Crowfall producer helps shed light on the game's future.
Hope, Renewed – The MMOGames Crowfall Interview
Crowfall, the crowdfunded PvP MMO, is a game we’ve been writing about since it’s inception. While initial reviews may not have met player expectations, we argued in our own recent Crowfall strengths and weaknesses review that these criticisms were not entirely fair – and that the game actually has many benefits and a potential that is yet to be realised. In our Crowfall interview, we spoke with Gordon Walton, the co-founder and executive producer. His thoughtful and in-depth answers have gone a long way to reassure us that Crowfall still has a very bright future. His answers explore the difficulty of meeting early backers’ expectations as well as revealing the clear and strategic developmental approach of Artcraft and the studio’s dedication to listening to fan feedback. All while creating a thriving and unique MMO.
Additionally, players were giving feedback on unfinished areas of gameplay during the early cycles. For example: “Hey, that enemy NPC corpse looks really cool!"
1. What are the greatest challenges, both anticipated and unanticipated, of bringing a crowdfunded MMO to life?
Hands down, developing a full scale MMO in front of a live audience is the greatest challenge. It is a breeding ground for misunderstanding; frustration and a lot of questioning of the gameplay fundamentals—all before any of that work is actually built. To be clear, the level of access we gave players early on was extensive. The players had access to the Test Servers 24×7 throughout the development cycle (as early Backers). Not only is it challenging from the perspective of “perception equals reality,” as the game was being built and systems were being connected—still incomplete—pre-alpha players were in the game. It is also difficult to balance the need to validate progress with early Backers while developing complex systems that encompass the underpinning of a game. The team gets a lot of player experience feedback before the network connecting game servers to the client servers (manage gameplay logic and database information) are even finished and optimized for play. Our job was to balance the perceptions with the reality of the game we were building. We shared our core game vision, the key features and introduced the lore and early art assets to create a more accurate vision of the gameplay experience that would eventually sit on top of this infrastructure.
Additionally, players were giving feedback on unfinished areas of gameplay during the early cycles. For example: “Hey, that enemy NPC corpse looks really cool! Of course, I don’t have an inventory slot to loot it, or equipment slots to equip it, and I do not know the stats it would offer.” It creates a gap which is filled by theorycrafting. Theorycrafting is great as it helps to provide insight to the team as to what the early players are looking for within the core game experience. However, it is hard to validate much of how that will look or feel in terms of gameplay until there is an Alpha game. With most games, players are seeing a game for the first time when it is about 90%+ done. The first hands-on experience most players have is within a game’s late-stage beta cycle, just prior to launch. For the most part, that is working with the community on polishing and bug fixing—vastly different from a pre-Alpha experience. We appreciated the insights as it was helpful to get a sense early on of player expectations but over an extended period, you must over-communicate the vision of the game to guard against player theorycrafting becoming confused with committed “gameplay” features.
The challenge is that you are getting a ton of speculation about “how” systems will work, way before they are built. That then leads to a debate about how they should work and all of that is happening before anyone in the community has a chance to see the way they are intended to work in the game based on the game vision and the type of experience the game is aiming to deliver. This delicate balance requires great communication and an open dialogue which was our primary goal. We openly engaged with players and were actively listening to their feedback and input.
The learning, now that we are a live game, looking back—is that getting a community built around the game during early development is a huge benefit, as they become your brand’s passionate supporters and are truly “invested’ in the game. However, there is also a risk that for some portion of that audience the progress is too protracted, and they lose interest…or they question early systems and gameplay leading to assumptions based on incomplete information. To manage those early misperceptions and ensure the community has a good understanding of the game’s vision requires a high degree of outreach, communication and expectation setting. To that end, we had an ongoing dialogue with our early Backers and the broader community where we worked hard to bridge that communication, create perspective, and share our vision while listening to theirs. Based on the fact that a percentage of our early Backers are still with us today, I think we were able to achieve that goal. We appreciate their support and continue to foster that ongoing communication through our community channels and livestreams. It is still a key part of our process.
2. The classes and races in Crowfall are some of the most fantastic that we’ve seen in any MMORPG, but it must be a nightmare to try to balance them. What is your ongoing strategy?
One of our goals was to create a world that players wanted to be part of for a long time. We know that massively multiplayer games are worlds where under the right conditions player communities take root and thrive. For that reason, we put an incredible amount of effort into making sure that the classes and races we built offered a level of diversity and specialization that ensured they each offered players some unique options that differentiated them from one another and made that initial decision a meaningful choice. Then we layered more customization on top via a class talent system, a sub-class promotion system (different areas of specialization within a class), and a Discipline system (talents, powers and abilities which grant additional powers). All this to ensure that in Crowfall, players can set themselves apart based on how they want to play and the manner in which they want to offer a unique set of skills to their team (as Crowfall is a team based competitive PvP game).
With so many customization options available including combat, harvesting and crafting, it is a challenge to ensure that one ‘single, best’ combination—that is “the best” at everything—does not emerge. For that reason, we have invested a significant amount of time tuning and balancing the system based on player feedback, gameplay insights and metrics. The community lets us know when they perceive something is unbalanced, as a “relatively balanced” battlefield is everyone’s goal.
