Sunday, April 8, 2018

Got Live If You Want It (I'm Not Sure I Do) : Shroud of the Avatar

It's been almost a year since I last paid a visit to Shroud of the Avatar. Since then I certainly haven't been chammering at the bit, waiting for Richard Garriott to throw wide the gates, cut the red ribbon and declare SotA officially "launched". If I'm honest, I can't remember all that much about it. I was just left with the vague impression that I rather enjoyed myself.

Of course, "Lord British", supremely unaware of my existence as he gazes down from his orbital weapons platform, doesn't set his calendar by my interest (or lack thereof) in his earthly works. On the 27th of March he gave his formal nod of assent for SotA - finally - to drop the fig-leaf of Early Access and step proudly onto the stage as a Finished Game. Well, kind of.

As we all know, MMORPGs are never finished, nor meant to be. Not to mention that as soon as you start selling "Packs" and charging money your game is de facto "launched", regardless of what euphemisms you care to employ so you can sleep at night.

I always seem to be in my own shade. Maybe if I lit this torch...

Anyway, it's out there for real now. You can buy it and play it and if it doesn't work Portalarium can't hand-wave your complaints away by playing the "still in development" card. What practical difference that makes is less clear. No MMO ever worked flawlessly and having a purchase receipt and a subscription agreement never guaranteed anyone a refund beyond what might have been required by law.

No-one in this corner of the blogosphere seems to have been paying much attention, anyway. The only post-launch posts I noticed were Wilhelm formally recording the fact and Syp giving it a quick once-over.

Wilhelm opined that he couldn't see when he'd find the time, which sums up how I feel about any number of current and forthcoming MMOs. Syp, who did at least make the effort to log in, sounded like he wished he hadn't bothered. He summed up a frustrating and lacklustre session with one of those 'I'm not angry - I'm just disappointed' anti-rants so beloved by dads the world over:

"Shroud of the Avatar isn’t as engrossing or connected as it should be. And it really should be, which is the shame here."

I did manage to patch the thing up on launch day but that's as far as I got until this morning, when I decided to give SotA another run. For science. Or at least for a blog post.

That's a feature you don't often see.

A week and more having passed there was, naturally, more patching to do. The SotA patcher is swift so that passed painlessly enough. I logged in using my free trial details and my character was there, waiting, just as I'd left him. That was the easy part. From there onwards things went downhill - slowly, like a glacier.

It wasn't anything to do with the game itself. I didn't get as far as playing the game. Last time, when the thing was supposedly in "pre-alpha", I don't recall having any particular issues with performance. There's plenty in the couple of posts I wrote that echoes Syp's confusion over SotA's idiosyncratic systems and design choices but nothing about stuttering, frame-rate lag, buildings popping in out of nowhere or every new zone taking literally minutes to load.

Today I found SotA all but unplayable. My PC was constantly grinding away on 100% disk access. I checked to see if something else was going on but it seemed to be entirely down to the game itself. I would have googled to see if it was a known issue but tabbing out to look anything up was impossible. I could move about in the world, provided I didn't want to open any doors, interact with any NPCs, check my inventory or basically do anything more than peer cautiously around me. Making no sudden turns.

I'm going to jump...I think...

I put up with it for about an hour, in which time I achieved absolutely nothing other than to take some screenshots. The game has taken a considerable amount of criticism for its supposedly old-fashioned graphics but it looks quite good to me. It may not be cutting-edge but it's certainly not 'EverQuest with a new coat of paint' like Project: Gorgon. Then again, I can play P:G.

If the scenery seemed fine, the animations were less satisfactory. My character knocks his ankles together as he runs and one time, when he was sliding down a rocky riverbank, it looked as if his leading foot was going to come off altogether. On the other hand (or foot), when he ended up in the river itself, the swimming animations were pretty spiffy, so it's a mixed bag.

Yep. I jumped.
Syp complained about the absence of a zone or mini-map. That puzzled me because I had both. Hitting "M" brought up a map of the city I was in. It wasn't a great map but it worked. There was also an overview map of the connections between zones but that only appeared in the peculiar "Overland Travel" area that serves as SotA's nod to fast travel.

I also had one of the collectible maps Syp mentions, which I imagine I must have bought from an NPC or found somehow last time I played. That seemed to function like a mini map, although it kept disappearing while I was trying to read it. It was also annotated in some made-up language, which is probably very immersive if you commit to the game but quite annoying if you're just trying to get your bearings at the start.

Who wrote this? Elves?

I had a quest tracker up on screen. I would have used it to complete something I'd started a year ago, if I could have found my way back to where I'd been, but I couldn't work out where to go, even with all the maps.

It'd sure be nice to accomplish something.

The quest journal itself is attractively designed and the quests are well-written but with the frame-rate issues and the extraordinarily lengthy zoning times there was no chance I'd be able to navigate my way to where I needed to be before my increasingly frayed patience wore out.

