Shroud of the Avatar Q&A with Starr Long

Monday, July 22, 2013 | 9

MMORPG Royalty in the house!

Lord Blackth... errr... Starr Long of Ultima Online and more recently, Shroud of the Avatar fame, decided to make fun of me answer some of my pressing questions and concerns about his current and past projects. If you're shaking uncontrollably with anticipation, you are reacting correctly.

Miguelito: Origin Systems had a strong tradition of innovation during a time where many of the common industry standards didn't even exist yet. Many online games strive for a level of familiarity bordering on outright copying for the sake of easy adoption. Do you feel like these types of prefabricated and familiar control-schemes and standards are a virtue or a crutch?

Starr Long: A very careful balance of familiarity and innovation is what a game needs. It can be argued that familiarity is a great way to get people into your content by removing barriers (like learning a new control scheme). Familiarity is also a low risk strategy and since almost all MMOs have been very expensive to make, publishers want to lower risk where they can. I believe the rise of indie development allows us to take more risks now and try out the unfamiliar.

Fair enough.

Miguelito: My fondest memories of Ultima Online were the strange and unpredictable social encounters with other players which is why the philosophy behind social matchmaking in online games scares the crap out of me. Is it possible for an online world to be populated with only (presumably) similarly motivated individuals without losing the type of edge that Ultima Online captured during the late 90's?

Starr Long: Awwwww! Poor little scared guy! Do you need to hug your teddy bear?

We do plan to use selective multiplayer to sort you with your friends, but I do not think you need to worry for a few reasons. Selective multiplayer is opt in so we can and will sort you with strangers if you opt out. Even if you opt in we will still sort you with strangers when none of your friends are online. I think this will allow us to retain that edge you speak of.

Also since you have no friends you will always get sorted with strangers so you literally have nothing to worry about! :)

For your information, I have literally twelves of friends.

Miguelito: Shroud of the Avatar's progression system is classless. Are there skill cap limitations to promote specialization and cooperation, or is it a 'capless' (EvE-like) system where everyone ultimately can do everything?

Starr Long: While the progression system is classless we will still have levels so you will have a finite number of points to spend on skills based on your level. This will indeed require some specialization and cooperation. However since you can have any mix of skills you will be able to play different roles depending on who you are grouped with so that specialization can vary from adventure to adventure.

Hopefully a sizable amount of time passes before min/maxers force everyone into their "correct" builds. Fuckers.

Miguelito: In Ultima Online, there was a very real meta-game to bag arrangement/theft-prevention. A classical (and cumbersome) free-form bag system in Shroud of the Avatar is going to baffle many younger gamers. I suppose my question is, will there be a purpose, like UO, other than being retro for the sake of being retro?

Starr Long: The bag debate is a big deal on the team and we continue to go back and forth on it. As you mention there is a real meta-game to bag arrangement but that comes at a cost that some consider very tedious. At this time we are still not decided if we are going to have the free form system or if we will ultimately end up grid based. If we do go grid based, some folks have threatened to do a kickstarter for a game that is only about bag management. :)

If they don't like classic bags, they can drag and drop their asses out of here.

Miguelito: Shroud of the Avatar's minimalist component-based crafting system appears to reward experimentation and tinkering. Do you feel like the wiki-mentality of mastering and publicly cataloging plans and schematics hurts the crafting experience? Are there any plans to try and attempt to preserve the mystique of crafting on some other level?

Starr Long: I do not think the wiki-like cataloging hurts crafting. If anything it increases the social interaction around the crafting experience which only helps the relevancy of crafting the game. With that said the system allows us to preserve some mystery because we can add recipes constantly with little cost since we don’t have to provide updated UI, recipes, etc.

The five legged table will be a smash hit!

Miguelito: Combat in some of the early footage seems pretty rough, though we've been assured that it will be more... robust... in the future. Can you elaborate, or possibly draw a comparison between SotA and something familiar?

