Since the release of World of Warcraft back in 2004 (don’t you feel old, now?), the MMO genre has been trapped in a funk. Numerous MMOs have risen to challenge the behemoth only to inevitably fail when players discover little more than imitations of what has already been polished and perfected. Little in the way of interesting news has emerged from the genre in years.
Enter ArtCraft Entertainment and Crowfall, a radical new MMO that seeks to breathe new life into the genre and break the endless cycle of copycats. With Crowfall, ArtCraft is taking the concept of persistence and throwing it for a loop. Rather than being restricted to one class, players are essentially spirits in the form of crows, able to possess different bodies and different archetypes (classes). Though you can possess different archetypes, the skills for your character remain intact on your spiritual form. Not only is player persistence fluid, but the world is built of campaigns that have certain win conditions and actually end when those conditions are met. Campaigns can last anywhere from days to several months or longer, and each new campaign can be adjusted by the developer to account for different player strategies.
The exception to this lack of persistence is an area they call the Eternal Kingdoms, home to a robust player housing system that includes large castles and modifiable terrain. There, players are able to set the rules and determine whether PvP or building destruction, using the game’s voxel-based graphics, are allowed.
I was lucky enough to spend an hour on Skype with ArtCraft founders J. Todd Coleman and Gordon Walton. Todd is well known for creating Shadowbane and then his work on the more youth-oriented Wizard101 and Pirate101, while Gordon served as executive producer on such titles as Ultima Online, The Sims Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and Star Wars The Old Republic. They are industry veterans with encyclopedic knowledge of the MMO genre and I wanted to take advantage of that knowledge with some higher level industry questions as well as some specific questions about Crowfall itself.
The Escapist: Gordon, you gave a famous talk at GDC, “Ten Great Reasons You Don’t Want To Make an MMO” and here you guys are making an MMO.
J. Todd Coleman: Gordon never follows his own advice. He knows what he shouldn’t do but he does it anyway.
Gordon Walton: There’s something to being a contrarian you know.
TE: Not only are you making an MMO, which is quite a risk in itself, but you are adopting game systems that we haven’t really seen before. What made you take the jump again with Crowfall?
Gordon: I think that the key thing we’re trying to do here is we are trying to innovate in the space and we felt like when Todd and I first got together and started talking about doing something together, we discovered pretty quickly that we have a common vision of what was going on in the business. Our assessment of what was wrong with our business was congruent. We both looked at it as super stagnant, basically WoW has sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Everybody is trying to be WoW and only WoW can be WoW. It was actually taken us backwards rather than forwards because nobody was doing anything to try to innovate in the genre. They were all basically saying, “how can we copy WoW and actually make it as big as WoW and win some of WoW’s customers?” and all of those were not that successful. You want to learn from every new game and see what’s worthwhile in it. but where is the new stuff? Because the customers are desperate for Innovation as long as it’s not too radical.
“Well the Old Republic was actually successful but that’s the license. Once you have a religion for your license that’s really helpful.”
Todd: Yeah, I think that’s part of the key. It’s one thing to recognize a problem, the next step beyond that is to recognize that a problem represents an opportunity. By recognizing the industry, our genre specifically, had grown very stagnant, the other kind of flip side to that is that all of the people who funded these type of games have been burned trying to recreate World of Warcraft. So they kind of took their money and went elsewhere. They all went to mobile. Now it’s VR but at the time it was mobile. So that made it really interesting because the assumption from all the big players is that they felt this market wasn’t cool anymore, they shouldn’t play there, which left a gulf of no upcoming exciting products for the playerbase, which is still significant. It’s huge. We’re talking about millions of players who like this type of game.
Gordon: Over 20% of the total take of games worldwide is MMOs.
Todd: The numbers are huge and so major players took their money and went elsewhere. Now look at the upcoming slate of games and it’s really fascinating. All the games people are excited about are coming from independent studios. You’ve got Camelot Unchained, us, Shroud of the Avatar, Star Citizen. They’re all basically super-sized indie projects; most of them coming from developers that have experience and history doing exactly this kind of stuff and really wanted the chance to go back and revisit some of the original ideas that got snuffed out in what is kind of the burning fire of World of Warcraft (laughs).
TE: This leads to my next question. Is it riskier to innovate in an MMO or is a riskier to not innovate?
Gordon: I think that history shows pretty clearly that it’s riskier not to. I mean how many MMO launches have we seen in the last 5 Years. where a million plus people pile in and they’re mostly gone after 3 months because they go, “oh I played this game before”? They pattern match it very quickly and it’s just like a shittier version of WoW with a different cover on it, with a different kind of facade.
