This is kind of a “part two” to my previous post, “Wrong Eggs in Wrong Baskets” because that title implied multiples and I only talked about one game and one situation. I had intended to shoehorn the Saga of Crowfall into that story, but didn’t find a natural branching point, so here we go! Two for the price of two!
I have no privileged information on the relative success of Crowfall. I only have my own experiences as an MMO player of over 20 years, what I can remember and what I can find that was said by the Crowfall team, and what has been said about the game by pundits and players. What I come away with after all of this is a much different version of reality than what was being pitched by ArtCraft in the early days of the development of Crowfall, leading to a “best guess” situation today.
I don’t want to start a row over “when MMOs started” because everyone can throw in a condition that shifts the goal posts. We can agree, I think, that MMOs came along relatively early in the evolution of the video game industry, which is quite amazing considering that our ability to connect to one another was barely in the hands of the general public at the time. I remember getting my Ultima Online beta CDs in the mail and having to connect on dialup to play, and how relatively amazing the game became once I finally managed to sign up for broadband. Even before that, service providers like CompuServe and AOL offered multiplayer online games, and even before that we had BBS and LAN games (door games, MUDs and MOOs, etc.).
I believe the early push for online gaming came at a time when gaming as a whole was more raw. Video games started out as single player affairs, PvE, because they had to. Once people could play with one another, co-op was not the first thing that came to mind when designing these things; video games derived from board games, card games, and sports, all of which are adversarial, so it made sense that once two or more players could interact, competition was the goal rather than cooperation.
This is what any modern PvP pundit is talking about when they wish MMOs would “get back to the basics” of the MMO genre. Ultima Online launched with full on PvP and looting because it was designed with the idea that although it took place in the Ultima IP, it should be a simulated world, warts and all. What happened, though, was that people decided that they didn’t want those warts, and the industry had to respond.
I believe that EverQuest was the first “modern gen” MMO to introduce the option for players to self-select for PvP. It’s the first game that I played where this was possible, but I didn’t play as many MMOs in the early days as I did several years later, so correct me if I’m wrong.
I don’t know how or why EQ opted to go this route. UO had (or would eventually) take a different tack by adding a completely new landmass and dividing the game world into oPvP and consensual PvP. Considering the mindset of the time was that video games were, by virtue of their heritage, competitive, switching things over to make competition a second-class citizen to cooperation was a massive sea-change in what was a small niche genre at the time.
Of course, in games which brought together thousands of people on a single server, cooperation was a brand new mechanic that devs could properly get excited about, no doubt. Coordination in EQ was massively important, and fostering the competitive mindset wouldn’t have lent itself to new gameplay options that asked players to think in terms of working together. People seemed to love this, especially in hindsight as most EQ vets I’ve heard talk about the game reminisce about the relationships that were made during those cooperative events.
Then World of Warcraft happened, and a course was set.
I never really played WoW during the early days; I played at launch, for a while, but moved on shortly after so I am certainly not the one to recount WoW history. But we all know about WoW’s dominance for the next decade or so.
Many modern MMO talking heads will naturally point to WoW when they need to provide their audience with a touchstone. Almost everyone has played WoW at some point in their MMO careers, if for no other reason than to see what all the fuss was about. The fuss, it seemed, was PvE. PvP in WoW was given a back seat in the form of a few open world zones and several instances. I’ll defer to anyone who wants to chime in about the experience of the PvP player in WoW, but the main point is that the largest MMO in the world was designed around the PvE experience. Was this a decision made in-house at Blizzard, or it was it Blizzard responding to what the players desired? Either way, other companies wanted a piece of that WoW subscription money, so they aped WoW in every way they could, especially in ways that would draw the largest demographic that WoW seemed to appeal to (it wasn’t PvPers).
Now that WoW’s dominance has slipped, and the MMO genre seems to be dominated by Eastern imports and influences, those who never felt comfortable in the PvE space seem to believe it’s their time to shine. The online multiplayer experience which was once probably the sole domain of the MMO has been overtaken by the “lobby shooter” game which allows up to 100 individual or small team players to have their PvP experience in a frenetic, fast-paced environment without having to spend time fussing with long-term goals or in-depth mechanic studies. The rise in “influencer culture” makes these games much better to watch, too, the same way folks tend to prefer faster-paced sports like football (American) and hockey over baseball.
There are still MMO players out there, and since it seems that the PvE experience exemplified by WoW is sailing into the West, developers who apparently disliked and disagreed with the MMO’s shift away from competition towards cooperation are feeling that this is finally the opportunity they have been waiting for in terms of capturing investment capital and the underserved market of MMO PvP gamers.
