Aurum Dust Studio
Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Nikolay Bondarenko - Aurum Dust Studio (the main dude)
Sergey Malitsky - Author (the keeper of the world)
Interview by Chris Picone, 06 April 2018
Nikolay from AurumDust Studio joins me today to discuss the studio, their debut release Ash of Gods: Redemption, and their Kickstarter experience. Sergey also joins us to discuss Terminum (the story behind Ash of Gods), and his other books.
Please note the following abbreviations:
AoG - Ash of Gods
TBS - The Banner Saga
CSH: Let’s hear about AurumDust first. I gather your team consists mostly of Bearded Russians, but I also notice there are a few South Africans amongst you. So how did you all meet, and how did the studio form?
Nikolay: Igor, our art director, and I have known each other since 2005, back when we had both just started working for Canadian Streko Graphics. I also met our game designer a little less than 10 years ago, when we worked together on a children's educational project. The rest of the team also knew each other in one way or another. But while working on this game, I was constantly asking people to help us - animators of students who had free time, acquaintances and friends. It works like this - hey, what’s up, check out what kind of project we are working on, do you want to join? Repeat 100 times to find 1 person. :)
CSH: Although still small by AAA standards, your team is fairly comprehensive for an indie developer. Tell us a bit about each of you and your roles in the studio? Did you have to hire any extra help?
Nikolay: Each team member is a one-man orchestra. There is no strict specialization either among artists or developers - if you can do something faster than your colleague or you can help someone - do it. Either way, many on the team have 10+ years of experience when working with games or IT, and this always gives competence in different areas. And yes, we hired or asked for free help from a few dozen people, to work on animation and sound effects, and other things. Localization in Ukrainian, Italian, German, French, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean is all due to the invaluable help of enthusiasts. My role: "Make everything work." Find all these people, introduce ourselves, help everybody to work together, build processes. Limit creativity, act as an arbiter where necessary.
CSH: You mentioned that many of your team has ten or more years’ experience. What other games have you worked on?
Nikolay: All of us have worked with games for a long time, with titles such as: Aura 2: The Sacred Rings, Dead Reefs, Cradle of Magis, King's Bounty, Royal Quest, GameNet platform, and many more. Our core team is Nikolay Bondarenko (the Studio Head), Dmitry Erokhin, Igor Podmogilnikov, Alex Bogomolets, and Max Fomichev. We are living proof that Slack and the ability to communicate effectively are enough to get the job done.
CSH: That’s an impressive portfolio! How did the experience influence Ash of Gods (AoG)?
Nikolay: 6 years ago, before I started working on this game, I was helping with the development with one of the large game publishers in Russia. I got to see how publishing, platform, and localization worked.
CSH: What do you do when you’re not playing or making video games?
Nikolay: I am a boring person. My hobby is walking, I enjoy walking large distances, more than 50 kilometers. Otherwise, I cook and spend time with my children.
CSH: There’s nothing boring about hiking. I used to head up north and hike the Tablelands every year and loved it. Changing subjects now. Tell us about Ash of Gods?
Nikolay: It is a visual novel and a tactical game. We took real non-linear narrative for the main story from the former, and tactical turn-based combat from the later. I can probably say - it is a story similar to “Song of Ice and Fire” by Martin - we tell you a story about many people, entrusting their lives and deaths into your hands. You can kill or save your party members, each one of whom is a person with his own story. If you’d like to, you can think of it as an interactive book, in which you yourself build the narrative step by step.
The game is set on Terminus, a miserable world. 1000 years before the game starts, Terminus survived a horrible catastrophe which destroyed most of the population, technologies, previous religion and political geography. For 1000 years now creatures alien to this world control the politics and religion and reign over the large continent. As for the rest - Friza is similar to what we would think of the North Kora. The Kingdoms of Berkana are more like medieval Europe, where everybody is friendly to each other but wouldn’t mind an occasional raid.
CSH: For those who may be just discovering your game, tell us a bit about the main characters?
Nikolay: At first, I wanted to give my regular answer, but then I thought: What the hell? Thorn is aged, but still strong man with a sword that does his best to save both of his children and not become a total bastard in their eyes while doing it. Lo Pheng - sword for hire, assassin - anything really, as long as you can buy his service at an auction, where the Shadow Clan sell 5-year contracts for its warriors. Hopper Rouly - Umbra, one of the younger demons that went against their masters who want everything to end.
CSH: You mentioned on your website that non-human creatures existed in the world but none of them feature in the game. Why did you choose to omit non-humans?
Nikolay: This is pretty simple - we did not have the time and money to do it.
CSH: That’s interesting – your game is so focused on the ideas of right and wrong, and the concept of preserving humanity in the face of adversity, that I had thought the absence of monsters was a deliberate thematic decision rather than an economic one. Money and resources are always a concern for indie developers, which I assume is why you chose to fund your game through Kickstarter. But Kickstarter is no guarantee for success either – why do you think your project succeeded where so many others have failed?
Nikolay: We have always been, since day one to today, very open. Read our developer diaries - we have told and are telling things as they are - both successes and failures. We still act this way - you can always find me or somebody from the team on our Discord server, where we discuss all the aspects of the game both with our backers and other players. We clearly care for what we do - and I think this is the major reason for success in any sort of crowdfunding.
CSH: What mistakes did you make with your crowdfunding campaign? What would you do differently next time?
