Terrible twos? A look at Darkfall on its second anniversary

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|02.25.11

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Terrible twos? A look at Darkfall on its second anniversary
It's hard to believe that two years have passed in the lands of Agon, but passed they have, and Darkfall is celebrating its second anniversary this week. Aventurine's FFA PvP sandbox title has turned out to be one of the more resilient MMORPGs in recent memory, surviving a disastrous launch and a lingering (and undeserved) reputation as a haven for parolees, sociopaths, and griefers. It's also managed to grow its dev team, release three expansions, and carve out a respectable niche for itself in an increasingly competitive massive industry.

What's the secret to the game's success? Can Aventurine become the next CCP and ride the coattails of a non-linear MMORPG to indie greatness? Is Darkfall, purportedly the hardest of the hardcore PvP games, really a fantastic PvE sandbox in disguise? Join us after the cut for some thoughts on these topics as well as a peek at the highlights from Darkfall's first two years.

To kick off any retrospective, one must necessarily start at the beginning. Unfortunately for Darkfall, said beginning was quite unpleasant, as the game was delayed for a good 12 hours from its initial planned launch window. When the EU-1 server and the game's billing apparatus did finally drag themselves out of bed on February 26th, 2009, customers were treated to a rocky experience that included unprocessed orders, multiple credit card charges, forums (and developer communication) going offline for hours at a time, and all manner of disconnects, lag issues, and bugs for those who did manage to log into the game itself. In short, it was a launch disaster of epic proportions, and it made the trials and tribulations experienced by early adopters of Age of Conan, Star Wars Galaxies, and World of Warcraft seem positively quaint by comparison.

All this was occurring in spite of Aventurine's limiting initial sales of Darkfall in order to cope with projected demand, and if there was a silver lining to this wrong-footed start, it was the fact that interest in Darkfall was fairly huge, which is no small feat for a FFA full-loot PvP game developed and published by an unknown indie outfit.

Despite the considerable lack of polish evident at release, Darkfall managed to exhibit enough character to keep gamers around. After several months of the team's frenetic bug-fixing, tweaking, and attempted balancing, those hearty souls who stuck it out were rewarded with an announcement heralding Darkfall's first expansion, and the new content made its way to the live servers on July 13th, 2009. We say servers here because July 13th also brought a second shard to the world of Agon in the form of an American server dubbed NA-1.

The first expansion

Some in the Darkfall community were understandably skeptical about the "expansion" terminology used by Aventurine to denote the July patch. How could a smallish indie developer realistically publish an expansion for a game that launched (and launched quite horrifically) a mere four months earlier? As it turned out, the unnamed content patch was in fact worthy of the expansion moniker since it featured a massive amount of tweaks, fixes, re-balances, and substantial new functionality including player housing, the village system, the nexus transportation system, and a character specialization system that allowed for various skill and spell add-ons.

The patch also featured skill and spell book drops, chaos chests (basically rare loot boxes that occasionally pop at random locations), and a hefty revamp of Agon's PvE mobs which set their difficulty to more reasonable levels and increased the gold, reagent, and uncommon/rare drop rates.

The second expansion: Conquer the Seas

For its second major content patch, Aventurine put on its pirate hat and delivered an expansion encore dubbed Conquer the Seas. When the update debuted on the live servers on December 5th, 2009, Darkfall began to shift from a game with loads of potential to a game with loads of things to do. Giant conquerable fortresses were added to the north and south seas and offered epic loot as well as more incentives for large-scale clan vs. clan PvP engagements. Continuing with the nautical motif, Aventurine added a number of sea villages for players to discover and control, and player ships also received several tweaks (including the addition of a new schooner vessel to the game's roster of craftable ships).

The clan sieging system was given an extensive overhaul, and both player keeps and player vendors were added to Darkfall's housing system. Conquer the Seas also heralded a number of smaller additions like free-spawning loot objects, slot machines, the trade route system (in which players act as couriers for NPC factions while dodging PKers in a cat-and-mouse game of risk vs. reward), and numerous additions to Agon's wildlife and PvE mob roster (including the fearsome kraken).

Last but not least, Conquer the Seas brought a number of melee and archery skill extensions to the table, as well as new general skills, racial skills, consumables, and quests. The expansion also signaled the start of an increased focus on PvE. While Forumfallers (hardcore PvPers, early adopters, and forum trolls, in case you're wondering) generally care only for the game's FFA PvP mechanics -- and are extremely vocal about that fact -- the dev team has taken pains to provide a diverse playing experience and is slowly but surely building Darkfall into something more than a fantasy version of Counterstrike by virtue of continual quest, mob, and PvE-related updates.

The third expansion: Hellfreeze

Darkfall's ironically titled third expansion continued the PvE parade, adding two new world bosses that boast Aventurine's trademark "homicidal AI." The Agonian version of hell officially froze over in early October of 2010 as the developers went live with the title's most recent content patch. In addition to the Ice Dragon and Demon bosses, Hellfreeze brought a bevy of new mobs to the game, including the Gorra Dar, Shadow Spirits, Deathless Servants, and more.

To coincide with the arrival of all the new residents, Agon itself was given the equivalent of an extreme home makeover, as Aventurine rolled out an extensive graphical revamp that upgraded terrain, textures, and the game's general atmosphere, bringing a much-needed fresh coat of paint to the title's dated visuals.

Many of Agon's dungeons were also completely redesigned, and new capital city dungeons were added, all of which "set the stage for many new dungeon-style encounters to be introduced in the near future," according to Aventurine's release notes. A few fluff items also made their way into the patch, chief among them treasure maps, funhulks, and flags designed to assist in setting up player-designed objectives such as races.

Recent updates and the future

Darkfall's recent updates include a couple of thorny issues that have sharply divided the playerbase. Chief among these are the offline skilling system and changes to clan banking that some claim make the world more immersive (others claim that it provides negative incentives for PvP). Aventurine has also dropped a few hints relating to another massive expansion, and if preliminary soundbytes are any indication, it will change the face of Darkfall as we know it.

At the end of the day, Aventurine has created (and continues to iterate on) a game that is both puzzling and highly rewarding. It's a hardcore PvP title with full-loot and all the potential juvenile behavior that that mechanic inspires, but it's also one of the deeper and more original PvE titles on the current market, by virtue of both its ginormous world and its utterly unique combat system (not to mention the sandbox trappings that offer a player more choices than most themepark games combined).

While it isn't for everyone and arguably occupies its own bizarre PvPvE sandbox niche, Darkfall has the makings of a long-lived indie success to rival CCP's celebrated EVE Online. Granted, it's still relatively early in the game's life, but the parallels (and the potential) are there. For more on Darkfall, check out Massively's eight-week Choose My Adventure play report featuring in-depth mechanical and community analysis as well as original screenshots and video.

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