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April 25, 2014

Paul Cutsinger

Today, we’ll be talking to Executive Producer Starr Long about crowd funding, crowd sourcing, designing for mobile and his latest game, Shroud of the Avatar. Are crowd funding and crowd sourcing really that effective and what’s the catch? In this article, Starr elaborates on the different criteria and the processes that he frequently uses, in order to make crowd sourcing successful.

Starr Long has been making videogames for twenty years. Starr started his career in 1992 with Richard Garriott at the legendary studio Origin Systems, where he was the Director of Ultima Online, the longest running MMO in history. In 2010, Ultima Online was inducted into the Online Game Developers Conference Hall of Fame, the first MMO to be so honored. In 2000 Starr co-founded Destination Games with the Garriott brothers, and later that year it was acquired by NCsoft. In 2008 Starr was named one of the Top 20 Most Influential People in the Massively Multiplayer Online Industry by Beckett Massive Online Gamer Magazine. In 2009 he joined The Walt Disney Company as an Executive Producer, where he produced the Disney Parent App for Facebook, 8 learning mini-games in Club Penguin, Club Penguin mobile 1.0, 5 Educational Game apps for iOS, and the Disney Connected Learning Platform. He is now Executive Producer on the crowd funded and crowd sourced RPG Shroud of the Avatar at Portalarium. He also has his own video game consulting company: Stellar Effect.

Exploring Shroud of the Avatar

Starr thanks for taking the time to talk with us. The Amazon Developer blog is focused on helping mobile app developers take an idea and turn it into a product that people love. To that end we’re always trying to build services that help them, share best practices that we’ve seen or share insights from the leaders in the industry.

I see that you’re working on a new MMO – The Shroud of the Avatar. You have built several major MMOs now and I’m curious to know where you’re taking this one.

Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues is a computer role playing game being created by Lord British (aka Richard Garriott), creator of the genre defining Ultima series of computer games, me (Starr Long), director of Ultima Online, and Tracy Hickman, author of the Dragonlance series. It combines rich story, like those of the single player Ultimas, with deep and varied multiplayer experiences, like Ultima Online.

Players will adventure in an interactive world where their choices have consequences, ethical paradoxes give them pause, and they play a vital part in weaving their own story into the immersive world and lore surrounding them. Play options will include solo, friends only, or open multiplayer via the Selective Multiplayer system. Players can specialize in a wide range of combat and non-combat skills, provided by a robust, classless skill system, and full-featured crafting and housing mechanics.

Shroud is crowd funded and that allows the developers to work directly for, and with, the player, versus working for a large publishing corporation. Shroud is also crowd sourced so players can submit Unity compatible content (art, sfx, music, world building, etc). Once submitted content is approved the submitter can choose to be compensated in real or virtual currency. We also do crowd sharing where we do things like improve content we buy from places like the Unity Asset store and then give the improved versions back to the developer for free, we just ask that them say “As seen in Shroud…”.

Built using the Unity Game Engine, Shroud of the Avatar will support Win/Mac/Linux. Backers have early access to the game once per month currently.

Finding the Right Balance in Games

You’ve done some interesting things with the classless system and the variety of magic in the game. How do you get the right speed of progression and the right balance of power?  What do you do before you launch vs after you launch?

Our goal with a classless system was to provide the player more choice about how they could play the game and not just limit that to an initial choice but a constantly evolving choice. It was a decision to let the player decide how they wanted to play each and every play session. Today I might want to play a swordsman while tomorrow I might want to play a wizard and next week I might want to play a wizard swordsman hybrid! The old adage of “easy to learn, difficult to master” is still the best strategy for balancing progression. The player should start off feeling powerful but not be overburdened with too many options (number of spells, stats, etc.). After playing for some time the player should be increasingly challenged while at the same time they should be presented with an ever widening number of options. Once the players start using your game you have to be prepared to tune that balance because however balanced it was while you played it internally it rarely stands up to actual users input. It is the Art of War paraphrase…“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Starr Long’s Secret behind Crowd Sourcing

You’ve raised about $4 Million through crowd funding ($1.9 Million with Kickstarter, $2M on the website). That’s a different way to raise funds and there are a lot of indie studios that would like to break through that way. You raised a lot of money in a few short days, and then even more over the following year. What has been your marketing and sales strategy? Do you believe that you need to “bring your own crowd” to Kickstarter? What’s the one best thing you did with your Kickstarter and what’s one thing you’d never do again? 

