What does Crowfall have in common in World of Warcraft? Very little – which is the entire point. ArtCraft founders Gordon Walton and Todd Coleman are less interested in competing with WoW than taking MMOs into uncharted territories, creating characters who can leave a permanent impact on the face of countless worlds. That sales pitch quickly made Crowfall – which was already promising to combine elements from EVE Online and Game of Thrones – into one of the fastest growing video game campaigns ever crowdfunded.
Crowfall is set in a universe where the gods have empowered champions – called crows – to stand against The Hunger, an undead army consuming hundreds of worlds. But unlike other MMOs, these dying worlds aren’t static, they’re temporary. ArtCraft Entertainment plans to host dozens of servers, each containing a procedurally generated world for a few months – until the crows complete their objectives or the world finally dies. At that point, players leave the planet’s husk with their spoils and find a new server with a procedurally generated world to play in.
Coleman describes the experience as a combination of MMORPGs with Civilization-styled strategy gameplay – right down to procedurally generated worlds. “When you come in the server you’re surrounded by Fog of War,” Coleman told The Escapist. “You have to scout out resources and weapons, and build fortifications, and lay siege to your neighbors, and your goal is literally to conquer that world before it is destroyed … So you can still keep the advancement that you gained, but you move on to the next campaign.”
In short, this means every single campaign world offers a vastly different experience. Each new server will present a fresh landscape where players build structures to defend territory and alter the environment to suit their needs. And unlike traditional MMOs, the usual two-army faction system will be dropped for more complex allegiances between gods and guilds. Combined, you can forget about subjective Horde vs. Alliance debates – teams will back up their preferences objectively through victory and failure. “One group wins and can say we won,” Coleman said. “It’s not an argument. It’s like ‘Nope, that group won, they are the tournament leaders and the Superbowl winners of 2014.'”
But campaigns are only one side of the game. The second half is established by the Eternal Kingdoms, player-run worlds that are permanent but have no native resources. Each player will be granted their own Eternal Kingdom, where resources earned from campaigns can be used to construct new structures. The twist is that players can be accepted into fellow Eternal Kingdoms and taxed to build a home on a land grant – almost like a feudal-based Minecraft. “The larger Eternal Kingdoms [will] have lots of people who are living there,” Walton said. “There’s going to be lots of economic activity, lots of socialization activity going on in these, lots of building activity going on.”
Campaign play and Eternal Kingdoms are meant to complement each other – players gather resources among the worlds and bring them home for sale and construction. But powerful players are perfectly free to hire others to gather resources for them. And since the economies are entirely player-run, simply developing your territory can become an experience all to itself. “Economic trading and building a mercantile empire,” Coleman said. “There. That could be somebody’s entire game and they could never go into the campaigns if they want to.”
When you are visiting the campaigns, Crowfall‘s format lets players experience something few MMOs allow – custom rules. Outside of giving each world a distinctly visual style, each server will tweak Crowfall mechanics in various ways – sometimes subtly, other times obviously. One world may take the approach of traditional MMO rules, while others completely twist expectations. “You’ve seen ‘This is a PK server, this is a roleplaying server’,” Coleman explained. “But the idea of, okay this server has gunpowder… or this server has no magic, a no-magic zone… What will that do? And the neat thing about it is that since these are time-limited, we can do more experimentation. And if we screw up … alright, we just won’t do that one again.”
“We’d also like to try out kinda crazy rule changes that aren’t really that gritty – they’re more thematic,” Coleman suggested. “For example: This is an elf vs dwarf server. So the only characters who can come in are elves and dwarves, let’s see how that plays out. Or this is a centar-only server – only centars! Horse-man server! Horse-women too, I guess, since we hit that stretch goal. So it’s a horse-person server.”
Experimentation of this scope is something you’d never expect from an MMO – which Walton and Coleman believes is a rut the genre became stuck in. Walton and Coleman both believe MMOs used to have their own identities and approaches, until the overwhelming success of World of Warcraft made the entire industry homogeneous. “There’s a game that’s taken up all the oxygen in the environment,” Walton said. “It is the one true way. Like a religion … They found the pattern that managed to get more people involved than any other game, and in fact everyone else is aping it at some level, saying ‘I can’t really color outside these lines and be successful’.”
“Before WoW came along there was no right way to do it,” Coleman added. “It was like, ‘Well there’s a number of different ways you can go’ … Okay let’s go here to this part of the jungle and clear this out, we’ll look for good stuff over here. And we were all kind of wandering, looking for interesting things, and somebody found the City of Gold. So ever since then, it’s been like ‘Well, we’ve gotta find a City of Gold’.”
The end result, according to Walton and Coleman, is an environment where every MMO either mimics World of Warcraft or tries to beat it at its own game – like the countless so-called WoW-killers we’ve seen over the years. With Crowfall, Walton and Coleman want to avoid that pitfall by offering a different experience – one that drops linear quests for emergent game play. “Linear content can be 70 or 80% of your cost if you’re building a game like The Old Republic,” Coleman said. “Compare that to: How many monsters are there total in Minecraft? But there’s still infinite game play there.”
That’s not to say making Crowfall will be easy. “It’s a miracle every time you ship an MMO,” Coleman laughed.
“There’s a legion of things that are challenging, the real difference for us is we faced most of those before,” Walton explained. Right now, the biggest challenge ArtCraft faces is tweaking Crowfall‘s physics, which will create emergent game play opportunities when combined with the voxel crafting and destruction systems.. “There’ve been some MMO’s with some physics things in them before, we’re kind of going to another level of freeform with that,” Walton said.
In the meantime, Walton and Coleman are still forging ahead with the Kickstarter campaign, even in its final days. “It’s gone better than we could’ve hoped so that’s amazing and we should first say thanks to everybody who’s even checked us out… especially our backers,” Coleman said. “Don’t count us out yet just because we’ve already overcome that target and then some, doesn’t mean we’re going to give up. Now’s not the time to take the foot off the gas, now’s the time to kind of double-down.”
With only five days left in Crowfall‘s campaign, it’s entirely possible to get a final burst that will knock out several stretch goals – including mounts and virtual reality support. But to Walton and Coleman, the important factor will always be making a game that stands out among any MMO on the market. “The players that want this experience – our bet is that 9 out of 10 of those players have never even heard of us [yet],” Walton said. “We also think about our players as people who are looking for something that’s not out there. So if you’re not satisfied with what you’re getting, or it’s become stale over time, we might be the right place for you.”