TE: Is that what happened with The Old Republic?
Gordon: Well the Old Republic was actually successful but that’s the license. Once you have a religion for your license that’s really helpful. That’s all the Star Wars is, is a religion really. Did we want it to be more successful? Absolutely.
Todd: And more successful out of the gate. It really took some time for that game to get its legs under it and become successful and I think the market expectation was that it would come out and immediately take on World of Warcraft. That is a tall order. How much money is sunk just into straight-on development in WoW?
Gordon: The team always thought we had a 2.5 million [subscriber] kind of game.
Todd: Which is still ridiculous right? That’s still huge.
Gordon: But the way large companies measure themselves is beating the market leader.
TE: You have both been in the industry a long time. What in your view have been the revolutionary events in the gaming industry in that time?
Gordon: Connected gaming, the revolution that we led, getting people to play together was critical. In fact, I think all of the single player games that came before it as kind of an historical anomaly. You look at games outside of electronic games, they’re all done multiplayer, with a couple of major exceptions like Solitaire. Gaming by its very nature is a social engagement kind of activity, so all we really did was bring that back to electronic gaming.
Todd: It’s hard to pick out an individual revolution when dealing with an industry that is swimming in chaos. The reason I say that is because as a developer the ground never settles beneath your feet. Every couple of years we have an entire new platform or new series of platforms, we have a new ecosystem, we have a new way of talking to players, we have a new way of reaching the players. And we have new business models to try and fund our ongoing development. Everything changes constantly. The market we’re dealing with right now is not even close to the same market it was 5 years ago and 10 years ago it was a distant laughable dream. And I can guarantee you with the technologies that are coming now that we’re on the forefront of VR and AR and whatever else people are going to come up with. That’s just going to change again. Free-to-play wasn’t a thing a couple of years ago. I remember the wave of social games where every company that wanted any kind of evaluation at all or that wanted to raise money had to be making games on Facebook. That wasn’t that long ago. We’re in a situation where a massively valuable companies are being created and destroyed every couple of years, and that’s pretty shocking. So it’s hard to pick one moment of revolution when every 18 months there is another revolution.
Gordon: I think there’s a few. The migration to the free-to-play model. Well, first the migration to a subscription model, that was very stable for a long time. The Software as a Service model that MMOs brought online – MMOs were doing that before there was such a model for business. That radically changed the business. And then free-to-play radically changed it again. We owe that to Korea more than anywhere else. So those business model innovations are always radical changes, but like Todd said, the platforms and platform capabilities are always changing underneath us, too. That’s more incremental, so it doesn’t look so radical, but over two generations you’re talking about 10X or 20X kind of capability differences. It’s a whole new world.
Todd: And I was really referring to the “platform” as an ecosystem. It’s not as hard to imagine the move from Xbox 360 to Xbox One right? It’s like that’s a fairly normal transition. But the sudden emergence of the Apple App Store or Steam or Facebook where they simply didn’t exist before and now it’s a major marketplace of captured users, that to me is kind of revolutionary.
Gordon: To me, Facebook and the social media games are when we actually won. Gaming won because everybody’s a gamer now. What was a hobby 25 years ago for a small group of geeky guys suddenly is endemic and there’s more women players than men players in games, across the board. For many years the average age of a gamer went up one year because we kept capturing more people. Suddenly we captured almost everybody. So gaming is now a mainstream entertainment medium. Even ten years ago people were still talking about how weird people were that played games, but nobody does that anymore. So we won is the way I think about it. When I started making games it was on cassette and if we could sell ten thousand of them we thought we were hot shit. We won. Gaming won.
TE: is the subscription model over?
Gordon: I don’t think any model is ever over. I think it just depends on which audience you’re going after and what’s your value proposition. I think subscription has a lot going for it and I think of it more as a Software as a Service rather than subscription. How you extract money from customers and get them to feel good about providing it, that it’s a value deal, can change pretty radically depending on what customers you’re going after and what kind of offering you have. I think Camelot Unchained has announced that they’re going subscription-only and I think that will probably work for them because I think that every time we announce a business model is dead, it rises from the dead like undead again. I don’t know if it’ll ever be a dominant business model again, but at the same time I can’t think of a business model that’s actually been staked through the heart and hasn’t risen again.
TE: Because of the innovation in Crowfall, there really wasn’t a major game publisher that would have backed it, is there?
