Richard Garriott talks candidly about his next big thing: Shroud of the Avatar

After literally being to space and back, Lord British is returning to his roots. Legendary game designer Richard Garriott is developing a new online role-playing game, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues for his game company Portalarium. Garriott debuted the new online game in Austin, Texas during SXSW 2013. It happens to be his home town, and he's returning home in more ways than one with Shroud of the Avatar. The creator of the Ultima franchise has experimented with social games recently, but now he’s on a quest to push the RPG genre into new directions. Lord British talks about his new game, which is being backed by a Kickstarter campaign, in this exclusive interview.

Game On: How have you seen crowd funding companies like Kickstarter impact the game industry?

Garriott: Large publishers will always exist. Even though each time there’s a major upheaval, like going from solo player to massively multiplayer, to social media, to mobile, it allows new major companies to come into existence. EA for solo games, I would argue Blizzard and NcSoft for MMOs, companies like Rovio for mobile; those were all opportunities that came up with each of these upheavals. But none of those upheavals really supported independent development for very long. They allow new companies to come into existence during the turmoil, but then the channel quickly gets bought up again. Crowd funding is a way to remain independent longer. It allows studios like my own to really serve the customers, more than the investors.

How do you hope to push the RPG genre forward with this new game?

I hope that we can do some great, innovative work on how to get rid of talking to everybody with an exclamation point over their head, follow every quest log until the options are done, and follow the arrows on the maps until you reach your destination. I’m hoping we can bust clean away from that and yet provide enough guidance to where people aren’t just lost in the world, but they’re still free to follow the path and the life that they want to follow in this world, not the quest log’s description of what they should do.

How are advances in technology impacting this new endeavor?

The great thing about the moment we’re in right now with gaming is that the tools and engines that we use, which even five and especially ten or more years ago were very difficult to lean upon as a solution to build a game on top of, we’re now building on top of Unity. It’s perhaps the best example of how a tool suite can really take the creative process, where I think my personal skill and forte lies, and free us to manifest our vision quickly.

Richard Garriott

The ability to prototype quickly and then come up with permanent, long-term solutions quickly in a well-developed engine like Unity is one of the great powers that is taking games forward. We’re finally approaching that stage in games where the tools and technology that we use to make them, is becoming a commodity, something you can rely on. You don’t have to spend half your money and half your time developing that backbone just for the one game that you’re about to develop.

What will Ultima fans like about this new game?

I think that Ultima fans will find this game very familiar. It has a top-down outdoor travel mode and a close-end 3D exploration mode that harkens back very much to the early Ultima games. It has a detailed rich story, very much like a solo Ultima, but it’s multiplayer. You can party with your friends ad hoc. If your friend is online and you are at the same time, you will see each other in the game. You’ll travel together, fight together, explore and discover together, so it will have an impact. You can also both homestead. You can both buy homes and build them side by side if you wish, or in separate towns if that’s your preference. Ultima players will find plenty of familiarity with things that hopefully they enjoyed in the past. I also hope they’ll find a few fresh ideas and see some of the innovative new things we’re doing for this next generation of role-playing game.

Can you talk about the story in Shroud of the Avatar?

The world map that we’re launching is really the first of five episodes. It’s the center tile of a 3 x 3 area that will slowly unfold. You will discover your purpose through the first couple of episodes, and then ultimately rise to the challenge and resolve the story in the final and fifth episode.One of the things that’s key to the way I’m developing this game, which goes back to what I think is some of the best attributes of the Ultima series I developed, is the bad guys aren’t just waiting around at the end of the game for you to come and become powerful enough to knock them off.

Instead, they already are laying siege to one town after another looking for something, which is one of the first big mysteries of the game. Why is it? What are they looking for? What is their purpose?  Other than to be dastardly and mean to people, why is it they are specifically laying siege to these towns? Instead of taking them over and holding them, once they have looted the town looking for something, they then move on to the next. There’s a deeper mystery going on there as to what the bad guys are doing. It makes them feel truly sinister and gives you a reason to dislike them.

What’s the world that players will explore going to be like?

While the foundation of the world is traditional medieval sword and sorcery, akin to my earliest work in fantasy role-playing, for those who are very hardcore, old Ultima players, they may remember that in Ultimas 1, 2, and 3, I had both medieval and futuristic sci-fi. I even had spaceships you could travel to different planets on; it was basically everything. There was even time travel in Ultima 2. So it was basically everything I thought was cool all shoveled into one game. Since Ultima 4, they’ve been pretty much strictly medieval.

With Shroud of the Avatar we’re trying to tell a story that is a little bit further into the future. So while the foundation and underpinning of the world is still medieval, technology has begun to be discovered. You’re seeing a little bit of the mechanical world come into play, and even electricity has been discovered. A lot of the major towns now are built around energy sources, whether that’s a dam to turn a water wheel, wind to turn some wind mills, or geothermal to have steam to run a turbine. With those engines or those turning mechanisms, they’re able to generate a little bit of electricity, which begins to do a little bit of what we call Protection. If you remember Forbidden Planet, it's sort of like that little protective fence around the enclave. Some cities are actually relatively protected against the invasions of evil, where people might want to homestead first, but some of the best resources might be further out into the wilds where less protection is available.

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