Stu­dio Pro­file

The Parisian out­fit on an end­less quest to re­vi­talise 4X and turn-based strat­egy

EDGE - - GAMES SECTIONS - BY LEWIS GOR­DON

Parisian out­fit Am­pli­tude Stu­dios is on an end­less quest to re­vi­talise 4X and turn-based strat­egy games

The story of Am­pli­tude could be a story from the stu­dio’s End­less uni­verse, or any 4X game for that mat­ter. The Parisian team saw an op­por­tu­nity to im­pose it­self be­tween the es­tab­lished old guard of Civ­i­liza­tion and the fledg­ling in­die 4X de­vel­op­ers, though the lat­ter camp was a be­nign pres­ence of­fer­ing lit­tle in the way of real chal­lenge to Sid Meier’s pow­er­house. En­ter Am­pli­tude in 2011, led by for­mer Ubisoft pro­duc­ers who, whip-smart and ruth­less, ex­ploited their pre­vi­ous con­tacts, ex­per­tise and pas­sion to launch End­less Space a year later. One of the first Early Ac­cess games on Steam, it has sold well over a mil­lion units. It achieved this by cul­ti­vat­ing the sup­port of the pub­lic through its Games2Gether pro­gramme, a means of invit­ing play­ers into the usu­ally au­to­cratic process of game de­sign. Piece­meal con­ces­sion to democ­racy? Maybe. But in do­ing so, Am­pli­tude has built up a le­gion of loyal fol­low­ers in­vested in its ti­tles; per­sua­sive dis­sem­i­na­tors of the good word.

So far Am­pli­tude has ticked off three of the four tenets of the 4X genre. Ex­plore: check. Ex­ploit: check. Ex­pand: dou­ble check. But Ex­ter­mi­nate? Well, if any­thing, Am­pli­tude has seen its com­peti­tors rise in the face of its suc­cess, spurred on by the ground Am­pli­tude has opened up. “I dare say we re­launched a genre that had some­how dis­ap­peared,” co-founder Mathieu

Gi­rard tells us. Partly, this has ne­ces­si­tated the next chap­ter in Am­pli­tude’s story: its ac­qui­si­tion by Sega, an­nounced in early July. But it’s not only other de­vel­op­ers of 4X games that Am­pli­tude has to worry about now. Like the devel­op­ment land­scape, Steam has changed im­mea­sur­ably in the five years since the re­lease of End­less Space.

“In 2010 Steam was be­com­ing strong,” Gi­rard says. “We had worked with com­mu­ni­ties be­fore on some of our games. We found Unity, which was be­com­ing pop­u­lar at the time.” While at Ubisoft, Gi­rard had worked with Steam on the Arkane-de­vel­oped Dark Mes­siah Of Might And

Magic and had kept in con­tact with the Valve team. That in turn fa­cil­i­tated End­less Space’s re­lease on the plat­form. “Af­ter that we re­alised how tough it was to be pub­lished on Steam,” Gi­rard says. Co-founder Ro­main de Waubert de

Gen­lis ex­pands: “It only worked be­cause we had no idea – we thought it was nor­mal.”

The group were able to rely on their ex­haus­tive and trusted con­tact book, and ex­ten­sive prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. It al­lowed them to avoid many of the pitfalls that plague first-time de­vel­op­ers and, in turn, build up the trust be­tween them and Steam. “I think a new­bie mis­take when you start on a game, when you don’t have ex­pe­ri­ence, is [think], ‘Let’s make ev­ery­thing bet­ter than any­one else’,” de Waubert de Gen­lis ex­plains. “You have to ac­cept that this will be just on par and that will be just on par, but this el­e­ment will be be­yond ev­ery­one else. And that’s where I will put all my ef­forts, and that’s where I will in­no­vate.” It’s an ap­proach that ben­e­fited the stu­dio; End­less Space was both a crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess.

The fol­lowup, End­less Leg­end, launched in 2014, made by a team of 40 com­pared to

End­less Space’s 15. The first game was 4X in space; this time it would be 4X in a fan­tasy set­ting. De Waubert de Gen­lis warmly re­calls

Mas­ter Of Magic, a fan­tasy 4X re­leased back in ’94, and one that hadn’t been bet­tered. “It’s a game that wasn’t fin­ished and it was awe­some. And there was still a lit­tle frus­tra­tion there; I would love to play a 4X game in a fan­tasy uni­verse.”

End­less Leg­end went on to sell over 900,000 copies, an­other se­ri­ous suc­cess for Am­pli­tude and vin­di­cat­ing its be­lief in 4X as a genre.

