Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Man, I really should have waited another 12 hours before publishing my last Kickstarter post. Two big bombshells dropped that have direct relevance: a revelation and a promise.

For starters, Harebrained Schemes released their first look at a running, alpha version of the game. They run and talk their way through a good chunk of a mission, chatting along the way about what we're looking at, the various systems being demonstrated, what's particularly cool, and so on. I highly recommend checking it out if you're interested in the project. It looks surprisingly good for a relatively low-budget game... details like the Seattle rain add a ton to the atmosphere, and I love how the character designs look. That combination of simple model and detailed facial portrait was magic for games like Baldur's Gate (and, yes, Planescape: Torment), and I think it's a really smart direction to take.

Almost immediately after releasing the video, Harebrained announced that they were allowing backers to upgrade their pledge levels. I thought that was interesting. I'm not sure exactly what to make of it. Obviously since it's just optional, anyone who wants to give them more money will presumably be happy with the opportunity. Though, I suspect that the upper tiers that involve creating new NPCs or items or the like may feel less integrated if they're claimed at this stage, rather than prior to development. It does seem like a "safer" move to make now than it was during the initial pledge phase; now that they've brought the game to, say, 80% completion, backers have much more confidence in the success of the project and a much clearer idea of what the actual game is. But, as far as I can tell they're only allowing the increases of pledges, not newcomers, so people have already voted with their wallets; it would be more discouraging if someone could come in 18 months later and get the same reward as a day-one true believer.

From Harebrained Schemes' perspective, there's a pretty clear advantage to re-opening pledge levels: it increases their funding, and gives them more money to finish the game. I imagine that's a good thing... if it lets them devote more resources to QA, and to polishing, and to creating sample missions, and all the other stuff that makes the final product sing, then that's all good.

A separate Kickstarter was also announced, one that I had a hunch would be coming soon: a new game from Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima franchise and one of the godfathers of both computer RPGs and PC games in general. I'd signed up a few days ago for a "secret announcement" type thingy; it seemed clear that it would be for a new game, and I was right in suspecting that it would involve Kickstarter.

I'm a bit ashamed to say that I haven't [yet!] backed it. I regularly cite the Ultima series as the most formative series for me, as well as one of my favorites; I have particularly strong affection for Ultimas VI and VII in particular.

There are so many things that Garriott trailblazed. Zork predates Ultima, but Ultima pioneered applying a D&D-style rule-based system to a computer game; it had some of the very first graphics ever for a PC game; Ultima was one of the first games ever to tell a story (you'd be hard-pressed to find an actual story in the original Zork); Ultima IV was arguably the first game to actually explore deeper issues like morality; Ultima Underworld was the first FPS RPG, and was years ahead of its time with features like FPS companions, NPCs, and true three-dimensional levels; Wing Commander was one of the first games ever to use full-motion video; and Ultima Online, while not the first MMO, was the largest of its time and popularized many genre tropes that are still in use today.

That said, Garriott has been largely out of sight for over a decade. He was sadly a pioneer in yet another way: building an awesome gaming company that was acquired by EA and then absolutely ruined. It's a story that has been repeated countless times since: EA insists on churning out games at a faster pace; they release games in buggy states; a franchise loses its way, feeling rushed and with a weaker story; over time, your love for the great franchise starts to dim; sales fall as gamers turn away from the increasingly poor releases; and, finally, EA kills off the company. Origin was the first, and since then we've seen it repeated with Bullfrog, Maxis, Westwood Studios and Mythic, and we're all praying that Bioware escapes that fate.

Since leaving Origin/EA, Garriott is mostly known for creating Tabula Rasa, which unfortunately is best known as a fascinating failure of an MMO. Initially envisioned as a means to link together Eastern and Western players, it massively overshot its schedule, releasing after about six years in development and closing down two years later. Well, actually, Garriott is probably best known now for non-gaming purposes: being the first commercial space passenger, and the first second-generation space traveler, and building elaborate mansion castles.

