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As Richard Garriott's new RPG approaches $6M, he eyes a 2015 full release and book trilogy [correction]

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With nearly $6 million raised and 50,000 people spending an average of $115 each on Richard Garriott's still-in-development role-playing game, Shroud of the Avatar looks like it will get its full release by the end of the year.

But that's just the beginning.

It's been more than a year and 13 updates since the first bit of Shroud of the Avatar went live and it's taught the father of Ultima, some would say the father of modern MMOs, quite a lot.

"Running a crowd-funded game is a very interesting life as you might imagine," Garriott said. "It's a constant internal introspection you have to do as to how much money you currently have in the bank, how much you should be willing to spend on speeding up or improving quality, versus what you predict for new players joining you in the future."

What Garriott has come to find is that players quickly adjust to the idea of playing a game that is still blossoming, and that once they understand the growth, they come to enjoy it.

The game's first release, which hit in December of 2013, was little more than a map and a generic avatar to walk around on it.

"No one was judging us at that time, they were going, 'Cool, I have an avatar and a map," Garriott said. "The very next month they could see each other walking around on a map. Compared to walking around alone on a map, that's a big improvement. The month after that, they could buy and sell stuff. The month after that there was bad guys to fight. Month after that there was something new.

"Everyone who has been with us for more than a month is in that rhythm and go, 'Wow, each month I'm excited to see what new stuff is going to come online.'"

It was almost an experiment, one made successful in part by how well the development team was at hitting their promised goals.

"One of the things that has helped is that we've had 14 months of precisely on time releases," Garriott said. "We have pushed the live button literally to the minute, to the second at times, on time, 14 months in a row."

That and the constant drip of new content kept those early players happy and occupied, despite playing something that even Garriott says wasn't much of a game.

But now that Shroud has sufficient content to support a bit more fun, and is operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the team is looking to pull in more mainstream gamers.

The first step in that direction was bringing the title to Steam to reach an untapped group, Garriott said.

"We were pleasantly surprised to find that I think we are the fastest greenlit project on Steam ever, as far as I can tell," he said. "And we had very brisk initial adoption on Steam and we're still one of the highest rated. We're 80 percent or so thumbs up."

The combination of going 24/7 (before that the game was only live on weekends) and adding Steam has led to steeper growth in the game's playerbase, Garriott said.

Another big jumpstart to the game was last week's addition of the Kickstarter pledge awards for players, things like castles.

"Now we're seeing the individual pledges start to rise," he said. "Those two events are very important to us, just as a business and also are a good sign that players are enjoying the game."

Garriott says about 70 percent of the game's systems are now present, though they still need a lot of polish, and about 20 percents of the maps, content, conversations and quests are present.

shroud cover

"So now that's the big push for the rest of the year," he said. "We're no longer gated by features, we're gated by content. Which is generally speaking pretty predictable, so we think we're in a good position to release the first full version of the game by the end of the year.

"Now it's a content race. We think we can get all of the maps completed by the end of the year. The thing we're looking at now is the storyline and quests."

Currently, the game has 150,000 people signed up for it, 50,000 of which are backers who have put down money. On average, Garriott said, those backers pay $115 each.

"It's one of the highest crowdfunded averages of all," he said. "And it's going up."

The game launched with a Kickstarter in March of 2013, eventually bringing in about $2 million, Garriott said. The game's website took over funding efforts after that, and now the game is approaching $6 million in funding.

And all of that without any marketing,

"So far we've spent zero on marketing," he said.

When the team does go to a show, appearing in the booth of a hardware partner, they find that 80 percent of the people who sign up to play did not know the game existed and 50 percent had not played a previous Ultima game.

"They knew of the series, but no new Ultima has been around for 10 years," Garriott said. "They're kids, they're younger. Time marches on."

Garriott says that while they haven't played an Ultima game, they're aware of them.

"That's why we think it's untapped," he said. "As soon as we market, we still have five times the potential of whatever we could do independently, at least, plus we're also seeing this uplift because the game is 24/7.

"I think the closer we get to launch that rate of increase will continue to increase."

Keeping in mind there really isn't much of game yet either.

"A lot of the main plot we're leaving turned off," Garriott said of the playable build. "We only turned on little pieces of it to test. We're going to try and keep the story aspects of it as quiet as possible to as close to launch as possible.

How Lord British escaped EA's clutches

lord british

What might surprise some long-time fans of Richard Garriott's games is that in Shroud of the Avatar, Garriott's characters name is still Lord British.

Despite having sold off developer Origin and the Ultima series to Electronic Arts, Garriott said he made sure to keep ownership of that game's main character.

"I own it," he said. "It does not belong to EA or Ultima. Prior to Origin's sale to EA, I owned Ultima personally, Origin did not own Ultima. When EA went to buy Origin and realized the company didn't own Ultima, they said, 'We won't buy Origin unless it includes the word Ultima.'"

Garriott said he told them he agreed to sell it, but that they couldn't have Lord British. Despite that, though, Lord British remained in Ultima Online by contract.

"I basically said, 'Any place we used him, I'm happy for him to stay. But if you put new words in Lord British's mouth, I have to approve it,'" Garriott said. "So Lord British is mine."

"In the final month, we're going to have to do more robust testing of the whole plot, but for most people we let them play the sandbox game, which isn't spoiled by time, I think it's enhanced by time."

A team of 25 to 30 are hard at work on the game's systems, plot, maps and other important elements, Garriott said.

The community team is made up of a community manager and game developers.

"Me and Starr Long and Chris Spears and many members of the team are in the game a lot," he said. "We enjoy it, but we also feel we really need to be there."

Mostly because the team's increased focus on fun means they want to see firsthand how players are experiencing their game, he said.

And all of this work, the push to finish game systems and content, is just to finalize and push out episode one of the game, Garriott reminds me.

"This map is effectively the center tile of a tic-tac-toe board that is the total world," he said. "Every year we want to release a doubling of the previous amount of geography.

"We will fill out that tic-tac-toe board with four more episodes. So we have at least five, if you count this first one, planned out."

The big test, he said, is if the team can really produce a full episode of new content and maps in one calendar year.

"If this ends up taking us 20, 30 percent longer this year, each episode will probably be the same," he said.

While Garriott and his team have a lot on their plate in creating this game as players swarm all over it, he's not content in just spending his time on that. He's also working with New York Times bestselling author Tracy Hickman, who wrote the game's plot, to release a trilogy of books that will set the stage for the game and its world.

The first book, Blade of the Avatar, is already written and two more are under contract, he said.

"I think the stories that make up my games are more appropriate than most are for transmedia opportunities," he said. "I think the stories in my games are more literally, have more socially relevance and deeper characters than most games. That's not to say they're as good as most books or most movies, but as a basis for transmedia, I think they would be stronger."

Correction: This story initially quoted Richard Garriott as saying that the game raised nearly $7 million to date. He misspoke and meant $6 million. The story has been corrected to reflect that.