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Red's Read On The Crowfall Beta

Checking out the open beta for the MMO

Red Thomas Posted:
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Crowfall has officially entered beta, though I’d submit that the term is virtually meaningless these days.  With Early Access games opening the doors to players earlier and earlier as each year goes by and as those accesses become increasingly more tied to PR campaigns than to actually testing anything, I’s say that the wealth of new and older terms like Pre-Alpha, Alpha, Beta, Open Beta, Early Access, and so on ad nauseum have become blurred to the point of near meaninglessness.

That said, projects do have various phases that are still relevant on the development side of things and though framed in the marketing context, these events often distinguish internal transitions from various phases of the development cycle.  For instance, there’s a point where larger numbers of players are needed in order to stress-test the server-side code, and that necessitates an influx of players, which is typically tied to a phased set of testing in some form.

That all happens and it’s legitimate, but my issue tends to come from the period afterwards in which the game effectively operates in this perpetual open beta mode.  When a game has been in “open beta” for a protracted period of time there’s no definitive timeline for “release” that happens all too often and is when I start questioning the value of these terms.

We’re going to take a look through where Crowfall is in this often-amorphous process and what we might expect in the near future.  I had the chance to play the game a bit over the last week and I’ll go into some of the things that I really enjoyed in the current state of Crowfall and where I think it needs some improvement.

Beta by Any Name

Whether any given term fits or is relevant, Crowfall has a velocity that suggests it’s taking the better track and is on the way to an actual release.  Even better, a specific design feature of Crowfall allows the game to skip much of the marketing requirements commonly levied on beta events, which is a fine tuning of the system to be attractive to larger demographics.  Crowfall does this through their ingenious Dying Worlds system, which will allow them to spin up and test as many rulesets as they like moving forward past release.

While they still need to complete the obvious technical testing implied in a beta event such as scaling servers, optimizing clients at similar scale, and all the other things that come with testing in larger groups, the market testing is where I think the ACE strategy will shine.  As I’ve said many times before, I think the ability of the game to try new things and shift over time will not only allow them to target specific niche demographics easily, but also shift with market demands as they change.

Of course, the ACE team is doing something relatively unique in the market and that comes with unique challenges.  I believe that most of the market effort in the beta event is likely to be replaced with technical challenges that have to be solved related to the dynamic nature of their model.  MMO games using clustered cloud assets is hardly an uncommon practice these days, but the on-demand nature of what ACE is doing with Crowfall and at the scale they’re doing it is definitely new in many respects.

Crowfall Beta

The new set of quests make for a solid new player experience, but it’s not complete yet.  Still, anyone joining the beta should have a much smoother transition into the game than they might have experienced otherwise.

Because the game is so dynamic in nature, I think it’s fair to ask what release even looks like.  It would be incredibly easy for a game like Crowfall to exist in a perpetual beta state, and I’d even argue that in many ways it will.  Each new server with new rules will effectively be a new test of new ideas, which is an advantage that allows the team to constantly swing for the fences, failing often and quickly.  Mitigating the fear of failure allows developers to test many ideas, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and that just means awesome new game modes on the horizon that no one has even thought of yet.

I asked that question of what release even looks like, though.  If the game is in that constant state of flux as the team tries new ideas, what separates the testing of beta from the testing of a released game?  Gordon Walton replied that there’s one very simple divide between the two, and that’s the last wipe.  I get the impression that we are far closer to that last wipe than not, however.

In the meantime, backers should keep an eye out for updates.  Not just because development will be moving quickly now that the team has moved into the final phase of game production, but because higher volumes of users and more complete game loops will start giving players a better sense of what the game will be like at launch.  We should expect to see more full-scale battles over the next few months as opposed to the modest-sized skirmishes that make up most of the PvP to date.

Backers should also get the opportunity to get friends into the game via the beta program, which will be a great way to share experiences.  For readers who are interested in getting a taste of the game on their own, those who have signed up for beta access will be invited in increasingly larger waves over the next few months based on the order in which you’ve signed up in.  Though you can improve your position in queue with codes that affiliated streamers will be allowed to start handing out to their audiences soon.

As far as what they’re looking for in beta testers, I really liked one thing that Gordon said.  He’d noted that Crowfall was formed out of this idea that the developers were tired of the stagnated MMO market.  At its inception, the game was intended to be divergent from the mold created through the economic momentum in the wake of World of Warcraft, and that defines the players the team is most looking for in their beta program.

