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80.lv had a chat with the legendary game designer Richard Garriott (Ultima, Ultima Online). Over the last few years Richard has been working on a new online RPG Shroud of The Avatar. We’ve discussed this project and talked about the advantages of Unity and UGC.
What stage of development is Shroud of the Avatar on?
We are now on the home stretch we think. We’re at release 15, which mean for 15 months now we’ve been releasing every month for every 3rd week of the month the latest and greatest version. For the last four months, we’ve actually kept the servers live and operational 24 hours a day 7 days a week. We think that we’re about 80% systems complete. All the major systems are in but a lot of them need to be finished out. Maybe half the spells are in, half the skills are in, and a similar amount of the recipes have been plugged into the crafting system. But all those systems are now present (well most of them). The things that’s going to take us the longest, close to the end of the year, are creating maps and the NPCs that advance the story throughout the game. Technically since all the systems still aren’t present and all the maps aren’t present, we aren’t even at the alpha but we are close.
You had a very nice Kickstarter campaign and you worked extensively with the community. So you can you tell us how the community affects the game development and how do these two things work? Sometimes gamers give you ideas that just don’t work with your game.
Well in fact you’re right. As you obviously understand, first of all you’ll get completely different opinions. People will suggest all kinds of ideas that aren’t possible. However, if you have hundreds of thousands of people paying attention, someone out there is going to have a good idea. The quality of ideas that are good, or the number of really good ideas has vastly exceeded what I would have ever expected to come out of it.
Let me give you the story of how we got to this fairly deep community involvement that we now have. We went for a $1 million dollar Kickstarter and we raised $2 million, within 2 or 3 months of that we raised another $2 million, and since then we’ve raised another $2 million. Now we’re up to $6 million dollars in crowdfunding. And so as soon as we did that (game development is hard and in theory we can fail) we thought as soon as we can get it in the players hands, as a defensive move, we want to publish the game to them. Even if it’s just an avatar on the map because at least now we’re providing entertainment to people who’ve entrusted us with their money. And it lets them see what we’re doing so if they like it or don’t they can comment on it. Frankly, we were doing it for defensive reasons to be honest. However, what happened is since we’re shipping every month, if we start a new system like how a monster AI might work, players see it as soon as the AI programmer has just put his first few weeks of time into it. And so players can immediately react and say, “oh I see where this is headed, I really like it, here’s some ideas.” It’s that or they say, “I see where this is headed, I really don’t like it, please stop.” It’s long before we finish the system. The first thing we’re doing is we’re wasting less time because we’re not doing things people don’t want and the community helps steer us to the things they do want.
So you’re testing all the time? Does the community help you to test the game and throw out bad ideas?
All the time. So that was the first part. That would have been enough. But there’s things they do that goes far beyond that. My favorite case is the radio that’s in the game. Completely independent of us, some of the community members got together and they made a web radio station. Avatarsradio.com. You can go there and listen to people there, music, modern music, music from the game and people talking about the game on this internet radio station. Well Then Another group saw that and said wouldn’t it be nice to have an object in the game that can broadcast that radio station? To which we said, it’s a nice idea but we’re never going to get around to it because we have got more than enough to do ourselves. So that community got together and made the 3D arts that would fit within the Unity engine including animations. They also wrote the code that would also work within unity that would capture streams from that radio station or any other web station and stream it into this little radio.
They handed it to us as a package and they said all we have to do is compile it. So we had to make a few fix-ups but not much and we put that radio in the game. The interesting thing about that is not only was the community conceived, community built the art, community wrote the code, but now how it’s used. Almost every bar or pub has one of these radio stations in the game as a social hang out, so there’s parties and events all the time in the game (social events). There’s groups that put on plays, and whenever they put on plays they set the radio on the stage so that their actors can actually speak with voice into the game. They all get together on teamspeak channel and they pipe into the radio. That way when they’re putting on plays you actually hear the real actors saying with their real voice as their character in the game is doing the acting. It’s fantastic. Whenever there is PvP battles there’s commentators that come on and all these things are happening all conceived by, created by, coded by the community.
How many players do you have right now?
So we have 150,000 people who signed up, 50,000 people who’ve already made their purchase, and the number of people who are actively playing at any moment is already at the hundreds even on work days during alpha.
We’ve been reading your developer diaries and there were times when you said players created whole dungeons and all you had to do was import it into the game and it works.
Right and again, that’s another amazing thing for Unity and the community of developers that exist. A lot of our first art we got from the community was from the Unity Asset Store and some of it wasn’t up to AAA quality. If you’re looking at a horse as a case study, this is a fictitious example, but if we say we buy a horse it might have been designed for a more cartoony game or a game where the horse would be seen from farther away. So when we use the best horse we can find, the skeletal animations might not be right, and the polygons might not be right.
But since it was close would buy one and fix it up ourselves and use it but we would also give it back to the community. Because we only bought it for 25 bucks and it was so cheap compared to what it would take us to make it, the fact we made it better we’re thinking if it’s any use to you please make more money than 25 bucks off of it, and we’re so thankful that we only had to pay that. And we do that for all the dungeon sets we buy and anything else. People make dungeon sets and often miss a joint, a T-joint because they are not using it to make the game. So we take that, fix it up, and give it back. Now the same community of artists and world builders that are out there building the stuff that we’re leaning on, are using that stuff to build bigger and bigger scenes and so we’re finding that they are building things that they submit to us that often are not just clever dungeons or spaces but they are doing all these special effects that we never thought of or had known or found in Unity. We take parts and pieces to continue to reform and improve the world.
Would you say that user generated content right now improves the game and makes the development faster?
By far. I actually think Unity has and the community around Unity has easily saved us around 30% in team size, total costs, and total time. All 3 of those things.
The game will be released around this year or next year?
Right at the cusp of the end of the year, we’re not sure if it’s in the year or out of the year but right around the end of the year is when it will go completely final.