Nikolay: We will pay much more attention and resources to external promotion. Our community helped us a lot, but I think everything related with the media went very wrong for us.
CSH: I hesitate to bring this up because I know you must be sick of hearing it, but given the circumstances I feel it is somewhat inevitable. Visually and in terms of gameplay, AoG shares a lot of similarities with The Banner Saga (TBS). Was Banner Saga one of the game’s influences? What other games had an influence?
Nikolay: Yes, TBS had a big influence - and I think I’ve been talking about it on every occasion for the last few years. Visually - both games are animated realism. TBS is based of the work of Disney artist Eyvind Earle. In our case - it is Ralph Bakshi and cartoons made by SoyuzMultfilm. We used the traditional animation technique the way they used to do it in SoyuzMultfilm and several animators from that company have worked with us. We have also used the color pallette base on their animation. Still AoG is not TBS. I might be naive, but I honestly think that guys from Stoic had created a new genre of games - they have discovered a European face for the Japaneses visual novels with cinematic dialogues, they have set a great example on how to show the adventures of a group of people, and finally added tactical game on top of it. The Darkest Dungeon was referenced in the narrative structure, management of strixes in the game, and possibility of permanent death for all the characters. Visual novels (classic ones) are all about the variety of story - just check out our Steam page and see what people tell about the game. It’s arguable, but there are several pages of different stories already - with different endings, heros, tragedies. I am sure we have managed to let the person write his own story. In the combat system we have adopted elements from Final Fantasy, King’s Bounty, Heroes of Might & Magic — from collectable card mechanics, to cooldown system and how it works, damage balance, classes specialization.
CSH: Having played both TBS and AoG, I totally agree that one is not a clone of the other – in my opinion, the similarities are mostly aesthetic. Thematically, the games are worlds apart. We’ve already discussed Terminum to some extent, and I don’t want to go too much further into it and risk spoiling any of the story’s secrets for those who haven’t played it yet. So, Sergey, tell us about some of your other stories?
Sergey: The novel that was born with the game Ash of Gods, was for me already the beginning of the seventh cycle and the ninth big story if you count the individual books. These are all fantasies with all the diversity of the fairy tale genre. “Arban Saesh” is the story not about a man in another world, but rather one returning to his own. “Code of Death” is a book about the consequences of epic witchcraft, and “Nothing Personal” is an action book in a multiverse, “The Ashes of the Gods,” which echoes the game in name only, although it has some similarities in the plot, the "Stones of Mitutu," which is a large and still incomplete story of the collision of the worlds and, finally, "The Confession of the Damned" - the series that I postponed for the AoG project. These are all standalone stories.
CSH: Are their plans to have your other books translated? Or turned into games?
Sergey: That would be a new experience. I had worked on stories for games earlier, but not to such an extent. If I could, I would happily play a game in my other universe, “Arban Saesh.” And, please, that is a universe that should be translated.
CSH: What came first? The idea for Ash of Gods (the game) or the story (Terminus)? How did the two become one?
Nikolay: Back in 2007 I was already working in the gamedev industry, in particular on games for social networks. By that time, I already abandoned the idea of “making my own MMORPG”, but I got a new passion: to create a game in which the player could gain a deep, almost painful experience of the journey, and meet new people and stories. I’ve had the foundation laid out (we planned out the combat part of the game (a hybrid of tactical RPG and a card game) as well as most part of the story and the rules of cyclic recurrence. But the financial crisis of 2008 almost buried my then-employer together with my dreams of carrying out this project. Years passed, I still had the idea for this game in the back of my mind, and several successful indie RPGs released around 2012-2016 convinced me now is a good time to go back to it.
Around that time, I got into reading Sergey Malitsky’s books. I think he’s the Tolkien of our days — in at least two of his book series Malitsky managed to create a world that was no less convincing, living, complex and absorbing than Middle Earth. In his books he speaks about the same choices that I dreamed about almost for ten years: the behavior of common people living in a world on the edge of destruction. Complex decisions in the hands of different characters. The ethics of “petty evil.” The breaking of human souls. I said to myself: “If you manage to convince Malitsky to work with us, if he likes our (my and Dmitry’s) idea, what other proof do you need?” He agreed.
Thus, the game came together – the concept and idea back from 2007 and the story from Sergey, so I guess one can say the game was born when these 2 came together.
CSH: Making something as lengthy and in-depth as Ash of Gods is a process of learning as much as creation. What mistakes did you make? What would you differently knowing what you know now?
Nikolay: Many technical ones. We had to rewrite the animation pipeline several times to make the technical artist’s (my) job easier. We made some big mistakes with the Square Enix Collective — to show a playable version we changed the priority from the campaign to the multiplayer and wasted 1.5 months fixing problems that could have been postponed til the release. And Square Enix Collective decided not to work with us a day later. We also made some mistakes with the narrative branching - when we added permanent deaths, we had to shuffle chapters around.
CSH: Where to from here? Will the team stay together? A sequel to Ash of Gods? A totally different project?
Nikolay: I am not sure. I need a few months to take a break and come to my senses - it was a year and a half long marathon with the pace of a sprint. We might work on something else in the world of Ash of Gods, or look elsewhere – nothing’s set for now.
Thanks for your time, Nikolay. I thoroughly enjoyed Ash of Gods, and I’m looking forward to AurumDust’s next release, whatever it may be. Sergey, thank you as well, and good luck with your books. I hope I’m playing my way through another Malitsky novel in the not-too-distant future.