Checking in with Crowfall’s Big World

crowfall-crow-soul-wallpaper

Note: the following article originally appeared on MMOGames.com.

It was March, 2015. The beginnings of what would turn out to be a prolonged contraction of game development in the MMO space were starting to become apparent, and the throbbing disappointments from the rote, development via mad-lib style themeparks of the past were still fresh in mind. I looked desperately for something new – and that’s when Crowfall made its debut.

It’s been almost two years since I initially backed the game as its Kickstarter drew to a close, and I’ve been a little mentally checked out since then. I’m happy with everything they’ve been doing, I’m just not the type who wants to sink a ton of my time into an early alpha title. I’ve popped in and out of the game’s testing weekends on a few occasions, once during its greybox phase and once much later after the addition of the Ranger class, but it was only this past weekend where I felt the game had come far enough to warrant an in-depth look into how it has progressed.

Crowfall is finally reaching that state where the game is starting to come together. Don’t get me wrong, ArtCraft Entertainment still has a lengthy road ahead of them, but the fundamentals of core systems like combat and crafting are really starting to tighten up. Having moved through early combat testing in a battle royale style “hunger dome” and a rudimentary exercise in siege warfare with “siege perilous”, Crowfall has entered into its next phase in testing, the accurately if not particularly eloquently named “big world” test. This is the first to feature a – you guessed it – big world map, allowing players to see how the map tiles fit together and dabble in non-combat game systems in the relative safety of the wilderness.

With so many of the game’s systems finally ready to be explored, I hopped in to see exactly what’s going on in Crowfall‘s dying worlds.

The garden of morbid delights

On wings of blue I descended unto the dying world. That’s what your character is in Crowfall: a phantom crow bound in service to the game’s indifferent pantheon. In a design move seemingly analogous to that of the space faring vessels in EVE, our spirits in Crowfall will posses vessels of a decidedly more fleshy variety, taking control of corpses for use in their eternal conflict. In one of the more decidedly morbid design decisions I’ve seen over the years, these vessels will eventually be crafted by players skilled in necromancy, but for now, I simply found one under the statue representing the class I was after. As a serial paladin player, I naturally chose the game’s most recent addition: the Templar.

crowfall-templar-wallpaperI’m not going to launch into a full review of the Templar class, but I was more than satisfied with ArtCraft’s take on my favorite archetype. Its current toolkit is well diversified, with a little bit of everything a paladin player could want. You have some minor healing, reasonable tankiness, a bit of CC, and a healthy helping of the true core of the paladin experience: generating self-righteous anger while being kited for years by any class with a ranged attack.

Goodbye animation locking, you won’t be missed

On the subject of combat – wow! What a difference from the last time I played. In its original incarnation, Crowfall launched with a combat mechanic called animation locking. Essentially, this refers to your character being locked into their skill animations, leaving the player with no control of the character until the animation is finished. In a game like World of Warcraft (which does not have animation cancelling), you can continue moving, strafing, and dodging while using your attacks. In games with animation locking, you’re effectively CC’d during each of your attacks.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Melee attacks in animation locked titles typically have movement coded into them, so your character will take small steps forward while they swing. It can do a lot to address complaints of floatiness in a combat system, making each attack feel much more rooted and impactful.

Neverwinter comes to mind as a great example of this. Its combat is among the most impactful in the genre, in my opinion. It’s a joy to experience in PvE, as swing after hefty swing lays waste the wretched throngs of monsters before you. But in PvP, good lord is it frustrating.

And that’s where the problem lay in Crowfall. In PvP, animation locking translates into being unable to react in situations that require lightning fast positioning. It means losing ground every time you use an ability on a target that’s running away from you. In PvP, functionality matters much more than the combat feeling floaty. Since Crowfall is an unabashedly PvP focused title, you can imagine how animation locking wasn’t exactly a popular design choice. Thankfully, animation locking has now been removed, and the results are awesome.

There are some issues on the performance side that still need to be resolved, but the fundamentals of Crowfall‘s combat are now painting a rosy picture of its future. The game’s branching combination attack system, reminiscent of Age of Conan‘s combinations reincarnated in a much more intuitive fashion, is a real winner. The projectile physics are fun, though I’ll be avoiding playing a ranged class due to being god awful at aiming. The combat is engaging, it’s fun, and it somehow manages to feel fast paced with a relatively subdued time-to-kill. All in all, I’m pretty happy with how this is coming along.

First things first, survive

Of course, you don’t get to hop straight into combat immediately after possessing a body. Crowfall starts out surprisingly reminiscent of the survival genre; players have nothing and have to punch trees to make their way in the world.

Okay, so you’re not literally punching trees. Every character is able to summon the lowest tier runestone axe, but really that’s only an aesthetic difference, so I’ll call it whatever I please. With this axe, I was able to chop down trees, and was rewarded with wood and apples. I used the former to craft a hammer for gathering stone, while the latter kept the chicken-meter – the game’s hunger mechanic – at bay.

crowfall-harvesting-woodEntry level crafting was predictably simple. I took 12 wood and 6 stone, combining them to craft a sword which I promptly equipped, unlocking my combat abilities so I could finally defend myself. I then moved on to crafting armor. The recipes were similar, though ore, which required a pick made of wood and stone, was also thrown into the mix.

