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Space, Auditory: Endless Space Interview

Hazy cosmic jive

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I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Endless Space pre-release and I’ve been dabbling and preparing to tell you wot I think of the launch version. In the meantime, I fired up my interstellar communicator and beamed some messages to the development team, specifically Mathieu Girard CEO of Amplitude Studios. Across the infinite void I fired these queries and across the infinite void, answers came. Peruse them below.

RPS: Hello! Before we talk about Endless Space, let’s talk about the time before space was endless. What are the team’s backgrounds?

Girard: The team is a mix of industry veterans (8 released games in my case) and talented younglings. We mix the experience of older ones with the fresh ideas of the youngest. Well actually even the olds ones have idea, and I count myself there. We have worked on different kinds of games : shooters, platformers, adventure/action, and of course strategy games. As you would guess for a video games studio, especially one which creates 4x games, the team is rather masculine. But I have hopes more girls will join our team in the future.

RPS: There are so many well-loved 4X games. What would you say Endless Space’s evolutionary path was? Are there are any in particular that loom large in personal memory and how do you hope to differentiate from the others?

Girard: Well of course Master of Orion and Civilization come to mind first, and we have wasted the better part of our life playing these games. I think Endless Space has created and brought a new and rich universe, which was quickly adopted by the fans. I think we can nurture this to develop it even more after the release. The GUI has also been acclaimed for its clarity and efficiency. I hope it can encourage other games to make even more accessible games, not at the expense of depth.

I also think that the game balance and progression is very cool: when you have spent 18 months working on a game, you are usually disgusted cant bare to look at it again. I have found myself still having loads of fun while playing the game “for real” even after its launch. The battle system is also a great achievement in my opinion. Although some players would have loved to have much more control on the battle itself, I think it is perfectly suited for our game dynamics. Still, we are looking into more options to please the whole audience.

RPS: And what about books? Are there are any authors or specific works that sit on your shelves, well-thumbed?

Girard: Tolkien, Asimov, Martin, Herbet, all come to mind. I really loved the David Brin “Uplift” series, and the fact that humans are just part of a bigger picture.

RPS: We have to talk about the user interface. I play games in which learning the interface is like learning a foreign language. Rewarding, sure, but quite time-consuming. Your UI is clean and efficient. How much work went into that?

Girard: Rome was not built in one day, and there is tremendous effort and talent behind our UI. First of all, we started the project with a simple mockup of the game screens, and you could play some basic stuff. This allowed to understand the stuff to display the basic flow, etc. The game designers then build more advanced version of the UI, in PowerPoint schematics, to make sure we have everything at hand.

Parallel to that, our external UI designer / usability expert works on the general look, designed the visuals for the screens and interfaces, defined the UI art direction, and worked on the accessibility flows. The UI was programmed, perfected, polished in several steps. We even have to reprogram a complete layer of GUI components on top of Unity, to make sure we could everything the way we wanted. Also our in-house Art Director had to produce something like 1,500 icons for all the various content, all following a consistent art direction. So about six different people (from all departments) were involved on the UI, with at least six months for most of them.

RPS: Do you think it might help to attract people who are put off by the steep learning curve of some strategy games, or do people still see star maps and run away?

Girard: I think we have attracted more people than games with harsher interfaces. But we can still improve this, without injuring the game depth, and will look into it for the future. I agree that the tutorial can be pretty boring for more casual gamers, but we are a small company and we preferred to spend more time on the core features which would please our core audience.

RPS: How much impact has Games2Gether, your system of receiving feedback and working on suggested features, had on the game’s development?

Girard: I would say it 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. Right now, all priorities for game evolution are directed by G2G choices, the users chose the priority. I also think that the G2G voting system is great for people who do not have the time to look at all forum posts (still, thanks to those who do!).

RPS: Are you ever surprised by the requests you receive? Like, you think it’d be best to work on adding a feature but people largely want something else entirely first?

Girard: We had some surprises, namely for the Pirate faction background: the most “classical” choice was selected by the community, but we respected that choice. As long as it is not going to kill or hurt the game, any suggestion is good, if it means a reasonable amount of work.

RPS: Differentiation in the factions seems to build from the ground-up, by which I mean they all have significant starting traits but less emerging variety through tech trees etc. Is that a fair assessment?

