This week on OnlySP our feature interview is with Aurora44, about their Microsoft-exclusive action-RPG Ashen. Set in a ruined, volcanic world inhabited by fantastical creatures, players scour stylised environments in search of Ashen’s darkest secrets.
Check back tomorrow for more on Ashen. First, meet Derek Bradley of Aurora44.
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The New Zealand-based team behind Ashen have a diverse skillset, working first on console games for Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, before moving on to award-winning visual effects for film.
“I actually started off in games,” says Derek Bradley, developer at Aurora44. “I started at a local New Zealand games company previously called Sidhe, it’s now called Pikpok. We started off making console games. That’s actually where the three founding members of Aurora44 met, because on my first day, I was sitting right next to our lead artist and our programmer too. From there, I moved on to Weta Digital to work on stuff like The Hobbit, Prometheus and Tintin; all that kind of stuff.”
“When we were at Weta Digital, our lead artist and I started talking about it at lunch time, trying to figure out if we wanted to make a game, or what we wanted to do with our lives,” he continues. “So we came together and pitched a concept at each other, and it happened to be, pretty much, the exact same thing. So it all kind of worked out.
“We got a hold of our programmer, who joined us first. Our team’s grown since then, but that was the very start of how we got into it.”
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Aurora44 are expanding, bolstering the numbers of staff committed to making Ashen the best it can be. The core team work out of a modified home office, an indie dev haven outside of the city.
“There’re currently five full timers,” Bradley says. “One part-time effects artist. A bunch of sound guys that work remotely too. We’re in the process of expanding, so we’re moving up to seven full timers now.”
“Which is quite good for an indie studio,” he jokes.
“We work in a bit of a home office, because we can,” Bradley continues. “The way we’ve done things is to move out into the countryside and get a massive old house that we’ve converted part of into an office, and live the dream really.
“I think it’s excellent. Having everyone around is so important, just the amount of communication that happens is great. With the long hours you do in this job, all that stuff, it makes it a lot nicer when you’re closer to where you work. And when family’s close it helps too. With the day-to-day working stuff, it’s actually very, very useful to be right next to each other.”
With a name like Aurora44, you might think that Bradley and the rest of the team are northern lights enthusiasts, big fans of the madcap work of Goichi Suda51, or like Mark Hoppus more than Tom Delonge. The truth, it doesn’t really mean anything.
“This is an interesting one,” Bradley laughs. “Because there is no story behind that name at all. We do have a bit of thing to try and tell people a different story every time, but you’ve caught me off guard this time, so you get the truth. We kind of liked the sound of it, that it sounds unique and like it’s got a story behind it. But there’s nothing at all.”
After the breakout success of the XBLA, Microsoft have let their indie crown slip. But with the likes of Ori and the Blind Forest, NERO and now Ashen, they’re putting together a roster of quality indies for another run at the title.
“We originally put out a really small GIF of a guy sitting on a rock with his hair blowing in the wind,” says Bradley. “And that got picked up by a few news sites and we put it on Screenshot Saturday, where a lot of indies put what they’re doing. We got contacted by a whole bunch of people, but one of them just happened to be Microsoft, and we were talking to them for a long time, that was over a year ago now, and they just really liked the concept.
“We’ve had a few guys in Microsoft really championing our cause, which has been great. I guess the interesting thing is that when you’re talking to a big company like Microsoft you’d think that it’s going to be quite impersonal, or you have to fill out a load and go through a rigorous testing process or something. But they’ve been very personable, and I think the main thing is just that it’s been a relationship that we’ve worked hard to foster from both ends. We know each other quite well now, and we trust each other I guess; that’s the main thing.”
For more gameplay details on Ashen, check out tomorrow’s part two.