Dragon Con 2017: Shroud of the Avatar Interview (Part One)

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Shroud of the Avatar | Dragon Con LogoSince Dragon Con’s humble beginnings in 1987, it has expanded to encompass the majority of the downtown Atlanta area every Labor Day weekend for a mix-mash of cosplay, folk music, charity fundraising, guest panels, and more. This year, over 80,000 people attended to celebrate Dragon Con’s thirty-first anniversary.

Richard Garriott de Cayeux and Starr Long, both long-time veterans of the video game industry whose working relationship dates back to the early days of the Ultima franchise. Their latest venture is an MMO title, Shroud of the Avatar that is currently in Early Access on Steam. During Dragon Con 2017, I caught up with Mr. Garriott de Cayeux and Mr. Long and talked with them about Dragon Con, developing Shroud of the Avatar, and just what lies in the future for the game.

You can find out more about Shroud of the Avatar and the team behind it on their website and the official forums, like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, subscribe to them on YouTube, and subscribe to them on Instagram. You can also buy Shroud of the Avatar over on Steam Early Access.

There is also a free trial going on from September 7th to September 27th, 2017, so be sure to check it out!

You can find out more about Dragon Con at their website, follow them on Twitter, and like them on Facebook. The dates for Dragon Con 2018 are from August 30th to September 3rd, 2018 and tickets are currently on sale.

This is Part One of a Three Part Interview. You can read Part Two here and Part Three here.

Shroud of the AvatarThis interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Operation Rainfall: My name is Quentin H. with Operation Rainfall, and you are?

Richard Garriott de Cayeux: I am Richard Garriott, known to some as “Lord British”.

Starr Long: And I am Starr Long, sometimes known as “DarkStarr”.


Shroud of the Avatar | Lord British

‘Lord British’ inside of Shroud of the Avatar.

OR: How has y’all’s Dragon Con [2017] experience been so far?

RGC: I would say phenomenal. As I noted on the elevator [OR Note: Mr. Garriott met me at the elevator, and we rode it up to where the interview took place.]– I was actually the computer gaming guest-of-honor at Dragon*Con 1, which was thirty-plus years ago. And while I’ve haven’t made all of the Dragon Cons, I think I’ve made more than half. And this really does remain my favorite show, because of its DNA – it’s sort of a fan-driven experience. It has a character unlike any other kind of professional or consumer shows anywhere else in the world.

SL: Yeah, I love Dragon Con. It’s such a fan-oriented show. It’s such a community-driven show. And every session is packed. And I think [that there is] one marketed difference that I see in this show versus any other show that I go. [At other conventions] some sessions are packed [and] some sessions [have a] few attendees, but literally every single session I go to is full [at Dragon Con]. Which is great.

OR: Is there anything you’re looking forward to see at Dragon Con this year?

RGC: It’s funny –we’ve been asked that question, and I think we are both fascinated by this Artemis Star Trek simulator that’s downstairs in this very building. But we’ve failed to be able to find the time to get on their manifest. So we’re probably going to have to start trying to pull strings and use the ‘Hey- we’re ‘Lord British’ and ‘DarkStarr’! Don’t you really want us to play your sim?!’.

SL: Yeah, I’m a huge Star Trek fan since the very first Star Trek. When I was in college, we used to have [Star Trek:] The Next Generation viewing parties. We’d even have costume parties. And I really, really want to do the Artermis­-thing. But, [Lord British’s] on seven panels, I’m on four. We have back-to-back interviews. But I really, really want to see the Artemis thing. And there’s all the cosplay. And we’re in costume. So that’s always the best thing – all the cosplay.

“If we tell a story that is competitive with Ultima 4, if we create a diverse sandbox of interaction akin to Ultima 7, and if we create independent roles for roleplayers to play that are as varied and interdependent [as] Ultima Online, and we wrapper that in a user interface that…does not go as far as leading you by the nose…then I think we’ll have succeeded.”