“Yeah, we were kinda bored of the whole genre,” Gordon mentioned when I asked him about it.  “That’s who we want in the beta,” he went on to say, because they want players who love the idea of an MMO, but are bored with the way it’s been done over the last decade and a half.  Those players are the ones that will help the team define what success looks like in Crowfall.

Crowfall Open Beta

One of the things I really like about Crowfall is how customizable everything is, and not just crafted equipment.  Even player skills can be customized through the use of runes.

Violent Delights

There’s plenty to like currently in Crowfall, and I was surprised to see how much the game had changed when I logged back in last week.  I haven’t really played much over the last few months because I’ve been keeping my eye on other games and with limited time, I just hadn’t had a chance to get back into the game.  Before my interview with the team, I decided to login and give it a try, though.

I really liked what I was seeing.  The new player experience has been dramatically improved with a series of quests that walk new players through many of Crowfall’s core systems and game concepts.  Specifically, players learn the basics of crafting, leveling up, and are introduced to the idea that they’re more than the mortal coil they currently inhabit. 

The introductory experience takes place in God’s Reach, a PvE and persistent environment more in the vein of the typical MMO.  I was a little frustrated at first because I didn’t care much for the whole tutorial thing and I just wanted to jump into the normal game, but there are level requirements restricting access to the more hardcore PvP server.

Crowfall Open Beta

The talent system combines with the skill trees to create a very dynamic and complex system for character ability, and that’s not even getting into necromancy, runes, and gear.  It’s more complicated, but it also makes you feel completely unique among all the other players in the game world.

I remember in a previous meeting with the team that one of the key problems they wanted to resolve was new players being thrown into the fire.  Crowfall is a game in which the core audience tends towards the hardcore PvP sandbox crowd, and that makes for a very violent greeting in most cases.  The problem comes from the fact that seal clubbing isn’t particularly fun for the clubee in most cases.  New players jumping into the game and then promptly getting serially ganked is going to lead to a lot of new players immediately walking away.

God’s Reach mitigates that unpleasant experience by ensuring players at the very least have some experience, gear, and basic understanding of the game before jumping into the deep end of the pool.  It’s an experience that also gives players a taste of several of the core mechanics in Crowfall and allows them the chance to better decide what direction they’d like to take their character initially.

Though much of it has been in the game for while now, I found myself excited again over the crafting system and the way it allows players to experiment and tweak gear.  The crafting process is built in layers, each offering another level of choices and complexity.  I like this a lot because not only does it allow players to create specific customized gear for in-game clients, but it also allows for both that experimentation and opens the room for some level of specialization.  While simple on the surface to use, there’s a complexity to the crafting that means some players will inevitably figure out just that little bit that gives their clients and guilds a tiny edge against opponents.

I also really like the caravan system and what it brings to the game.  Todd Coleman pointed out that it partly grew out of a hole in their design that was identified by players.  The game was too centered around capturing the large keeps and the battles that centered around those events and the specific time windows in which they occured.  Additionally, industrial type players were a little short on meaningful ways to actively contribute to team victory outside just creating gear.

From this gap, the caravan system was formed.  Not only does the system create PvP opportunity outside any set schedule, but it also creates that PvP on portions of the map that wouldn’t normally see it otherwise.  Also, this convoy/ambush style of PvP wasn’t captured well under the pure siege system and caravans offer a whole new set of scenarios for players to compete with each other around.  Most importantly, it opened the door for industrial players to actively contribute to the military success of their chosen faction.

Economics have driven more wars in history than even religion, so it’s great seeing them play such a key role in the formation of Crowfall and even contributing to some of the PvP conflict in the game.

Fume of Sighs

That’s not to say it’s all sunshine for Crowfall, though.  There are a few areas that need work over the next few months and I did have a few unpleasant experiences while playing that are worth acknowledging.  I’ve already seen some of these issues on the roadmap moving forward, and I suspect some of the others will be resolved naturally as the game progresses.  That doesn’t mean they’re not worth mentioning.

The new player experience is still a little light, and I say that knowing full well that it’s not yet completed.  Players are expressly told at the end of the tutorial quest line that more is coming, but there are some basic contextual things missing from the game that I’d like to see worked on.  For instance, crafting is such an important part of the game and yet there’s so little in-game support for players looking to better understand the process.

