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Is It “Crowd” Enough?

Red Thomas Posted:
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I’m hardly anything even remotely resembling a journalist, even when I put my pseudo blogger hat on to pen the occasional opinion piece covering whatever game has caught my eye recently.  I still rather have this sense of responsibility to take a considered look at games, though.  As a normal player, I could allow my excitement to run away with me, but as someone who actually writes articles with a fair number of page views, I think there’s some modicum of obligation for taking the occasional critical look at a game, and especially when it’s a game you’re particularly excited about.

If I’m honest, I actually kind of enjoy these articles sometimes.  In a strange way, I find a greater appreciation for games I really like, and the developers I already respect, through the process of trying to poke holes in said projects.  I guess it’s sort of like in a debate, the best way to win is to be able to argue either side with conviction.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to take one of those periodic hard looks at Crowfall.  It has a number of fantastic people involved with the project, and they have some really cool ideas that might have significant impact on the genre.  Despite that, have they perhaps made some decisions that could prove problematic for them in the long run?  I’m not sure, but why don’t we take a crack at exploring some of what I see as their more questionable choices.

Crowdfunded, But Not Sourced?

I’m a huge fan of the crowdfunding movement and what it’s brought to the gaming industry.  Games are being made that would have never seen the light of day otherwise, and indie developers have found opportunities to experiment with much larger budgets, as well.  Another big change the crowdfunding phenomenon has brought to the industry is the increasingly common opportunity for the amateur to contribute to large products.

Banners and other cultural-type background is particularly easy to crowdsource out to the community.

Games like Shroud of the Avatar, PlanetSide 2, and EverQuest Next have found significant cost savings through their efforts to outsource some of the more repetitive parts of development to the fans of their games.  Developers that would have had to spend hours creating in-game books and other cultural content, or developing minor assets like dishes and cutlery, can instead spend time on the more complicated tasks of set design and character modeling.

While contributors can make modest incomes at it, over $30k in some cases according to a conversation I once had with John Smedley, many do it for the experience and potential exposure.  Plenty of former modders have found jobs after making a name for themselves, and companies like Portalarium have even found ways to formally employ particularly standout contributors.

That makes crowdsourcing in any form possible very good advertising for developing games, as well as the obvious help with content.  Even Star Citizen got much of its initial momentum through the promise of community involvement and offer of engineering manuals to modders, though they’ve become increasingly comms-dark on the matter as the complexity of the game has increased.  They’re also hardly alone in leveraging the power of crowd contribution.

That’s why it was a bit of a surprise when Gordon Walton and Todd Coleman noted in a recent conversation with me that they didn’t expect to be reaching out to the crowd with Crowfall, or at least not to the degree many have.  Not that it’s a poorly thought out point on their part.  When I asked about it, they pointed out that their artistic vision requires a very tight control over the early development process.  With the list of majorly successful titles they have to their list of credits, it’s obvious these guys know what they’re doing and their method works well for them.

Clothing and weaponry are ideal contribution points for tech-savy fans.

I don’t doubt for a second that they’ll be successful, and I do admit that crowdsourcing any game content isn’t completely labor free on the developer’s part.  Still, other projects have found a way to make it work for them, and found significant enough advantage in it to continue using the process through multiple games in some cases.  With all of the advantages to be found through engaging the community for extra development cycles, I can’t help but think this might be a minor mistake by ArtCraft Entertainment.

Archetypical Limitations

ArtCraft announced fairly early in their crowdfunding campaign that when it came to classes, races, and even gender in some case, they were most definitely not Burger King, and players don’t get it their way.  Interestingly, while there was some immediately negative feedback, the complaints died out rather quickly and the community has been pretty accepting of team’s announcement.

What may present as simplistic, is actually fairly complex. But will new players get that far?

The problem is the longer-term impact of the choice, though.  As the game rolls towards release and starts looking toward a more casual crowd to balance the books and the player populations, some might be turned off by a perceived lack of customization.  Granted, there’s plenty to customize once you get under the hood, but perception matters in this industry.

Additionally, there’s some degree of stagnation in any MMO, and one of the ways you get around the inevitability is by giving players to opportunity to try crazy ideas.  That Gnomish Warrior may sound like a joke at first, but when some fluke of twisted numbers makes it a surprisingly viable choice, you’ve just extended the replay factor of the game without much effort.

One immediate mitigation to the concern is that this is just the first pass of fairly complex dream project for them.  I don’t know that this character creation limitation is really set in stone when looking at the game post-release.  The Dying Worlds will give Crowfall developers plenty of opportunity to test balance concerns in one-off campaigns down the road, so it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that they could be leveraged to test and add a more complex character creation system later.