The vision of the game was to ensure we created a world that offered players real choices in how they played, what they could be and the way in which they could be uniquely valuable to a team in a manner that suited their playstyle. It is a big part of what fuels player empowerment in Crowfall, the fact that player choices in battle can turn the tide of battle right up to the final seconds of the fight! That core value is the genesis for that level of cultivation of uniquely specialized character classes and sub-classes and is one of the game features for which we get a lot of praise from players.
3. We found that it was tricky to make the most, tactically speaking, of our awesome classes and characters in the large battles. Do you intend to make any mode changes that would allow for more tactical engagements within large battles?
Making large scale tactical combat that is also optimized for small scale battles is challenging! Players need to be able to survive the burst of potentially 10 or more enemies firing directly on them and balancing that against giving them too much effective health such that it while it works in massive battles—it overrides the fine balance required in small scale combat. Additionally, trying to avoid turning those encounters into extraordinarily long slug fests, is also important. It requires a system that supports both types of battles with greater agility by ensuring there are knobs we can turn to create the right balance in two, or more, very different combat scenarios.
Crowfall’s unique advantage in this area is that our players do not have the ability to lock on a target. Crowfall combatants are forced to aim at and target an enemy (except with respect to AoE attacks). Since players have to aim, it is extremely hard for 10 people to focus fire on, for example, the Healer in the back of the group, or someone specific who is tightly surrounded by their team. That being said, we are looking at how to build more value and investment in tactical combat in both large and medium-to-small battles based on the vision of Crowfall, PvP your way, every day.
We think we have identified a feature that supports the ability to offer tactical combat in any size battle scenario. To that end, we already have some upcoming features in-development that we believe will allow us to shift the combat meta to support all size scales. One of the solutions we are pursuing in response to this issue is leveraging our own unique Campaign System. We are testing the system’s flexibility to adapt and change campaign rules campaign-to-campaign. This is one of the key unique differentiators of Crowfall, the ability to change the maps, the rulesets, the win conditions in each Campaign (it is what ensures no two campaigns are ever the same). As we start to embrace and test the agility of this feature, we will experiment with things like global buffs that grant free disciplines (powers), restrict certain races and classes by campaign, and more! Through this process, we believe we have a technology that can not only support the different size campaigns and different rulesets but can also deliver on the value proposition of completely unique and authentically diverse Crowfall campaigns that continuously change across a broad set of knobs that we can turn. We are excited by the potential of the Crowfall technology to allow us to offer a more diverse set of Campaign parameters accommodating a broad set of sizes, challenges and competitive scenarios.
4. Outside of The Dregs, team battles tend to be very large armies. How are you planning to cater more for players who enjoy smaller group combat of say 5-20 players?
Great question. Players sometimes tend to gather as many people as possible to start a fight (it is what many people look forward to in a game like Crowfall). We mainly see this type of approach during and in our Campaign worlds, which is exactly what they are created to support.
The smaller scale combat currently tends to spring up spontaneously in the worlds during what players would consider “off-hour” or activities (between siege wars) like capturing smaller strongholds including outposts, raiding parties attacking group harvesters, or even during the process of hunting down elite enemy NPC bosses—that is when we see the smaller group combat encounters occurring—exactly what the game is trying to curate. As we look at how to create more opportunities for players to engage in small group combat encounters, we are looking at several tools that we believe will create the conditions needed to enable more of those types of fights. One of those tools, mentioned above, is the process of the changing of campaign rules inside Campaigns. We have some things planned that will limit the forming of massive teams or make them less optimal, and once we see this working, we will expand the approach into smaller scale PvP combat outside of Campaign worlds.
5. One notable way is via the Hunger Dome, what can you tell us about it?
Hunger Dome offers an exciting arena style experience inside Crowfall. It offers a small-scale team arena mode, leveraging 12 teams of five each, and was a perfect fit for delivery of the tournament mode we promised in Kickstarter.
Before Hunger Dome returns, we are working on updating some of the gameplay features based on the learning gained from the Eternal Champion Series (ECS) Twitch tournament we hosted in May. During the ECS, we received great feedback on the size of that world, the ruleset and other tactical insights. Before Hunger Dome’s return we want to respond to the feedback by integrating requested refinements that we were not able to make as we prepared for launch, as our focus was on the core Campaign worlds which are the thrust of Crowfall’s unique gameplay. In the future, we are looking at bringing Hunger Dome back into action and will update the community on the plan as we move forward.
6. On a similar note, do you have any plans to make the Throne War aspect of the game more accessible for smaller guilds? Players report dwindling engagement between small and medium sized guilds – a key feature in the warring dynamics that give life to the world.
