Whenever a new franchise hits the triple-A gaming calendar, I always have a chicken-or-the-egg question regarding its origins: Did this begin as a story, or did someone have a gameplay concept to which they later fit a story?
Despite the stylish, heavy action gameplay shown so far — and again in a new trailer on Thursday — Immortals of Aveum began as a story, Ascendant Studios founder Bret Robbins told Polygon this week. Last year, Robbins pinpointed the game’s origins to a stray thought he had while working on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare a decade ago: What if we just swapped all of these guns and helicopters for wands and dragons?
But, he said this week, that gameplay vision wasn’t the end; it was a means to make a truly creative statement, more sophisticated than throwing bolts of magical energy with your right hand and shielding an attack with the left.
“I’m used to having a split brain, when it comes to ‘OK, I’m developing some of the gameplay mechanics and I’m also developing the world, and they just inform each other,’” Robbins said. Five years after it was chartered, the studio has more than 100 developers and is almost ready to deliver its first work, Immortals of Aveum, published under Electronic Arts’ EA Originals label.
“But I knew that what was most important with this franchise, and this game, was creating a compelling world that we can revisit over and over again,” Robbins said. “People want to spend a lot of time with it, and so I think that was the real driver.”
Fifteen years ago, Robbins was creative director on Dead Space, an all-new intellectual property with a huge, largely implied canon that would eventually serve two sequels and a couple of spinoffs. Despite that game’s critical success, the studio behind it went on to be shuttered in 2017. By then, Robbins had already left for Sledgehammer Games, where he worked on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, WWII, and Modern Warfare (2019).
His experience with Dead Space has still lingered, though, and it has greatly informed the development of Immortals, Robbins said.
“Starting to work on Immortals reminded me of all of those days of like, all you’ve got is some whiteboard, and a blank page, and a bunch of crazy ideas,” Robbins said. “I think the process on Dead Space was sort of similar; we did a lot of experimentation early on, we failed fast, and tried some crazy things. But we developed our pillars on Dead Space very early, and we stuck to them.”
In Dead Space’s case that involved things like its unique, in-world heads-up display, and no use of cinematics or quick-time events to advance the story, therefore giving the player a feeling of unrelenting, sunk-in tension that they couldn’t escape without leaving the game altogether. For Immortals of Aveum, Robbins and the developers at Ascendant are going for the same immersion, just on less terrifying terms. Mainly, they want players to be in awe of themselves, and thrilled simply by slinging bolts of energy across a battlefield like super-powerful battle mages.
“I had our pillars on Immortals of Aveum that I set out within those first few months of writing, and I stuck to them,” Robbins said. “The thing that can damage a project the most, especially a new project, is flip-flopping on the vision, and rebooting the vision, and doing wild swings, left and right turns, while you’re trying to find your voice. The most important thing you can do is stick to your guns.”
That doesn’t mean sticking to one’s guns is a simple thing, though. Robbins said making sure Immortals of Aveum’s combat is exciting, understandable, and fast-paced, as well as being properly competitive, has kept him up many nights. “The world already had a strong vision,” he said, “but getting the combat to have a strong focus and strong vision [didn’t happen until] almost two years into the project. And at that point, we all said, ‘OK, this is what the game is, we understand the game, now we need to make all the levels and put everything about this. Because, you know, making a magic shooter is difficult. A lot of people haven’t done it for a reason.”
Immortals of Aveum launches July 20 for PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. It’s the first title from Ascendant Studios.