How Crowfall is trying to redefine open world PvP in MMOs

Back in the days of older MMOs like Ultima Online, the decisions you made could impact other people... We're bringing that back in spades.

J Todd Coleman

Player versus player combat in most modern MMOs is pointless. There are some exceptions, sure, but most of the reasons for crossing swords with other players are to get some points on a leaderboard, earn a cool item, or have a laugh. But all too rarely is anything of consequence gained or lost because, ultimately, the war is endless and contrived. Players in The Elder Scrolls Online, for example, have been warring over the titular scrolls since the game first launched, but no one has ever actually won that battle. And no one ever will.

It's a sisyphean cycle that repeats until one side surrenders to boredom and does something more productive with their time. And that's assuming you're not trapped on a server where one group reigns supreme while everyone else vies for scraps. It's an age-old problem that two MMO developers whose shared lineage includes Star Wars Galaxies, Shadowbane, and Ultima Online think they can finally fix. Their names are J Todd Coleman and Gordon Walton, their game is called Crowfall, and their solution is simple: Put an end to the never-ending wars.

Crowfall, which was first kickstarted to the tune of $1.7 million back in 2015, is an ambitious PvP-centric MMO with one unique twist: Eventually one side reigns supreme. Instead of having persistent servers where players are expected to make characters that last indefinitely while fighting an endless tug of war, Crowfall centers around impermanent campaigns that span weeks to (eventually) months. When the campaign ends, one side is declared the victor and a new campaign begins with a completely different map and ruleset. And after three years of development, Crowfall is finally ready for it's first ever campaign.

Gods of war

I sat down with Coleman and Walton last week to discuss Crowfall ahead of its 5.8 update, which releases today. Though there's still a long road ahead to a full release, update 5.8 marks a very important milestone for the team at ArtCraft Entertainment in that this is the first time Crowfall's ambitious vision will be put to the test. "We've been in testing for a long time," Walton tells me. "We started testing back in 2015 with our backers, and we've been testing pieces and parts of Crowfall all this time. This is the first time that we've actually brought the entire game together."

Starting today, players can join Crowfall's first-ever campaign and declare a faction to fight for. Then, over the coming days, they'll work with allies to secure control points across the various zones, harvest resources to build fortresses and equipment, and go to war against the two other factions. Over time, the physical world will also change to add more fuel to the conflict. Factional borders will expand or shrink, but the world itself will also go through seasons that slowly reduce the amount of resources players can harvest, forcing each army into more and more desperate battles for survival. Eventually the depths of winter will leave the land completely barren, forcing the three factions into one climactic battle that ultimately decides the winning side. "We want Crowfall to feel like you're playing out a season of Game of Thrones," Coleman says, explaining that they hope these campaigns replicate dramatic twists and betrayals of the television show.

This dynamic, impermanent landscape of warfare is the solution to what Coleman refers to as the "Shadowbane problem". Back when Shadowbane was popular in the mid-2000s, Coleman says servers would eventually "stagnate" as one group eventually came to dominate their competition. "Eventually, somebody rises to the top and would crush anyone else that could challenge them even before they could get up and running," Coleman says. "New players would come in, die, and then quit, and the victors would quit because there was no challenge. If one person starts to win too much, then everyone quits. You need to end that game and start over with a fresh slate." And that's exactly what Crowfall does.  

If one person starts to win too much, then everyone quits. You need to end that game and start over with a fresh slate.

J Todd Coleman

The kicker, though, is that each campaign is completely unique. The maps and zones are randomly generated so each time you join a new campaign you'll have to scout out resource deposits and enemy strongholds. But campaigns can also feature different rulesets that significantly alter the experience. As an example, Coleman says some players might want to play on "Terminator campaigns" where every player has to start a brand new character. Others might want to take their seasoned warrior into campaigns restricted to max level characters to really test their might. Some campaigns will only allow entire guilds to compete, where others might only allow certain character races like elves and dwarves. It's your choice to decide what campaigns you want to participate in, but the idea is that every campaign should play out in entirely different ways than the one before it.

Winning a campaign comes with more than just bragging rights. Though the rewards can change, players can expect to walk away with unique cosmetic items and resources that they can then bring into further campaigns to give them an edge—assuming the rulesets of that campaign allow it.

