An Interview With “Ascent Of Ashes” Developer Vivid Storm Interactive

It’s a classic story in the games industry: player loves game, player mods game, player decides to create a whole new game.  It happened with Counter-Strike, it happened with DOTA 2, and players are going to see it all over again with Vivid Storm Interactive’s upcoming Ascent of Ashes. We took some time to interview the lead developer who started the project, and try to get a little more information about this upcoming roguelike.

“So, what’s your story?”

GameLuster: To let our readers know, kindly introduce yourself and your role at Vivid Storm Interactive.

Vivid Storm Interactive: I’m Maximilian Hermann, lead developer and founder of Vivid Storm Interactive

GL: Walk us through the early days, if you would. You’ve been working on the “Combat Extended” mod for RimWorld, it gets up to version 1.4, you’ve got fans who love how it improves the base game. At what point does it occur to you, “Why not just make a whole game?”

VSI: The idea actually goes back a long ways, when RimWorld was still in Early Access. RimWorld had just recently added an overworld system and it got me really excited. That excitement waned over time when the developers failed to really do anything interesting with the overworld. While there were things you could do with it, it never evolved beyond an optional gimmick, because the game itself was originally designed to support play on only a single map.

I started a project to correct that and make the overworld a more integrated part of the colony sim. After developing the initial concept I went to work on the implementation and it became quickly apparent that I was fighting the game at every turn. Just about every mechanic and balance decision had to be revised or overhauled to properly embed overworld interactions, faction trade and exploration. Eventually I said to myself “I’m basically designing a new game from scratch here, might as well do it properly.”

GL: Looking back through the blogs on the game’s website, it feels like a lot of the groundwork happened during the pandemic. Did that have a lot of impact on the development process, or were you ahead of the curve from the work on “Combat Extended?”

VSI: Most of the initial development happened while I was still working a full-time job, funding additional developers out of my personal pocket and pouring in hours of my free time to test out different concepts, create prototypes and see what would stick. Given I was working as a team leader in airport operations at the time, and the pandemic came just after the Thomas Cook bankruptcy, there was a major downsizing at the company which lead to a lack of funds for a while. Eventually we put together our Kickstarter and successfully remedied that issue though, and now our development is self-sufficient.

GL: The site mentions XCOM and Jagged Alliance as being influences on Ascent of Ashes. What systems out of those games held particularly strong influences?

VSI: I would say the overall map structure is something that will be very familiar to players of XCOM and Jagged Alliance. The principle idea of Ascent of Ashes is that you’re building up a base on a tile-based map, but that map exists within a larger overworld filled with city ruins, survivor settlements, abandoned military bases and other points of interest. You put together teams of survivors, making decisions on their weapons and loadouts, before sending them off to explore these places. Once there you enter on a new, procedurally generated map you need to clear of enemies to gain access to whatever loot and vital resources you can find. You then bring your spoils back home and use them to build up your base with advanced tech or equip the next team with better equipment.

“It’s like a day on the farm. Every meal’s a banquet. Every paycheck’s a fortune. Every combat event a John Woo movie!”

GL: The reveal trailer mentioned that Ascent of Ashes will be “modder friendly.” What sort of mods are you anticipating? What kinds of mods would you like to see being made?

VSI: For games of this type, the bulk of mods are made up by content additions. Mods that add new items, outfits, weapons, vehicles, and so on. We also expect a fair number of mods adding new mechanics. This sort of mod requires more skill to make, but we’re laying the groundwork for modders to create entirely new game mechanics or overhaul existing ones.

Personally the latter are what I’m most excited to see. Modders can get very creative and sometimes completely overhaul games, to the point of creating entirely new genres, as was the case with Warcraft III and DOTA for example. It will be interesting to see if someone decides to turn AoA into a hardcore MilSim, or a grand strategy game or some such.

GL: RimWorld was kinda brutal as far as difficulty went. Is there going to be a slightly gentler learning curve for Ascent of Ashes? Or are there going to be a lot of failed colonies?

VSI: Having complex and challenging gameplay is a core part of the vision for AoA, but it’s also very important to properly teach these mechanics to the player. A lot of simulation games end up fun to play, but difficult to get into, because they don’t bother properly teaching players how to play. It is our goal to create complex gameplay that is still intuitive and easy to grasp for new players.

GL: What’s been one of the more unusual scenarios you’ve run into while testing out the various systems? Something that left the team scratching their head even as they thought, “Well, that was kinda cool.”

VSI: Well, bugs are unfortunately a common occurrence throughout development. While most of them are boring math or logic errors, one of the more unusual ones we’ve had was when some misplaced brackets in the code controlling weapon sway lead to shooters turning to break dance as they tried to shoot their target. Usually they ended up shooting themselves in the feet. Turns out firing a gun as part of your dance routine is not a good idea.

You know one of those guys is thinking, “Why can’t we settle this with a dance battle?”

GL: With Ascent of Ashes aiming for a Q4 release (as of this writing), how are you managing workflow and avoiding crunch?

VSI: We are working closely with our publisher to ensure milestones are laid out and deadlines are hit as best as we can. We are a small team. So being efficient and effective is critical to keeping up with features we envisioned for the Early Access release. No project is without it’s ups and downs and challenges. But we are problem solvers and never give up on pushing forward so a great game can be released

GL: Can you speak at all about post-launch plans, even in a general sense? Are we likely to see expansions or themed DLC within the first year? Or are you expecting that first year to be esoteric bug fixes and performance tuning?

VSI: AoA is an ambitious game in terms of scope and breadth. There are many features that we’ll have on the roadmap even after the Early Access release. So continuous development to, yes, improve performance and bash bugs will be critical. But simultaneously, we now have really good infrastructure to continue to ship new features that we know players will love through the post-release development cycle.

And who doesn’t love a good flying jellyfish?

GL: Assuming things go reasonably well and any post-launch roadmap stays close to plan, have you started sketching out the next big project? Or will Ascent of Ashes take a path similar to No Man’s Sky, where it’s Vivid Storm’s only product with constant support?

VSI: We’re developers so ideas are always kicking around. But we are really hoping AoA can be something really special. So we want to make sure it’s a full, deep experience. Which means lots of ongoing support for AoA will be a priority.

GL: Thank you for your time, Max.  We can’t wait to see the game when it comes out.

Ascent of Ashes is currently slated for a Q4 release on PC and can be wishlisted on Steam.