How Call of Duty dev made the shift to fantasy with Immortals of Aveum

For a Call of Duty game, Immortals of Aveum flew in under my radar. I jest, of course, as the title is the debut fantasy game from Ascendant Studios.

It so happens that Bret Robbins, CEO and game director of Ascendant, dreamed of taking Call of Duty gameplay into new territory, like a fantasy game with magic. While that sounds a bit absurd, I really enjoyed the gameplay in a recent preview at Electronic Arts, which is publishing the title on July 20. As you cast spells, it reminds you of wielding a shotgun or assault rifle in a Call of Duty game.

The single-player-only game is coming to the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S and the PC. And while there is a tutorial training level, the gameplay will be quite familiar to first-person shooter players. This “magic FPS” lets you cast magic spells from your hand that feel like you’re taking shots with modern weapons.

It’s a bit like BioShock in its interface and the gunplay, I means spellplay, was pretty good with a solid vibration every time I fired. I enjoyed the type and variety of enemies, and they weren’t so easy to dispatch. The game looks beautiful as an Unreal Engine 5 title.

After I played, I spoke with Robbins, who was the former senior creative director at Sledgehammer Games, the maker of titles such as Call of Duty: WWII. He started Ascendant Studios, which has more than 200 people, five years ago.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Bret Robbins is CEO and game director of Ascendant Studios.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me where the inspiration for this came from? How long have you been working on it?

Bret Robbins: I started this company five years ago, but I was thinking about the game probably seven or eight years ago. I think the initial inspiration came from my time on Call of Duty. Learning how to make a big blockbuster shooter, what that meant, and then looking around and not seeing anything in the fantasy genre like that. That seemed like a huge missed opportunity. I was surprised that no one was making anything like that, and so I decided I wanted to make it.

GamesBeat: How big an effort has it been, then?

Robbins: It started as a company of one. I started hiring. Probably for the first two years we were around 30 to 40 people or so. We started hiring up at that point, and today Ascendant is more than 200 people.

GamesBeat: How did you match up with Electronic Arts?

Robbins: About two, two and a half years into production we had finished a combat prototype. In my view, it proved out what the core of the game was going to be. It was a lot of fun to play. It showed what it meant to do magic as your guns and all of that. It had a bunch of interesting abilities and a bunch of enemies. That got us on EA’s radar. I knew we would need a marketing partner pretty soon. We were going into full production.

We talked to them and they were excited about the game. We partnered up in the beginning of 2022. It’s been a great partnership. We’re very happy with them. Ascendant is funding the game development entirely and we own the IP, but EA Originals has been a great publishing and marketing partner for us.

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Magic is colorful in Immortals of Aveum.

GamesBeat: So the colors of magic are blue, red, green–are there other colors too?

Robbins: Just blue, red, and green.

GamesBeat: Does that sort of correspond to sniper, shotgun, assault rifle?

Robbins: For the primary spells, yeah. But then there are the controls and the furies. There are quite a few other options there.

GamesBeat: But it parallels the gun combat in Call of Duty?

Robbins: I wanted the game to have some familiarity and accessibility for players who like shooters. I didn’t want to completely reinvent the wheel. I wanted to have a good foundation where we could build all of our unique abilities and combat mechanics. We were constantly walking that line between keeping it familiar, but also bringing in something new. That was challenging, but it ended up working.

GamesBeat: And this is running at 60 frames per second? It seemed very fast.

Robbins: Yeah, yeah. It’s 60. We’re doing 60 frames on all platforms.

GamesBeat: It seems like a big undertaking for a startup. Were there some lessons you learned that helped you tackle such a big game?

Robbins: A couple of things that I think helped us–one, we had a very clear vision from the beginning. I’d spent a few months before I hired anyone on just writing out a game design document, a story treatment, game pillars, things that would be important to the game. If you read those documents today, they’re very much what we ended up making. Projects can get into a lot of trouble, a lot of rough water, when the vision shifts and changes. Just that consistency of vision helped us a lot. It made everything a lot clearer for everyone. And then honestly the fact that we were a smaller team made us agile. It allowed us to move fast and fail fast.

GamesBeat: Were there other inspirations besides wanting to do a fantasy game?

