Infectious: Ambient Studios Explain Death Inc

Lavish-looking god-game/strategy with management bits, Death Inc, has risen from the tomb of development into the blazing purgatory of Kickstarter. Yes, these former Media Molecule, Lionhead, and Criterion chaps want your pounds and pence to make the Death business of 17th century plague-propagation into a living, unbreathing thing. I talked to founder and programmer Jonny Hopper to found out a bit more about who Ambient Studios are, and what they’re up to.

RPS: Who are you guys and why?

Hopper: So I was at Media Molecule, where I joined in 2006. That was a couple of months after they set up, and ended up doing the lion’s share of the code on the level editing and some other stuff. Daniel [the other founder at Ambient] was the first level designer hire there, and he started in the August. So we worked together for about five years. Then Mike [Ambienter number three] came on board about three years later. We began to think that no matter how cool the work we were doing was – and it was very cool – we wanted to make the games we wanted to make, not what other people wanted us to make. We had the chops to do it.

RPS: How did it come about? Who was the instigator?

Hopper: Dan and I had been both thinking about it for a while, privately, and wondering if the other person was up for it. We knew we sort of had one chance, and also that you can’t just make a lot of noise when you leave a company. We had this awkward moment where we both a bit “SoooOOOo…. ever thought about leaving?” I asked one day and Dan just said “Yeah, I’m in.” He knew Tim, our art director, from back in the day, and wanted to get him involved as well. So that was the four of us.

RPS: How much was the decision to leave about creative control? Was that the main reason?

Hopper: Well, Media Molecule was actually great in that regard, because it was small and we all had a good deal of control over what we were doing, but it does sort of come down to “well, I have control over the thing I am doing, but it’s still within the confines of something bigger that we have no control over.” It was just lovely for our destinies to be our own.

RPS: So how did you get to Death Inc?

Hopper: To get to that we skip about a year. We got signed and we made a game, but it got cancelled, and it was really cool, so we were gutted. Death Inc came about when we sat about in the office talking about what sort of game we’d like to make, and Jon Eckersley, who is this amazingly talented character artist – he did characters for Fable 3 and Black & White 2 – he said that he’d really like to make a zombie game where you control the zombies. But everyone was already doing zombie games, so we thought that the idea of a crowd-control mechanic was really ace, and just needed to be made a bit fresher. How could we do that? Eventually we settled on the 17th century plague scenario, because it’s interesting visually, and it’s quite dark and quite British.

RPS: So mechanics came first?

Hopper: Well we dived straight in with art and code, the art guys started going berserk, and one of our coders did simulations of little blobs moving about and infecting each other. It grew up there – we knew the concept at its core was right: we said to be people “you’re the grim reaper in the 17th century and you give everybody the plague” and they would laugh. We knew we were on to something. So we developed the mechanics and visual style at the same time, as we went. It worked quite well.

RPS: Can you talk me through briedly what players are actually going to be doing, then?

Hopper: You control Grim T. Livingstone, who is a reaper, and his story is that he’s left the Ministry Of Mortality, which is this monolithic institution that controls death, and he’s set up on his own. So he’s trying to make a name for himself, and he stumbles across the plague. On each level you start with Grim, and, for example, a couple of infected peasants, and you control them using the mouse. You literally draw a path, and they get attracted to it, like a pheromone trail, and follow it. The basic infected peasant’s goal is to get to people who aren’t infected. So it’s really easy to send people on a particular path, and so you draw and you can see them go and do it. We can add additional gestures to this system, so, as an example, if you draw a circle clockwise you attract your horde, and if you draw it anti-clockwise you scatter them. So if there are some archers on a wall and they are firing at a particular position you can scatter your people and stop them being killed too early. It provides a system which is really fluid without much complexity. We’re still developing, as you can probably tell, but it certainly works and it is fun.

In terms of how the game works, you start in small villages, and then work up until you get to castles where they have cannons and boiling oil and everything. Perhaps finish by storming London itself.

RPS: Are those screenshots representative of how the game actually looks?

Hopper: Yes, that is how it looks! The first screenshots you saw didn’t have the models in, but they are in now. That is representative of how it will look when it’s finished.

RPS: So… Kickstarter? Was that the obvious solution for you?

Hopper: It did seem obvious, but we weren’t without options. We chatted to a couple of publishers and that was positive – they really seemed to like the concept. But then we thought on it and said “well, we’ve got the opportunity to do this ourselves,” and this opportunity might not come around again. Strategy games are a difficult sell to publishers, it’s slightly more niche than an FPS or something like that, but this is a strong concept, and we feel people will back it. It’s not like a mainstream, global, triple-AAA megathing sort of concept, with guys in shoulder-pads fist-bumping during gun-battles, it seems more indie, more appropriate to Kickstarter. Kickstarter also gives us a freedom – we can talk to the press whenever want want, and don’t have to worry about a publisher’s media blackout or whatever. That makes things much easier on us, but it’s also exciting and rewarding.

RPS: But at the same time that means there’s nothing between you and the rabid hordes of the internet?

Hopper: Oh it’s completely terrifying, and anyone who’s not terrified by it has got something wrong. It has the potential to go so right, but it also has the potential to go so horribly wrong. But you know we’ve got a good concept, and people seem excited about it. If people want to give us feedback and inject stuff into the game, well, that should be beneficial. We’re quite looking forward to it.

RPS: So what’s the plan from there?

