Interview with Zakia Abdullah: Game Developer of Ascent

[Lashara Van Heerden | Features Manager]

Ascent is an indie game with unique visuals in a botanical design, which won the CG Student Awards for Game of the Year in 2015. I caught up with Zakia Abdullah, one of the game developers for Ascent and she gave me the bigger picture of creating a game in a team.

Note: Zakia’s answers for this interview included input from all of Ascent’s team members.

TM: Please tell me about the game developers that helped create this game. What they are studying, how the process came about, when you guys started the project and why?

ZA: We originally were a group of four students myself, Rebecca Holdak, Aaron Blows, and Leo Goldsmith, studied Games Art at the University of Hertfordshire. As part of our second year, we designed and developed a game called “Ascent”. This was inspired by Rebecca’s design document which was used as a basis for the project. We then spent the next few weeks refining the initial designs, including producing concept art and prototypes. We allowed the project to evolve naturally, exploring new ideas and challenges.

As the project evolved, we were able to reach out and freelance for audio from James Godfrey, and animation work from Amélie Talarmain and Mack Knights.

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TM: The game has a feel to it that reminded me of Trine. Where did the inspiration for the art style come from?

ZA: Originally the art direction was inspired by nature and how things formed in real life, we were particularly interested in the designs of plants and fungi. In order to help aid our design process we researched into various plant life and put together mood boards and initial concepts to help aid the art direction including design, colour, composition, mood and mechanics. We wanted to create a world which was seemingly beautiful but had a dark twist to it.

We then started looking at outside influences from indie games such as Trine 2 and Ori and the Blind Forest. Referencing actual games helped us refine the experience we wanted to create as well and helped in our understanding of how we would put the levels and visual elements together.

TM: What made you chose that style of gameplay? 

ZA: Early on we decided to stick with a side stroller as we felt it would fit our approach, world, and timeframe best. While looking at our research we started to come up with ideas for possible mechanics influence by the concept art and imagery we had collected (such as the respawn pod). We were also influenced by Trine 2 mechanics and Ori and the Blind Forest, however we wanted to add a new twist to our game such as the growing platforms from seeds mechanic. As the project evolved we started introducing new ideas and allowed things to flow quite naturally.

TM: What problems did or do you face developing a game?

ZA: There are many kinds of problems that come up when developing a game because of how many different elements you have to consider, I will give some examples of problems we had with Ascent. Many of these problems were technical, such as when we couldn’t get the vine to swing properly using Unreal 4’s physics engine, it just kept glitching out and we couldn’t get it to swing how we wanted at all. Leo had to end up making his own system for how the vine joints should rotate based on how the player jumped on it and if the player wanted to swing using the left and right movement keys. Technical problems come up all the time and they are just a normal part of development. Then you also get artistic problems, these are a little harder to straight up “fix” since it’s…you know…art, resolving these normally involves getting lots of feedback from others and making changes accordingly. There are also general game design problems, things that risk causing the gameplay to be boring, unfair or just plain un-playable sometimes. Then sometimes you have the problem of just not having enough time to do what you want to do, things have to be cut and changed to meet realistic goals, and all of these problems interact with each other making the game development process one of constant problem solving.
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TM: What other gameplay mechanics will there be?

ZA: We had ideas for other obstacles such as enemies, and even a boss fight in the form of a boar, however most of the mechanics we thought of were implemented in some way. We also had the idea for some kind of grappling ability that was never created. If we were to continue the game we would probably add more things that could be spawned with seeds, and a greater variety of traps and obstacles that could be overcome with these.

TM: What audience did you have in mind when creating the game?

ZA: Ascent was more about exploring a new world and discovering new ways to navigate while having the world resist at times. With this in mind, we wanted Ascent to be a game open to all players, something which can be easily picked up and played but with some more complex mechanics and puzzles for the avid gamer.

TM: How did you develop the storyline?

ZA: The story itself was very simple, we had intended for the game to be dialogue-free, with the player having to figure out for themselves what was going on. Because the game is just a demo, we were not able to implement the story at all. We created a small sequence at the beginning of the trailer to give a brief explanation of the plot, but the game is more focused on experience than story at this point.

TM: What made you chose the Unreal 4 engine?

ZA: During our time at university we had be taught the Unreal Engine. Unreal 4 was a perfect fit as it was easy to dive straight into and had functions such as PBR which gave a greater fidelity.

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TM: When can we expect the game to be finished?

ZA: We have been considering redeveloping the game however considering our circumstances at the moment it may not be possible as the project was only intended to be a demo. We have since moved on to our third year project and after that will have to find jobs. If we were to complete the game we would probably have to do it in our spare time, and would probably redevelop the idea to be more in depth with more mechanics and have a proper narrative and level structure and so on, but that may not be any time soon though.

TM: Where to next, will you guys go on to create another game?
ZA: Of course, whether they be our own games or in another company we will always be making games. Currently Aaron, Leo, and Rebecca are working on a third year project that called “Chaos Circuit” with first person arcade shooter. I have gone on to do a year internship at Rare (Microsoft Studio). Hopefully everyone will be able to see and enjoy this when we have completed the game demo in a few months’ time.

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Interview with Zakia Abdullah: Game Developer of Ascent