Vive la Révolution: A French Studio Brings Democracy to Development
Even as studios become larger, and publishers hide more and more behind their PR departments, some video game creators are taking the opposite approach and bringing the development process back into the open. From video games funded by Kickstarter to the proliferation of online beta sessions, the barrier between makers and players has started to break down across the industry. But perhaps no one has focused on player feedback as seriously as the Paris based Amplitude Studios.
With their first game, Endless Space, now officially released, the young indie developer has had the opportunity to put one of its founding principles, GAMES2GETHER, into practice.
A New Way to Develop Games
“I still remember the day we discussed the G2G ideas around a drink in a bar not far from where the studio is today,” Romain de Waubert told me in a recent email interview. One of Amplitude’s founding members and the Creative Director on Endless Space, de Waubert noted that the team still doesn’t know of any other studio that uses a development process quite like their own.
“I guess we’re in a moment in gaming history when new ways to develop games are tested, such as crowd-sourcing [like] KickStarter,” remarked de Waubert waxing philosophic about recent trends in the medium. “We have to admit, however, that those were not really in our mind when we started thinking about this. From where we stand, those ways exploded this year, about at the same time we set up G2G. Talking about converging ideas!”
Kickstarter crowd-sources funding to make a game, and beta sessions help developers see how their games work in practice, G2G, however, is a more fundamentally democratic process by which future players can actually influence basic design decisions.
The result has been a fairly robust infrastructure for helping Endless Space’s players communicate directly with the game’s creative team to address a range of questions and issues, as well as help direct the game’s overall realization. To date, Amplitude’s forums have over 30,000 members who have together with the development staff, produced around 7,000 threads and 80,000 posts. Part of this enthusiasm is a direct result of niche market Amplitude is after: 4X turn-based strategy gamers.
It shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise that fans of such a esoteric genre, one known for games with steep learning curves requiring time and dedication, would be so eager to take an active role in the making of them. Yet with all different levels of input, from straight up or down votes on features to be included to more detailed deliberations in threads, Amplitude has attracted more than just hardcore 4X players to their collaborative venture.
With over 110,000 copies currently sold, Endless Space has proven that letting gamers deeper into the creative fold and keeping them up to date on the day to day production challenges losing control of the project or sacrificing quality. The process isn’t just a one-off experiment though; it’s a feature essential to the studio’s founding vision, and one they hope to carry over into future projects.
A Founding Vision
“GAMES2GETHER is strongly rooted in our company’s DNA,” explained de Waubert. “Mathieu and I have always worked closely with communities but never had our hands entirely free to do what we wanted. We were looking to push the whole concept further and we started thinking about it with the team we gathered when Amplitude was about to open its doors. We came up with the G2G initiative and founded the company on top of that idea.”
Working the entire production schedule around community feedback isn’t the easiest thing in the world. And yet it’s the commitment to doing so that has helped Endless Space and the people who made it, to stand out in the recent Steam fueled PC renaissance.
“We created Amplitude Studio with the idea of including as much as possible a strong community in the development of our games. Endless Space could be seen as our guinea pig for the whole G2G concept,” said de Waubert.
In addition, the formation of Amplitude Studios has given he and co-founder Mathieu Girard the chance to set an example and implement a flatter, more transparent development process. Not least of all, the Girard, de Waubert and the rest of the team have show that working closely with the community can, in part, make niche titles like Endless Space, infinitely viable.
The Daily Grind
To give a clearer picture of what goes on de Waubert described GAMES2GETHER as he and the team actually practice it,
“Our community developer makes a daily oral update on the latest features proposed by the community during the SCRUM meeting and she’s in direct contact with me to work on…updating the improvement list. I discuss all relevant ideas with the team and we decide which features should be implemented, taking into account the community’s requests and demands. If we can’t make up our mind on some of them, we create a G2G vote so that the community can decide which one should be implemented as a priority.”
In order to achieve this, the team incorporated several tiers of interaction, from simple community votes to development contests for the more involved members. As just one example, users were given the chance to both design and vote on factions that will later be included as presets in the game.
“We wanted to make it more accessible,” said de Waubuert, “So we included the votes; we felt anyone should be able to participate, even those that never played the game so we created the free explorer account. We then felt that people that invest time and pre-order the game should have more weight in the votes so we added a system to increase the G2G points.”
This kind of weighted democracy makes sense. Those who are most involved in the forums, and who have already pre-purchased the game, are the most likely to be at the heart of the player community even long after the game has initially been released.
“Basically, the more active our members are, the more they will have a say in the game design, the game tuning, and upcoming patches and features. GAMES2GETHER has been tremendously successful, with 20.000 users active in our forums in just a couple months,” said de Waubert in an interview with Indie Games Channel last month.
Whereas traditional developers respond to player feedback behind closed doors and without much direct interaction, Amplitude has made the development process into a two-way street.
