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Interview

Talking Fantasy, Shooters, And TikTok Trends With Ascendant Studios

A killer team of genre staples comes together to form something very new

Immortals of Aveum, the first game from the relatively young Ascendant Studios, has a lot of wind at its back. While new to the scene as a collective, Ascendent is anything but green – housing dozens of talented folks who have come from all walks of the AAA development industry, especially first-person shooters, the idea of a new game in the genre from a team with something to prove is already exciting. Add to this the idea that this particular new shooter will be trading guns and tanks for spells and wizards, and the backing of EA Originals, a publishing arm with a striking record of good investments, and you’ve got something really cooking. We recently had a chat with the lead combat designer on the game Jason Warnke, an industry staple whose hands have guided the Call of Duty franchise before but is now keenly preparing his team to launch a whole new kind of experience.

WellPlayed: The elevator pitch for Immortals of Aveum feels ripped from the early 2000s in the best way possible. How did the concept of a “Call of Duty but with magic” come about and what excites you about it?

Jason Warnke: The story goes that Bret (Ascendant Studios founder Bret Robbins) had this idea. I think honestly, in a more heartfelt way, this is just something that he’s wanted to do for a long time. I was at Sledgehammer Games, we worked on a number of Call of Duty games together and then he left, and I was working on Zombies at the time. And then he was like, hey, let’s go out, let’s have a chat. And so, he was telling me about what he wanted to do and he’s like, “I want to make a first-person shooter that’s magical”. And I was just like…you’re kidding me, I’ve been sold on that idea back from 1996 when Hexan came out. I mean, I played that game like crazy. So being able to be an early dev on a game like that sounded incredible. So, I joined him immediately and I think that everyone brings a little different element to the game. A lot of us enjoy fantasy games and a lot of us enjoy first-person shooter and military games. And so, there’s kind of just like this conflux of what can we do with that idea that was in itself exciting and I think we could have gone a lot of ways and that the way that we went, this more fast-paced shooter, Doom meets Skyrim kind of feel, is cool.

WP: You’ve had a lot of experience working in the AAA shooter space on titles like Call of Duty and I know you’re not the only one on the team that has come from these spaces, how do you go about applying the lessons learned in those games to Immortals of Aveum?

JW: It’s kind of cool because we were essentially a startup, right? We had this little team of people brought in the knowledge base that they had from other companies, and a number of us had worked on Unreal products before, so we had a little bit of knowledge base, and so we just started to execute things that we knew well, and we started to marry ideas together and see what worked and what didn’t work. I think we had essentially developed five separate versions of our combat system early on to try different things and really figure out the right approach to this game. So, I think the first step is always just to go with what you know and then explore that idea, see how it works and how it fails. And a lot of user testing, you can feel like you have the best idea ever until you give it to somebody and then they’ll tell you.

WP: Do you find working in the fantasy genre has allowed you some more creative freedom in your design work?

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JW: I mean, stranger than fiction, right? The hardest part of the freedom is player expectations. The first thing that someone might notice in the game is that we don’t have a Fireball and we’re a fantasy game. And so there’s some decisions we made intentionally, like challenging expectations and coming up with things that are a little bit different. But at the same time, people are always going to want what they want. So, I don’t know, I hope that it works out anyway. Even if that one person writes on Steam, like one out of ten, no fireballs.

Jason and the team worked hard to make Immortals of Aveum feel of a piece with AAA shooters

WP: When it comes to shooters, the feedback and impact of weapons are so important. How did you go about reproducing that game feel in a non-traditional shooter setting?

JWI mean, that is key. That is the first moment you pick up a controller and you’re in a first-person game and everything off of that hand motion and the screen motion and the UI, that is it. If you get that wrong, then you’re not going to get that frenetic first-person shooter thing. So, we started off actually a little bit more Skyrim-y, like bigger spells, bigger hand motions, bigger effects that were a lot slower, the gameplay was a lot slower, and we were like, well, this is cool, but doesn’t feel quite what we want. We want that fast-paced, frenetic combat. And so we went, all right, let’s just take a single spell, which is our Blue Bolt. Let’s make it feel like a DMR from some kind of shooter. Bring in all those elements you brought in recoil. Why does this spell have recoil? I mean, that feeling of it being powerful is the recoil, right? We talked many ways about how Mana regeneration should work, and we settled on making it feel familial to having a reload. But we actually also don’t have an ammo clip. We don’t have a well of magic.

It’s an infinite amount. And so, at the end of the day, for us, that ended up being a pacing break. When you have a big spell and now you have to reload, that forces you tactically, to decide, how am I going to deal with not being aggressive for X amount of time, all those elements and marrying them with the more exotic things. Like our big spells are kind of like and on a similar button to lethal grenades from Call of Duty, right? So, you know where to go for that thing and then what it does, you have to learn. And some of those have bigger cast times and are more explosive. But we also decided this game for those spells to be more immediate. So when you go to your Fury menu, you have a number of spells. When you press that button, it’s very fast and explosive. And then you have even bigger spells which require a big wind-up and execution like Immolate and even more things I’m not going to talk about yet.

WP: On the topic of that non-traditional shooter setting, most of the games in the genre have either explicit or subtextual relationships between the player and violence, do you find that without literal guns that has shifted for you and the team and how you think about the impact of violence in this world you’ve created?

JW: I don’t think so. I always found it really ironic growing up in the people talking about gun violence as a primary focus of discussion. When there’s a John Cusack movie where he plays a hitman, at the end of the movie, he murders somebody with a pen. Violence is violence and whether you use a folding chair or an assault rifle, you can enact some really horrible stuff. And I think maybe taking guns out of the discussion could give a little bit more perspective for people to shift away from like…guns do what they do and people are violent regardless of the weapon. It’s funny working on Call of Duty and stuff because my history is my mom is someone who focuses on peace. She melts weapons to make sculptures and it’s a whole thing. And so, there’s kind of an irony of me working on first-person shooters like Call of Duty and this game, but there’s a fun in the game itself and a dance in the combat that I really like. I like to play those games and Monster Hunter is one of my favourite games of all time. And then also being able to give some perspective when making the stuff is neat both in the stories and in the moments. Because if you get to do some horrible stuff in a game and you feel good about it, and then the game asks you why do you feel good about that? Maybe they’ll touch somebody in a way and that’d be great. And if not, that’s fine too. They’re just games.

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WP: From what we’ve seen so far, Jak will have access to the three core schools of magic as represented by red, green, and blue. What additional systems can players look forward to and how does the game evolve over time to keep things engaging and fresh?

JW: So, much like a standard traditional game, your power ebbs and flows with the enemy’s power as well. So we have a talent system, we have essentially “levels” as you gain gear and you gain talents, so your power grows and then enemies’ powers and enemy complexity grows. You start seeing bigger and better meaner-looking creatures more powerful-looking aggressors. One of the things I think does really well in our game is the customization. So, you have access to a number of gear slots and a lot of talents, but you can’t have them all. Right? So, you choose your area of specialization, or you choose your broadness of specialization. And because of this Simon Says style gameplay, where you see a red enemy, the red spells are probably the best against the red enemy behaviourally, not statistically. It’s not Pokémon. Then if you hyper-focus into green, you’ll still be able to complete the game. But some of those red enemies are going to give you some pause. Right. You’ll have to use some spells to circumvent those problems that you’ve created for yourself by specializing in one colour.

There’s a little bit of conflict in that because we do want you to be able to specialize into one colour. So, if you want to be a sniper mage, be a sniper mage. Only cast Blue Bolt, that is fine. But then there’s going to be combats that that’s hard to utilize. And you’re required to have one of each colour Sigil, which means that you have two Sigils that maybe you don’t use very much, but there are ways of utilizing that in a clever way. And I’m excited to see who figures it out. And I’m going to be watching a lot of videos next week and I will watch every guide out there to see what people pick up on and how they translate the systems that we’ve made. I’m excited.

WP: Are there any of these Sigils that ended up on the cutting room floor? Or something that didn’t make it into the final game that you miss? 

JW:  Yeah, definitely *laughs*. But hopefully, we’ll get to make game two and you might see some ideas that we didn’t get to do this time.

Jak will be up against an array of tough but fair fights

WP: Most shooters on the market tie weapon unlocks and player progression to strict levelling systems, so how did you adapt that power curve to a single-player narrative experience?

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JW: Simply availability. None of our gear is randomized. Every piece of gear is specifically named as a specific description that is lore based. An astute player might figure some things out based on what they read. And so, if you can only have access to this collection of stuff, then the enemies that you fight will have this difficulty and this feel. And then as you progress through the game, you unlock more stuff, more complexity that shifts how the game feels a little bit. And so, we have this back and forth a few times in the game and hopefully by the end of the game, you have access to a lot of complexity and the enemies have that same level of complexity and you can choose how to engage in that.

And also really big boss fights.

WP: Speaking of! What is the difficulty curve that we’re looking at in this game? Are you designing these bosses to be sort of like hard walls for progression?

JW: Yes and no. So we have a number of bigger-than-life boss fights, especially one of them, which I will not talk about. But the intent is to not punish people who have low skill levels but to reward people for understanding the systems. So, if you are at least on the primary path of the game, we don’t want players to fall behind in levelling or something and just get trapped in a boss fight that’s too hard because they didn’t do enough side content. We want players who want to just focus on the storyline to be able to finish it and then off the beaten path, you will find some extremely hard fights that are very fun when you figure it out.

WP: I’m sure this must be an impossible thing to answer but I like to ask most devs this. Is there something in the game that you specifically are most excited for players to see?

JW: I’m excited to see what people decide to talk about. So it’s kind of a meta thing to say. I’m excited to see what people are compelled to talk about. Also, maybe a number of bosses were designed and implemented by me, so I’m really excited to see what people do with those.

WellPlayed: No that’s totally fair – I think we’ve seen recently with games like Balder’s Gate 3 and the way that’s blown up on things like TikTok where players are sort of very naturally making their own content about these games. As a designer, is that something that you ever consider when you’re designing things? Is that something that’s sort of become present in studio culture now, do you think?

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JW: I don’t think it’s as present in studio culture as it should be. It is an interesting perspective. We have a lot of traditional game designers here and game developers who just focus on the development and the product and it’s out the door and they don’t think about it again. And I’ve definitely had a number of conversations about how to execute in a way that could be interesting to someone making TikToks. I’m not sure we will hit a chord like Balder’s Gate does, I’m not sure anybody’s going to hit a chord that way. Like, I’m absolutely astounded and I cannot wait to spend a year playing that game at some point.

WP: I think we all are, but you’ve got a game to launch! Thank you for your time and best of luck with Immortals of Aveum.

JW: Thank you!

Immortals of Aveum releases for PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S on August 22, 2023.

Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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