Starr Long: The combat we have showed so far is literally just placeholder which we disparagingly refer to as “whack a mole.” We are quite excited about what we hope to achieve with combat. In particular we want to get away from shortcut bar management and predictability. We want the player immersed in the fight and we want that fight to be a bit chaotic. To balance the chaos the players will have to manage their options strategically before combat (think of it like card deck management).

You just lost the population of rabid whack-a-mole fans.

Miguelito: Have you found anything about writing around a pre-built engine like Unity3D stifling to innovation or creativity?

Starr Long: Actually it is the complete opposite. I am excited to see that in the lifetime of my career we are finally at a time where off the shelf tools and technology allow game creators to focus as much on the content as we do on the tech. In the past we had to rush to create some content after we spent the bulk of our development doing the engineering.

I suppose, but when it comes to the server-side I always seem to be writing *around* these types of engines.

Miguelito: Crowdsourcing can be a slippery slope when it comes to game development because stylistic cohesion is so important for immersion. What exactly are you integrating that others have made, and how do you make sure that it doesn't look slightly askew? Is there a fancy SotA-Shader that makes everything fit together somehow?

Starr Long: Currently we are requesting and integrating environment art (buildings, props, etc) but we hope to expand that very soon to include character art, monsters, music, sound effects, dungeon design, etc. We keep things stylistically cohesive by providing clear specifications and examples. We then review each submission and go through a feedback / iteration loop with the creator.

I'm currently modeling a Venomous Quantum Heptapus you might be interested in.

Miguelito: Once the game is live, are you going to be opening it up to the modding community so they can throw boobs on everything?

Starr Long: We are more focused on crowd sourcing than modding but anything is possible.

And the iron gate slams shut on the mammary mod community.

Miguelito: What do you attribute to the inverse relationship between freedom and the passage of time in the genre? While smash-hits like Minecraft are evidence that an unrestricted system can have mass appeal, what do you think keeps AAA studios from attempting 'sandbox' MMORPG's?

Starr Long: AAA MMORPG’s (wow that is a whole lot of acronyms!) are VERY expensive to make. This makes the publishers very averse to anything that is in any way risky. Free form experiences are risky and historically they don’t scale as quickly or as large as more structured experiences. This is great for the indie game movement because it gives us an entire genre to build content for where we don’t have to compete with the mega budgets of the AAA publishers.


Miguelito: What is your favorite game of all time? What's the favorite you've been a part of?

Starr Long: That is an impossible question to answer because I have played and loved so many games! Here are just a few of my favorites and/or the ones I have been most influenced by:

Diablo II: I have spent more time playing Diablo II than any other game. The game is very simple but incredibly deep. The item and monster generation in this game are some of the best ever. Each time I played, I found some new combination of weapon attributes or boss monster abilities. When combined with the multiplayer aspect, there are few games that can match this one. They also provided stellar support over many years on

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City: The immersive quality of this game was truly groundbreaking. The possibilities the designers built into the game for emergent behavior were almost limitless. Being able to solve almost every single mission in a myriad of ways (drive-by shooting versus sniper, moped versus semi, etc.) was thrilling. Just driving or flying around the game was fun. To top it all off the radio station soundtrack of 1980s tunes was a stroke of genius.

Rock Band: Many of my friends are musicians, and I have done lighting for many of them over the years. I have always wanted to be under the lights, and for a brief time I did get to play in a band but I was never a rock star. Rock Band made me feel like I was a rock star as much, if not more, than actually playing in a band. On top of that Rock Band was a very social game and like many others, my wife and I hosted many Rock Band parties. This game, more than any other, fulfilled a fantasy, and in fact this game supplanted my previous fantasy fulfilling games: Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and Guitar Hero.

Command & Conquer: The first real time strategy game to truly leverage multiplayer. While the game only had a few units compared to recent titles, each of those units was very differentiated so strategies from session to session could vary immensely. They also nailed the luck factor through their "crates" so it was possible to come back and win even if you fell really far behind. To this day I have yet to see another RTS that you can come back from behind like this.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar: The first role-playing game where what you did in the game actually mattered. You could not just go around killing and stealing to win the game. You really had to be a good guy by following the virtues or else the game would become unwinnable: a game with a conscience if you will.