OR: How did you – real quickly before we dive into Shroud of the Avatar- how did y’all acquire the nicknames of Lord British and Dark Starr?

RGC: It’s funny – when I was in my sophomore year in high school, I was exposed to computers, Dungeons & Dragons, and Lord of the Rings all at the same time. And I was at a seven-week summer program, and these kids that where there ahead of me – they were the core of the group that I learned to play Dungeons & Dragons from – They were giving everyone nicknames as they arrived. And so when I arrived and threw my bags on the dormroom bed, they came and knocked on the door. They said ‘hi’, I said ‘hello’, and for some reason, they thought the way I said ‘hello’ did not sound ‘Southern’, as they all were – even though I was also growing up in the South. They thought my ‘hello’ sounded British. So that was my nickname immediately – ‘British’. And interestingly, I was born in Cambridge, England. So it has a logic – even though I only lived in England a month, so I did not pick up any accent, but I grew up in Houston, right across from NASA – which was a manufactured international community – so I don’t really have a Southern accent.

So my D&D character started as ‘British’, and then as I leveled up, I chose to add the ‘Lord British’ to my higher level “British” character. And when I started writing computer games, I actually started to author them – again I was never intending to be published, I was just doing it for my D&D friends- so ‘Lord British’ and my other alter ego, ‘Shamino’, and ‘Richard Garriott’ were interchangeably used as characters in the game or as the author of the game. And my first real publisher asked me this story that you just asked. And they were, ‘You know, ‘Richard Garriott’ is a good name, but it’s perfectly generic kind of sounding. But ‘Lord British’? People would remember that.’ So the ‘Richard Garriott’ name came off my first published titles, and ‘Lord British’ became the nom de plume.

SL: When I was at Origin and started working on Ultima Online, all the main characters are named after real people that are friends of Richard – like ‘Dupre’ or they were alter-egos of Richard like ‘Samino’. So those are real people. When we were working on Ultima Online, I was all “I’m going to be a character in the game.” So versus us making up a character, there was a character in Ultima that was not named after [one of Richard’s friends] that had been a villain in the linear-Ultimas, but in the parallel universe that Ultima Online was going to take place in. We decided that [this character] was not going to be evil, but was going to be chaotic. Chaos is its own sort of ‘thing’. And so [came] ‘Blackthorn’.

Which was fine while I was still employed by Origin, and we were all working for Electronic Arts. But when I left there, unlike ‘Lord British’, which Richard retained ownership when EA acquired Origin, ‘Blackthorn’ remained the property of Electronic Arts. So I couldn’t take that name with me when I left. But I wanted people to know that it was me. And so I needed some equivalent of ‘Black’ – something dark. And then I was like, ‘Well, ‘Starr’ is unique enough.’ So ‘DarkStarr’ is an homage to ‘Blackthorn’, and using my own name.

RGC: And what’s interesting is that I now see them as inseparable. It’s funny that it’s – if you think of ‘Iolo’, for example – the character ‘Iolo’, his real name is David Watson – he wrote Stones, which is the primary piece of music people think of when they think of Ultima Online. He also wrote a piece for us – Baron of Eastmarch– for Shroud of the Avatar. His real-life job is that he makes crossbows. His job in Ultima and Shroud of the Avatar as a separate character would be making crossbows.  The point is that the reality of these people – the characters they play in the games- are the same. And I think that it lends an interesting sense of truth to the words we’ve created.

OR: Okay, your upcoming title – What is Shroud of the Avatar for someone who may not have heard about this game before?

SL: So Shroud of the Avatar is a homage/mash-up to the games that we created from the very beginning. It is a sandbox RPG that is both a single player and an ‘MMO’ game at the same time. It’s what we call ‘selective multiplayer’. So you can play it as an offline single player RPG, and there is a storyline that was co-written by Richard Garriott and an author named Tracy Hickman, who wrote the Dragonlance novels and the Ravenloft [modules] for D&D, which I still think are some of the best D&D modules ever written. And so they co-wrote the story and actually, they co-wrote a prequel novel called The Sword of Midras. And there’s – there’s an awesome storyline about the paths of virtue. Truth, love, and courage.

