Interview: Amplitude Studios on Endless Legend, working at Ubisoft, and changing the 4X-strategy genre
If you dig 4X-strategy titles and have a penchant for science fiction, it's possible that you've delved into the world of Amplitude Studios' Endless series. If not, you really should, because these games have been well received and offer a nice dose of sci-fi mixed with a bit of fantasy, all in a deep strategy package.
I recently met up with Amplitude's COO and Creative Director Romain de Waubert and Lead Writer Jeff Spock to take a look at Endless Legend, which is currently in Early Access on Steam. The duo discussed working at Ubisoft, influences, post-launch plans, and where Amplitude intends to take the series.
GameZone: Let's talk about your background as a studio. You have a portfolio that dates back to working for Ubisoft. Could you describe that experience? Could you also share some details on what it was like to finally break out on your own and do your own thing?
Romain de Waubert: I worked at EA — I was at DICE — before working at Ubisoft. So I think first of all, working in this business is an amazing experience; you learn a lot of things. That's a thing that is missing in many, many indie developers, and so I would never dare say it's all bad.
The first thing I think that you learn when you work with them is to try to be at the place of the players. Like, “Okay, you're doing that. Why are you doing it? How do I feel about this?” Always try to put yourself [in the mindset that] you're not just making games for your own pleasure; you're making games for someone else's pleasure. And that is something that you're always reminded of when you're working with a bigger production, which is a good thing.
Jeff Spock: Yeah, I think that what you learn there is not just that you might have great ideas to make a great game, but if you work for a big publisher, you also learn, “Okay, think about the user interface; think about the health; think about the tutorials; think about everything.” You've got a much more holistic view of what a game is.
If you're an indie — one or two people with a lot of enthusiasm — like Romain said, you don't have that experience and that view of the whole project.
RDW: I think even when you want to do something fresh, it's still always good to think that you're not doing it just for you. I think we are living in incredible times for the video game industry — one of the best times in a long time. And that's due to the fact that anyone has access directly to their players and consumers thanks to Steam and many other digital distribution channels.
Now everyone has access. There's no issues [with lack of physical space, so more people are likely to buy your game], therefore you can make your games and most of the money goes back to the developer. Before it was only around 15 percent of the revenue; sometimes even less. For independent developers, it was harder to break even because of that.
JS: You mentioned Steam, but in the past you've also mentioned tools.
RDW: Yes! Unity! Before, you'd work on a game for two years, and for the first three months, you were making design — coding the engine. And then three months before shipping, it was like, “Okay, guys, the engine works. Make your game.” What?! And then you had little time to discover how your game plays and to debug it and to realize that your design was a bit off.
Now with Unity, for us and Endless Space, in a month we had the prototype for the battles. Three months after that we had the prototype for the economy. In three months, we could play the game. When we develop our games, we go straight for playable as soon as possible and it will physically happen between one to three months.
JS: And then you have all this feedback that you're getting right away. Our idea of Early Access is very clear: We want a bug-free game that we can get in players' hands so we can get their opinions, comments, and feedback so we can balance it. The sad thing is that sometimes you see Early Access being, “Oh my God, we're out of money. We can't finish development unless we sell some stuff.” We have the fortune to have never been in that situation.
Okay, so that's your question about Ubisoft. Any others? (laughs)
GZ: The Endless games are tied into each other. Could you give me some details on exactly how they tie into each other? Specifically, the universe and the lore.
JS: When we first sat down to create Endless Space, we very much had in mind that we wanted science fantasy more than science fiction. Science fiction is like Star Trek, where in spite of all the gobbledygook, they try to make it scientifically realistic. We were more interested in a little bit more Star Wars and Dune, where there's this element of magic and mysticism — something a little bit beyond rational science.
Then when we decided to do Endless Legend, the decision was taken to put the game in the same universe, which meant we were going to put a fantasy game into this more science fictional universe. What we did was create Dust, which is this semi-magical substance that had been left by this Endless precursor race that had disappeared. So we were able to use Dust and build Endless Legend around that.
The idea is that Auriga, which is the planet on which Endless Legend happens, was once this enormous laboratory full of all sorts of amazing forms of life, mutations — a very lush Garden of Eden planet full of scientific laboratories. And when the Endless fell apart during the Civil War — the planet was bombed and mutated — it was dead for a while, but when life came back, it came back even stranger and more amazing than it had been before.
That's where the world of Auriga comes from — that's why it's so full of strange beasts, strange anomalies, and all these amazing, magical things that you run across in Endless Legend. Then we had Dungeon of the Endless, and the decision was taken that that would be a link between the different universes.
The idea is that a spaceship comes to the Auriga, and these old planetary defense systems of the Endless are still active. It gets shot down and crashes deep in this enormous underground laboratory. And those are the heroes who you play in Dungeon of the Endless — these guys who are coming out of this spaceship crash and trying to work their way back to the surface. When they finally get back to the surface, it's this planet that's been devastated and is trying to reestablish itself. That would eventually lead to the factions of Endless Legend.
GZ: You mentioned Dune and Star Wars. Are those two of your biggest influences? What other works inspired the lore and history of these games?
JS: That's hard to say. I started reading sci-fi and fantasy and watching all of the worst movies and TV shows when I was a kid many years ago. Those are definitely big influences. Romain and I both share those influences, as well as others, but there's so much amazing sci-fi that's been written for the last 50, 60 years. Stuff by Asimov; Iain Banks and his universe. It'd be hard to pin down [specific influences].
RDW: We knew the universe would have science mixed with something fantastic. It wouldn't be a NASA simulation. Just by doing that, you're moving away from the most realistic type of science fiction. And when you say Dune and Star Wars, yes, definitely more of the type of stuff we go for, because we don't want to be realistic. The tricky thing is you don't want to be realistic, but you want the players to believe what you show them.
JS: It has to be grounded in reality. It has to be approachable and understandable, and there has to be an immediate link so that the player can sort of get that it's science fiction and that there's an element of realism there — but then there's something that makes it a little bit magical, a little bit amazing, a little bit fantastic to the player.