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Ashes of Creation Gamescom 2018 Interview: Responding to Criticism

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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Ashes of Creation is an ambitious dream. It calls back to many of the classic MMO principles, such as truly massively multiplayer experiences and a world that can be shaped by the players. Sensing these were being under-served in more recent titles, serial entrepreneur Steven Sharif decided to put his money where his mouth is and invested his own millions into founding Intrepid Studios. Today, with the experience of Alpha Zero behind them and Alpha Phase 1 coming up next month, that dream is starting to become reality.

It’s also a passion project that’s attracted a fair amount of criticism. Players have become wary of backing Kickstarter projects that drag on for years or deliver nothing but disappointment. Developers themselves have had doubts about signing on with an unproven firm, especially considering the recent memories surrounding 38 Studios. In full disclosure, I had similar doubts myself and ended up cancelling my pledge before Intrepid’s Kickstarter campaign closed.

But time moves on, and Intrepid’s focus on producing and delivering Ashes of Creation has begun to address those concerns. In a development-focused interview at Gamescom 2018, I asked Sharif (now Creative Director), lead designer Jeffrey Bard, and My.com (Intrepid’s European publishing partner) head of products Volker Boenigk about that initial skepticism, how they’re overcoming it, and what’s planned for the next testing phase. Sharif also shared that the development roadmap will be shared as part of a panel at PAX West, at 10:30 on Saturday.

Volker Boenigk, Steven Sharif and Jeffrey Bard

MMORPG: How do you respond to some of the early skepticism that surrounded the early project?

Steven Sharif: Obviously with the way that crowdfunding has gone over the past several years, having projects that promise the world and either under-deliver or don’t deliver at all, or they take years upon years past their delivery date and nobody knows if they’re still going to make it, we understood that there was a certain stigma with going the crowdfunding route.

We didn’t go crowdfunding in order to fund the project; I’m personally funding the entire project. What we did instead was we wanted to capitalise on both the marketing opportunity that a platform like Kickstarter provided, as well as our mandate from the very beginning to make sure that this development was as in touch with the community as possible. And there is no greater source of transparency and community involvement than to leverage that crowdfunding opportunity that Kickstarter provided.

Because we weren’t reliant on it from a funding perspective, it was OK to us that people were going to naturally be skeptical. They were going to have a stigma associated with anything crowdfunded, based on the history that had come before us. And we understood that and we’re OK with it. If they wanted to simply watch the project instead of investing or purchasing a package on Kickstarter, that was OK.

And they weren’t penalised for it, because we were true to our word from a package perspective and a rewards perspective, in the sense that there was nothing pay to win. There’s no advantage to someone that backed the project a year ago, compared to someone that will start on day one with just a subscription. That was important for us to make sure it was distinguishable between the players that what they were seeing was not pay-to-win oriented, and that if they wanted to just watch the progress, they are welcome to do so.

If they want to bring their voice to the community in the meantime, even if they’ve not purchased a product, we invite them to bring their voice as well. Watch our open development process, see the progress that we’re making, and become a part of our community.

Jeffrey Bard: Also, Steven has also surrounded himself with veterans that know how to make MMOs. We have lots of conversations, Steven’s very open about his knowledge of the game design process. Steven goes “Hey, is this a possible thing that we can do? What kind of impact is this system that I want to see in the game going to have on the game?” And we can tell him, based on our experience, exactly how long it’s going to take, how many people we’re going to need to make it happen, and how much time we’ll need to see that in the game.

In the office, it’s very much a collaborative process. It’s not just [Sharif] saying ‘Let’s do all the things!’, it’s more ‘I would like to do these things, what do you guys think about them and how do we do it best?’ It’s been a great give-and-take process, and it’s how we’ve gotten to the point we are now.

MMORPG: It sounds like you want the moon on a stick.

Bard: We want the moon on a stick, don’t get us wrong, right?

Sharif: We have a clear, definitive way to get the moon on a stick. [laughs]

MMORPG: By the same token, how did it impact your ability to hire developers?

Sharif: This is probably the first time that anyone would hear something along these lines, but obviously, not just having the stigma associated with crowdfunding, but the stigma associated with one super-rich guy coming forward to make his passion, right? It’s been done before and it crashed and burned with 38 Studios.

When we were trying to hire developers, that was a question we got a lot. Now, however, with a few years under our belt, with an alpha under our belt, and now with our announcement of a global publishing partner, and what is soon to be an announcement coming forward with our Asian partners that we’ll make, it’s a much different situation. We literally have resumes pouring into the studio for very talented developers, which we’re very happy to have, because the team size is going to grow up to about 200. Right now, we’re just over 100 developers on the project.

MMORPG: You’ve had to go through some growing pains in your development stance to accommodate that.

Sharif: Yes, absolutely. Early on, when we had less than 30 developers, we were in more of a waterfall structure project management. Now that we have over a hundred, we shifted at that 50-person mark into more of an agile sprint-related project management, which was a necessity. We found that it really helps.

Bard: It keeps everybody in the project plugged in to what’s happening, everyone stays on-track and in-lane, and we see progress every two weeks. We know exactly where we are on the project, what we need to do, and where things might be going wrong so we can course-correct very quickly.

Sharif: And as you know, an MMORPG is the largest possible game project you can make, so there’s a lot of moving parts, and agile allows us to compartmentalise those parts into achievable sprints where you’re making progress regularly, rather than having this giant waterfall.

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Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.