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It’s Getting Combative

Red Thomas Posted:
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I made some guesses as to where we might see Crowfall over the next several months, and while I stand my by estimations of where their priorities will eventually fall, I had a chance to talk with Todd Coleman and Gordon Walton and found out I’d missed something critical.  Todd says their first move is to get combat online and have players in testing it.  Another intelligent move by a team that has a history of success and has developed a plan to get there again.

Moving on Combat

So what I hadn’t considered, but the professionals did, is that since combat is central to their game, it’s the first thing they need to have tested.  Todd points out that it’s a format they used in the Wizard101 development process, and it worked out well there.  He recounted to me during my visit last week how the early Wizard game started off as physical cards on a table.  They didn’t even write code until they felt they had a solid card game that played well, and the card game is what Wizard101 is all about at its core.

That same mindset is at play here as Todd describes the importance of getting early and constant feedback on their combat mechanics.  They’ve already taken a step into potentially soft terrain with their decision to tie classes to particular races, and even gender in some cases.  Todd points out that combat is also central to their promises to fans, so “getting the look and feel of combat is crucial” to them.  “The things that are the riskiest are the things you pull forward in your schedule so that you have the most time to iterate on,” says Todd.

Gordon Walton adds in that they expect to take a few dings early in the process, too.  I see where he’s going, because the internet is packed with reactionary trolls, even when you’ve taken steps to focus your efforts on a core audience of experienced gamers like ArtCraft has.  It’s not like these guys are risk-adverse, however.  In a market saturated with PvE-focused MMOs that continue being incredibly profitable, this team has decided their audience craves the opportunity to hunt more dangerous game.  It’s this sort of genius that’s gotten them where they are, and I won’t lie and say I’m not personally excited to see them do it.

Todd says that when combat comes out, “it won’t be all the archetypes, but we need to get in and get some feedback because it’s so important.”  He goes on, “I think our core users will understand that.  When they put it through the paces, they’ll realize that it was the right approach, because, if combat doesn’t work, we don’t have a game.  If combat works, then we have a fantastic foundation to build a game.

Iteration Works

While rolling out combat first may be a little uncommon, it’s not entirely unheard of.  Star Citizen, rolled out their dogfighting module before the rest of the game.  The entire point of doing so has been to collect data on how players interact with each other in simulated combat, and then to build the rest of the game around the results.  I have a few friends between the various CIG offices around the world, and I’ve consistently heard that it’s been a very useful technique for them.

Shroud of the Avatar is probably the best example of iterative development I’ve seen, and it’s even in a similar genre.  The Portalarium developers have commented on numerous occasions about how necessary the process has been over the last couple years of their development.  The impact has shown over there, too.  Various problems have been nipped early, and design flaws spotted way sooner than they would have otherwise.

http://images.mmorpg.com/features/9647/images/Red-Apr30-1.jpg Sharpen your blades, folks. Combat is inbound and blood shall flow.

I think some players get concerned when Gordon and Todd talk about iterating on things like combat or any game system for that matter.  We’ve all seen other games roll out an idea of how they want to see combat function, it doesn’t work as well as expected, and then the game’s a ghost town by the time the problems get addressed.  In this case, we’ll be seeing things way earlier, however.  That makes a big difference.

That earlier opportunity to spot problems saves development time and money.  By detecting an issue before the system has been hooked into several other game systems, problems can be more easily resolved.  Also, imbalances in skills and weapon lines can be studied under controlled situations, resulting in good data for better initial balancing.

Good Start

Even before the crowdfunding campaign, I got to see the game and engage in some PvE combat, so the system exists and is functional in a very basic state.  Granted, I only got to play around with one character and with a very limited set of skills, but the general functionality was there.   It also looked surprisingly good, though that was before hooking the voxel system into the game.  I don’t expect that to have a lot of impacts, but I’m sure it’ll have some changes to terrain and assets to support destructibility.

http://images.mmorpg.com/features/9647/images/Red-Apr30-2.jpg Even while focused on combat, other members of ArtCraft are still hammering away at other parts of the game.

I’m fairly sure I witnessed an early authentication system in place during the demo, as well.  That’s not the most complicated part, but it’s certainly something other companies have had trouble with.  Even better though, the team chose to go with Unity 5 as their engine of choice from the start.  That should offer them a lot of world-building tools out of the gate, and have better performance than many other engines they could have chosen.  Plus, Portalarium is just down the road, and collaboration on any technical issues will only help both teams in the end.

The people who have pre-alpha access will be able to get in and play with the combat soon.  The guys aren’t saying exactly what form it’ll take (they’re still hashing out some of the details among themselves), but it sounds a lot like we might expect some sort of instanced arena melee or possibly one-on-one duels.  We should get an official word in the next couple weeks if not sooner, but one thing I do know is that it’ll be accessible during weekend events.  At least, that’ll be how it is early on.  Most other games have done the same, and then some have transitioned on to a more persistent beta later on.

I still think I was on the right track with my earlier article, and I suspect we’ll have access to some sort of persistent PvE environment sooner, rather than later.  If for no other reason, I expect it’s likely because Todd says they’re outlining a plan to have the game released late next year.  That says more for where they are already in the process than anything else I could write about.

The Hardcore Finish

Part of that rapid trek forward means hard choices, however.  ArtCraft has already alienated a few potential customers over decisions like races and classes being tossed out in favor of archetypes, but ArtCraft took their community seriously and wanted to get the information out quickly.  “Our audience and the people we’ve attracted are gun shy to devs talking around stuff; so for us, it’s about being super upfront [about what we’re doing],” says Gordon.  Their open focus on PvP has probably driven off a few more potential backers, and then there are those that think the idea behind the Dying Worlds is too different to be fun.

I’m not one of those people, however.  This team has made, and frankly continues to make, these really subtle choices that taken at the surface seem a little crazy, but then when you pull back the covers and take a harder look, you find that they are in fact innovatively genius.  I, and I’m sure many of you readers, have been campaigning for years for developers to take a step away from the safe and try something different.  Well, here they are, and they’re doing it.

http://images.mmorpg.com/features/9647/images/Red-Apr30-3.jpg “The players feel abused by the games they’ve played and by the people that run them.” – Gordon Walton

No doubt our first few weeks of the coming combat will be a little on the rough side, but I think this is a team that’s been very carefully constructing a core audience around the game they want to make, and very clearly communicating what their expectations should be for Crowfall.  I’m actually more interested in the community’s reaction to the combat once they get access than I think I might be in the initial gameplay. 

Todd and Gordon have intentionally set out to capture the disenfranchised.  They’ve specifically chosen to build a product for the hardcore gamer.  These scions of past digital worlds can be the toughest audience to please, but they’re also fanatically loyal to those who have won their respect.  Crowfall looks likely to be a perfect game for that crowd, and ArtCraft’s commitment to transparency and frank conversations about what they’re trying to do, is quickly building them the loyalty they need to be successful.

I’ll be very interested to see how that community reacts to the first access to combat.  It takes some serious intestinal fortitude to put game mechanics in front of an audience as soon as these guys are, even considering as much as they’ll have done by then.  To then take that track with an audience that’s been passionate about games and burned over and again, strikes awful close to crazy.  Well, I’ve had my share of abusive MMO relationships, and this is a form of crazy I’m super excited to see someone attempt.


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.