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

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Shroud of the Avatar | Dragon Con Logo

Since 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 Three of a Three Part Interview. You can read Part One here, and Part Two here.

Shroud of the Avatar | Logo

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Operation Rainfall: This game was initially funded through Kickstarter. Y’all transitioned to crowdfunding through your own website and telethons – which I will ask about in a minute- and a couple months ago, you started to allow people to invest through SeedInvest. Why did y’all transition from one model, Kickstarter, to Title III investing regulated by the SEC [OR Note: Security and Exchange Commission]?

Starr Long: So Kickstarter, you can only do a 30/60/90-day campaign. So there is a time limit to a Kickstarter. So after the Kickstarter, we moved over to our own website so we could continue to raise funds, because we have lots of big ideas. It takes money to invest in those big ideas. The reason we ended up deciding to do the equity crowdfunding is – all the crowdfunding we have done to date to our own website, through Steam Early Access, through Kickstarter, we had spent on development. Making the game itself. While we were doing that, we would periodically reach out and have discussions with potential publishing partners. For both international territories and North America. Somebody that would help us with what’s called ‘user acquisition’. That’s like finding customers, basically. Because we’ve got an amazing community, but it’s sixty-five-thousand people. And the total customer base for Ultima is in the millions.

And so we want to get out and find those people. But we don’t want to find them right now, because the game’s not ready. I mean, if you look at our Steam reviews, it’s obviously not ready. But every time we talk to a publisher, for at least North America, it just didn’t work. We couldn’t find anybody we felt like we could keep it true to what we wanted it to be. Full transparency – our product is not a mass market product. And we don’t want it to be. That’s not the product we’re building. Yes, we’re going to make the product more accessible. And we’re going to continue to improve the interface. We’re going to continue to make the game – not easier to play, but fix broken things and polish the interface, etcetera. We’re not trying to make WoW [OR Note: World of Warcraft], we’re not trying to make a casual game.

The game is meant to be a game that challenges you [and] to make you think. Most of the publishers we talked to didn’t want to make that kind of game. And so we finally came to the realization ‘We’re going to have to self publish in North America. And to do that, we’re going to need money for marketing. Oh, okay, well, all the money we’ve got we’re spending on development. So we need money for marketing.’ And so that’s why we did the SeedInvest campaign, which was to raise a war chest for marketing. Making trailers, Facebook and Google ads, and things like that – Coming to trade shows.

Shroud of the Avatar | Homes Shroud of the Avatar | Homes

Shroud of the Avatar | Homes

You can design, build up, and own your own home in Shroud of the Avatar.

OR: There are some people who have been concerned about where their Kickstarter backing funds, etcetera, have been going, similar to people who had concerns behind Mighty No. 9, for example. Can you address their concerns?

SL: If that’s just a vague general concern, then I’m not sure – we post our Stand up [Corner] notes every single day. And that literally lists what every single person on the team is working on. We have very, very modest office space. We have never even bought things like a microwave – our backers bought us a better microwave, on a livestream we showed them our old, dirty microwave and our old, dirty coffee maker – so our backers bought us a better microwave and a better coffee maker. We are incredibly frugal with our backers’ money. All of the money goes directly into making the game. And that’s why we post our Stand Up notes every day. Every day, players can see here’s exactly what each player is working on. Some of the concerns have been ‘Well, you have a store.’ And we’re like ‘Yeah, the store is so we can raise money to make the game.’ And we have – everything we’ve promised during the Kickstarter, we’ve delivered 99% of that.

Yes, there are a few items that we promised during the Kickstarter that we haven’t gotten to, but we’re very transparent about that. I just posted an update two weeks ago where I listed those things, and said ‘Yeah, we know we haven’t gotten to those yet, we absolutely acknowledge that, but we’re absolutely committed to finishing those things.’ And it’s literally out of a list of two hundred items, it’s a list of six [uncompleted].

So I understand – its perfectly healthy for people to have concerns, but other than – unless there are specific ones – I’m not sure how we can be even more transparent than we are. There have been, literally every day of the project since I’ve joined, we’ve posted those Stand Up notes. So if they have a question about what they’re working on, they can just go to our forms and see our Stand Up notes, and see what every single person is working on. And its always been – assets to either help raise funds for the product or things we directly promised from the Kickstarter.

OR: Now I promised I’d go back to the telethon [OR Note: These can be streamed on Twitch or on YouTube]. How in the world did you come up with the concept to begin with, and even after the game launches, is that something you intend to continue doing?

SL: It came from the Kickstarter. So at the very end of the Kickstarter- I actually wasn’t here for the Kickstarter- they sort of did this twenty-four hour stream for the last push for funding, which worked really well. That last twenty-four hour push raised a lot of money. And so, from there, we saw that ‘Oh, maybe once a quarter or so, we’ll do a livestream. We’ll answer questions, we’ll be silly, yada yada yada.’

