Ashes of Creation’s Steven Sharif on his business history, $30M funding goal, and PvP

As I put this piece together Thursday morning, Ashes of Creation’s Kickstarter has far exceeded its $750,000 goal, surging along toward stretch goals with a promise to launch what amounts to a full-scale MMORPG with sandboxy territory and PvP just a few short years from now. But since the launch of the Kickstarter a few days ago, would-be backers have dug into the history of the company and cast doubt on the validity of the campaign.

To set the record straight, we spoke again with Intrepid’s Creative Director and CEO Steven Sharif to get clarity on his business past, the nature of the game’s affiliate plans, the state of staffing, the scope of the budget, and even some details on the PvP system and business model. Read on.

Massively OP: Our commenters have been linking some of the Reddit concerns about Sharif’s background, and while some of it appears baseless, Sharif himself has admitted that he formerly participated in a non-gaming multi-level marketing business before moving on to real estate. While Sharif has characterized that company as legal, detractors are basically saying it was tantamount to a scam, drawing the conclusion that this Kickstarter can’t be trusted. Could you clarify the nature of the MLM and convince backers that Intrepid is on the level?

Ashes of Creation’s Steven Sharif: Yea, it saddens me to see a lie spread about me. When I was 18, I was recruited to join an MLM company called XanGo. XanGo sold nutritional products, a fruit juice and vitamins. I started a website store to sell these products to customers, and my website was very successful. XanGo is still around today as a company and after 14 years I think has done over 3 billion in sales and is open in 50+ countries. Yes they are an MLM, and I understand that people dislike MLM because some companies focus on recruitment of people instead of sales of a product. But companies like Avon, Marykay and XanGo really focused on selling a product, what you would find at a Whole Foods store, or Health Store.

So when I was 24, I began to get involved in investments and also in real estate, which is where I saw most of my success. I still am involved in those heavily today, but my primary focus now is in developing Ashes of Creation into an MMORPG that my true heart’s passion is focused on. Throughout my life I have always loved gaming, and it was my dream to create something that my fellow community of gamers could be proud of.

I also saw some Redditors claiming that the AoC staff has that SOE pedigree but is relatively inexperienced, casting shade on their qualifications based on old Linkedin resumes. I know you addressed that on Reddit — could you clarify their experience and your staff setup here? Do you have 12 principals or 12 total — and how will you be expanding the team into areas where you need help? How many people do you anticipate hiring and in which fields? How will you be able to ramp up staffing quickly enough to have an alpha and then launch on your proposed timeline? (I’m thinking of how difficult City State found staffing to be.)

Yeah sure, I was pretty surprised by that thread because we’ve got some really experienced guys here who have put a lot of blood and sweat into their careers, and to sell them short that way does them a disservice. LinkedIn is a terrible way to try to get the full picture of any individual, because it depends on the individual’s engagement of it. It feels so weird to have to defend a person’s LinkedIn, but it’s an opt-in service that is wholly dependent on a person’s need to use it along with their networking goals. A lot of these guys haven’t had to use it much, because the industry is actually pretty small and designers and artists often rely on their own networks to get the word out. When hiring this group, I relied on references, resumes, and actual published game credits to construct it. I couldn’t make this game with a rag-tag team of inexperienced know-nothings. At the end of the day though, even the resume doesn’t matter much, it’s what they actually do that matters.

“I couldn’t make this game with a rag-tag team of inexperienced know-nothings.”
We have 14 people total, across a wide range of disciplines. Our Technical Director, Jason Crawford was deeply involved in the backends of EverQuest II, Planetside 2, and EverQuest Next, and was a principal coder on KillSwitch over at SCEA (again working on network and server architecture). He’s got over ten years of experience working on MMO frameworks, and he’s one of a handful of people in this world that has his particular set of skills.

Our Lead Designer, Jeffrey Bard really is a bard of sorts, a full package guy, and has been involved in nearly every aspect of MMO production. Beyond design, he’s done customer support, QA, international operations and has been part of startups previously. He got into the MMO industry in 2003 at SOE and quickly rose through the ranks of leadership – that means he’s been knee deep in MMOs for over 14 years! Because of the breadth of his experience I don’t think there are too many people who have his perspective and understanding of all the pieces that make up an MMO. His contribution to this team has been priceless.

