think the idea through before speaking. Conversely, some rewards were so shit they didn’t last 10 minutes.
Take the Founders Armor, where players would get a “head start” by having upgraded weapons and armor. It would also designate that player as a Backer of the game. That armor was so marginal as to be useful for about 10 minutes before being put aside and never used again. Plus, it looked like ass.
Haha! A normal sword has a damage of 3, this magnificent Founder Sword has a damage of 3.1! Although it does swing slower so you’ll take more damage by using it.
Other ideas turned out to be a total disaster. One simple point, the dead and useless property vendors.
If you pledge at this level you get your own tax free vendor to sell all your fabulous goods!
Oh, that will be so cool! It’ll be so f-ing rich!
Except it’s pointless. First, you have to know where a vendor is. Next, you have to check each one. Vendors can’t see merchandise from other vendors, and there is no centralized list, so you have to check each one individually. Unless I specifically stumble on your plot of land, and take the time to look at what your vendor is selling, I will never see what you have for sale. When you add a new item to your vendor, I’ll be oblivious unless I remember who you are, where you are, and trudge all the way across the map to find you again.
This is one example among dozens of ideas that totally flopped when they tried to implement them in a system they never ironed out.
The community driven economy is the biggest folly and greatest downfall of Shroud. It’s an interesting idea, and players being able to craft the best weapons in the game sounds quite tempting. However, when you go up against and defeat characters that are levels above you and get a reward of shoddy sword, you get kind of pissed at the game. If you want decent items, you have to learn the recipe, grind for ingredients, and make them yourself, the game will vomit out garbage loot every time.
Since you can’t find player loot, the game needs to generate some decent items to keep people interested and grinding. It doesn’t, so the game is an Epic Fail in the loot department. This Tier 5 bandit dropped a rusty sword, thanks…
What was one of the main draws to Diablo and Diablo II? People would happily grind for days in the quest for epic loot. People loved see what the game rolled. Some of those “set” items were awesome.
Shroud went on Kickstarter with a mere kernel of an idea. Less than 1% of the game was fleshed out, only that it was the spiritual successor to Ultima. The rest would be bolted on while flying by the seat of their pants.
It’s also obvious the game has no development or story direction. Story elements were added on a whim, then left for dead. Characters were introduced, never to be written about again. Story ideas were presented then forgotten. Quest lines totally fizzled with one dead end idea after another, not to mention story elements that contradict each other. Help the elves. No, slaughter the elves and bring me their scalps!
Yes, history is written by the winners, and you can have contradicting story elements, but this is piss poor and sloppy writing, not the use of clever historical viewpoints.
Garriott and Starr felt they could turn over the story elements to the community by throwing out the term sandbox. They got Tracy Hickman to get the ball rolling, but where is he now? He spewed out that first Blade of the Avatar book, another bungled pledge reward by the way, and then distanced himself from Shroud.
We’ll give you this limited edition, expertly bound, keepsake book. Nevermind, we don’t have the money to keep our promise, here’s a PDF, that’s close enough.
You can place items on the ground, it’s a sandbox!
You can write it books and make your own adventures so we don’t have to!
You can write your own NPC dialog, because we don’t know how!
Having players write and contribute their own stories to the lore is pretty cool, when it works. I wrote hundreds of stories regaling people with my awesome, misguided adventures. That’s no substitute for the developers doing it properly.
The story and dialog that did make it into Shroud was atrocious. It was broken, had missing links, plot holes, copy/paste errors, didn’t respond correctly, or concluded the wrong way. All this despite using the tool Inkle, that’s used to develop other story driven games by studios that know what they’re doing.
That’s part of the problem, even though Portalarium is using off the shelf dev tools used to make hundreds of other games, nothing worked correctly for Shroud. Hundreds of studios use Unity, except Shroud can’t make it work. Inkle is used in dozens of games, even ones published at the same time as Shroud, but they can’t make it work. It’s good enough for players to follow the docs and write stories and make awesome adventures, but it’s not working for the devs on the main story.
