Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, Richard Garriott's spiritual successor to the legendary online role-playing game Ultima Online - and for a long time the second-most-crowdfunded game around (with more than $10m raised) - launched a only a few months ago, 27th March 2018. Did you notice? I don't blame you, because it appears to have been a flop.
Steam doesn't paint the whole picture, because you can buy and play the game through the official Shroud of the Avatar website, but the picture it does paint is worrying. In the launch month of March, Shroud of the Avatar had a peak Steam concurrent player count of only 562, which is tiny - way outside of the top-100 let alone the top-10. And customer reviews average at 'Mixed', which means you see plenty of off-putting negative reviews.
But more worrying was news of layoffs. A reporter from MMORPG visited Shroud developer Portalarium a couple of weeks ago, coincidentally a day after the layoffs happened, and said "half their team" had been let go.
"We have total confidence we'll go through all five episodes, come hell or high water." -Richard Garriott
It didn't look good. Online games (Shroud can be played offline in a separate mode, but online is the focus) are expensive to maintain and only work if people are playing them. If people aren't interested, how long can Shroud stick around?
I spoke to Richard Garriott yesterday about it.
Firstly, "The majority of players don't play on Steam," he told me. "We are in the many thousands but not in the many tens of thousands of monthly active users at the moment. We'd be quite content with tens of thousands of monthly active users, and we're within shooting range of that."
Secondly, there were layoffs but Portalarium didn't halve the team. "We were more than 20 [people] before and we're a little under now," he said, though this number doesn't include contracted help.
Portalarium may also be bulking back up, which sounds positive. "We did make some reductions to get back to the size we could afford at the burn rate we had been at previously, but we hope to staff back up here if we get the marketing to take hold again," he said.
Marketing is the key issue as Garriott sees it. In short, there wasn't any. Garriott and team paid for marketing which no one saw materialise. "We spent a chunk of money on the April marketing but literally no one in our office saw it," he said. No one in the game community apparently saw it either. "Sadly we misfired a chunk of change on mistargeted marketing."
Garriott believes there are still "millions" of Ultima Players unaware Shroud of the Avatar exists. "We think we've only hit about twenty per cent of our core audience," he said. "I can't tell you how many people on my own Twitter feed still go, 'Oh wait what? You came out with a new game?!'"
Portalarium has been trialling new marketing internally and thinks it's onto something. "If this proves out then we think in the next few months we'll be able to start turning this and creating a much larger audience," he said, "but it's taken us a few months to figure this out."
But what if the marketing doesn't work and nothing changes - how long can Shroud of the Avatar run? "Forever," Garriott insisted. "We have total confidence we'll go through all five episodes, come hell or high water."
Episodes are essentially Shroud's expansions - big bundles of content themed around a story. Forsaken Virtues is Episode 1, and Portalarium is currently planning Episode 2.
Portalarium is not working on any other games besides Shroud of the Avatar, and nor is Richard Garriott. "I'm still focused fully on Shroud of the Avatar," he said - "this will keep me busy for another year or two for sure."
Overall, then, there's optimism. But if Shroud of the Avatar cannot turn its fortunes around I wonder what it will mean both for Richard Garriott (whose recent track record will be Shroud of the Avatar and Tabula Rasa) and for the other crowdfunded online games selling virtual property like Shroud of the Avatar is - Star Citizen being the biggest and most famous of them. In many ways Shroud is a litmus test for it.