Making Combat & Customization Both Challenging & Entertaining
With nearly 95,000 registered players, 23,000 backers and nearly $6 million in funding, it’s safe to say that Crowfall has come a long way since their Kickstarter ended in March. Attracting players and raising funds are always two of the larger challenges that indie studios, like ArtCraft Entertainment, will face. The more important challenge, however, is the following through and making a good game! With this in mind, I had an opportunity to chat with Crowfall Lead Designer, Thomas Blair, about what goes into designing an Archetype and how ArtCraft plans on making combat and customization both challenging and entertaining.
Mike: In your update “First Look: Champion UI and Powers”, you talk about the “Minimum Viable Powers” for each Archetype. When it comes to the “right” number of available skills for each archetype, how do you determine when you've hit the 'sweet spot' that's more interesting than pressing one button but simple enough to be able to manage without a spreadsheet?
Blair: This is definitely one of the challenges of designing an archetype. Early on, we stated multiple times how we wanted to keep from ability bloating characters with 40 powers, many of which will become obsolete as you advance or were not that great in the first place. (We still feel strongly that this is the wrong approach.) But, on the other side of the coin, we didn’t want to go so light that we felt like there was no choice and you are locked into a very specific power rotation without choices.
When we built our first Archetype, the Knight, we came up with a rough number of powers that we felt would give him options in a variety of situations that one would encounter on the battlefield. (Damage, Crowd Control, Escape, move over there, Oh CRAP SAVE ME!!)
After a lot of iteration, we were eventually able to use the Knight as sort of a template (or baseline) for the number of options and combos within the powers we want when we start designing a new Archetype. From there, we can adjust by adding or removing powers based on meetings with the team. (For example we felt three-deep combo chains would take too long on a slower speed Archetype like the Champion, so we went with two-deep combo chains as his max.)
Mike: You’ve mentioned that the current Archetype skills are not final and that some will be changed, moved to different Archetypes or removed entirely. Do you have any examples of skills that could possibly end up somewhere else? How will you decide what skills need to move or be removed entirely?
Blair: There aren’t really public-facing examples of powers we decided to cut or move, mainly because by the time we get it into testing, we have already made the cut (though I do mourn for loss of the Confessor Flashback combo chain!).
We like to have that disclaimer posted so people won’t get bent out of shape if and when we end up moving something after they have already seen it.
We have lined up the build order of the Archetypes to align with our plan for building new combat features – in other words, to match the order that makes the most sense to support the our longer-term project goals.
This is why each Archetype tends to bring something totally new, like Projectiles with Confessors, Group Buffs with Legionnaires, and finally Blinds and Suppressions with the Champion.
Mike: You mentioned that we’re currently seeing the first iteration of the Crowfall user interface. There are currently several extra empty slots on the action bar. Will those be used for more skills or something different?
Blair: We put those extra empty slots in there for multiple purposes. First, we wanted to have room for powers granted by Disciplines and Promotions. Second, we also wanted to cast aside all of the early comparisons to “OMG you only have 6 buttons! This must be a MOBA!” It’s not, and we don’t want a casual observer to be left with that false impression.
Mike: Do you see some players ever abandoning the initial set of powers and moving to a completely different set of powers once they acquire certain disciplines or class promotions?
Blair: Not exactly. We do anticipate players eventually swapping powers around and loading out different powers, but the core kit is pretty awesome for each Archetype, so ignoring those powers would be a pretty inefficient gameplay strategy. However we want players to be able to take the powers we put in use the disciplines and class promotions and be able to customize their archetypes. This was an approach that Todd used on Shadowbane and it led to a HUGE amount of variety between character builds… even builds that, on their face, looked very similar. As much as I would like to think we won’t have some broken powers interactions, when you have a combinatorics explosion between hundreds of powers, things are bound to happen!
Mike: Are there any examples of "design discovery" that you learned from Combat Test 1.0?
Blair: Oh, of course! I think the Knight’s Chain Pull is a great example. We had a few bugs with it in the initial playtests that would send players 100m into the sky with no cooldown. (Good thing we haven’t built falling damage yet!) Even after fixing those issues we found that the pull wasn’t very useful until we added a Daze effect to the target on the end. This way if the Knight over-pulls the target, they still have a chance to beat on them.
We also discovered we needed to be able to aim from the ground and pull targets from the high walls of the Keep. To address that, we implemented pitch on the reticle that lets the Knight aim up and pull them his enemies off the wall to the ground below.
Mike: Finally, You guys have mentioned numerous times that you decided to tackle Combat first. Why is that? And can you give us a hint as to when you’ll move on to other systems?
Blair: Sure. Our approach was to tackle combat first for two reasons:. First, including a real-time physics simulation in your MMO architecture is an incredibly daunting challenge, which means that you’re adding risk to your project. It’s best to tackle the risky problems, first, because it maximizes the iteration time you can spend fixing (and tuning) the emergent issues. Second, we feel that combat is a critical ingredient for our game. We absolutely have to get “right”, or our game just won’t be fun.
The best thing is that, now that we’re hitting our second combat milestone (on time and on budget, I might add!), it leaves us in a great place to start building the other core systems. We have a ton of stuff that I’m excited to move on to, like destructible environments, passive training, the world building tools… some of this is already cooking, and I can’t wait to show it off!