Amplitude's very pretty fantasy 4X strategy Endless Legend has been in Early Access for some time now, and it recently received a bumper new update adding multiplayer functionality and two new factions. It seemed like a good time to track down game director Max von Knorring and co-founders Romain de Waubert and Mathieu Girard for a lengthy chat.
Strategy Informer: Amplitude is a big proponent of Early Access - how has the system benefited you when creating Endless Legend ?
Mathieu Girard: It worked out really, really well for us, to the point where we wouldn't really want to work differently. It's just part of our model now -we make the game playable as early as possible, and we are able to gather feedback not just from the team, but from everyone who's playing it. So basically gameplay becomes the centre of our process, as early on as possible.
Max von Knorring: Yeah, it's true, Early Access for us is in the DNA of the company. With Valve we were one of the first companies to use Early Access with Endless Space , so we were kind of the guinea pigs of that process. We had our alpha, and we wanted people to come in and try the game to get feedback as quickly as possible. We asked Valve and they said “Hey, why not? Let's give it a try and see if it works out.” they were really open to it, which was something great that we really wanted to continue for Legend , for Dungeon , for all the games we are working on.
Strategy Informer: Do you think there's a right way and a wrong way to use the system?
Romain de Waubert: We understand that Early Access cannot be a success for everyone, especially if you don't play by the rules. For us there's a few rules we have to follow when we do Early Access; it shouldn't be buggy, so stability is very important because otherwise all you will get from feedback is bad reports, which as a developer you don't want. Another thing is something we've seen a lot recently, which is people using Early Access as a way to finance their game's production. Some times, when they feel they've earned enough money out of that they just leave it, which is NOT what the system is made for. So I think it's extremely important that if you want your Early Access to work, that you make it all about gameplay and feedback.
Mathieu Girard: Also I would extend on the stability, it has to show the right quality of the game. We show only a fraction of the game, and it has to have the right quality, with feedback, tooltips and so on. We have to be happy with it, even if it is going to evolve and change, we have to be happy with what we deliver. Also I'd like to add something production-wise, which is that back in the days of retail it was very stressful to make the Gold master, because you had one chance to make it right before it went off to the factory. Right now the final release is less stressful, and you really have the time to see the game shaping up. You don't have any bad surprises near the end that change what the customers might have thought of the game.
Romain de Waubert: Yeah, that's true. The day we press the button to say “Ok, that's it, it's final,” we know what our players think. We're not about to discover what that will be. Which was the case before!
Max von Knorring: Yeah it's true. Before we had to wait until release before we got any feedback, and then you say “Okay, that will be the next focus or whatever.”
Mathieu Girard: You could do patches, but it felt like you had done something wrong rather than a natural development of the game.
Strategy Informer: Your community even lends a hand with design. The next race you're adding to Legend , the Cult, were designed by one of your fans – how did that come about?
Max von Knorring: So it's something that started with Endless Space first, there were guys who'd tell us “I want this kind of faction or that kind of faction”, and we thought the ideas they had were really nice. So we said okay, why not make a custom faction out of one of the factions they proposed, so we made a competition, found a winner and made a custom faction in a free add-on. It became a real faction in Endless Space . The process was long, it took us almost nine months to have the faction released, it came bit by bit. This time we wanted to have the process from the beginning in Endless Legend , so we made a little competition out of it in three phases; the first phase was game design and biography of the faction, second was the visual design of the units, the heroes and the city, and the third was the logo and the ships.
What we also wanted to do was, unlike when we did this in Endless Space, to let the community choose for themselves. So we didn't interfere with the selection of the winner, which brought us a very interesting faction. Super challenging in terms of design and implementation, but at the same time it's refreshing for us and it's cool also to work with the winners, when we provide the models and assets and gameplay adapted to our constraints, to make sure that the guys are happy and that we're as close as possible to what they've proposed.
Romain de Waubert: I think it goes back to the whole concept of working together. When we first said we would work with the community and invite them to create the game along with us, there were a few ground rules we set up. We said “we have the vision, and we'll tell you what goes in and what does not.” This rule works; if you don't have this kind of rules the game will never end, and it will turn into something else completely. So you need those rules. At the same time it's great to give them (the fans) these opportunities to express themselves. What we tried to do there was say “okay, you do it.” They wrote the story, the art, the gameplay – it was hard to fit it within our vision because it was so open, but that's what makes it interesting. When you play the game you'll immediately recognise what the community faction is, because it feels and looks really different.
