Friday, April 5, 2013

Shroud of the Avatar

I've been following Richard Garriott's launch of a new MMORPG on Kickstarter entitled "Shroud of the Avatar." Garriott explained that they are making the game using the Unity 3D engine, which is cool because that's what we're using at work. I can't really explain how excited I am about his return to fantasy RPG making. A lot of people have been talking about how awesome this is, and for me it is as well. But I have a really unique tie to the game series because it became the basis of my oldest friendship.

When I was in 2nd grade, I met a friend named Mike who was a year ahead of me. We hung out for a bit, but because of the way our school was situated, the 1-3rd grades and 4-6th grades were segregated, and when the year ended, he basically disappeared from my world. I went on, drawing maps and inventory screens during recess on reams of computer paper my mom had brought home from work. Obviously, I was a very popular kid. When I moved up to 4th grade, Mike and I met again in school assembly. We spent the entire time talking about Ultima.

I had been playing Ultima 3: Exodus on my NES, and he was elbow-deep into Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny on his Tandy 1000. Over the course of the assembly (which we both paid no heed to), we became fast friends once again. So it went, that I would spend hours hanging out in his family's downstairs computer room, watching him play Ultima.

We would always switch off playing RPGs. For the most part, I did the heavy lifting of grinding for XP. I also memorized the runic alphabet used in the Ultima games and whenever it appeared in the game, Mike would have me translate it. To this day I can read and write it fluently.

When Ultima Online was in beta, he got in and we played the hell out of that. When the game launched, we both had horses and named them 'Paraguay' and 'Uruguay.' I've always enjoyed coming up with names, especially pets. For instance, my turtles are named Green Tea Mochi Ice Cream, and Walnut Brownie Surprise. I call them "Mochi" and "Walnut" for short.

Recently a friend of mine posted on his Facebook: "Ultima VII or Final Fantasy VII?" At the time, I said "It's a hard choice, but Ultima VII." Looking back, it's actually not a hard choice at all. I love Final Fantasy, but U7 had a book, written from the perspective of one of the characters in the game, that was a kind of 'Lore Guide' for the land. There was a medallion in the box, related to the story of the game. Most of the Ultima games came with trinkets and cloth maps like these, and put you as a player into the world, and cemented the experience with these tangible items.

Aside from that, the writing, the re-occurring characters throughout the series, and the immersive sandbox-style gameplay really stood out to me. These games are amazing. I listened to Metallica's "Master of Puppets" and "Ride the Lightning" while playing U7, and to this day whenever I hear songs from those albums I think of the game. Also: those albums are awesome. All good things surround Ultima when I think of it. Hell, I drive a Nissan Altima... but I wish it were called an Ultima.

Ultima VII had an kickass box. It was a black box with nothing but the title on it. I remember thinking at the time that this was a bold move, especially considering how so many books and games are sold based on their covers. It was very foreboding.

The kickstarter for Shroud of the Avatar ends on Sunday, and while they've already met their funding goal of $1 million, they still have a few stretch goals they're aiming for. One of the pledge tiers they have gives their backers access to original content developed for the game, completely royalty-free. This is great because it gives fans who are aspiring developers the opportunity to learn and use professional assets they wouldn't otherwise have access to.

The game itself has been prototyped using dummy assets bought cheaply on the Unity Asset Store. Using temp assets like this has allowed them to focus on gameplay and story and later they'll replace those assets with more refined art.

They also have a call out to any artists to create content for the game. Portalarium is going to publish a style guide and artists can submit work to be used in the game. If work is selected, they will pay four times the price on the Unity Asset Store, and the player will get the piece of art as a virtual item for free. If their work is not selected, then constructive feedback will be given.

It sounds like a lofty promise, but I think it's a great opportunity for any artists who want to see their work in a major game.

I'm excited to see how the game turns out. I really like MMOs, and I usually try every one that comes out. The game is supposed to dynamically join you with friends so you can play online with small groups of people you know, but still have interactions with strangers. Watching all the live Q&A's has been really inspiring, and it seems like the entire team is a group of people I would definitely hang out with.

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