How Intrepid Studios is Looking to Reinvent the MMORPG with Ashes of Creation
The massively multiplayer online role playing game is a unique beast. Filled with fantastical promises of vibrant communities and personal impact through triumphant questing that will connect one’s own legacy to deeply-developed lore, the genre offers an enticing blend of rich narrative, communal involvement and engaging interactivity. However, the grand ideas of even the greatest MMORPGS are ultimately beholden to the limitations of the technologies that facilitate them, leaving lovers of the genre to find the balance between their lofty expectations and their actual experiences.
Armed with a staff of industry veterans, innovative ideas and the power and flexibility of Unreal Engine 4, Intrepid Studios is now looking to reinvent the genre with Ashes of Creation - an open-world, non-faction based, no pay to win, high-fantasy MMORPG. To accomplish this, the team at Intrepid is introducing several interesting mechanics that influence a variety of the game’s core systems. Rethinking everything from the way in which players build (and destroy) civilizations to how they engage with the economies that define and drive them is no small task, but the team at Intrepid has been encouraged by enormous support from the MMORPG community on Kickstarter in their effort to deliver a great experience that has the potential to reinvent the genre.
I recently caught up with Intrepid Studios’ Creative Director Steven Sharif to find out more about the origin of Ashes of Creation, how he hopes the project defines a new era of MMORPG and the impact Unreal Engine is having on development.
Q: How did the initial concept for Ashes of Creation come about?
I’ve always been a bit of an RPG Tabletop nerd, and I always loved to Dungeon Master a solid sandbox campaign for my groups over the years. The story for Ashes of Creation comes from a world that I created for my RPG group. I am personally very focused on story and lore, and it’s a passion of mine to create heroes and villains that tell a compelling tale. The setting of a fantasy universe is my favorite place to be when it comes to imagination and creating that world with its backstory is a personal joy of mine.
The Node system, which is our most unique system when it comes to the player’s experience in an MMORPG, has for many years been an idea of mine. I can’t pinpoint where or when exactly this idea of mine came to be, but I know that it was sometime around 2002. I always felt that it would be an interesting concept to give the players the tools to interact with a narrative and to determine the structure of a virtual world. It's something I had never seen done before in an MMORPG, to the extent that we are doing it.
Q: From Nodes to Caravans, how is Ashes of Creation looking to implement fresh ideas that excite the MMORPG community?
The ultimate promise of MMORPGs up until now has always been more than designers could fulfill. Part of that is because they’re huge games that require a lot of attention to bring to market, and ambition often needs to be constrained. Part of it is the technology side, an MMO requires a powerful backbone in terms of network architecture and servers, and developers have often run up against physical impossibility, again requiring the promise to be scaled back. The final failure of the promise is that because of the first two, the genre has fallen into a rut. There are certain systems that have become synonymous with MMOs because of these constraints, not because those systems represent good design. It becomes hard for new entries to push against that inertia, because what is an MMO without those systems?
To get out of that rut, we’ve tried to throw away everything we know about MMOs and start fresh. We don’t implement anything without going through this process:
A: Are we putting this system into the game because it’s what we expect from an MMO?
B: If we are, then let’s break down that system, and see why it’s considered fundamental.
C: If, after examination, it seems more like a mistake of history than something we can do better another way, we do it another way, or get rid of it entirely.
When you look at your systems with a critical eye, you’ll find that the reason MMOs haven’t evolved all that much is because, “This is how it’s always been done.” And once you’re aware of that, it gives you a lot of freedom to find new ways of doing things that work better than the old ways.
Q: Can you speak to the unique world creation and destruction elements that are central to Ashes of Creation’s experience?
The main way content is going to be propagated through the world is through our Node system, which we’ve spoken at length about on our YouTube channel and our Twitch stream (which you should check out!). Basically, as players level, they will also be leveling up the local area that they’re playing in. As that area levels up, more civilization moves in, forming camps, villages, cities and metropolises. These different levels will provide more services, more quests, and cause other events in the world at large to happen. This might include opening up dungeons, disturbing long forgotten necropolises, or awakening a sleeping dragon.
On the destruction side of things, players will have the ability to siege these nodes and tear them down, removing civilization from that part of the world, and enabling it to grow somewhere else. This cycle of civilization rising and falling is a core part of the engine that keeps players moving and engaged with the game, because though something is lost in the destruction, it gives opportunity for something to be gained elsewhere.
Q: What can players expect from the character creation and customization aspects of Ashes of Creation?
We’re big on customization here, and we’re going to be offering plenty of ways to make your character exactly what you want it to be. The character creation suite will be fully-functional, and we’re going to have plenty of options when it comes to clothing, tattoos, hair styles, colors, and races, so you can nail exactly that look you’re going for.
Q: From both a technical and creative perspective, can you give us some insight into how you are building the game’s economy systems?
Economy is one of our design pillars. It’s something we want to be an active part of the game’s character, and is something that we’re using to drive a lot of content. In order to bring it to the forefront, we need it to be bigger and more robust than more traditional MMO economies, which usually just means a global auction house, and not much more.
Our markets are going to be regional, which means that they aren’t connected to each other. By doing this, each market is going to have its own character, and there will be reasons to seek out more favorable markets for your particular character’s goods. Because resources will shift locations as they’re exhausted, this will keep people moving about the world, seeking out the best resources for their crafting builds, and the best markets for their goods. To move these goods en masse will require the use of Caravans, which can carry far more than an individual player, but that also carry with them a mobile open PVP zone. Those who launch the Caravan must defend it from other players who want to take what is theirs, and the further they need to go, the more risk it entails.