But recently, we realized ‘We’re also doing this Postmortem every month where we answer people’s questions. And so, versus do these super long telethons every quarter and a Postmorten, why don’t we just do an extended Postmortem every month, and we just focus on answering the questions?’ Because all people really wanted us to do was answer their questions. And yeah, maybe, show off some maps and some assets and things like that – but what they really want us to do is answer their questions. And so that’s what we shifted to. We just shifted to a monthly model where we’re just going to do the Postmortems and answer their questions. And yes, it will last a little longer and there will be the Wheel. We’re going to be a little silly, but it’s going to be mostly about answering the questions. Because that’s really what people want.

“…if you are looking for a sandbox experience where you get to live your own virtual life, there’s really nothing else out there right now quite like what we’re doing. It’s really, really deep and immersive and again we have an amazing, AMAZING, community that you can interact with and welcome.”

OR: So one thing you all have been incredibly consistent about is that the last Thursday of the month at 10:00 AM, you drop an update. Is that something that will continue post-launch?

SL: Absolutely. That’s our plan.

The telethons are all saved for posterity after they are completed. This was from Release 45.0’s telethon.

OR: You just put one out Thursday. What do we have to look forward to this [coming] month’s [update] and through the rest of the year?

SL: We just put out one yesterday, and so we hit in Release 44, which was July’s [2017] release, we got to the first time that players could play the entire complete story. And so that was a pretty significant update. And then, so now we’re kind of in the polish, polish, polish, polish, phase. And those last few handful of items from our Kickstarter promises. So that’s kind of the focus that we’re in right now. And the number one things we need to get right – we need to improve performance. Everything else is secondary to that – performance needs to get better. Framerate needs to get significantly better. If we could double our framerate, that would be fantastic. But performance needs to get better. Especially load times. We’re a seam-based game. We’re not a seamless world. And the reason we’re a seam-based game is that it is one that allows everybody to be on a single server. Because we can instance our scenes if we get too many people on. And two, it allows us to dynamically update seams without having to depend on stitching in a seamless world. However, that experience is destroyed if you have slow loading times. So we have to get those improved. So that’s our number one goal through the end of the year – to get better performance.

Second to that is just polish the overall experience, the user interface, new user experience – we still want to retain ‘its an old school game, we want you to think, we don’t want to lead you by the nose, we don’t want to literally put you on autopilot like some recent examples- that’s swinging the pendulum too far- I think we went to the opposite extreme when we first started. It was literally like ‘Here, we are going to throw you naked in the woods with a stick, and good luck with the wolves.’ Now, we went a little too far. So we needed to do a little more hand-holding in the beginning, for sure. And coming up through a bunch of holidays- like next month, we’ll be releasing some Halloween-themed content. This year, it’s going to be a prison-themed. So it’s going to be prison-themed content. And more storyline polish. A big focus on the story for the next few releases [are] going to be more side quests – just to flesh out and general story polish. Cleaning up conversations, cleaning up dialogue, making the dialogue more polished, more focused. And just, again, more sidequests so that as you’re moving through the story, you’re having the opportunity to go on these sidequests to help you level up so that by the time you get to the end sequences, you’re more powerful so you can finish.

And then we’ve got a “Make a Difference” part of our store, where some of the items you buy in the store we contribute up to thirty or fifty percent of the proceeds. So we’re going to create a new “Make a Difference” store, which we haven’t done in awhile, but this one is going to be for Doctors Without Borders and children’s hospitals. So we’re going to be splitting the proceeds between the two. So it’s all going to be hospital-themed stuff. So medical – hospital beds, medical instruments, doctor outfits, and things like that.

And that’s some of the stuff that is coming up.

Shroud of the Avatar | Hilt Shroud of the Avatar | Lava field

Shroud of the Avatar | Cave

Some of the concept art for Shroud of the Avatar.

OR: Final question- Do you have a launch window for the game yet, and is there anything you’d like to say to people who maybe want to play Shroud of the Avatar?

SL: So, we’re hoping for end of this year, but the real answer is – when it’s ready.

And those of you who are thinking about playing Shroud of the Avatar – what I would say is ‘Look for announcements of when we’re doing free trials’, because I always tell people to please, please try it when it’s free. Don’t give us money unless you try it first. I [would] much rather you try it for free first. Because its not for everybody. I totally, totally want people to not commit money [to buying the game] without –again, we’re in Early Access, we’re not quite done- but if you are looking for a sandbox experience where you get to live your own virtual life, there’s really nothing else out there right now quite like what we’re doing. It’s really, really deep and immersive and again we have an amazing, AMAZING, community that you can interact with and welcome. And there’s our calendared player events [which] is insane.

There is literally something happening every day. Whether it’s a sporting event or a play or a dungeon run or a fishing event, you name it, they’re doing something. And it’s great.

OR: Thank you very much for talking, I hope you have a wonderful Dragon Con.

SL: Thank you!

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 ever watched one of the Shroud of the Avatar telethons? What would you like to see in Shroud of the Avatar?

Let us know in the comments below!