With my armaments equipped, I was finally able to head out into Crowfall‘s big world to stir up trouble. Or at least that’s what I could have done. But the crafting menus went so much deeper, and I just had to find out more.

Crafting and the economy

There’s an old joke that gets repurposed for just about every subject groups of humans have ever taken an interest in, and it goes something like this: how can you tell that someone is vegan / practices crossfit / played vanilla WoW? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. Well strap in folks, cause I’m about to tell you how awesome Star Wars Galaxies was for the 375,423rd time.

Real heckin’ awesome, that’s how awesome it was.

Okay, I can do slightly better than that. Star Wars Galaxies is most fondly remembered for its extremely in depth crafting system. Crafters could really make a name for themselves; even years later I can remember the exact locations of some of the player run shops I used to visit. Crafting was a full time profession, as well. If you were were a crafter, you weren’t suited for combat – and this game didn’t allow alts. Crafted goods were the core of the economy, and factors like crafting stats, the player’s supply chain, and the location/amenities of the player city they called home all played in a role in just how successful a crafter could be. The game was especially notable as one of the only sandbox MMOs that thrived without a PvP emphasis, largely in part to the depth of its crafting mechanics. There’s never been anything quite it like since the game was sunsetted to make room for the ill fated launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and veterans of the sandbox gold standard have clamored for a substitute ever since.

Crafting has always been lauded by ArtCraft Entertainment as one of Crowfall‘s most central systems, with many of its developers even having worked on Star Wars Galaxies in the course of their careers. They’ve often pointed to the game as a source of inspiration, hoping to recreate some of its magic, but I never really believed them up until now. Let’s face it, we’ve all heard more MMOs promise an important and engaging crafting system than those of us who rely on our fingers to count could ever really tally, and almost as many of them have fancied name dropping Star Wars Galaxies while doing it. But now that the first bits Crowfall‘s crafting mechanics are coming together in game and more and more information is being released outside of it, I’m beginning these guys might be the first to actually follow through.

Crafting is a big subject to tackle, and you’d be well served to read this lengthy FAQ from ArtCraft if it’s a feature you’re interested in. At a very high level though, there are a few key features that make Crowfall‘s crafting sound like it’s on the right track.

Let’s get the simple things out of the way first. Crucially, Crowfall will not feature a global, NPC operated auction house such as the type usually employed by themepark MMOs. Instead, the design objective is for players to build and run their own shops and trade hubs in the open world, which is absolutely crucial for crafters to really be able to make a name for themselves. After all, no matter how good the crafting itself is, the individuals never really stand out if all their goods are coming from the same storefront.

Additionally, permanent item decay and loss on death are both confirmed as in, though I believe the severity of this function will vary to some degree as a part of a campaign’s ruleset. This is absolutely essential to a functioning crafting economy in order to ensure a continuous level of demand for gear and resources.

It may seem harsh to those with only themepark MMO experience, but remember that gear is fundamentally different in a sandbox title. Gear isn’t your goal; it’s a tool you use to achieve your actual goal. You don’t have to grind against RNG for hours and weeks to get the set you want, you can just buy it from your friendly neighborhood craftsman. And perhaps most importantly, when item loss on death and corpse looting are a possibility, the PvP meta isn’t usually to show up in your best gear all the time; if you’re expecting to die, you’re probably going to be wearing something affordable. To adapt a saying from EVE Online: your armor is a tool; never wear anything you can’t afford to lose.

crowfall-crafting-interfaceFinally we come to the actual mechanics of crafting, where the real meat of the game’s economy starts to come together. Crowfall features flexible recipes and non-tiered resource types that are harvested at varying qualities and can be combined to create different stat effects that can be further fine tuned with experimentation. Now that’s a real mouthful, let’s so unpack it bit by bit:

  • Flexible recipes have vague requirements. e.g. the recipe for a sword’s blade component might require ore, which would accept copper, iron, or any other ore to fill that slot.
  • Non-tiered resource types aren’t simply a matter of iron being higher quality than copper. Each material within a type will add a different stat effect to a craft. e.g. copper may add attack power, while iron could add critical hit chance.
  • Varying quality materials means that materials can be harvested at six different levels of effectiveness, granting more stats and contributing to the overall quality of the item as they increase in rarity.
  • Resources can be combined to alter their effects. e.g. copper and iron could be combined to create an alloy that would provide multiple statistics – perhaps both attack power and critical hit chance.
  • Players with access to a crafting station will be able to access an experimentation interface where they can manually allocate stats on the item according to the budget provided by its materials.