Again, the goal here is to continue to provide situations where player stories can flourish, where conflict and cooperation comes not by us prescribing it, but from the way in which players engage the sandbox we’ve given them.
Q: The world of Ashes of Creation seems very vibrant and detailed. Considering the game’s housing mechanic, will players have the capability to craft, loot or otherwise acquire items to outfit their homes?
Yes! Earlier we spoke about character customization, but home building will have plenty of options too. Furniture sets, trophies, baubles, curtains, pets and more will all be things you can acquire to decorate your personal abode. Many will be provided by crafters, some as loot you can acquire from the world at large, and others will be available from the marketplace. We understand that your home is a big part of sharing your identity, and we want people to be able to show that off.
Q: Why did you choose Unreal Engine 4 for this project?
As an independent studio, we needed an off the shelf solution that could properly scale to the size of the game we wanted to make. It also needed to be as low fuss as possible, because we were targeting an aggressive schedule - ease of use was a very high priority on our list of needs. It also needed to be proven, which Unreal is, having been used in games across the industry, in a wide variety of genres. Once we started testing it out in the studio, it became obvious why this is so, and became our top choice without reservation. We haven’t looked back.
"Unreal Engine 4 gives us the power to think big, to implement big, and to always be moving forward on our project."
Unreal Engine, providing strong support for the engine as well as allowing for access to the source code, gives us the ability to customize aspects of the engine that we need to perform differently for our designs. All in all, it’s the best engine on the market from both a performance and customization standpoint. Bravo.
Q: Are there any particular aspects of Unreal Engine 4 that have benefitted the team throughout development?
The speed at which content can be created and implemented is… unreal. And this isn’t just on the design side either, our animators love the Apex integration, and setting up blendspaces and state machines is a cinch. I’ll let one of our Environment Artists, Jon Arellano, talk about his side of things:
“The Unreal Engine itself is so easy to navigate and the way everything functions really allows for one person to accomplish so much. Being an environment artist, the more control I have over the overall scene the better. Unreal Engine allows for so much customization within the engine’s shaders and mesh imports that gives me the freedom to create some complex assets quickly and easily. Things like the Landscape tool, Material Editor, post-process volumes, and effect emitters are all tools that come with the engine by default. Things I may normally need a programmer or another artist to create can easily be researched thanks to the community and tutorials that come along with the engine. UE4 just offers so much that makes it easier on the artists. It provides the tools needed to create such beautiful content simply and quickly.”
This means we can do much more with much less.
Q: How does Unreal Engine 4 allow you to bring new concepts and gameplay elements to the genre?
Again, this goes back to speed. Big systems can be implemented quickly, which means we can iterate and experiment without dedicating huge amounts of resources to R&D. We can design, test and implement in a matter of hours or days, and if something isn’t working or isn’t fun, we can modify or throw it away without feeling like we’ve wasted a lot of time or money. If we didn’t have the flexibility that speed offers, we’d have to commit to safer design decisions in order to manage costs. Unreal Engine 4 gives us the power to think big, to implement big, and to always be moving forward on our project.
Q: What can you tell us about the game’s story? Is there a central antagonist that all players will ultimately be attempting to tackle?
Long ago, the world of Ashes was besieged by a great calamity. Your ancestors were forced to flee their world through these great divine gateways, seeking refuge in a place void of magic. The gateways dimmed shortly after this exodus, and were buried under the rubble of countless conflicts over vast periods of time. Centuries turned to millennia, history into legend. After all this time, the people have forgotten the stories of their past. Until now. The gateways have once again begun to move, what was buried and forgotten, has now risen to the surface. The nations of the world have begun to send expeditions through these portals, to re-discover their past and explore this great new world.
In Ashes of Creation, you start out in the world having come back through the Great Divine Gateways. You come from a non-magical world, where many nations and races exist. These pioneers have different goals and objectives. You have arrived to rediscover, rebuild and repopulate this world of your origin. Ancient treasures await those who dare to disturb the darkness, remnants of the evil that decimated your ancestors.
In Ashes, we have an overarching story that players participate in as both an individual and a member of your server’s community. Your choices influence that narrative. This narrative includes a group of central antagonists that drive the action, but you’ll have to play the game to find out more about them!
Q: Why was bringing the project to Kickstarter important for your overall goals and why do you think the reception has been so amazing?
When I set out to make Ashes of Creation, it was important to me that players had an opportunity to participate in the development. So many times, myself as a player, I would get upset to see a company not listen to the desires and ideals of the MMORPG community. And we have been let down time and again by promises that were never fulfilled. So many of these were titles that were just interested in how much money they could take from the players. It was wrong. That ignited a fire in me, to step up and do this thing right. And in my opinion there is no greater way for me to involve the community than what crowdsourcing offers. People who are as passionate as we are get to involve themselves in the development process. Crowdsourcing also forces a company to be transparent during the project’s development, or else you are not going to perform very well with the crowdsourcing effort.
I believe that Ashes has really resonated with the MMORPG community because we are sticking to some core principles that players want to see. We’ve explained our design pillars, our philosophy, and where we come from as players. We left it all on the table, as clearly and as openly as we could, and from the response I think it shows that we’re making the game that people really want to see. I really believe that’s all there is to it, people have been hungry for an MMO that moves the genre forward, and that’s what we’re doing.
Q: Thanks for your time! Where can people go to learn more about the project?
You can check our our website at www.ashesofcreation.com, or our YouTube channel. Be sure to check out our Kickstarter too if you’re as excited as we are about getting this project out into the world!