We had a distinct advantage with our crowd funding because as you noted we were able to “bring our own crowd” because Richard Garriott is known for creating some of the very first computer RPGs ever and Ultima Online was the first major commercial MMO ever (and in fact coined terms like MMO, MMORPG, shards, rares, etc.). This created a built-in fan base who were ready to support anything Richard did that hearkened to those ground breaking Ultima titles. What is important to note is that they were only willing to do that on the promise that he was doing what he was known for, specifically not doing something different. So the double edged sword there with a built-in crowd is they want you to build something like you have done before. They will not support you if you try to do something very different. So our strategy started fairly simple: “Make what they want.” Kickstarter provides a great framework to get things started with a tier structure, communication tools, etc. From there we used that structure to provide rewards to backers that were themed to the product and capitalized on some of our unique features and strategy. For instance because we are doing crowd sourcing we created a level called Developer where that level got assets from the game for free that they could use to either make their own games or make content for us that we would then pay them for. The biggest tips for doing a Kickstarter are:

  • Have a very clear message about what you are making exactly (gameplay description, platform(s), visual style, etc.)
  • Have a great video demo if possible. Using off the shelf tools like Unity are the best way to get this done quickly
  • Have lots of pretty art
  • Don’t over promise what you can make with the amount of funds you are asking for or make sure potential backers that Kickstarter will only be one source of funding
  • Leverage social media constantly
  • Have new content and new information at least every few days that you can release to keep interest going (interviews with the team, concept art, videos, etc.)

Once we finished the Kickstarter and transitioned to fundraising via our own website our strategy became “develop in the open.” We have done that through the following ways:

·         Daily Standup Update: We actually post the notes from our daily standups to our forums. So every day our backers can see exactly what each person on the team is doing.

·         Weekly Updates that include the following:

o    Art Assets representing the rewards promised to backers. This means building the game model and putting it in the game. This content includes player houses, pets, clothes, tools, etc.

o    Content for our Add-On Store: a la carte unique purchases outside of the regular pledge structure (player houses, pets, tools, property deeds, etc.)

o    Events: Upcoming Calendar plus retrospectives of past events (pics, descriptions, etc.)

o    General Status updates

  • Release Schedule: We publicly broadcast our monthly releases including details about what each month’s release will contain. These schedules detail out one quarter at a time (3 months).
  • Monthly Early Access Releases: Each month we allow our backers to play the game over a long weekend (Thursday through Monday). We then take their feedback and fold that into our plans for the following releases
  • Developer Hangouts: We do semi-regular Google video hangouts that our backers can watch. During those hangouts we generally answer questions that are being submitted in real time
  • Forums & Internet Relay Chat (IRC): We have forums and IRC where our backers can interact with each other and the developers. Every single day at least one of our team is either on the forums or in chat talking to the players answering questions or posting updates about schedule, game designs, etc.

A Look behind the Producer

I’d like to better understand your perspective as a producer. When you’re looking at a game for the first time, what do you think about?

I start by asking myself (and the team) a bunch of questions:

  • Can this be done at all? Is this project even feasible? Many times (especially with either inexperienced teams or naïve executives) games are way over scoped beyond what is actually possible.
  • If the game can be done can it be done either quickly or affordably? A game that either takes too long or costs too much to make causes the cost of success to be too high. This can doom a project before it even reaches customers.
  • Will this game be fun? This should be super obvious but many times the focus will be too much on monetization or a cool license property and this gets lost in the shuffle.
  • Do I know enough about this type of game to make it successful? If I don’t can I learn about it fast enough? Am I passionate about this game? Often producers will try to make a game they either aren’t familiar with or passionate about. When that happens the team and the product invariably suffer for it.

The Tradeoff when Building a Game

Let’s talk about the process of building a game. What does your product cycle look like? How do you get to something that’s fun? When building games there are a ton of trade-offs - could you give an example of a trade-off that you had to make and how you were still able to make a great experience?

On our current project we started by creating an overall plan for the entire project cycle that we painted in very broad strokes. From there we created a 3-4 month plan that outlines what we want to build for that quarter. We then divide that into monthly releases so that puts us on a 4-5 week cycle. The first 2-3 weeks are about putting in as much content as we can and then the final weeks are all about polish and testing. Because each of those releases go directly to our players (even though we are still in pre-alpha) we get immediate feedback on what is fun and what isn’t. We love this structure because it really keeps us honest about what is good or not. It is easy to fall in love with your own ideas and lose some objectivity. After each cycle we make sure to modify the next cycle’s deliverables so we can react to feedback from the users. There are always tradeoffs that have to be made but as long as the tradeoff doesn’t sacrifice the overall vision of the game or reduce the fun factor then they don’t have to be damaging to the product.

Top 3 Tips for Developers

You’re one of the rare people that have done a lot with both MMOs and with mobile games. What are your top 3 tips for mobile developers?

  1. Size: Make sure your title’s initial download can be done relatively quickly over 3G. From there if you stream content to increase size remember that when you want to update the app you will lose that ability and if you make it too big there might not be room on the device to download the update
  2. Business: Because we have so many tools now that allow us to make games that means anyone can make games (especially on mobile). This has resulted in an explosion of content and it is increasingly difficult to get recognized. This means it is no longer enough to know how to make good content…you have to know how to make money, too. This means you need to know what are the best monetization models for your product, how you can manage costs to acquire customers, etc.
  3. Community: Figure out a way that your project can build and maintain a community rather than just be a standalone product.

Thank you Starr, we appreciate the time and it’s exciting to hear your perspective.

Readers, if you would like to help make Shroud of the Avatar through funding and/or making content (art, music, sfx, etc.)  or in play testing in the alphas, then please visit their website, for more information.


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