To some, The Ascent is one the year’s biggest indie success stories.
A core team of 12 people managed to set a new standard for the genre; creating a believable, dense cyberpunk world in a game that delivers solid action, and unique abilities that make combat consistently exciting.
To others, The Ascent’s bizarre loot system, bugs, and some undercooked elements distract from what would otherwise be an easy win. In the wake of the game’s record-breaking launch, I caught up with Arcade Berg, creative director at developer Neon Giant, to learn about his thoughts on the game’s critical reception, the initial lack of parity between the PC Game Pass version and Steam’s, and much more.
VG247: First of all, congratulations on the launch! I just saw Curve [Digital] say $5 million revenue in the first weekend. How do you feel about that?
Arcade Berg: Accelerated? Thank you. Thank you for your congrats. Yeah, no, it's incredible. I mean, we knew we were making a game we thought was good. We knew that there were people out there who cared, and were rooting for us. But this is silly. This is fantastic.
VG247: Are you able to say how many copies it sold?
Arcade Berg: No, I don't think we're commenting on that now.
VG247: Let's talk about the critical response. Ahead of launch, talking to some of the people who had access to code and talking to some of my colleagues, I personally expected the Metacritic score to be a little bit higher. Were you surprised at all? How was your reaction to that?
Arcade Berg: To some extent, because you know, we got a lot of nine out of tens, and five out of fives, which of course is fantastic. I definitely think some of the more negative ones want it to be a different game. They expect this to be a different game, something we tried to address earlier as well with our marketing, saying, “This is the game, this is what the game is not,” yet we did get some feedback saying like, well, “It does a poor job being this,” which is the thing we said we weren't. So you know, that's a bit of a shame.
I mean, overall, it's super positive. But I do think that the mix you can see is because we did manage to make something that people care intensely about which I think drives that. Had we been a flat seven, you know, then you know exactly where you stand, right? But with this five out of five, ten out of ten, nine out of ten, it's like we hit something, we struck a chord, and some people just pure love it. Twitter's going crazy, YouTube and streamers are loving it. We're getting emails - never gotten this many emails before - with people just saying, “Hey, I just want to reach out and say, this is my game of the year,” or “I've been waiting for a game like this, this is perfect,” “Me and my wife are playing it's the best thing ever.” We see a lot of that. So it feels absolutely amazing that the audience, the gamers, are enthralled and that they are 100% on board.
VG247: What are some of the things that you think people unfairly criticized the game for not having?
Arcade Berg: I would say around RNG loot and endgame, and those sort of things we explicitly said that's not the game.
VG247: But it does have some RPG elements…
Arcade Berg: Absolutely. I mean, it has everything, you know - it checks all the boxes. There is character progression, levelling, skills, abilities, loot, armour, damage types, different weapons, story, characters, dialogue, voiceover cutscenes. It has absolutely everything. But all of our weapons and all of our armour - everything in the game is hand-crafted. Because we took that artisan approach of every single piece of armour has lore written for it to help bring a stronger world, a more deliberate everything. So you will not find a weapon which has been generated on the fly with random numbers. It will be the weapon that we created. So it's all very deliberate.
VG247: What I found to be a problem was throughout my 15-20 hours with the game, I was constantly getting new weapons. But as you advance, enemies get tougher, and you don't have a lot of opportunities to upgrade those weapons. So even though I was getting a lot of really cool weapons towards the end game, especially the heavy stuff, it was hard for me to upgrade. Because of the few upgrade materials that I had, I wanted to spend on something that I know is reliable. So I never really got to experience so many of the weapons as much as I wanted to, and I think that was part of the criticism.
Arcade Berg: No, that's a good point. Well, one is that it's part of the economy, we expect you to sell them. But going back to the upgrades, it's a very good point. And that's one of the things that we're very actively now looking at [with] people playing the game, because that's stuff we can easily balance in future updates. So we're listening very closely and watching people playing with this new technology of streaming, right? How the game plays in the hands of thousands of players, right? And with that, we can see, okay, you know what, maybe we should be a bit more generous with the upgrade components, maybe it's actually the most rare [sic] upgrade component that we might have been a bit too cheap on. Let's provide some more of that in the loot loop, if you will. So those are definitely things we will keep working on, because I hear the concern. Also, with this many players, everyone's different. Some people are having a blast, and we don't want to ruin it for them either. So we need to find that right balance. But we're taking notes.
VG247: There's another issue that I think is a little bit of a problem on its own, but also contributed to people's reaction to the loot system, which is the fact that when you're in a dungeon [or] a mission, there's not always an easy, quick way to get out and go to a hub area, spend a couple of your upgrade points and then go back in and try to reattempt the encounter. Are you considering adding some sort of, I don't know what to call it - because you already have two fast travel systems in the game - but some sort of, instant travel, I guess you could call it. Do you have anything like that envisioned for the future?
