Founded in 2018 by Arcade Berg and Tor Frick; Neon Giant is a small team of 11 experienced games industry veterans with a heritage in some of the world’s biggest action game franchises like Gears of War, Bulletstorm, Wolfenstein, Doom, and Far Cry. The studio was set up to allow fewer people to make more by getting the most out of the latest and greatest tools and tech. Neon Giant’s ambition is to create a new type of studio and draw upon its AAA experience and focus on working efficiently, empowering each individual in order to maximize our creativity and push the boundaries of making really fun video games.
Coming to modern gaming platforms and Microsoft’s next-generation Xbox Series X console, The Ascent is a highly-anticipated action RPG set in a cyberpunk world. Developed by Neon Giant, which is located in Uppsala, Sweden, the game showed a lot of promise early on and garnered an Unreal Dev Grant. While this is the studio’s first title, it’s being spearheaded by industry vets who worked on the Wolfenstein, DOOM, Bulletstorm, and Gears of War franchises.
Releasing next year, the team’s experience level shines bright as The Ascent features a beautiful world that feels alive. In fact, Neon Giant made it a mission to make the world feel like a main character. To achieve this, they relied on many experimental Unreal Engine features and are implementing ray tracing along with best-in-class VFX and lighting. To top it off, the majority of the game uses Blueprints. To gain further insight into The Ascent’s development, we interviewed Neon Giant Co-founder and Creative Director Arcade Berg, Co-founder and Creative Director Tor Frick, and Houdini Artist Magnus Larsson.
Image courtesy of Neon Giant
Were there any particular games that influenced The Ascent?
Co-founder and Creative Director Arcade Berg: We made a point to look at games all over the gaming spectrum and also took a lot from what we’ve learned with our previous titles. While the camera perspective is different from many of the FPS and third-person games we’ve created, we can still use a lot of the fun, satisfying combat coupled with our over-the-top action.
It’s deliberately hard to explain The Ascent because there’s no other game quite like it. That’s why we can’t say, “It’s like game X in another setting.” It also made communication within the team crucial, as we couldn’t refer to one singular inspiration.
The Ascent features extremely detailed environments with gorgeous, dynamic backdrops and grimey, graffiti-filled streets that make the world feel "lived in." How did the team execute here?
Co-founder and Creative Director Tor Frick: We knew from the very beginning that this would be a game that would require a lot of content, but with minimal manpower to create it. With that in mind, a lot of thought and effort was spent on every stage of the content pipeline, from accelerated concept design and modeling of assets to heavy use of mastershaders. We also developed a suite of powerful tools using Houdini Engine that allows the team to create bespoke content blazingly fast without having to leave Unreal.
This, combined with an extensive set of environment Blueprints, means the team can quickly build, populate, and flesh out areas of the world without having to redo things from scratch each time. Speed was key in order to have time to build up all the layers of details to get that “lived in” feeling. Flexible master materials and heavy use of material instances have been key to quickly iterating on the visuals.
Image courtesy of Neon Giant
The game has impressive VFX that highlights lasers, explosions, smoke, and more. Did the team leverage Niagara to develop these effects?
Houdini Artist Magnus Larsson: We used Niagara for several of our effects. It allowed us to create effects previously impossible with Cascade. Since particles are now just points with attributes, you can create a lot of fun things like binding the position of a particle to another attribute than "Particles.Position" to layer noise on top of the simulated position and things similar to that.
It is very powerful to have such direct access to attributes to perform any math operation you want. One thing we did instantly was to build a module that generates curl noise as an attribute instead of a force to use in lots of interesting ways.
Another small feature that gets used a lot but doesn't get nearly as much attention is that you can write your own expressions into parameters now, which has helped with many effects. A lot of them are simple expressions such as "Particles.Age < 0.1 ? 0 : 1" to turn off evaluation of certain things during the initial lifetime of a particle.
The Ascent features impressive lighting, whether it's in the bokeh effects, lens flare, bloom, or reflections. Can you touch upon how the team lit the game?
Frick: We use a combination of baked and dynamic lighting. The game features tons of neon signs, machines, emissive surfaces, and just an overall massive amount of potential light sources, and we try to take advantage of that as much as we can. We also use volumetric lighting quite extensively, but performance considerations mean that we opted for a combined approach that would allow us to bake lights down but still retain the volumetric aspects. This allows for greater flexibility when optimizing without having to sacrifice too much of our artistic vision.
This is also another area where Blueprints came in handy, both for easier setup for artists, but also built-in platform scalability. Since we have dynamic lighting, we try to showcase it as much as we can, with animated billboards, TVs, and such. Building a library of Blueprints that we could quickly adapt to any situation allows us to have a much less static world. If you got it, flaunt it! We’re not much for subtlety.
