Immortals of Aveum is a big budget, first-person magic shooter from Ascendant Studios, a new team built from industry veterans who have worked on the likes of Call of Duty and The Walking Dead: The Telltale Series. In fact, the Call of Duty inspirations are clear in how the game is trying to target magic and mystery – but realise it in a big, triple-A shooter sort of way. But this isn’t just a corridor shooter; Ascendant Studios is weaving many genre strands together to make something unique.
We sat down with Tyler Sparks, lead level producer at Ascendant Studios, to discuss the new project – what Ascendant thinks makes this unique title stand out from the pack, how to get players on board from the off, and why single-player games are still important.
VG247: How important is it for Ascendant Studios to make a good first impression?
Tyler Sparks: It’s huge. This is our breakout title, the studio itself is carefully chosen – we’re a group of very seasoned, veteran developers who’re bringing to bear an immense amount of experience to create this world and incredible cinematic campaign. The stakes are quite high, especially considering how unique the game is. This is not just a standard looter-shooter or something like that. We have a very unique, magic first-person shooter on our hands.
What is it about the cinematic angle that appeals to Ascendant Studios?
We’re telling a very epic story here. Yes, it’s a shooter, but it’s also high fantasy. We’re dealing with a massive world with a huge amount of backstory and very in-depth characters. So it’s very important for us to have that immersive, single-player experience for the campaign.
Why is the focus on single-player so important?
That’s been the goal from the start. It started with Brett (Robbin)’s vision, the first time he had this idea was years and years ago and we’re all very big fans of that single-player experience. There’s not a lot of that these days, those experiences are a bit few and far between.
But I think taking the time to tell a story really well and thoroughly through the lens of first-person combat is a very specific angle to take and one we wanted to execute perfectly.
It’s what we wanted to do and what this game has been since inception.
Is an epic first person story game the best way to establish Ascendant’s reputation?
Whether it’s the best way to establish our reputation or not, it’s how we’re going to do it.
You can choose to do any number of games that are popular right now, but for us it’s not about making a cash cow or making something that’s going to be the hot topic right now. It’s about making the best game that we want to make, the best way we know how.
How are you making sure it’s a smooth launch?
Well, first there’s making sure that the public understands our game. That’s why we’re trying to be transparent about all aspects of it. We’re pretty much open-book about what the game is, what it’s going to be, what the features are and how these things play together, because we don’t want any lack of clarity going in.
Understanding exactly what you’re picking up and exactly what you’re getting, then making sure that we deliver on that message, I think that’s the key.
Will it be a smooth launch technically as well?
When it comes to the launch of a game, I’ve launched over a dozen titles now, I think everyone would want to say that about every game they’ve ever made.
However, I think the difference here is that we’ve taken the time to make the game what we want it to be.
We’ve delivered on what we wanted to do. I think that’s the most that we can do for this stage, and we’re very confident in the product that we’ve put together and I’m very confident that people are going to love it.
What does success look like for Immortals of Aveum?
There’s metrics that you can go by, sales and stuff like that, but I think the most important thing for us is that the game is received by everyone how we meant it to be received.
That we have this vision, a goal and objective in mind and we’ve actually done it. That is confirmed by how it’s received by the public. Do they understand and like it, is it something they want to play? We’re very confident in that, but you don’t know until the public gets their hands on it.
In your words, what is it that’s unique about Immortals that you want people to understand?
It’s about understanding the essence of what a first-person magic shooter is.
We’ve stepped away from guns and into a completely unique fantasy world, with over 25 spells in five different categories that can be woven together in super unique ways.
I think this is sort of a new genre. There are some things similar to it, but what we’ve come up with is a very unique combat system placed within a very unique story.
How do you make that deep and complex without making it complicated?
That’s the big challenge. The goal we set out with was to make sure the combat was as simple and straightforward to pick up, but super satisfying to master. So the idea there is not to drop it all on you at once.
We’re not just like, “here’s three schools of magic, 25 different spells, figure it out!” We slowly introduce these spells and the initial spells are very typical of that school of magic.
The first Force spell is a very specific, targeted, precise shot, your first Chaos spell is sort of like a shotgun-reminiscent thing, to introduce the concepts.
We bring players into the game with concepts they’re familiar with, then we expand on that as the spells get more interesting and different and creative the deeper you get into the game.
