One of the greatest promises of the MMO genre is that of the virtual world; a world in which players of different backgrounds and interests can log in, take on different roles and niches, and interact with each other as they, through either cooperation or collective disunity, collaboratively write the history of a shared, persistent world. It's the core of what an MMO can be that no other genre of game can touch, a unique competency that's been long ignored by the genre's biggest studios in a phenomenon I like to call The Massive Identity Crisis.
The Promise of Ashes of Creation
However, Ashes of Creation is not being made by one of those studios. If anything, it's being made in reaction to them - a reflexive push away from the paradigms of the last decade and, by the sheer physics of that trajectory, back towards that unique potential of the MMO: the virtual world in which everyone plays a unique part. In Ashes of Creation's world, nations will ebb and flow and rise and fall, their vicissitudes commensurate with the greatness or insignificance of the players who comprise them. The actions of friends and foes alike will carve the history of the game's worlds - and that's the very specific part of Ashes of Creation I'd like to unpack today. It's not just the actions of friends that will shape your experience, but enemies as well. That's absolutely crucial.
For a long time, MMOs have crowded their players into tiny, instanced microcosms of their full potential. Your experience in a dungeon would always be the same, and this holds relatively true for instanced PvP battlegrounds, as well. Your experience was static, your actions impersistent, and the only players who could affect your experience were those you brought in with you.
This made the experience safe - but in a way, it also made it boring, as well. Every run was the same, and nothing ever made you feel like your actions had any consequence. The boss you killed would be back on your next run, and no one in the community knew or cared that you had killed him. Safe, but boring.
One of the promises of Ashes of Creation is to take more and more of the gameplay out of the safety of these separated little boxes - to open up the content in a way that will provide both lasting repercussions for success or failure, and create an environment where a greater number of gameplay variations can occur.
Whenever you add this kind of variation to an experience, you add risk. It's the reason so many people love Starbucks: even though there may be more enjoyable options available, they know they can count on receiving the same experience every time they go to one, and there's something to be said for the safe, predictable nature of a homogenized experience. It's reliable, and it doesn't let you down. Whenever you add player agency to a game, you're adding risk - and there's few cases where that's more true than in the case of adding PvP.
One of the inevitable consequences of removing separate gameplay elements from their respective boxes is that they will begin to intermingle. This seems to have become something of a point of confusion for a lot of players, creating a situation where Ashes of Creation is described as both a "soulless gankbox" and a "carebear quest garden", depending on who you happen to ask.
This reaction is a natural extension of spending a decade in MMOs where PvE and PvP were always kept at arms length, or where the game focused solely on supporting one over the other - an experience that's driven many players to really, really want to label every MMO they encounter as strictly PvE or PvP in nature.
We saw in action this several times during the live streams in the game's Kickstarter campaign. Questions like 'Is this a PvE or PvP MMO?' were common refrains, and the answers were never as simple or as straightforward as people wanted.
The problem is, this binary classification just doesn't work with an MMO that actually aspires to be a virtual world, because that separation is an artificial product of the separate boxes philosophy of game design.
PvE and PvP don't exist as distinct, separated systems in Ashes of Creation; they are instead equal components of the grander world system. PvE and PvP action alike will determine the course of a node's development (or destruction). PvE efforts can be undermined by the actions of other players through both direct PvP (interplayer combat) or undermining efforts (completing conflicting PvE objectives). Success by players building up one node by block progress by players attempting to build up another. Caravans are not subject to attack just by players, but by NPCs, as well.
In Ashes of Creation, no game system is an island. They all feed into the same core experience, and it makes separating those systems nigh impossible.
A Coherent Virtual World
This exodus from the relative safety of our respective boxes is going to take players out of their comfort zones. Players who typically consider themselves PvE only will not be able to fully avoid PvP, and players who only want to PvP aren't going to find what they're looking for as easily. Ashes of Creation just isn't that type of game - and no true virtual world should be.
I hate it when people make references to the real world to advocate for a philosophy in game design. Realism isn't always what people want in a game, and it often runs counter to the powerful feelings of escapism that games like MMOs can satisfy. But in this case, I'm going to do it anyway.
Breaking down the barriers put in place by an over-reliance on instancing and the artificial separation of gameplay modes is absolutely essential to recapturing the sensation of authenticity in a virtual world's community. For a world to feel real, you have to able to feel the impact of the actions of other players. You have to be able to leave a mark that others can see. You have to be able to make a name for yourself - to be known for something. There has to be a consequence to sharing a world with thousands of other players - otherwise, what's the point?
Ashes of Creation's central promise is that of a reactive world that factors in player action, a world where the success or failures of players both in concert and at odds with one another feed into that world's shared history. Ashes of Creation has to transcend the restrictive boxes of the past to become something more. It can't just be another PvE or PvP MMO. It must be both. It must be an MMO where its PvE is shaped by player conflict as well as cooperation. And luckily, that seems to be exactly what the team at Intrepid Studios is building.