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