Thursday, March 5, 2015

A New Challenger Appears

I wanted to put the word out about a new MMO currently in the middle of its funding period on Kickstarter (seemingly where many games are birthed these days).

MMOs are probably my favourite genre of games. I enjoy the massive worlds to explore, the sense of community with dozens / hundreds of other people occupying the same shared space at the same time, and the feeling that I am in a living, breathing world.

I played WoW from launch until mid-2009, and - love it or hate it - it was the MMO distilled and refined into perhaps the best example of what the genre could produce. Since I'm allergic to sunlight and people I've played many MMOs, including Rift, WildStar, The Secret World, The Elder Scrolls Online, Defiance, Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2, Allods Online, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, Lord of the Rings Online, Neverwinter, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Ultima Online, City of Heroes, PlanetSide and PlanetSide 2, and probably some others that have slipped my mind. Some were pretty good, with distinct ideas and innovations, but none have managed to scratch the same itch that WoW managed to for almost five years.

In 2015 the MMO is essentially an endangered species. They take longer than traditional games to develop (due to needing more content), they cost more, have a more nuanced potential playerbase, and - last but by no means least - every so-called "WoW-killer" has failed to kill WoW. WoW didn't do everything they did first, but they arguably did it best. Blizzard acted as a giant sponge, absorbing the best features from other games and incorporating them into their own. The fact that they've continued to do this after WoW's release is one of the reasons that the game is still the most successful MMO on the market, and that shows no sign of changing anytime soon.

Enter Crowfall.

Crowfall just passed the $1m funding mark on Kickstarter, which for a game with not much behind it is impressive in its own right. Their goal was $800,000, which was raised in a matter of days. Clearly there's a lot of people jumping onto this bandwagon - but why?

It actually goes back to probably the most mainstream MMO that I never played, called Shadowbane. Shadowbane was a PvP-centric MMO released in 2003, that had (at the time) the unique draw of making the world changeable. Powerful guilds could capture keeps and castles, construct new fortifications, and generally become their own version of a Mafia kingpin. Technical issues plagued the game at launch, and whilst still highly regarded, it was eventually shuttered in 2009.

Crowfall is being developed by ArtCraft Entertainment, with its two founders being J. Todd Coleman, original Creative Director of Shadowbane, and Gordon Walton, former Executive Director of Ultima Online, Star Wars: Galaxies, and Star Wars: The Old Republic, amongst others.

I would strongly urge everyone to take the time to watch Crowfall's pitch video they made for Kickstarter: (top of the page) as it really explains both the problem in MMOs and their potential solution better than I can. Crowfall uses the mantra "Living heroes, dying worlds". Your character lives forever, but the worlds they play in do not. There will be campaigns that may be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few months, and at the end of every campaign the rewards will be divvied up based on your contribution, the winner, and what the initial stakes of the created campaign were. The greater the risk, the greater your reward.

This does solve a problem that has existed in MMOs for almost as long as MMOs have existed, particularly in MMOs where PvP is a large part of the experience. Powerful characters and guilds snowball in their power very quickly, to where the big get much bigger, and the weak get much weaker. It constitutes barriers to entry where the end result is not many people enjoying the experience, even those at the top of the food chain. Crowfall's time-limited campaigns are meant to be a solution to this, with discrete end points that essentially act as reset buttons for the world state.

Obviously the details of this system are not exactly set in stone just yet, but the novel idea has already got me thinking, and actually quite interested in this project despite my never having played Shadowbane (though I did play UO quite extensively back in the day). Full disclosure: I have backed this project on Kickstarter.

Crowfall's alpha test is slated to begin later this year, with beta following next year, and release planned for Q4 2016. These are aggressive timetables and I'd be surprised if they were not delayed, as that's basically how MMO development works.

Twelve classes (archetypes as they are known) are planned, with all currently detailed on the official site

I'm trying to temper my enthusiasm, since I've been burned before quite extensively on multiple occasions. I do like people trying something out of the norm though, and not just attempting to make the latest in a long, long line of WoW clones. At the end of the day not even WoW offers an experience similar to what Crowfall proposes. Maybe MMO developers are starting to understand that not only is WoW unbeatable on its own territory, but that by trying to simply copy the world's flagship MMO they are just hurting themselves in the long run. If people want WoW then they will play WoW, not WoW-lite.

Maybe Crowfall will be great, maybe it won't, but they're at least defining their own terms. That's something we should all get behind, recovering WoW-addicts or not.