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Starr Long and Richard Garriott have made a lot of games over the years, from the Ultima series to Toontown. But they’ve never been quite so busy answering to their fans as they have in the past year.

The founders of Portalarium are creating Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, through Steam Early Access. And that means they’re basically co-developing the fantasy role-playing game with fans, particularly those who helped them raise $1.9 million in a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter in 2013. They’ve done monthly releases 13 times in the past year or so, slowing building out a game world so that fans can play as the world changes before their eyes. The game is still in a pre-alpha state, but Long and Garriott say they’re making good progress. There are 100,000 players now, with a third of them paying for content.

We caught up with Garriott and Long at the recent 2015 International CES, where they were showing the game at the booth of sponsor Plantronics. Here’s our edited transcript with them.

Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Above: Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Image Credit: Portalarium

GamesBeat: What are you showing today?

Starr Long: Of the things that have changed most recently since we last spoke at E3, the first is that we launched on Steam Early Access. We did Steam Greenlight, and now we’re on Early Access.

Richard Garriott: That continues to go very well.

Long: We do monthly releases. We’ve done that 13 times, every month. We were only doing four-day access, but now that we’ve launched on Steam Early Access, we’ve gone 24/7.

Garriott: There still may be a wipe or two left before the end of the beta process. There surely will be. But it’ll only happen when it has to. One of the things I find most exciting about the stage of the development process we’re in now, it reminds me a lot of the Ultima Online beta. I don’t know if you were around then, but it was a wonderful era of MMOs. Everybody could see the promise of what was coming into existence. Having people in the game 24/7 gives us a lot of feedback in real time as to how to make it right for them. We’re entering that era now with Shroud of the Avatar.

GamesBeat: What’s that book there?

Long: One of the things we’re doing now. We have a really strong community. It’s one of the strongest parts of the game. We support it so much because the game is a sandbox. It’s very important that the players are given the tools with which to create interest for each other.

They have a website with a calendar for all the player-run events. We took that data and made a book in the game. None of these are anything we created at Portalarium. These are all events that the players do themselves. Everything from PvP tournaments to fishing contests to dungeon runs. They had a New Year’s Eve party. We publish this with each release, this book of all the player events.

Garriott: Eventually we won’t need to publish it. It’ll just be automatic.

Long: Yeah, we’ll eventually stream it. We provide support for this and things like, if they want to have prizes for a contest, we’ll give them gold or items or something like that. Another thing I’ve been blown away by in our community, a couple of guilds, as soon as we went on Early Access and started to widen our audience beyond the core backers, they took it on themselves to stand in the starting town and hand out gold and potions. They basically did an AMA for players coming in. Because we’re very sandbox-ey, there isn’t a lot of hand-holding at the beginning. The players are filling that in themselves.

GamesBeat: What does it mean to be pre-alpha in this kind of development?

Garriott: It means it’s mostly playable, but not finished.

Long: The technical definition of alpha is feature complete, and then beta is content complete. We’re neither of those. It’s a kind of gray area. We’re doing this very iterative development. The third or fourth week of every month, we put out a release of new content. We always devote 30 percent of each month’s cycle to responding to player feedback. It’s a very iterative process.

Most of the major features are in. We have combat and advancement. Probably 70 percent of the skills are in now. Advancement happens with trainers, so you have to go to someone to learn new skills. We have guilds in now. The only really major feature that we don’t have implemented yet is crafting skills. All the crafting right now is 100 percent successful.

GamesBeat: How much work and time has gone into development now?

Long: We did the Kickstarter in April of 2013. We’ll be at 24 months this next April.

GamesBeat: Do you already have enough indicators that it will be successful?

Garriott: Fortunately, we can safely say yes to that now. We already have 100,000-some-odd followers. 36,000 of those people are paying. Presumably the people that are following, most of them will convert. Even that would be more than enough to sustain us. But with that many people pre-signed up, that indicates we should do well beyond that once we go retail.