In short, yes! Based on the learning from what we have seen so far, we have some ideas already in process. Again, much of the challenge we face with increasing the opportunity for small and medium-sized guilds we believe can be overcome with some strategic changes to Campaign rules along with some content/system changes. The ability to continuously shift the rule sets, maps, size and win conditions (among other features) in our campaigns offers an incredible array of options for this area as well. We are looking at a number of possible options; for example, one rule that would govern the allowable guild size in a campaign; another rule that could mandate maximum alliance sizes in a campaign.
Our intention with the Alliance system was always to embrace and foster opportunities for smaller guilds. Alliances were conceived initially to allow small guilds to ally with or join larger guilds. We are finding that we may need to adjust our baseline for guild sizes and alliance sizes. So I would expect both the guild members allowed in a campaign and max alliance size to get campaign specific knobs (we can adjust campaign-to-campaign) as we move forward. Lastly, beyond campaigns, we are also looking at content similar to our Hot Zones that offer emergent opportunities in the world specifically sized to smaller groups and guilds. We have already seen some evidence of the appeal of these types of ‘organically’ occurring small-scale battles.
7. Many players are using third-party tools like Discord for trading, auctions, and combat. What are your plans for developing in-game tools and voice chat?
Although it is not uncommon for groups of players to join with and use their own preferred methods of communication (like Discord), we are working on enhancing our in-game options as well as we realize the convenience and value that offers to many in our community. We currently have voice chat in-game working for groups but it is not yet optimized for Guilds or Factions, that work is coming in a future update. We are also looking at the key features that our players are using and requesting as critical based on their external tools and bringing similar options to the in-game chat system. We believe the way to meet our player’s needs is to migrate the most popular tools or relevant features directly into the game. Players will hear more about that work and our timing in the next month.
8. Are there plans to increase bank and EK storage, so players are less reliant on alt storage?
This is a challenging question as we do want to create some limits to force players to make strategic decisions. However, there are a number of options that players can take advantage of in-game that may not always be well understood and therefore we are looking to increase the awareness of those options. Some of these options include storage that is available to players using their personal Eternal Kingdoms (EK). There are storage containers available including some which can be crafted that offer additional storage for guilds including an EK Chest, a Noble Chest, a Vassal chest and a personal chest. Additionally, there are Guild chests that players can access in Keeps and other guild holdings that support the need for additional storage. We want to be sure that players are taking advantage of all the options available today and they are aware of how to get and use these storage chests to their full advantage. Then we want to take stock of the situation, identify the challenges that remain and address those as needed.
9. Can you give us any other hints towards new gameplay modes and features?
Every milestone, we release new features and updates to the existing gameplay based on player feedback. We just launched our “Global Conquest” release delivering global cross-server access to Campaigns around the world. This offers players the ability to jump into battles, large and small, at any time they login no matter where they live geographically. That update included greater rewards for all Campaigns, updates to alliance scoring, and the addition of several new and highly valuable Hot Zones (emergent NPC battle zones in Campaign worlds) that offer an abundance of high-value loot and experience to teams that can get it…and keep it.
Additionally, we have a ton of designs under review (on-deck) for our upcoming releases throughout the next few months including enhancements to the in-game map, chat and guild interface tools. Along with that work, we recently shared a design for the upcoming “Hand-shake” sieges that are primarily focused on siege battles in our Guild vs. Guild campaign world, The Dregs. And, as noted above we are working now on adapting Campaign rules to create a new set of exciting campaigns with unexpected, challenging and rewarding opportunities for large, medium and small guilds and groups. Stay tuned, we have a lot of great new features coming!
10. Which games and media inspired Crowfall the most?
The backstory narrative is born out of the core premise of the game, player empowerment. The idea that player choices have value and impact—they can change the tide of battle right up until the final seconds of the fight and they can impact the direction of a raid by virtue of their strategic choices of where, when and how to activate the attack. Players can choose to build and rule a Keep or capture and take one from a rival guild. They can conquer a Kingdom and rebuild it to rule as they see fit. Or they can capture a caravan of valuable resources and block enemies from access to the trade route that leads to much needed building materials for their Strongholds, cutting off their supplies and survival. Those are only a few of the core values on which Crowfall was built. Much of that was inspired by brands like “Game of Thrones – A Throne War.”
Also, core to Crowfall is the idea that players would not be locked to a single World, but instead would travel from one World to the next participating in a series of Campaigns—no two ever the same—in a world where every world is Dying. When Todd (J. Todd Coleman, co-founder and Creative Direction of ArtCraft Entertainment) was honing his vision he used a combination of fictional worlds to share his vision for Crowfall; among those the most influential were: Norse mythology – Eternal warriors aspect, Michael Moorcock – Order, Balance, Chaos aspects, Zelazny’s Amber series – Petty and self serving gods, and, Game of Thrones – A Throne War.
We hope you enjoyed reading our Crowfall interview as much as we enjoyed participating in it. It has truly given us a lot more hope about the potential of the game. We’ll be certain to return for a new review of Crowfall once these changes have been implemented. MMOGames.com is committed to bringing you all the freshest, funniest, and most insightful MMO news. If you enjoyed this content, why not share it with your community? And make sure that you never miss our updates and exclusive giveaways by following and favouriting us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.