And you can follow that storyline in a single player offline. And then there’s online play as well. And that online play allows you to play in three different modes – you can log on the servers and you can play single player. So you’re by yourself, but now you’re logged on the servers and you can see things other people have done. So it they put down a shop and a shopkeeper, you can buy things from that shopkeeper. You can play what we call ‘friends/party’ mode. So it’s just a party of you and your friends playing together. Or you can play in open multiplayer. Which is the closest we come to a traditional ‘MMO’. But everything happens on one single server. So there’s no server selection, there’s no ‘shards’. And it’s very much a sandbox, with a completely player-driven economy. All of the best gear in the game is made by players, instead of being derived from loot/creatures/bosses, things like that. It’s really about collecting resources and building the best gear by the crafters in the game. Blacksmiths, armorers, [etc].

RGC: If we tell a story that is competitive with Ultima 4, if we create a diverse sandbox of interaction akin to Ultima 7, and if we create independent roles for roleplayers to play that are as varied and interdependent with Ultima Online, and we wrapper that in a user interface that –while very accessible- still does not go as far as leading you by the nose like some modern RPGs with exclamation points and arrows on the map, then I think we’ll have succeeded.

“Tracy [Hickman] really is a master…

[Y]ou give him the constraints [of the world]…and he starts right in there just rolling out idea after idea after idea, and refining and refining.”

OR: Why did you choose to take these three paths to making the game – the single player, playing with friends, and the MMO?

SL: It actually started [off for] kind of slightly selfish reasons, but because Richard travels a lot. And I actually travel a lot too. So we’re on planes a lot. And so Richard’s like ‘I want to play the game I’m making while I’m on an airplane and I don’t have an internet connection!’. But it really became more, once we started delving into it, ‘well, that’s a real good frame for it if we’re really trying to build something that feels like one of the original Ultimas like an Ultima 7 or an Ultima 4, where you’re focused on playing the story and following your hero’s journey. Then making it so where you’re not online and not playing with other people – then why would you need to be online? Playing it totally offline makes sense. And that led to this interesting side effect.

In order to allow you to play offline, we actually had to have some of the functions of the server on the client. Which is part of what allows us to have everything on one server, and it makes our server very, very efficient. Because we have a distributed server architecture like [first person] shooters do – One person is the master, and other people verify it. And that kind of led one thing to another, and then we’re like ‘Well, if we have bits of the server on the client, then we can support all sorts of different modes.’ And one thing led to another, and that’s how we got it. And then it became about user choice: ‘Hey, let’s let the players decide how they want to play.’ And that’s how we got to those things.

RGC: Even from day to day, hour-to-hour, there are times when I just want to get my group of friends and do something together. And there are times when I need to make some new friends – my old friends are not online, and I’m up in the middle of the night, or whatever it may be- and so I want to play in a different way. And users and/or the game itself can throttle this marker of how open multiplayer is to you in real-time.

SL: And we thought players would pick one and stick to it, and not move back and forth. But all of our data shows that players move back and forth between the multiple modes a lot.

RGC: And they’ve even requested more – “I want the open when I’m in town, I want to be party-based when I leave town.”-

SL: –They want to be dynamic.

RGC: -Yeah, they wanted to automatically and dynamically shift.

Shroud of the Avatar | Brittany Wharfs Shroud of the Avatar | Brittany WharfsBrittany Wharfs (above) and Ardoris (below) are just two of the many different cities

you get to visit in Shroud of the Avatar.

Shroud of the Avatar | Adoris Shroud of the Avatar | Adoris

OR: Is there any content that is ‘locked out’ from the offline mode that is only available on the ‘online’ mode?

