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Shroud of the Avatar developers want backers to 'feel like partners'

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, the new online multiplayer role-playing game from Richard Garriott, is being developed at Portalarium by approximately 30 people — a number that's many times smaller than the size of a typical team making a massively multiplayer online title these days. But they've got some help from more than 35,000 other individuals, the community of backers that has contributed over $4.26 million to fund the project through Kickstarter and the game's website.

Those people are helping to shape Shroud of the Avatar with more than just money: They've provided plenty of constructive feedback, as well as direct pieces of the game, including art, music and code. In an interview with Polygon during E3 2014, creative director Richard Garriott and executive producer Starr Long said that even if this type of development doesn't become the norm in the industry, one element of it is here to stay: communication with the fan community.

"We really want them to feel like partners," said Garriott of the backers. Portalarium, which he co-founded in September 2009, raised nearly $1.92 million on Kickstarter in early 2013 to fund the development of Shroud of the Avatar, and has since pulled in almost $2.35 million in additional funds.

The studio and its backers have a constant back-and-forth relationship. Even during the current phase of development, pre-alpha, the developers have been providing the community with a full schedule of planned monthly updates for the forthcoming quarter of the year. Players provide feedback on the list and the most recent version of the game, and according to Garriott and Long, 30 percent of every monthly update consists of changes made based on that feedback. For example, the developers weren't initially going to include jumping or swimming because they didn't have the budget and it wasn't in their plan. However, they ended up implementing both features after a strident outcry from the players.

Direct contributions include music, a part of Shroud of the Avatar that has come about from a strong collaboration with the team. Some backers submitted music to Portalarium that turned out to be a poor fit for the game, so Garriott hopped on Google Hangout with the musicians to give them guidance. After that, the musicians ran their own Kickstarter campaigns to raise money for recording equipment and other necessities, and since then, Portalarium has used almost every piece of music they've submitted.

Asked about how Portalarium tracks the feedback it receives from backers, Garriott said that the studio has two employees who handle community management, although because the team is small, those people don't work full-time on community relations. But according to Garriott, the backers understand Portalarium's limitations, so they do a lot of "self-organization," with forum members coordinating and organizing feedback so it's easier for the team to understand it.

"The model of development for many MMOs is broken"

This development model, said Garriott, means that any mistakes Portalarium makes aren't as costly as they would be otherwise.

"The worst mistakes we make last less than a month," he explained, referring to Shroud of the Avatar's rapid pace of regular updates.

In addition, the game is being built in the Unity engine, which allows Portalarium's crowdsourcing of game assets to extend from its community of backers to the larger Unity development community. For instance, there's an animation in Shroud of the Avatar for the movement of a cloak that comes from the Unity Asset Store.

"The model of development for many MMOs is broken," said Garriott, noting the existence of multiple "big failures" without naming names. While he said that certain existing big-budget franchises have sustainable models that work very well — he cited Electronic Arts' plan of investing in technology over multiple years with Madden NFL and Activision's three-team strategy for Call of Duty — Garriott believes that the crowdsourced plan will take off for small teams that want to create new IP and build "larger virtual worlds."

Long agreed, and said that regardless of the model, "openness will increase" between game makers and players.

Shroud of the Avatar's progress has been "pretty darn good" by Portalarium's internal measures, said Garriott, and the studio remains on track to have an open beta of the game ready by the end of 2014.

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