Todd: I don’t know, maybe. We did talk to some of them early on and I will say that the general response was that we were crazy, not because they thought that we couldn’t get the technology to work or build it, but they thought the users would never buy it. The prevailing wisdom was that an MMO is all about persistence, and that’s what people are paying you for, so the idea of a world map that effectively restarts or goes away, they thought that was antithetical to everything, to our entire value. We saw it as different. We saw it as player persistence being the real value, and the map being something that can come and go. At least we figured with as many players as there are out there, we could find a nice audience that would agree with us on that. And the Kickstarter I think did a lot to prove that we weren’t entirely wrong on that. How big that market or that audiences is still remains to be seen, but from our standpoint we don’t need that many monthly players to be successful. A hundred thousand customers a month and we’d be ecstatic. That’s a fantastic business for us. So everything is on a much smaller scale which makes it a lot easier. We can really focus on what we do and do that well and not have to feel like we have to please every single WoW player that ever existed.
TE: The talent within your studio is impressive. You have a lot of good people who have worked on pretty much every major MMO.
Todd: Practically, yeah. (laughs)
TE: How do you court these veterans to work on an unknown, innovative commodity?
Todd: I would say a third of them have worked for Gordon before, a third of them have worked for me before, and a third of them are new people that we have picked up, who have somehow or another got fooled into into thinking that working for me and Gordon is a good idea. (laughs)
Gordon: I would like to say that we threw money or we gave them drugs or something, but mostly they’re people who know what they’re doing and really want to bring some innovation to the space. They’ve been there and done that; they know where the bodies are buried in this kind of stuff. They know where the problems are. They still want to see it done well every time they do it, so it wasn’t hard to get people to join us.
Todd: Yeah, surprisingly, it really wasn’t.
TE: Gordon, in your GDC you spoke about the sheer amount of content in an MMO. How do you even get started with that?
Gordon: We’re totally avoiding that in this one. We’ve built a system-based MMO more than a content-based MMO on purpose, because having built a bunch of content-based MMO’s, both Todd and I, we know how expensive it is. We know how many people it takes. If we were trying to build a content-based MMO here we would need 5 times the money. And then suddenly you’re digging a hole that’s deep enough to where you have to start saying, “we really need to get a crap-ton of customers too” to fill in that hole. It takes people who are actually pretty good at what they do and they spend time and energy on it. And it is a challenge. If you think about it, a small team of three could spend a month building an area for people to play in, and they could play it in an hour. So a 3-man-month’s worth of work could be gobbled up by a player in an hour.
Todd: And that’s a pretty small team to build a whole area.
Gordon: It might end up being 8 or 10 people. You think about SWToR, for example, and we have to do a lot of voice overs and some animation to go with it and some actual video of the characters talking. Next thing you know you spend a tremendous amount of money per second of gameplay. Do we know how to make that kind of games? Sure. Could we make this kind of game? Not on this budget. And people who say they’re making this kind of game on that kind of budget are fooling themselves. You just can’t get there from here.
Todd: If you look at system-based games like Minecraft being a great example, it’s all about Interlocking systems. If you actually drill down the number of art assets in vanilla Minecraft, it’s incredibly small compared to the hours and hours of gameplay that you can get out of those assets, because it’s all about interrelated systems. We looked at the market and what we thought we could get in terms of investment and what we thought we could get in terms of crowdfunding, and we picked an idea that we knew would be achievable within that scope.
TE: There’s a tremendous amount of information on the Crowfall website.
Gordon: An insane amount.
Todd: Yes, an insane amount, and not just Crowfall the game, but Crowfall the development project. You kind of see our development process itself; we call it an ongoing variety show. We do updates multiple times a week and we do videos and interviews and FAQ’s and concept art. We kind of expose the entirety of the inner workings of the kitchen to our audience.
TE: Was that your plan from the beginning to be so transparent?
Gordon: Early on we said if we’re going to do this we need to embrace it. In the middle of the Kickstarter people asked what kind of NDA are we going to have on your testing, and Todd and I looked at each other and we talked about it for about 10 minutes and we said, “hell we’re in the transparency business, why not just not have an NDA for testing? ” Yes, it’s a big onus on us and we have to make the test versions better than you might if you didn’t do that, but what do players want? Somebody is going to stream it anyway, and somebody’s going to break the NDA. Then you have this whole thing where you’re fighting with your customers. Why do you want to fight with your customers? Why don’t you row downstream rather than row upstream against the way people are? If you think about the amount of design that we have on our website – and we’re not talking about high level design, we have a lot of detail design on our website – it’s always funny when people say, “you’re not telling us stuff.” I’m going, “we’ve told you so much stuff!”
Todd: Yeah. (laughs)
Gordon: You can’t even read all that stuff in a day right?
