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Former VFX artists from Weta Digital (The Hobbit and Batman VS Superman) formed indie studio Aurora 44 and are currently hard at work on the epic, faceless, dark fantasy adventure Ashen.
Aurora 44 has been under the radar for a while. It was just one month ago that we witnessed their first big game during E3 – Ashen. In this exclusive interview, the company’s CEO Derek Bradley shares why he chose dark visuals, the main sources of inspiration, and the advantages of using UE4 for building large scale games.
About Aurora 44
We are based in New Zealand, just outside Wellington. Our development team is currently comprised of 8 members, with additional collaborators like sound designers and musicians that aren’t included. We have come from a variety of backgrounds and many of us worked at Weta Digital on films like The Hobbit and Avatar, while others worked at a local games studio called PikPok who’ve worked on titles ranging from mobile to console.
Ashen is a third person action RPG. It is very much Low Fantasy, in that we like to keep things gritty and real. So while there are fantastical elements to the world, everything is grounded in that reality. Things you might consider magic are rare and dangerous.
Forging relationships is key to the adventures that players embark on in Ashen. It is important to us that players believe in the world of Ashen and the cornerstone of that is believing in the bonds you form with others in that world.
This is deeply rooted in our NPC system, where NPCs begin as other players that you share real experiences with and end up as important members of your town.
The Art Style
We are passionate gamers, and some of the games that have affected us most deeply include Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls and Journey. These games have been experiences that have shaped our tastes in games, and from that point of view, you could say they have influenced Ashen. Having said that, we have been crafting the look of Ashen for nearly two years now, so a lot of time has been put in to add a complex tapestry of new imagery for players to enjoy.
The lack of natural light is excellent for the experience we want. The dark corners of Ashen remind me of being a kid and looking for glow worms at night. The lack of natural light hasn’t been technically challenging to be honest, if anything, it has simply allowed us to infuse the world with a dark sense of intrigue that makes for a great adventure.
But if you are near the ash eruption that lights the world, it can get quite bright!
Using Unreal Engine 4
Unreal Engine has been an amazing tool to work with. In terms of visuals, the tool set allows our artists to be very expressive and really hone in on the look we want to achieve.
The open world support that has been a focus for UE4 has been amazing for our project, since we are building a rather large open world!
The tools Unreal Engine 4 provide are really well-suited to creating vast open world environments with their streaming tech and foliage placement tools to quickly create large areas of terrain. The world is a very vast place, with many caves and underground areas to explore as well as areas such as open plains.
Style Affecting Gameplay
Absolutely, every decision we make about the style of Ashen is driven by how it interacts with the player’s experience of the world. So gameplay and art choices both serve this purpose.
A good example of this is our faceless characters. We like how it looks, but we also like that it takes facial appearance and expression out of the equation when players judge each other. Instead, the actions of players are most important. So this has a deep impact on gameplay and interaction.
We have been putting things in and testing them from day one. Each piece of the puzzle is added to the mix and tested as we go. I think this is one of the strengths of a small team and an indie studio. We get to push the limits and give players new experiences.
Making a Game for PC
It is a very exciting time for PC! We wanted to make the type of game we enjoy most. That boils down to PC and console games. Ashen has so much heart, because the people who work on it are true fans of the platform and genre. We love what we do.