Lord British returns
Richard Garriott details his new game, Shroud Of The Avatar
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.”