And Michael Bacon! This guy has been in games forever (since the ’90s) but regardless of his experience, his stuff looks amazing. He’s worked on the first two Saints Rows, some of the Duke Nukem games way back in the Playstation and Playstation 2 era, among so many others. He worked on nearly every EverQuest 2 expansion, which is a lot of them. He’s one of our rocks, extraordinarily experienced, and is one of the reasons why our game looks the way it does.

And that’s just three of our guys. I could go into it with the rest of the group, but suffice it to say, the team has been around the block, and I think what we’ve shown to our players continues to prove that out.

As far as staffing is concerned, we’re looking to double the size of the team by the end of the summer, and triple it by the end of the year. We want to grow organically and are focused on hiring people who fit our team and culture best. We haven’t run into any issues finding talent so far, and part of that is our location – San Diego, Orange County and LA all have huge pools of good people we can draw from.

Can you discuss the setup of your funding? How much capital has gone into the game so far, and where did it come from? How much is the whole game expected to cost, all told, and how does it compare to other recent Kickstarted MMOs? (Crowfall has raised $12M, for example.)

“A core viable build that includes all the features discussed about the game will take roughly $30 million to complete.”
The project is being funded by myself currently. This is going to be a bigger game, content-wise, than Crowfall, and our budget and funding reflects that. A core viable build that includes all the features discussed about the game will take roughly $30 million to complete. The Kickstarter and any other crowdfunding we might engage in is intended to add to that budget, for additional scope on certain systems we intend to reveal throughout development.

Is the characterization of the game as a bit of a vanity project built by a wealthy benefactor fair? Can you (Steven) discuss your own business expertise as it relates to building MMORPGs or games specifically? How many of the design decisions are being left to the pros with more development (rather than business) experience?

Vanity project? No. Passion project? Yes. First and foremost I am an MMORPG gamer. I have been since I first sat down at a computer. I had the fortunate circumstance in life, to become wealthy through hard work at a young age. A couple years ago, I got very fed up with what was happening to a genre that I love. So I decided to put my money where my heart is and do something about it. That is where Ashes of Creation comes in. All of the design decisions are made by myself. Before it becomes a decision, however, I ask my pros if it can be done, and done right with a reasonable cost. I learned early in my life, that there is nothing more valuable than advice from a pro, which is how I made my team. I found the pros on the projects I liked, and made sure that when I ask for advice, I trust the source.

Node contested.

Could you clarify how your referral system for the game will work? There’s a bit of a squabble over whether it should be considered a pyramid scheme. Even if it’s not (and for the record, we don’t think it is), are you convinced it is worth it for your image, when it seems to make so many people suspicious about how the game is being funded?

Suspicion is really unfair. And only being perpetuated by a small number of loud uninformed voices. Our referral system is basically an affiliate program, similar to many other online business, such as Amazon. Our referral system operates quite literally the opposite of a pyramid scheme. Pyramid schemes cost money to enter, sell no product and funnel money to the early participants. Our referral system costs no money to participate (You can use it and benefit without playing the game), it is focused around players who purchase a real product (our video game) and the more people use it, the less the early participants make.

“Our referral system is basically an affiliate program, similar to many other online business, such as Amazon. Our referral system operates quite literally the opposite of a pyramid scheme.”
Let me give an example. Bree is playing Ashes, and she wants Justin to come play with her. So she refers Justin to the game. Justin then tells his friends about it and brings 4 people to play the game. Bree has 1 referral Justin, who was spending $15 to play Ashes. Bree was being rewarded with 15% of what Justin was spending which = $2.25. Justin then found 4 friends to play, and is getting $9 from them. Justin then uses his $9 to reduce his subscription, and is now only paying $6 to play Ashes. Now Bree gets 15% of Justin’s $6 = $0.90.

The entire reason for this, is because of how the gaming industry currently markets games. They spend millions on marketing. Money that goes to big companies, and that is fine for the FPS, or Single Player RPG… But in an MMORPG community that is FOCUSED on the community, It just made more sense to me to offer that marketing money BACK to the community. To provide a way for players to play for free! Without needing the Pay 2 Win, Cash Grab monetization schemes that have been coming out of the genre lately. I am so disappointed to see people distorting it. Ugh.