Still following? Basically, there’s a whole lot of customization to allow crafters to distinguish their creations, and the existence of varying quality resources will make the crafter’s supply chain an important part of their ability to stand out. It’s not quite as complicated as Star Wars Galaxies‘ variable stat materials, which I’ve written about in relation to Crowfall before, but it comes close enough that it may be able to achieve almost the same effect without the many headaches that an exact copy of the original system could introduce (some of which I’ve discussed in an interview with some of the crafting and social systems design team).

Of course if you thought that’s all that goes into being the very best, you would be absolutely wrong.

It takes skill and discipline

Everything in Crowfall, be it combat, crafting, gathering, and even some other things entirely, has a skill training component to it. The system is, at its core, very similar to the skill training in EVE Online; you choose a few skills you want to progress and they gain experience over time regardless of whether or not you’re actually playing the game. And surprise, surprise – if you want to be a dedicated crafter, you’re going to have dedicate a good portion of your skill queue to advancing those skills and perfecting your trade, giving up time that could have potentially been spent on combat or other skills. In theory, it will take around a year of training to fully skill up any individual archetype plus one of its promotion classes to max, and it’s reasonable to assume crafting professions will face a similar timeline. That’s a lot to invest if you aren’t planning to put some serious time into using those skills.

Disciplines, semi-permanent equippable rune stones that function essentially as a subclass, are another key component of customizing your character. If you want to be a top crafter, you’re going to want to have disciplines equipped that augment your crafting skill of choice instead of your combat effectiveness.

While not as rigid as Star Wars Galaxies‘ straight up denying crafters combat skills, Crowfall is introducing meaningful ways in which players will have to choose between being a better crafter or being a better fighter, and I imagine this will be enough to make truly top tier crafters rare. This is really key to them being important in the grander scheme of the MMO; if everyone is self-sufficient and independent, social systems like the game’s economy are weakened as a result.

Crowfall seems to be well on its way to recapturing the magic that was lost with the sunset of Star Wars Galaxies. It’s a system that by necessity makes crafting a complex endeavor where players must be dedicated to thrive, but for the players who succeed and those who frequent their establishments, the payoff can be enormous. If a decade after Crowfall‘s release I can still remember the player cities and the shops within them that I frequented, then ArtCraft will have captured that magic, that social spark that makes the MMO genre so very special.

Into the big world

So at this point the weekend test is almost over, and I’ve basically spent the whole time punching trees and reading up on crafting. Whoops. Finally though, my curiosity is sated. It’s time to go out into the big open world.

I found myself in the southeast corner of the big world map. This actually took a bit of exploring to ascertain, as no world map was available and I was forced to navigate by an overhead compass that was strongly reminiscent of an Elder Scrolls game.

The world itself is quite pretty, though noticeably an early alpha product in some areas (ground textures mapped to steep elevation changes were pretty universally terrible). It’s stylized in all the right ways, and I found myself almost reminded of Wildstar if it were somehow gritty and cartoony at the same time..

crowfall-big-world-explorationThis particular test was the first to feature assigned factions, which will be available in addition to FFA ruleset campaigns at the game’s launch. Sticking with what felt right for a Templar, I chose Order as my faction, eschewing the edgelord Chaos faction and trolly seeming Balance faction (whose goal in objective driven campaigns will be to drive Order and Chaos to a stalemate) for the ostensible good guys. This may have been a mistake.

I ran through rolling hills, forests of waving trees, and a small canyon system without really encountering anyone else from the Order faction. Eventually I saw a sprawling keep in the distance, hastening my approach upon hearing the sounds of battle in the distance. I rounded a corner and was promptly flattened by a warring ball of whirling Chaos and Balance. Yep – mistakes were definitely made.

I wandered a bit more, taking in the sights and kicking myself for not coordinating with any of the number of players I know who have testing access and were presumably playing on one of the other two factions. I managed to find a few 1v1 or 1v2 encounters in that time, bringing a dose of fatal justice to a Chaos guinecean duelist only to later have my righteous campaign against the varmints effortlessly frustrated with the intercession of a highly mobile Balance confessor. Well, that’s open world PvP for you.

All things considered, it’s good to see Crowfall‘s maps increasing to a size where they’re beginning to open up. Though the large map feels somewhat empty in the current testing cycle, it won’t be long before test sizes are increased, new game systems are introduced, and players will be able to start making use of the space the big world has to offer. Much like its maps, Crowfall is growing slowly but surely into something wonderful.

The wrap-up

Crowfall has progressed immensely since I first logged in to a sea of untextured grey shapes, and it seems to be moving in the right direction. ArtCraft Entertainment has shown a promising ability to adapt to feedback, rethinking their original animation locking mechanic that bogged down the game’s original combat model and working constantly to iterate and improve on a crafting system that may finally live up to the Star Wars Galaxies legacy, successfully revitalizing the magic of MMOs long gone.

There’s a long road still ahead, but two years after the game’s Kickstarter, the team has remained true to their original vision and I couldn’t be happier as a player or a backer. The road we’ve traveled has been a pleasure so far, and I can’t wait to see where it takes us next.

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