Long: The nice thing about doing this iterative approach and these monthly releases is that we’re never moving in a wrong direction for more than a month. In a regular retail or even digital release, you can do some market tests. You have a general idea of whether you’ll be successful. But you don’t really know until players start playing. The fact that we started letting all our backers play 13 months ago–They’re not shy about telling us if they don’t like something.

Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Above: Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Image Credit: Portalarium

With all that said, we’re definitely building a product for the audience that wants an Ultima, Ultima Online type of experience. That means it’s much more sandbox, much more open-ended. We’re not going to have quest indicators over non-player characters’ (NPCs) heads. It’s more old-school. But what we’re excited about is that we’re seeing a lot of interest among the audience for that. Wasteland 2 was a great example. There’s an audience for this type of product.

Now, is it going to be as large as the World of Warcraft audience? No. But we’re also not spending $100 million making it. That’s what makes this a great time for us as developers right now. The whole indie and crowdfunding movement allows us to make products for very specific audiences, as opposed to having to make a product that’s going to appeal to “everyone.”

Garriott: The nice thing about that — Some of the biggest hits of the future will be $300 million games made by big studios. Most of those will be sequels to already-successful games. A lot of the new future big successful games, though, will come from a more independent route.

It’s great that we can sustain it in this way, but I don’t think that implies that we’re not capable of reaching a much larger audience. We just don’t have to have that larger audience at this point in our development.

GamesBeat: When you’re nearer to beta and launch, do you envision going to more traditional kinds of marketing?

Garriott: The digital connection to our community — we’re an online game. It makes sense that digitcal distribution is a key part of our future. We were in talks with some of the big retail outlets as to whether we should put together a packaged version for them. We’d be happy to do it if it remains relevant. We’d be happy to do things like print marketing if that remains relevant. But so far digital is so much more cost-effective for us, both in marketing and in sales and distribution, that that’s where the majority of our effort is going to go. We’ll see if physical media is really as helpful in the future.

Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Above: Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Image Credit: Portalarium

Long: Right now, because we’re crowdfunded — and we’ve done very well with that — we feel very strongly that all of the money that’s coming in should be spent on game development, not on marketing and PR. We spend a little bit on PR. You and I wouldn’t be talking if we didn’t have David working for us part time. But he has a real job working for Cloud Imperium. He just moonlights with us.

As we get closer to launch, we’ll probably do some actual marketing. We’ll probably do some ads and things like that. We’re trying to leverage a lot of social media stuff. One thing we decided on is that there’s no NDA. We don’t make players sign anything, because our philosophy is, if someone wants to stream about the game, go for it.

The only thing we ask — and it’s why we have this big yellow “PRE ALPHA” thing in the corner — is that we want them to realize that we’re not done. Don’t judge us like a finished product.

Garriott: Not only are we not done, we’re much earlier than most games the public ever gets to see. It doesn’t come up that often, but it comes up now and then. Either an individual or a publication will judge us in comparison to a finished product. That’s the one thing we think is unfair.

Understand that you’re looking at something way before beta. 13 months ago, as soon as we had an avatar walking around a room — the room had a chicken in it, so we called it the Chicken Room. As soon as we had the Chicken Room, we let players play it. The players who’ve been there since the beginning totally get it. “Yesterday we only had a chicken. Today I can see a house! I can use my anvil now!” They get the flow as it gets better and better every time.

Right now, since it’s close enough to looking like a beta, a lot of people don’t realize that if you were playing a couple months ago, you didn’t have any of this. That’s the only real education we need to bring people through — how to think about this in the context of its state of development.

If people are saying, “Hey, I wish combat was this way instead of that way,” that’s the feedback we look for. That’s how we’re refining the quality of the game, by letting people tell us how.

Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Above: Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Image Credit: Portalarium

GamesBeat: Is it fair to say you’re creating a model where the community develops the game?

Garriott: Totally. Not only with the ideas for design, but there’s a lot of things in the game that only exist because the community thought of it, created it, coded it, and made the objects for it.

A community website sprang up not long after we started called Avatars Radio. It was just a place where people audio-blogged in real time about the game and played music and so on. As soon as somebody made that, though, another group of community people got together and said, “I wish I could hear that while I’m in the game.” A group got together and made a 3D object that looks like a steampunk kind of radio, and then another group wrote a piece of code that would stream Avatars Radio into that device as a 3D object you put in the game. They put all that — the code, the 3D art, the website programming. We just set it in the game for them.

