The Ascent is a modern game dev bingo card. First, it debuted at a splashy publisher event. Then, it was announced with a coveted November release date (and as a next-gen launch title, no less); then it was delayed. It was of course hyped as a day-one Game Pass title; and eventually, launched to critical praise—but also to some serious issues. The Ascent, in other words, is a microcosm of what it’s like to release a video game today.
Development on The Ascent, an isometric cyberpunk shooter that came out in July for PC and Xbox, was spearheaded by the Swedish indie outfit Neon Giant. The studio is nascent, and quite small—just a dozen people. That stat has led to some chatter about how The Ascent was developed by a 12-person team, which is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as support studios—like Wushu Studios and Sweet Justice Sound—contributed work to the game too. (They’re straight-up listed in the credits.)
Still, the final product is an impressive feat for a budding studio, one that could put Neon Giant on the map as a developer that can produce games with kickass shooting, challenging fights, satisfying role-playing, and intensely detailed sci-fi environments.
“As a new studio with a small, 12-person team launching our first game, we knew there would be some people out there who were rooting for us to succeed, but this has gone well beyond our expectations,” Neon Giant cofounders Tor Frick and Arcade Berg, both of whom shared the role of creative director on The Ascent, told Kotaku in an interview.
But no launch is all peaches and gravy, certainly not in 2021.
“It is fair to say we would have preferred to have [fewer] issues for the players at launch,” the duo acknowledged.
The Ascent’s woes started right out of the gate. On a fundamental level, The Ascent clicked, with critics praising its visuals, shooting mechanics, and deep world-building. But it was billed as a cooperative game for up to four players, and the co-op just...didn’t work. Some players couldn’t set up lobbies, either online or locally. Some would get in and then instantly get dropped. Some couldn’t get past that initial splash screen.
“Honestly, we were under the impression from our testing and reports that the game was stable when we released it,” Frick and Berg said, but noted that, once The Ascent moved from a comparatively small internal testing pool to a full release, with all the thousands of players that entailed, unanticipated issues reared up.
An early August patch addressed many of the multiplayer problems, but only for Steam players. Those playing on Windows or Xbox received the same patch two weeks later. A more recent update, pushed live in late August for Steam and early September for Windows and Xbox, shored up multiplayer stability even more. Between patches, Neon Giant slashed the rollout disparity from roughly two weeks to less than one. For the most part, The Ascent is now playable.
But The Ascent didn’t just stumble on matters of performance. Shortly after its July 29 release, players noticed that some Korean text in the background environments could, charitably, be described as nonsense. Though no one reasonably assumed Neon Giant made these errors with malicious intent, it’s still dissapointing that a studio would not, as my colleague Ian Walker put it, “get someone who’s fluent to double-check your work.”
On that matter, here’s what Frick and Berg told Kotaku, in full:
A pretty common touchpoint in cyberpunk is the melting pot of different cultures, something that we wanted to reflect in The Ascent (and take even further with the inclusion of aliens as well), as we felt it was an important thematic aspect. The game features a multitude of languages: Swedish, Russian, English, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. There is even a big pile of chopped-up Icelandic in there too, which is a bit harder to spot. For some of this we had team members that translated, for some we reached out to friends, or community, and we tried to catch as much as we could within our means.
When asked to clarify, they said, “We did reach out to some friends that speak Korean at the beginning of the project to help us with signs and words and provide a direction to go.”
The Ascent is by most measures a success, something that can be at least be partially chalked up to how it released on day one.
Berg and Frick said that launching day and date on Game Pass, “without a doubt allowed us to reach a huge audience across the Xbox community. One of the biggest challenges today is discoverability, and Microsoft’s support during the marketing campaign was great. It definitely raised The Ascent’s visibility.”
The Game Pass business model’s dramatically changed how independent games make it to market. Neon Giant is by no means the first to adopt this model, and they certainly won’t be the last. Other smaller studios—like the Belarus-based Sad Cat Studios, which will release its 2.5D cyberpunk game Replaced next year—plan to do so as well.
Microsoft does not publicize details of such deals. (Shameless plug: If you have any info, hit me up!) But The Ascent reportedly raked in $5 million at launch even without the Game Pass deal, so clearly the publicity boost is worth putting pen to paper.
Coming out on Game Pass is not without strings, however. Developing across generations is one thing. (In addition to PC, The Ascent is available on both Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S.) But Microsoft’s next-gen offerings are split: two machines, two sets of specs, so two separate layers of development work. Microsoft, by outlining a commitment to release next-gen games on both Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, creates more work for developers in the process. Xbox head honcho Phil Spencer acknowledged as much in an interview with Kotaku last year.
But Frick and Berg told Kotaku that developing a game simultaneously for both the Xbox Series X and the Xbox Series S was a relative breeze, “once we figured out a few tricks. From a development perspective, the impact was negligible. It was more about testing than anything else,” they said. (They did not respond to a follow-up question asking what those tricks were.)
Whatever the case, and setting aside the multiplayer issues, The Ascent came out well—a fun, great-feeling, transcendentally gorgeous game. Though The Ascent is pretty enough from its intended isometric viewpoint, one popular first-person mod gets you up close and personal with its futuristic arcology setting, showing a game that didn’t compromise an inch on the visuals.
“We do not feel that the details get lost at the camera distance, but to sell the vision of this world full of detail and life, we pushed it quite far on purpose,” Frick and Berg said. “Most if not all the detail is perceived from the game camera distance, even if it is subtle!”
In developing an isometric game, Neon Giant could’ve easily gotten away with fudging some of the details. After catching up with Frick and Berg, I don’t get the sense that’s something the studio would do. In fact, the studio seems to boast an efficient pipeline that bucks the industry standard—that of working on ideas for months or years and then scrapping them in an endless cycle of toil.
“As a method, we’ve always made sure to test early and cut early if it’s not aligning with where the game is heading,” Frick and Berg said. “That way we never go too far and lose too much time and effort invested.”
Of course there were some features left on the cutting-room floor. For instance, apparently, an earlier version of The Ascent featured a mini-game that assisted in targeting enemies, plus a far greater focus on hacking. At one point, it featured limited ammo—with a shared ammo pool among all party members. Bonkers, right? Limited bullets? Shared ammo reserves? One of the best parts of The Ascent is how it deviously urges you to give in to your basest spray-and-pray impulses. It’s hard to picture a version of the game that doesn’t encourage holding down R2.
But, in the grand scheme, such things are minimal; we’re not talking about slashed modes and 11th-hour script overhauls here. The commitment to vision is indicative of a game that, despite any bumps in the road, is produced by a team thoroughly confident in what they’ve put into the world.
“We’re getting a lot of [feedback] about people wanting more, which is a fantastic feeling,” Frick and Berg said. “It means we did something right.”