You folks have said repeatedly that you’re not a gankbox and that your flagging system will sufficiently deter gank PvP. Can you explain exactly how? Most flagging systems aren’t really there to deter ganking but to outright prevent it, so I think maybe we have a terminology mismatch somehow? And if you’re trying to deter ganking, why not just make the whole system consensual to begin with? This is a huge sticking point with a lot of MMO players and potential backers, so I really hope you can address it.

More than anything, we want people to be able to address conflict in a direct way in the game. If there’s someone hogging resources or a monster or a dungeon, we want people to be able to solve that on their own. If it’s purely consensual, then players can hide behind the flag without consequence. If it’s purely open, then players can murder other players with reckless abandon. If instead, a player must consider the risk of corruption vs what they can potentially gain, then it gives those decisions more weight. Both the person being attacked and the person doing the attacking must weigh their individual risks in that situation, and we think it’s a more interesting game when there’s something like that at stake. I have played flagging systems like this before, a great example was Lineage 2. And it was rare to see red players. It had its flaws, but we’ve expanded on the flagging approach, and I feel confident that it will not result in a gankbox. But hey, we have testing to see how it goes! :)

In light of the fact that you’re a subscription game, why would you lock character customization options behind backer rewards? Will any of those be purchasable from the cash shop?

Staying away from P2W means that customization options will be one of our primary means of monetization. Yes, we do have a subscription, but we also need other streams of revenue to supplement that income, to continue to produce quality, polished content. This means that you will see things like premium haircuts, tattoos, costumes, skins and things of that nature in our cash shop. That being said, there’s not going to be a lack of options for players to customize their characters out of the box – I don’t think anyone is going to feel like there’s not enough, but for those who want some extras, our cash shop and backer rewards will get you there.

Will the citizenship system tether us to certain nodes/cities and make travel away from these areas prohibitive and penalizing?

Absolutely not. We want citizenship to be part of a character’s identity, but exploration away from cities is crucial for moving things forward. There’s nothing to penalize a character who travels to another city and participates in their markets or quests or events. We have lots of reasons for folks to consider their city their home base, but nothing that prevents them from ranging far and representing their city in distant lands.

There’s were Guild Wars 2 leaks [earlier this week] that suggest its next expansion is getting some epic class mastery names, things like Holosmith and Mirage and Renegade. Why go with such basic names [like Fighter and Cleric] in AoC, a game that is trying to revolutionize the genre?

We’re going with basic names for now so that people have a clear sense of what these classes are about and how we’re structuring things. Holosmith is a great name, but what does that class do? What is its role? It’s hard to tell without digging deeper. We already have some difficult systems to explain, so wherever we can make things easier for our players to understand, we’re taking it. These names will certainly change as we go forward, but for now, we’re keeping it functional so that we can clearly communicate what we’re doing at a glance.

We’d like to thank Sharif for his candid answers. If you want more on the game, scope out the ongoing Kickstarter and our past coverage of the game going all the way back to its accidental reveal last December.

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162 Comments on "Ashes of Creation’s Steven Sharif on his business history, $30M funding goal, and PvP"

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Dylan 537

To all the PVE players its really simple don’t play sandbox MMO’s and stop whining and complaining on forums about how there are no good MMO PVE only games cuz lets face the facts PVE MMo’s are basically a farming simulator that’s boring and short term because everyone eventually leaves to play the next farming simulator aka PVE only MMO. Realize the cycle.

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Nick

Yeah like WoW or Guild Wars or FF14 or Warframe or Neverwinter or EverQuest. Those games didn’t last long at all. All shut down with no one playing them. Yep.

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Chris Moss

I don’t care how good the game looks and sounds, if someone can freely kill me(and bullshit on the consequences detering them) I will not be playing. I can guess many other PVE’ers will stay away from this game too.

Go to any PVP game. I don’t care which, be it a PVP server on WOW or BDO’s open world pvp, if a player has the option to kill others, NO CONSEQUENCE WILL STOP THEM!!!!!!