Now, I have to qualify that statement somewhat by pointing out that I don’t want a holistic answer.  Experimentation and learning the system is an important part of experience and some knowledge gap is important to creating that depth of skill that I think is critical to the game I’m hoping Crowfall will be.  That said, I also think there needs to be an expansion of the tooltips in the UI or maybe even better, an in-game wiki system that players can use to understand how some of the processes work.

For instance, I know a little about how the experimentation works because I’ve had a chance to talk with the devs, but there’s not much in the game that would lead me there.  I don’t really want players to have to track down my old articles to figure those processes out (though, my editor probably just had an aneurism over that one).  I’d like to see some tooltips to help explain the features of crafting better and just help players understand in general what experimentation is and what the various numbers and features actually mean.

I also had some frustration because I’d joined the campaign and couldn’t harvest any higher tier resources because the gap between the general quality resources and even the higher quality tools I’d brought with me and the higher tier resources was so great that I couldn’t seem to make anything of sufficient quality to harvest resources better than the generic stuff. 

I also had some trouble with the Dregs campaign because I couldn’t figure out where I could go to craft anything advanced in the first place.  That made me realize that I’m not really sure how the Dregs will work eventually.  With faction-based play, any given faction is bound to have control of a fort or keep at some point.  When everything is based on guilds and all guilds are hostile to each other, then I’m not really sure how anyone outside the large zerg guilds is going to have fun in those campaigns.  I’m sure it’s something that’s been solved and I’d just missed it, but that was one thing that stood out to me as a question while I was playing.

I also had a slight problem with getting ganked.  I don’t hate it because it’s the nature of the game, but I got jacked several times in a row coming out of gates.   Larger groups of kitted out players standing around ambushing folks as they spawned in is kind of expected, but it still sucks.  I’m not sure that I would really want the developers to do anything about it because I don’t think there’s any way for them to do a fix that would be both effective and not harm the idea of the Dregs at the same time.  

By that token, it’s still probably something players should solve at some point for the health of the game.  I’ve seen similar in a lot of games and it’s usually younger players who are having fun at other’s expense and they don’t really understand how detrimental it is to the game.  Everyone doesn’t have to have fun all the time, PvP is PvP after all, but they do need to have fun for at least a sizable portion of the time.  Going out of your way to ruin someone else’s experience probably isn’t a job for the developers to handle, but it might be a good idea for players to determine among themselves the difference between being competitive and bullying.

Crowfall Open Beta

Crowfall is currently a very team/group-oriented game, which presents a challenge for the anti-social crafting folks among us.

Though, I also think this is something that’ll resolve over time once the game is launched, too.  As more servers come online and players start showing statistical preferences for various ranges of challenge, we should get a range of servers to meet most, if not all, tastes.  That’s harder to do when it’s a single Dregs server, but over time and with data analysis, I expect this problem will go away.

In the end, that’s why I’m excited about Crowfall, which I think has the potential to be all things to all people.  Eternal Kingdoms for those who want to build and create without conflicts as well as various levels of lawlessness through untold numbers of servers.  The idea that every player will have a chance to find the game mode that best meets their desired level of challenge is what captured my attention the very first day I met Todd and Gordon in that small conference room in that shared workspace in Austin.

Crowfall has come a very long way from those days and has changed a lot, though that same core vision still keeps the team on target.  Finally, after all this time the game is nearing completion and showing players a real taste of what the game will be like at release.  I couldn’t nail the team down on an actual release date, but if we’re more than nine months out, I’d be really surprised.  I suspect it’s far less than that, but we’ll just have to see what happens between now and the end of this year.

Either way, the beta is opening up and it’s free.  If you’re not sure about the game, I see no reason not to recommend you sign up and just play it for free.  I have a few members of my family that I’ve signed up for the beta and I’m looking forward to playing the game with some of my nieces and nephews.   …Though, maybe in one of the less hardcore servers.

Full Disclosure:  Red Thomas is an SEC accredited investor and has invested in ArtCraft Entertainment, the studio developing Crowfall.  While Red makes a good faith effort at subjectivity, unconscious bias is always possible, and readers should take the potential of bias into account.


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.