Todd: I’ve been on projects where employees knew less about the project (laughs). We pretty much just embrace a philosophy of talking about and sharing most everything. The only thing we don’t get into is the details of table balance, and that’s not because we have a problem showing it. It’s that I don’t want to show it when I know it’s going to change, because it will just lead to arguments unnecessarily. That’s why we held off on a lot of that. We still show a lot of it.
Gordon: When a design is not done we’ll leave the high level up until the detail level is done. If you put up a semi-detailed level early and then people get married to it and then it changes, because when you try it it doesn’t work right, people get wound up about it. So if we’re through our internal build and test of something, we put it up. If it’s something that’s still in progress we have to put up the direction we’re heading until we actually have it working.
“They think we actually know everything about what we’re going to do before we do it.” (laughs)
Todd: There’s just a simple truth about game development that isn’t apparent, that doesn’t occur to a players until they’ve seen it: which is that game development is incredibly iterative. And by iterative, I don’t mean let’s just go back and polish it. You try something out and it simply doesn’t work and then you change it and try something else. It’s an exploration game. To build an analogy, it’s like you’re cutting through the jungle looking for cities of gold. You don’t know what’s around the next turn and sometimes it’s a city of gold and sometimes it’s a giant cliff and you have to backtrack 3 days and take another way to get around it. That’s just the way it works. So I think exposing that to people has been an interesting thing. Some people just weren’t prepared for it.
Gordon: They think we actually know everything about what we’re going to do before we do it. (laughs)
Todd: Yeah they think that you set out with an exact blueprint, like you’re building a skyscraper, and that you follow the blueprint and what you make is exactly that. And it’s just not like that. Defining fun isn’t like that. It’s more artistic and more exploration. But then some people have completely embraced it and they’re into every test and they’re talking to us on our forums constantly. “Hey have you tried this?” or “have you thought about trying this?” and “this is really interesting” and “why did you go with this?” Sometimes they don’t understand why we did this is actually because we’re also going to do something else, but that won’t be in the game for another 3 months. I think the whole process is fascinating to watch. We’ve had some backers who have come back and said they feel like they’ve already gotten their money’s worth just watching the development process from the outside. We’re going to give them a great game, too, but that’s gratifying to hear that they’re enjoying it.
Gordon: And some of them show up and say, “wow, I don’t want to see the sausage being made.”
Todd: Yeah some say they can’t deal with it; the stress and the constant whipsaw of the bugs and then polish, and they’re like they just can’t handle it.
Gordon: Most people can’t and that’s okay.
TE: What came first: the idea for Crowfall or Artcraft Entertainment?
Todd: I had been wanting to come back to this general area ever since Shadowbane. So I think the germination of that has been cooking in my brain since 2004. I think the basic idea of “here’s the canvas that I want to paint on” was around, but “let’s start to sketch out and make that thing into Crowfall”, that came after Gordon and I got together and started to come up with a plan.
Gordon: It was kind of funny because when Todd first broached it with me he said, “I’ve got this really strange idea about a game that resets – it’s a strategy game that you can win and then it resets and you start again,” and way back in Kesmai we were making a game called Stellar Warriors that had a monthly reset and people would vie for the galaxy and whoever won the galaxy won and then the whole thing would start again from scratch. So every new idea is an old idea new again on some level. Most of this stuff that we’re trying to do in some form or another has probably been tried before, but those evolutionary trees got snipped off. Again, World of Warcraft was so successful, and if you tried to do something innovative they would say, “wait WoW doesn’t do that, you can’t do that”. People with the money would not let you do anything that was too radical because they had a target in mind of millions of players.
Todd: If you think about other genres, that’s usually the way it works. If somebody invents the shooter and then the shooter settles out into what a shooter is, if somebody invents the MOBA and it’s settled out to what a MOBA is, you kind of just riff off of that general base and then you try and create one that’s equally successful. That’s not an abnormal strategy, just with MMOs it didn’t work.
Gordon: It worked for a while. (laughs) That’s what Blizzard excels at is polishing genres to their apex. So I think more power to them in that. But I think we wanted to kind of invent a new genre at some level.
TE: Is Crowfall really Shadowbane 2.0?
Todd: In some ways it is but it also fixes some of what I think were the big mistakes we made, the biggest one being that Shadowbane had a lot of similar ideas but it didn’t have any restart mechanic. Eventually some faction or guild would win and then they would consolidate their position of power and any new insurgency would be snuffed out immediately, in its infancy. As a result of that, the challengers got bored and they stopped playing and then the entrenched power got bored because they didn’t have any challengers, and then they would stop playing, and that would become the restart mechanic, when everyone quits. And that’s a terrible restart mechanic. (laughs) If you look at that at the highest level, it meant that the game had negative momentum not positive momentum, and that’s death to an MMO. So I wouldn’t say Crowfall is shadowbane 2.0, but it is an attempt for me to go back and take another swing at that vision with an entirely different IP and an entirely different game system.
