Crowfall, the PvP-centered MMORPG originally Kickstarted back in 2015, announced last week that it had finally arrived at its beta milestone and would begin opening up the game not only to backers but also to registered players this week. This major milestone is something the game’s alpha playerbase have been eagerly anticipating, and it’s reaching it: today.
In MOP’s Fight or Kite column, I’ve covered Crowfall several times over the past year and half, from the inclusion of the God’s Reach and Infected zones to the guild versus guild Dreg’s campaigns. So when the opportunity to sit down with Creative Director J Todd Coleman, Executive Producer Gordon Walton, and Vice President of Marketing DebySue Wolfcale arose, I couldn’t help but be excited to dig in and ask questions about everything from the state of the game and the opportunity for unique rulesets to player experiences and so much more.
We began by discussing the importance of hitting this major milestone despite the impact COVID-19 had on the team. Fortunately, the team at ACE was already accustomed to using many of the tools available that support remote work, just nowhere near the extent required today. They even described driving desks to developer’s homes and helping people get set up to continue working, such that much of the work on the game is now being completed entirely remotely.
This level of effort has obviously been productive as anyone keeping track of the game can see: It was only the end of May that Crowfall moved from pre-alpha to alpha, and only two months later it’s transitioning to beta. The devs explained that the decision to move to alpha could have happened sooner, but the terms are almost meaningless anyway and mean different things from company to company.
Now, however, ArtCraft said it was time to move to beta since with all the major systems in place in this build, including the economy, political, and city building loops. There are still some smaller systems, such as mounts, that need to be built out before launch, but those are apparently not major game-drivers.
The team is also hoping to expand its playerbase significantly beyond its early backers to include all 380,000 registered players. Starting this week, the plan is to begin sending out invitations to those players in waves. Those waves will start out small with 500 to 1000 invites initially, then they’ll begin to ramp up from there as they see the impact of invites to logins. It turns out the waves are built on a first-come, first-serve basis. In other words, your queue in line is based on when you registered your account.
ACE has always been relatively open with its development, with players able to stream and show off the game in various ways. None of that will change with this latest update to beta and addition of new players; there’s no NDA. The devs want players to be able to see and experience the game.
When I asked about the current population and how ACE plans to handle the influx of new players, I was told they that the studio is going to take a couple of approaches. When you have a game that is based so heavily on player interaction – not just combat, but also the economy – player density is very important. Initially, the worlds were scaled very large, the size expected for release, but the studio found that to be too large for the existing alpha playerbase. It’s employing procedurally generated worlds that make it relatively easy to tweak and scale it down for the density of players who actually show up. As new players begin to join, the team can adjust and scale these worlds back up.
The team told me it’s done significant testing internally to see what the servers can handle specifically to dial up the campaign worlds as necessary. Since a given campaign is broken into a number of zones, the devs can always increase the number of zones in the campaign as well. They could also increase the number of running campaigns. These options should give them the ability to tweak the servers as needed to handle the additional players.
As for on-boarding new and even long-time returning players, ACE believes the new player tutorials are a huge improvement and will greatly assist players getting started, especially since players might not really understand how much depth there is in the Eternal Kingdoms or the game’s crafting. “Our crafting system is incredibly deep,” Coleman reminded me. “We probably haven’t seen a crafting system this deep since [Star Wars] Galaxies. Because that’s the designers who designed it – that’s kind of where they came from”.
The system in place now though is leaps and bounds beyond what it was even just last year, as my own previews have shown, but ACE is promising much more to come: There are three chapters planned as part of the new player tutorial, one more than the two already in the game. The best advice right now is to join a guild, as guilds typically offer the information that’ll be in chapter three by launch.
Changing gears a bit, I noted that the game was Kickstarted back in 2015 and has experienced some delays since then as well as some additional rounds of funding. In January of this year, ACE secured an additional $12 million from investors. I asked how they felt about the current level of funding and whether the devs believe it is enough to get them across the finish line; they hope they can make the game they intend to, but you never know exactly with start-ups, especially in COVID times. “Overall I’d say we are in a good position,” Coleman told me. “I am very happy that we did do that raise back in January because if we’d have delayed that by even two months, we might be in a very different place.”
Regarding the game’s economy and having a place where players can participate outside of combat, even in the current build of the game things have changed. Vendors have moved outside of the temples with basically two systems taking their place: the Eternal Kingdoms and a free trading city.
The Eternal Kingdoms are sort of a home instance, guild hall, and player-created map all rolled into one, and that’s where players can set up merchants and crafts for other players to visit. In fact, the devs even added the new player tutorial system to guide players on all the things you can do from adding land, NPCs, vendors, and more. This will include merchants and houses so that you can even sell things when you are not online.
