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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