A chat with Ashes of Creation's Steven Sharif
Since the halcyon days of Double Fine Adventure just a few years ago, Kickstarter has faded as a legitimate source of revenue for video game companies. While some veteran developers and spiritual sequels can still find success on Kickstarter, it's the last place one would expect to find a multi-million dollar MMORPG by a brand new studio.
Intrepid Studios has discovered an audience who is hungry for their upcoming title Ashes of Creation, an ambitious MMORPG that promises an impressive degree of player involvement within the politics, economy, and history of the world. The Kickstarter campaign surged to over $1 million after 36 hours. The campaign wrapped up last week with nearly 20,000 backers pledging over $3.2 million.
I spoke with Intrepid Studios' founder and Creative Director Steven Sharif, who has been playing MMORPGs for two and a half decades. "My first MMORPG was Neverwinter on AOL when I was seven years old," says Sharif. "I've always had a passion for MMORPGs -- it's my favorite genre. Intrepid Studios was born out of my frustration for the direction the MMORPG genre was going into: monetization tactics like pay-to-win and cash-grab games."
Sharif put together a team of veteran MMORPG developers, from big companies like SOE, 2K, and Treyarch and MMORPGs like Everquest, Vanguard, and Star Wars: Galaxies. Despite an impressive resume, Intrepid Studios is an untested developer with a new IP promising to make one of the biggest MMORPGs I have seen.
Ashes of Creation was first announced back in December 2016 after it had already been in development for a year. Since then, Intrepid Studios has been hard at working building a community through regular updates, blog posts, and in-game footage. "We went to Kickstarter having already developed that community," said Sharif. "You can't crowdsource if you don't have a crowd!"
By the time the Kickstarter campaign launched, Intrepid Studios was prepared with a constant stream of pre-alpha footage, developer interviews, and community Q&A's. "I knew before coming to Kickstarter it was important for us to show a lot. The atmosphere around Kickstarter is very stigmatized," Sharif admits. "With a crowdfunding venue there has to be trust between the players and developers, an open window of transparency where people can see exactly what you have done, what is the potential for success, and what is your investment on the developer's end in regards to the project."
Nodes of Creation
The name "Ashes of Creation" refers to the state of the game's world. The world has reverted to a wild, pre-civilized state after an apocalyptic calamity. The players arrive as refugees from another world through portals. This new world features a cycle of death and rebirth, not just for the players but for entire parts of the game, thanks to the unique Node system.
Certain areas within the world are designated as "nodes." These nodes represent the growth of civilization within the wilderness. They are capable of growing and evolving as the players around them complete quests, gather resources, and kill monsters.
"Normally," says Sharif, "a brand new player will experience everything the same way as those who came before. In our world there is actual linear history. A player may join a few months after someone else and experience a completely different environment."
Nodes can grow from small hamlets to sprawling metropolises, but players cannot blanket the fantasy world with an urban sprawl. Leveling up a node will lock out its neighboring nodes from advancing, and each node-city will offer specialized services selected by the players.
If some players are unhappy with these choices, they are free to organize a war-party and lay siege to the town. Nodes can be razed back to zero, allowing for new and different nodes to be built upon the ashes.
"The developers should never have to step in if we design appropriately," Sharif reassured me. "There are mechanics in place to prevent abuse and prevent gaming the system." Ashes of Creation hopes to channel PVP interactions into organized battlegrounds around nodes, caravans, and other prominent resources and locations.
"My favorite MMORPG memories were not related to what ride I rode from a designer," says Sharif, "But how I interacted with the community. A great war between groups, alliances that were formed, how we lost a castle. Those were the most preeminent memories I had."
Mix and Match Classes
When it comes to skills and abilities, every player starts by selecting a primary class or archetype from the traditional mix of Fighter, Ranger, Mage, etc. Eight archetypes will be available. Ashes of Creation will let you select a secondary archetype later on, letting you either double-down on your chosen role or expand your repertoire.
The secondary archetype lets you augment the skills of the first. For example, taking Mage as your secondary archetype lets you add a teleportation effect to your Fighter's Rush skill, letting you instantly teleport to your foe. Alternatively a Rogue's augmentation would grant invisibility during your Rush attack. "It takes another archetype and blends a bit of flavor into your primary skill set," adds Sharif.
The double-class system allows for a large amount of variety and customization, expanding the number of classes far beyond the initial eight archetypes. Your class name would reflect your combination. A Rogue-Ranger is called a Predator, while a Tank-Cleric would be a Paladin.
Sharif stresses that the addition of secondary classes will act as horizontal progression rather than vertical, meaning that no choice is the correct one and all paths should be viable.
Ashes of Creation won't necessarily forgo the holy trinity of Tank-Healer-DPS that has become a mainstay of every modern MMORPG, but the secondary class system allows each player to custom-build a role that best suits their play style.
The world of Ashes of Creation is a traditional high fantasy setting with elves, dwarves, and orcs. Intrepid Studios plans on tackling a few new aspects to the fantasy genre, particularly with a new underground area called the Underrealm.
The Underrealm was unlocked as a Kickstarter stretch goal at $1.75 million. It won't just be a big dungeon— it'll be a second entire world that lies beneath the surface. Nodes will be available, allowing players to build up vast underground cities, as well as farm unique crops and own underground housing.
"We plan to have the Underrealm really pervasive throughout the game itself, a part of the open world," said Sharif. "It will introduce some unique elements such as the type of monsters you see, the type of crops you can grow and houses you can have."
While many developers still only share development information through carefully curated press releases and announcements, Intrepid Studios has embraced open development. "I think that we live in an age where it's easy to be transparent if you're not trying to hide something," said Sharif. "The downside is if you're showing something that's not a completed or finished product it is incumbent upon the viewer to understand that fact."
Ultimately, Sharif believes the benefits outweigh the risk when it comes to open development. "I love being engaged with the community. If what you're producing is good, it's easy to show it."
The response to Ashes of Creation has been overwhelmingly positive. "It's been unbelievable, an amazing response" said Sharif. "Discord had to give us a special increase after we hit the 15,000 cap. We've had almost 150,000 registered users in less than five months."
Three million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but development on Ashes of Creation will actually cost Intrepid Studios $30 million. That's private funding, meaning ideally Kickstarter would handle about 10% of the total budget. "The marketing aspect and community development [of Kickstarter] are important to an MMORPG," Sharif says. "A game like this takes time and we want to have active, engaging members who are invested in the development of the community and feel proud when it launches. Kickstarter allows for those things to occur."
Intrepid Studios is planning on hosting their friends and family closed alpha this October. Another closed alpha will follow. The beta is tentatively planned for later next year, with a stress test open beta directly before launch. Ashes of Creation is technically planned for a December 2018 release, but Sharif cautions that it's difficult to estimate at this point.
With as much as Ashes of Creation promises, it's understandable to be skeptical. "I one hundred percent understand the stigma associated with crowdsourcing," notes Sharif. "For me as a gamer, part of my reason for doing this project was because of being let down."
If you're not confident enough to back them on Kickstarter, Sharif is confident he'll win you over when the game is live. "I think the Golden Age of MMORPGs has yet to come," he says. "I believe Ashes of Creation will lead the genre into that Golden Age, and I can't wait to be a part of those memories that we're all going to create together."