Richard Garriott’s ‘Shroud of the Avatar’ Puts Storylines in a Sandbox Videogame

The giant online role-playing game will put players through personal narratives with a wide array of potential outcomes

(Image: Shroud Of The Avatar)

Richard Garriott, the game designer behind Ultima, the videogame series that first launched in 1981 and defined much of gamers’ expectations of fantasy roleplaying games, is set to update the sector again with a fantasy mixed with steampunk virtual world in which players really can create their own stories. The only limitation on those stories will be the stories created by other players charting their own courses.

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Mr. Garriott’s new online multiplayer is called Shroud of the Avatar. Like Eve Online, it is a sandbox, where players can go in any direction, do anything their abilities allow as their actions become a part of the history of the digital place. Along with No Man’s Sky and Star Citizen, Shroud is one of several significant sandbox games releasing over the next year.

These games portend that the world foreseen in Ernest Cline’s young adult novel, Ready Player One, where a massive online universe turns out to be better than the real world, may not be so far off.  

Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues isn’t due out for a public release until the first quarter of next year, according to Richard Garriott, the creative director for the forthcoming online, multiplayer role-playing game from Portalarium. Backers of the game’s crowdfunded development, however, are already playing.

‘What we are doing with Shroud, is it’s a game about you, it’s not about killing the evil wizard. But instead of saying that there is this win or lose, there is a wide gradation of outcomes based on the journey you choose.’

We spoke to Mr. Garriott via phone, to discuss how a land exploration sandbox with a narrative built in can work in an open world where every player shares one global history.

It won’t be Mr. Garriott’s first execution of such a project. In 1997, he released Ultima Online, a sandbox fantasy world. Eighteen years later, people are still playing it, according to Rock Paper Shotgun.

Ultima Online was like Eve. It didn’t have a story. People just made their way around the world, working as crafters or miners or warriors as they saw fit. With this new game, Garriott’s team believes they have found a way to incorporate a narrative element that will keep players locked in as new updates come out, while also taking advantage of all the advances in computing, graphics and artificial intelligence.

Richard Garriott, far right, on board the International Space Station in 2008, with two other astronauts. (Photo: NASA/Public Domain)
Richard Garriott, far right, on board the International Space Station in 2008, with two other astronauts. (Photo: NASA/Public Domain)

Shroud has been built using the Unity game engine, a 3D system open to anyone. It’s also using a distributed server, where players’ actual workstations will carry a significant part of the computational load for the overall system, as PC Gamer reported, with the central server functioning as the arbiter of disputes between instances of the game and maintaining its overall record.

Mr. Garriott described in a story he told on stage at The Moth, how his pursuit of this industry has even taken him into outer space. In fact, that’s where we begin our conversation, because in that story he describes how he was moved to be successful in part so he could find a way to self-finance the experience of being an astronaut after a NASA scientist told him that wouldn’t be possible:

Why does a guy whose whole life motivation had to do with going to space make games about swords and magic in a medieval looking world?

Richard Garriott: My father was an astronaut and my mother was an artist. As personal computers emerged, these machines were capable of manifesting high tech art. It was natural, as I was one of the few people to have the high tech training and the art training to use them, for me to make high quality art.

If you look at my earliest works it was all things at once. My touchstones for my early work were just as much Star Wars as Lord of the Rings.

Ultima II was really influenced by Time Bandits. My games were started as both fantasy and sci-fi wrapped into one. So I was a teenager doing the first computer games ever. I would not say I was doing an excellent job of intellectual property craft. I probably wouldn’t have known the word ‘genre’ then. I took everything that I thought was amazing around me and manifested it in this personal tool at once.

It was only with time that I realized that I was writing three game engines in one game. I realized there was no way to keep going with space and underground and space exploration. It was natural for me to pursue land exploration of a physical world, and I was by far the world’s leading innovator in tile graphics, scrolling bitmaps, for exploring the world.

For a sandbox game to be a true sandbox, you need to have actions have consequences. So if I kill the troll in the mountain, then that troll needs to really stay dead or what I did doesn’t matter. With that in mind, I don’t understand how a sandbox can have a narrative. Won’t everyone be fighting through the same quest?

RG: Right. It’s great to be the first person to cross the finish line, but it sucks to be the last person to cross the finish line and waiting in the queue to do it. We believe we have the solution to telling the truly massively multiplayer story. First, it requires true multiple outcomes, with several smaller outcomes in between.

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What we are doing with Shroud, is it’s a game about you, it’s not about killing the evil wizard. But instead of saying that there is this win or lose, there is a wide gradation of outcomes based on the journey you choose. So even if you did see someone crossing the finish line, their finish line is different than yours and that’s okay.

There’s still times in the story where you don’t want to feel that you are in the queue. So the game is constantly throttling how multiplayer it is. Some parts of the game are very multiplayer-like. Some parts are very single player like.

10 to 20 percent of the game is completely solo player, much more like a traditional game. by being willing to switch to solo player for certain storytelling elements, and by making sure that certain solutions to the game have multiple gradations, that’s how we can do storytelling.

Image: Shroud of the Avatar
(Image: Shroud of the Avatar)

Why make a sandbox game in the first place?

RG:  I might have a way as a game designer, and as a tabletop game designer, I might have a way that I wanted people to solve a problem, but if they said something smart and interesting, it should work.

