J. Todd Coleman and Gordon Walton have been making MMORPGs for a while now. Their resumes include many fondly-remembered MMOs from years past, among them Star Wars Galaxies, Ultima Online, and Shadowbane. And like so many other old-school developers before them, they are wading into the world of crowdfunding to make their dream game; which, of course, is an MMORPG.
Coleman and Walton compare their new game, titled Crowfall - Throne War, to Game of Thrones—currently the fantasy show du jour—but their vision could more accurately be summarized as Clash of Clans meets Minecraft, with a dash of DayZ for good measure. A competitive MMORPG at its core, it pits clans against one another on a series of battlefields, with the materials that are won going toward developing an "Eternal Kingdom" that serves as a group's base. Like EverQuest Next, the world will be built out of destructible voxels, and there will be plenty of land to develop. It already has a core of dedicated fans, raking in some $330,000 on Kickstarter in the course of six hours.
The faith being shown in Crowfall speaks to the faith the MMORPG community has in Coleman and Walton, but also to the hunger for a traditional fantasy MMORPG that also goes deeper than the typical World of WarCraft clone. Competitive MMORPGs are all too rare even now, with many opting to devote resources to player versus environment (PvE) content, and others dying out entirely. EVE Online remains the ur example of a true sandbox MMO, but the depth of the commitment it demands combined with its ultra-competitive and cutthroat fanbase is more than a little intimidating. With Crowfall, Coleman and Walton hope to split the difference.
The scenario they sketch out is indeed compelling. Each battlefield is timed, with the team that has the most points overall at the end of one year of game time being the winner. The means by which points are accrued vary wildly; but in the Bloodstone ruleset, for example, points can be earned by redeeming stones for points, the catch being that they only appear when the shield protecting your base vanishes and you become vulnerable. At that point, teams have to weigh the risk of getting overwhelmed and losing their hard-won territory with the potential reward of earning victory points.
That's the end-game, though. Prior to that, teams are dropped in blind and forced to survive by any means possible—a scenario Coleman compares to DayZ. Once the group comes together, players are sent out to mine materials and cut down trees to build up their forward base, always under the threat of ambush from other teams. Those who don't want to fight can stay back at the base and craft weapons and buildings, or spend their time harvesting raw materials. Soon enough, battle lines will be drawn and fighting will begin in earnest as various teams settle in and expand their reach.
This is not Coleman's first attempt at making a competitive MMORPG like this.
"This is my attempt to recitify some of the mistakes I made with Shadowbane," Coleman says, referring to the Ubisoft-published MMORPG that shutdown in 2009. Shadowbane was also a competitive MMORPG that revolved around a battle for territory; but though it was beloved by its community, it ended up stagnating and eventually shutting down. The problem? Inevitably one team would become dominant, rendering the world stagnant.
"We missed it in beta because we kept wiping the servers right around the time that one team would become dominant," Coleman admits.
He's being much more careful with Crowfall. No team will have an advantage over the other when they arrive on a battlefield, even if they've built out their Eternal Kingdom to the fullest extent possible (though that rule can vary depending on the game settings). And as mentioned before, battlefields will expire after a certain amount of time, eliminating the problem of stagnation. Thus, instead of a taut and exciting drive for power that steadily dwindles into nothing, Crowfall will feature a lengthy but intriguing loop that will see teams use their spoils to build out their swank kingdoms, then head back to the battlefield to do it all over again.
Of course, that makes it sound a lot simpler than it actually is. As with most MMORPGs, Crowfall will feature a variety of playable classes, with the option to add a second class such as blacksmith, or more interestingly, bounty hunter (Coleman is hoping espionage will constitute a large part of Crowfall's action). The combat model will be physics-based, meaning that it will theoretically be possible to defeat an enemy by, say, knocking them off a bridge. And there will be a player-driven economy, with items earned from defeating monsters being sellable on the open market.
As for monetization, Coleman and Walton are looking into making Crowfall available for a one-time fee ("buy-to-play"), with a subscription model also being available for those who want to passively train three characters at once. They also plan to include cosmetic items. In games like these, you can never have too many pets and cloaks.
In the end though, the core of Crowfall will be the loop between the Eternal Kingdom and the battlefields; which, if executed properly, has the potential to keep people playing for a very long time to come. Along with EverQuest Next and a handful of other games, Crowfall is riding the wave of next-generation MMORPGs inspired by the likes of Minecraft, DayZ, and even Clash of Clans, eschewing fetch quests and raids for crafting, destructible worlds, and player-built bases. It makes for an interesting contrast to its creators, who take so much pride in their old-school credentials.
But then, this may be the time for creators like Coleman and Walton to shine. With dynamic worlds on the rise and so-called "amusement park MMORPGs" like WoW falling by the wayside, we may finally getting back to some of the ideas that inspired the development of the genre in the first place—freedom, dynamism, and the sense that your actions have consequences for the world around you. These are ideas that go all the way back to Ultima Online, and they are now finally enjoying a resurgence. And whether you're a fan or a developer, that has a chance to be a very good thing indeed.