Image courtesy of Playwing

Dragon battle game Century: Age of Ashes flies high

April 13, 2022

Playwing is an independent game developer and publisher founded in 2017, with three studios across Europe. The studio has shipped two titles so far: Instant War, a modern warfare strategy game for iOS/Android platforms, and Century: Age of Ashes, an online dragon battle game currently available on PC and coming this year on current/past generation consoles.
With excellent flying mechanics, smart level design, and the opportunity to barbeque your opponents mid-air, Century: Age of Ashes is a dogfighting flight game like no other.

This team-based competitive multiplayer game sees you jump into the saddle of a fire-breathing dragon to battle enemies, swooping through castles, nosediving down tunnels, and taking evasive action to shake off pursuers in the process.

We caught up with Art Director Pascal Barret and Head of Product Marketing Laurent Denis at indie studio Playwing to find out how the team finessed the aerial ballet of flying a dragon, the inspiration behind the game—and what makes a good map for fighting flying beasts.
 

How big is the team working on Century: Age of Ashes? And for how long has it been in development?

Pascal Barret, Art Director:
Our Bordeaux studio opened back in 2019 to drive the development of Century: Age of Ashes. The team has gone from 14 people up to about 40 amazing talents from all horizons. It is led by veterans with more than 20 years of experience in the games industry who have worked on titles such as Nightmare Creatures, Life is Strange, Vampyr, RuneScape, and more.
Image courtesy of Playwing
What were some of the inspirations behind Century: Age of Ashes, be it movies, books, or other games?

Barret:
The visual and atmospheric layers of the dark fantasy world we built were inspired by classical works of literature including, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, as well as iconic video games like The Witcher and God of War. We also tapped into broader cultural influences like Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire and the Hellboy comics. 
 
As for dragons, we wanted to create an experience like none other, where flight sensations would be central to the experience while making sure we’re still in the realms of everyone’s representation of these untamable creatures—their animalistic nature, their power, their speed, their agility. To achieve that, we took inspiration from the brilliantly animated Hungarian Horntail in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon.
 
Were there any particular goals the team had going into development? 

Laurent Denis, Head of Product Marketing:
Century: Age of Ashes is the first project our Bordeaux studio has undertaken, so the main goal was to ship the game in due time. We launched this project with a small-sized team filled with the ambition to create the dragon game every gamer dreams of playing one day, which meant we also needed to maintain a sufficient level of quality on all aspects of the game. We wanted to live up to public expectations when it comes to a dark fantasy game with dragons.
 
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for Century: Age of Ashes?

Barret:
Unreal Engine is a perfect tool for a team scaled like ours. Whether it be at pre-production or in the production stages, it simply fits with all our different pipelines and enables us to achieve quality results in no time. It’s also really accessible technology with a great progression curve; several talents in our team had close to no experience with Unreal Engine before starting the project.

To be fully honest, we probably wouldn’t have been able to release Century: Age of Ashes if it weren’t for Unreal Engine. It would’ve required us to build an in-house engine, and we wouldn’t have access to the support of the widespread Unreal Engine community of creators.
 
Image courtesy of Playwing

Boosting for top speeds, diving toward the water, and then catching jetstreams to shoot yourself back into the air is a satisfying loop of aerial ballet. How did the team nail the flying mechanics and ensure it felt like you were riding a dragon and not piloting a plane?

Barret:
The constant driver was making the flight dynamic feel natural. It’s quite tricky to nail since there’s no clear definition of what natural actually is with creatures that do not exist in the real world. It’s all about making sure things feel alive, organic, an uncanny valley-like struggle against the common folk representation of dark fantasy.

A lot of work was also put into improving the three Cs of our game, constantly tweaking the interdependent relationship between a player’s actions, the reactions of their dragon on screen, and how it’s captured in the field of view to ensure we steer away (pun intended) from the rigid sensations of piloting. This is an ever-evolving approach that we’ll continue to improve over time.

The maps have a lot of wide-open spaces as well as some small nooks and crannies that make it possible to lose a pursuer hot on your tail. What's the mark of a good map, and how did Playwing approach designing Century's stages?

Barret:
We designed our maps based on several precise aspects that were already in our concept art during the early stages of development of the game.

We approached them like open combat arenas with epic sceneries and extreme verticality to deliver intense sensations of flight and liberty. We worked precisely on scales and lengths in each set element to take into account your dragons’ movements, so the exhilarating feeling you get when rushing and ‘finesse-riding’ comes from a balance of risk and reward.

Maps were built in a very specific way so you can explore multiple sub-areas (wide-open areas, with very few cover elements or obstacles, where you’re an easy target; and narrow areas, dense and intricate, where you can hide from your opponent, but it’s also trickier to target others), and all of them are connected, so players aren’t blocked, flight stays smooth and natural.
 
Image courtesy of Playwing

Century: Age of Ashes is surprisingly cinematic for a multiplayer-only game. How important was it to make every match feel big, and can you explain the process of creating these cinematic moments?

Barret:
The overall cinematic experience of Century: Age of Ashes is the result of a combination of carefully crafted factors. First, our creative teams have put particular care in dragons’ and riders’ animations, which are all built in keyframe rather than motion capture (even though it would’ve been quite the trick to achieve motion capture for dragon models, ahem). Additionally, we’ve done some in-depth work on camera placements and visual flourishing both in match and in the lobby—like intro/outro sequences, dragons’ idles, baby dragon hatching, and such.