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Leontes

Probably, but the end of my character’s weekend trip is not the end of the world. I’m pretty bad at PvP, and I generally try to avoid it. I like the tension, though, and as long as it’s no gankbox, I can live with the risks. I liked the early iterations of PvP-Servers in Rift and Aion, for example. Tortage in AoC ruined my day back then. Still kept playing and learned to love it.

Bottom line – just to set a contrast here: I suck at PvP, and seldom take part – but I’m still in for it. ;)

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Suikoden

Great interview. Nice work Bree. Thank you for the best journalism in the genre.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Good questions.

So after digging some info about this game I have another MMO prediction (and Im usually spot on in them). This game will be another EQ: Next and will never see a daylight. Mind you, I dont hate it, I like the concept and would love being proved wrong. But what we really have here? Director who never made not only an MMO, but never made a game in his life. Who now claims he wants to change the genre (yeah dude, bring it on). Then there is a small team that, no matter how he praises them, doesnt has a wealth of experience and where it has experience, its games like EQ2 and EQNext. Means not too impressive. He didnt even know his devs, just gathered them randomly on job sites. Then there is unknown budget that comes from director’s pockets, means if it grows too big, he could say any day “Screw this, Im not going broke over this”. Also I have a feeling they yet have no idea how to implement some game features like nodes system.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Nice recap, Oleg. I’d have to say, however, that comparing Ashes with EQNext is really apples and oranges. Or in this case, grapes and watermelons. EQNext was hugely promoted by Daybreak, a sophisticated publisher, and long-time game producer, John Smedley. It’s failure was attributed to developmental bloat (“it wasn’t fun”) rather than lack of funding. Theories abound.

Smedley went on to develop Hero’s Song, which despite all his experience, felt flat on its face, vanishing in a matter of weeks after an EA launch. Pretty much torching the axiom that you need experienced hands at the wheel to be successful.

I’ve read frequently “nobody knows the budget” as a reason to dismiss Ashes. Perhaps there are some developers out there that publish their budgets, but frankly, who does this? They might tell you afterwards how much they spent, but not while a game is in production. Moreover, even if a developer did publish numbers, there is absolutely no way to verify them. This is one of those ridiculous internet gotchas. “We didn’t see stars in his eyes! Where are the stars? Fail.”

I’m all for theorizing about motives and mayhem on the part of developers and engage freely in it myself. That’s one of the joys of MOP, reading everyone’s idea about everything when little of anything is known. So, here is the perfect place to say, time will tell.

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Nick

I think it will get further than EQN. It already has more hype/player support than EQN did and just as much, if not more, game play footage available. I just don’t think it will do very well since any open world PvP means its a PvP game and PvE is secondary. BDO was quite clever to make their game ‘buy to play’ at release since the PvP problems don’t occur until 50+. Aion did the same thing but I believe it was closer to 30+.

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Kayweg

Well, if your prediction should turn out to be correct, and this goes the way of EQN,
which title could possibly be more fitting than “Ashes of Creation” ?
It sure would mean a lot of money burned.;)
Of course, i wish them the the best of luck and success.

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Nick

The PvP flagging is stopping my full support. The problem is that its inherently flawed from my perspective. Either they will not punish ganking enough and it won’t matter (BDO doesn’t, for example) and if it’s high enough for my satisfaction there really isn’t a point in having it at all.

From the L2 page : “However, a chaotic character with a PK count of five or less will not drop items upon death.” Nope. Not good enough.

“When a character’s Reputation is negative, they can still acquire XP, SP, and Reputation up to a score of 0 by hunting monsters. Reputation can also be gained up to a score of 0 through deaths that involve the loss of XP. (If no XP is lost upon death, no Reputation is gained from the death.)” So if they kill monsters and/or get killed losing exp they can be brought out of being chaotic? By losing? Nope. Bad. Wrong. Oh does it take a long time to do that, perhaps? Is it months or days?

You are not, will not EVER trick, coerce or ease ‘PvE players’ into enjoying or actively participating in PvP, even passively. If you want PvE players you need to provide a way to full stop PvP while playing PvE. 100%. This doesn’t stop both developers and players from thinking they still can ‘bait and switch’ PvE’ers. They often refuse to provide PvE servers even if they can be introduced in such a way to not impact PvP’ers. They think it will make the PvP servers less populated but as I mentioned before, PvE’ers aren’t going to be playing on those servers anyway.

