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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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E3 2019

How Final Fantasy XV’s Lead Game Designer is Making a Rhythm Game — An Interview With No Straight Roads Developer Metronomik

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No Straight Roads game art 5

Wan Hazmer’s journey is an interesting one. Having worked at Square Enix on games such as Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy XV, Hazmer left the studio in 2017 to start his own development studio, Metronomik. The studio’s first game, No Straight Roads, is a music-based action-adventure game where players must fight the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) empire as an independent rock band.

OnlySP had the opportunity to speak with Hazmer about the game’s inspiration, gameplay, and art design.

OnlySP: What inspired you to make No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: I am a big rhythm gamer. I used to be really good since Beatmania 1 so that’s more than 15 years of experience playing rhythm games. I used to go to the arcades every week and spend like $50 just to play music games. (Laughs) Whenever I invited my friends to play rhythm games with me, they always said “I’ll just watch you play.” It baffles me because everyone loves music; I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love music. I think the problem is the way [music] participates in gameplay. Music is only used in two ways in games: soundtrack or rhythm games. I think everyone has rhythm sense. If I were to give you a guitar, and you didn’t know how to play the guitar, of course you’d admit you’d have no rhythm sense.

I feel like, when you listen to a song maybe five times, then you’ll know when the chorus is supposed to come even before it comes. I want everyone to use that musical instinct to play the game and that’s why we have the enemies follow the music. The input, the participation that you have in the game isn’t a pure action game. Other inspirations also include other rhythm games. Rhythm games’ stories are something I like as well, like Space Channel 5, Guitaroo Man and even games that put a lot of emphasis on music. I think you noticed that the outer stars remind me of Jet Set Radio. The word ‘radio’ is in Jet Set Radio despite it not being a rhythm game. [Jet Set Radio] was such an influence and I still have the soundtrack.

No Straight Roads game art 2

OnlySP: How would you say your experience on other games contributed to No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: Back when I was working on Final Fantasy XV, one of the biggest things about the game was that we had to make sure that Final Fantasy becomes relevant again. [Part of that] falls into how you travel in the world so we thought “What is one of the most current way of travelling romantically?” and we thought “road trip” and it’s the core experience in Final Fantasy XV. We spent a lot of cost and effort into making sure that that core UX does its job. We had to photograph an AI, Prompto, and that was actually very difficult to pull off. Can you imagine an AI taking a photograph of you? He’s a very bad photographer at first, but he gets better and better. The user experience is an emotional connection to the game.

I also wanted to make sure that [No Straight Roads] has a UX that everyone can adhere to and that’s something that is very relevant. With relevance, we talk about rock vs EDM. It’s a classic tale of “my taste is better than yours.” And another is “your music can change the world” is our big core UX. We have the transformation of the props into weapons. We also have three channels of music: backing, melody, and rhythm. We multiply that by that by three genres of music rock, EDM, and a boss specific genre [for the demo, it was disco]. Depending on the situation, depending on the story, depending on how you perform, we actually switch one of the channels to EDM, one channel to bass, and one channel to rock. There’s a lot of music going on in the game and we only do it if we know that it is going to sell something for the UX. That’s something I got from my Final Fantasy XV experience.

OnlySP: How was it like creating the music and implementing it in the game?

Hazmer: I am very lucky to have four composers who are very talented. One of them is Falk [Au Yeong]; he’s the music director. He actually used to work with me on Final Fantasy XV where he was a mixing engineer for the music. When you travel to Hammerhead, for example, a gas station in Final Fantasy XV, when you enter a diner the music starts changing a bit. We were discussing dynamic music for a long time. We also have James Landino who is working on the EDM tracks—he [worked on] Cytus [2], Kingdom Hearts, and Final Fantasy as well. We have Pejman [Roozbeh] who is more of a funk/disco kind of guy, and Andy [Tunstall] who worked on rock.

What I love about working with these four composers is that they know the technicalities involved with implementing music in games. What we do is we come up with the concept for the boss first. We have a DJ who thinks he’s the center of the universe and he’s going to spin some planets. After that, we pass it to the musicians. They compose really great music and they pass it back to us and they understand that there are three channels and the programming involved. There are a lot of times when you make a video game, you outsource the music in the last minute. I really wanted the musicians to be involved from very early on so they are actually involved in the game design process as well.

OnlySP: In the demo, I noticed I got to play as two characters. Are there only going to be those two characters?

Hazmer: Yes. The concept seems like there could fit another person here. (Laughs) You can only control two characters, but there’ll be a bunch of bosses. You can actually play couch co-op as well, so one person can be Mayday and the other Zuke.

OnlySP: About how long would you say the game would be?

Hazmer: 10–15 hours. When you defeat a boss, although there are some RPG elements in it (like giving buffs to your weapons), but I don’t want to go with the New Game Plus route, so I’m [following] more of a Sonic or racing game [style] where once you complete a particular level, you can actually challenge the level again in a different difficulty. So there will be difficulties where you’ll have to parry almost everything in order to survive. For example, when you’re playing the game you only hear rock when you’re almost defeating a boss, you can play an entire boss fight in rock.

No Straight Roads gameplay screenshot 1

OnlySP: How did you go about selecting the genres of music for No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: First of all, we came up with interesting bosses in the game. My co-founder, Daim [Dziauddin], he’s really big into storytelling and he always wonders why people play music. We didn’t want this game to be a game about a bunch of bosses, who are awesome and big and that’s about it. Every single one of these artists has a reason to play music. From there, we see what kind of genre fits them very well. For example, we came up with a DJ who is egocentric and he thinks that he’s the center of the universe and, bam, the sub theme is space. From there, we figured we can do some disco and some Flash Gordon kind of things, and that’s how the genres came about.

OnlySP: Are there any plans to add in some post launch content?

Hazmer: Definitely. This is still all in talks, so it is not confirmed at all. I would love to collaborate with other games or different artists so that we can get their branding into the game [such as a being a boss in the game]. That’s one of the dreams for this game. Once we finish the game, I really want to collaborate, organically, with many different musicians.

OnlySP: Of the genres of music that are not in the game, what would you say would be the first one you’d want to put in post launch?

Hazmer: Oh wow. That’s quite difficult. I kind of like jazz in a way so jazz would be nice. Jazz and EDM would be really cool. (Laughs) I really like jazz, so I think a jazz boss would be really cool.

No Straight Roads game art 3

OnlySP: What influenced the art style for No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: I made a lot of realistic games and wanted to run away from realism. We thought that the characters in the game [don’t] have to be a human skin color. So we were looking at a lot of American cartoons like Steven Universe. The other thing is the funky art style of games that don’t take themselves too seriously like Tim Schafer games like Psychonauts. Sometimes ugliness is beautiful and beauty is ugly. In terms of the poses for the characters, we love ourselves some Jojo. (Laughs) Poses for us are very very important.


For all the latest from No Straight Roads and more from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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