Beyond strategy: Catching up with Amplitude Studios and Endless Legend
"4X" strategy games like Civilization are beloved to their audience -- but you can't exactly call them accessible. The human work of city-building, war-making, becomes spreadsheet labor, in a sense; drab, forbidding hexes become shorthand for the rise and fall of nations. Amid the mathematical sprawl, you either know what you're looking at or you don't, and when you don't, you don't want to.
Amplitude Studios co-founder Romain de Waubert de Genlis is a massive strategy fan; before launching the successful independent studio that most recently launched the hit Endless Legend, he produced the Might & Magic games at Ubisoft.
Back then, he played multiplayer strategy titles fervently and regularly with Mathieu Girard, with whom he'd go on to start Amplitude. The pair became familiar with the bewilderment: Friends staring at their impenetrable mosaics of muddy tiles, their expressions silently accusatory: You spend eight hours a day on this?
"Most of the games we liked in strategy were ugly as hell, and we never understood why."
"Most of the games we liked in strategy were ugly as hell, and we never understood why," de Waubert de Genlis says. "They tend to be made by few creators with analytical but not very artistic minds."
De Waubert de Genlis and Girard thought they could bring some freshness to the genre. By the time they left Ubisoft in 2010 along with some like-minded colleagues, the developers had become so senior they no longer did the kinds of hands-on work they enjoyed. "We were more like bosses, away from why we wanted to join video games," de Waubert de Genlis recalls. "And the games we loved were not interesting for bigger publishers, so we had no choice but to leave and create our own company."
With them came veteran art director Corinne Billon (Rayman and other Ubisoft titles), whom de Waubert de Genlis describes as eager for the challenge to work within a paradigm other than the absolute realism commonly desired by high-end publishers. "We wanted our games to be artistic," he explains.
"If you fail to create the depth of the strategy, you can make it as pretty as you want and no one will buy it."
"There's quite a lot of stuff we think we can do around a strategy game that isn't about strategy," de Waubert de Genlis suggests. "Although if you fail to create the depth of the strategy, you can make it as pretty as you want and no one will buy it."
With the goal of bringing something new to the genres they loved -- and of having a closer relationship to player feedback after years spent behind the "iron curtain" of traditional publishing -- de Waubert de Genlis and team raised significant investment from friends and family, as well as generous support from the French government, which de Waubert de Genlis believes sees games as economically important in the arenas of both technology and art.
Right from the beginning, Amplitude Studios offered community participation and feedback tools to the serious fans of their work who followed their journey from Ubisoft. Participating among Valve's earliest "guinea pigs" (2006's Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, in collaboration with Arkane) in the service offering that would become Early Access, the studio had internalized very quickly the value of letting development take place in front of the desired audience, and of letting players weigh in on things. Selling a game while it was still in alpha was once a radical and troubled idea; now it's a new business environment, and, Amplitude's "Games2Gether" program still lets fans follow its work.
"We knew we couldn't exist otherwise," says de Waubert de Genlis. "We had no money for marketing -- the only money we had was to make a game, and nothing besides that. So we hired another guy from Ubisoft who was in marketing first, and then an associate producer. His idea was that working together with players is a good thing, but you need to give tools to our players so it's easy for them to participate. They need to be able to voice their opinion in one click."
"Working together with players is a good thing, but you need to give tools to our players so it's easy for them to participate. They need to be able to voice their opinion in one click."
To some extent, de Waubert de Genlis says learning to relinquish the need for control over all aspects of the game has made him a better designer. On the other hand, there are some healthy limits on how much the team relies on the community: Players don't vote on "backbone" design issues, but on elements they'd like to see implemented next. And de Waubert de Genlis has learned only to offer voters options in cases where he himself would be pleased with any outcome -- he's found groups tend to choose the most classic or familiar choices rather than the most interesting or innovative ones.
"Now when a game comes out, we basically know how good it is -- or how bad it is, but there are no surprises. It was so stressful before: Finish a game, wait a month to print CDs, and then it comes out, and then people tell you it sucks? It's much better now: You can try some things and see how people react, and when something sucks, you have the time to fix it."
The team's philosophy and methodology were set from the beginning; Amplitude made a small splash with dynamic space-strategy Endless Space. But Endless Legend feels like a further evolution of the team's philosophy, starring an uncompromising approach to style and interface that turns classic strategy into an experience that feels beautiful, inviting and alive.
With the explicit goal of making a visually-distinct hex game, de Waubert de Genlis says the team was inspired by board games and elegant moving pieces like in the Game of Thrones opening sequence to create a "toy universe" players would want to touch. They incorporated numerous historical, cultural and architectural references so that the compelling visual language is more than just appearance: Each faction has its own culture, history and play conditions, and each unit and location feels distinct and plausible -- a people, their places -- as they move and grow.
"There is not a single moment where we said 'it's good enough," says de Waubert de Genlis. "We don't accept that; we really wanted the details. We wanted it to be perfect. At least we did everything we could to push the details, so there would be a continuity in our universe. And everything is linked, so what you see visually makes sense to the culture of these guys, and everyone gets linked in that world, and everything has to be thought out as one world that could be realistic. We don't want you to be looking at it and suddenly not believing what you see.
"The biggest achievement for us is that it's a universe you want to live in. And we nearly gave up a few times, because that was so tough to get."
"Not only did we create factions and races that wanted to be unique in their lore and how they were, but we wanted them to make sense in how you would play them. You would look at each faction from a different frame of mind, rooted in who they were," he continues. "The biggest achievement for us is that it's a universe you want to live in. And we nearly gave up a few times, because that was so tough to get."
Having an American writer made an enormous difference for the team, even in a genre one wouldn't think of as known for 'narrative' or for being text-heavy. Writer Jeff Spock, who wrote all the lore bibles for the Might & Magic team, also came along to Amplitude. "We've never done a game with this much text; there's a lot to read," says de Waubert de Genlis.
And having a professional writer is also a boon to the French team's community focus: "Jeff basically made it so our first language when we work is English, so we don't develop the game in French, we develop in English. All of our design documents are in English, because we knew we wanted to make our community international. For that we wanted to be able to share our documents with them early on so we wouldn't need to translate."
Although Endless Space and Endless Legend lie very much within the team's goals of making new inroads for high-quality, inviting strategy experiences, the team's recent Dungeon of the Endless marks an experimental departure. Part roguelike, part tower defense, it's developed by a small four or five-person team within the studio, with pixel art in order to keep asset investment small.
"It's refreshing to be creative, to be able to change," de Waubert de Genlis says of the team's work on Dungeon of the Endless. "Dungeon of the Endless was completely unexpected -- it was some crazy drinking evening that created that game. It's hard to sell or Kickstart, which is why we wanted to be very independent and thought it would be easy to raise money. It wasn't quite easy, but we managed. "
"We're a bit lucky people were looking for projects like ours," he adds. "If you rewind, and you go back to 2010 and 2011, and you say 'guys I want to make PC games and that's the future,' people were laughing. They wanted to see Facebook games."
For de Waubert de Genlis, Amplitude Studios is just at the beginning of its lifespan. "There are a few other game styles that we want to explore and discover," he says. "We want to expand more on the games that we did... and to refresh our minds with different games. What I can tell you we will not do is 'Endless Legend 2'. I don't think we would know yet what to do, so I think creatively it would be awful, it would be more like a 1.2 than a 2.0. It's better to do patches and add-ons than to do an add-on."
"The next game will be in a year or two, we want to work very quickly and with Early Access. We'll do everything we can not to get lost."