Max von Knorring: Within our community, since Endless Space, there is this kind of co-creative philosophy and atmosphere in the whole community. So having different winners creating the same faction and taking into account the previous winner and adding on top it, that makes a really creative and interesting atmosphere within the community. And for us as well.
Strategy Informer: A lot of the factions in Legend have these unique mechanics that really set them apart. How do you decide what you want when creating a new faction?
Romain de Waubert: So when we design factions, more often than not we'll start off by looking at familiar stereotypes; it may sound stupid and lazy, but we at least want to make sure in terms of gameplay that we cover all the different aspects of our game. Then we say “how can we play one faction that really plays to that aspect”, and that's when the presentations and brainstorms start. When we do that we always meet with our writer Jeff Spock, and we talk about what's right for our story, and sometimes we'll have a story that comes and feeds in to the gameplay.
Sometimes the gameplay feeds into the story, which is more natural, but sometimes it's the other way round. So that's why we try to do it together, and we hopefully end up with a faction that is pretty cool in terms of... that feels logical, in how they work, in how the story feeds into gameplay. That's the basic stuff. Then we have a lot of evolutions, we go pretty crazy, and we try to adapt it into the game. It can be difficult to find the right mechanics, so we have to adapt things, the VIP's are the first ones to see it. The VIP's are a small bunch of the community members, there's about forty or fifty of them, who are extremely hardcore. They're really into our games, and we always test new concepts with them first. That's how it all evolves.
Max von Knorring: At first when we try to design factions we don't have any limits – it's real brainstorming without any constraints first. Then we try to propose that to the programmers, who kick us in the butt and say “go back and design something doable”, but little by little we rethink it and try to find a nice middle ground. This middle ground is still usually out of scope, out of the usual kind of gameplay you might have in 4X games; this really different feeling for all the different factions. What Romain said about the story and background for each faction, that's super important to take into account as well. Another thing to mention is that our game is already complex, and sometimes adding too much, too many new systems, can be bad for the overall experience, so instead we put that bit of exotic gameplay in just one of each of the factions. So you have that different gameplay experience with each faction without overcomplicating the whole game.
Strategy Informer: Do you think perfect balance can be sacrificed if you're getting these very specialised, unique races in return?
Mathieu Girard: It's a nightmare for the programmers, but yeah that's what we do for most of the factions.
Romain de Waubert: The balance is very interesting. Sometimes I see people only being happy when a game is perfectly balanced. We tend to have a different approach on that – what we don't want to see is a game that is only perfectly balanced because all the factions merge together and feel the same. We don't want that kind of balance, it's too easy. The way we go for it is to say “Okay, you know what? Don't just think about balance, think about making the gameplay interesting individually.” And then we all play a lot and try to see how we can beat other players with the rules we've been given. Always when we add new features it's unbalanced. We add something new and the game's unbalanced.
Every game is in a constant state of imbalance - the thing is, it can be imbalanced without you even noticing. So when the game will ship, you know, I could lie to you and say it will be perfectly balanced, but it's not going to be true. I think we should assume that it probably won't be, even if you probably won't be aware of that. It should be well-balanced enough that you won't be aware of that imbalance. With all the players we have we'll quickly find new ways of breaking the game, and as we update the game all the time we'll continue to readjust after the shipping and try to find answers. That's why we always say the game is a living thing. A game like ours that's so rich, if you ship it and move on to another one you've lost basically. It's not the impression we want to send to our players.
Max von Knorring: It's always a test to try to find out which are the players who have really found something that's imbalanced, try to rebalance for the next update, which changes the cards for the whole community, who then try to find another way to get the perfect faction and perfect unit setup. It's true that with the free add-ons coming to Endless Legend it will continue to be a hunt for balance and a matter of adjusting for new content as well.
Mathieu Girard: I think if the choices are between a game which is balanced with simple, boring factions or one with really different and interesting factions but with some imbalance we would definitely go with the latter. To really achieve a perfect balance you need no new content for a long time, and you need months and months and millions of hours of gameplay to collect the necessary data.
Strategy Informer: One thing I've noticed playing while playing Endless Legend is that even for a 4X game it can be quite complex, and there's not really a lot there to help out first time players. Is that something you're planning to work on?
