Ashen: Kiwi-made Xbox adventure highlights NZ's booming game industry
At New Zealand's International Games Festival Play by Play in Wellington last month, gamers from across the country gathered to get a glimpse of the future of the NZ game industry.
It was a chance to put the spotlight on a growing group of talented Kiwi game developers and check out some of the exciting titles in the pipeline, some of which will be released over the next few months.
If there was one thing that really stood out at the festival, it was that the videogame business is booming - things have never been better, in fact. While there's an understandable tendency for companies to put a positive spin on things at these events, the figures speak for themselves.
New Zealand game studios earned a record $100 million in revenue in 2017, and with an independent survey of NZ Game Developers Association studios showing growth of 12 per cent in the past 12 months, it's fair to say the industry is in the midst one of the most exciting times in its brief but busy history.
One of the studios at the forefront of this mini tech boom is Wellington-based Aurora44. The small indie team, mainly made up of Kiwi developers, coders and artists in their 20s and 30s have been hard at work creating something that could go on to be one of the biggest NZ-made games of all time.
Ashen, an ambitious co-op RPG set in a living, breathing world, has been under construction for the past four years, and is due for release soon. Early in its development, the game captured the attention of the ID@Xbox team and was quickly signed up as a Xbox and Windows exclusive.
When one of the world's biggest technology companies shows that kind of faith in a relatively tiny start-up, it's a clear sign that there has been some serious potential identified in what they're putting together. It also opens up the kind of marketing, research and publicity opportunities that most studios of this size can only dream of.
It also brings with it added pressure - when Microsoft come knocking, you'd better hope that whatever you deliver meets the high standards expected of an Xbox title.
There's also a lot of competition out there when it comes to RPG adventures, but Aurora 44 creative director Derek Bradley, feels that the emphasis on co-op play makes Ashen distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd
"It's story-driven game with high risk combat and a multiplayer system that seamlessly connects players in the background so they can help each other out as they tackle the challenges this world has to offer," Bradley said.
"The combination of a deadly open world setting, paired with players helping each other out to get through the games toughest obstacles is the heart of the experience."
Every game is a product of its creators, and its environment - and Bradley was keen to emphasise the influences Ashen's developers have taken from New Zealand and the natural beauty of its landscape.
"The open plains and volcanic feel reflects our team's deep connection with the landscape of New Zealand. It's something that will resonate with anyone who has explored the wild places of our country," Bradley said.
No matter how much in-house testing a game goes through, It's difficult to get an idea of how it will be received until gamers actually get their hands on it. Bradley was encouraged by the response Ashen received at the recent Pax East conference in Boston
"It was a great way to see how people respond to playing Ashen," he said.
"One of the best parts was seeing people come by on the first day to have a play coming back later that day or the next and bringing their friends to play, and so on, a really organic growth of interest in the game."
Aurora 44 may be a relatively small fish in a very big pond, but Bradley is glad to see Kiwi developers punching above their weight in the global market.
"New Zealand games compare well in general, although of course there's a huge range of different sizes and kinds of games at an event like PAX East so it's hard to make a direct comparison," Bradley said.
"We're a unique country with a surprisingly large pool of talent. With institutions like Weta Digital here in Wellington, a great range of creative people are drawn into the country."
Bradley said that having the backing of a technology giant like Xbox has given the Aurora44 team the kind of resources that have allowed them to take their time and fine tune the game to make sure it reaches its full potential.
"ID@Xbox have been fantastic supporters throughout the development process," Bradley said.
"They have a strong focus on creativity and new talent and have really thrown their support behind getting new ideas out there. It's been great to be part of the programme. The Xbox team have supported our team from the very beginning," he said
Senior director of ID@Xbox Chris Charla said that investing in smaller developers allows Microsoft bring the cream of the world's indie games to the Xbox platform.
"A developer in small town anywhere on earth can now reach a global audience, and that means that players get to experience more diverse content, more diverse content, and more diverse stories," Charla said.
"We work really hard to make sure that we're running a global program – we have developers with Xbox One dev kits in more than 75 countries around the globe," he said.
Charla is particularly excited about the potential of Ashen, and is confident that it will prove to be a hit when it finally hits the shelves.
"We've been huge supporters of Ashen since we first saw the game. It's an awesome team with an amazing vision," Charla said.
With the gaming world descending on Los Angeles for E3 in June, expect more details to be released about Ashen soon - it's almost certain we'll get a confirmed release date at the Xbox briefing.
Although there are high hopes and a great expectations for the game - everything we've seen of it so far incidates that Ashen is perfectly placed to become the latest Kiwi gaming success story.