Co-Founder and Narrative Director of Amplitude Studios
80.lv talked with the developers of Endless Space 2 about the development of complex strategic games.
Could you give us a little intro to the Endless Space series?
Mathieu and Romain, the co-founders of Amplitude, were both nostalgic for classic 4X games like “Master of Orion” and “Master of Magic”. They were fed up with waiting for the next one and didn’t see anything coming on the horizon, so back in 2010 they just sat down and worked out what it would be like if someone was to make it and what would be possible. Then they wrote down a bunch of ideas, and contacted Corinne, Eric, and myself for art, programming, and writing, and the thing sort of grew…
From the point of view of the story, Endless Space 2 is not a sequel or prequel of Endless Space. It is more like a reboot of the galaxy, as if it were taking place in parallel with the first game but in an alternate part of the multiverse.
As far as the development and production go, it was really a desire to take all the things we learned on Endless Space, and all the things we added and changed on Endless Legend, and pull together the best of them. There are new ideas and new mechanics as well; it’s really—as we have discovered every game is—a compendium of everything that we have learned so far in 4X development.
Taking Endless Space as an example, can you show us what are the main principles of 4X space strategies? What makes these games so addictive and why do people keep playing them?
That’s a great question and one that we should probably ask ourselves more often. We tend to get focused a lot on production, rather than stepping back and wondering why it works.
Part of it must be the fact that these are long-range plans. You choose a faction, feel out your place in your corner of the galaxy, and then start unrolling your strategy. Turn by turn you see the planets starting to get colonized, the population start to grow, the star systems build giant constructions and defenses, the unknown void next to your constellation get explored. Then you run into a hostile enemy! How do you handle that? Where do you change from resource-boosting buildings to system-defending ships? Can you get that next research complete and upgrade your fleets before they find your home system? Do you need to start generating money to pay for a war effort, or can you keep ahead using superior science and better weapons?
Whenever we play it seems to be questions like these that drive us forward. Will my strategy pan out, will the new ships be built on time, can I get my Influence back up high enough to take over that neighboring system… There are tons of little decisions that build up into an epic story on their own, and like any great book or film you really want to see what happens in the next scene—or turn, in this case—and then the one after that, and the one after that…
Many consider these games to be quite complicated. All this micro-management and hundreds of parameters you need to care about. How do you approach difficulty in your game?
There are a few elements that help us with this, which is a big problem in general for 4X games. One of the things we most want to avoid is micro-management, and that is a combination of clean design, efficient programming, and a highly readable user interface. We are continually making choices to ensure that the player won’t drown under a flood of information, while still having them two clicks away from whatever it is that they want to know.
Keeping the design simple is key there, which is tough when you are making a 4X strategy game with all the resources and play styles and the game systems that interact with each other. That’s one of the reasons that we test so much—not to fix bugs, but to see how the complex systems interact (or don’t!).
After that we had to rely on a lot of talent to make it as slick as it is: Our artists for the look, UI design specialists for the overall feel and accessibility, and Mathieu, who is lead UI programmer, for the interface as he is really into all the details of its implementation.
Could you talk about the multi-directional development in Endless Space?
It’s very complex, but we always tried to keep in mind the different ways of winning the game at each step of the process. Each time we design a new game element, we try to check it against the different victory conditions that we designed in from the start of the game. Of course, each time you add a game element, you risk creating the possibility of having an exploit inside the game that the dev team never thought of. The fact that different designers handle different systems doesn’t make that easier!
I think we have two key strengths that help us around these pitfalls. One is the fact that the design and programming teams sit next to each other and constantly exchange ideas and ask questions throughout the process. The other wonderful thing is our community, who help us to identify and fix imbalances and exploits early on.
How important is ‘space’ in 4x space games? What extra dimension does the inclusion of the open universe give the player?
It wouldn’t be surprising if every player gave you a different answer, because there are so many different play styles. Part of it is the scope and the exploration; the plunge into the unknown and the discovery of all the amazing things out there. Part of it is also the challenge, particularly if the player has a more aggressive style and wants to rule the galaxy.
If we look at something like the four Bartle player types (and there are lots of versions of this, so you can analyze it from a lot of points of view), for the Explorer it’s the discovery of what’s out there, for the Social it’s seeing and meeting all the new peoples and other players, for the Killers it’s dominating that vast expanse, and for the Achievers it’s the challenge of ticking all those boxes in that wide-open galaxy. So the lure of space tickles a lot of different players, maybe all in different ways.
Then, of course, there are just some of us who grew up loving Star Wars and Star Trek.
How do you usually design races in your games?
For the first Endless Space it was slightly less directed; we hadn’t completely developed our hallmark asymmetric gameplay until the Harmony expansion came out. Once we started working on Legend, however, we really started to push the boundaries of what is and isn’t possible in 4X gaming, which in turn inspired all the creatives to come up with crazy ideas for the different factions.
An example would be the Forgotten in Endless Legend, who started out as a faction of doppelgängers and shape-shifters called the Replicants. They fell out of the initial line-up of our seven factions, however, and by the time we got around to adding a ninth faction we realized that what we (and the community) wanted was good espionage gameplay and a faction that would tie in well to that.
The Forgotten’s backstory came together easily; we were thinking of what humanoid faction they might have evolved from when we had the idea of using the science-intensive Vaulters as a foil for the science-rejecting Forgotten. As far as the faction creation goes, the various pieces fell into place relatively painlessly! The bird of prey that accompanies the diplomat was added by an artist, and the notion of these silent hunters as symbols and allies of the faction was immediately adopted.
That is a pretty good example of how we combine lore, design, art, and community requests to try to come up with something cool and different. There are, of course, simply crazy ones like the megalomanic Horatio whose entire faction is clones of himself, but sometimes one person just comes out with a wild-eyed idea that we all think is awesome.
How important is testing for 4x strategies?
Testing is one of the most critical elements of a 4X game—but not quality testing and bug fixes. The really difficult testing is the balance of all the systems and mechanics and factions in the game, making sure that the difficulty curves are just right and that at no point in the game is any one faction or faction design too overpowered.
That kind of careful weighing of design decisions couldn’t be done without the help of our community and the G2G program. It really is the heart of the design validation process. It goes beyond just balance, though, into major features that need to be changed or even designed in or out of the game because something isn’t “ready for prime time” yet. We are on our fourth Early Access now, and the final quality of the game is heavily dependent on the feedback and exchange of ideas that we have throughout the EA process.
Jeff Spock, Co-Founder and Narrative Director of Amplitude Studios
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.