So, while I'm profoundly grateful to Garriott for all he has contributed to the field of gaming, I'm not feeling terribly optimistic that he will deliver a great new game. Other successful kickstarter projects have become successful by essentially promising a second version of something people love. Torment is a great example of that: it's set in a different universe and based on a new rule-set, but everything about the project's promotion specifically references the terrific, groundbreaking things the team did in Planescape, and promises to deliver an experience that will make you feel similar to how you felt playing that earlier game. (Adam Heine put this very well in a comment on a recent Kickstarter update. The update made some vague references to how the game would treat relationships, which is a matter of intense concern among some fans. After frantic posts worrying about exactly what this meant, Adam wrote, "When in doubt, you can usually assume we will do things like we did in PST." That's a good line, and also something that should really help soothe the neurotic concerns that tend to bubble up whenever you treat an update to a beloved property.) Shadowrun took an opposite approach: they wanted to significantly modify the gameplay (modern graphics, no matrix, user-created missions), but kept the setting virtually identical (old-school Shadowrun set in the 2050s, instead of the more updated 2070s or a re-adjusted future based on today and not on projections from the 1980s). Again, people who had played the old Shadowrun console games or the pen-and-paper RPGs had a great feeling for the setting, and could back the project in the hopes of being able to re-visit that universe.

In contrast, after reading through the kickstarter for Shroud of the Avatar, watching the videos, and scanning through a few interviews, I'm still a bit baffled at what exactly the game experience will be like. I don't fundamentally "get" what he's proposing here... so, it's a multiplayer game, but it can be played offline as well? And it's a shared, persistent world? But we'll only encounter a few people at a time? And we'll pay taxes (with real money) on properties we buy?

Garriott built his reputation on innovating, and so it does make sense that he would be trying something new and unique that hasn't been done before. It may even be awesome. But personally, I tend to process new things by mapping them back onto things I've previously encountered, and I'm having a hard time understanding what he's going for here.

It would be easier for me if, say, he wanted to make a new single-player game set in Brittannia; I would probably back that in a heartbeat. But, Garriott no longer owns his own creation, since he sold it to EA, and thus he can't make a new game set there. I would also go for a game that invoked Ultima VII: a party-based game, set in an open fantasy world, played in a third person overhead view, with an intricate plot, and fairly modern graphics and sound. And while I personally wouldn't back an MMO, I'm sure there would be a huge audience for people who miss UO's lived-in world, which promoted community and ownership over the WoW model of stat advancement, grinding, and clans.

I'm definitely watching this campaign with interest, and I dearly hope that it turns out to be a terrific game - I'll be one of the first to buy it if it does. It's kind of hard for me to back right now, though.

To be honest, the game also suffers from poor timing. I imagine that Garriott has been planning this for a while, hence the Lord British secret announcement mailing list and such. However, since it was announced only a few days after Torment, I think a lot of oxygen had already left the room. For starters, Torment was a huge success story: the fastest Kickstarter to ever hit a million dollars (even beating the Ouya console), and on pace to become one of the best-funded game projects ever (currently at #6 in Gaming, with more than three weeks left to go). Shroud of the Avatar has put in very respectable numbers, but as of this writing they haven't yet reached their one-million-dollar goal; I'm sure they'll hit it, but it hasn't exploded like Torment did.

There may be some overlap between the games, too, so people with limited Kickstarting budgets who already pledged for Torment may be more reluctant to back Shroud of the Avatar as well. The games aren't all that similar: Torment is proudly single-player ("There is no total this Kickstarter could reach that would lead us to implement multiplayer"), and will take a novelistic approach, while Shroud of the Avatar is... some single/multi-player hybrid thing? Planescape: Torment came out in 1999, while Ultima's most celebrated games spanned the 1980s to the early 1990s, so I suspect Torment's target audience may skew slightly younger (though the enduring popularity of Ultima Online may somewhat equalize those demographics). Still, both games are fantasy RPGs, and in that respect they are conceivably fighting for the same entertainment dollars.

Still... as I said in my previous post, one of the things I love most about Kickstarter is the collegial atmosphere it fosters, not just between creators and backers, but between creators. You might think that inXile would get miffed that Garriott jumped in while their campaign was running, or Garriott might be bummed that Brian Fargo stole his thunder. I don't know what they think in private, but in public interviews both leaders are respectful and appreciative towards one another, claiming to be pleased at each others' successes. Anyways. It reinforces my ideal of the Kickstarter model being about focusing on creativity rather than competition, and growing the pie so everyone can feast on the long tail. Erm, that metaphor may have gotten away from me.

Regardless: while I'm not backing the Shroud campaign at the moment, I'm delighted it's running and pleased to see it doing so well. Hopefully people with more vision than me can help join in and make it succeed.

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