Cinematic experience also emerges from design itself. As you said, every match must feel big. Here again, wide scenery and open-air areas filled with dragons blasting firebolts all around give that deep sense of immersion, just like the flow of matches, with visually overwhelming pinnacle moments that put you at the edge of your seat—like the vault explosion in the Spoils of War game mode.
 
Hatching a dragon egg and watching your baby dragon grow grants an astounding feeling of pet parentage over your dragons. How did the team come up with this idea, and how did you approach implementing it?

Barret:
Involving baby dragons was a given from the moment we decided dragons would be central to the lore and gameplay of Century. The challenge was to have a core feature that’d strengthen the bond between players and their dragon without falling into a gashapon or a Pokémon. They’re cute but deadly creatures that’ll roast you alive and eat a chunk of you for good measure.

The dragons’ nesting feature also evolved profoundly over the different stages of development, especially during closed beta. Community feedback raised important points and led us to implement the current growth system based on XP feeding. Looking further ahead, we have plans to bring baby dragons more to the forefront of your experience, not just in the lobby.

Century: Age of Ashes is one of the most visually stunning free-to-play games on the market. Can you go through your process for art design and creating the visuals we see in-game?

Barret:
The Art team has been—and still is—heavily focused on delivering the highest level of quality possible for all assets making it to the game, whether it be from a character-design perspective, environment, effects, animations, and such. We also achieve the cinematic experience you mentioned earlier through this constant need to match the visual quality of a AA game.
Image courtesy of Playwing
Everything starts from concept art; that’s of the utmost importance for us to keep an artistic direction that perfectly matches our signature gameplay. It’s all about finding balance somewhere between realism and styling.
 
Is there anything you've learned about the game now that it's out in the wild and in the hands of players?

Denis:
We’ve learned a lot. That’s the beauty and the curse of developing a live game that features dragons and is free-to-play. We speak to a wide audience of players, each with their own idea of what the perfect dragon battle game should be. It’s really amazing to see such a variety of players who just reach out because they believe in the game and its huge potential, but it comes with responsibilities. It’s an iterative process that requires a lot of flexibility, fast turnarounds in production, and, above all, we need to not be afraid of change.
 
We had several certainties on some core design elements for Century: Age of Ashes that we questioned following launch—for example, the fast-paced flight mechanics or our approach to scaling. We also learn every day how to better our approach of live operations, like what type of events or reward structure works better. Thankfully, our community is heavily involved and we’re carefully putting them at the heart of our decision-making process when it comes to improving the game. We’re confident Century: Age of Ashes is flying in the right direction!
 
Image courtesy of Playwing
 
Can you share your approach to optimizing the game for mobile?

Denis:
We’re still in the early stages of development, but our goal is to achieve a visual experience that is just as impressive as on desktop. For that, we’ll have to put extra care on several areas of the game, for example, using different render pipelines—lightmaps, software occlusion, and such.

Adapting to this platform is almost like rebuilding the game from scratch, and the versatility of the Unreal Engine is perfect for us to achieve this. We’re completely reworking the on-screen interface and user flow, adapting to touch-based controls and other ergonomic constraints, and obviously, there are specific graphical requirements.

Are there any specific achievements of which the team is particularly proud?

Denis:
Obviously, we’re quite proud of having released our game with the quality and time frame we were aiming for. Additionally, we’re amazed by the reception the game is getting from both players and the media. It’s been a remarkably positive start, and we reached one million downloads just a month after launch. Of course, it comes with its load of challenges, but the achievement in itself proves we’re holding a game that’s quite unique here, with huge potential.
Image courtesy of Playwing
How do you plan on supporting and expanding Century: Age of Ashes now that it's released?

Denis:
Launching Century: Age of Ashes was just the beginning. First, the game will spread its wings on new platforms—starting with Steam, Microsoft Store, the Epic Games Store, and Xbox Series X|S. A mobile version is also in the works.
 
Now, when it comes to in-game content itself, we’ve started to roll out a dense roadmap to continue growing the game and its community over the coming months. It includes a series of monthly live events featuring limited-time game modes (like our festive event “Frost & Fury,” or the latest “Last Team Standing”), additional core features (Voice Chat, Calendar Events), new maps, and permanent game modes (like 4v4v4 Survival) as well as QoL improvements (class balances and matchmaking) and lots of new customizations (outfits, weapons, and dragons!).
 
Players are in for a treat in the second quarter of the year, as we will release Season 1. It’ll mark the start of our new competitive season with a set of new tiered challenges and rewards and the launch of key content: our fourth character class (rider and dragon species), a new map, and a DragonPass filled with hundreds of rewards. Season 1 will also mark the start of our first story arc, revealing more secrets about the world of Century that’ll unfold throughout three months of rich content and culminating in a PvE event.
 
Looking a bit further ahead, our team will continue to release improvements to key elements of Century—including balancing classes, posing, post-game animations, and custom matches—as well as recurring live events, new maps and variants, and customizations. We’re also working on an innovative game mode that’ll become a signature of Century: Age of Ashes and core gameplay will receive significant updates, opening new and exciting opportunities for players to interact with their environment.

Thank you for your time. Where can we learn more about the game and your studio?

Denis:
And thank you for the opportunity! You can read and see more about Century: Age of Ashes on our official website, and be sure to follow our socials for the latest updates.

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