We slowly build this tapestry of abilities for you to use so by the end of the game, you’re that epic battlemage.
You’ve also described Immortals as “tactical”, what makes it tactical specifically?
The cool thing about this variety of spells is that you’re not just beholden to fighting the first enemy in front of you.
One of the more interesting ways that I like to play is that there are some enemies who stay near the back of the pack – enemy Magi who cast spells like snipers. We have spells that enable you, standing way back, to interrupt an enemy’s spell, hit them with a headshot to take them out while they’re stunned, then take your focus back to the front of the gameplay.
There are also spells that launch enemies into the air. So if you don’t want to deal with one group you can disable them momentarily while you deal with another. Or you can just forget all that, jump in the middle and start blasting away.
The more you understand the skills and abilities available to you, the more your options grow. Any combat scenario can be approached in any number of ways.
When you’re designing encounters to be approached in multiple ways, do you actually try to let them do what they want or try to funnel them one way or the other with the illusion of choice?
What we focus on is a variety of encounters. There might be one way that’s ‘better’ to approach an encounter, say if it’s in a narrow corridor a linear blast is going to take people out pretty easily – but we’re not forcing players to do anything, unless it’s like a tutorial.
We’ll throw all kinds of stuff in there, but it’s not designed to force you into any specific gameplay style. We want and encourage you to play in any way you want – that’s why you can reset your skill tree whenever you want. Play the game as a blue mage, come back as green, come back and do all three, there’s a lot of different ways to combine that gameplay and we don’t want to limit it.
Was it a specific choice to trust players’ ability with subtly signposted puzzles and optional areas?
I think it’s more that the puzzles have a language to them. The initial learning might be pretty steep for some, others pick it up pretty fast. We’re establishing how puzzles work within the world and slowly adding mechanics as you go. The first couple might be a little more difficult, but it’s up to the player to piece that together using the abilities they have.
With the different RPG elements in Immortals of Aveum, how do you make sure that they all add something worthwhile to the game and don’t just make up the numbers?
Everything is very intentional around building the battlemage. So all of the gear amplifies some aspect of the player in a different way, there’s no throwaway gear, no grinding, all of the gear is associated with progression.
But it’s not like you’re going to get every single piece of gear, you can miss things and things you might have to go back to portions of the level later on.
The idea is that we’re giving you the pieces to build your own puzzle, there’s no throwaway. It’s not like, for example, the blue gear in Destiny that you’re constantly just dismantling, there’s none of that really.
All of the pieces here can be used to create a functioning mage.
What are some of the things Unreal Engine 5.1 allowed you to do?
Unreal Engine 5, especially 5.1, has some really awesome features that enabled us to make specifically those big levels.
There were three in particular that were the most useful: Lumen, Nanite and World Partitions.
Lumen is the lighting system that Unreal employs, and typically when you talk about level development you have a lot of statically placed lights that anticipate where the player is going to go.
But with Lumen, you can adjust and have those lights and reflections react to the player. It also allows us to optimise for performance, which is a huge thing that Nanite does.
It basically means that wherever you are in the world, that’s the highest quality of texture around you and the furthest thing from you is the lowest quality. So as you move the things in front of you increase in quality and things behind you decrease and the levels of detail change on the fly.
So we can have these huge levels and once you’re done with a section of it, it’s not even drawing in anymore, so that performance can be redirected somewhere else – which is also what World Partitions do.
World Partitions are the system for loading chunks of geometry, So in one level, it’s not like you come in and everything’s loaded and every mountain peak has to be completely rendered in the back.
We’re loading and unloading as we go. Those tools really freed up the art team to create these intense and immersive worlds with really spectacular flora and fauna.
Do you have a particular favourite part that we’ve seen?
I sound stereotypical, but I’m proud of all of it, of course. My current favourite levels change week-to-week because I’ll hop into a level I haven’t seen in a while and be like “what is going on here!”
They’re a little bit later because things start to get more complex. We have like 12 different biomes, it might be more than that, we’ve got mountain peaks, volcanic calderas, it’s an insane environment.
The most impactful moment today for me is the first big reveal in the Pale Forest where you turn a corner and get that sense of scope and scale. It dawns on you that you don’t see things drawing in and that’s the first time I really felt immersed in a world.
That moment as a player is so impactful because that’s when it grabs you and says, ‘you’re inside Aveum now’, go and explore.