If I had free reign to establish my game dev studio anywhere on the planet, I'd either stick it on top of the Burj Khalifa or at the bottom of the Med, accessible only via submarine. Failing that, round the back of a warehouse named Bed World in Guildford would do.
It's precisely round the back of a warehouse named Bed World in Guildford that Ambient Studios is located. And it's here that the small team - comprised partly of ex-Lionhead, Criterion and Media Molecule developers - are hard at work on Death Inc., a strategy game about the Black Death. Chin up though, Ambient are doing a fine job of converting the appalling death of some two-hundred million human beings into a beguiling and cheery strategy game, one that boasts a clean control scheme, a visual motif to die for and a deceptively deep pool of tactics to wrap your head around.
Ambient are also clambering aboard the Kickstarter wagon to help secure funding for Death Inc. We ventured south to Ambient HQ to take an early peek at Death Inc. and aim the question gun at Creative Director Daniel Leaver and Design Lead Mike Green. In Part 1 of our interview, we discuss strategy, the origins of the project and Ambient's key influences from the genre.
Strategy Informer: How did Death Inc. come about?
Daniel Leaver: Death Inc. began as an idea: 'wouldn't it be cool if you could play a game where you played as the zombies?' But we knew, pretty much straight away within the same breath, that we didn't want to use zombies.
Mike Green: We didn't want to use zombies and we didn't want to use that apocalyptic setting that's been done to death now.
Daniel Leaver: We always knew it would be a strategy game because to control a horde you couldn't have a third-person perspective. They've been done but I don't think they're as effective as the top-down isometric proper strategy game.
Strategy Informer: The game's set in Medieval England, which is a relatively untouched time period as far as games are concerned. What informed the decision to set it in that period?
Mike Green: When we were first trying to think of what else it could be - we went through loads of different iterations, things like little computer people in an electronic world - Tim and John the art guys here had a Eureka moment of 'we could set it in Medieval times, it's the Black Death'. We sat there going 'yeah that's okay, that's cool, it hasn't been done before' and then we struck upon the idea that actually you were playing as the Grim Reaper.
Daniel Leaver: I love re-imagining the past. I love any game that takes something that happened and puts a spin on it. Even something like Resistance: Fall of Man, I loved the idea of taking World War Two and making it about aliens. It's really cool because our history gives us so much to feed upon, we've got plague rats, nobles and bishops and that kind of stuff.
Strategy Informer: You've taken something dark and turned it on its head. It's a funny game with a cheery outlook, yet it's a game about the appalling death of millions.
Daniel Leaver: It has to happen as part of tackling a dark subject unless you really want to put a lot of people off. In the end, there are some games which are really dark and moody and gritty and they're great, but at the same time you can't feel like you could show it to your kids, for instance, and we want to feel like we can show this to everybody. Putting that kind of humorous spin on something as dark as the Black Death is a necessary thing to do. We haven't tempered our creative vision it's still a game about killing people in the 17th century with the Black Death and yet it's funny.
Strategy Informer: How much humour are you hoping to have in there?
Mike Green: I'd like to inject as much as we can and I think we're definitely going to get that with some of the things that happen through the sandbox nature of the levels and some of the cool things you can use, catapults flinging your infected over walls and stuff like that, so I think there'll be that side of things. Going into the meta-game we're building, which is in the office, I think there's a lot of visual humour we can put in.
Daniel Leaver: There's going to be a certain level of dark humour in the game that, even though you'll laugh at it, you'll think 'that's bad'. Like perhaps some of the villagers run and they'll fall over and if they hadn't had fallen over they'd have been safe.
Strategy Informer: Speaking of fear, I think I noticed some archers bolting after their comrades had been defeated, is there an emphasis on playing with morale or using tactics to incite fear in your enemies?
Mike Green: Yeah, definitely. At the moment it's based on how many infected are running at them at one point in time, but I love the idea that you send in your infected and there's a point where a town just accepts that all hope is lost and they're all [animated screaming, then death noises] running for their lives.
Daniel Leaver: One area I definitely want to see us put a lot of effort into is the morale of troops and it's not going to be like a morale bar, it's not going to be a counter that ticks down and they have unhappy faces. It's going to be simply, if they're facing too many of you some of them will break and run. It won't have to be explained to players, hopefully, that this is what happened. It'll be obvious. They'll be running and shouting.
Strategy Informer: One of the things I like to ask developers working on comical games is why they think there's so little humour in games?
Daniel Leaver: It's really hard to do, and it's really subjective as well. So what's funny to English people isn't necessarily funny to American people and vice versa so really all we can promise is it'll be funny to us.
Mike Green: I think you've hit upon a big point. I think a lot of it is down to the people that are driving a project. Ron Gilbert is a funny guy and I think that's going to naturally pass down to other people on the game, they'll feel like that's the kind of experience they're building. Certainly that's what we're doing here. We want it to be funny.
Strategy Informer: Is there more room for that in a smaller, more-focused team?
