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Columns: Looking Ahead & Learning from the Past

By Matt Kuhns on September 08, 2017

Looking Ahead & Learning from the Past

In 2008 the MMORPG world was graced with Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR). Like Crowfall, WAR had been highly anticipated prior to release and was offering up some very innovative ideas, many of which were highlighted in frequent charismatic updates given by Mythic’s creative director Paul Barnett. Being something of a spiritual successor to another cherished title developed by Mythic in 2001, Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC), WAR was often spoken of with great elation among members of the DAoC playerbase who saw it as an opportunity to reinvent the revolutionary systems of its somewhat antiquated predecessor.          

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Barnett was masterful at building a fortress of hype for WAR. With each community update a brick was laid, with each blog post the mortar applied. Soon that fortress was seemingly impregnable and WAR was released to favorable reviews. Yet as many reading this know, the success of WAR was short-lived and the game’s servers were shut down after just five short years. Similar to WAR, Crowfall has a devoted following, passionate development team, motivated creative director, and the desire to reinvent the genre with some very interesting ideas. So what happened? Well the demise of WAR will differ depending on who you ask, but to get an idea one need only review the words of Barnett himself.

Prior to the WAR’s release Barnett spoke on several “lessons” that he thought were important for the design of a good game. You can read all of his thoughts here. However one may interpret them now, there is still value that can be gained from their analysis. Indeed much of what Barnett said has been echoed in some way by J Todd Coleman, Crowfall’s creative director. Take lesson one for example, “stick to your core idea.” In a game like Crowfall, where there is kingdom building, PvP, crafting, and large-scale conflict, it can be easy to experience “feature creep.” When MMORPGs try to offer players everything instead of focusing on a few winning ideas it tends to end badly. At the onset Crowfall labeled itself as a “throne war simulator” that has much in common with strategy games and political simulators. This is the unique idea (also see lesson eight and nine) that will bring it success. It doesn’t need to appeal to every MMORPG player who might not like the style of the game, and it’s ok if it doesn’t.

Barnett’s third lesson theorizes that great games are “80% what they’re meant to do”, with the remaining 20% being the “madness that will lead you to glory or lead you to ruin.” Did WAR have the wrong 20% or did some other complication hold back its potential? Obviously WAR didn’t last so perhaps it’s a mixture of the two. Regardless, rolling the dice and taking risks is all part of what makes anything successful. When it comes to Barnett’s numbers some might say Crowfall is doing more of a 70/30 or maybe even 60/40 split. A throne war simulator created by a new developer that was overwhelmingly funded on kickstarter is a risk, but so far seems to be one worth taking.