Mathieu Girard: Actually we're working on the game introduction tutorial. It's a kind of mini-campaign where we introduce the basics of the game, then you advance to the main campaign; we want to explain combat, all the core mechanics. Then the player, with the tooltips, working with what he's learned in the tutorial, should be able to get straight into the game. Also, based on player feedback, we could increase the scope of the tutorial to add more and more elements in there. It's planned for release, and it's pretty decent already so we're pretty happy with what we have, but we really want to be better than Endless Space where it was basically a series of screens with some text explaining stuff – here it's going to be an interactive tutorial where you play, so it's a very narrow path at the start because you're guided through the basic action, then it widens giving you more options as you progress. It's something that was critical for us at the start of the project to attract a broader audience.
Strategy Informer: How do you go about tying all the lore of the Endless universe, which is one big storyline split across multiple eras?
Romain de Waubert: A lot of it is down to Jeff Spock's work, he spends a lot of time on this. We knew we wanted to have that link between the games, we were fascinated by this idea of having this medieval, fantastic, heroic stuff in this sci-fi universe. We loved the idea of having that little bubble of dragons and elves and stuff surrounded by spaceships. When you play the game normally you should have a feeling of fantasy, not a sci-fi feel, but what is cool is, if you play the Vaulters for example, you should have that feeling of being in a sci-fi universe – lost in this world of elves and dragons. I love that contrast. Overall it was extremely interesting to do that, something we're very happy with and it contributes to the unique setting of that universe.
Mathieu Girard: It's also about finding the right tone. When we started Endless Legend we were talking about dragons having equipabble lasers, so we went a bit away from that. This seemed like the right measure to find between two kinds of universe, getting that unique style and thinking “that's not impossible”.
Romain de Waubert: It's also about player expectations; when you talk about fantasy there's stuff you can do and stuff you can't do. We also learned about stuff you can't do.
Max von Knorring: When Jeff started working on Endless Space he worked on a whole timeline. Endless Space was just one little chunk on this whole timeline. What happened after it and before was something that he'd set already, vaguely. When we started on Endless Legend and Dungeon of the Endless, we had to find the right spot on that timeline to make it happen and make the whole thing work. I've been really surprised because all the guys from the dev team, they're all immersed in the universe so whenever we had an idea or a possible link with another game it comes out, you know “it could be like this, from the other game!”. It's very creative and a lot of ideas come from all over the team, it works well like that.
Strategy Informer: Is the sci-fi/fantasy aesthetic something that would be harder to do when working with a big studio? It seems like a lot of developers plump for the very classical fantasy style.
Romain de Waubert: You know what , there was a point when we tried to do just the classic feel, because it's reassuring for players, but you reach a point very quickly when you're just bored looking at your own creation. So it's true, at a bigger company you'll often be delegated by your bosses to do this reassuring stuff. And I think it's true that smaller developers will not want to go up against these big war-machines that are all these bigger publishers, so you want to have your own unique little world. I think that's what people like as a player, from these indie developers. You don't want, as a player, to see the same universe as you see everywhere else. So I think the world we've created is right for our players.
Max von Knorring: What we also tried to do is always keep a reference for each of the factions; something that a gamer can identify with. Then on top of that we have something different, a little something that makes it feel different from what you have from other games. We still don't want to go completely crazy, where the player is looking at something they don't even understand at all. That's important; for example, our 'elves'? Okay, they like bows, they have strange ears and they're pretty thin, but they have something that is very different from other elves in any other fantasy universe. That's really the way we try to work out the universe, the different factions and the way things work.
Strategy Informer: Obviously you're hard at work on Legend right now, but do you have plans and ideas for other genres or games in the Endless universe that you'd like to try?
Romain de Waubert: Can we answer? (laughs)
Mathieu Girard: Our minds are still full of ideas that we're not working on now. I think we definitely want to extend that universe again, it's too soon to say anything yet but we want to explore all the options. Do we always stick to the Endless universe? I don't know.
Romain de Waubert: We may look at other universes, but it's true that this universe... since we started with Endless Space we realised it's like a thread that you pull, and the more you pull the more you think of things you'd like to see in it. Like Max was saying earlier, the team being so into it means we always have ideas of stuff we want to expand on and stories we want to expand on. We have a lot of things we want to do to explore this universe and the characters in it. That said, we don't want to feel limited to only Endless games either.
Many thanks to the guys at Amplitude for talking to me, and helping me overcome the myriad frustrations of Skype video calls. Endless Legend is still on Steam Earl Access right now, with a full release planned for later this year.