Ascent is a new space MMO set in a future where civilization has almost completely collapsed. Players must work together to prevent total disaster, and rebuild a new civilization of their own choosing. To learn more about the game, check out the Q&A with the developer.

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1)  Can you tell our readers a little about what Ascent is?

Ascent is a PVE focused space MMO with combat, trading, contracts (missions), exploration, asteroid mining, salvaging, farming and mining on planets, zero G heavy industry and research on your own private star base, and soon to be colonization of the largest virtual space ever created.

It’s the game I always wanted to play, but that nobody ever made, and nobody seemed intent on making – so I gave up one day and started on it myself. Everyone else seems to be insisting on compulsory PVP, or not quite an MMO, or a limited number of star systems etc.

2)  One of the things that jumped out to me immediately was that there are 270 BILLION star systems.  How is this technically possible?

Basically it comes down to two things – procedural generation, and only storing data for systems people have visited. The rest is all getting the science as close to reality as possible. As we enable colonization, we’ll store colonies, structures and populations too.

I spent quite a lot of time fine tuning the servers’ scientific knowledge and the client’s ability to render planets, stars and moons. Exploring really feels like visiting other star systems an seeing a bunch of quite alien worlds. Their chemical composition is generated but the state of each of the compounds depends on temperature calculations based on radiation the planet or moon receives and the compounds themselves – some have a greenhouse effect etc. So far from a star or around a cold star you might get a liquid nitrogen ocean and no atmosphere etc. Every conceivable combination is out there.

The size was very important – I wanted to have a plausible model of the milky way (all of it), and I wanted to give players a completely open ended space to play in. Literally endless possibility – the feeling I always got reading sci fi novels but so rarely found in space games, and never before in an MMO.

3)  A huge amount of star systems is nice, but what can players do with all this potential space?

At present there is quite a deep science and exploration game. You can harvest gases from the gas giants, and from the rocky planets and moons you can take soil samples, core samples with your mining beam, and if you get up to it, make sample maps (resource grid for the entire planet or moon) by deploying enough core sampling probes. Every last planet, moon, system and sector is completely unique, and these various types of samples tell you different things about the resources available.

What’s next is colonization of these systems, and some groups of players have documented over 400 systems and their various resources in preparation for this. They’ve found some pretty neat planets too, by the sounds of it.

When you first visit a system, if you’re the first person to get there, it’s initially named after you, and you are forever recorded as the discoverer.

4)  One of Ascent’s design principles is that the game starts out simple but can get much more complex.  Can you give us an example of this?

There are lots of examples – all of the game play areas follow this design principle as much as possible. One is the ship’s computer. At first it’s basically just a source of online help – literally voice acted scripts talking you through flying the ship, getting contracts and so forth. You don’t see it upfront but as you progress in the game you realize this is a fully programmable computer with a command line interface. The more you use it, the more you find yourself customizing it. For example once you begin exploring the outer worlds, you can program the computer to read, say, the external atmospheric pressure and temperature from the ram scoop module, and output to one of the HUD labels, so those are displayed for you all the time.

Combat starts with simple fighter-to-fighter style dog fighting between you and a fairly dumb, weakly armed cargo scanner drone. It ends up with massive broadside duels between destroyers 1000 times the size of your starting ship, with up to 50 customized weapons each. You eventually learn about hitting shields where they’re weak, knocking holes in armor, how to take advantage of the enemy’s armor layout’s weaknesses etc. But you learn all of these things as you go along, as the opponents get progressively more and more challenging. Bigger, better equipped ships, and smarter opponents – eventually humans who will make a run for it when they feel over matched etc.

Trading starts as simple as a point and click exercise. If you can use a website you can trade in Ascent. Buy low here, autopilot somewhere else and sell high. But the more you look, the more opportunities you see, and you eventually expand out into a larger, player driven economy based on research and complex industry.

Even something as simple as asteroid mining – most players can succeed after their first few tries at it. But as you look into it more deeply, you realise that the hotter you get the asteroid before you crack it open, the higher your yields, and there are visual queues to that temperature as you’re beaming it. Overdo it and it explodes and you get nothing. A fine line to learn. The more you play, the more you learn – you can research more powerful mining beams, use a custom fit ship for it etc. You learn the various different types of asteroids and the metals they yield. You learn who to sell what to, and how to handle larger vs. smaller asteroids. It’s quite a deep game, some players make an entire career of it.

5)  Ascent seems to give players a lot of freedom, is there anything they have done that really stands out in your mind?

Yes I’m always fascinated by how each player approaches their cities. Nobody’s resource maps are the same so you always get a different layout. Things like adjacency, resource constraints for water, energy, and workers all play a part, and you can also research efficiency improvements for your farms and mines. I’ve never seen two cities look alike – everyone takes a different approach. It’s like a sim city ‘mini game’ except it’s very developed and very integrated into the rest of the game play.

But probably the most surprising thing to me was that players began organizing themselves into guilds and alliances so early on. The game doesn’t have any mechanisms that support this yet really, but people are already doing it because they enjoy working together for mutual benefit. I wasn’t expecting that – at least not so soon when almost nobody’s heard of us.

 6)  Ascent’s focus right now is PvE,  where does PvP fit into your plans?

I have designated a large portion of the galaxy as the “Red Zone”. This will have no restrictions on player behavior – in effect, free for all PVP. What I won’t ever do, is add a reason to go there that isn’t PVP based. There wont be better resources or higher yields, lower taxes etc. I think PVP should be rewarded with PVP rewards – perhaps this will be the only place where you can get the blueprints for certain PVP only modules etc. Something like that.

