On the Saturday of PAX shortly after lunch I had what is probably one of the coolest experiences yet since I started writing for MMORPG.com - I got a chance to sit down CEO / Creative Director Steven Sharif and Lead Game Designer Jeffrey Bard to talk about Ashes of Creation, an ambitious upcoming MMORPG that has a good portion of the community waiting on bated breath in anticipation. The interview followed their PAX West Panel which was live streamed on Twitch - watch it here (start at 10 minutes).
The development team for Ashes of Creation has experienced an almost exponential growth in members. They began with 20-25 members, have around 100 team members now and plan to be over 200 by next year. One of the most amazing things about this growth is that the team still manages to keep up a breakneck paces when it comes from ideas to implementation. Despite the growing number of people they still manage to go from “Hey I have an idea” to “Here’s the prototype” in a matter of day and Jeff Bard says a large part of that is working within the Unreal Engine in addition to carefully selecting team members who both share the same mindspace as the creators as well as the ability to work at this accelerated pace. Steven added in that passion is one of the most important attributes to look before, because passion usually translates into commitment. One of their favorite things to ask are what a potential developer’s favorite games is. If you’re curious Jeff loves the Deus Ex series and his favorite MMO was his first: Anarchy Online. Steven was a huge fan of Lineage 2, reminiscing that for hardcore players it ticked all the boxes, but when it came to something non-MMO he’s been playing the Civilization games since he was 7.
Character and Server Identity
One of the big things that’s been lost in modern MMOs is an attachment to your character and your characters identity. For example when I played Everquest my character had an identity and that identity was known on the server. You made real investments (with EverQuest that was usually massive amounts of tedious time) that translated into you being known for something; maybe you were known for creating certain kinds of bows, or being the best healer around. The point is this feeling of attachment has become lost and Jeff and Steven are both very passionate about getting it back. The philosophy behind the development with Ashes of Creation is that this attachment and identity comes from you having to make serious risk versus reward choices in the development of your character.
This kind of decision starts early with decided your archetype. There are a lot of games where you can switch this around, or where getting a new character to end game is a trivial process (like paying $60 for a character boost). In addition there’s a slew of other choices that can and should be made that will make your character feel real. You may be a mayor and deciding what buildings will be erected to the exclusion of others - with real consequences from your citizens - or deciding to climb the ranks of the thieves or scholars guild which makes you less reputable with the opposing guild and blocks off their content.
Another aspect of this identity came from the fact that servers just weren’t overly huge. It was possible to run into the same people over and over again in dungeons or while out exploring. In Ashes, cross-server content will be very limited. Something like a PvP arena might be cross server, but Steven believes that server identity is equally important to character identity in the development of creating a sense of impact on a player. Because of how their node systems work and the fact that the world will be shaped by players it’s very possible that one server may have access to a dungeon that another does not. Matchmaking across these servers wouldn’t make sense in that regard: how could you do a dungeon that your server doesn’t have access to? Additionally it would ruin the server identity. As a player you’re going to be able to look at different servers and see that one may be very aggressive and PvP focused while the other is all about advancing a story line. Once that gets mixed up with cross server content you will lose that identity and it will become hard to discern individual server histories. This does have a downfall in that playing with friends across servers will likely not ever be something players will be able to do, though Jeff did mention that the ability to talk with friends across the servers will be present.
Something Ashes of creation is doing VERY differently than just about any other developer is being so open and forthcoming with their development process - something they call a double-edged sword. Jeff said it can be hard at times because they know what’s coming up in the process or the development cycle, but it’s lost on people watching videos who are shouting the loudest. He mentions the idea of the disconnected viewer - which are usually the most vocal - and described them as people who don’t really follow the development of the game but watch a video here and there along the way. They don’t participate in forums where there’s a heavy communication presence with developers and as such just should about things. He’s a proof is in the pudding type of guy, however, and is sure once these same people see the final product they’ll be shouting just as loudly at how amazing it is.
The overarching philosophy being hammered in is to know your audience and the best way to know your audience is to keep an open window into development and get fans in early - the earlier the better. They gave the example of the first combo system they tried and how almost literally no one like it - and that was okay. That system still exists and is waiting for more iterations to be implemented and tested again. But in the end if people hate it, it will just be taken out. Steven and Jeff have very finite ideas about what an MMORPG should be but when it comes down to the granular mechanics of gameplay they aren’t so married to any idea that player testing and feedback will be ignored.
Talking of development led us right into an area I was really anxious to cover: combat. The first type of combat we saw in Alpha Zero was tabbed targeted. A lot of people were upset because they didn’t know that next up was going to be action-oriented - which we’ll be seeing exclusively in Alpha 1. The end goal is to merge the two into a hybrid system of combat after Alpha 1 has polished the action side of things. I initially imagined systems like Guild Wars 2 but couldn’t have been more wrong. They flat out hated the idea of comparing it to any other game for two reasons: One, they aren’t trying to mirror or copy anything and two, the system they are trying to deliver is going to be different than anything done before. Of course I wanted an example.
Players in Ashes of Creation will look at their skill tree and see both action skills and tab targeted skill being available - for whatever level they are at. You’ll have to make a decision, of sorts, on how you want combat to feel for you. If you’re a tanky type you might take a charge ability that’s action oriented and a cover/shield ability that’s tab targeted. So now you have these two abilities and you’re looking around with your group members and see a monster and with one button click you’re charging into combat. In the middle of your charge you target your fellow group member with your F2 key and cast your cover/shield ability on them. In this way you’ve pulled off something tactical that’s utilized an action oriented skill and a tab targeted skill - effectively doing two things at once.
It’s important to note that none of the skills are one to one across action and tabbed. You won’t find a charge that’s action-oriented and another that’s tabbed. They’ll exist in one spot or the other and abilities will be balanced with their type in mind. In a tooltip an action ability might look like it does more damage because of various accounts that need to be made including missing via human error, etc while a tabbed seems lower because there’s no chance of missing who you have targeted. It’s the purpose of all the testing to find that balance. The two styles will also combo off each-other to dissuade against people making all action-oriented raids or groups, or all tab targeted. If you ignore one for the other you lose out on the ability to combo off each other for extra damage or group buffs.