FTL: To me FTL represents the very best of the indie games and crowd funding. Its an incredibly tight little game that did something very few games have accomplished: fun failure.

DOOM: This game was the first to really open my eyes to the possibilities of multiplayer games. For the first time, I truly understood how human beings were infinitely more entertaining and unpredictable than any artificial intelligence. This game, more than any other, was my inspiration for Ultima Online.

Medal of Honor: To me, this game, more than any other, showed me how you could create a feeling of actually being in the middle of a war via wonderful NPC interactions. This game was the direct inspiration for our battlefields in Tabula Rasa.

Fallout 3: New Vegas: I love the post apocalypse genre and the Fallout series is my favorite expression of that genre. I adore the humor of this series combined with the open world. On top of that the latest version introduced Hardcore mode where things like weight/encumbrance, sleep, eating, limb injuries, etc. all actually mattered and were quite realistic.

Borderlands: An incredibly funny distillation of the shooter genre that has amazing multiplayer.

Lots of great games in there. I would, however, put Fallout 2 above New Vegas. I would have given NV the edge if survival mode was mandatory... or even default. When you give people the option of a more difficult experience, most of them will automatically opt for easy-mode so it may as well have just been a quirky mod.

Miguelito: Can you remember a time where your ideas were bigger than technology? Will there ever be a time that they aren't?

Starr Long: Our ideas are always bigger than the technology we have to work with. That is the biggest challenge to making interactive content. I do not think we will ever be at a time where this is not the case. I believe we will always be pushing that boundary.

Some day technology will surpass our imaginations and games will take 20 years to complete. (See: Duke Nukem

Miguelito: Many games claim 'Massive' status, despite limiting players to tiny sandboxed instances. That's like saying a massive amount of people live in my house because multiple versions of me live in different dimensions in my location. Do you think that congress should drop their mundane and pointless legislative duties and focus on this extremely important definition? Can we Kickstart this idea?

Starr Long: That would mean Congress would do something potentially useful and I think the Constitution says something about how Congress cannot actually help us in any way.

We've both just been targeted for harassment by the IRS.

Miguelito: Is it possible for Richard Garriott to remove his serpent necklace, or has it fused to his chest somehow?

Starr Long: I believe it is now something like Iron Man’s heart where if you remove it his heart stops beating. In truth when he made it (yes he forges his own metal creations) he did not know how to make a clasp so he just welded the final link around his neck. This of course means he has to break a link to remove it from around his neck.

Okay, this one made my day.

Thanks a bunch to Starr Long for writing half of my content for me and being a generally neat fella'.


  1. I hope this thing does not launch with the UO bag system. That type of inventory is frustrating and pointlessly cumbersome! I very well may just Drag and Drop my ass out of ever playing SotA or I might punish myself with the horrible interface to get to all the stuff I enjoy.

  2. "selective multiplayer"? Think I wanna to hug my teddy bear...

  3. Starr's amusing and insightful in his comments. His contribution to SotA I think will define it.

  4. Now that the first run of Kickstarter games are starting to come out, I'm much more optimistic about self published titles. It's almost reminiscent of the Garage-game style Ultimas of yore.

  5. "Hopefully a sizable amount of time passes before min/maxers force everyone into their "correct" builds. Fuckers." - Indeed. I will continue to play Support Rogues/Half-Orc Wizards/Bards and there equivalents in any MMO I can til the end of my days!

    TBH, I'd not heard of this game until I read this interview, but I'm intrigued. A True Sandbox experience is something that games seem to be shrinking from, but I keep craving the older i get. High Risk yields Great Rewards, and I'm ready for games to stop coddling me! Let me succeed and fail on my own goddamn it!

  6. Yeah, I'm a huge UO/Ultima fan, so I had been following Portalarium with baited breath. I have high hopes for this, and other games that shirk publishers via Kickstarter.


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