The missing game in the market to me is one with a PVE and cooperation focus, and that’s what I set out to build. But inevitably there are players who want a PVP experience, and it seems completely insane not to add that experience to Ascent, given all of the opportunities our huge environments can provide. For example, we have quite a complex spherical terrain engine – it’s already fun to fly around but it will add a lot to in-atmosphere battles over settlements. In the colony code from day one I’ve set things up so you can plant an environmental dome on an ocean floor if you choose to – it will just start filled with water or liquid methane or whatever the ocean is comprised of and you’ll need to pump that out and ship in an atmosphere from scratch. But what a cool secret base! Yeah, no PVP ever would feel like a waste.

But PVE is my first focus, and at no point, EVER, will PVE players be forced or ‘enticed’ into PVP.

7)   How does the economy work in Ascent?  What dictates supply and demand?  How involved are the players?

Ascent is set immediately after a huge collapse in human civilization. Nobody seems 100% sure on what’s happened, and a lot of knowledge has been lost. The players are the tiny proportion of the population who can interface with warp and hyper-jump drives, and that gives them a unique place in the economy. There are a handful of ships left for sale, but until the players began salvaging blueprints from wrecked computers, nobody was making them. Now it’s the players who are the big drivers in the new economy, and they’re starting to recover a lot of the old, lost technology.

The eight remaining civilized planets each produce a unique resource. The availability is limited, but the more you trade and the greater your reputation, the more is available for you to buy and move around – to sell or use in your own construction or industrial projects. However there is an upper limit on this and pretty quickly players find the need to construct their own farming and mining facilities on each of these planets to obtain their own resource supply. You can spend quite a lot of time optimizing these and improving their yields.

Asteroid mining yields unique metals that can’t be produced any other way, so it’s always a profitable and worthwhile activity. Things like uranium for fission reactors, niobium and tin for super conductors etc. Gas giants are the only legal source for critical gases such as hydrogen, oxygen, and soon also nitrogen. So this activity is also increasing in demand as we go along.

On the demand side, the eight civilized planets all consume food and resources. In fact, due to the recent period of little to no available transport, all of these planets have some kind of shortage situation, and frequently slip into malnutrition, starvation, or industry freezes due to a lack of goods. So there is always a ready market for players’ goods, and this too is growing and more of the population finds its feet.

The players also have their own demands. For example at the moment there is quite a lot of demand for niobium and tin as superconductors are an important component of all ship modules, and the new environmental domes require a lot of superconducting coils. But all ships and modules are in demand. Ships over class 5 are almost exclusively produced by players, and over class 10 only players are currently producing and selling them. Most modules are only made by players.

8)  You have a rather unique payment model, can you tell us about it?

The game is completely free to play via the unity web player, or you can buy the PC version for about $5 USD (varies by location). There are also three premium access options that cost 99c per month each. Each of them enables quite a lot of extra content. You can settle on two planets for free, but premium planets gives you access to the next six. Premium industry lets you expand your star base from one ring to six, and use industrial modules (e.g. mining beams and ram scoops) over class 5. Premium combat lets you use combat modules (weapons and shields) over class 5. Each of the three premium types give you 100 “stellar credits” per month, and each colony you establish (outside the initial 8) costs 80 stellar credits to establish and 80 per month thereafter.

It takes a lot of hours of play generally before you feel any need for any sort of premium access, and you can buy them separately or bundle them together. I think most players are really happy with the system as it’s stupidly good value. The only people who ever seem to question it haven’t played the game yet 🙂

9)  What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on the environmental dome functionality so people can begin colonizing those outer systems. This will enable the first true “sandbox” style play and open the door to a whole stack of zany adventures. Environmental domes are very advanced game play and the current “end game” industrial activity. Only the largest ships in the game can carry enough materials to build one, and once built they require the necessary mix of atmospheric gases to be habitable. They can filter these from an atmosphere if it has the right elements, otherwise you’re stuck shipping it in, and let me tell you, atmosphere has a surprising amount of mass.

The domes are 554 meters radius at the moment and quite impressive to look at, and even more-so from on foot while inside one. Later on we’ll enable the “up class” research function on them that will let you double their volume, then quadruple it and so on (all research in Ascent is open ended, it just takes more time).

I actually expect to release the earliest version of this to players in the next couple of days. The domes themselves are kind of the fun part – the initial complexity for me was all about getting the city building functionality working with a huge new terrain engine. Our planets are up to and including the size of Earth. That’s a LOT of space and presents unique challenges for a city building “mini game”.

10)  Is there anything else you would like to tell the readers about Ascent?

I guess two things. One is that I need help getting the word out. Ascent is paying its own server costs already and it gets new paying players every day, so no danger of it ever being shut down. But I need sales to pick up a bit more before I can move into an office, and hire an artist and a detail oriented developer to fill in the bits I’m slow at, and really get moving. So if you’ve got friends who play this kind of game, tell them about it please. If you know a gaming journalist, convince them this is real (I am beginning to wonder if they just don’t believe our emails when they read them) and get them to write about it. We still aren’t even green-lit on Steam ( help! Need votes!) and we’ve had very little press coverage so far, but the player base is already growing. That’s a good sign. For what it is, Ascent would have to be one of the most under-hyped games ever.

The second thing is that now is a great time to get involved in the game. Have you ever wanted to play an MMO where suggestions sometimes get implemented the same week they’re made? Well, that happens all the time in Ascent. Development is fast. Bugs get squashed on the test client usually the same day they’re reported. I openly discuss the new features with the player base and a lot of good ideas get pulled straight in.

Ascent’s now been developed for a little over a year, with one developer and shoestring budget for art, music and sound. Seriously, go and look at it. Do you want to see what we can do with another year, and more stuff?

[Ascent’s Website]