So Crowfall’s beta has finally ended and launch is upon us. As someone who backed the game but has played alphas of many games that never even launched, I only played a few of this one’s alpha and beta builds, and only very lightly. I tried to trust not only ArtCraft Entertainment but my fellow backers.
But since the launch announcement, I have played about an hour a day nearly every day, sometimes up to five hours (or more since, let’s face it, we all lose track of time when we’re having fun). And to be blunt, if I were not a backer or planning to write about the game, I would have given up a few hours in. While the races and the classes practically paralyzed me with choices, the game’s initial tutorial, even with all the extra work ArtCraft has put in, is an awful introduction to the game. It hides so much of what the game has going for it.
I don’t think it’s the game for most of our readers, especially the ones who like grinding levels, but it will definitely find an audience. For them, the new Crowfall six-pack is going to be a steal. But I also worry that Crowfall may simply not attract a large enough – or dedicated enough – audience to make its original pitch a reality. Let’s dig in to my experience.
Lessons from the past
I’d like to start off by addressing the PvE readers, whose kneejerk reaction will be something like, “If this were a PvE game, I’d play it.” To them, I say, without offense, “Go play Istaria.” And I say this having recently been inspired to return to it by Crowfall. In fact, for me, Crowfall seems a lot like what I was originally looking for in Horizons (Istaria’s launch name), though the dragons weren’t important for me. For those who have forgotten, Horizons/Istaria was originally planned as a PvP game. It launched as a 100% PvE game, though. Not even dueling. And I enjoyed myself for about a year.
The game is still fun in many ways, especially for crafter types. Neither Istaria nor Crowfall’s crafting is as complex as, say, Star Wars Galaxies, but both still have lots of moving parts, and Crowfall still has item decay to help keep the economy alive. Both games emphasize unique fantasy races beyond elves and dwarves, customizable land/housing, tons of crafter content, and deep economies. Istaria, though, is a pure PvE game, and I strongly encourage PvE players disappointed about Crowfall to give Istaria a chance. The Chaos server tends to have about 15 players on at all times, but while it’s a very small MMO, it’s quite friendly, and there’s some good lore to dig into).
But both games suffer in the combat department; that’s largely why Horizons dwindled over time. Its tab-targetting combat never measured up to the crafting side of the game, and when crafters are making an economy for warriors to live in, and there are no warriors, it’s a big problem. Horizon’s problems are very similar to things I experienced in Crowfall during the beta, and I’m worried that history could be repeating itself.
Way of the warrior
Crowfall feels strongest in the crafting department, in my opinion. The combat feels very similar to Guild Wars 2, but it’s not as flashy and not as unique. During the end of beta bash, I saw a lot of spells flying, and only two visually stood out: a fist coming down and smashing people, and an army of purple ghosts. I checked in with fellow MOP writer Sam Kash about this and many other Crowfall-related things, and he said that my assessment of the combat was pretty accurate. (Sam mostly played a Templar, while I mostly played a Myrmidon, Duelist, and Champion.)
This isn’t to say combat is bad. The PvE largely felt like pre-WoW tank-and-spank encounters with GW2 combat. No cute gimmicks raid fans are used to. I know because we had raid mobs dropped on us, and they were rather easily put down, and honestly, I’m fine with this. I bought into Crowfall as a PvP game, even if it could do PvE better. Darkfall‘s dragons had wide roaming areas and would shoot down fireballs from the sky, rather than landing to give players a fair chance at murdering them. That logically makes more sense and was infinitely more interesting than going into a raid every week where I knew they were waiting to die.
PvP’s complexity is only slightly more interesting. It’s mostly standard fare, direct damage, combos (sometimes with branching options), DoTs, stuns, knockdowns, knockbacks, poison… things we’ve seen for decades, and not with a lot of pizzazz, which probably helps ensure no massive lagouts during big fights (thankfully). In fact, some of my best times in beta were at the end, jumping into the fray as a crowd control warrior. The action combat really helped me stay alive, as I could leap around the battlefield dropping hard CC in a few spots before either retreating or doing some decent damage and group slows. As attacks and heals can be aimed, positioning is important, and I always love the idea of actually taking a hit for someone with a real-time intervention rather than a button press and dice roll.
