Lord Bri­tish re­turns

Richard Gar­riott de­tails his new game, Shroud Of The Avatar

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The Ul­tima se­ries is the stuff of RPG legend. Ten main games (and a clutch of spinoffs) have been set in the world of Bri­tan­nia, where moral quan­daries are as im­por­tant as hit­ting things with swords, and virtue, rather than strength, is the mark of a hero. Its sev­enth in­stal­ment, The Black Gate, is widely con­sid­ered one of the great­est and most in­flu­en­tial RPGs of all time, with even mod­ern RPGs such as Di­vin­ity: Orig­i­nal Sin be­ing mea­sured against its depth and free­dom.

Shroud Of The Avatar isn’t Ul­tima. EA owns that li­cence. Its ankh-strewn world of New Bri­tan­nia is in­tended to be fa­mil­iar, though. “Shroud Of The Avatar is best de­scribed as the spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to Ul­tima,” Richard Gar­riott ex­plains. “It’s com­bin­ing deep, virtue-based nar­ra­tive with a se­lectable level of mul­ti­player, from off­line to some­thing that feels like a tra­di­tional MMOG. It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see how peo­ple pre­fer to play, but I sus­pect even peo­ple who like a solo player ex­pe­ri­ence will play on­line. We’ve cre­ated a story and tech­nol­ogy that is highly com­pat­i­ble with hav­ing peo­ple in the world be­side you, while you still have your unique jour­ney to the right con­clu­sion… The right one for you.”

What sep­a­rates an Ul­tima from most RPGs is that while there are beasts to be slain and glory to be gained, it’s never re­ally the point. “Not only were they gen­er­ally about the Virtues and hope­fully a pos­i­tive com­men­tary on be­hav­iour, but V, VI, and VII es­pe­cially were of­ten re­fer­ring to dif­fi­cult is­sues and how to put them into a con­text where you’d be con­fronted with your own bi­ases and big­otry,” Gar­riott says. “I wanted to hold a mir­ror up to the player and ex­pose their less vir­tu­ous side.”

Ar­guably the most suc­cess­ful at­tempt was Ul­tima VI, whose de­monic en­e­mies – gar­goyles – were an al­le­gory for racism. “As you might imag­ine, I have to get trick­ier each time, es­pe­cially with an MMOG en­vi­ron­ment,” Gar­riott says. “I’m a be­liever in Bar­tle’s four player types: ex­plorer, achiever, so­cialiser and dis­si­dent. To cre­ate a good story about so­ci­ol­ogy, we need to ac­com­mo­date all of those, in­clud­ing dis­si­dents! Since that type of per­son­al­ity is guar­an­teed to ex­ist, I think it’s bet­ter to let those play­ers ex­press that….” He tells an Ul­tima On­line story in which a thief prey­ing on new­bies ar­gued against a ban on the grounds that he was role­play­ing, and us­ing in-game tools to do so. The logic was inar­guable.

Things have pro­gressed, though. “Ul­tima IV was fairly black-and-white, a land­mark only be­cause it was first,” he ad­mits. “This one, be­cause we’re try­ing to tell a deep virtue story on­line and of­fer mul­ti­ple spins on the jour­ney, has been very hard. Other games will, say, give you a dog and say what points you’ll get for it… A game should not tell you how it’s eval­u­at­ing your deeds, be­cause that lets you cheat the sys­tem. You’re play­ing for points then.”

Mul­ti­player is cer­tainly adding com­pli­ca­tions, but as Gar­riott and the cre­ators of Di­vin­ity: Orig­i­nal Sin have found, de­sign­ing a game to be ro­bust in company can be a boon for sin­gle­player sto­ries, too, en­sur­ing com­plex in­ter­lock­ing sys­tems are de­signed with edge cases in mind. “We put in the PvP com­bat well in ad­vance of the PvE com­bat, and a lot of our play­ers were angry about that. But by do­ing PvP first, we can take real peo­ple and mete things out, and it’s much eas­ier to then al­low the AI to in­herit that. The same is true for the sto­ry­line. We can put in all the probes for the virtues and so on, and once we’ve seen how those num­bers man­i­fest in real use through ca­sual be­hav­iour, then it’s so much eas­ier to cre­ate events that trig­ger off them.”

Shroud Of The Avatar is a five-episode se­ries, where each new episode will tell its own RPG-length story and add new lands. But from the mo­ment you start, you can wan­der off in any di­rec­tion and do your own thing, again re­cap­tur­ing the spirit of Ul­tima, if not its specifics.

“At the be­gin­ning, I posed this trea­tise: what is a Lord Bri­tish RPG?” Gar­riott says. “To me, it means a sand­box world where ev­ery­thing is in­ter­ac­tive. Plate, cup, shut­ter, lamp: all those things should be in­ter­ac­tive and, in at least one place, im­por­tant. All the NPCs should feel real, go to work, close a door if you leave it open. Those aren’t part of Ul­tima as a prop­erty, they’re just good game de­sign prin­ci­ples. What we’re then try­ing to make sure we do is that while we’re not bring­ing for­ward any of the his­tory ex­cept my character, Lord Bri­tish, we’re try­ing to make sure we don’t do any­thing con­trary to my ear­lier games. That way, if peo­ple wish to imag­ine a con­ti­nu­ity, it will be there.”

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