Monday, June 7, 2021

Why Am I Here?

Since I downloaded it a few days ago, the mmorpg I've found myself wanting to play more than any other has been Crowfall. It's very hard to say why. I've been thinking about that a lot as I've been playing.

I can tell you what it's not: the compelling gameplay. I haven't seen any, not yet. Up to level twenty-three, at least, Crowfall could hardly be more pedestrian or predictable.

I've made it as far as what would in most mmorpgs be thought of as the third zone. Maybe even the fourth, if you count the Eternal Kingdom.

The Eternal Kingdom probably isn't intended as part of the progression as such but I did do a couple of levels there just on harvesting and basic tutorial quests. After that it was on to God's Reach and the threeTemples, first Earth, then Sun and finally Moon

Despite the misleading names they're all extensive, open, outdoor areas. Each ends with a challenging boss fight and a transition through a portal. Yep, they're different zones alright.

They're also still the tutorial. All of them. I strongly suspect the next three zones after the temples are also going to be part of the seemingly endless instructional seminar that makes up the first thirty or so levels of the game. 

Yeah, yeah, your guardian died, the Hunger is here, let's move it along.


The three zones that follow the temples used to make up a separate World known as "The Infected". They were rolled into God's Reach just recently to make the levelling process smoother and less confusing for new players. I dread to imagine what it was like before.

It's not that Crowfall is any more confusing than the average mmorpg, at least I don't think it's that. It's more that someone seems determined to explain the entire game before you actually get a chance to play it. There's a peculiar paradox going on where the tutorial is at one and the same time far too long for an introduction and yet much too short for the amount of information it tries to cram in.

Much of the substance involves crafting and gathering. Those are supposed to be the core gameplay drivers in Crowfall. You'd think it was fighting other players and it is that, too, but the stated intent is to have resource shortages drive player competition. Because of that, there's a focus on crafting and gathering you don't generally see in tutorials except in those few games like Vanguard where crafting is a bona fide full career from the start.

For resource shortages to work things have to break and by golly, don't they just! Basic tools barely last long enough to harvest a couple of nodes. Weapons and armor wear out before you've managed to find replacements. 

In most games that would be an anoyance and an expense. You'd have to visit an NPC to get them repaired or maybe learn the skills to repair them yourself. Not in Crowfall. Once something breaks it's broken for good. There is no repair.

As you get better gear it lasts longer. I already have tools that last a good portion of a session before
they fall apart. I imagine eventually things will last, oh, days! Of course, by then you'll be out in the really dangerous places, where death means dropping all your stuff, so there's that. I think you get to keep what you have equipped but if you were carrying spares you can forget about them.

The theory is that having everyone constantly in need of replacement tools, weapons, armor, accessories, consumables and every other damn thing will make for a vibrant, buzzing economy. All those crafters will be churning out goods and all those pvpers will be hoovering them up with the cash they made selling the mats they harvested in the dangerous places back to the crafters. And while they're out searching for the resources to sell to make the money to buy the tools they need they'll end up kicking the crap out of each other and there's your gameplay loop. Or something.

It would probably work, too, given a critical mass of players and a suffficiently well-distributed balance of preferred playstyles. It will be interesting to watch how it turns out. And for once, although we won't be able to tell at a glance who's doing what, unless something changes at launch we will know how many people are playing.

Crowfall is one of those very rare games that tells you precisely how many people are logged in at any given moment. At the time I'd call a peak, if not the peak, for most mmorpgs, Sunday evening, there were around two-hundred and fifty people in God's Reach on the EU server. It was much the same on the North American East Coast shard, where it would have been about mid-afternoon. 

During the week, when I played in the daytime, the count was fourteen people on the NAEC server, maybe fifty on EU. The capacity of those Worlds is 1225.There was next to nobody in the higher Worlds. Fewer than twenty. Maybe everyone was chilling in their personal fiefdoms back in the Eternal Kingdom. That's the one set of numbers you can't see.

At this stage though, any economic concerns are purely notional. No-one's selling or buying anything. Or killing anyone, much, either. It's late beta, there are only a couple of weeks left before everyone gets wiped. Why would you bother?


And anyway, everyone just seems to be in the tutorial, which goes on for about as long as most people play most mmorpgs. Longer, in fact. At the pace I'm going, which I don't think is all that slow, it'll probably take me fifteen or twenty hours to hit level thirty. Maybe more if it slows down after the Temples, which I suspect it might. That's quite a while to play a tutorial before the real game starts.

So why am I doing it? I don't know! It's certainly not because of the gorgeous graphics. There are none. It's bland. I've seen three zones and they all look the same. There's no detail in any of them, no sign that an artist put their personal touch into anything. 

It's quite pretty, even so. The flowers are nice. I've played many mmorpgs where the environments had far more character but were a lot less pleasant to spend time in. There's just not much to look at. 

That picture up at the top of the post, the one with the half-buried statue with the hand sticking out of the ground? That's the most interesting thing I've seen so far. And it's a cliche.

At this point I should probably mention something. All the screenshots I've used in this post and the last look much more vibrant than anything you're going to see in game. I blasted the saturation and sharpened the focus to make them pop. I thought about it a while but I don't see why I should make my blog look as washed-out and bleh as the game itself.

