Feature Article

Crowfall: Solving the Endgame Problem

Fantasy tactics.

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I am sitting with the two veteran game designers behind the upcoming Crowfall, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game the duo refers to as "deeper than a virtual amusement park" and "more impactful than a virtual sandbox." One of them is former Shadowbane creator J. Todd Coleman, who would also go on to create the highly successful Wizard101 at KingsIsle Entertainment. The other is Gordon Walton, who produced Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Both men are bursting with enthusiasm over their new project--and for getting to closely collaborate for the first time in their careers.

"This is our first chance to work together," says Coleman, who then turns to Walton. "You were on Ultima Online while I was doing Shadowbane, which were polar opposites from marketing position standpoints." He then shares with me the story behind their friendship. "He was busy banning players as fast as he could, and I was busy scooping those players up, says Coleman, and Walton laughs. "I was wondering if I could get some Shadowbane discs to send them!" says Walton. Coleman adds, "I was directly marketing, saying 'That isn't the game for you, this is the game for you, and he was over there saying 'This isn't the game for you, that's the game for you.' So it actually was really interesting. We're the kind of guys where we always come in at the beginning, and we're there through [launch], and a lot of the times the last guys to turn off the lights. We're there for the duration, and those durations are long, like five-, seven-, eight-year stints at times."

Crowfall's central conceit: Eternal heroes, dying worlds. Persistent characters aren't limited to a single realm. Instead, you choose from a list of campaigns, each of which may last one month, or three, or longer.

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"As a result of that, we had never had our planets in alignment," Coleman continues. "I would always be going into beta when he would be starting something new, or then I'd be going to start something new, and he'd be a year into launch. Fast-forwarding through many, many, many years, I shipped Wizard 101, and I was with KingsIsle for the inception of that project all the way through launch. It was on good footing, and I stuck around and shipped a follow-up product called Pirate101. I had been feeling for a while like it was time for me to go and do something new and different."

"I was in a habit of meeting up with Gordon every three to six months, basically to say hey, here's what's going on," says Coleman, who had been preparing to drop a bomb on Walton: that he was leaving KingsIsle. Walton beat him to the punch, however: as soon as the two sat down together, Walton announced his intention to leave Disney. "He totally stole my thunder!" says Coleman. The two talked at length about where the industry had been and where it was going: the stagnation in MMOGs Coleman refers to as "The Warcraft Effect." "All of a sudden, there was 'the right way' to make these games, and if you do 'the right way,' you can make billions of dollars. And if you don't do it that way, you're crazy."

The pair looked back to the period before World of Warcraft dominated the landscape--when MMOG producers took more risks, and each game in the genre felt remarkably different from the next. "It was a time of brilliant creativity that led to really cool ideas, some of which worked, and some of which didn't work at all," says Coleman. Coleman is more than aware of Shadowbane's drawbacks, but he feels that the game had untapped potential worth exploring again. "You're looking at the guy to blame," he says, referring to Shadowbane's myriad design issues and technical foibles. My own experience with Shadowbane hadn't been positive: I spent days simply trying to register an account before I ever got to the playing part, and the monster-killing that followed never much felt like an ample reward for the troubles. "It was a hard game to love," admits Coleman.

Creative Director J. Todd Coleman refers to Crowfall as the unholy love child of Game of Thrones, EVE Online, and Shadowbane.

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The core idea of Shadowbane was brimming with potential: guilds vied for control of the game's towns and cities, making grand warfare the domain of the players rather than the developers. And this is where the duo's upcoming Crowfall makes its grand entrance. Coleman refers to it as "the unholy love child of Game of Thrones, EVE Online, and Shadowbane." Coleman has wanted to marry strategy games and MMOGs for some time now, but there was an obstacle that proved difficult to overcome. "MMOs have the expectation that they're going to be persistent," he says. "A strategy game only lasts until somebody wins. And then when somebody wins, you start a new game, because if you don't, it's not fun for anyone anymore."

Except for the one who wins, of course, and even then, the fun is short-lived: everyone else quits, and the winner is left alone with piles of accolades and virtual currency. Crowfall's answer to this dilemma is to make its characters persistent, but not its strategy maps, an idea whose inspiration predates Shadowbane's release and harks back to that game's beta days. Players would often change the game so much that the team would have to wipe the server and start again--and it was after those wipes that player concurrency statistics would reach their peaks. "I didn't recognize it at the time, but it was that 'land rush' feeling, like that first turn of Civilization, when you plop into the world and everything is fog of war, and you don't know where everything is, and you're jockeying for position and exploring. That feeling is incredibly powerful, so much so because hope springs eternal: even if I lost the game last time, this time I have an idea that will make it different."

