Jeffrey Bard, Lead Game Designer for Ashes of Creation

Jeffrey Bard may have studied philosophy and theater, but in truth, he was playing video games and practicing game design for most of his life, from the tender of age of five when he received his Atari VCS, and when he ran his first Dungeons and Dragons campaign at six. Nowadays, he builds the core systems for Ashes of Creation, the most-funded MMO in Kickstarter history, in between fixing the company internet and writing the lore that will power the imaginations of the game’s players.

In mid-June, I interviewed Jeffrey about Ashes of Creation, its development, and more. The transcript of our conversation is below, edited for brevity and clarity.

What was the first video game you ever played?

This is a tough question to answer… my clearest memory of a specific game was a Christmas when I was five years old. I had gotten a hand-me-down Atari VCS, with a container full of cartridges that included most of the classics – Adventure!, Indiana Jones, Pac-Man, Berserk. There were like fifteen games, which I still have. The first one I put in after it was all hooked up was Combat. I know I had played video games before that, but Combat will always be my first.

What made you decide to go into video games?

I wanted to make games ever since I was a kid. When I was in fifth grade, Ninja Gaiden came out. I remember drawing out levels with a friend of mine, and sending them off to Tecmo with the hopes that I could help them make Ninja Gaiden 2. Alas, it was not to be. Later on in life, after college, I needed to make a decision about my career, since philosophy and theater weren’t going to pay the bills, so I spent some time trying to figure out what I could do for a living that I wouldn’t get bored of.

The easy answer to that was video games. I never just played games, I was always thinking critically about them, I modded them, and I taught myself code through them. I was always doing this in my spare time, for fun, and it was something I found hard not to do. Getting into games professionally was something of a dream, but one I didn’t really take seriously for a long time because it seemed like such a moonshot. Once it became clear to myself that I could actually, maybe do this for real, I applied to Sony Online Entertainment for an entry level position, got myself some good mentors, and the rest is history!

Now here I am at Intrepid Studios, making Ashes of Creation – the MMO that’s going to change the way people see this genre of games. In essence, we’re going to make them fun and meaningful for a change.

Can you give us some insights into your development process?

I usually work from the ‘big picture’ backwards. I establish what the goals in the design piece are, what the themes are, gameplay-wise and narrative-wise, and what kind of story is trying to be told. I think it’s really important to always make sure every part relates to and supports that overall big picture, so this stage is all about brainstorming hooks and different perspectives that relate back to that big picture.

I’ll outline my ideas first, separate the wheat from the chaff, and after that I find it’s useful to put the whole experience into a flowchart, or, if it’s a really big project, make a post-it-wall. I’m a super visual guy, and I always want to see the structure of what I’m designing before I start implementing in order to make sure there aren’t any holes that I’m not seeing.

After that, it’s all about implementation in-engine. I usually put down the broad strokes of the gameplay event first, to get the overall flow down, and then focus on the most difficult parts once I’m happy with what those broad strokes are doing. I always try to work on the hardest stuff first, because that’s what usually will throw you off your schedule, and I’d rather know that at the beginning of a project, rather than the end. At each step I’m playtesting, playtesting, playtesting, and once I’m done, I playtest some more. My goal is to always submit the most polished experiences I can, so that QA can really spend their time doing what they do best, which are edge cases and negative tests. I really, really hate getting back bugs that I should have caught on my side, and the only way to prevent that is to always play my content as much as I can.

What are the major influences that have inspired you as a creator?

Too many to list here, but I’m always looking for weird, novel, and strange things. Anything that gets my brain going places it wouldn’t have otherwise is what I generally seek out. I find that these kinds of works generally show me the limitations of my own imagination and what’s really possible and awesome when you really let that creative spirit go. I’m also a sucker for hyper moody pieces, noir-ish, quiet, sticky things that make you feel something deeply.

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

The Dark Tower series, and actually a lot of Stephen King’s stuff, probably got me started down this road, with Blaine The Train and the lobstrosities and the sort of really out-there imagery he uses throughout. It’s a quintessential fantasy novel told in a way I had never experienced before. A lot of Neal Stephenson’s earlier works, pretty much everything by Neil Gaiman, Transmetropolitan, anything by David Lynch, Infinite Jest, FLCL, Lain, the Illuminatus! Trilogy, the Evangelion series, are all examples of works that I grew up with and I think really helped to inform my perspective. More recently, the first season of Bloodline is a great example of the moody kind of thing I love. That intro! It is uncomfortable, melancholy, and grabs you by the heart, not by saying a whole lot, but through the spaces, color, music, and Ben Mendelsohn. I’d love to work on a game that was focused on establishing and maintaining that kind of mood.

What do you think of the current state of gaming?

I think it’s absolutely incredible. We’re in some kind of golden age, where games are recognized as culturally important, and there’s something for everyone if you know where to look. Sure, there’s a lot of noise, and a lot of the AAA studios are churning out the same games every year, but there’s also plenty of space for indies doing crazy, awesome, new things. Technology has come far enough that small teams of designers and artists have become viable again, and players aren’t looking just for super high polycounts anymore, they’re looking for great, novel gameplay experiences.

I mean, if you look back even just five or ten years ago, the landscape looks a lot different. The industry was more insular, indies had difficulty getting space in the marketplace, and studios were dropping like flies.

It’s a good time to be a gamer and a designer.

What’s the future for gaming?

I don’t even know. I expect to see bigger, more detailed, more ‘aware’ worlds, as well as smaller, more couture personal experiences. AI is really starting to grow up, and I think that smart systems will begin to make their way probably first into MMOs and then into single player games. VR is going somewhere, I just don’t know where, as designers and tech companies both try to figure out the ideal experiences and hopefully bring down the cost of entry.

I think it’s clear that there’s tons of room for growth out here on the frontier, and I sincerely hope that there remains opportunity and investment in studios that are willing to risk it all to push boundaries and continue to evolve and surprise this industry.

What’s your favorite game?

Of all time?! That’s not a fair question! Final Fantasy Tactics might be my top, boring pick, if only because it’s the one game I can always pick up, play through, and have fun with. The Deus Ex series is high up on that list. The first one blew my mind, and the rest of the series has generally been strong. I love the level design. The progression systems and cyberpunk remains one of my favorite genres. Max Payne 2 was a revelation of narrative design, and I think my first introduction to a really refined, mature story in a video game.

I’m a huge fan of the Supergiant team, both Transistor and Bastion meld fantastic storytelling and mood with interesting mechanics, and I can’t wait to see what they do with Pyre. They’re totally a complete package, and Supergiant is a perfect example that you don’t have to have a huge team to make great games. The Witcher series is amazing, and I’m really excited to see what CD Projekt RED does with Cyberpunk 2077. I don’t know, I can’t really stick with just one, there’s too much really great stuff out there.

But of course, I might have to say Ashes of Creation once it’s out there in the wild. It’s going to be unlike anything else you’ve ever played.