A PvE focused player could play for weeks or even months without getting PK’d and stop playing in a millisecond if they get PK’d. Most PvE players have zero tolerance for non-consensual PvP.

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Mush V. Peets

If you’re strictly a PvE’er, why do you even care for a game like this, as opposed to a game focused around PvE content like raids? The whole point of a player-driven sandbox like this is that players compete, and it’d be silly not to include the most direct form of competition in this formula. Having systems in place to make PvP not trivial or inconsequential is all that’s needed here. Of course, there will be plenty of dicks who destroy helpless players for the hell of it no matter how many systems are implemented to prevent it, but that’s part of the whole point, and par for the course. Players get to make their own decisions, good or bad.

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Nick

Well for one, there can be no PvE if there is open PvP, its just content you are doing until you get inevitably PK’d and its usually not very good.

Secondly lots of games prevent helpless players from getting destroyed either with strict flagging, not allowing PvP in PvE areas or PvE servers.

Third, I have yet to see developers flat out crush the hopes of PvE’ers on the off chance they will get their money even if its for a short time. “Sure, you can can play the game only doing PvE content *snicker chortle*”

It’s amazing to me with all the other things games have borrowed, drawn inspiration from or outright ripped 1:1 from WoW that they can’t seem to bring themselves to make PvE and PvP servers. I still maintain they do this with the aim of making PvE’ers into ‘fodder’ for the PvP game or at least convert them. This has yet to work fully in any game though. As soon as a PvE players gets PK’d a handful of times they quit pretty quick.

I’d be willing to consider it if killing an unflagged player imposed an overall inconvenience several magnitudes high than being killed. Something like the victim respawns very close by with all equipment intact and the killer become fair game to everyone, flagged or not, for the day and respawn very far away. Generally being referred to as ‘Yes its possible but why would you?’

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Thomas Zervogiannis

This is why in my head I tend to classify MMORPG’s in three categories:

1) MMORPG’s that only allow for consensual PVP (example, GW2). Zero tolerance PVE’ers can only play these. Arena/RvR modes can possibly keep some PVP’ers happy too if well made.
2) “Partially” PVP games, as in, they allow non-concensual PVP but the stakes are zero or small, you don’t lose gear/progress (example: BDO, worst case you lose your grind spot)
3) Full PVP games, non-consensual PVP is common and you lose gear (EVE, Albion). Zero tolerance PVP’ers can only be happy here. I would classify partial-loot PVP in this category, since it still tends to attract and drive away the same crowds as FFA loot games.

All three classes of games are equally valid. It looks like AoC is trying to decide whether to be a (2) or a (3)? If it is a (2) it can still attract PVE’ers the same way that BDO does. If it is a (3), it almost certainly won’t. Albion did something similar with the rep system, colored zones and the expeditions and it DID work technically (almost no PVP in yellow zones due to no reward vs the rep loss) but its PVP label will still drive away all PVE’ers. If you overdo it with deterrence systems in a class (3) game, you risk alienating the PVP crowd more than you have hopes of attracting PVE’ers. So, AoC really needs to specify what crowd it targets.

And to me it feels like this one of the most important classifications when trying to design your MMORPG and select your crowd (other equally important ones probably being themepark vs sandbox and fantasy vs scifi).

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Nick

I left BDO once the reached the open PvP levels. Nothing like minding your own business and a group of farmers taking turns killing you while farming mobs to completely sidestep the ‘flagging penalties’

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Chris Moss

Great post!
They create these games, which in theory looks great, but when you add full on pvp it destroys an MMO for me.

It does not matter how much they say they will deter ganking, it will not stop. Assholes will do it anyways.

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Nick

The fact they cited Lineage 2 as a ‘good system’ not only pushed me further away in terms of their flagging system, but also in their overall knowledge of game design. L2’s flagging system is horrendous for PvE’ers. Yeah you don’t see many ‘red names’ around because ganking players while avoiding the red name status is stupid easy. Gank 10 players, farm some mobs to wash away the penalties, repeat.

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Melissa McDonald

Amen.

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Tazuras

Great interview! It seems like all the most relevant questions were asked specifically and directly and we’re answered in kind. Hopefully it will help everyone be a little better informed. The interview definitely makes me feel better about the project, especially after all the concerns that have been floating around.

