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Crowfall Interview: The Power of Players

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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In building Crowfall, developer ArtCraft Entertainment has benefited from a close relationship with its backers. Whether they get heavily involved with creating and testing the game, or simply support the project and check in occasionally (full disclosure: I’m in this group), the feedback has been invaluable to the studio.

Now that three years have passed since that original Kickstarter campaign, I was eager to find out what the studio had learned from this style of game development. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to sit down with ArtCraft’s top brass at last month’s Gamescom, including creative director J Todd Coleman, executive producer Gordon Walton, and VP of marketing DebySue Wolfcale.

During our visit, we got a chance to see the latest developments in patch 5.7 as Coleman ran through a demo on the live EU servers, including the new day-night cycle and some incredibly nifty castle-building tech that’s been added to the Eternal Kingdoms. But with Gamescom being a show focused on gamers, we dialled in on how Crowfall is harnessing player involvement, even using dedicated fans to staff their booth on the show floor.

And, with patch 5.8 around the corner, Crowfall will finally become the MMO that players can win. Based on a throne war structure with seasonal campaigns, that future certainly looks interesting. Who knows, maybe a future Gamescom will be playing host to a full-on crowning ceremony.

MMORPG: Like a few people, I don’t play Crowfall regularly. I tend to dip in, check things out, but be patient. [Our columnist Tim Elsen keeps a close eye on development -Ed]. Does that match what you see?

J Todd Coleman: It actually matches a large number of our backers. We have a large number - I call them lookie-lou’s - they’ll show up when a new build comes out, just to check it out for a couple of minutes then take off. Then of course we have the hardcore guys who are there 24-7 all the time.

So this is the new version that went up about two weeks ago, patch 5.7. The biggest things that we’re adding into this is the day-night cycle. It’s coming up on noon right now, and I’m on the EU live server in the game. So if I suddenly get ganked by a couple of people, you’ll know why. Also because I’m a terrible player and not actually very good. There’s also a season indicator, and that shows how much time is left in this campaign. It’s got a countdown timer until the campaign is over.

This [the barren white area] is the Hunger.  The way we have day-night cycles triggered right now is every night there is a chance of the Contagion taking in some area of the game, and it pops up randomly and it spreads from there. When the Hunger takes over a spot, basically it has a radius around it that turns the world to winter, and any harvestable resources in that radius are no longer available, so you walk up to them and they’re frozen. If you want to harvest in that area, you have to destroy the hunger, and the hunger gets worse and worse through the course of the campaign - its spreading.

The idea is to make the world look more and more bleak, and make resources more and more harsh, as winter approaches.  We increase the overall percentage of it spreading in the seasonal breaks.

MMORPG: Was that always the intention, or did you settle on it after testing?

Coleman: We just got it in with this version, so we may actually find that we need to adjust it some - it was our first guess. From what I’ve seen (and we’re running fairly short campaigns, like this one’s only 28 days) we’ll see how it feels once the players actually get a chance to play with it. I think that there’s some additional adjustments that we want to make with how it interacts with the area around it and what the chance of it spreading. It’s all design knobs, so I think we’re going to want to be able to make some adjustments.

We kind of do with every system when it first comes online. We put it out in front of the players and we see how they feel about it. That’s something that’s really interesting about this style of development, that frankly is different than anything I’ve ever experienced, which is putting the players in to the game so early, and having such a direct connection with them, means that they’re almost - the really attached ones, the ones that we see on a daily basis - almost become an extension of your design team.

I know that sounds crazy, but it really is true. We’re in such constant communication with them, that I can go to them and ask questions that historically I’ve had to go to our QA team to ask, because the QA team were the only ones that logged enough hours.

MMORPG: Have you found that the hardcore testers have gained an understanding of the underlying technology and what’s low-reach and high reach?

Coleman: They have, yeah. It still is constant communication.

In the strategy layer, we’ve got campfires, outposts, forts and keeps. And they’re engineered at strategic capture locations for various group sizes, so that even individual players or two people can participate in the overall strategy. An outpost is geared for 1 or 2 people, an outpost is a group of 3-5, a fort is for a couple of groups versus a couple of groups, and then the keeps are 50-100 on 50-100.

So they had a question of “Hey, why don’t you make us have two steps to take any fort, where we have a series of archery towers, the outposts around them, and we have to take those first.”

And so I said “that’s an interesting thought, however architecturally that’s not the way it works. One parcel of land can have one and only one capture location, and the reason for that is that we built these parcels to be shuffled around in the world so that we can make an infinite number of worlds out of these curated pieces.”

That was an interesting design conversation that most players would never be privy to, right, but because I am directly connected to them, and they made what I thought was a pretty good idea - it’s not that we won’t do it, maybe we will - I had to explain to them why that was an expensive idea, not a cheap idea.

And then other times they’ll throw out something that they think is expensive, and I’m like actually, that's really cheap. Because we already have the concept of a capture location, I can invent another type of capture location.

So It’s really interesting, actually. The guys who have been around the longest, absolutely have come up on the learning speed of how the games are made, and I actually think that there’s a fair chunk of them that kickstarted for that reason, as much as anything else. They believe in the team and they like the vision, but they also wanted to feel like they were an extension of the development team and have that direct connection. So it’s really been a fascinating process from that standpoint.

The idea of crowd designing, including the audience as part of the design, it’s also really well suited for our game in particular because we encapsulate a full campaign as a single standalone game, almost. It’s got ties in and out - you can take characters and items in and out - but within the boundary of that campaign the rules can be dramatically different. The world maps are completely different, the time frame is different. Everything can change.

That gives us an ability to experiment that most MMOs don’t have. With a WoW [World of Warcraft]-style MMO, you kind of make one set of looting rules and that’s it. One set of respawn rules. That’s it for the whole game. With ours we can vary those rules up and it’s almost like a modding community as an internal part of our development process.

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Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.