TE: Why voxels?
Todd: Destruction. The through-line of the game is really “change” if you think about it. Everything constantly changes. The idea of the worlds being different, the game rules being different, the worlds resetting, it’s all about change. Because of that we really wanted to give gamers a feeling of having an impact on the world in any way we could do that. Social was kind of obvious, political was kind of obvious, economic was kind of obvious, military is obvious. Being able to actually physically affect the world itself is kind of the Holy Grail. With Shadowbane we had that to a limited degree where you could build cities and build castles and build them out of pieces, so that was the minimum necessary to play. We wanted to take that to the next level and add physics so that if I blow up a wall, those blocks of stone literally come tumbling down and they can crush other players because we thought that would be really cool. We have now already and in testing seen a big chunk of the promise of that. How much further we’re going to continue to push that I honestly don’t know. We have to play with it to see what the performance implications are in a large scale real environment. The most important pieces are already in place so we’ll continue pushing on it some, but it’s now dropped from my number one risk to my number 6 or 7 risk. I’ve got other things that are much more important for us to get to achieve the overall vision.
TE: What’s your number one risk?
Todd: We still have to get combat. We still have a lot of work on combat to make it responsive because that’s really the heart of the game. The next big jump for us is, with combat testing so far we’ve done smaller matches – 15 minute 45 minutes matches – not really persistent. The characters have had some skill level persistence but we haven’t had persistence in the characters overall. We haven’t had any persistence of the world. That’s about to change. We need to go to worlds that are larger, worlds that can be stitched together, world that can support thousands of players, we need the client to be able to support hundreds of players and a single battle without it coming to a crashing halt. Making the jump from these kind of vertical slice matches that are for testing into the foundation of the game that we are actually making, that’s the next big hurdle for us as a company.
TE: Who is the audience for Crowfall?
Todd: It’s kind of interesting; it’s a mix. I guess the first audience was people who followed Gordon’s or my previous games. We got a mix of Galaxy players, UO players, Shadowbane players, some Wizard101 players thrown in for fun. Now I think we’ve started to aggregate a new audience that isn’t just from previous titles. I think that by the time we launch and beyond, the audience for Crowfall will be its own audience. It will be dramatically different.
TE: Are they coming from other MMOs? Are they people bored with the genre?
Todd: We’re getting some from other MMOs, we get some from EVE which neither of us worked on. It’s kind of all over the board to be honest. Of course the resonance with the Game of Thrones brand was not unintended. We wanted to make a game that had the same gritty kind of universe and feeling, both from a narrative standpoint and from a style standpoint. So we’re hoping, obviously, that eventually we’ll get a crossover audience from that as well, in the same way that Wizard101 clearly got a crossover audience from Harry Potter and from Narnia.
Gordon: What we’re basically fulfilling is the promise of Guild Wars. We’re doing group battles, coherent group battles, for actual win/loss conditions. And so I think our potential is to attract people who love the idea of Guild Wars. We’re a buy-to-play, play-as-much-as-you-want game that is really based upon large-scale group combat. We also have the economic thing thrown in and economic combat. We have a lot of other elements that will make it broader than that, but when we think about the hardcore PvP part, if we didn’t have a name called Crowfall it could have been Guild Wars but some man swiped that name already.
TE: How do you convince people who might not be so much into PvP to play Crowfall?
Gordon: We have a whole other game.
Todd: At the end of the day it’s really two games mixed into one. You have the Eternal Kingdoms, which is really more of a political and economic game, and then you have the campaign worlds which is a political and military conquest game and they feed each other. Both of them are reliant on the other. In order to do crafting and to build a mercantile empire you’re going to need the best resources and you can’t get those in the Eternal Kingdoms. You have to get them from the campaign worlds, which means either you have to brave those campaign worlds or you have to rely on the players that are willing to do that. To win at the campaign worlds you’re going to want to have the best resources, the best crafters, and that means to some degree getting those things and bringing them in, but to a larger degree trying to get crafters to come in with you, so you can have people down on the front lines. We’ve tried to create these two different but very symbiotic game loops that feed into each other. I do think that there is a lot of gameplay there for players who are not PvP and combat focused, but to your question, “how do we try and convince them”, I’m going to say we really don’t. I’ll tell people what the game is about and you should check it out and you might like it, but if somebody thinks PvP is terrible and hates it then, okay, this game isn’t for you. We aren’t pretending that our game is going to appeal to every player out there. There’s a very particular type of player who likes the idea of a world that is living and breathing, not an amusement park that is static.