One element I loved is the stealth moves that re-stealth you. Abilities that let you come out and channel a damage attack before restealthing may sound overpowered, but the price for being so much as poked is not only loss of stealth but a knocked-down status. The game also has a kind of anti-CC move, Retaliate (and its other empowered forms). You can break CC almost at any time, if you’ve got the resources for it, though some of the other effects (like a high-damge AoE) still have a timer.
That may sound like CC is useless, but on the contrary: It’s just differently from other MMOs. Combos feel fairly common, and a CC move breaks that, causing your enemy to have to wait out a timer to recast the initial move and try to get back to the combo. It also wears down the enemy’s resources, a personal favorite kind of CC for me ever since my Magic the Gathering Days, but rather than directly draining mana (which is still possible), you can string together a deluge of CC moves to get your enemy to spam her CC removal but without resources to actually deal damage. It happened a few times both to me and my enemies without me really thinking about it, though in large battles, you probably will have too many forms of CC stacked on you to consider whether or not you should cure yourself.
The problem is that, in my approximately 30 days of play, I didn’t actually see that much PvP, even when I jumped into the GvG server specifically looking for fights. So instead, I spent a lot of time gathering and playing with basic crafting. As with Horizons, I worry that combat-types may not stick around for too long and move on to greener pastures.
A crafter’s life
While Crowfall’s crafting systems aren’t quite as fun as I’ve had with SWG and other titles, it does try several uncommon mechanics. The game’s gathering is quite unique in that nodes are basically a kind of mob, which I’m more used to in space games with asteroid mining than I am in anything that has elves. You whittle down the node’s HP, and dedicated gatherers even build up combo points to spend on various buffs, so yes, gatherers can have rotations as well. It’s kind of annoying, but at least it’s somewhat new.
The game also features multiplayer gathering. Big nodes, “Motherloads,” require at least two players, and some players can take up the Foreman skill to make group gathering even easier by weakening the node, increasing crits against it, and restoring the group’s stamina, which drains very quickly. Don’t expect to be hitting rocks all day, especially if you plan on having some stamina available if you get jumped by other players!
While many games expect crafters to be somewhat interdependent on each other, Crowfall makes it core to the experience. You’ll feel the need for dedicated crafters and gatherers from other specialties almost immediately. You don’t need to have skinning to gather leather, but someone with the skinning speciality will get it faster, and with more rare materials. Anyone can make food to help with increased gathering buffs, but you’ll need alchemists to make potions to max out your hauls. You can make your own tools, but runecrafters craft the best ones. And we haven’t even gotten into the various components one crafting type can make that another will need.
There’s also housing, which is quite resource intensive – not just building actual land (because that’s a thing) but constructing the houses as well. Yes, you could pay about $100 for a big plot and $100 more for a big house, but you can also spend a long time gathering the materials for that in-game. Maybe ArtCraft will nerf the amounts later on to make it easier, but for now, housing acts as a nice big resource sink to help ensure that everything should have some value.
And that’s why decay is important. Since items break permanently (no repairing!) and can in some cases be lost on death, the market is always open. I could really feel when I was fighting someone in crafted gear versus a fellow newbie in NPC-bought gear. Just as in other sandboxes, I can already see a need for crafters like me, not just in the crafting guild I’ve joined but in the overall economy. But I also suspect the best money will be made in the early days while lots of people will be trying the game out and vying for the top. And that’s where things can get complicated.
Let’s circle back to combat. The GW2-esque combat isn’t for everyone. The non-flashy effects aren’t going to hype someone into buying the game. The fairly basic PvE isn’t going to attract the raiders. And honestly, the tutorial took me about 25 eye-scratching levels before it started to really tackle crafting and PvP deeply, the two areas this game does best.
In fact, I had to talk with community members, read guides, and jump 10+ levels ahead of the tutorial just to experience crafting that felt engaging. Fetch and kill quests are not only basic gaming fare at this point but some of the least fun content in any MMO. If anything, ArtCraft probably should eliminate levels altogether and focus on using the tutorial to show off crafting and base-capping rules so people can actually get to endgame to properly populate the world.
And this is the crux of the issue. Many people had said that the end of beta event was the most or even only PvP they’d done all of beta. And remember, there were non-paying beta players in that test phase. Maybe there are huge numbers of Kickstarter backers who are waiting for launch before jumping in, but I suspect the launch won’t be as big as beta.
