As he approached the stage, his nerves slowly began to subside. This was his moment, his moment to show the world the labour of love that he and the dedicated team beside him had been working on for a year. The silence that greeted him turned to rapturous applause just two minutes later. ‘All of our hard work,’ he though, ‘was worth it for this moment.’
“That was my first E3, and speaking on stage at E3 was the first official thing I did at E3,” says Derek Bradley, creative director of Aurora44, the New Zealand-based team bringing Ashen exclusively to Xbox One. “Prior to E3, about a year ago, in fact, we released a small GIF on the Internet, which was quite strange because we didn’t know if anyone else would like what we’d made.”
He continues, “We were literally making a game that we would like to play. It was more of a personal thing. E3 was the place where we would figure out how wide is the appeal of what we like to play. It was truly an amazing experience. The reception from the fans was overwhelming.”
Bradley began his career in the industry at a local New Zealand company called Sidhe, which has since changed their branding to PikPok. From there, he transitioned to Weta Digital, where he worked on large projects such as The Hobbit, Prometheus, and Tintin, among many others.
“A couple of us who worked at Weta decided to quit our jobs and make Ashen,” Bradley says. “That’s how I got into the second part of my game development career, which was starting my own company and making our own game.”
While the game development community in New Zealand isn’t quite as robust as those of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sweden, it is experiencing a large growth rate due to an influx of talent. “Places like Weta Digital, Grinding Gears and PikPok are quite big, particularly Weta, so there’s plenty of expertise here. There is a very high skill level because of the massive amount of people that work at Weta and their particular skillset,” Bradley explains.
For the past year, Bradley has been working on Ashen, behind closed doors, with a small team at Aurora44. In Bradley’s own terms:
“Ashen is a story about a wanderer in search for a place to call home. The game is set in a world with no sun; a world that hasn’t seen natural light for eons, for as long as anyone can remember. Natural light, in fact, is a bit of a myth. People don’t even believe the thought that there could be natural light enough to brighten an entire world.”
“What happens at the start of the game is an eruption, which spews ash all over the world, hence the game’s title, Ashen. When this happens, this ash has some energy to it, which floats into the atmosphere and behaves a bit like nuclear fallout whereby it sits in the atmosphere and lights the world.”
“This volcano becomes the center of the universe because there’s light, and people gravitate towards it because humanity is on the edge of extinction having not adapted to the darkness particularly well. Your whole stake in this is that you forge a path through the darkness to make it to the light. You then start a town there, and Ashen’s gameplay is that you’ll be going out into the world to do things that will keep your town alive.”
“The multiplayer element in Ashen is a bit like Journey where people weave in and out of each other’s worlds and you come across other people. If you decide to bring them back to your town, they’ll become an NPC. You’ll also become an NPC in their town, and from then on, you’ll have a bit of a connection with them.”
“In general, the game is story driven, although I wouldn’t call it a linear story. It is a story with many parts that you can choose and things that you can do to drastically change what happens.”
Ashen has been in development for just over a year, and Aurora44 have handled the development of Ashen in quite a unique manner. “We’ve intentionally kept our team really small and we wanted to have a long timeline to make sure it becomes one of those things that is well thought out and intricate and detailed enough that it lives up to all our expectations.”
The team at Aurora44 currently has 6 full-timers, and are planning on adding team members very slowly until they reach 10.
“When we look at other art forms: how long a painter could take to do an oil painting, or how long a writer could take to write a book, and then looking at how quickly games are made, it kind of makes sense. Sometimes games don’t necessarily have the best stories or just feel a bit unfinished so we didn’t want to do that for our game.”
This is a refreshing perspective, as we live in an age where rushed games are pushed out of production to meet release dates set by publishers. Destiny’s story, for example, was lost on many because the developers had to make a choice: compelling story, or compelling, working multiplayer. It is unfortunate that large studios can no longer have both.
“It’s an interesting contrast,” Bradley begins, “because at the end of the day, games are art and they’re also a financial thing.” He continues, “They’re a business, and in business terms, it makes sense to put out a product as fast as you can. If that means making your team bigger, cool, but that tends to lead to generic stuff. These people are the best in the industry at what they do, but they’re all just doing what’s the current trend.”
“If you want to make something unique and you want to make something with a bit of personality, I think it just takes time. What we’ve done, by keeping the team small and stretching out our timeline, is not something that would be considered the best business move, because it means we have a bunch of artists taking their time and making sure they craft this thing well.”
“We’re more interested in making a game than in making money.”
Ashen’s inspirations are broad, from music to art, from story to combat. At E3, it was compared to games like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Ico. Even The Last Guardian was a game flung around as a comparison to Ashen.
Aurora44 is working with a group called Foreign Fields to create Ashen’s music. “I originally heard their music on a blacksmithing video – it was a guy making an axe with this music in the background,” Bradley says. “It was very down to Earth, and I just resonated with that. As far as that’s concerned, it’s been a very collaborative thing with them.”