Gordon: And I want my actions to have consequences.
Todd: I want to actually be able to affect the world around me and a have my actions affect the other players around me. That could be in combat or that could be an amazing crafter that puts your own mark on every blade and people across the game seek you out because you create such amazing great swords.
Gordon: Or it could be a merchant who brings all that stuff together.
Todd: Or I’m just a really good political animal that I bring together a particular combination of mercenary guilds and I start taking over territory without me ever swinging a sword. If people are interested in that kind of level of immersive experience then they’re going to love our game. If they’re not, if they’re the type of player that likes to be able to have a simple quest that sends me to kill a couple of robot monsters and I come back and get a ding out of it and that’s all I want out of the game, Crowfall is probably not for them and I wouldn’t suggest they play it.
Gordon: From the very beginning we said we’re not going to be a game for everybody. We’re a game for a very particular type of player.
TE: What is your vision for what combat will look like when it’s finished?
Todd: We’re going with an action-combat model, that’s tough to do in an MMO. On top of that we’ve added in real time physics, which is tough to do as well. Right now the game is very siloed, meaning we put our concentration and focus into the different archetypes which is basically a race and class combined. If you look at the characters, they are very much vertical. This character plays just like this and in fact they all look just like this. We have one gender, we don’t have customization on. The next big move that we’re going to do is to start to widen that out. That’s going to be both appearance customization by adding other genders and adding character and customization options, and gameplay customizations as well. We’re going to add a discipline system, which is basically a system for sub-classes that will allow you to start to mix-and-match various skills and powers so that different characters, even of the same archetype, can feel drastically different. Eventually what I really want is a feeling where players can come in and quickly come up to speed, find an archetype of their play style and be able to get in and have fun, but then allow a giant combinatory result-set of mixing and matching between talent and trade runestones and the way you spend your points at character creation and all of the disciplines. I want to have a huge exploration game for people to go in and customize their characters to make stuff that’s unique. That’s one of the things that I’m really proud of in Shadowbane, we did a great job at that. It was a huge, huge exploration tree. You could play a centaur warrior, there was also a gladiator and a hunter and an assassin. You could stack layers of powers on top of your character and end up with something very unique. So I want to go in that direction as well. That’s something I feel like our testing has been good for us internally to get the basics down, but it has given a bit of a false impression to our players, because it’s effectively very shallow and once we start to add these other systems on it’s going to blossom and suddenly go from very shallow to incredibly deep. I think that’s going to be a very welcome surprise.
TE: Are you going to go with a rock paper scissors combat system where a warrior beats an assassin who beats a magic user and so on?
Gordon: We’re kind of completely different. We don’t really give a shit – excuse my language – for individual one-on-one class balance at all. What we care about is group balance and not so even much balance as context. The context of the fight your in makes all the difference to whether you have the right set of skills or not for that moment.
Todd: It’s about basically picking a particular type of play style and saying this is the situations in which this player is supposed to shine, and if you are up against another player in a situation where they shine and you don’t, then you’re not going to win. You’re going to lose. And so a lot of the skill of the game is seeking out situations where you have the upper hand and avoiding situations where you don’t. And then those combinations, finding those interesting combinations, where because I took a centaur that means I’m a little faster, and because I took hunter that means I now have bounty hunting and those two things are really synergistic in a way that makes me especially effective in this situation. But I’m now weaker as a result in this other situation. So I think we take a very different approach to it, I think it’s funny that people talk about balance like it’s the ultimate goal when I don’t actually think it is. Perfect balance like rock paper scissors is not actually fun. It’s random. And that’s not fun, there’s no real skill involved.
TE: What about campaign balance? In a campaign how do you keep both sides balanced? Or do you even try?
Todd: We’re going to try and set up the rules so that it basically doesn’t have a slippery slope problem, which is the strong continually get stronger and the weak get weaker. But at the end of the day it is a strategy game, and some groups are intended to eventually win. So what we want is to try and come up with a way where we have combat mechanics, and again, avoiding the slippery slope, so that you have a good game that can be close but it is not supposed to be perfectly balanced. That’s not actually the goal. I think the thing that really helps us in this regard is that we’re not going into it with an expectation that we’re going to get it right the first time out of the gate. The entire campaign model gives us a huge tool as a developer that I’ve never had before, which is my ability to launch something and be wrong and then make changes and adapt and launch it again. Usually with MMOs you have one shot; you put out your game and that’s your game and if people like it you’re golden and if they don’t they quit. In our case each campaign is encapsulated and a self-contained game, so what that means is we can try some ideas out and see how they work. The first couple of campaigns may be very bumpy. When we come up in beta and we do a campaign maybe one team just wipes the map immediately. Then we can look at the strategy they used to do that and see what coping mechanics we can put in to make the game a little more interesting and more fun so that it will last longer. And we’ll just keep doing that. Eventually with enough experimentation we’re going to get some really interesting rulesets. I kind of look at it as a genetic algorithm. We’ll try out some ideas, the ones that work we’ll try again and we’ll modify and try some mutations. The ones that don’t work we’ll just retire them.