“I think the community is having fun seeing the project evolve; gathering awards on the forums, seeing their proposals voted and implemented in-game,” de Waubert told me. “We also wanted to give more info, more transparency on how games are made, that’s why we gave access to our game design documents and added a progress bar to our website and tried to be as active as possible on our forums.”
Displaying the progress bar, on top of making access to the design documents step one in the G2G user experience has helped not only to render the goals of the creative endeavor apparent, but some of the project’s constraints as well.
For de Waubert, Endless Space wouldn’t be what it is without the people who helped him and others make it. “We have received a lot of feedback that helped us improve some parts of the game,” de Waubert assured me.
“Some of it is in balance – when and where to add techs, what factions or traits are over- or under-powered, where the AI is weak, etc. But there has been some serious discussion about features that we designed out of the current game because of budget and delivery issues – full-scale espionage, carrier/fighter ships, and other large feature sets. We’re up front and transparent with that though; if we tell the fans we can’t put that in and make our ship date, but we’re looking at it for an extension / DLC / add-on, they are entirely supportive.”
Being so open is all well and good, but it’s the lengths Amplitude has been willing to go to in order to make G2G work that have solidified it as more than just and idealistic theory.
Small Meets Big
Just how community focused the day to day operations of Amplitude are though, is due in part to how small the studio’s team is. With less than twenty people working on Endless Space, Amplitude has been afforded a level of flexibility beyond what is attainable for most other developers.
“[T]he design decisions that are opened to the community are usually real challenges we have on a weekly basis, or relevant feedback that came up thanks to the community. We also want to be reactive to what is discussed on the forums and only a small team can adapt its production to so many changes in the scope and initial design.”
Unlike the bureaucratic nightmares that plague larger development houses, smaller development teams have the benefit of better communication, quicker turnaround times, and less red tape. As de Waubert told Merlanfrit.net, these advantages have allowed Amplitude to collaborate more effectively with its users (per Google Translate),
“[W]hen you work in a large group, you are not master of the vision of the game, because everyone has an opinion on what should be the final result. And if it’s already hard sometimes within the same company, it’s even worse when you’re independent and you work for a publisher … That’s why we choose to be self-financing. No one but our players can tell us what our games should be, and that’s a real luxury today in creating video games!”
As Endless Space’s Narrative Director, Jeff Spock, said in an interview with Gaming Nexus, the constraints on the games production have been as integral to the success of G2G as the user community that it spawned.
“When we created the company we raised money with private investors and added most of our life savings. So the project budget is covered until its completion, including post-release game support (patch, expansions…),” Spock explained.
Amplitude has had the good fortune of working with limited resources against a fixed timeline, forcing the creative team to be disciplined and channel their user support effectively.
While discussing Endless Space with SpaceSector.com, de Waubert elaborated on the role of the design team with regard to their G2G compatriots,
“We think that to make this work we need to be the ‘keepers of the vision’ of the game and control the main direction we are heading to, otherwise you could be guaranteed that the development would never end because you have as many great ideas as you have members in your community!”
Amplitude’s CEO, Mathieu Girard went into further detail on how a strong basic vision for the game has helped, rather than hinder the G2G experience when he spoke not too long ago with Rock, Paper, Shotgun,
“I would say [G2G] was very helpful, and will become even more. The game was already well advanced when we revealed ourselves, so we took no shame in communicating the game design documents to the whole community; they knew what the game was about, so they could propose to make it evolve in a direction consistent with our vision.”
In other words, the criticism, commentary, and opinions of G2G users have been invaluable, but only because Amplitude has acted as a lightning rod, taking all of this energy and directing it in controlled manner. Without strong leadership and explicit limitations, the G2G process has the potential to derail the entire development process.
Looking to the Future
Even though Endless Space has been released out into the wild this doesn’t mean de Waubert and the rest of the team have stopped thinking about it. And in fact, G2G is now a heavier driver of priorities than ever.
According to Girard, “Right now, all priorities for game evolution are directed by G2G choices, the users chose the priority.” So how current systems are tweaked and what new content are choices that will remain in the hands of Endless Space’s growing user base.
“We really want the community to feel involved even though they are not trained artists, modders, writers, etc. With only the profiles you find in the gaming community, everyone can still participate and see the project evolve.”
The result is that the G2G process isn’t just a one-off experiment; it’s a feature essential to the studio’s founding vision, and one they plan on carrying over into future projects.
For now though, de Waubert and the rest of the team are focused on fine tuning Endless Space and building on the set of social media tools that helped create it. The way he explained it back in May,
“[W]e see the official release as just one step of the project’s life. More people will come and play it when the game is officially released, so we’ll get a lot more feedback then and it will give us even more inspiration for the following months.”
I feel that context needs to come sooner and it would be neat to hear your perspective on how this all works , too, if you have the game – ie, in practice, how well does it function? Is it worthwhile? That would be valuable for the reader I think.