But its next game, Dun­geon Of The End­less, a Rogue­like with tower-de­fence el­e­ments, was a com­plete de­par­ture for the stu­dio. It es­chews the vast scope and vis­tas of its pre­vi­ous ti­tles, de­spite be­ing set in the same End­less uni­verse, and in­stead fo­cuses on the per­sonal sto­ries of a crash-landed crew. By all ac­counts it was a spon­ta­neous cre­ative process. “The think­ing was… There was no think­ing,” de Waubert de Gen­lis re­calls. The idea was hashed out on a white­board in a meet­ing room on a Fri­day and, by the fol­low­ing Mon­day, there was a pro­to­type ready to present to Gi­rard on the Wed­nes­day. It was warmly re­ceived and opened the stu­dio up to a new au­di­ence. “I think it was funny for us in terms of im­age,” Max von Knor­ring, di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing, tells us. “You know, 4X, niche PC strat­egy, hard­core. And then sud­denly you come out with a Rogue­like, pixel-art, over-the-top crazy kind of game – like, re­ally in­die.”

Am­pli­tude, though, has al­ways been in­die, at least be­fore it signed the Sega deal, and it’s in­ter­est­ing to hear staff speak of chal­leng­ing peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions with Dun­geon Of The

End­less. Cer­tainly, the game pos­sesses an in­die aes­thetic, but there’s an in­die ethos un­der­pin­ning it, too, one that Am­pli­tude per­haps wanted to high­light with the game. “Some peo­ple tell you it’s two guys in the back room. Oth­ers will tell you it’s self-funded. Oth­ers will tell you, well, they don’t have a pub­lisher. For me, it’s about you be­ing in­de­pen­dent in cre­ativ­ity,” de Waubert de Gen­lis says. “If you want to make some­thing, you do it. And if you’re wrong you die, more or less.”

Am­pli­tude hasn’t been wrong yet – at least not in terms of sales. But that doesn’t mean its sur­vival hasn’t been threat­ened or com­pro­mised, not least by the over­sat­u­ra­tion of the dig­i­tal mar­ket­place, and Steam in par­tic­u­lar. It’s a sit­u­a­tion that fu­elled the Sega deal, which Am­pli­tude hopes will pro­vide it with a level of se­cu­rity it pre­vi­ously lacked. “We re­alised we were hav­ing more and more prob­lems ex­ist­ing on Steam,” de Waubert de Gen­lis says. “Last year there were 4,000 new games and, of

“WE WERE HAV­ING MORE AND MORE PROB­LEMS EX­IST­ING ON STEAM. LAST YEAR THERE WERE 4,000 NEW GAMES”

course, Steam is try­ing to be fair to ev­ery­one. But it’s re­ally hard to have that vis­i­bil­ity.” He hopes Sega will help Am­pli­tude se­cure that vis­i­bil­ity, po­si­tion­ing the stu­dio at the fore­front of the strat­egy genre along with fel­low Sega stu­dios Cre­ative As­sem­bly and Relic En­ter­tain­ment. “If you want to be with the top games that will be put for­ward on any plat­form,” de Waubert de Gen­lis says, “you need to have the strength, the backup, of a pub­lisher be­hind you.”

But the deal with Sega isn’t a tra­di­tional de­vel­oper-pub­lisher re­la­tion­ship. “What’s sur­pris­ing is the way Sega’s or­gan­ised,” Gi­rard says. “Most peo­ple still see them as a pub­lisher, pub­lish­ing lots of games with a big struc­ture. But now they’re more of a ser­vice com­pany, pro­vid­ing the ser­vices for IT, for PR and mar­ket­ing. They have busi­ness man­age­ment for hard­ware deals and stuff like that. It’s great – it’s all the ad­van­tages with­out the prob­lems you would get from a pub­lisher.”

And those prob­lems are man­i­fold, par­tic­u­larly if you’re a smaller in­die stu­dio. “From what we’ve seen, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the pub­lisher and the de­vel­oper is not prop­erly re­ward­ing,” de Waubert de Gen­lis tells us. “When you are a small, av­er­age de­vel­oper, you have no weight. [Now] we are in the same house. We are the same com­pany. Our in­ter­ests are their in­ter­ests.” It ap­pears to be an in­ge­nious piece of diplo­macy, one that will align the stu­dio di­rectly with its for­mer com­peti­tors at Cre­ative and Relic, and even pro­vide the op­por­tu­nity for con­ver­sa­tion be­tween them.

