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Ashen Was A Great Start, but A44 Aiming to Make Next Project “Bigger and Better in Every Way Possible”

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Ashen

Ashen had a lot to live up to. From a large degree of hype built-up by a Souls-hungry consumer base, the project was lauded as the indie response to FromSoftware’s critical dominance of the action-adventure genre. None of these assertions or expectations came from the developer, A44, itself; the game was thrust on a podium that it did not ask for. Ashen had glimmers of overlap with its Souls-like brethren, but really, it was something entirely different.

Three months after release, A44 is “deep in postmortem for the project,” but how does one measure success of a project more hyped than the sum of its parts? OnlySP sat down with creative director Derek Bradley to discuss all things Ashen and how the months post-release have been treating the New Zealand-based team.

ashen

“It has been surreal seeing how well received Ashen has been from a critical and consumer point of view,” Bradley begins. “Watching streams, reading reviews and player’s stories all over the internet, it has been something we could have only hoped for.” The game, which sits at a very respectable 82/100 on Metacritic, did manage to meet the expectations of most of its players. Ashen is very much an indie success story, which is reflected by the team’s unwavering passion post-release:

“We were always hopeful that Ashen would resonate with players around the world before release and we have been so excited regardless to see the wonderful reception Ashen has received since launch. It’s always nice for your game to receive great scores and recognition from the press, but we’ve been most overjoyed by the reception from players who have embraced our approach to stamina-based combat and the unique world we’ve created for Ashen.”

Ashen-1

The embracement of Ashen’s stamina-based combat is particularly interesting given the mixed response to the mechanic in non-Souls games; stamina-based gameplay is difficult to pin down, making this singular aspect of combat one of Ashen’s greatest successes. The combat system has laid the foundation for several surprises for the developer, too, who has been “[excited] to see players trying to tackle enemies and bosses in their own way since release.” Surprises include the lengths players have pushed themselves to speed-run the game, as well as watching players interact with the densely-layered labyrinth of “hidden shortcuts […] that [the studio] actually implemented in dungeons and throughout the world.”

Ashen was a huge indie hit for Microsoft, which brought the game to Xbox One with shared exclusivity with the much-discussed Epic Games Store. This loyalty appears to be extending indefinitely, with A44 “currently [having] no plans to bring Ashen to other platforms.”

The long process of development has left the studio humbled by its New Zealand surroundings, too. The relatively untapped talent pool of New Zealand was more than hospitable to A44:

“We are lucky to have an extremely rich ecosystem of talented developers and artists in Wellington, New Zealand—with a thriving film and games industry. The New Zealand games industry is relatively small, with around 550 game developers across 40 studios. It’s a young industry but is growing incredibly fast, and we’re excited to play our part in the future!”

ASHEN

Even for the most well-received games, the list of things to learn following release seems endless. For Bradley, the case is the same:

“As […] with any game you ship, the list of what you learn and can bring to the next title is rather long. We are deep in postmortem for the project as we speak so we can make sure our next project is bigger and better in every way possible.”

What will that next project be? Bradley was tight-lipped or, rather, too busy for this sort of answer, but the studio has expressed interest in “[furthering] the world” of Ashen “if the opportunity [arises].”

What is clear from A44’s post-release analysis of Ashen is that games do not expire on release. In our current culture, games are disposable assets which we, as a community, rarely return to after a select window. OnlySP’s interview with Bradley and A44 was a reminder that after games are shipped, digested, and reacted to, the studio behind the project still toils away, reflecting.

For more news and updates on Ashen and the shifting world of indie development, be sure to follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. Meanwhile, for discussion about all things single player, join our community Discord server.

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Interview

Piercing the VR Veil — The Creator of Myst Talks Its Ambitious New Game Firmament

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For gamers of a certain age, the name Cyan Worlds carries with it no small amount of reverence. In 1993, the Washington-based studio upended the industry with the release of the massively popular Myst, and then followed that up with an even more successful sequel: Riven.

In 2016, Cyan successfully Kickstarted a spiritual successor to Myst and Riven, called Obduction, to the tune of USD$1.3 million. We sat down with the venerable Rand Miller, co-creator and co-designer of Myst to discuss the company’s next project: Firmament.