The free trading city, on the other hand, exists within the center of the campaign worlds. There, players who want to sell their wares have a safe zone to do so. Players will also want to take their profits out of the campaign at the end, which Crowfall’s export system allows for.
When I asked whether players have the ability to drop a trading post of their own somewhere along the road within a campaign, Coleman explained that players can build them within strongholds that they own, but due to the nature of the campaign, the devs didn’t want to include that exactly. When players lose a home or structure they have personal ownership of, it tends to drive them away, hence the separation of these types of gameplay elements.
So players have their Eternal Kingdom that they’ve designed exactly how they like and can always know that it will be there, whereas in a campaign, a keep being built isn’t expected to last forever – just as long as the campaign exists. As Coleman says, “I find a lot of times when you hit a design impasse, the problem is that you’re trying to do two different things by definition with one thing, and the best answer is to tease those things apart. And then now both of them can do their job successfully without compromising the other one.”
ArtCraft believes the Eternal Kingdoms system is very robust and innovative, beyond what many other games have even attempted. “It is funny because it doesn’t get as much attention, right?” Coleman quipped. “Because everybody hears ‘oh Crowfall, PvP game, throne war’ and then immediately they just kind of slot it into that in their mind. But I fully expect at launch we will have some players who come in, they learn the game in the God’s Reach, they go to the temple to get started, then they jump into their EK, start building their marketplace, and we never see them go into a campaign. They spend, they can play for months and years just staying in their EK and trying to grow it into a thriving market.”
Another important difference to recall between Crowfall and most other MMOs is that players aren’t tied to a specific server or shard; instead, the character exists outside of any given world and can jump around, so moving between different player Eternal Kingdoms is easy.
On the topic of zergs and shifting away from letting zergs be the primary way to win a campaign, ACE discussed with me the various objectives available during a campaign. This includes some alternative points of capture, caravans, and even the Divine Favor system. I’ve discussed this system in a past column if you want to read about it in more depth, but the short version is that it gives guilds alternative scoring mechanic for what we can do inside a campaign, like collecting and sacrificing the loot that drops from only particular mobs. This is also balanced for different sized guilds as well by dividing the number sacrificed by the players in the guild.
Coleman explained that the team is currently working on rewards sequences as well so that they can be multi-vectored. An example given was a small guild of 10 people entering a campaign. They likely aren’t going to win the overall campaign, but perhaps they can win the Glory category or get enough points in Wealth to earn some very cool rewards.
Another new avenue of promoting risk versus reward is in gathering building materials for building a keep. Players can get a caravan to collect materials, gather them personally, or now even capture a fort. The unique aspect of the fort is that if players hold one between siege windows, it will produce building materials for them hourly. This fort system, while it was tested previously, just went live last Friday, so it’s relatively new content for the game.
Since Crowfall has such a unique campaign style system, we asked the devs’ thoughts on spinning up some limited, tournament-style, or alternative-ruleset campaigns, and yes, they’re considering that. One such example they’d like to try are limited-time campaigns, ones that might run for a month but are available for play only during prime time hours. This sort of campaign could create some fierce competition when every moment in game actually matters since it will be going dark until the next window opens.
In thinking about the new quest-like tutorial system, I wondered aloud where this could go and how useful it could be in-game. The response wasn’t something I had even considered: While the campaign systems themselves don’t really endorse a quest style game, the studio has considered using it for some personal victory cards in a sort of daily reward system where players are offered a task to complete for a stack of green ore (etc.). This isn’t the sort of thing planned for launch, but there are enough systems in place that the team could go back and build it.
In thinking further about these alternative systems and the short term nature of campaigns and their rulesets, I asked if there is a place for a more PvE-focused ruleset, one that relies much less on direct PvP. The devs described how players and guilds could take a greater focus during a campaign on the Divine Favor cards that focus less on combat.
“I would like the community to tell us what they want to try,” Coleman says. “I want the community to drive the vision of this game. If we find that there’s a whole bunch of people that say, ‘hey, we really, really like this, but I really want to have a campaign that is elimination only, or time-limited, or tournament mode, or more PvE’ – or whatever the players ask for. Ultimately, that’s our job, that’s what we want to give them.” In fact, he told me that the idea of the fort mechanic, where building resources are generated, was a player suggestion.
In closing, I wanted to know what can players look forward to from here – what is coming after beta? ACE tells me there are a few systems, such as the mounts mentioned before, that are being worked on. Skins are another thing they know they need and everyone wants, but they’ve left out skins until now since it wasn’t core to the gameplay loop. The biggest and most impactful thing is going to be going back to revisit the classes and disciplines system. While the system is large and robust, ArtCraft says it’s never had a chance to go back and do a balance pass on it and open it up further.
I’d like to thank Todd Coleman, Gordon Walton, and DebySue Wolfcale for answering all my questions. See you in the beta!