Girard: I am not sure which 4x games have vastly different tech trees for each faction, but I am not sure it is a good choice. The important thing in a such a game, in my opinion, is that the player can build a 300 turns strategy from the start of the game. If every faction is different, it seems difficult to adapt to the tech trees of other faction in an right players game.

Also how do you trade technologies to factions which cannot use them? Anyway, creating considerably different tech trees for each faction would be a huge amount of work, and I am not sure the end result would be cool. Still, the modding is coming, and I guess some fans will want to prove us wrong!

RPS: Have you found people gravitating to certain factions and any ideas on why?

Girard: I think there were lots of different opinions regarding the factions on the forum, which evolved as people discovered efficient ways to play them. The amoeba were first thought as OP, then it evolved and was seen as a refreshing new way of playing. And I think also that the faction editor is the new focus now in terms of tuning, as people can create all sorts of crazy stuff.

RPS: What’s your personal favourite?

Girard: I have a scientific background, so I would go with the Sophons!

RPS: One difficulty with the factions is that I can imagine people finding one that allows for a powerful strategy and sticking with it rather than exploring other ideas. Do you think it’s possible to balance that sort of thing?

Girard: It is our opinion (and supported by prominent community members) that any faction, played right, can crush all the other factions. Of course, if everyone plays his faction right in a game, then everything is balanced again.

RPS: I guess, going on from the last question, it becomes a broader question about this sort of game; are there tricks behind the scenes to make different sectors of space suitable or unsuitable for their inhabitants to promote balance?

Girard: Right now, there is nothing of that sort, although some early techs and abilities will help you jump start on some planet type.

RPS: I wrote about how much I enjoyed the flavour text and I do think, for a player like me, it’s hugely important to feel that everything has a place and a purpose beyond the bonuses and penalties it confers. How much writing is actually in the game?

Girard: Do you want line numbers or characters? Our writer did a terrific job at finding the right balance between useful texts while feeding bits and pieces on the universe with humor. The game only contains a fraction of the universe, and we hope to develop it even more in the future.

RPS: The most common complaint I’ve seen has been about the simplicity of combat. Do you have the same impression and are there any plans to make broad changes there?

Girard: Well, as I stated earlier, I think it was the right choice with the gameplay flow of Endless Space. Again, we are looking into options to give more control or information, and will get back to the community on the subject.

RPS: I also love the ‘cold war’ mechanic but what are the future plans for diplomacy?

Girard: Cold war is cool, because you can have quick fights at the start of the game, even if you have cold feet to declare war right away. There was a tremendous effort to improve the diplomacy between the alpha and release, and I think it paid off. Right now, it is still a bit early to determine what will change now. I know some fans have talked about espionage, but we have to balance it out with other features.

RPS: There are always quirks with AI in strategy games and they tend to fall, for me, into those that attempt to be good at the game and those that attempt to be unpredictable and ‘human’ in their choices. Where do you see Endless Space’s AI fitting?

Girard: Our objective is to have a game where an AI plays almost indifferently from a human player, and that is how we conceived our AI. There are still some glitches to find, but I think our AI is good enough to provide fun and challenge to most players. We wanted to avoid the super tricky AI which attacks from 16 directions at the same time, and eventually leads the player to believe that it is cheating.

RPS: Now that lots of people are playing, what’s the most surprising feedback you’ve had?

Girard: I am pleased to say that there were no nasty surprises. We agree with our fans most of the time, I suppose because they are avid 4X players as we are.

RPS: Which is your favourite of the following: Alien or Aliens?

Girard: Aliens.

RPS: AI or Prometheus?

Girard: Prometheus.

RPS: Star Wars or an actual science fiction film?

Girard: Star Wars.

RPS: Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica?

Girard: BSG.

RPS: The Muppets or Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

Girard: The Muppets and of course Pigs in Endless Space.

RPS: And finally, what does the future hold?

Girard: More Endless Space and more 4X.

RPS: Oh yeah, before I depart…did I mention how much I love the music? I really love the music. Where did that come from?

Girard: The music was created by our partner Game Audio Factory, and they did such a terrific job that we added 5 more tracks at release!

RPS: Thanks for your time.

I’ll share my final thoughts soon. In the meantime, you can read my preview of the beta.

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