“Since the Kickstarter we’ve treated even our development process as if it’s a live service.”
Gordon: The ones that work are really going to be favorites, but the truth is we’re never going to stop innovating because the players want that. The players will master certain strategies for certain rulesets and then they’ll want the ruleset to migrate so that they can master new strategies around that ruleset.
Todd: It’s just a different mentality. Since the Kickstarter we’ve treated even our development process as if it’s a live service. We already have customers, we already constantly talk to the customers, we have customer support. Community management was one of our first hires. We consider the process itself to be part of the entertainment. So once we “launch” it won’t be any different than that. We’ll continue to come up with new ideas and try them out, and talk to our players and say “hey what do you guys like? What do you want to try?” We’ll watch the numbers to see what’s popular and we’ll redo that. If something’s not popular we’ll kill it. We’re going to continue this idea of exploration into and beyond launch and what we’re trying to do is build a community that buys into that as part of the experience.
TE: One of my favorite parts of Star Wars Galaxies was the ability to talk to anyone no matter what side they’re on. Will you be able to talk to anyone in Crowfall?
Todd: Right now the current campaigns that we’re planning are talk-to-anybody campaigns, and the Eternal Kingdoms are talk-to-anybody, but that is a variant that we may try in the future. We might try some campaigns where you can’t talk to other factions. Again, that’s the great thing about the campaign model is that we can experiment and see what we and our players really like.
TE: When you die in Crowfall can you change archetypes?
Todd: You can. We treat the idea narratively as you are an immortal soul, sort of like Elric the Eternal Champion, and you are effectively jumping into different bodies. We took that and built a system around it where we call them vessels and necromancers can even create new vessels out of mixing and matching parts. And you can basically possess a vessel and use it and then if you die you can use that as an opportunity to take a new vessel. So it’s kind of odd and a little bit of a morbid narrative idea in a fantasy game but it’s not that strange at all in a Sci-Fi game. The idea of jumping from one ship to another seems not morbid and fairly normal, but there are some real design benefits to that approach and once we talked through it we had the idea of “why don’t we just go ahead and wrap it as part of the lore?” Once we have the lore idea the fact that it’s a little bit moribund (laughs), we actually thought that’s kind of cool. It makes the universe darker and we’re okay with that.
TE: Crafting is a huge deal in Crowfall. Is it your goal to have dedicated crafters who might not be much involved in battle?
Todd: Yes, absolutely. There will be three pillars to the game in terms of core experience: You’ve got combat as a core pillar which comes out in a strategy game; you’ve got crafting and economy as a core pillar; you’ve got exploration as a core pillar, both of the world and the game systems. There’s also the political layer, but it’s a soft skill and not a hard skill. We don’t have a whole skill tree devoted to it. The political stuff is more about social engineering with other players. It’s present in every MMO, quite frankly, but the difference here is because we have opened up the game system to allow players to actually influence the world and influence other players around them, suddenly it makes a difference in a way that it never has before, or at least it hasn’t for many years. If you look at our crafting system, the bones of it were created by Thomas Blair and Raph Koster, both of whom served as the lead designer at one point or another on Star Wars Galaxies. I think that players from Galaxies who are really into that side of the system are going to absolutely love what we’re building in Crowfall, because it clearly was inspired very heavily by that game.
TE: With player housing can you go inside your house and decorate it?
Todd: Yes, it’s a full building system. In fact we just announced and released more information on the city and castle building stuff and started putting out the castle building sets, like showing how many towers and wall segments and ramparts you get. That system has come a long way. When we originally started I wasn’t positive we would be able to do it. I was worried that with destruction it would be a non-starter technically, but we figured out a way to make it work. So we just announced and really opened that system up. I think the players are going to really love it. It’s similar to the Shadowbane system, but I think it’s superior in a lot of ways. We mix it with our parcel system which are basically segments of land that are like Tetris pieces so it’s not just about building up your castle within a mountain valley. It’s also about stacking the mountain valley next to a giant chasm and putting that next to a swamp. You are literally terraforming the world around you. It’s an incredibly powerful and incredibly cool system and I don’t think that’s been done before. I think that’s an area of innovation were tackling head-on.
