Crowfall – Dynamic Campaigns Online
Crowfall is easily one of the most exciting games to hit my radar in a while. The very core functionality of the game is hugely innovative and something I expect will shape the industry over time. As excited as I am about the game, I try not to write about it too frequently. I was impressed enough by the early game concept that I became an investor, and thus there’s a modest amount of financial bias in anything I could say about it. With that, there are times I’m just too excited to pass on writing something.
When Crowfall kicked off their first campaign cycle in December, I knew I’d have an article on the horizon. Invested or not, I really like where the game is heading and think the next several months are going to be a blast for backers. With most of the core systems in place, we should start seeing a lot of functionality coming online, new game modes being implemented and tested, and a lot of those good house-keeping and quality-of-life updates that turn a project from being a cool concept into a great game.
I had a couple business meetings in Austin recently and decided to see if the ACE folks would host me for a couple hours and give me a quick update on the game. The update was exactly what I expected, and more than most projects would be able to boast at this point in development. The team is in great shape and will be kicking it into high gear after their successful December and January testing of the campaign cycle.
Balancing the Strategy
One of the issues that became apparent over the last couple months of testing the campaign cycles two at a time (one server in North America and another in Europe) is that there’s a bit of a run-away effect for teams that find themselves pulling ahead in the conflict. That creates a more complex problem than it might seem, and while fixing it doesn’t require a ton of programmatic support, it’ll be still be pretty hard to balance.
Factions accrue points over time for captured objectives, but each also banks a portion of those points as a net reward for the next faction to capture the objective.
On one hand, this really isn’t good for the game and isn’t particularly fun on either side of the issue. If you’re winning without effort, then the game ceases to be a challenge, and challenge is at the heart of most who play Crowfall. It’s also really discouraging to see your team get behind and then not ever have a chance to catch up.
That creates a situation where the conclusion of the game is determined rather quickly, which then drives player counts down and diminishes the importance of that final winter period of the game. No one wants that. Though, the statistics around the campaigns show that’s precisely what happens.
On the other hand, you can’t just put in a solution that penalizes the leading team or acts as a crutch for the losing ones. You don’t want players sand-bagging the first few stages of the game in order to capitalize on the late-game swing mechanic. Every stage of the game has to feel significant and generate some sense of drama, but that’s not easily delivered.
The solution the team came up with is to bank a portion of the points for every capturable objective in the game, which are then awarded to the team that makes the next capture. Because the points are a percentage of the value of the objective and accumulate over time, that creates a mechanic that rewards teams for flipping points, but also for strategic thinking. You have to face the question of whether to recap a point quickly or to wait and capture with a greater pool of bonus points.
ACE recently posted an article written by one of their players (Blazzen) in their news section. The articles takes a post by Creative Director J. Todd Coleman and provides a very good analysis on the strategic impacts of this change and others in combatting “night-capping,” a tactic of sweeping through a server during low-population periods to flip undefended points.
Time and Place of Attack
While creating systems that reward players for playing more aggressively and increasing the value of capturing targets that have been held overly long are great for ensuring no team pulls too far ahead, there other interesting impacts from the system, as well. One of the things the team wants to avoid is creating battle lines, which have a tendency to stall out over time.
The pool of points created by holding a given location means that there’s a real value to making surprise raids to capture points well inside enemy territory. Not only do you deprive them of those points for a period of time and grant them to your team, but the capturable objectives closer to faction ingress points will tend to accumulate the larger bonus pools and become very valuable targets for the other factions.
This is a mechanic that will spread the action out around the campaign map and make for a more dynamic battlefield, and potentially more interesting situations. Plus, I believe it also will create more opportunities for smaller teams to contribute to the faction by distributing the action away from a more centralized front line.
A season-based component is being added to the game, as well. Objective points will scale throughout the campaign and be worth more in each progressive season. This further addresses the problem of run-away teams, and it also creates a scale of increasing suspense as the campaign crescendos into the final season. I like that a lot because it’ll support the feeling of urgency as the campaigns wind to their conclusion.
There’s another time mechanic on a smaller scale, as well. Forts and Keeps will only be capturable during specific periods moving forward. That scale is geared to open capture objectives during each time period so that players in any timezone can contribute to their team, though more objectives will be available during peak periods.
It seems like a good balance between a system that encourages players to spread out and engage in asymmetric warfare, but also provides specific locations and times for them to pull together for large-scale battles. It’s a great idea that supports both styles of play without forcing anyone into either in order to effectively support their faction.
Choosing the Campaign
Now that the general mechanics of a campaign have been tested and campaigns are spinning up and tearing down on different timetables, the next step is expanding the types of campaigns. Those who love their PvP will be excited as they start seeing elements of the Dregs coming online.
The Dregs campaigns will be more hardcore than those we’ve seen so far. Factions will be made up of guilds or even not exist at all in some campaigns as it becomes every player for themselves. These more intense campaigns will also allow players to construct their own fortified camps from which to attack their opponents.
Campaigns that offer players more flexibility along with a more hostile environment are something I’m excited about as an industrial player. You might find that a little surprising since it seems more something that the heavy PvP players would be more interested in, but that flexibility and higher number of smaller factions will require more support from crafters. I expect the increased intensity to drive an increased demand.
Player-built fortifications will need more industrial support, if nothing else. Splitting crafters up into more smaller groups will increase the reliance on crafters’ support and build their sense of contribution. Once these campaigns go into full swing, they’ll be competing with other campaigns for that support, and that’ll create an additional sense of value when it comes to crafters.
Of course, another type of campaign is on the horizon, as well. While the team hasn’t officially announced any specific timeline on when players could expect to see sanctioned campaigns, I can assure you that it’s far closer than you might expect. The great thing about these campaigns is that they’ll grant players with permanent cosmetic bling to use in their Eternal Kingdoms. No, it won’t be anything OP and game-breaking, but the rewards will be unique and be a really cool perk from supporting those sanctioned campaigns.
Crowfall is looking really good. I played a bit over the last month because I wanted to check out the campaigns and the game has just really come a lot farther along than I’d expected. While there’s still more to do on the crafting side, which is usually what I’m more interested in, the campaigns give a sense of purpose to crafting. They’ve also given a sense of life and depth to the game that didn’t exist before.
Campaign maps are being generated dynamically now and the various realms are also created dynamically. This may not seem as exiting as everything else, but it’s a very big deal for the game as a whole. The functionality that impressed me so long ago was their idea of spinning up time-limited campaigns dynamically and on-demand, and that’s something they can do now. It gives the developers the anchor needed to implement a lot of other ideas, test them, and adjust based on the results very quickly and with player support.
If you’re like me and you’ve been dipping in and out of Crowfall while waiting for something more like the intended game-loop to be in place before getting serious, that time is rapidly approaching. No one on the team would ever commit to it but comparing where they’re at against other similar products I’ve covered over the years, I expect I’ll be playing Crowfall a lot over the summer months. That’s purely my own speculation, but I think it’s a fair one. If you’ve been holding off, you might find it worth checking out again, too.
NOTICE OF BIAS: 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.