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Crowfall – A New Dawn

Red Thomas Posted:
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I really dig Crowfall.  I certainly have my share of bias as an investor, but I’ve been following this effort since before they even announced their Kickstarter.  Right off the bat, I felt like Crowfall was going to be something special.  I don’t expect it to be everyone’s cup of tea even after they get to release, but I definitely think they’re bringing an idea that will change the way games are made from now on.

The idea of randomly generating maps isn’t a new one, nor is PvP.  Smashing the two together to create dynamic worlds that live, change, and die over time is new, though.  What’s more, it scratches an itch that I think has been plaguing the MMORPG genre for a very long time.  The late 90s kicked off a two-decade-long run with MMOs.  For the first several years, gamers would pick their favorites from a relatively small list of options and then stay with that game for a year or two before moving on to the next.

As time’s gone on and more MMOs are available, many from smaller and very creative studios, the time players stay with any of them has consistently gotten shorter.  It’s something we see in the survival genre, where I noticed it for the first time while playing Minecraft, as I began to discover that my favorite part was starting a new server.   We all really love new games and being among the first to test new worlds.  Crowfall answers that need in spades with a system that’ll kick off new worlds constantly.

Getting there is the trick, so I like to swing in and check on things whenever I’m in Austin.  I called the team to let them know that I’d be stopping by, and I’m really excited about a lot of the more recent changes to the game.  For one, the game looks a lot better with new lighting effects and updated textures in the temples, among other things.  Also, the team added in some much-needed PvE content in the form of “War Tribes,” and they have some seriously cool ideas for how to use them in the game.

The Crowfall community will raze your keep to the ground and murder your whole team, but then they’ll laugh as you return the favor a week later.

Looking Good

Everyone says they don’t care as much about the way games look, but years of MMO releases by a wide range of studios proves that looking good still counts for a lot.  ACE is aware of this and is constantly working to improve the quality of graphics in Crowfall both visually and performance-wise.  Besides the normal round of general optimizations, the 5.90 patch for Crowfall included an overhaul to lighting that makes the game look a whole lot better post-patch.

New NPC factions add needed depth to the Dying Worlds.

Less sexy, but certainly noticed, is additional improvements to the character controller.  It’s the programmatic component working in the background to update the server and other clients on where characters are in 3D space at any given time and on what they’re doing.  An optimized controller not only consumes fewer resources on your PC, it also leads to the character and NPC models on your screen moving more smoothly with the increased framerate, and also improves the movement of your own avatar.

The team also made a number of texture enhancements and replacements that should be very noticeable.  For instance, the placeholder textures for temples have been replaced with new textures.  Then, there are also a number of new sounds and effects added in each patch that continually improve the ambiance of Crowfall in general.

Feeling Good

Backers probably haven’t noticed the lack of a good new player experience.  Most of us have either been dipping our toes in the game every few months to see what’s changed or have been playing it nonstop anyway.  It has been a pretty key element of the game that’s been missing, though.  I also find it incredibly significant that ACE has decided to address the issue now, as it’s one of the most important components of a successful game launch.

No, I’m not suggesting an immediate launch, but I do think it shows a very subtle shift in how the developers are thinking about the game.  Everything has been a road map towards an eventual launch, but this tells me that they’re getting close enough that it’s starting to impact the culture of the studio in subtle ways.  They’ve always thought about how to make sure their players understand new systems and mechanics, but now they’re thinking about how to teach new players about all of their features.

This manifested in a new server type that’s between the Eternal Kingdoms and Dying Worlds.   It’s a land that combines a bit of both and serves as a training ground for new players.  These “Adventure” worlds won’t have a lifecycle and eventually die like the worlds in other campaigns, but instead will be more permanent in the way of Eternal Kingdoms.  They do share that public access component and opportunities for PvP like you find in the Dying Worlds, though.

This actually solves a number of problems in Crowfall.  For one, it’s just hard to really learn how to play the game when your choices are zero adversity or cut-throat PvP, and getting thrown into the deep end of the pool like that can be a frustrating experience for most players.  The new server type allows new players to experience the game between those two extremes and in a slightly more controlled state, which also leaves a lot more room for introduction quests. 

A more controlled solution for introducing new players to Crowfall is a very smart move that will pay off greatly, I think.  Plus, this new game mode just has other benefits.  It’s a place for players to hang out between campaigns (which also means that’s going to matter at some point in the near future) and is another great sign of the project’s progress.  This will also be an opportunity for players to get to know each other and for guilds to recruit, which was a little more difficult with only the previous two options.

Doing Good

One of the new additions to Crowfall that I’m most excited about are the War Tribes, though.  The game has had random mobs for a while and you might think that with a PvP-focused game like Crowfall that killing AI-controlled critters wouldn’t matter, but you’d be wrong.  For one, PvP is fantastic for generating dynamic content and creating interesting player-driven drama, but players want to be the stars of the story.  If you don’t have background noise to stand out from, you sort of become the background noise.

In effect, that’s part of what including more mobs will do for the game.  The generated mobs will fill the world to some degree and give this general sense of population to the world that it’s been missing before now.  With that in place, hostile contact with other players will have more gravitas to it and feel more compelling, I think.

The art style used in Crowfall is just a really smart choice, and the new lighting effects make it even better.

But mobs aren’t just there to add that background noise, because they’re also going to contribute to the economy by providing a method for attaining new types of loot.  I’ll be getting more into this in my column next week, but the crafting system just got a huge update in Crowfall that includes many limited-use recipes and opportunities to modify existing recipes to make customized gear.  War Tribes play a part in that new process.

The current tribes you can expect to see are Urgu barbarians, Aaracoix conclaves, and Satyr clans, which respectively are races of pigmen, birdmen, and faun.  Villages and inhabited areas are dynamically generated just like everything else on a campaign map.  Areas inhabited by the respective tribes will also take on the unique flavor of each tribe, further creating a more interesting and diverse landscape.

I expect more NPC cultures will be added over time, and I think there’s even greater future potential for this idea.  For one, it’s another mechanic that can be switched off, on, and dialed up or down to create more diversity in future campaigns.  It’s possible the team could even implement more robust AI systems that change the aggressiveness and behavior of NPC factions in different campaigns.  These War Tribes are another tool in the drawer for ACE as they get closer to the goal of dynamically generating new campaign worlds, and that’s just awesome.

All Good

In the end, I’m just really excited about Crowfall.  It seems like the development effort has picked up steam and I find the game has taken larger strides to completion every time I login.  I can’t say that it’s quite there yet, and even the developers are quick to say they want potential players to either be sure they know what they’re getting into or just wait for release.  Still, it feels really good and I enjoy myself every month or two when I jump in to join a couple campaigns.

The new temple textures and the new lighting enhancements are really bringing the game up to another level.

Like many of my favorite games to cover, Crowfall has an incredibly unique and active community, too.  The same player that viciously ganks you one minute is also happy to tell you about some of the things you should think about doing to be more competitive.  That juxtaposition between being genuinely friendly and helpful when they’re not sticking a blade in your ribs has to be one of the most amazingly unique things I’ve experienced online.

If nothing else, that really tells me that this team is doing a great job.  Good development efforts seem to always create good communities, and ACE has certainly done that with Crowfall.  It’s a community that will make them very competitive in the market once the game releases and they open the doors to new players.  I think that’s likely to happen early next year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard an announcement in a few months that they’ll make it out towards the end of this year.

Whenever they do get there, don’t be afraid to ask for advice when that cute hamster puts a rapier through your face.   You won’t get your stuff back, but you’ll probably get a lot of advice.   And if we’re honest about it, which is truly more valuable?

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.


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.