“Certainly, Sword and Sworcery has had a huge inspiration on our sound design as well as our art. We’ve looked at Journey, especially with regards to player communication; we’ve looked at Ico, at Shadow of the Colossus. At the end of the day, there aren’t too many things out there that look quite like it and I think we’ve iterated on it so much that its become its own thing to a large degree.”
“Ico was an interesting comparison, because before E3, that comparison didn’t exist. I think it came about because we have two characters that were operating in some sense, which was hinting at our multiplayer – two people meeting out in the world and trying to do something.”
One of the things that struck many gamers regarding Ashen’s reveal trailer was the game’s faceless characters. As Bradley describes it, this was a “great point of contention.”
“First off, I love that people have something to talk about with our game, that there’s something people can get passionate about and believe in, or not believe in. Something that can spark discussions,” says Bradley.
While that’s a neat side effect of having faceless characters, it is not the primary reason. “Leighton, our art lead, had been sculpting and creating these really detailed character faces, and tried to stylize them and push them in different directions. One day he just sort of wiped the features off the character faces and we were like, ‘Yup, that looks cool,’ because it was something we hadn’t seen before; it was something new.”
“We’d been talking a lot about how people communicate within our multiplayer. We wanted to make it clear that they decide how to interact with each other based on their actions, not based on how they look. The only looks, per-se, that we have in the current build is the armour you choose to wear or the weapons you choose to equip. Those are very conscious decisions that you’ve made, whereas even the best character creators have only a few types of faces.”
“It influences how people behave in games. If they all look a little bit aggressive, or a little bit regal, it influences the way people view the game and the shoes they step into when they play the game, whereas we wanted people to be themselves and we want people to judge others based on how they act and what they do, not how they look.”
The same principal applies to communicating within the game. Like Journey, Ashen will have no in-game chat, and players won’t even have the ability to see anyone else’s usernames. There will still be channels of communication, however, such as a system of gestures.
“The main thing is that you’ll be able to have very clear channels of communication that keep players immersed in the game, while stripping players of the communication habits that so often make people split off from each other or bring people into the real world. We wanted to keep communication in the game relevant, which is how you help one another, how you behave, and what you do, and letting people judge you based on that.”
There will be combat in Ashen, and both Dark Souls and Wind Waker heavily influence it. While Aurora44 isn’t going for the grueling, hardcore combat of Dark Souls, it will be challenging, and skill based.
The combat will range from hunting critters to fighting creatures to fighting intelligent humanoids. “There will be creatures of the dark that stalk you, and you’ll need to use your lantern to keep them at bay,” Bradley explains. “There will also be boss fights with huge creatures which will be quite challenging.”
“At the same time,” he continues, “there will always be an intelligent way to do things. Sometimes, that way will be to avoid confrontation all together, or sometimes that way will be to fight. We’re hoping to give players multiple ways of doing anything in the game; to give them the option to tailor their experience.”
Ashen is being developed using Unreal Engine 4, which Bradley lauds for its ease of use, especially in creating an open-world game with a team of 6. “Unreal Engine is doing amazing things at the moment,” he says. “They’re putting so much development behind open world. They’ve made it really, really easy for us, which is a big surprise. We were fully prepared to be putting a lot of development time behind building the open world, whereas Unreal has allowed us to redistribute and concentrate on some of the game’s other important aspects.”
“We would have needed a team of 5 network engineers, but with Unreal Engine, we can use two. It’s certainly a huge benefit for smaller studios who may not have the same resources that bigger studios have. I’m sure bigger studios have teams building their own engines, or further optimizing what Unreal provides, but for a small team, its been great! The Unreal Engine folks are the best in the business, and having them on your side is wonderful.”
Although the game is open world, it very much has a start and an end to it, and the team at Aurora44 is thinking about post-game content, similar to a new-game plus, with a little bit of tweaking. “The story absolutely comes to a climax and there is an end, but it will be your choice to see how that pans out,” says Bradley.
“While we don’t have a number yet, we’re aiming for a 20-hour game. I think if you did everything efficiently, it would take 20 hours, but you could complete the main storyline in 10 or so. However, I think someone could spend 100 hours in this world due to its open world nature and replayability due to its multiplayer element.”
In addition to his praise for Unreal Engine, Bradley holds Microsoft’s ID@Xbox team in high regard, particularly praising their immense passion. “It’s a business, and Microsoft is a business, and they’re good at what they do, but at ID@Xbox, they’re not really in the business of making money,” he says. “I believe ID@Xbox is more about nurturing the talent that is going to be the future of first-party, or big third-party titles.”
“The people at ID@Xbox are passionate gamers, who support projects trying to do something new and push the envelope a bit, which is amazing to see. It’s like talking to a friend when talking to one of the Xbox people, because they get the project.”
While Ashen has no set release date, it’s safe to say unannounced 2016 is the best bet for when you’ll be able to play the game. For more information, be sure to follow Aurora44 and Derek Bradley on Twitter.