For PvE fans, this may mean you’re safe to pick up Crowfall and try to play it like a new and decently populated sandbox. There’s a slim chance that in the God’s Reach (the most persistent “campaign” that will never end and acts primarily as a training area), someone may eventually kill you and take your gold, but not your stuff. There’s certainly enough content for non-PvP fans to play with if they can make it this far, though as usual, the best and most plentiful materials are reserved for the high-danger areas. Players need to go to the PvP campaign worlds for that.
In these areas, you can drop items. In fact, gatherers get a bonus to retain 50% of their gathered materials of their specialty. This is important because, for people who have never played a PvP game with player looting, gatherers are like loot piñatas for combat types, and this is mostly still true in Crowfall. I’ve personally got a stealthy, sneaky build specifically so I can move around and gather safely because I’ve played these games for long enough to know better than to think I’m safe. Other players, though, may not understand that crafters are often the sheep and combat types/gankers are the wolves.
So now here is the issue: A crafter may go into a campaign world. He goes to gather and keeps getting killed for his loot. The killer takes the loot and feeds it to her alt and the alt crafts it for her. Since accounts share banking, this kind of thing is actually easier than what I’ve experienced in other PvP games, especially because the banks are protected and non-lootable.
This isn’t just about player types though, but entire guilds. PvP vets may notice from the scoreboard some old guilds that tend to come into new hardcore PvP games from day one, stay for a few months, declare server victory (often after driving off their enemies and getting bored or being driven off and giving up), and move on to some other game until the next PvP title rolls in. I’ve played with and even been an officer in these kinds of guilds, and I know they can be fun since you get to see high-end content fast, but I also know they tend to kill off the game’s overall population and drive the game into the ground.
There may be hope though. Unlike Shadowbane or EVE, Crowfall does have a kind of hard safe-zone, the God’s Reach. Playing in the campaign servers is kind of like moving your main to the test realm, except you’re limited on the items you bring over and extremely limited on what you can bring back (so maybe be careful with those backer rewards).
In theory, what this could mean is that when Uber Killer Guild dominates PvP Campaign 1, its members will have to stay motivated to do it again in Campaign 2, as they have to recapture and rebuild forts. The God’s Reach will be lightly affected by what happens, like rare materials entering the market more, but it should be OK as the PvP types are literally playing somewhere else.
The bonus, of course, is that as many people in the God’s Reach are more PvE fans, any motivation to move into the PvP zone at least gives the PvE fans a wealth of people to follow. The default faction many people were in during the end of beta event made it quite easy to push back against the big PvP names. I actually felt like the PvE playerbase beat the PvPers for once, and that could bode well for the game.
But again, the end of beta event was not normal gameplay for me. It also didn’t feel quite as big as other end of beta events I’ve played in, especially considering that it was the only playable server. It seemed to me as if there were maybe 20 PvPers and 40 PvEers. That’s not a large enough playerbase to fill a server. It didn’t even fill a single map.
While I wasn’t in a hardcore PvP guild or playing during a major PvP campaign, I do worry that ArtCraft won’t be able to have a variety of PvP worlds for PvP players. I don’t know if enough crafter types would want to go into those areas and be hunted for their loot. And I think once the PvP types get bored, I don’t know if the rough, socket-based housing with chairs but no sit emote on buildable, instanced floating islands will be enough to keep the crafters or roleplayers around.
As much as I like the idea of encouraging socialization by having crafting schools need each other, having so much of the crafting relying on inter-disciplinary coordination means a low playerbase where there’s not enough crafters to support the crafting community, which could result in a domino effect where crafters quit because they don’t have people to help them. If crafters have no one to sell to and no one to get parts from, there may be little reason for them to keep playing unless they’re willing to run multiple characters and accounts. It’s going to require careful balancing on the part of ArtCraft for sure.
I’m still excited to play the game. I struggled to get into it even as a backer, but I see its appeal. That being said, I also enjoyed Horizons and many other MMO (PvP) sandboxes at launch. This is my kind of game, but I’m just not sure how many MMO players would feel the same way. While I still encourage people to give it a shot, I know that it’s very difficult to rebuild a player population if you launch an economy game that relies on gameplay that fails to maintain a playerbase. My fear is that Crowfall may be doing the same. From what I saw of the game’s population in the last month and fairly quiet social media standing, the game will need an Among Us-type trend to get to where ArtCraft can have multiple worlds for players to battle through.