Earlier this week we heard the unusual news that player-versus-player MMO Crowfall, which launched in the summer of 2021, will be taken offline and taken back to the drawing board, where it will be rethought. There's no word on how long this will take, only that "nothing is off the table" in terms of what potentially may change.
Game operator Monumental said this was because it didn't have the headspace or resources to rethink the game while it was running it, and suggested Crowfall could return looking quite different indeed. If, that is, it returns. Crowfall has struggled since launch, and it was sold to Monumental in December 2021 partly because of this - because it needed significant change.
I cannot ever remember an MMO ever doing something similar. In this article, I talk to Monumental about the decision and what it could mean. But first, a bit of background.
The announcement read: "Over the past few months, we've been evaluating the current state of Crowfall. One of the biggest challenges has been the sheer amount of development effort required to build new campaigns and keep the game running daily. In order to refocus our efforts from live operations to development, we have decided to take the Crowfall live service offline for the time being.
"[...] We're going to use this time to map out the future of the game. We have yet to determine what that looks like, but we are investing in and rethinking every part of the game - from the core technology and tools to art, design, and gameplay. Nothing is off the table."
The service will go dark from 22nd November (11am CST). There are some other particulars you can read on the Crowfall website.
Crowfall was sold to Monumental six months after release, and it was at that point that J Todd Coleman, the director of the game - and one of the two people who birthed the idea and successfully crowdfunded it - stepped away. Here's some of what J Todd Coleman wrote at the time:
"As you know, Crowfall launched in July. Launch numbers seemed great! August numbers were… good. Not great, but not bad – enough to sustain the game's ongoing operations. But the numbers were falling. By the time September hit, the numbers had fallen dramatically. Big competitors, lack of advertising funds, lots of market fatigue, and of course too much work to fix or improve the game and not enough people to do it."
The solution came from Monty Kerr and his game company Monumental. Kerr was apparently a fan and opinionated about what needed changing, and Kerr and Coleman became friends. Then, Kerr made an offer: "He wanted his company [Monumental] to buy Crowfall, hire the team, and take the game back into development," Coleman said.
Coleman added: "I've said it before, many times: ArtCraft [the originating developer] is not a giant corporation with unlimited resources. In truth, [Kerr's] proposal offered a number of things that, frankly, were otherwise off the table. Not only would it keep the game running and the team employed, but it would offer a chance to re-energize it. New ideas, new energy, and more resources than ACE [ArtCraft Entertainment] could bring to bear."
Coleman stayed at ArtCraft with a few people to work on a new game. He declined to comment on the recent Crowfall news when I contacted him.
Gordon Walton, the other face of Crowfall, took the Crowfall team with him to Monumental. Walton, however, would leave Monumental in May 2022 to help friends who were in development need, he said.
"I'm not sure how long it will take, but I want the team to rethink every part of the game. Nothing is off the table. I'm pushing for dramatic improvements and I certainly hope the result to be a very different game." -Monty Kerr
That brings us up to date.
This all leaves Crowfall in a precarious position. The biggest question is will it actually return? This is not a given and it leaves many people who spent hundreds, and in some cases thousands of pounds/dollars crowdfunding the game - Crowfall used a variety of approaches to crowdfunding: Kickstarter, equity, and in-game land/item sales - in an understandably worried and aggravated frame of mind.
"So basically they are taking down the game that may, or may not come back, and previous backers + content will all be wiped :\...," wrote one commenter, MsTrish, in the announcement thread on the game's official forum. "R.I.P $2,200😐"
But it also raises the question of how much the game will need to change now in order to come back and be a success, and how bold Monumental dare be in order to achieve it. I put these questions to Monumental CEO Monty Kerr.
"The main reason for taking the game dark is that the live campaigns consume a massive amount of developer attention - about 60 percent of our development effort is focused solely on the live game," Kerr told me in an email, expanding on what Monumental originally announced. "That means - even with an expanded team - it's difficult to do anything beyond incremental changes.
"Based on what we've learned this year, Crowfall needs much more than incremental changes to be great. While we're still trying to figure out what Crowfall should be, we're working on improving the tech to hit our interim goal of 100 players on screen at 60 FPS with better visuals.
"My feelings haven't changed," Kerr added. "I love the idea of Crowfall. We have veteran rockstar leaders, an amazing team, and a game with great bones. I'm not sure how long it will take, but I want the team to rethink every part of the game. Nothing is off the table. I'm pushing for dramatic improvements and I certainly hope the result to be a very different game."
I followed this final point - how different could the re-emerging Crowfall be? - up with him. He replied: "I've asked the team to be bold and leave nothing off the table. A lot has changed since Crowfall launched its Kickstarter in 2015; I want to pour everything we've learned as an industry into the idea of Crowfall and see where it takes us.
"We're investing in the team and I'm not going to rush them. MMOs are hard and it's going to take time. And, since nothing is off the table, we may emerge with a very different game.
"I don't know what that is going to be, but I'm excited to find out!"
"We're investing in the team and I'm not going to rush them. MMOs are hard and it's going to take time. And, since nothing is off the table, we may emerge with a very different game." -Monty Kerr
So, what could change? There are various ideas floating around. Players on the official forum are talking about taking Crowfall free-to-play, putting it on Steam, adding proper PvE (there is some but it's there to ease you into PvP, really) and tidying up and simplifying crafting and trading. A running theme seems to be making it easier for new players to get into the game and understand it, and I can vouch for this, having played some of Crowfall myself. There are a confusing amount of layers to wrap your head around, such as different worlds to do different things in, such as fight other people or build your own kingdoms in, and there are even craftable bodies you can use as your avatars. Simplifying this sounds like good sense to me.
But I hope Crowfall doesn't lose its core identity of being a game primarily about fighting other players, with siege warfare and territory control and even worlds you can win. Those are the things that made it unique when the idea first aired in 2015; those are the things that made it stand out from the homogenous MMOs of the time. To lose that now, or to homogenise in order to succeed, would be an ironic twist of fate.
Crowfall is not the only crowdfunded MMO to struggle. Camelot Unchained, a kind of spiritual successor to Dark Age of Camelot, is still missing in action after having been crowdfunded in 2013. Development appears to continue but how far the game is from being widely playable, I have no idea - few people seem to.
Then, there's Shroud of the Avatar, a spiritual successor to Ultima Online by Ultima creator Richard Garriott. This was also Kickstarted in 2013, and then supported by in-game property sales. Shroud actually launched - first in early access in 2014, then properly four years later - but it struggled, and the company behind it, Portalarium, fell apart (there's a nice timeline of this on the SoTA Reddit). The game still just about lives on, run by Catnip games, but Richard Garriott is long gone.
It's not only a shame to see these niche-happy MMOs struggle to do what once excited me and others so much, it's also a cautionary tale about excitement and how that can be exploited for crowdfunding games.