Daniel Leaver: Absolutely. I know that working in a small group is the best way to make games because I only need to turn to my right and speak to the designer and then turn to my left and speak to the animation guy and it's that kind of closeness that allows you to make really lovingly crafted games. I think as far as humour is concerned if we all share the same sense of humour, which I think we do, that'll definitely be seen in the game.
Strategy Informer: You've got a team of eleven people, many of whom have worked on some of the more personable games of recent memory, the likes of LittleBigPlanet and Fable. Have elements of those games found their way into Death Inc.?
Mike Green: For me, a lot of the Fable games were built around Albion and that kind of British countryside theme, so that's definitely helped in imagining all the places we could go. And I think, from the MM side, that was always just a really fun game. There was lots of experimenting with gameplay and it's been a really nice collaboration.
Daniel Leaver: We always had this idea of emergent gameplay, because the whole point of LittleBigPlanet was for it to be something very simple to approach that had lots of gameplay that unravels as you go - lots of physics based stuff, which is always funny because it's different every time, and lots of puzzles. Having worked at Media Molecule for six years I've learned that if you give people a bit of creativity in how they approach something they'll love it ten times more. It gives them their own personal stamp on things.
Strategy Informer: So the buzzword for Death Inc. is streamlined strategy, what does that entail?
Daniel Leaver: We prefer the term freehand now. We don't want people to think there isn't strategy in it. We want it to be seen as freehand in that you have the flexibility to make some really intricate decisions and complex strategies, but without that control barrier.
Mike Green: I definitely find with games like StarCraft, especially when I'm playing multiplayer - and I'm shit at multiplayer - it often comes down to number of clicks per second. There's so much going on but in my head I know exactly what I want to do. I think that's the nice thing with our mechanic, you just paint it. You don't have to worry about all the multiple things you have to do in between. So streamlined is the wrong word I think.
Strategy Informer: I think I'm required to ask whether you're hoping to draw the attention of strategy veterans with the game?
Daniel Leaver: Yes, definitely. We don't want to make it feel as though we're not catering to the hardcore strategy player by making a streamlined control mechanism. It certainly isn't a case of that. They will just be able to get into our game quicker and easier than they would another game and then they'll be able to use the same strategy mentality that they'd use to win in other games.
Mike Green: I think the types of troops and enemies you're going to encounter should flip some gameplay on its head a little bit. You'll encounter a situation where you think, 'hey, I'm going to do this thing again' but there'll be a troop in the way who does something that causes your plan to change or fail dismally.
Daniel Leaver: Perhaps he's buffing the unit or curing the infected as you charge in so you can't use melee. That's where real strategy comes from I think, from looking at the different combination of units in front of you and knowing you can't use range, for example.
Strategy Informer: You've confirmed there won't be any micromanagement in Death Inc. There are a lot of people that might argue that's intrinsic to the genre.
Daniel Leaver: I've played some games recently for various reasons, lots of different strategy games, and some of them have asked me to reference a Wikipedia page or an in-game manual to get those elements and I think if you have to ask someone to do further reading on a subject in a game you've kind of missed the point a little bit. So what we'd love to have with Death Inc. is, when you're playing the game, it's all very instantaneously satisfying and very visually clear what's going on, yet you've got a separate meta-game where you can calm down and cool off a little bit and manage the business side of things. I'm not a fan of micromanagement to the point where it gets in the way of you having fun with the game.
Strategy Informer: So if you had to pin down some influences from the strategy genre, what would you go for?
Daniel Leaver: I love strategy games, I've played Homeworld and Dawn of War 2 almost religiously. I love 40K. XCOM Enemy Unknown is amazing and I play a lot of Total War which I think is probably at the more complex end of most strategy experiences. But I also love tabletop war-gaming, so I get a lot of the turn-based strategy from that kind of area.
Mike Green: I play a lot of Total War and StarCraft, Age of Empires. I don't play tabletop war-games but I should! We do play a lot of board games here.
Daniel Leaver: There is a game called Incubation, which is a turn-based game, and my favourite aspect of turn-based is the idea that it's not about reaction times, it is purely about your ability to out-think your opponent. It's not this, 'ah, I didn't click this button quick enough, or I didn't retire this unit quick enough'. It is purely about, 'okay, I can see him going this way, so if I move my units to this side I can catch him in the crossfire'. There's something incredibly satisfying about out-thinking someone.
Strategy Informer: You're targeting a September/October release, how realistic is that. There have been a few Kickstarters recently that have slipped.
Daniel Leaver: There are two types of slippages. There's one where you've got the game to a point where it's 90% complete and you know that last 10% will basically double how amazing it is, and that's a slippage for a really good reason. If you think, 'I know if we release this now it's an 8/10, I know we can make it a 10 we just need two more months'.
Mike Green: One of the things we want to do is release an alpha and a beta as early as we can so there'll be something out there the second we feel we can get people to test it out, or play a couple of levels. It's going to be good that we can get feedback before the game is actually released. Quite often you slog away at a game for years and years and years and it doesn't matter how many people Microsoft have put in front of a camera to test the game, until it's out in the public you just have no idea.