One of our competitors made a game, Lineage, which was really beautiful, there were monsters and non-player characters, but everything you saw beyond them was just art. So I found myself wandering around going “which random things are going to be interactive in this world?”

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In my games, I want everything to work as if it were real. I would say things to my team, “if there’s going to be a telephone on a desk, it needs to work.” If you’re going to give people a visual clue, it should work. If you’re going to lock a door and keep me out, if I’m a guy with a battleaxe, I better be able to get thru it. And if you don’t want me to get through it with a battleaxe, you better make it a steel door. But then if I’m a guy with a cannon, I better be able to get through it. And if you still don’t want me to get through it, you better put some kind of magical ward on it.

All the problem solving people do, we need to give them a world that gives them clues, top to bottom, that the player will be able to make sense of.  And what that means is, If you have a working piano, you can make it a plot point. This devolution to the details of a decipherable reality is what set the stage for sandbox games like Ultima Online.

Which also means that if someone is going to play the game as a fighter, then they are going to wear out their gear. So they’ll need to go to the people that make gear to replace it. But the people who make the gear need resources, like metal and coal. The people who go get the resources, the miners, have to bring it back through a dangerous world full of monsters, which means they need the fighters to protect them. Which creates this virtuous, full circle that keeps everyone engaged.

We are doing a far, far better job of this in Shroud than we did in Ultima Online.

And what about the non-player characters? How does talking to the people walking around in the villages that aren’t actually players work? 

RG: One of the things we are trying to get away from is some of the standard tropes of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). When you start an MMO now, you’ll spend an hour creating your character. Then you enter the world and you see the magic shop on one side of town and and the general store on another side.

When you see an NPC, you get a menu. You have  a scripted conversation. Then you get an item in your quest log. Then your map shows you where to go. Which means you play in a basically brain dead fashion.

When someone tells you something and makes a suggestion, there’s no quest log for that. It goes in your journal, but there’s no arrows on the map. There’s no exclamation points over people’s heads telling you who to talk to. You’re on your own. So far we have zero quests that are go kill X number of monsters and bring back Y body parts.

We decided to turn it on its head. We knew we couldn’t go back to the old days where you kept track of everything yourself with a pencil and paper.  One of the many ways we fought that was with our NPCs. With our NPCs, you actually talk to them with text. They are quite sophisticated. They have innumerable responses and they have memories of what you’ve said to them. Including the name you’ve said to them. So, for example, if you lie and give them a false name, that’s the name they will call you by when they see you next.

If you go to a bartender in this game, and say, “Hello bartender. My name is Lord British. I would sure like a drink, what do you have on tap?” That bartender will parse that out and answer. We didn’t write IBM Watson; we don’t really have an AI that’s constructing the true meaning of what you say, but because that’s still pretty sophisticated, that still means the easiest way to talk to NPC is to just write in English.

Image: Shroud Of The Avatar
Image: Shroud Of The Avatar

Will there be reporters covering the events of the game?

RG: Unquestionably. I would argue that it’s already happening. I would refer you to Avatars Radio. SOTA WIKI. We have even begun to explore giving people a way to have a more macro view of certain scenes, at times, if, for example, one of our friends from Avatars Radio, for example, wanted to go and cover a big battle live. Right now, a player can’t really see any more of the world than you see with your eyes. 

A big tension in games like this is money in the real world and money in the game. How are you approaching that?

RG: I believe time is money. If you try to fight that, you’re fighting a losing battle.

Not to recognize that a sword is worth hundred of hours of time is not recognizing reality. Since we fundamentally believe that virtual items really do have measurable dollar value, we want to make sure players are not driven into the back alleys and trade for them in the open. Plus, when they do it through our system, we can take a rake from it. So participating brings in additional revenue and provide some safety to players who may be sending $100 to China and never get anything back.

We have to be very careful not to cross that banking line, but we think finding a way to cozy up to it makes it better for the players and better for ourselves.

Why aren’t there more true sandboxes?

RG: The answer I think goes back to why 1st person shooters are consistently popular. The game that inspired me to do my first game was a game called Escape. It was a game where you just kind of watched a maze being drawn from a top down view, and then it turned into 3D view. That kind of game evolved into the first person shooter.

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Once you have run around a maze and shot somebody, you want something deeper, but as soon as there’s a tech breakthrough in gaming, it shifts back.  Every one of these major tech advancements makes the simplest form of a game—run around a game and shoot  each other—it makes it even better.

It’s during the periods of technological stability that drives people toward deeper gameplay. For me as a gameplayer and designer, I’m only interested in deeper gameplay. Every time there’s a major tech revolution, my games don’t sell as well.

Sandbox games are harder. If you look at what Blizzard does really well, like Diablo. It’s a combat game, but it is really finely tuned. It is a great hack and slash role playing game. Because they didn’t make it a sandbox, they could really take time to refine that much simpler structure.

If you change and want to make a big sandbox game, that time and money has to come out of something else, and usually that’s polish.

Every other game I’ve developed we’ve started from scratch. We’ve built the engine. So finally starting with tools that are powerful enough, which means we’ll hopefully be able to buy ourselves back some polish time, while also being able to build a sandbox.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Richard Garriott’s ‘Shroud of the Avatar’ Puts Storylines in a Sandbox Videogame