“I’ve never seen a year like this.”
So says Bret Robbins, CEO of Ascendant Studios, a relatively new development team responsible for launching Immortals of Aveum earlier in the year. The game features unique, magic-based first-person combat, and I noted in our Immortals of Aveum review that while it wasn’t perfect, there was “a lot to like” with the colorful spellcasting systems. Right out the gate, Immortals of Aveum has struggled in sales, with the studio laying off almost half of its staff weeks after the game’s launch.
Now, as the team launches an update and free trial for Immortals of Aveum, I had the chance to talk with Robbins regarding the game’s launch, the layoffs, his thoughts on subscription services like Xbox Game Pass, and more.
Why didn’t Immortals of Aveum find initial success?
While it’s hardly the only possible cause, I asked Robbins if the packed release schedule of 2023 contributed to Immortals of Aveum struggling to find an audience.
“100%,” he says. “We were not in a position where we could delay or push out of our launch window. You set those windows quite a bit ahead of time because you’re spending marketing dollars, you have commitments to a particular date.”
Robbins adds that the team already knew the chosen release window would be crowded, as Immortals of Aveum was launching around the same time as Armored Core 6: Fires of Rubicon, with Starfield following just shortly after. On top of all that, Robbins says that “no one anticipated” Baldur’s Gate 3 blowing up right before Immortals of Aveum’s launch.
“I’ve never seen a year like this,” he says, adding “It’s always hard to break through the noise when you’re a new IP or a studio people haven’t heard of before. Trying to create awareness for us was really, really difficult. It’s always hard for a new IP and this year made it 10 times harder.”
Regarding the studio’s layoffs
When I asked Robbins about the company’s layoffs and if there was any way of possibly avoiding it, he doesn’t try to sugarcoat the situation.
“The layoffs really sucked. There’s no two ways around that,” he says. “We are not a big corporation. Our business relies on selling games, and we didn’t sell enough games. And that forced me to make that decision, which, it was really unfortunate. These are people I worked closely with, people that put their heart and soul into the game. You never, ever want to have to do that.”
Robbins adds that he’s happy some of them have already found new jobs and that as Ascendant continues and grows, he hopes to work with many of them again.
Relaunch with the Echollector Update
Robbins says that the team wanted to keep supporting the Immortals of Aveum, improving things and fixing bugs. The studio launched a free trial on November 17, allowing curious newcomers to try the first couple of missions and carry their progress forward into the full experience.
This comes alongside the Echollector Update, which includes a new difficulty, New Game+, some additional endgame content, and a number of bug fixes. Robbins notes that some of these features are things the team wanted in the original launch, but development timelines meant they had to wait until this update.
Building a game in Unreal Engine 5 and working with EA
While dozens of major games are in development using Unreal Engine 5, Epic Games’ latest software, precious few have actually been released using the technology. Immortals of Aveum was one of the first, leveraging features to push image quality and effects while making heavy use of Unreal Engine 5’s reconstruction. I asked Robbins if he believes, with the benefit of hindsight, that using this technology was the right call.
“It certainly was for us. We’re not a huge studio, for AAA we’re pretty modestly sized,” he says. “Unreal 5 let us create a game that looked and played competitively to any game out there, that was a huge advantage for us. It’s really powerful, there are features in it that are pretty incredible like Nanite and Lumen that allow for really rapid iteration, things that make development more efficient.”
Robbins notes that there were still challenges due to the early nature of the engine’s launch, and that “we were certainly laying the track as the train was rolling,” with the studio consulting Epic engineers in order to get the best possible results.
“Looking back on it, I don’t think there’s any sort of way we could’ve shipped Immortals without being on Unreal 5,” he says.
As part of the EA Originals program, Ascendant Studios owns the Immortals of Aveum IP. Publisher Electronic Arts (EA) wasn’t involved on the creative side, instead handling the game’s marketing and publishing.
“There was a lot of conversation with them around having certain features they thought the game needed or accessibility features they thought the community wanted,” Robbins says, noting that improvements were made in those areas as a result of EA’s feedback, but that the publisher didn’t have any say in creative decisions.
“They were a good partner in terms of just being passionate about the game and supportive of the game. I was happy with the relationship.”
Will Immortals of Aveum come to Xbox Game Pass?
I asked Robbins if Immortals of Aveum would be coming to subscription services like Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation Plus, and if launching on one or both of those services would’ve helped Immortals of Aveum at launch.
“Certainly, those services give you a wider funnel,” he says. “More people might engage with the game, that’s always good.”
He adds that, “Yes, we are talking to them about getting the game onto both of those services. We don’t have a date yet, I’m pretty sure it’s gonna happen, though.”
In response to whether or not launching on these services would’ve helped the game at launch, he’s extremely candid.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” he says “I don’t know if that would’ve been better for us or worse,” noting that the team relied on EA to handle a lot of those calls.
Looking back and to the future
I asked Robbins if he could go back and tell himself something when development on the game first began, what would it be.
“Understanding just how important the team and the technology is to what you’re trying to make. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t have the people that can create those ideas and you don’t have the tech platform for it to even work, it doesn’t matter,” he says.
“I got very fortunate in our hiring and who eventually ended up being at Ascendant and our leadership group and everything, it’s fantastic,” While noting that he had previously always worked on big teams with big games and established franchises like Call of Duty he adds that experience came with “A lot of assumptions you make about things that should just work.”
“When you’re working on a brand new game with a brand new team and brand new technology, you can’t assume anything. You have to build everything from the ground up.” “I would tell myself to laser-focus more on the tech and on key hires at the right times,” adding that the team moved “very fast and efficiently” but that there’s always room for improvement.
When I asked if the studio has any future plans he can share, he’s careful not to reveal too much, but does confirm that Ascendant Studios is working on something right now. “I will say that Ascendant is working on a new project that I’m very excited about,” he says. “There’s a lot of possibilities about what we may or may not be doing in the future.”