Recent history doesn’t seem to share the vision of the hardcore PvP MMOer, however. Crowfall was a high-profile game being designed by industry vets who claimed to want to return to the early days of MMO-dom, before WoW and it’s PvE focus sucked the oxygen out of the room. Crowfall’s claims were many, but their frequent talking point was that it would be a repudiation of the “WoW era” of MMOs. Their initial marketing points were rather confrontational, as I remember, taking a familiar tack of defining their goals in terms of what they thought of others in a similar space. For example, this quote was taken from their FAQ page just this morning:
Many modern MMOs have embraced the theme-park design model: players are placed on rails (driven by linear questing) and not allowed to deviate from the expected path. Crowfall doesn’t follow this model. The world exists with a set of rules and players are given the freedom to do whatever they like.Crowfall – Throne War PC MMO by ArtCraft Entertainment, Inc
There’s really nothing in this statement that I would consider to be false. However, I do consider it to be a tad bit leading: games on rails are bad because they take things away from players, like choice, while Crowfall aims to allow the players to enjoy freedom to “do whatever they like” (within the confines of the design statement, of course). I’ve never been a fan of when devs/pubs try to sell a game by countering competitors, and fully believe that if a company feels that this is a good way to market, then they must know, deep down, that their product isn’t strong enough to stand on its own. Of course, Crowfall’s core audience thrives on confrontation, so it’s completely on message.
I’ve played Crowfall, and it’s not a bad game as a whole. It’s an attractive art style, a pretty good action RPG, and has some solid mechanics at it’s core. But ArtCraft did no marketing until after the game launched, meaning that there was either no information or misleading information that was all people had to work with. It also claimed that PvE players would have a role, but the role was incredibly marginal and, like most MMO PvP games, existed solely to push them into eventual PvP. Small groups were at a disadvantage against larger groups, and the one opportunity that small groups had, the factional campaigns, didn’t even launch until a few weeks after the game did. Initially, there was only the limited PvE zone and the more striated guild versus guild campaigns. In short, Crowfall did itself no favors at launch, and is feeling the repercussions as a result.
I and others do believe that the MMO PvP audience isn’t large enough to shoulder the weight of another generation of online games. Crowfall is trying it, but we’ve gotten stories about low player numbers and layoffs at the studio. These should be taken with the usual grains of salt; the first is a extrapolation from the community, and the second may be de rigeur for post-launch game development. The group of friends I had been playing with, however, have disbanded, with those who opted to remain dispersing to other groups. I don’t doubt a lot of other groups have decided similarly. We still have other MMO PvP games on the horizon, though, like Camelot Unchained (itself in perpetual development hell) and probably others whose names escape me the longer they remain in limbo. If we are looking at Crowfall’s fate now, what can other PvP-focused MMOs look forward to?
More importantly, though, while developers of games like Crowfall see the decline of the Western MMO as an opportunity to convince investors that there’s room in the MMO genre for a traditionally underserved demographic to become the next big thing, I think they overestimate their chances. First, the MMO genre isn’t dead, it’s just being imported from the gaming mills of the East. I assume it’s far easier — and cheaper — to license and localize a game from Japan or Korea and bring it to Europe and the US than it is to fund a new home-grown title, and considering how some/many/most/all Eastern imports boast a large focus on PvP, the genre’s lack of PvP offerings aren’t as scant as they’d like us to believe. And second, as stated, I firmly believe that gamers are getting their competitive gameplay from other, more popular sources. Investors are still gun-shy when it comes to funding video games, which is one reason that ArtCraft has given in their explanation as to why the “WoW clone” mentality lasted for so long. These days, I can’t imagine that funding a PvP MMO is more attractive than, say, funding the next Among Us or Battle Royale which are still dominating Twitch and YouTube videos.
Crowfall’s situation, I believe, is shaky, and will continue to be so until either the entire PvP MMO scene receives a seismic upset that tips the scales in their favor, or the game closes down. I also believe that this is not the age of the PvP MMO made possible by a decline in the overall interest in PvE MMOs. It’s good that ArtCraft have taken a very different approach to their online game with their use of time-limited campaigns, but their implementation has been uneven enough to disenfranchise anyone except large group players. This positioned them as catering to a niche within a niche. If other PvP centric MMOs make it to market, then players will be deciding which game to continue with. Competition is as much getting in on the ground floor as it is a numbers and skills game; I know for a fact that in Crowfall, the most successful guilds were those who could field as many members as soon as possible, and late-comers will always be at a disadvantage. This fact will striate the limited PvP MMO player base, which the subgenre as whole cannot afford if it’s to live up to the potential it sees in itself. Crowfall is only the first of this “next gen” of MMOs, but no amount of hubris is going to make them more successful than they can be with a limited appeal and small demographic.