The inside of a church. Compare that to the inside of any church you ever saw in any mmorpg, ever. Impressed? I thought not.

If it's not the gameplay or the graphics, maybe it's the story that keeps me coming back for more? Nope. As far as I can tell there isn't one. 

There's lots of lore. Usually I like that but not here, where it's ladled out in dollop after dollop of indigestible infodump. I stopped trying to take it in long ago.

There are lots of little vignettes, all of them, without exception, utterly souless and generic. Things happen that ought have emotions attached but they don't. They just... happen. 

Same thing with the jokes. There aren't many of those but that's okay because the few there are aren't funny. Well, they might be, if they were delivered differently, but everything is delivered in exactly the same flat tone. 

Remember when WildStar was going to make all of its quests no longer than tweets? This is like that, only you get a series of tweets, one after the other. It adds up to the same amount of text as any other mmorpgs' quests but there's a lot more clicking.

Actually, no there isn't. In most mmorpgs you have to click on a response to indicate your character's reply. None of that here. All you ever do is listen. 

I think that's a joke. It's so hard to tell.


So, it's not the compelling gameplay, the gorgeous graphics, the fascinating story, the witty dialog... what the hell is it?

It's not the combat, that's for sure. Maybe it will be, when it comes time to fight other players, but tactics in my first twenty-three levels have consisted mostly of standing still, holding down LMB and tapping first 2, then 2 and 4, and finally 2,4, 5 and occasionally 6, as they come off cooldown.

For quite a few levels I also strafed, dodged, sneaked and generally tried to use all the tools in my toolbox but after a while I realized that just made fights take longer. Except for those end of zone bosses, most fights go much more smoothly if I just face tank.

And to be fair that is a fighting style I like. So I'm not complaining. I'm just saying it's not like, oh, Wizard 101, for example, where the big draw for the first few weeks I played was the fun of choosing the cards. It's just basic shoot 'em in the face stuff.

It could be the crafting, I guess. That's definitely not basic. Only I'm not really doing much crafting. Gathering mats takes ages and making stuff uses a lot of mats and making anything good takes mats I don't have (which is the point). I can see how the crafting would be compelling but it isn't yet.


At this point I'm going to shoehorn in something about the map. I know no-one ever did keep logging into an mmorpg because the map was so good they just had to look at it one more time but boy, Crowfall's map is bad

It's one of those three-dimensional affairs. In my experience those never work but this one doesn't work even more than most. It makes the one in Shroud of the Avatar look like cartographical perfection and that one is flat-out weird.

Seriously, what is wrong with a plain, old two-dimensional map? Why even bother with anything more fancy? And how about a mini-map while you're at it?  

I guess the theory is that when every single quest comes with a directional indicator and a distance counter in the HUD you don't really need a map. Yeah, except when you want to go anywhere that isn't part of a quest! Like the bank.

Can't you just tell me?


While we're on the subject of those quest markers I wonder if there's ever been an mmoprg that needed them more? There's hardly an NPC who can just give a quest. They all send you to someone else who gives you the quest. If you're lucky! 

One guy this afternoon sent me to another guy, who sent me to another guy, who sent me to another guy, who finally asked me to kill five boars. I'd love to say that was an exceptional case but it really wasn't.

So, why is it that when I finish this post I'm going to fire up Crowfall again and get another hour or two in before bed? I wish I knew. But that's what I'm going to do.

In the end I think it's because the God's Reach content seems so familiar. It's incredibly restful, comforting even. It's like eating a plain donut. There's not really much flavor but it still tastes... good.

I haven't played a new mmorpg that felt this old-fashioned for years. It's almost like making a character in WoW Classic or an EverQuest progression server and going through the old starting zones for the umpteenth time. Except it's like a small child's sketch of that, with all the detail left out and everything colored in in crayon.

In the end I think it's that the core loop of the genre is so strong, so well-established, all that's needed is the bare bones. Get those in place and habit does the rest. I'm having a good time because my brain recognizes the patterns.

It's not going to last but why fight it while it does?


  1. That does sound quite horrible indeed... Glad you're having fun though. ;-)

  2. Unlike you, I'm not someone who has the urge to try out a lot of different MMORPGs (though it's interesting to read about them), but a few years ago Crowfall was one of the select few that captured my interest. Mostly because I liked the idea of playing as a guinea pig person or centaur I think. I was "meh" about the whole PvP thing but liked the idea of being able to exist as a crafter who supplements the PvPers.

    It does seem to have turned out quite weird from what you describe. Which makes me a bit sad, but then I've got so much other stuff going on already, I didn't really need another game to play anyway...

    By the way, do you play with the graphics settings turned down to the minimum or something? Those close-ups of the talking elves hardly look like something slated to release in 2021...

    1. I'm going to have to check the graphics setting snext time I log in. I have an aging PC and I generally leave let games choose the settings they find appropriate but sometimes they err too far on the side of caution. In terms of aesthetics and design, Crowfall's graphics are among the blandest and least-detailed I have ever seen so I think it's mostly that but it's possible my settings could also do with a tweak.


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