Richard Garriott, AKA Lord British and the founder of the Ultima franchise, is back with a Kickstarter to launch a new multi-player online role-playing game (MORPG) titled Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues:
With Shroud of the Avatar, Richard and his team will again reinvent the classic fantasy role-playing experience. Using state-of-the-art tools and technology, the game will focus on what made his seminal Ultima Series great. Once players are introduced to the game, they will discover their own story woven into the immersive world and lore surrounding them. Players may choose to follow the life of the adventurer or, if they prefer, focus on exploration and discovery. Players may even choose the life of a homesteader; either nestled within the safety of the settled lands, or on the dangerous but potentially lucrative frontier. The world is full of opportunities and challenges!
With 28 days to go, the Kickstarter has already achieved over a third of its funding goal of $1 million. The Kickstarter promises a fully-interactive world, original fiction, physical game components (cloth maps, manuals, and other trinkets), and a multi-player online component that can also be played solo/offline. The Kickstarter scrupulously makes no mention of Ultima Online, which is understandable given that this is not in fact a sequel to that game:
Ultima Online peaked at 240,000 subscribers shortly after the release of the supplement Third Dawn, a number briefly outstripped in 2003 with the launch of Age of Shadows. Since then, Ultima Online has been in steady decline, with 75,000 subscribers, two thirds of which are from Japan. After my own player-killing and pick pocketing experience, I let the free trial lapse and never looked back.
The Frequently Asked Questions section makes it clear Shroud of the Avatar is no a MMORPG – it’s not “massive”:
Multiplayer games encourage social bonds that go far beyond what can be accomplished in a solo player game. I remember the depth of these bonds in players who met in-game only to get married in real life, how people who died in the real world were deeply mourned and celebrated by their online friends whom they may never have met face to face. Though Shroud of the Avatar won’t be a massively multiplayer online role playing game, it will be a multiplayer game.
But the shared roots are clear in Shroud of the Avatar’s classless character system, player housing, a crafting system, and player vs. player (PvP). PvP is sure to be a contentious topic amongst the Kickstarter’s backers. There’s just one line about the topic:
Meaningful PVP that also minimizes griefing: An incentive-driven system will draw players into the challenge and intrigue of the PVP experience, whether they become the hunter or the hunted!
We’ll see. Ultima Online was legendary for its crafting system (you could craft just about anything out of anything else) and notorious for its player vs. player challenges. As I explained in my book, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games:
I tried to play it without the company of my friends, only to discover that Ultima Online’s system protected player killers.
Player killers are the ugly side of the disinhibition theory I laid out earlier in the MUD chapter. They are players whose goal is to defeat other players, preying upon them. Generally speaking, player killers (or PKers) are not looking for a fair fight. They prey upon other players because they have something to gain, be it actually mugging the virtual character or merely scaring off the competition. In Ultima Online’s case, I discovered that being in a city wasn’t safe. I sat in a room, went to eat a sandwich, returned and found another character sitting near me. It turned out he was attempting to pick my pocket over and over.
When I retaliated, a guard immediately appeared and cast a fireball, blowing my character to bits. In other words, it was okay to attempt thievery but not to attack a player who had successfully attempted thievery. Yes, technically this meant that a thief could thieve with impunity so long as he wasn’t caught.
It begged the question: why have picking pockets in the game at all? What was the purpose? It was fundamentally an anti-player function and, given the griefing theory, performed by the strong who culled from the weak. In other words, newbies were usually the victims.
Richard Garriott’s gaming pedigree is long. He didn’t just found the Ultima series, he worked hard to create a role-playing experience that encouraged players to be responsible for their choices:
Ultima's Quest of the Avatar went a step further in using the player's personality, not the character's, to determine possible classes: shepherd (humility), tinker (sacrifice), bard (compassion), druid (justice), fighter (valor), ranger (spirituality), paladin (honor) or mage (honesty). Garriott created these rules to reinforce the moral lessons a fantasy role-playing game could impart on players at a time when tabletop role-playing games were receiving such a bad rap.
Garriott will feature in the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons Documentary, also funded by Kickstarter:
Monday, we started the evening in downtown Austin with Lord British, Mr. Richard Garriott, himself. So much was learned about D&D and MMORPGs. You will all appreciate what he shared with us with D&D being the only influence on the Ultima Online experiences, as well as his early collection of the D&D Alkebath game, and the direction that MMORPGs and computer games have taken since.
With Garriott’s experience and gaming brand power it seems certain that the Kickstarter will easily exceed all of its goals. Here’s hoping Shroud of the Avatar learns from Ultima Online's mistakes.
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