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Here's a little time-line:
Oct 2000 - Dransik launched (the game not website)
Spring 2002 - YCG takes over (didn't last for long)
8 August 2002 - ISO launched
March 2003 - First full ptp
Jan 2004 - Dransik becomes AE (TKO)
Dec 2005 - IWG takes over
In 2005 the game really almost did die. The servers - one or the other - went down every weekend and it was always a question as to whether it/they would come back up on Monday. Pixel Mine Games (then known as Iron Will Games) stepped in at the 11th hour and saved it from a miserable death.
The game is far from dead. The pve server (Legends) is alive & kicking. Many of the players from the pvp server moved to Legends in the past couple of years because game mechanics made it difficult to play on the pvp server unless you were part of a large pvp guild. The pvp server (Heroes) is now the least populated; the most recent patch (11/10) which changed the way buffs are handed down in the faction system may bring some players back from Legends.
If you enjoy crafting, this is the game for you. You can do any skill you want regardless of your build. Your build may make you a little more or less successful at lower levels, but once you get higher level in a crafting skill, build doesn't seem to have that much of an impact.
I've played it continuously since 2002 and seen many many changes. It's had 3 expansions (Talazar's Revenge -snow lands; Sands of Creation - desert areas and housing; Tides of Fate - islands, sea mobs and sailng) ; the land area has increased drastically; many new monsters, bosses and items.
Gear is very important now and provides varying amounts and types of resistances to attacks. Before you go out into the field, you will want to consider what you will be killing, the type of damage (to you) which will be involved and dress accordingly.
Because of "resists", it has become the habit on both servers to carry a lot of your bank with you, especially if you're hunting "dragons", as each type of dragon does a different type of damage. You will drop your back pack on both the pve and pvp servers if you die in most places (except for "no drop" zones). You'll then have to run back to recover your back pack or use the very popular "summon corpse" item which can be purchased for tokens through the game store.
It is free-to-play. You can leave the newbie island (Valinor) and practice all skills with no exp penalty. You can party and join guilds as a free player. The percs of purchasing the "VIP" membership can be seen here: VIP Membership . The monthly grab bag that comes with VIP is very popular.
I have never been able to get used to the graphics of the older game "Dransik". The Ashen Empires graphics are pretty old school and totally can't compete with the big boys and their virtually realities. But they are not bad for the type of game this is. They will actually grow on you. There is "paper-dolling" so you can totally change the look of your avatar with what you wear.
There is a "game store" now through which you can purchase VIP time, expansions, etc.. For me the two best items in the store are "summon corpse" (which I don't use much cause I'm so leet ) and "teleport stones" which let you port to various towns around the world.
Players come and go but there is a saying in the world of AE "they all come back" and it seems to be true. The game has been around a long time and I've seen people disappear for years to suddenly pop up again. Somebody else in here said the community is what keeps people coming back, and that's probably largely true. You can easily make a name and place for yourself in the world of Ashen Empires (hopefully, good) and even some good, long term friends.
Pixel Mine Games has also produced a popular i-touch/iphone game "Underworlds".