Now they use that device to simulcast when there are PvP tournaments. People set a radio there they have a live newscaster who commentates on the tournament. People do live performances where the actors, instead of just chatting with text, stand up on stage and “To be or not to be!” They act it out and you hear it live in the game in real time.

GamesBeat: How much content would you say is available? How much of the map is built out?

Long: There’s the mainland and the Vale, which is that map you saw me walking around. That’s an island off the coast. That island is basically done. The mainland is where the plot unfolds. It still has a lot of work to do. I’d say it’s about 20 percent built out.

The amount of gameplay time depends on how you play because we’re a sandbox. People who play more than a couple of hours will generally play 30 to 60 hours. That’s about how much content there is between all the different maps.

Garriott: If they’re playing to get through the content that exists, yeah. Every month we introduce two to four new maps. Each map has a few hours of content.

Long: As part of that crowdsourcing, 100 percent of the music in the game is made by players. A lot of the sound effects were developed by players. 80 or 90 percent eventually will be. About 20 percent of the props in the game, chairs and tables and things like that, are made by players. We pay them for those, either in real dollars or double that in in-game currency. It’s very much co-developed by the players.

Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Above: Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

Image Credit: Portalarium

Garriott: We’ve been really fortunate at a number of turns. When we started down the crowdfunding path, at best I thought it was going to be hard. At worst I thought we had reasonable odds it wouldn’t even work. If it didn’t work, not only would it mean the end of this team and this project, but it would be a substantial black mark on my career, if not the rest of the team’s. I thought crowdfunding was a very risky thing to do.

Not only did the Kickstarter go very well, and the ongoing crowdfunding too, but I’ve been shocked at how strong our community is, both as a team of supporters and with the specific skills to do things we can directly use. I radically underestimated that before the audio guys started kicking in. I had no idea they were capable of producing at such a high level of quality.

Now we’re opening it up to more and more areas. Now that we understand how to guide the .1 percent of people who are capable of producing at that level and how to remunerate them in a way that’s fair, we’re expanding and expanding. It’s essential to the product.

GamesBeat: Does Plantronics also get you some additional awareness here?

Long: Absolutely. We wouldn’t be having this interview if it wasn’t for Plantronics, nor would we have had the one at E3. The biggest thing for us is getting a presence at these shows. We don’t have the money to spend on that otherwise. We also co-tweet on social media and things like that. It’s definitely a mutually beneficial partnership.

Garriott: We have plenty of access to hardware by a lot of companies, but their audio gear — just over the holidays we were using these BackBeat Pros. I took a vacation to Hong Kong and southeast Asia over Christmas. It worked all the way to Hong Kong and back on one charge. It’s a phenomenal piece of gear.

GamesBeat: What’s next for you guys? What else is coming up on the road map?

Long: The biggest feature coming online, hopefully in this next release, is a set of features related to banks and encumbrance and getting your pledge rewards in the game. Right now you can basically carry unlimited weight. We’re going to add weight limits. Crafting skills will be the biggest feature coming online that hasn’t been implemented yet.

Garriott: As the world is beginning to grow, the nice thing about having banks and weight limits and the actual pledge rewards we’re supposed to have — right now everyone has basically everything. Over time we’ve given away stuff to the community to let them play with it. What we’ll be able to do now, though, is if you need a resource that’s more plentiful on that side of the world, it might be best to use it on that side of the world. We’ll have additional economies coming in for transport and trade of goods across the globe, which requires us to have regional banking.

Long: We’ll be iterating on control points in the game, very similar to what we did in Tabula Rasa. You can fight for control of a control point and that opens up access to special shopkeepers or quest givers and things like that. The enemy AI will try to take it back from you, though. We’ll be adding more features to that system — destructible gates and other things to make the sieges more interesting.

Shroud of the Avatar's Ardoris town

Above: Shroud of the Avatar’s Ardoris town

Image Credit: Portalarium

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