Along with that, they hired people that were cheap rather than good. This dev team, including and especially Garriott, don’t have the chops or design skills to make an RPG let alone MMORPG.
Mind you, some of those guys were awesome. Stephen and a couple of the level designers were great, but they’re gone now. In fact, everyone is gone. But the fact remains, they were in over their heads.
They aren’t using tools, they’re doing everything by hand. Building worlds in other games takes minutes, even seconds, using procedures and algorithms. Diablo had dungeons that randomly generated every time.
Shroud devs place items on a grid, block by block. I’ll make a volcano by placing every rock by hand! Even the iPad game generate random worlds.
Let’s also note that Garriott is rehashing tropes from 20 years ago. He’s stealing obvious elements from movies and TV, like he did when he was 18. In the 80s that was mildly funny, even eccentric. Now it looks cheap and cliche as hell. You can’t come up with your own ideas?
On top of that, the game puzzles, which have now become the staple when they run out of ideas, don’t make any sense. You come across something in the game and literally stop in your tracks and ask, “Why the hell would anyone build something this stupid?”
None of the puzzles are clever, interesting, or fun either. All you have to do is look at the end game quest against a dragon that reads off riddles stolen from the Internet. It’s pathetic. That’s what $2 million in pledges and $100k during telethons buys you?
In reality, Shroud of the Avatar is a total shit show. It’s a game cobbled together without direction or leadership. It’s a game that’s collapsed under the ego, pedantic behavior, and squabbling of its developers and community. Everyone wanted their game element implemented and threw a fit when it didn’t happen. It’s a game of broken promises behind the catchphrase, “Don’t lawyer me bro.”
Here we are 10 years later, so let’s take a tally.
I would say 95% of the original backers of the game, people like me, have left Shroud and did so years ago. That void hasn’t been filled by new players. Over 100,000 people registered on the Shroud site, if there are 3,000 people left playing I would be stunned.
Almost the entire original team, including Garriott himself, have left.
Neither Garriott’s name nor Lord British appear on the game.
The game and all assets were transferred like a dirty diaper.
Portalarium doesn’t exist, and some documents suggest maybe it never did.
Even at Free to Play, no one is playing.
In summary, there is no reason to care about Shroud of the Avatar. There is nothing unique, interesting, or innovative in anything they’ve brought to the table. It’s a dull and boring game with over complicated mechanics that drive people to rage quit. It’s not even an adventure game, it’s Medieval Sims, and a lackluster ripoff of that. There’s nothing to make you care about the game, the characters, or the story. Hell, I doubt people can even explain what the story of Shroud is.
At this point, I play the game for less than 10 minutes a month, the amount of time it takes to log into the slow ass servers, wait for the graphics to render, pay the property rent and wait for the funds to show up. I have no interest or patience to play any longer, even though I invested heavily with an in-game town and multiple properties, all of which cost me a small fortune.
In fact, I’ve decided not to log in any more. Even that small time investment isn’t worth going through. There is no point in logging in to pay the rent on a property no one will ever see, in a town no one will ever visit.
I could literally write a book on how bad this game is, all the flaws, all the pointless design decisions. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone does. Through the Moongate was close, but wimped out before dealing with Shroud.
With the money I wasted on this game, I should have bought a Mac Studio instead.
When Shroud was announced, it was the talk of the Internet. Lord British was back and gaming sites flocked to cover this new chapter in the tale of Ultima. Fan sites by the hundreds popped up with people discussing the game, showing off videos, and showcasing their towns.
Today, they’re all offline. That’s the legacy for Shroud of the Avatar and Richard Garriott.
I will never support Richard Garriott in any business venture. He’s ruined his reputation, proven he’s a terrible business manager, that the debacle of Tabula Rasa really was his fault, and he’s taken a giant shit all over his Ultima legacy. H’s ripped off tens of thousands of people and won’t miss a wink of sleep.
Beware, Garriott is at it again with another game based on the exact same failures of Shroud, this time using the concept of NFT MMO.