Arcade Berg: I mean, everything is on the table right now. That's part of our whole studio pitch. With us being so few, we can react very quickly, or we can make things very quickly. So I'm not saying we will or we won't which, of course, is the worst answer you can get. But, I will say it's definitely in the cards that we can do something like that, if that's what we see is maybe often requested or it just makes perfect sense. Because yeah, that makes sense.
VG247: Another element I saw people talk about is that character customization is very basic, specifically for skin colours. I saw someone say it looks like all characters are wearing a blackface, which I don't agree with, but I see where they're coming from. Do you have a plan in mind to maybe make the look of the skin and the hairstyles for black characters more authentic?
Arcade Berg: That's definitely something that we can address with future updates. Because a lot of that is well, content, right? Pure content. And that's where a small studio might struggle the most. Because we can't just put a few more guys on it. We don't have a few more guys. We're listening closely. We're keeping an eye on things, we're fixing issues. And we're also looking at, well, what is now in the future of The Ascent.
VG247: I wanted to talk a little bit about the PC Game Pass version. What happened there? Why is [it] out of date with Steam? Is there something outside of your control? Was the plan always to have them separate, as far as features and stuff?
Arcade Berg: So they are different versions of the games and there are different processes on how to basically distribute them. But we are updating constantly, you should already have seen an update go live, I believe yesterday. So we’re working on that every single day to make sure that everything is up to snuff.
VG247: Do you intend for Steam and PC Game Pass to be the same version?
Arcade Berg: Absolutely. Absolutely.
VG247: Obviously cross-play is available on Xbox and Microsoft platforms. Do you ever want to include Steam into that, to have those people playing together?
Arcade Berg: Want? Yes, of course! But that is quite an endeavour. It's not something I can promise. I mean, yes, we want that. But I cannot, in good faith, say that [it] will happen. Because we don't know.
VG247: The game saves automatically, but I always felt like I needed to - before an encounter - just hit a button and know that I have a quick save right there. Do you intend to add a manual save or a feature to force a quick save?
Arcade Berg: The game actually saves a lot, almost all the time. Every time you close the journal, it saves for example. We have been discussing manual save/load, but those are quite drastic changes. So, right now we will stick with the auto saves. But I think we could do a better job communicating when it happens so that your players feel more at ease. Just knowing that we got you.
VG247: Have you looked at any of the feedback, specific to bosses, that you feel something is easy or hard compared to what you expected the reception to be?
Arcade Berg: Yeah, it's definitely one of the key areas we look at as far as gameplay and challenge goes, because the game does have difficulty spikes. Some parts should be more difficult, right? And we need to find a balance that works. The bosses can be tough. And then what we need to figure out - when people find the game tough - is it because they are not using all the tools they've been given? You know, are you using Augmentations? Are you actually trying different weapons to make sure that, for example, with the spider boss, I would definitely recommend you using an energy weapon or even a digital weapon if you have one. We don't want the boss to be super easy with just your gun and not crouching and not dodging, like we need to see, we need to find wherein the challenge lies and balance based on that. And that takes a bit of time and takes a lot of players. But we also have the difficulty options, you can always put it down to easy, for example.
VG247: Do you want to at some point allow people to change the camera a little bit, like maybe zoom out or zoom in any way?
Arcade Berg: That could be very neat. I'm actually getting more requests [that players want] to be able to zoom it in than out because they want to look at the details, which I definitely take as a compliment. I think one of the biggest challenges with that would be: there are no buttons left on a gamepad, so I'm not sure how we would do it. And also, of course, players have to then understand that performance is affected by how much stuff we have on screen. So it definitely comes at a cost. But again, we're not opposed to it.
VG247: I imagine you're going to have a similar answer to [a request for] a run button. I feel like I really wanted to sometimes just book it and get somewhere.
Arcade Berg: Yeah, I hear you on that.
VG247: Do you plan to bring it to the game?
Arcade Berg: We'll see. We'll see.
VG247: What are you actually working on right now that you want to get into The Ascent over the next several months, let's say?
Arcade Berg: We don't have a plan to share for that kind of time. So, right now we're looking at player feedback, player issues, working very hard to smooth that out, and to get those quality of life fixes in - I would say that's a priority right now. So, instead of thinking, what could we add to the game, it's what can we still slightly improve? Just to make that core as solid as can be. That's just really looking [at] where the community takes us, because all of a sudden, we have a huge community to ask. We weren't quite prepared for this. The size of it, it's amazing. But it also means that we have to take stock and really, really pay attention and not just run in blindly, if that makes sense.
VG247: Are you able to say if you maybe got started on some sort of extra content, like new missions or something like that, as a paid thing or as a free thing?
Arcade Berg: No, right now we're just looking at what's in the game, or what we can do with that. Again, 12 people, you know, there's only so much you can do at once.
VG247: Alright, well, thank you very much Arcade for taking the time to speak to me today.