Robbins: Because this was really an opportunity for me to make my own game, I took a lot of different inspirations from lots of different sources and put them in a blender. I had a lot of things come out that were interesting and different. There weren’t a lot of singular inspiration points. Call of Duty, the fast-paced combat of Call of Duty, that was certainly in my mind. Games like BioShock that create such a great world.

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I take it this guy isn’t a friendly.

GamesBeat: The BioShock influence was familiar. The colors make it a lot easier to follow.

Robbins: Yeah, that was a very early idea, to do the red, green, and blue and have them each have their own identity. When you’re working on creating something that’s based on magic, you can go in a million different directions. Pretty quickly I realized we needed to put our own rules in place, or else this was going to be a mush of nonsense. The red, green, and blue came in for that reason. That helped focus everything.

GamesBeat: When players get more used to it, what kinds of things are they doing? I didn’t pick up on using the furies very much yet.

Robbins: The furies are hugely important. They’re sort of our showstopper spells. As you progress through the game you get more familiar with how to combo spells together, which spells work great in tandem together. I’m going to lash you in and use red blast up close. I’m going to use vortex to pull a bunch of enemies together and then use my shatter spell to blow them all up at once. Opportunities like that, you start to become familiar with them. There’s definitely skill involved in spell selection. You can also find spells that you really like and invest in them through the gear system or through talents and make them more powerful.

GamesBeat: I did notice, with the one boss I found so far, that headshots were very important.

Robbins: Yeah, critical shots like that are part of the personality of the blue magic. The more sharpshooter-accurate blue blasts–there are talents around critical hits and doing more damage with critical hits. Not every character’s critical spot is a head, though. There are other creatures where you’ll need to hit them somewhere else.

GamesBeat: How big would you say the game is?

Robbins: If you’re just trying to power through, enjoy the story, and not really engaging in the side content, it’s probably a solid 20 hours or so. Maybe a little more. If you want to go off the beaten path and explore, we have a lot there. It’s probably 30 or 40 hours. There’s a lot of side challenges and things you can find, especially toward the endgame. Hidden bosses and things like that.

GamesBeat: Is there multiplayer?

Robbins: There’s no multiplayer, no. Single-player only. We’ve certainly talked a lot about it and done a bit of prototyping. But for this first game–single-player is something I’m very passionate about. It’s something I’ve done for my entire career. I knew I wanted a big campaign to introduce people to this world and this franchise. I decided to focus on that.

The artwork is solid fantasy in Immortals of Aveum.
The artwork is solid in Immortals of Aveum.

GamesBeat: Does EA seem like a strange partner in that way?

Robbins: Not so much. They just did the Dead Space remake. Jedi Survivor just came out. That’s a great single-player game. I think they’re embracing it quite a bit, and I’m glad they are. Every year you look at the top 10 best-selling triple-A games, there’s always single-player in the list. Usually quite a few. I think it’s here to stay.

GamesBeat: The lore does seem interesting. What do you think you brought in that way that’s special, the background of this world?

Robbins: My lead writer, myself, and actually we have a lore writer as well–we all spent a lot of time on the world, the backstory, the characters. It was important that everything felt believable and consistent, that you were really in a world. I like world-building myself. I find it a lot of fun. We spent a lot of time on that.

GamesBeat: The different kinds of bosses, how would you group them or describe them?

Robbins: Well, there are several bosses in the game, and they’re each sort of different. Sometimes in an early level a boss will become a recurring enemy later in the game. But the bosses were important to mix up the gameplay and have impressive moments in the experience.

GamesBeat: With the way game development technology has evolved, was there anything particular that helped you in that area? Did AI arrive in time to help you?

Robbins: Not so much? Mostly it was just working in Unreal 5. We’re on the cutting edge a bit there. It has some powerful tools and features. We got up to speed on that and that helped us quite a bit, making the game look and play as well as it does.

GamesBeat: Did you start with Unreal 4 and switch over?

Robbins: Yeah, we started on 4 and then migrated over to 5. We were early adopters. The Nanite feature is pretty powerful. It’s on-the-fly LOD, which allows you to get higher fidelity in your geo. And then Lumen, the dynamic lighting system, is really powerful. That helps workflow. It helps you be able to iterate faster and it makes the world look beautiful. Those two features in particular were very powerful.

Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz