Interview: Immortals of Aveum creator Bret Robbins delves into game’s unlikely creation

Brad Norton
Immortals of Aveum cinematic

Immortals of Aveum is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking from a brand-new team at Ascendant Studios. In an industry with ballooning budgets and sky-high expectations, bold new ideas rarely come to the table, at least not at the highest level of AAA game development. So how did Bret Robbins pull it off with his newly formed team? We went straight to the source to find out.

After a few hours in the world of Aveum, a recent hands-on session left me awestruck not only at the game itself, but at the very fact such a bold project even came to fruition in the current landscape. As mentioned in our preview, new ideas backed by blockbuster budgets of this size are exceedingly rare in the gaming industry today given the inherent financial risks involved.

An original IP with a unique gameplay framework around it bolstered by industry-leading production value is all but unheard of at the very top of the AAA space. So how did a newly formed team manage to break the mold and deliver just that? We were fortunate enough to sit down with veteran game director Bret Robbins to piece together the story behind its development.

From the early days with just a handful of employees to years of full-tilt production with more than 100 staff members, here’s what we learned about Immortals of Aveum’s journey at Ascendant Studios.

Immortals of Aveum Kirkan
Immortal’s of Aveum is no small feat for a debut project.

“Clarity of vision” over all else

Throughout Robbins’ illustrious career leading titles like Dead Space and a number of popular entries in the Call of Duty franchise, one rule has always remained paramount: “Clarity of vision.”

Ensuring every single developer has a clear understanding of the full picture is vital to the end product’s success, he explained. It’s a rule that carried through while building his very own studio at Ascendant, as Robbins knew exactly what game he wanted to make first, and made as much clear while hiring for the project.

“If you look at the design documents and the story outline I wrote back then [five years ago], it’s pretty much [Immortals of Aveum].

“There were some core pillars I really wanted to do in the game. I wanted really interesting, spell-combining combat. I wanted a big epic story. I had a bunch of characters in mind that you now see. Once I brought my lead writer on, we definitely improved it quite a bit, but the skeleton of it was all there.”

For half a decade, Robbins was steadfast in his commitment to the original vision. In turn, the dozens of developers joining his effort knew exactly what they were getting into. From the overall narrative to key gameplay systems, a great deal was mapped out from the very beginning. “The vision didn’t flip-flop and change,” he said. “No, this is gonna be a magic-shooter, cinematic experience, and we kept it true to that.”

Immortals of Aveum gameplay
A ‘magic-shooter’ at its core, Immortals of Aveum will have you cycling between powerful abilities in the heat of combat.

Though it’s worth bearing in mind, Aveum is no standard game. Unlike with previous titles he helped bring to market, games like Call of Duty where you had years of previous examples to rely on as a reference point, this new project didn’t quite have that luxury. After all, it’s an original universe that players navigate through an innovative mix of gameplay systems. So when recruiting for the Ascendant team, Robbins had to pitch the idea without any other real comparison to draw on.

“For the very early people, I just had some design documents,” he described. When hiring the initial batch of employees, he relied on his own “60-page” brief along with “a bunch of images pulled from the internet. Here’s how the game could look.”

As development progressed, however, visualizing the project during the hiring process became easier. With new prototypes and demos put together, the team would show these early glimpses during interviews and candidates “got really excited” at the prospect of working on something entirely fresh.

“I was very fortunate with my hiring because people just wanted to work on something new. You don’t see a lot of new games at this budget level in the AAA space. People knew they could really leave their mark on it and be part of creating a new franchise.”

A new studio with some bold ideas

So with a story mapped out and a blueprint in mind for Immortals of Aveum’s overall structure, the team got to work back in 2018. What came first was essentially a full year of “experimenting,” Robbins explained, as the team went back and forth on the core gameplay loop.

“Getting the core gameplay right and creating that foundation, honestly was the hardest part. For the first year or so, we tried a lot of things. We went down some strange roads that weren’t always the best.

“About a year in I just decided, let’s get our fundamentals now. Let’s make sure this feels like a great shooter first, then we’ll put in all the other cool stuff we want to do. That resulted in a combat demo that I think was really, really strong.”

Having now played through a bite-sized chunk of the game, there’s no denying the originality on display. While Immortals of Aveum feels like an expertly refined FPS in one moment, it morphs into an intense battle of strategy in the next as you survey the enemies ahead, consider your arsenal of magical abilities, and position yourself for the optimal onslaught. It’s an incredibly satisfying mix of familiar components that coalesce to create something entirely new.

It’s this exact gameplay loop that landed Ascendant Studios a partnership with Electronic Arts, Robbins then revealed. After reaching out “very early on,” before a demo was ever made, EA was originally reluctant. Though a year later, after going hands-on and experiencing this new combat, “EA got really excited once they saw what it was. It was really the strength of that combat demo.”

The possible genesis of gaming’s next big franchise

What stood out most during not only this most recent hands-on preview, but also the virtual event before it, was the depth of Aveum. Decades of lore underpin the main narrative, with multiple warring factions all having their own motives. There’s no shortage of storytelling to be found in-game, so much so, I couldn’t help but feel this first release is just that, merely the beginning of something much larger.

While falling under the EA Originals label, Robbins clarified the partnership is purely for marketing and publishing purposes. When all is said and done, “Ascendant owns the IP” and retains “complete creative control.” Thus, the ball is fully in their court when it comes to the future of their new release, and throughout the team, “there’s definitely no lack of ambition for what the future could hold.”

Ultimately, as you might expect, it boils down to the reception of the first game, Robbins said. Should the debut title connect with an audience and make people “really fall in love with the world,” possibilities are seemingly endless for what comes next. “I’ve got a lot more stories to tell.”

In fact, we even got Robbins to subtly confirm a lore book in the works, one to further expand the exciting universe. “There might be one in the works,” he said with a laugh.

When Ascendant Studios was revealed to the world in 2019, Robbins made his lofty goals public. At the time, he said he wanted to make a “big game that’s right up there with the best games ever made.”

Four years later, with Immortals of Aveum just weeks away from its July 20 release date, I ended our conversation by reminding Robbins of this objective and asking if he truly believes he’s accomplished what he set out to back then.

“I do feel like this game is as good as any game out there,” he responded without hesitation. “I think it will absolutely blow people away. I am so proud of it. I think we’ve made something great.”