TE: How was Gamescom?
Todd: It was crazy. It felt like about three or four E3’s all squished into the same set of buildings.
TE: I saw you had about 30 women with helmets with crows on their heads.
Todd: I never saw that! Travian [their European publisher] did that. They did tell us, “hey we’re going to have some people with crows on their heads” and I just gave them a puzzled look and said “okay, that sounds great.” (laughs) I need to follow up and see how well received that was. I never saw it because I was in interviews most of the time. I missed a lot of cool stuff that was out on the floor.
TE: Looking at some of your forums, the people who were there at Gamescom said that October is a special month, according to you guys. What’s happening in October?
Todd: Yeah this September-October time frame is when we’re targeting for us to make the jump that I mentioned earlier, from running our test as little matches that are less than an hour and sometimes less than 20 minutes, and making the jump from that to a real large-scale world with persistence that we’re going to run for days if not weeks. We’re starting with days, then weeks, then eventually forever. So it’s really a jump from us building test scenarios to building the actual game. That’s a big thing.
TE: You can craft bodies in Crowfall as you mentioned, what are the ingredients for that?
Todd: It will literally be body parts. You’re going to hunt down cadavers and use those as ingredients to mix and match to create new vessels. There’s a whole necromancy branch of crafting which is I think is very dark but it’s very cool.
TE: You’re currently in alpha, what is your schedule for beta and what are you targeting for release?
Todd: It’s really pre-alpha. I should say that first, because when you only have a server that comes up for 24 hours it’s hard to claim that that’s alpha. We have a lot of functionality in and that’s great and a fair amount of content on the character side, but making that jump to a larger world is going to be a big deal for us. So we’ll have a full playable game with the servers up and running 24/7 by the end of the year. The target launch is now mid next year. When we did our Kickstarter we were really hoping to do it by the end of this year but unfortunately that just wasn’t possible. We were a little too aggressive with that. But we will have people up and running in something that feels a hell of a lot like the real game by the end of the year. And then next summer – I’m purposely being a bit broad in that – we’ll have to see how that plays out to be more specific.
TE: Why a guinea pig race and not otters or hamsters or something else?
Todd: I asked Allison, one of our concept artists, to do a lineup of the pantheon of the Gods for me early on so we could see what all of them look like in a row. And I’m not sure why but for some reason she just inserted this little guinea pig wearing plate armor with a battle axe in the middle of the lineup. It’s just god, god, god, guinea pig, god, god. I think she was just kidding, but it really made me laugh, and I thought about it and the idea of having a small race in an MMO, there’s a long history of that. Practically every MMO has some kind of small goofy race. And I didn’t just want to do a gnome or a little halfling or whatever, so I thought that would be kind of fun. It harkens a little bit back to Wizard101, which, while it wasn’t aimed at adults, I was incredibly proud of. It was enormously successful. It was my most successful game by far, by leaps and bounds. So I thought that would be kind of fun to include one small race. I’ve always been a fan of Narnia, and I like Reepicheep. He was my favorite character. So I thought for our small race that would actually be pretty cool. It’s our chance as a development team to wink at the camera. The rest of the universe is so dark and so gritty that having one race that was basically light-hearted and pure of heart and noble, I just really liked adding that as a counterpoint into the overall thread of the universe. It just felt right.
TE: What is your favorite game of all time?
Gordon: For me it would be Ultima Online. I could still put thousands of hours into it and never plumb the depths of it.
Todd: That’s tough. I’m going to have to say the original DikuMUD, oddly enough. If you look at hours invested in playing and in running, that’s the one that shaped me the most, both as a player and as a designer. And it’s a text-based adventure! (laughs)
TE: Final question: who is going to end up on the Iron Throne?
Gordon: I think the Iron Throne doesn’t let people sit on it very long. (laughs) Lots of people got a turn on it already; I mean how many people have already sat on it? It’s about when does the story end. What you’re asking is when is he going to stop the story? Because somebody will always try to take whoever is on the throne down again.
Todd: If he doesn’t end up putting Daenerys on the throne that will be a giant shocker.
Gordon: Which means he probably won’t do it.
Todd: It seems like fate. The classic interpretation of fantasy literature would say that it’s either Daenerys and/or Jon Snow, but it would be interesting for him to end up making it an underdog like Tyrion. That’s certainly possible. Or somebody that nobody expects like the Hound, right? (laughs)