The camera angle was a bit of a challenge, so we had to rethink how we worked with reflections and lights quite a bit since what works well in an FPS does not translate well to this camera angle. We ended up relying a lot more on probes versus screen space reflections than we are used to due to how flexible it is.
Frick: We are actively working on that as we speak! We will support ray-traced reflections, shadows, and ambient occlusion. Reflections, in particular, suits the game and its environments particularly well, considering we have lots of animated signage and lighting, rain, and wet surfaces that we hope to show off.
The Ascent features impressive physics and environmental destructibility. Can you share how the team pulled this off?
Frick: This is another area where the workflows and tools allow us to do more than we could possibly have done by hand. We are using both real-time and simulated physics, depending on what the situation needs. Houdini does pretty much all the heavy lifting when it comes to the generation of the content, and we have some cutting-edge solutions for that, largely automating the creation, import, and setup stages. We do love to blow things up, from the small things like bottles breaking to ships flying through skyscrapers.
The Significance system is something we also tried hooking things into as much as we possibly could; physics is one of the areas. This, combined with heavily optimized Blueprints, means we can have quite a bit of physics going on before it gets out of hand.
Considering The Ascent essentially takes place within a self-contained city inside one larger-than-life-sized building, why was that approach right for the game?
Berg: As both developers and gamers, we’re big believers in fleshed-out worlds, and we wanted to reign in the story to take place in something a small team like ours could manage. We didn’t want to do a watered-down, larger-than-life game. Instead, we wanted to make it more intimate and put the effort into quality. With this mentality, it made a lot of sense for us to set it in a world that can scale in size to what we need it to be and to be able to support whatever narrative and location beats we want.
Because of this, we’ve also been able to make the game world interesting every step of the way. It’s taken a lot of effort, but we feel it’s very important that the world is just as interesting as the characters, story, and gameplay.
In the game, you revisit areas and get more familiar with your surroundings instead of running through a linear fire-and-forget level design. This also contributed to us wanting it to be dense and exciting.
Image courtesy of Neon Giant
The Ascent features many inventive alien creatures. How did you approach designing the characters and enemies in the game?
Berg: Our goal has always been to be able to make any gameplay we wanted and to have it still make sense within the game’s lore. With this in mind, we made sure to use a wide range of size and physiology for the creatures. For example, in terms of gameplay, you can aim high and low, so we needed some creatures to be very short.
All races have their own very distinctive traits; not only physically but personality-wise and socially as well. They all have cultural descriptions written and their place in the universe. We used this when writing the characters for the story as well, and sometimes the other way around when we wrote characters and figured something like, “He sounds like a Larkian.”
For enemies, we approached it with fairly traditional methods of designing them for their role in combat and tried to get some fun synergy going between them. A hacker enemy by himself isn’t much of a threat as they’re more of a supporting type, but with a group, they can completely change how you want to approach the fight. He’ll shield other enemies using drones and debuff you using hostile software.
Again, for the sake of the world, no race is “reserved” for the enemies. They’re people. So “Jachalans” can be seen as both civilians walking around, shop keepers, enemy hackers, and more.
Considering The Ascent offers players a wide array of weapons that include shotguns, assault rifles, laser beams, grenades, and more, how did you approach designing the game's armaments?
Berg: As with any shooter, different players have different preferences, and we try to cater to that by providing a broad range of weapons that include both the expected in terms of assault rifles and shotguns, but also more exotic weapons like the aforementioned beam cannon and some that we haven’t shown yet. As a fun addition, we also have different Cyberdecks, which can hack different types of objects found in the environment, and Tacticals, which offer a variety of tools, including but not limited to grenades and drones.
Overall, we’re working hard on enabling players to choose their playstyle. Some prefer to be more tactical and collected in their approach, while others are more gung-ho. Some prefer long-range, and some want to get personal. Either way, we got you covered.
And lastly, along with this, we have to keep the cybernetic augmentations in mind that provide special abilities. All of these feature sets are meant to bring you a lot of options and opportunities and also make for interesting combinations in co-op where you can complement each other’s capabilities.
Image courtesy of Neon Giant
How big is the team, and how long has the game been in development?
Berg: Neon Giant is now 11 people strong, and we announced the studio as we started it in the spring of 2018. That’s when development started with just a couple of people, and over time, we’ve grown to the size we are today while also setting up the studio and all that goes with it. It’s apparently more than just putting the logo on a T-shirt.
The content that awarded us with the Unreal Dev Grant was the same demo/prototype we used to engage publishers, which was a few months in development. We got something rudimentary in place very quickly to show what we were trying to achieve. The game is very different today, but it’s still fun to boot up that build from time to time and see our humble beginnings.
Considering The Ascent is Neon Giant's first title, what have you learned from forming the new studio thus far?
Berg: Wow, where do I begin? We knew it was going to be a lot of work. I think we were somewhere on the “Slope of Enlightenment” on the Dunning-Kruger curve when we started. We just weren’t 100% sure of what that work would be. Now we know a lot, but we’re still learning.