Born for battle

All of this is anchored by a completely player-driven economy similar to EVE Online, where players have to rely on one another to build defenses and craft gear. While Crowfall caters to a hardcore PvP crowd, Coleman explains that there's plenty of room for those who prefer more pacifist playstyles. Each faction is an interconnected web of players who can be soldiers, gatherers, and crafters or some combination thereof. "All of these are interrelated in a way that we've lost in MMOs," Coleman explains. "Back in the days of older MMOs like Ultima Online, the decisions you made could impact other people, but we've moved away from that as a genre. We're bringing that back in spades. The person who was harvesting resources can then sell them to a crafter who can craft an epic blade that he gives to an assassin who uses it to kill the people who are protecting a key fort. That could turn the tide of an entire campaign."

How you fit into this ecosystem depends on how you build your character. Crowfall features 12 unique races that range from elves to minotaurs to—I'm not kidding—guinea pig humanoids that, in turn, can each play a different class. As characters level up, they'll unlock talent trees that further specialize that class while also having an opportunity to spend points on disciplines that grant them skills from other talent trees.

A knight, for example, might be able to pick up the archery discipline so he can switch to a bow when need be. But that choice comes at the expense of watering down his capabilities as a knight. Likewise, a character can pick up a crafting discipline to access better recipes for stronger gear. Thanks to a system where players can sacrifice crafted and harvest resources for experience points, it's even possible to level a character to the max level of 30 without even swinging a sword. "If you're a player who likes to dig around in an RPG system and find that perfect build or perfect combination that matches your playstyle, you're going to be in heaven," Coleman laughs. "It's a min-maxer's dream."

We want Crowfall to feel like you're playing out a season of Game of Thrones.

J Todd Coleman

But what's the point of building a character on a server that eventually ends? Fortunately, Crowfall lets you take characters from one campaign to the next, though their specific rulesets might prohibit certain items or force you to start with nothing at all. The idea is that players will have several characters that they like playing, and because you can reach max level in just a weekend, it's not going to be nearly as tedious to start a new one. Coleman compares it to a hardcore Dungeons and Dragons player who has several characters he plays in different campaigns, each having its own appeal.

There are also player-owned worlds called Eternal Kingdoms that act as social and economic hubs outside of campaigns where characters can hang out and trade. Each player is given one Eternal Kingdom to do whatever they want with, whether to turn it into a private guild headquarters or a public market where other players can stop by. Resources won from campaigns can be used to expand and shape these plots of virtual land however you want. "We have a kingdom building tool so they can move around mountains and valleys and build roads or create cities," Coleman says. "It's almost like Minecraft's creative mode."

Road to release

Despite being in pre-alpha, many of these features are already in Crowfall. But the first campaigns in the 5.8 update are largely meant to stress test Crowfall's server tech and iron out kinks in the overall design. To start, Coleman says that campaigns will only last a few days to a week and the rulesets will be pretty standard, but all the pieces are there to expand into wackier rulesets down the road.

Update 5.8 will also signal the beginning of 'sanctioned campaigns', which are meant to be highly competitive compared to the more casual regular campaigns. For their first sanctioned campaign, which will begin sometime in January, ArtCraft Entertainment will be reporting on the daily battles similar to how CCP Games used to cover the politics and twists of EVE Online. Winners of that first campaign will also receive a physical item to commemorate their victory in addition to cosmetics.

Looking even further ahead, 5.8 heralds the end of Crowfall's pre-alpha phase, bringing it one step closer to a full release. While most of the core concepts are already in place, Coleman says one of the biggest features he wants to add is campaigns that are limited only to guilds. These campaigns will allow even more freedom because players will be able to build custom fortifications anywhere they want in the world instead of using the templated designs in the normal campaigns. Because enrollment will be restricted to members of specific guilds instead of everyone, there's less of a risk that trolls will work to undermine a guild—but there's still an opportunity for spies to sow chaos.

But everything hinges on how Crowfall's first few campaigns go. Its subversive take on PvP sounds excellent on paper, but it's also so different to the usual template of MMOs that it's hard to envision how it'll all play out in an actual campaign. "It takes a lot of explaining because it's just so different," Walton says. "Crowfall breaks the standard MMO model in so many ways. It's got more in common with the first and second-generation MMOs because one player can have an impact on thousands of other players."

Crowfall's 5.8 update is out today. Though it's still in development, you can buy supporter packs to start playing here.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.