Many MMORPG developers have promised to twist the genre into new and more adventurous shapes. Those games have rarely held their form, however, losing their sharper ideas over the course of development to become less defined. It’s still unusual to see a new MMO that, for the most part, doesn’t resemble its traditional forebears.
Ashes of Creation, by contrast, makes change feel like a real prospect. The promise of a different kind of MMO won it 19,576 backers on Kickstarter in June 2017. This is a high fantasy world where players won’t be beholden to the plotline of a pre-written faction, but carve out their own futures. It’ll be a land in which players build their own cities and fight wars rooted in real rivalries.
Could Intrepid's ambitious creation join the ranks of the best MMOs on PC?
However: a different kind of MMO requires different kinds of systems, and new technical solutions. Over 100 people have worked on Ashes of Creation so far, using Unreal Engine 4 to mould the MMO into a new image they think the gaming population will take to.
Within six months of Ashes of Creation’s successful Kickstarter campaign, the team at Intrepid Studios had brought the game to a state of ‘alpha zero’. This was a huge technical test. The studio knew Unreal Engine 4 would grant it graphical fidelity, but the team wanted to find out whether it could handle the massively multiplayer scale that was needed - thousands of players and NPCs on a dedicated server.
“They’ve made a lot of advancements with the massively multiplayer work that’s been put towards Fortnite, and we're seeing the fruit of that labour in recent versions of the game,” Ashes of Creation creative director Steven Sharif tells us. “We have 2,500 participants in our alpha zero. It’s a 16 square kilometre zone with progression up to level ten. It does persist.”
That last point is a pertinent one. If you’ve played an MMORPG, you’ll have noticed they tend not to feature the permanent consequences their offline equivalents are famed for. Working within hard limits, MMO developers have learned to think reductively - making trade-offs between components like persistence, player numbers, world size, physics, and AI. More often that not, player numbers and world size have won out.
“Before we hit our due date for alpha zero delivery, we were hitting some challenges with regards to having 4,000 NPCs active at one time with nav meshes running and their AI components online,” Sharif says. “There were challenges, absolutely.”
When Ashes of Creation launches, it’ll be making use of a cloud-based solution that allows Intrepid to branch processes off into separate servers. But for alpha zero, the studio wanted to prove it could all work on a single dedicated server.
“Being able to achieve it was good, because you always aim for the most difficult and then rarely does the most difficult become the actual norm,” Sharif notes. “At a given time, we had 100 players in a single area, with 4,000 NPCs on the server and things were just fine. That was really important for us.”
Supporting your local economy
One of Ashes of Creation’s few real precedents is Eve Online. While Eve is a space-based game about corporate subterfuge and fleet battles, it embraces local economies run by players, not developers.
“A similar aspect with regards to our economy is that we don’t have a global auction house,” Sharif points out. “We don’t have a global warehouse for resources, so while you may be able to put your staff or your sword in your warehouse and grab it somewhere else, you can’t put iron ore [in there] and grab it somewhere else.”
This sacrifice in convenience creates whole new play scenarios for Ashes of Creation. Moving that iron ore is a matter of hiring a caravan to transport it from one city to the next. Since some regions will be richer in iron than others, trade routes will become focal points for the fighting.
“Some people might think that’s a hardcore interaction because it lends itself towards a more PvP community, and in that sense you’re going to have niche space,” Sharif says. “But the reality is that it is just one component of our game.”
Despite its systemic approach to creating stories and action, Ashes of Creation will also include a “huge reservoir” of content - quests, dungeons, and 40-person raids.
“I think one of the big things about sandboxes and where they’ve gone wrong over the past decade is that many of the designers use the term sandbox as an excuse not to create curated content,” Sharif says. “That’s really a problem, because in order for decisions and choices that a player makes to feel meaningful, there has to be content behind the door that you open.”
This is the exciting paradox of Ashes of Creation - a brand new shape of MMO, pieced together from components that, in isolation, look pretty familiar.
“There are definitely some hardcore principals,” Sharif admits. “But there are very casual friendly principals as well.”
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and Intrepid Studios.