Like Obduction, Firmament is being funded on Kickstarter. Unlike Obduction, which had a VR mode added post-launch, Firmament is being built from the ground up with VR support in mind.

OnlySP: Your Kickstarter pitch begins with the words “Firmament is the next step in the evolution of Cyan.” Could you elaborate on what this means? What is at the core of the company philosophy, and what is the evolution of Cyan?

Rand Miller: We think that our little niche is building complex, evocative spaces that feel authentic and real (or surreal). We started with simple, hand-drawn, black-and-white worlds, and we’ve evolved along with technology to make our world-space more and more convincing and immersive. So, all that is to say that VR is another step in that technological evolution that we get to embrace.

OnlySP: You’ve been very clear about the fact that Firmament is built from the ground up for VR. How does that manifest in practice, in actual moment-to-moment gameplay?

Miller: Yeah, so disclaimer first—Firmament is still a wonderful “flat screen” experience, too. Building for VR doesn’t mean we leave the flat behind. The interesting thing about designing for VR is that it causes us to rethink the interface. We feel that one of the most advanced and yet simple breakthroughs in VR is giving players hands. That’s because you don’t need instructions to know what to do with hands—you know how they work. That’s exciting to us because in many ways it gets back to our roots of a very intuitive interface that just feels natural. That’s what we want for Firmament.

OnlySP: Obduction was Cyan’s first VR-compatible title, and support was added post-launch. What did you learn about VR from Obduction‘s VR implementation?

Miller: Wow, so much! We learned how much accurate scale matters, how to optimize for VR, the complexity of intuitive hand interfaces, how comfort levels vary between players, what interactive devices are hard to operate… I could go on with more and more specific items. It was an amazing learning experience.

OnlySP: What made you decide to build your next game for VR from the ground up, and not as a post-launch update?

Miller: All of those things I listed in the previous question. Once you’ve learned the hard way, you want to take advantage of everything you learned. And it’s much easier to design for VR and simultaneously adjust for monitors. Post, although sometimes necessary, can make things much more difficult.

OnlySP: Do you think developers have solved most of the basic gameplay questions the industry has grappled with since the VR renaissance (locomotion and motion sickness, preserving agency and consistency of storytelling, etc.)? If not, what do you think are the biggest issues we have yet to tackle?

Miller: VR is exciting to me because of just how many variables there are. There are so many ways to do anything and everything that it’s invigorating—it feels like everybody gets a chance to try a new method or technique. The most confounding and therefore interesting gameplay issue to me still for VR is locomotion. Teleportation is filling the gap, but it seems like there will be better and better ways to move around in these worlds we’re building.

OnlySP: You have highlighted the fact that unlike Myst and Obduction, Firmament isn’t an entirely solitary experience. You’ll be exploring the world with a silent clockwork companion that aids in the solving of puzzles. Is the little fellow intended solely as a tool, or is the goal to nurture a bond between the player and the companion?

Miller: We hope you form a bond—like a shepherding dog is both a marvelous tool and a loved and trusted companion.

OnlySP: Firmament’s Kickstarter page describes the game as “the beginning of an exciting new Cyan universe.” Does this imply that more games set in this universe may be on the horizon in the future?

Miller The Firmament narrative is one of the most interesting that we’ve done. It’s got a wonderful base story, that the player (of course) picks up quickly, and then some… I can’t… I really want to give more details, but… it’ll be so much fun to watch people uncover the story. 😉  

OnlySP: For now, all the focus on Firmament, but Cyan’s place in history is irrevocably tied to Myst. Is Myst entirely in the rear-view mirror at this point? We remember murmurs of a TV show not long ago…

Miller: Myst is definitely not in the rear-view mirror. We feel refreshed from Obduction already. Firmament is so much fun that we wanted to give it a chance to come to life, but beyond Firmament there are some really exciting potential developments on the Myst horizon.


Despite its impressive legacy, or perhaps because of it, Cyan continues to look boldly to the future with Firmament. If that future comes to pass, Cyan promises gamers a deeply immersive narrative adventure that harks back to and is informed by that great legacy.

To learn more about Firmament, be sure to have a look at the game’s Kickstarter page. For updates and continued coverage, be sure to follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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