And thus arises Crowfall's central conceit: "Eternal heroes, dying worlds." Persistent characters aren't limited to a single realm. Instead, you choose from a list of campaigns, each of which may last one month, or three, or longer. Once a campaign has started, you're out to accomplish whichever objectives are set before you, but there is an important distinction between Crowfall and other MMOGs: you can win. Once you're victorious--or defeated--you take that experience and move on to the next campaign. "It's not going to appeal to everybody," says Coleman, "and that's OK. We're not trying to make a game to compete with WoW and make billions of dollars."

These campaign worlds are going to go away. When you're building something you know is going to go away, it has a much different feeling. You're not building it and worrying about the color of the curtains, or how to arrange a rug.

J. Todd Coleman
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I didn't get to play the game myself, though I did see it in action, or at least, I saw the combat engine in action. Crowfall is very early in development, so most of what I saw were basic battles, which Coleman compares to WildStar's. This was all quite pretty, but what intrigues me about Crowfall is not what I saw, which was typical third-person MMOG combat, but the structural elements I only saw glimpses of. As I write this, Crowfall's official website isn't overloaded with information, but the Shadowbane influence is clear even when you peruse the site's "Archetypes" page, which features an array of playable mythological creatures, such as centaurs, goatmen, and rodents. But centaurs would seem secondary in a game that cribs from the EverQuest Next school of player-controlled construction.

Crowfall is even using some of the same technology as EverQuest Next. The relevant buzzword is "voxel," and if you know Minecraft, or EverQuest Next's companion sandbox known as Landmark, you have an idea of what to expect: the tools to make complex structures--and the tools to knock them down in dramatic fashion. Coleman gets excited as he relates to me a potential scenario. "I'm not just a guy standing on a wall, I'm a guy fireballing a wall, knocking it over, those guys falling off, the tower landing on somebody, while someone else is digging a tunnel underneath the wall, pops up in the middle, and then kills everybody."

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Coleman is quick to point out what makes Crowfall different from EverQuest Next in this regard: EQN is primarily about construction, whereas Crowfall is primarily about destruction. Says Coleman, "These campaign worlds are going to go away. When you're building something you know is going to go away, it has a much different feeling. You're not building it and worrying about the color of the curtains, or how to arrange a rug, you're building it for functional reasons. On the dying worlds, the campaign worlds, it's very much a feeling of 'I'm building this thing for a particular purpose in mind, knowing it's going to get blown away.' It's like building sand castles for other players to come and kick over, or for you to go kick over theirs."

Not all kingdoms in Crowfall die, however: each player has access to his or her own personal kingdom--an eternal kingdom. And because those kingdoms are persistent, players can and should have a sense of permanent ownership. "I'm building this and it's my Taj Mahal, and I want it to be great," says Coleman of the player's relationship with her eternal kingdom, though you're out of luck if you wish your Crowfall experience to be one primarily about peace and tranquility. If you want proper building materials, you need to embark on a course for a dying world, because it's through battle, and through victory, that you earn vital resources. And the further you dig into the game's various types of dying worlds, the greater the rewards. Some worlds feature three grand factions battling each other, and you are automatically assigned to a team; others pit player-formed guilds against each other; while others still are player-versus-player madhouses similar to survival games like DayZ.

There's a set amount of people out there that are ravenous for something new and different, and they're willing to take the risk of losing if it means a chance of winning.

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Each of these systems feeds into the others, and Coleman gives me an example of how the strategic layer works with other aspects Crowfall. "You find a bloodstone, and can plant it in the ground, and it will basically grow a tree out of it. That tree has a radius that it protects for 20 out of every 24 hours, or 42 out of every 48 hours. You can build defenses around it, you can build a forge, and things like that. As soon as that protection wears off, two things happen. One is that other people are going to come siege you, because they want to take out your tree. The other thing is that the tree starts to spawn bloodstone fruit. Every time you get one, it effectively is an escort quest. It says, 'hey, we need to take this bloodstone to this randomized location in the world, and if we can make it there, and sacrifice this to the gods, we get victory points to make our team win." And thus begins a tug of war that has teams fighting each other for control of objects and real estate.

Coleman compares Crowfall to a deck of cards: he and his team at ArtCraft Entertainment provide the systemic basics, and each campaign functions as its own game, with its own rules and its own temperament. And I'm intrigued, in turn, because it strikes me that Crowfall has found a way to solve the problem of the endgame. There are no raids dungeons to grind for increasingly powerful loot. When someone fulfills the victory conditions, the world is destroyed, and you build anew. Whether or not Crowfall catches on is still a crapshoot, of course; I am interested, but I am one of billions of potential players. Says Coleman, "There's a set amount of people out there that are ravenous for something new and different, and they're willing to take the risk of losing if it means a chance of winning." I'm heartened to know that Coleman and Walton are willing to take the same kind of win-or-lose risk that they ask of their players. In World of Warcraft, everyone "wins" if they play enough. Crowfall, on the other hand, will make you earn your victories.

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Kevin VanOrd

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.



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