The Outer Limits
Endless Space by Amplitude Studios
Published: April 17. 2012
Amplitude Studios aims for the infinite with its upcoming intergalactic epic, Endless Space
Sometimes, instead of waiting for something you want, it’s best to take matters into your own hands. This can be a rather intimidating task when the “thing” in question is, in fact, a fully customizable, centuries-long space epic, but it was precisely the approach taken by Paris-based Amplitude Studios. “It had been a while since we had seen a decent space 4X game, and we were itching to get our hands on the next big one,” recalls Romain de Waubert. “We finally got tired of waiting, and decided that the best way to have our dream game was to make it ourselves.” De Waubert and his partners teamed up with six other industry veterans to pool their strengths and modernize a style of games they loved, and thus was born Endless Space.
> Large teams are amazing, and if you have the chance to have worked in such conditions, you can really think big for your game.
Essentially, Endless Space puts players in charge of a civilization at the beginning of the space age, and as tasked with leading it through the following centuries. It quickly becomes apparent that you’re not the only one who wants to colonize the universe, however, and that as big as it may be there isn’t room for everyone. Fortunately, you soon discover Dust, an extremely rare material left by an ancient race, which gives its users incredible powers. How you lead your people to victory will be up to you: Whether you want to use your military to conquer the universe, rule through the fear of retaliation of your alliance, impose your commercial rule over the galaxy, reach a god-like level of technology, or win by building an incredible gate to other parallel universes. It’s effectively yours to decide. “When we chose to name the game ‘endless’ it was because we wanted to give tools to the players so they could customize their experience,” says de Waubert. “No two games will be alike.”
Of particular interest is the approach to "crowd sourced" development Amplitude Studios is taking with GAMES2GETHER. “We have been working with communities in most of our previous games,” explains de Waubert. His first time was while working on D.I.C.E.’s Battlefield 1942, when shortly after release fans were modding the game in ways that he would have thought impossible, even creating map-making tools better than the official ones. “Since then, on most of the games I worked on, it was clear that fans from our communities were actually a part of the team, even though they often were not aware of it,” says de Waubert. “So when we created Amplitude, we decided that we needed to work together with people who love the type of games we make in order to help us improve them, starting before release.” Why wait for a game to be finished to ask what people want to see improved, the logic goes, when you can do it beforehand and avoid making things twice?
It’s an organizational approach that comes with its own complications, of course. “Large teams are amazing, and if you have the chance to have worked in such conditions, you can really think big for your game,” says de Waubert. “Yet driving a large team of 60-80+ people requires lots of organization and planning, so don’t expect to be agile and easily adapt to your market.” De Waubert says that this is why some games can take forever to be released, and by the time they adjust to their market, are already seemingly outdated. “With small teams you can take decisions fairly quickly, and in our case really work directly with our community. You can read some feedback in the morning, talk it over at lunch, and fix it in the afternoon.”
“If the initial concept—space, 4X, turn-based—came in about one minute because we were frustrated fans of the genre, it really took six months working on the prototype to refine the concept, so that the game would be our dream 4X space strategy game,” says de Waubert. In recent days, the team has been making much use of Unity 3.5 Shuriken for its special effects, which de Waubert says has helped them raise the bar in terms of visual quality. “So far [Unity] has been great,” he says. “In less than two months after the prototype was finished, we had these awesome-looking battles up and running. It was the first time in the nearly 15 years of my career that I experienced that.”
A huge emphasis for the Amplitude team has been achieving a unique battle system, universe, and an infinitely replayable multiplayer mode. “The battles are magnificent, and our battle action system is definitely a new take on this kind of space battle,” says de Waubert. “We are not in a space battle simulation, yet we want the player to be totally immersed in the battles and see how their overall strategic decisions affect the outcome of their space encounters.” There is also, of course, a visual equalizer: “One thing we can all agree upon [is that] space battles can be beautiful,” says de Waubert. “We put a lot of effort into making our battles look amazing so that if you want to fight, you will be rewarded for it.”
While Endless Space still has a ways ahead of it, the game is quickly approaching beta, at what de Waubert believes is an exciting moment for the medium. “I think it’s a good time to be independent, small, agile, and working directly with your players,” he says. “Right now it’s easy to make a niche game for tens of thousands of people which might not make you rich, but will be enough to bring a quality game to a targeted audience.” He believes the growing presence of digital retailers has been a huge enabler for Endless Space. “The largest share of the sales revenue now goes the dev, whereas before only a small portion ended up in the dev’s pocket…a really, really small portion.” In addition to the explosion of social media and accessible middleware, there’s a sense that there’s newfound space below the so-called “AAA” arena. “Majors don’t care about games that sell 100,000 units or less… so we are definitely under the radar, and can focus on game types that nobody else is doing. All of that is subject to change, but the transition that the industry is going through at the moment is definitely great for small devs. So expect lots of creativity, lots of choices in gaming, and realize that buying an indie game will mean buying ‘an incredible game tailored for you’—which is very different from the vision people had of indie development a few years back.”
Tales From the Dork Side
“Someone was highly recommended to me for a design role,” recalls Romain de Waubert of the ramp-up to full development on Endless Space. “I received his resume -- quite classic, but still very interesting -- and I noticed his website on it and decided to go check it out. And there, I see a picture of the candidate in leather, half naked, holding his friend on leash, with a leather helmet and a ball in his mouth… I fell off my chair. I thought that was so bold that I had to meet him, and I really wanted to hire him.” But it wasn’t so: “Sadly,” de Waubert says, “HR ‘didn’t feel it’…”
The hardest thing when creating your studio is to go beyond the invisible barrier of people trying to discourage you from doing it—friends, co-workers, bosses,” says Romain de Waubert. “But strangely, once you say, ‘Forget it, I don’t care, I’ll do it, and there’s no turning back,’ everything seems to fall into place.” Because he spent some time around the industry, there was a snowballing effect once he got the ball rolling: “Co-workers, investors, business partners…you attract talent, which attracts talent, etc.” De Waubert suggests finishing a few games at least of an equivalent