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Meet the Developer behind Post-Apocalyptic ARPG Ashen, Aurora44



Ashen logo

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.”

A view from Ashen

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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.”

Ashen office panorama

Aurora44’s home office in panorama

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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.

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Find Aurora44 on Facebook, Twitter and around the web.

Lead Interview and Features editor. Eats, games, and leaves. Tweet at me! @Jiffe93

Exclusive Interviews

The Occupation Designer Reveals Game Length, Talks Design, Inspiration, and More



The Occupation promo

After a protracted development period, fixed-time thriller The Occupation is set to release in one month’s time. Between its retro aesthetic and immersive sim-inspired gameplay, the game is shaping up as one of 2019’s most unique titles.

In light of that, OnlySP recently spoke to Pete Bottomley, designer of The Occupation and co-founder of developer White Paper Games to find out more about the promising project.

OnlySP: I thought I’d start off with a fairly obvious question. Given the real-time nature of The Occupation, how long can players expect a single run through to last, and by how much can that time be shortened or prolonged by the player’s actions?

Bottomley: The core gameplay is designed around 4 hours of play. There are some sections that are untimed, whether it be for narrative impact or tutorialisation for the player. As we’re playing through the game as a team, it’s taking us around 6.5 hours to play through the game.

The Occupation

OnlySP: How many endings does the game have?

Bottomley: The game’s outcome is a reflection of the steps the player took through the game. I think when playing games, you always want the outcomes to reflect your approach and we’re massively inspired by how games such as Dishonored can tackle that. Our hope is that the ending you experience feels like it reflects their approach and actions.

OnlySP: Tied to that, approximately how many playthroughs would be required to see everything that the game has to offer?

Bottomley: Our intention wasn’t to design a game that required multiple playthroughs. I’m personally the type of player that plays through a narrative, gets an outcome, and that’s my story. That being said, we’ve tried to fill the world with a lot of content, and because of the real-time character simulating actions, hopefully with second and third playthroughs, players will uncover different ways to solve challenges or narrative threads they hadn’t picked up on before.

OnlySP: How did you come to settle on the politicised premise of an Act robbing citizens of civil liberties?

Bottomley: Since we invest so much of our lives into making games, you have to work on something you feel is meaningful and rewarding of your time. At the time of concepting The Occupation, there was a lot of friction between what was happening in the UK and abroad. It affects us all and we wanted to work on something that may put people’s views into perspective.

Our previous game Ether One dealt with the difficulties of seeing a family member suffering with dementia and our aim is to continue these important themes throughout all of our games.

The Occupation screenshot 3

OnlySP: Also, issues surrounding privacy and freedom of speech, among other civil liberties, are pertinent right now. How close to your mind were the modern concerns about the topic while you were concepting the game? And have real-world events impacted the story of The Occupation across the development period?

Bottomley: The world around us always inspires us, but we don’t really rely on specific events to drive any part of the game’s narrative. When you’re developing a game that tries to get its own narrative across but ground it in the real world, you have to try to distil them to focus on the story you’re trying to tell. In a sense, real world stories inspire us but it’s more of an observational thing rather than a particular event we want to depict faithfully. We tend to focus on the emotional and societal impact of the event itself.

OnlySP: How present will those sorts of themes be within the average player’s experience? Or should players expect to be able to lose themselves entirely in the investigation without really leaning on the context?

Bottomley: We aim to put context on all of your actions in the world otherwise there’s not much meaning behind the choices being made. That being said, you can choose to follow certain narrative threads over others, which allows the player to follow the most interesting lead they come across.

OnlySP: Players take the role of a journalist in the game; how accurate would you say your portrayal is of the technologies and general aesthetic of late ‘80s Britain? How much research went into getting the language and atmosphere of the era right?

Bottomley: It’s interesting you raise that point as we’ve just been speaking about the world limitations in this game. In our previous game, Ether One, we aimed to deliver a grounded narrative that had certain sci-fi elements. With The Occupation, we wanted to go even more grounded and aim to deliver a world that belongs in the ’80s so any aesthetic and technological choices were always taken into consideration. Surrounding yourself with these limitations can create really cool gameplay mechanics such as our pager as a message delivery system, public payphones to update your objectives, and fax machines to deliver information.

The Occupation screenshot 2

OnlySP: The game has been delayed twice now, both times quite close to the scheduled release. Is there any chance you could shed some light on the causes of the delays?

Bottomley: Delaying a game is a gut wrenching decision. You’ve put a promise out there and you push yourself to deliver. We’ve aimed incredibly high on this game both technologically and in the game’s design. On top of this, we wanted to deliver the game in as many languages as we could along with sim-shipping on PC, XB1, & PS4 and doing a retail disc submission so that people could pick up the game in stores if they wanted to hold a physical representation of the game. Because of these platforms, the game has to be ready a couple of months in advance to help distribution and all the different regions to have the version of the game you intend for them. With complexity always come more bugs and since our last game shipped in a buggy state, we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. We’ve QA’d the game for months and had support from our publishers in helping to identify the issues. As with any game, we’ll no doubt spot some issues on launch, but we’ve already put processes in place to address these as quickly as we can and hopefully the execution of the game will immerse people and keep players engaged so that nothing disrupts the experience.

OnlySP: I recall on Twitter that you once wrote that you were testing the possibility of a Switch port. How seriously have you looked at that possibility and what’s the likelihood?

Bottomley: Right now we have a Switch development kit frustratingly gathering dust in our studio. Since we’re a small team, it can be a tough choice trying to figure out where to best use your resources. We’d absolutely love to get the game onto Switch but we’ve not tested a build yet. It’s the first thing we’ll be moving onto in March so we should be able to update people as soon as we know how The Occupation runs on it. Thankfully using Unreal Engine makes this process a lot more straightforward and we’ve seen a lot of developer friends find success on the Switch so it’s a great opportunity to reach a larger audience.

OnlySP: How does it feel for you and the team to be just about ready to wrap development after four years of work?

Bottomley: It’s not quite set in yet. Although we’re done with the game and excited to see the reception it gets from people, it’s really only 50% of the work, especially when you’re in a small team. We’re currently planning all the marketing and PR opportunities along with reflecting on the development cycle and figuring out what we can do better (to hopefully not spend another 4 years on a game!).

The Occupation screenshot 1

OnlySP: Finally, do you have any closing comments for our readers or anything else you’d like to say about The Occupation?

Bottomley: The whole team has put an incredible amount of energy into The Occupation. If you look at our previous game compared to The Occupation, you can see how far we’ve come. It’s been a huge learning curve for the studio both technically and in production and we’re excited to move onto another game to push ourselves. We’re unable to do that without game sales. It sounds corny, but we really can’t develop games without our community’s support. We value each purchase and we want to grow and keep pushing to create more interesting games. We have a lot of goals and drive and we’re focusing on growing and creating more experiences for the player. If you’re reading this and have purchased any of our games, thank you. It absolutely means the world to be able to wake up in the morning and be excited to develop games. Thank you.

The Occupation is set to release on March 5, 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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