SL: It’s the other way around. So, right now the way it works is that in ‘offline’ – we’re not subscription based, we’re pay once and then there’s a store for extra cosmetic things like bigger houses, fancier clothes, that kind of thing- however, in the ‘offline’ mode, all of those things that are on the store can be earned with in-game gold. And so it’s kind of the opposite where we decided – again, we wanted the ‘offline’ mode to feel like an old-school RPG that you just buy off the shelf and there’s no store, it is just buy and everything can be earned by playing the game. In the ‘online’ mode, those things have to be bought.

OR: ‘Lord British’, you co-authored the story with Tracy Hickman, author of the Dragonlance series with Margaret Weiss – as you mentioned earlier. How did that partnership start, and is Mr. Hickman going to be involved with developing episodes two through five?

RGC: So my journey with Tracy actually began here in Atlanta at Dragon*Con 1. I was the computer gaming guest-of-honor, and he was the writing guest-of-honor. And the first time I heard him speak, which I believe was at a killer breakfast the [morning after the] guest-of-honor dinner, [which was] the first time I ever saw him do anything associated with gaming and storytelling. And now I fancy myself a reasonably good storyteller, but I know [now] some of the good or great storytellers within the industry. But when I heard Tracy telling stories live, and responding to player interaction live, I was floored. He is in a completely other league of quality and humor and cleverness and meaning than I have ever imagined that I could ever personally be.

And so we’ve kind of followed each other’s work now for almost thirty years, and for a lot of that thirty years we’ve talked about trying to sync up an opportunity to work together. It just happens that this is the cycle where the timing worked out. And it actually worked out- the first thing we collaborated on was not the game, but it was my spaceflight. He had shown me at the previous Dragon Con a game prototype [that] he was working on of a party game that you’d play at home with friends about filming a movie. And it was a little script that you would go through – no one would get a chance to read it in advance, you’d just go ‘here’s your lines, say it [in] one take. Here’s your lines, say it in one take.’ As you shoot the film in order, and then preview it, it’s the only time anybody gets to see what context to put their lines in. And I thought that that was hilarious and I thought ‘I need to do that in space, because that is something I could do very quickly, and I know Tracy would do a great job writing it.’ So we filmed it. So if you go to YouTube and [search for] Apogee of Fear, you’ll see the film that Tracy wrote and I shot starring my crewmates on the Space Station.

And that was such fun that as soon we started Shroud of the Avatar, [I was] ‘Tracy, okay, you have to come work with us on this.’ Tracy really is a master of –just like he was at that killer breakfast thirty-something years ago- you give him the constraints, you go ‘we’re going to tell a story about truth, love, and courage, and here is the world we believe we’re working within the foundations of-‘, and he starts right in there just rolling out idea after idea after idea, and refining and refining.

When we wrote The Sword of Midras together, we did this rough draft- but it was already reasonably well written paragraphs in my mind. When we looked at this draft, I was like ‘I like it, it’s a great story.’ And then he said ‘Okay, I’m now going to take that draft and rewrite the final prose.’ And when he handed back to me the final prose, it was yet again at another echelon of quality – in fact, at the beginning, I didn’t even recognize that it was the same thing we had written together. It was so much better, and he would write preambles and wrap-ups for every part that we had done [and] that would give it power and punch that was difficult for me to imagine having pulled it off. And that’s why I think the book turned out great – because of him. I did collaborate, but the quality is because of him.

On the flipside, the story in the game – where I am obviously much more familiar with player interaction issues – we’ve taken the lead on the game side. So that’s a great collaboration for episode one and the first book, and yes, we will still be collaborating in the future both on the game episodes and future books.

OR: That is awesome.

The Dragon Con logo is used courtesy of Dragon Con. All other images and videos from Shroud of the Avatar used are courtesy of Portalarium. The dates for Dragon Con 2018 are from August 30th to September 3rd, 2018 and tickets are currently on sale.

Have you picked up Shroud of the Avatar? What do you think of how Lord British and DarkStarr got their nicknames? How did you get your online nickname?

Let us know in the comments below!