Well, per­haps not com­peti­tors. Where Relic has Com­pany Of Heroes and Warham­mer

40,000, and Cre­ative As­sem­bly has To­tal War, Am­pli­tude op­er­ates in a dif­fer­ent realm, one based in a fan­tas­ti­cal sci-fi world. “It’s a dream world,” de Waubert de Gen­lis says. “In that dream world, ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble. In that dream world, peo­ple have evolved from noth­ing to have civil­i­sa­tion.” He ref­er­ences the NASA style of sci-fi, one based on the re­al­i­ties of cur­rent space ex­plo­ration and knowl­edge, as some­thing the stu­dio tries to avoid. It’s a sen­ti­ment con­firmed by art di­rec­tor Corinne Bil­lon. “The main goal was not to be sci­en­tific,” she says. “It was to look for the won­der, not for the re­al­is­tic truth.”

Part of that process in­volves delv­ing into the past, where par­tic­u­lar sci-fi vi­sions were less con­strained by the re­al­i­ties of hu­man achieve­ment. “I re­cently saw a very old sci-fi movie, Silent Run­ning,” Bil­lon tells us. “And I tried to see how it was thought of be­fore. It was maybe more ori­en­tated like the won­der we wanted to cre­ate in­stead of too much science.”

By her own ad­mis­sion, though, won­der alone isn’t enough in sci-fi. “End­less Space was a very good game but a bit cold in terms of uni­verse, ex­plo­ration and what an em­pire is,” Gi­rard says. Part of Am­pli­tude’s so­lu­tion is to place more em­pha­sis on the pop­u­la­tion in the forth­com­ing

End­less Space 2, to in­ject some life into its uni­verse through the messy pol­i­tics of a given fac­tion’s ci­ti­zen­ship. “I guess we want to prove what it is to be an em­peror, and so for that you must have ac­tual cit­i­zens – ac­tual peo­ple with emo­tions who re­act to what you do.”

It’s an in­no­va­tion Am­pli­tude be­lieves will set it apart from other 4X games, lend­ing more depth and in­ter­est. “When­ever you play any 4X, pop­u­la­tion is very im­por­tant, but it’s al­ways a mul­ti­plier for re­sources, more or less,” de Waubert de Gen­lis says. There are no reper­cus­sions, in other words: pop­u­la­tion is part and par­cel of the in­evitable march to­wards progress, with­out the di­a­logue that oc­curs be­tween ruler and ruled. End­less Space 2 should fix this prob­lem. “An em­peror has to han­dle his pop­u­la­tion. They’re not al­ways happy with what you say,” de Waubert de Gen­lis says. Gi­rard takes it fur­ther: “Some­how the pop­u­la­tion can be a con­straint be­cause you have to deal with how they think, but you can also play with it.”

Pop­u­la­tion, then, is key to Am­pli­tude’s lat­est game. But it’s been a per­ma­nent fix­ture through­out the stu­dio’s short his­tory in the form of Games2Gether. Its use, though, has al­tered sig­nif­i­cantly since its in­cep­tion. “It’s true that when we were work­ing on End­less Space it was more a means to at­tract play­ers,” von Knor­ring says. “To­day it’s less of a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool and more a devel­op­ment tool.”

It’s part of a process that en­sures Am­pli­tude stays ahead of the curve. With the Sega deal, it‘s en­ter­ing into a new era and show­ing no signs of slow­ing its own ex­pan­sion, while bring­ing 4X to a new au­di­ence. “It’s a genre we feel we mas­ter now, even though there are im­prove­ments to be made, but I would say the ob­jec­tive is to make more and more am­bi­tious games and to ap­peal to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble,” Gi­rard tells us. It seems as if the team is putting into prac­tice the rules of its games – edg­ing closer to that elu­sive win state, one turn at a time.

“THE MAIN GOAL WAS NOT TO BE SCI­EN­TIFIC. IT WAS TO LOOK FOR THE WON­DER, NOT FOR THE TRUTH”

Am­pli­tude Stu­dios cre­ative di­rec­tor Ro­main de Waubert de Gen­lis (left) and pro­duc­tion di­rec­tor Mathieu Gi­rard

Am­pli­tude’s Paris HQ of­fers views of the city. “Paris is a great hub, but there are quite a few hubs,” de Waubert de Gen­lis says. “The gov­ern­ment here is help­ing a lot, ba­si­cally, [of­fer­ing] great grants, and do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to help us re­duce the cost of devel­op­ment”

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