Aside from making the game, we’ve had to make business plans, recruit, pitch to both investors and publishers, move offices, and execute on a marketing plan. We definitely learn by doing! Having said that, we’re also fortunate to have very experienced advisors and people around us that we can lean on when we’re in uncharted territory. I’ve seen more deals, contracts, and legal language these last couple of years than the rest of my life combined.
From day one, we intentionally designed a very scalable game concept that we could add and adapt the game as time progressed without it being shoehorned in. We didn’t know how long it would take to build a full team, and we didn’t know who the team would consist of, so we had to have a very flexible plan. This was one of the best decisions we made as every person we’ve brought on has an impact on what game we’re making. For instance, after an animator joined the team, we could make things move. Brilliant!
One of the main things we’ve realized is that if there’s something that can help developers focus on developing or make everyone’s lives a bit easier, it’s most likely worth it, even if it comes at a cost. We’ve made so many decisions that we [initially] held off on, often because of cost, but after executing them, we always felt we should have done it sooner.
We moved into a bigger office, which we held off on because, of course, it’s more expensive. We should have done that sooner. When we moved, we also invested in a great IT infrastructure, which we had professionals set up. It was super useful from the start and pretty much a project saver when the pandemic and work from home struck. We hired someone to help take care of the office and all the amenities, which, of course, cost money, but once we did, it helped everyone focus on what they should be doing. We held off on hiring a producer because surely a team full of seniors doesn’t need one, right? Wrong. You still need someone to help keep that laser focus.
There were some aches and a lot of very hard work, but I’m very proud of where we are with a solid team. We’ve got a good game in the making that’s getting a lot of positive buzz and a bright future ahead.
Image courtesy of Neon Giant
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?
Berg: Tor and I have both shipped several titles with Unreal Engine before and have been working with the tech for about 10 years, so, for us, it wasn’t a hard decision to make. We could get up and running immediately and have something playable within a very short time frame; without a programmer on the team yet, I might add.
But more than anything else, since everyone at Neon Giant is technical, we can all create content and get it into the game without a bunch of steps in a long pipeline of people. Blueprints are just crazy powerful, and we’re hitting a balance between it and code. Artists can create large sprawling environments, including having a bunch of interactable objects without the help of “scripters.”
We’re also digging deeper into Blutitilies, which allows us to streamline a lot of work that would otherwise be manual chores.
Neon Giant is meant to deliver very high-quality games with world-tier graphical fidelity. On that note, there’s nothing quite like what we can accomplish with the Unreal tech. Also, having a bunch of good contacts at Epic, we also felt confident that if we needed help, it would be there.
Neon Giant has previously stated that it often uses Unreal's experimental features. Were there any experimental features that the team leaned on for The Ascent's development?
Frick: Overall, we are very curious and agile, so testing every new feature is a must, just for the fun of it. Both Niagara and Houdini Engine are two features that we adopted very early and invested a lot of time into, which is paying off a lot now as the tools are maturing.
As a small developer, we are actively looking for things that give us an edge, both in development methods and with the end result. Even if things are not always ready, being aware of them and how they can slot into, or replace current workflows ahead of time is a godsend.
Image courtesy of Neon Giant
What did it mean for the studio to receive an Unreal Dev Grant?
Frick: It was flattering and humbling. It's always nice to get some validation that you are doing something that people take notice of, but it also helped us a lot with the profile of the studio overall since this was very early on in the studio's life. It also put us into contact with Curve Digital, which ended up being our publisher for the game, so that was really appreciated!
Considering The Ascent is releasing on Xbox Series X, what enhancements can next-gen console owners expect?
Frick: The biggest difference by far is the image quality and framerate. The game is running at 4K resolution at 60 FPS with higher settings overall than the previous gen. It's a smoother, crisper, and more responsive version of the game. Also, the game loads literally in seconds, which is kind of amazing.
Image courtesy of Neon Giant
Do you have any advice for aspiring Unreal Engine developers looking to develop a game for Xbox Series X?
Frick: Getting the game to run on Xbox Series X was overall fairly trivial from a performance standpoint. It ran pretty much on target the first time we tried. The amount of extra power available on the CPU is an amazing and welcome change. I would advise anyone to find ways to make use of that (and I hope we can squeeze in some more there, too).
What makes the studio most excited about the next-generation consoles?
Frick: We love to create interactive worlds, and anything that lifts limitations on that makes us excited. The vastly improved streaming capabilities will remove a ton of headaches and allow for so much denser and intricate worlds with the CPU power to bring it alive. Transitioning over to Unreal Engine 5 will also be a welcome and exciting move in the future, moving over to fully dynamic lighting and the possibilities that will bring in combination with Chaos.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about The Ascent?