There was clearly something special about the making of Dead Space.
The cult horror game was made by a team who would go on to form Sledgehammer Games, a development studio funded by Activision Blizzard to create Call of Duty titles.
Since then, a number of Sledgehammer’s leaders have left to create their own independent studios, and when we speak to them now, it isn’t Call of Duty but Dead Space that keeps coming up. One of those studios, Striking Distance, has even created a spiritual successor to that 2008 sci-fi horror.
Today we’re talking to Ascendant Studios, formed by Dead Space and Call of Duty alumni Bret Robbins. The studio has just revealed its first game, Immortals of Aveum, during The Game Awards. And although it isn’t a sci-fi horror title, it still channels that Dead Space spirit.
"Dead Space was one of the most fun projects that I’ve ever worked on, and one of the highlights of my career," Robbins recalls fondly. "We had this great opportunity to write on a blank page, which is rare. To this day, I get more questions about Dead Space than I do about Call of Duty. It really created a cult following.
"The main reason why I think it got that following is that we just did a few things, and we did them very well. We didn’t try and do everything possible that a video game could do. Getting the horror right, the shooter mechanic right, the dismemberment mechanic right… experimenting with the 3D hud, the single camera in cinematics… God of War gets a lot of accolades for not really having cut scenes, but we did it 10 years earlier in Dead Space. It was just a few things that we decided to do. And there were a few things we decided not to do, and that was equally important."
Robbins has worked on big brands, including James Bond, Lord of the Rings and the aforementioned Call of Duty. But Dead Space was the only new IP of his career, and the lessons from creating that has informed the team’s approach to Immortals of Aveum.
"I’ve gone back to the thinking about what it was like on Dead Space," Robbins says. "When you have that blank page, you want to set down certain parameters and rules on what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. Call of Duty is a great franchise, but it had a clear design that you were working with. I went from that to suddenly being able to do whatever I wanted, and that is both enormously liberating and daunting. It reminded me a lot of those days on Dead Space. So we needed to put certain guideposts down, or we would get lost."
Dead Space may have informed the team’s approach, but it was Call of Duty that was the initial inspiration behind the upcoming fantasy first-person shooter.
"I remember viewing a level on Call of Duty, and it was a typical moment in that franchise," Robbins begins. "You’re running down a city street, there are helicopters soaring overhead, there are soldiers running with you firing assault rifles, there are rocket-propelled grenade shells blowing up around you. Everything was dialled to 11. I remember stopping and thinking… instead of a helicopter, what if that was a dragon? Instead of RPG shells hitting that wall, what if they were fireballs cast by a battle mage? What if instead of guns, we had awesome spells? I asked myself, where is that game? I want to play that game. And eventually I told myself I want to make that game.
"What we’re making now isn’t fantasy Call of Duty. It is something else. But it is inspired by the idea of creating a very cinematic, fast-paced, action magic shooter."
"I remember stopping and thinking… instead of a helicopter, what if that was a dragon?"
Ascendant formed in 2018. We last spoke with Robbins way back in February 2019. In those days the dream was to create a big AAA title made by a team of 100 people. And that’s exactly what’s happening, Robbins says.
"We were going for about a month and there was about seven or eight of us," he recalls. "We were very small. Suddenly, Telltale Games shut down. They were one of the larger studios in the Bay Area, and we’re based there. It was a shock to the employees. We heard they were all commiserating at a nearby bar, so we drove over and met a lot of people. And from that meeting, out of the ashes of Telltale, I hired at least half a dozen people. Some of them very high up at the studio."
With that foundation in place, one of the things that Robbins wanted to encourage was a culture of transparency. Even if the news is bad, he would share it with the team. "I think that’s appreciated and somewhat rare in our industry," Robbins says.
But another key part of the culture was around crunch and burnout, and doing whatever possible to avoid it.
"I don’t like to crunch," he tells us. "We do it in a very targeted way for short durations. And we don’t do it very often. You never know when you try something like that… do you need crunch to make something great? The answer is no you don’t."
He continues: "I’ve been doing this for 26 years. Started at Crystal Dynamics, then I worked at EA and then at Sledgehammer. And during certain points in my career, I crunched a lot. And I never thought I was effective. I felt like you made worse decisions, you’re more tired, you’re not more productive, it burns you out and hurts your morale. It does a lot of bad things. It’s not worth the small amount of productivity that you might be squeezing out of people, because you’re just not getting their best work. I’ve certainly experienced it in the past. I’ve seen what it does to people and I didn’t want to do that to my team. Or to do it to myself again."
As the team was still being built and this culture established, COVID-19 hit and lockdown followed. Suddenly, Robbins was hiring a team and creating a big new IP with a team working from home. It created all sorts of obvious challenges, but it also made that goal of avoiding burnout harder to monitor.
"You’re not in an office so you can’t easily see who is sitting at their desk at 2am," he says. "You don’t know if they’re working more than they should. Or if they feel like they should be working more than they should. Are you communicating effectively to everyone that we don’t need to do this? Sometimes you get the problem of people pushing themselves very hard. You like to see it, but you don’t want to burn them out. And it’s harder to see what everyone is doing remotely. We try to keep an eye on that, and our managers are in contact with everyone on the team all the time. It is another one of those remote challenges that is new and different."
Immortals of Aveum is a single-player title. Robbins has been making these games his entire career. Even his work on Call of Duty involved him directing the story campaigns. Investors seem to be favouring multiplayer, service-based titles with their money these days. But Ascendant had an investor very keen on the single-player experience: Brian Sheth.
"He and I talked about this game idea for a long time before we decided to do it,” Robbins says. “As far as where the money goes, or what publishers want to do… I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve seen that pendulum swing back and forth. It’s multiplayer, then it’s then VR... I actually see a swing towards single player these days. I consider Elden Ring a single player game, although it does have a multiplayer component. The new God of War… there are massive single player games out there."
With the team and investor in place, the final piece of the puzzle was the publisher. And having self-funded the game, Robbins turned back to Dead Space publisher EA, and its Originals label.
"I just thought they could reach the biggest possible audience,” Robbins concludes. “EA understand AAA games and how to bring them to market. They have great marketing campaigns. And they’ve been a fantastic partner to us. I am very happy with that decision."