You’re out of luck if you want to play a flintlock-wielding centaur, but is that a bad thing?

It’s also absolutely fair to note that building racial and class-based bonuses into a single archetype will save the ArtCraft team tons of time as they race to the initial release for Crowfall, and you can’t discuss the point without also acknowledging their pretty aggressive release schedule.  Todd’s said before that they want to have the game released next year, and even with what they already have done, that’s a really fast pace.  By eliminating the variables of race and class in balancing PvP, the developers have freed up a lot of time for other game features and for the very rapid development cycle they have planned.

So once again, while there’s decision in front of us that could potentially be a negative, it’s really balanced against a significant set of positives.  At first look I, like plenty of others, wasn’t too crazy about the archetype system, but there’s no doubt it wasn’t made lightly.  Todd, Gordon, and the rest of the team haven’t been shy about explaining their reasons, and I can’t help but grant the intelligence behind their explanations when I get past my personal preferences.

Risk vs a Chance of Reward

To me, one of the most genius moves the Crowfall developers have made is linking the quality of resources to how hardcore the campaign is, and then making whether you keep it or not random.  As a big fan of robust in-game and player-driven economies, this is an absolutely brilliant move on their part.  They have a number of levers at their hands for adjusting the in-game market without having to resort to a heavy handed system of price-setting.

Despite my hearty support of the move, I have to admit there’s some risk to it, however.  Right off the bat, and the easiest to deal with, is the random chance for bringing back loot from campaigns in the Dying World.  There’s definite room for rage quitting over a bad roll in this sort of system, and if it happens too often?  Well, the problem there is obvious. 

There’s a balance that has to be created between a player’s expectation that some degree of work should garner some degree of reward, against the need for simulating additional elements of risk.  It’s more complicated than that, but you get the gist.  I do have a little concern that the system may not resonate as well with some players, so the team is going to have to make a specific effort to show how the mechanic enables a larger and better game in order to stay ahead of the frustrations it’ll likely cause.

Of course, there’s also the fact that they’re creating a tie between lawlessness and reward, which additionally might be problematic.  EVE Online has been pulling it off successfully for quite a while, so it’s not a huge concern.  That said, CCP definitely has their detractors, so it’s nothing you want to completely dismiss.

Crafters have a significant role in PvP and could mean the difference between victory and defeat!

I think ArtCraft has a handle on the second potential issue, though.  The trick is making your more industrially inclined players feel like they’re contributing to the PvP without actually having to always pick up a sword themselves, and I think Crowfall has that covered in spades. 

With the need to craft and repair gear during campaigns, there’s a clear point of contribution for crafters.  It gets better, though.  Teams will also need defensive bases of operation, and they will need to both grow and store supplies.  In the end, while I think there’s some risk of driving off a few players by creating a tie between the economy and PvP in the way they have, the developers have definitely put thought into doing it in a way that makes sense.

From the Recliner

Really, that last bit about sums up the whole article, when I think about it for a bit.  If every potential problem I can think of has already been discussed by the developers and some mitigation or reasoning applied, then Crowfall is in pretty seriously good shape.  Not that I’m advocating blind acceptance of every decision, but rather I’m just pointing out that they have good reasons for them and are open about why they made them.

Like most arm-chair developers, I’ve disagreed with a number of choices in a myriad of games over the years.  I think the difference in this case is that no one is trying to pretend everyone’s happy with whatever choices are made or actively quashing dissenting opinions.  Of particular note is that I don’t think it’s something we’d ever see in a game that wasn’t crowdfunded.

I’m also not saying everything is completely rosy with Crowfall.  I do think they’ve chosen the harder road with what they’re trying to accomplish here, and I also think they’d find it an easier path by letting fans contribute to content a bit more.  That considered, I completely respect their reasons for going the other way, and have more faith that this team will pull it off than I would nearly any other.

More importantly, I don’t think they need to hear from me, so much as they need to hear from you.  ArtCraft is charting new territories and feedback is critical for completing the task.  These guys seem pretty tough, and seem to have a pretty constant finger on the pulse of their community.  I’m curious to know what worries you have about the game, and what do you think the developers have done to mitigate the risk from it?  I’m sure it’s feedback they’ll appreciate, too.  Of course, if you get completely shlacked in-game one day by a bunch of names you recognize from the forums, you’ll know your specific point of insight was not particularly appreciated.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.