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Crowfall - The Talent System Revealed

William Murphy Posted:
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Crowfall keeps on building towards what will undeniably be one of the most unique MMORPGs in recent memory. Everything the team at ArtCraft seems to do is just a little or a lot different from the norm. And the same goes for how the team approaches their talent system for player characters. We caught up with J. Todd Coleman and Thomas Blair to discuss the newly revealed feature. Plus we have an exclusive look at the video reveal of the system below.

MMORPG: Talents are sort of synonymous with MMORPGs these days. Any RPG, in general, seems to have them. How is Crowfall’s system going to be any different than say, WoW’s of yesteryear with its class-based trees that have become so accepted as the norm?

JTC: Character advancement is one of the main drivers of player behavior in an MMO.  Crowfall was already very strong in terms of group goals (build a city, take this castle, explore this area, capture the stone from this quarry) but we felt like the current version was lacking in personal, moment-to-moment activities.  We have a Passive Training system, similar to Eve Online -- but these are more long-term decisions, as these skills grow slowly over time (even when you are offline).  They also aren’t specific to one character; you get the benefit of Passive Training across all of your characters.  It would take decades to master all of the skills available in the passive Skill trees, which is cool, but it doesn’t drive me to do anything in the game right now.

On top of this, we have a traditional leveling system, like WoW -- only much, much faster.  We also provide alternate ways of gaining experience, such as sacrificing items to the Gods.

Whenever a character levels, they gain attribute points to improve their base scores, i.e. Strength, Intellect, etc. While these gains are statistically helpful, they don’t lead to variety in terms of character customization; as you might expect, players tend to spend points in a uniform way based on the class they’ve selected.

Talent trees provide a nice way to “fill in the gap” of moment-to-moment advancement… and they really open up character customization, as well.  Once you add Disciplines (our sub-classing system) to the mix, you get some really interesting combinations, like a “High Elf - Ranger (Hunter): Arcane Archer - Blacksmith - Minstrel”.

Every character can take 3 minor disciplines (which are like feats), 1 weapon specialization and 2 major disciplines (which are like sub-classes).  Frankly, I don’t think we’ve seen this level of character customization in an MMO since Shadowbane, which launched way back in 2003.

MMORPG: How will players earn and unlock talents in this system?

TB: Every time the player levels up they will gain 2 to 3 Talent points to spend in their class specific Talent Tree. The points can be spent on various nodes, some of which are mutually exclusive (i.e. you can’t have both.)

For example, Rangers will have 3 choices...

Archer - A Militant Ranger who can trade their melee powers for ranged powers. Benefiting from increased ranged skill with the bow, they get a Rapid Fire power that is much more powerful, and they can activate a mode where all their charged powers fire 50% faster.

Warden - A Sturdy Ranger who is dedicated to protecting the forest through using a mix of melee and ranged powers, and gains some unique enhancements to their melee bombs where they become faerie bombs. (Having forest friends is great!)

Brigand - A Sneaky Ranger who specializes in the shadows and prefers not to use a bow, they gain Stealth and Ambush; deal extreme damage when they perform their attacks from behind their targets, and have a high amount of burst potential with Dagger Spin.

Major and Minor Disciplines, and Weapon Specializations, unlock new Skill trees for your character.  BUT they don’t offer you additional Talent Points -- so when you take a Discipline, you are electing not to spend those points in your Class tree.  This means every training decision will have consequence.

MMORPG: Can you give some sample talents that stand out from the usual “+1% Health” that many games seem to adhere to?

TB: We tried to avoid having a bunch of small nodes that give tiny statistical gains; we decided to keep most of those elements on the Passive Skills system.  Talents are more active and impactful; for example there is a node in the Ranger Tree (“ambidexterity”) that grants them the ability to use off-handed weapons.  Ambidexterity is a prerequisite to a number of the Ranger’s melee powers -- so not taking this line definitely puts you at a disadvantage in melee, but frees up a ton of Training Points to spend on Archery, or to purchase a stealth tray and unlock the Ambush power.  Druids have a skill branch that removes their Healing Powers tray completely, boosts their passive essence generation (their primary casting resource) and offers up a slate of damage powers… effectively changing them from a healing-focused class to a DPS build.

MMORPG: How do talents interface with a player’s account? Are they something you can use on every character you have?

TB:  No.  Passive Skills are account-based (meaning they span every character on the account) but Talent Trees are unique to each character. 

MMORPG: Are you at all worried about people “breaking” their characters? I think in games like Path of Exile, that’s kind of the point - try and fail at new builds. Is that what you’re going for here?

JTC: Yes, that is exactly it.  We mentioned Shadowbane earlier and it was largely inspirational for this system… Shadowbane multi-classing system was absolutely massive, the number of unique combinations were staggering, and it was unapologetic in saying “some builds are just better than others.”  By offering an obscene level of customization, you create a highly-replayable system that feels very individual -- it becomes very easy to explore the tree and to craft character builds that are unique to your play style.

The challenge, of course, is not to overburden the player with “work” (i.e. grind) just to enjoy that exploration game.  Shadowbane solved this problem with an incredibly fast leveling curve.  We’re doing that, and to really drive the point home we are giving the players a way to cheat the XP curve by sacrificing items to the Gods for experience.  This is especially effective for high-level players who can find and sacrifice valuable items with relative ease.

Exploration in a system like this is all about finding unique combinations that work really well together.  A particular talent which sounds kinda meh might synergize with one or two specific disciplines in a way that is incredibly powerful and unique.  Figuring out these combinations is like a giant mental puzzle; when you find a great combination, it is incredibly rewarding.

MMORPG: A lot of MMOs seem to veer away from complex systems at the risk of alienating players. You all seem to... NOT be doing that. Every time I check in on Alpha it seems more complex than ever. Are you worried that it could be getting too detailed for players to grasp?

JTC: It’s a great question, and it’s an interesting distinction: what is the difference between complexity and depth?  Look at table-top gaming as an example; 5th edition AD&D has a tremendous amount of inter-dependent systems, as Jeremy Crawford (lead designer) notes, it’s basically a game of exceptions.  But the game is more popular than ever, largely because they figured out how to reveal that complexity over time.  I might go so far as to say that “complexity is depth that is either not explained, or explained poorly.” 

We certainly DO want the game to have a tremendous amount of depth.  We are building crazy systems that, frankly, other MMOs have never done.  Our worlds are procedurally generated, for instance, and players can create their own servers (“kingdoms”) and literally terraform that world out of land parcels.  You log into your world and use an online editing tool to move around mountains and canyons and forests and valleys… You can click a button and the terrain will shift and move and re-stitch around you, without even requiring you or your vassals to relog or reboot the server!   It’s amazing that it works, frankly…

But it’s also so, so different than other MMOs.  The idea that you can own and terraform a world is counter-intuitive to most players; you wouldn’t think to look for a system like that unless you knew it existed, right?

Figuring out how to reveal these systems over the course of the player’s gameplay experience is certainly a challenge.  We’re starting to address that now, with the version that is about to hit our Test Server… but, as I said, I think it’s a fair critique.  We want to make a game with tremendous depth, not one that is seen as tremendously complicated.


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.