In a generation where consumers and developers are alike are calling for more openess among game creators and platform holders, young Paris-based studio Amplitude took the notion of opening up the development process a step further with its first release, PC and Mac 4x space strategy title Endless Space.
Rather than keep the game’s creation under wraps and build consumer anticipation through teasers and a giant marketing push post-development, the French developer invited in a community from as early as the alpha phase, letting fans make key decisions on game features and its direction.
Despite a potentially risky strategy, having risked the ire of players who may not agree with development decisions, the game is considered a success by the studio, selling more than 300,000 copies in just over a year.
Develop spoke to Amplitude Studios COO and creative director Romain de Waubert (Pictured below), who has previously worked as lead designer at DICE and as senior producer at Ubisoft, to discuss why they let the community in to the development process, and how they made it work.
You have used an interesting approach to development by inviting the community in so close to develop Endless Space, could you explain your ‘Games2Gether’ approach?
When we were creating Amplitude, we decided that we would start by attacking the 4x genre. However, even though it was our favourite style of strategy game, it was our first attempt at developing one. We knew that we would need people around us to help create and fine tune such a complex game, and we bet that “Games2Gether” would help us achieve that.
So we stuck all of our game design documents on the forums to show the players our vision, and then started discussing the contents with them. A month later we gave early access to our Alpha build via Steam, while putting some of the design elements up for vote.
But because we wanted this whole G2G experience to be fun, we added an achievement system to our forums and implemented the G2G points that serve as the player’s “weight” when voting. The more active you are on the forums, the more G2G points you have and the more your opinion counts.
It turns out that we guessed right, because there is such passion in the strategy community that a lot of very talented people from all around the globe came to help us with the development of Endless Space.
And honestly, without them, I wonder what we could have done to balance out the hundreds of technologies, ship modules, buildings, faction traits, etcetera.
Why did you decide to let the community dictate what direction the game would take, rather than keep everything in-house?
The trick is that our community does not dictate our development. We always said that we had a vision, but that we wanted to find people who were willing to help us within that vision.
In fact, it works with our community in the very same way that it works within our team. I hold the vision, but everyone is welcome to contribute. I just act as the filter for ideas that fit or do not fit within that vision.
This is why we see the community as an extension of the team. We view the Amplitude team as the main trunk and first branches of the tree, while the community grows the branches and adds new ones.
When you are a small developer, any and all assistance is welcome because your team is never big enough. Working with the community helps enormously; it just requires a bit more management.
We had to create a positive spin so that people would want to come meet us and discover our game. This is why we decided to let them in, open our doors, and be as transparent as possible on our choices.
To be very honest, the first time we shared our design documents with “outsiders”, I felt naked. Reminded me of these nightmares where I was back at school and forgot to get dressed before I left the house.
But I was amazed how cool people were when they saw us naked!
How do you keep the balance between your own vision for the game and what the community wants? Is there a danger you could let the community have too much control over development?
The way we look at it there is no problem with the vision, because there is only one version of it and that is controlled by Amplitude. Either an element of community feedback works within the vision, or it falls outside. So it’s really not a danger.
Even more, this is why we need to be really close to our community – we want to explain constantly and clearly what our vision is and why some ideas don’t fit.
Interestingly enough, after a while many “vision helpers” appeared inside the community who were great at doing first-level filtering of what does or does not fit.
A lot of the elements, most of them, actually, fit really well inside it. The hard work is more in organising all those elements in a hierarchy of priorities.
What were the benefits for you during development of being able to receive instant feedback from players?
A very simple benefit of receiving instant feedback during development is that you don’t waste time focusing on elements that everyone dislikes or simply does not care for. In that way you gain precious development time.
Is there anything you would do differently with your approach to development in your next game?
In our next game we will probably have longer running alphas and betas – for Endless Space that entire period was only three months.
As we were unknown, we could not afford an alpha that wasn’t rock-solid so our alpha, stability wise, was beta+. I think now that players know how dedicated we are to making solid and polished games, we could probably invite people even earlier in our alpha test.
And as in any development cycle, the earlier the feedback, the better we can address major issues and avoid unimportant ones.
How will you support Endless Space in the long-term? Is it financially viable for you to do this with free updates, while developing other games?
We are doing a lot of content-rich free updates so far, and while it may not be financially viable today, we see it as in investment in the future.
We view our games as living things whose life cycle is just starting when they are released, which is totally the opposite of how games were considered just a few years back. We also want to make sure that everyone knows this is how we work on our games – buying one of our games is also buying into a long and dedicated support cycle.
We are also creating an expansion pack to Endless Space that will come out in a few months, expanding the game even further.
Would you recommend other studios open up the development phase to their players early on?
Well, obviously I can only recommend it, though it is scary to expose yourself to such a large number of passionate people.
In our case, the community that was built around Endless Space was incredibly mature and constructive. I have no idea if we just got lucky, or if they are that way because we give them quite a lot of responsibility. I hope it is the latter.
I don’t know if it would work for everyone, because it is a different development mentality.
Do you think your open approach to development would work on other platforms such as console? And are you considering expanding away from PC for your next release?
Well, our system works great in a connected environment, and the problem with consoles is likely to be the patching and add-on submission processes.
Those could kill that “living game” feel. Yet we hope that for the coming generation of consoles, indies like us will be welcomed and encouraged to be distributed on their digital platforms.
All we need is for console manufacturers to reduce the paperwork overhead and leave us in control of our own channel within their environment. A bit like Steam or an app store does.
It might be possible if they create a specific store for indie developers, where players will realise that sometimes the polish of the products found there will not always be the same as for triple-A blockbusters. Leaving the responsibility of the content and quality to the developer side is the way to go to allow that open approach to exist with other platforms.
To make the answer short, if the new console generation is really indie friendly, we’ll be on it!