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Dunbar’s Number, Pantheon and The Crowfall Community

Dunbar’s Number is an interesting theory. I stumbled upon this theory over the weekend and found the discussion to be applicable to Crowfall. Despite my love of Crowfall and all things PvP, I sometimes make time to read about other titles. I’ve been actively following Pantheon since it was Kickstarted (I did not, however, back the title). I plan on playing the game when it eventually releases, because I enjoy games that are difficult (but not needlessly so).

Pantheon recently had a rather long dev blog, which in itself is something I wished Crowfall creators J. Todd and Gordon would begin doing.  The blog is dense, talking about a host of topics, but centers mostly on trying to explain what the core tenets of the title are. Brad McQuaid, who goes by the alter-ego Aradune, goes on further to describe that it’s possible to craft a title with variations on the core theme.

Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, In-game Screenshot. 2017.

He cautions that you need to stick to your core tenets because abandoning those to attain a larger audience is a recipe for disaster. If you set out in making a game, to craft the best sandbox PvP experience, adding lots of PvE elements might be confusing for your supporters. Similarly, if you set out to craft a PvP experience, but then discover it’s possible to create several flavors of PvP… well then, you’ve found your way to attain a larger audience.

Crowfall immediately stuck in my head in regards to this approach. It set out to make a PvP sandbox as it launched its vision via Kickstarter. It knew the landscape of PvP had many existing fans and countless variations on approaches to implement it. In Guild Wars 2 you saw the long popular Realm vs Realm vs Realm styled combat, originally popularized by Dark Age of Camelot. Similarly, Crowfall knew they could attract even more players by appealing to the current king of sandbox PvP: EVE Online. They also had an inkling that Shadowbane veterans might like that same open-faction, politics-to-rule-the-day approach.

In this regard, Crowfall and Pantheon largely seem to be designing MMORPG’s in the best possible way. keeping the core pillars of their vision in everything they do, but also allowing some room for deviation (flavors) as they build their titles.

All of this is interesting, of course, because I have no idea if these teams have ever worked or interacted with one another. I found the idea that both are approaching their individual games with this similar concept fascinating. Yet, it’s not what was most interesting to me in Aradune’s blog post.

Dunbar’s Number

This number is important for a few reasons, but when it comes to Crowfall I think it’s probably more relevant than some.  In Pantheon‘s case, I think Aradune nailed it. His worlds are static. He comes from a gameplay style, PvE primarily, that tends to lend itself very well to having a relatively static player population. This approach allows players to form attachments, learn personalities, and create opportunities where individual players can begin to recognize one another by name or by appearance.

Dunbar’s Number cites that humans have, on average, the ability to comfortably maintain about 150 stable relationships (side note: I have nowhere near this number, but I tend to hate “people as a whole”). This number was theorized in the 1990’s, so it’s not entirely ignorant of the advances of modern technology. Aradune introduced this concept at the end of the article from something he saw on reddit. I began to wonder if community formation was tied in some way to this number. More pointedly, I began to wonder the implications of this number on Crowfall.

Dunbar's Number Visualization

Dunbar’s Number Visualization

While I have another article formulated in my head on the topic, it’s impossible to not broach this subject when talking about Crowfall. In my mind, Crowfall‘s biggest factor in favor of success is that it has done something no one else has attempted in recent history. It’s tied your “account name” to the name that appears above each of your “character’s” heads. You can change campaigns (servers), guilds, even respawn one moment as a high-elf, and the next as a fae: your “name” stays the same. In this, I originally felt that Crowfall would excel at creating those attachments that a permanent server should provide for Aradune and Pantheon.

Now, I’m not so sure.

Crowfall features worlds that end. It’s one of the signature selling points for a PvP game, traditionally plagued by a world that clearly has an established victor on it. The world’s population would typically decline as players got bored trying to fight back against the ‘Leviathan’. I loved the idea that a server reset would both solve this Leviathan problem, but also allow players to form lasting bonds with a larger community. Instead of only seeing the same 500 or so players over and over, now it could potentially allow players to form reputations and recognize one another, against a larger community.

This is where Dunbar’s Number really comes into play. If the average human can only maintain 150 relationships, and assuming this player base isn’t made up entirely of basement dwelling sociopaths who limit human contact, at best an online world might have room for each of us to form 50 (maybe 100?) other relationships. Considering most guilds will be in the ballpark of 25 to 50 active players, that seemingly doesn’t allow for players to form connections beyond the confines of their Crowfall guilds.

What are the implications of this theory then, when looking at Crowfall? What could they do to solve this? I am uncertain after reading this theory if Crowfall truly needs an interconnected community to succeed. I believe at the minimum, Crowfall will require healthy guilds to provide the competition for one another. Perhaps that’s enough. Perhaps.


Started playing MMORPGs back on AOL in Neverwinter Nights Online around 1996 and has been a passionate advocate for the genre ever since. Currently an admitted Crowfall obsessed-fan; leading a Crowfall-exclusive stealth-first guild Obsidian, managing a web-magazine Stealthed (@stealthedBlog). He is also the project manager of the Malekai Project; a community-driven open-sourced API for sharing Crowfall related content.

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