Red light means danger.
My willingness to struggle on was further undermined by the D&D style random encounters that dragged me into a private instance every time I tried to travel from one Adventure area to another. Not to mention the fact that my weapon was broken and I couldn't remember how the combat system worked anyway.

Grey light means dead.

My unfortunate encounters with packs of wolves and gangs of skeletons did at least mean I got to see what happens when you die. I don't remember it from my last excursion. You have to go find an Ankh, which revives you, or wait five minutes if you can't be arsed.

There's probably more to it than that. I'm sure there's more to it than that. Shroud of the Avatar is one of those MMORPGs where there's always more to it than that. That's a good thing, or at least I think it is, in theory, but as I said last time, I may just be getting too old for this level of "realism".

This map suggests a lot of content - content I will never see.

I'm definitely too old to deal with three to five minute zone transitions and appalling performance issues. A little lag I can handle but this is way too much. Now it's finally "gone live", SotA might be an  MMO worth exploring but until I can actually play it I'm never going to know for sure.

Perhaps I'll give it another run if I hear the performance issues have improved but until then there are less frustrating places to be.


  1. I'm about 8 hours into playing it at this point. Now I've got to find some time to talk about what I've seen so far... and figure out what it is I have really seen so far. My main bone to pick with Syp is that he seemed pre-disposed to expect a modern MMO or RPG. But Syp also gets feisty when any MMO doesn't have his list of expected features. SotA is more like somebody took the state of RPGs from the early 90s and tried to put them on a modern platform. It is finicky and awkward and full of little details that nobody bothers with today. The question is whether or not bothering with them is something you miss or not. Anyway, I am going to try to get to that this week.

    SotA is definitely not for anybody who complains in general chat in game that WoW does this or that better.

    1. That's exactly what it is - a late-90s rpg with modern (well, 2015 era) graphics. It does make me wonder about Lord British. Does he genuinely believe RPGs were at their creative apogee in 1995 or has he simply not played one since then?

      I also think SotA is probably a pretty good MMO - for someone with the time and patience to make the most of it. And, of course, for someone who has a PC that can get it to run. Unfortunately I don't currently meet either requirement. I am keeping it on my waitlist, though. I might even buy it at some point.

      looking forward to reading your thoughts on it - and also any tips you might have on why it used to run for me and now it doesn't.

  2. Apologies for this being totally off-topic, but I've been going around to some of the bloggers I follow and inquiring if they'd be interested in doing a guest post on Superior Realities, and I was wondering if you'd be interested?

    As you may have seen, I've had to slow down my posting due to Real Life issues, but I'd still like to keep fresh content on the blog as much as possible. And in return you might get some more exposure for your writing -- I'd include a plug for Inventory Full in the intro to the post.

    If you're interested, send me a message via the contact page on my blog, and we can discuss details. If not, apologies for the spam.

  3. This is not about "the 90's RPG design way", this is a mixed bag of bad design and bad use of tech.

    The game is confuse, the history linear and someway broken and the world a themed park diveded in zones, and you need a ton of hardware to run in the supposed "best quality".

    Lord British is dead, he was killed inside Ultima Online years ago, now we have Richard Garriott and Starr Long, plus Chris Spears, they have no clue about the modern market, how to evolve or adapt, whatever... the only thing 100% Ultima Online right now, is the RMT.

    Long live Raph Koster!

  4. It looks like you're in Ardoris; this is the capital city, and thus the town with the most player homes, and as a consequence, the largest amount of non-optimised Unity Asset Flips that have been sold to the players. The game struggles on an SSD to load in the sheer number of add ons, but from a Hard Drive as you apparently discovered, it's unplayable.

    If you can get away from the towns, it's better, but that's no excuse. Many of we critics pointed out the appalling performance but like everything else with this project, they've listened only to the Real Money Traders, and they tend to use the sales in the game to buy themselves the hardware they need to run it; Markee Dragon, Portalarium's Trusted Trader, used his Shroud streams to get his viewers to buy him a 1080 once as I recall...

    The map sometimes just doesn't work; there was no in game global map originally, just the local NPC bought ones until a fan made their own plugin. Because it had to sync to a third party app it often went down. It also can't work with Linux at all. Portalarium eventually purchased his work when he no longer was able to support it, but like so much else, they've not had the time or skill to improve it since.

    And none of this is touching about the toxic, unethical behaviour from tiny fanbase or appalling developers; the game just by itself remains horrendous. But they had to "Launch" as they were running out of money again. And "Launch" figures still haven't surpassed the true launch of July 2016 when they turned RMT on and stopped wiping the servers. I doubt you'll ever get to see it improved I'm afraid...

    1. That's very interesting. It suppose it might explain why my performance is so much worse poat-launch than it was a year ago, if people have now bought and installed all their castles and so on. I wonder if I'd have the same issues playing the offline mode? I'd have to buy it to find out, though, and I'm not about to do that.

      I think I'll wait and see how things progress...although I'm not expecting much.


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