"There's going to be a land rush. There will be a land grab. Without a doubt."
These are the words of Shroud of the Avatar backer Tina Swafford (aka Fireangel). She was talking about the decision by the game's developer (Portalarium) to parcel out settleable land-lots to players in its fantasy world, on a strictly finite basis.
Designer Richard Garriott (aka Lord British), working with Starr Long, have decided to limit habitable land in the game, by selling deeds. This move has the potential to cause all manner of unforeseen consequences.
Much like deeds sold in the old West, they do not specify a particular piece of land, only a right to settle. Garriott will open up the land on pre-designated days, and players will seek out the piece of property that is most attractive to them. Their character will literally run to a favored spot and put down stakes.
It's like those old movies of the romantic and chaotic land-rushes of the American West, wagons lining up as the bugle blares, hat-flappin' boomers scuttling across rolling hills in search of land.
This is not an accidental metaphor. Garriott and Long researched events like the Oklahoma Land Rush as part of their design process.
Swafford, a longtime player of Garriott's games, lives in Oklahoma, that same state where, in 1889, 50,000 settlers surrounded an area of 2 million acres. Lines of eager families were held back by U.S Army officials until a designated time — noon on April 22 — when they were allowed to rush in to find and claim their parcel of paradise
Hat-flappin' boomers scuttling across rolling hills
Swafford also knows about the role of land, and of building, in virtual worlds. When the Ultima Online Burning Heart Guild (of which she was a member) decided to build their own town in UO, they were expressing an American impulse; to show their own identity through construction on newly acquired land, to protect themselves in a hostile environment, to gather together among their own kind and, perhaps most of all, to create a separation between their own community and the wider world.
From Mennonite utopias to gated communities, from the gleaming ideals of New England town-founders to the kaleidoscope of identifiably cultural, racial and economic modern neighborhoods, the act of building has separated and celebrated groups of individuals throughout the American era, which is a history of colonization.
The desire is universal, but the American particular comes from the exceptional prize its settlers took for themselves: land, unimaginable quantities of the stuff.
Valuable lessons about how people react to the availability of this most desirable commodity have not been lost on game designers who create their own virtual untamed forests and rolling prairies for players to populate.
Long and Garriott, puzzling on how to bring the best of Ultima Online back to life in Shroud of the Avatar, the need for players to own and build personal properties in a sandbox world, came to two conclusions. Player constructions would need to be part of the game (not some separate, otherworld, mini-game fancy), and there would need to be a finite supply of land, in order to create the most value and, therefore, desire.
"Since Ultima Online and maybe Star Wars Galaxy almost all player housing has been instanced, an infinite supply of space," Long told Polygon. "What ends up happening is that housing is separate from the contiguous game space and counteracts its purpose as a social experience. It's on another map, effectively."
Once it's gone, it's gone
He wants players to own land, build houses, craft furniture, go fish and turn the soil, to create that most desirable quality in a multiplayer world, an economy. Land will be taxed in order to encourage players to interact with the environment. Players will be able to sell property and land to one another, using (officially) only in-game currency, although a real-currency black market is surely inevitable, despite the precautions Portalarium is bound to take.
Land is being sold by Portalarium for real money in order to fund development. High level backers on Kickstarter paid a fat $450 for a bunch of benefits that includes one of the larger portions of land, sometimes tied to special extras, such as waterfront privileges. A new offer is being set up that allows would-be players of the game, due for release late next year, to secure deeds for $150.
These are considerable sums of money. But then, people who take games like Shroud of the Avatar seriously — games that can be inhabited — see value in virtual property and are willing to pay.
"We want people to feel value and attachment," said Long (pictured below). "We want to create a thriving economy. Players want their home and businesses to be in high-traffic locations."
That's a serious consideration. Crafting is going to be a part of Shroud of the Avatar, artifacts and goods that can be bought, sold and traded. Also, as in all multiplayer communities, personal aggrandizement is an issue. If you want to invest your character in a long term, large construction project, with all the furnishings, it makes sense to seek a lovely plot of land in a big city.
Lori Treleaven (aka Dame Lori) is a self-confessed Garriott fan, long-time Ultima player, SoTA backer and fan-site blogger. She's also the sort of player who likes to build. "Housing is one of the things I like doing," she said. "I had a lot of fun with it in Ultima Online. I'll probably have a vendor to sell goods and I'll make it look good so people will see it." She has a waterfront license, partly because, "I like the idea of being out on my back deck fishing. It sounds like fun."
Like those settlers back in 1889, the smart move is to have a plan. Swafford said that she always likes to scout an entire world, to traverse it on foot, before she really begins developing a character. Likewise, Treleaven will be using the beta to look for prime settling positions. Of course, so will everyone else.
Everyone will be scouting the best lots
In the Oklahoma Land Rush, it was not uncommon to arrive at a favored location, to find some fellow already there, a corrupt official or a 'Sooner" who had found a dastardly way to sneak onto the land and evade the authorities. And although cheating in SoTA, under the baleful gaze of Garriott's alter-ego Lord British, doesn't look likely, it is nevertheless going to be chaotic.
"Everyone will be scouting the best lots, once the beta starts," said Treleaven. "I saw this happen when land opened up in Ultima Online. There's always a mad rush. People will be ready the second it opens up. I know I will be. I definitely need to make a plan and plot it all out ahead of time, but that's all part of the fun."
To bring some order, Long said different windows of time to settle land will be opened up, giving those who pledged high and early, prize picks of the best lots. Of course, those who come to the game late will be disappointed, effectively homeless. (To be fair, the game is about a whole lot more than settling. It's an RPG in the old adventure-story sense, as well as an open-world, in which players can indulge in lots of different behaviors.)
"People who have the first deeds can place first and then it'll go in order like that," said Swafford, who has been an active member of the game's community, consulting with designers on how the world evolves. "Once they're taken, they're taken."
"If we have enough players, we will run out of land in Episode One," said Long. "There won't be any more left. That's when we think the secondary market between players will really pick up, when people will want to sell real estate between players." There are also plans for subsequent episodes, which will no doubt open up new land areas, and more land rushes.
Long said that he had researched the land rushes of the old West because "it's the perfect model" for his design projections. "We're very much inspired by that westward expansion and that exact behavior of new land being discovered and offered up and the kind of behavior we want to see. It's different and it's challenging, but we think it's more interesting for the players."
One of the effects of this, he said, would be communities gathering together of their own volition. Back in the Ultima Online days, the Burning Heart Guild worked hard to create enough gold to buy the land that became their exclusive domain. They did so partly because, as Swafford recalled, 'it was a blast" and partly as a way to discourage "griefers" who took pleasure from bullying the weak. Protection from violence is a prime concern for settlers in all times and places.
"We absolutely believe people will group themselves not just on individual pieces of land but in adjacent land as well," said Long. "Over time certain villages and towns will start to define themselves with certain characteristics. Some of those groupings will be influenced by the nature of the game world, proximity to resources being the biggest factor, but sometimes the groupings will just be based on common play patterns like adventuring, gardening or commerce. What will be really interesting is if there emerge groupings based on ideology around contentious subjects in the world, like player-vs-player, min-maxing or role-playing."
As in the real world, players could form communities based on their ideology. In this sense, Shroud of the Avatar begins to behave more and more like American communities, congregating on new territories.