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Melissa McDonald

No consensual PvP? No dice. Good luck with your game. You can “flag” all you want, but you can’t keep me safe this way. So I won’t play your game.

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Mush V. Peets

Why would you care in the first place? If you don’t want player competition (and, by extension, PvP) don’t come looking at a sandbox MMO.

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Nick

Flagging is a ‘bait and switch’ system to me. If players got so punished that killing another unflagged player was extremely rare then open PvP or flagging doesn’t even need to exist. Just make it PvE. So obviously it won’t be harsh enough meaning most PvE players will quit, but not after already spending some money on it.

I’m specifically trying L2 again to look at the flagging system again in practice, but from their website http://www.lineage2.com/en/game/the-library/pvp-activities/reputation.php i’m still not going to like it.

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Kevin McCaughey

Looks like an awful lot of thinking has gone into the systems in this game. You can tell from the live interviews – he is never stuck for words because he has this exactly and comprehensively designed in his head. My guess is he has been thinking about it a long time. And how many of us gamers would know exactly how to solve the issue in our games? I think gamers can make games better than executives. Give me a gamer over a glorified producer/designer any time.

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Necromonger

Like i said….Steven first missions was getting a rock solid team then lay the foundation of the game with his own money to show what his team can do and now after showing proof of how the game will look like and having a pre alpha build working he kicked off a small kickstarter.

Note: he put 30 million dollar out of his own pocket into this game.

His own money – 30 million

1 million kickstarter

Can you doubt this guy ? i sure wont and i believe in his intentions to produce something the industry has been failing to do.

People have a right to question kickstarters as many of them are scams or outright not achieveble and end up as failures or way short on fundings to complete the game by mismanagements.

But when you have 1 guy putting 30 million of his own damn money into a project that can fail he is talking serious busniness and is on a mission to make something great.

Now lets discus Steven himself:

A gamer, correction an MMO Gamer since the age of 7.
A guild master of White Order
A guild master of a decade old mmo community.
A guild master who got tired of mmo’s like Archeage who are amazing in its core but rotten from the pay to win aspects and i think its here where Steven just got realy fed up with mmo’s and how they are run.

He had enough of that cancer bullshit and followed his dream to create his own studio and produce the mmo he always wanted to play.

How can we support it ? by pledging a few dollars into a small kickstarter that unlocks many great features like oceans and naval combat where Archeage blew so many gamers away.

I backed this guy up and even if it fails it will be him being on the shield with his head cutt off while i might have lost 50 dollars but at least i dint complained on forums how bad the mmo genre was getting and how i hate all current mmo’s and the mmo genre is a disgrace of how it once was in the early days when a player spend years playing a game not weeks before puking out the disgusting greed the armchairs are obsessed with money and killing the whole genre with pay to win and nikkel and dime you to your death or heavy paywals were you are just giving up all hope for the genre.

There is a spartan saying: Come back with your shield, or on it.
Now support this guy or crawl under your rock and keep complaining about P2W crap mmo’s while we are trying to get this mmo into a finished state.

You dont have to support it, this game will get done be it with all goals met our half the goals met and with goals being reached after the game is launched but this mmo is getting released one way or another :)

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socontrariwise

Good interview, thanks. I had done quite some googling before deciding to back it (seen too much nonsense in the MMO field especially a few years ago when it was the gold rush phase). And it all turned out valid and ok. Bit painful to see all the drama movement here … if you would spend a bit more time digging into the background then you wouldn’t feel entitled to throw dirt at someone without reason. Half-way investigation and starting a witch-hunt instead of first making sure your accusations are solid – very sad state of the arts.

No clue if they will manage to make the game I want or a game others want, but I applaud the effort and direction, there is way too little MMO with a focus on economy and interaction beyond fighting each other. Just alone that the first stretch goal is PARLOR GAMES confirmed for me that the priorities of Intrepid and me align here.
So for me this seems solid enough in terms of team and business accumen to spend disposable income on. I’m glad that others think the same. And maybe this even kicks CU and Crowfall Kickstarter into the dust. Non-combat focused Western MMO with a smashing success Kickstarter would be great to revive the MMO genre beyond all the conflict-preaching. :)