Hopper: Well, we’ve got thirty days on the Kickstarter, and then we want to release something six months later. An alpha to backers in the summer. That’s the plan.

RPS: Sounds like a good plan. Thanks for your time.


  1. maximiZe says:

    But can you harvest the souls of women?

  2. Didden says:

    Looks like a far stronger pitch than Godus started with. Love the art style. Great we live in an era of gaming where art is becoming more important than ‘realism’. Thinking of Ni No Kuni, Kentucky Route Zero, Journey and many more. Good luck Ambient Studios!

  3. JFS says:

    Hm. It looks beautiful, but it’s basically a re-skinned zombie game, isn’t it? At least to my knowledge the Plague didn’t work like that, hordes of infected instantly infecting other people and running around with the sole purpose of doing exactly that…

    • Lanfranc says:

      I thought the same thing, but at least it’s not that often that you get to control a zombie horde yourself, rather than being on the receiving end of it. So it has that going for it.

      • Hoaxfish says:

        and not just boring green rotting zombies, but lovely pink ones.

        • JFS says:

          Yeah, they remind me of Atom Zombie Smasher. This is why I said that zombies would be nice, as it would make the game sort of an inverse AZS set in medieval England. What’s not to like about that, and I’d say it’s a little more amiable than saying “Zombies are so 2009” and then just using them anyway but giving them a paintover.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Not sure it’s trying to be historically or biologically accurate.

      • JFS says:

        Of course not, but wouldn’t it be nicer if the game reflected that you don’t control a zombie horde, but hapless plague victims? I’d say that’d warrant different game mechanics, and it’d lead to something more akin to a stealth/puzzle game rather than a horde mob thingy. Not that horde mob thingies are bad per se, but if you make it that way, just use them zombies. There’s room for an interesting, artistically pleasing zombie game!

        I mean, maybe when actually playing it the mechanics and the cover story don’t feel disjointed. We don’t know yet. However, on paper they do look a little tinkered-together.

      • RaiderJoe says:

        Seeing as when people become infected they turn cheerful and follow the grim reaper around infecting their friends & countrymen with a deadly disease, I’d say you’re right.

        • Hoaxfish says:

          I think someone mentioned the Pied Piper of Hamelin at one point.

        • Josh W says:

          So your not playing the grim reaper but nurgle from warhammer!

      • Hoaxfish says:

        I could see the last level being the Great Fire of London

  4. derella says:

    I love the art style — though I question how much can be done with the concept in regards to gameplay. Will the game still be a fun experience after the first few levels? Definitely going to keep an eye on it though.

  5. sinister agent says:

    Excellent news. I’d have liked to do a crowd/population control game where controlling death was the main concept, it could be lots of silly fun. Best of luck to them. The art style is really neat.

  6. RaiderJoe says:

    Grim Fandango I know it’s not, but I hope it can have a lot of the same inherent humor of being the grim reaper (and possibly some jokes about startups). Looks lovely, could be great fun!

  7. Hoaxfish says:

    I’ve backed this. The stuff Media Molecule has put out has always been really tempting, but unfortunately limited to Sony’s consoles. Fable/Black & White’s take on village yokels has always been fun (especially throwing in British accents).

    The actual art style and the “painting” idea really play together. The whole sackboy, papercraft “graphics” is something I enjoy, and this looks like it’ll fit in nicely.

  8. Bhazor says:

    The game *looks* good but I didn’t see much information on how they’ll spice it up. Are there different causes of death? Different types of levels like reverse zombie sieges where you have to fend off doctors trying to cure you? Are there enemies like rival plagues? Do you have special units you can order seperately? Special abilities? Because all I saw was moving a swarm.

    I do really like the paint brush system but the way its used seems functionally similar to Overlord and that was a clusterfuck whenever it tried to be strategic. Really as an RTS I want to see more strategy.

    That said the man owns a pug. That shows some taste in dogs though a french bulldog is obviously superior.

    • JFS says:

      It does indeed. The little puggy combined with the LBP art credentials nearly made me pledge. I would however like to point out that the pug is at least on par with its French bat-eared counterpart.

    • Armante says:

      From their Kickstarter page:
      “Unlockable special abilities make your battles even more dynamic, spectacular and bizarre:

      * Need to disrupt enemy defences? Just send some plague rats their way.
      * Farmers refusing to play along? Sabotage them with exploding livestock.
      * Villagers cowering indoors? Get them outside with a norovirus brunch.
      * Long range attack required? Unleash the pigeon pox! Those filthy skyvermin will be dive-bombing in no time”

      So it would seem we have at least different options of ‘attack’. As for your idea of Plague Doctors? I like that idea – that would be a strong enemy unit coming out to decimate your plague-infected peasant troops :)

    • Armante says:

      They just confirmed on their Kickstarter comments that they have plague doctors and –
      “The plague doctors will act in that way. They’ll cure your infected units and hopefully do a few other nasty things to thwart your progress!”

      can’t wait to find out more about the various units. totally backed this game :)

  9. Dances to Podcasts says:

    That man does not look like an experienced dishwasher. I bet he has huge amounts of crockery stacked in his bathtub.

  10. Hoaxfish says:

    They’ve already put out 2 updates, including a gameplay video:

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  12. flashmanandy says:

    Loving there project blurb- backed it immediately

    Play as Grim T. Livingstone, freelance Reaper, and unleash the plague on 17th century England. Ransack farms, ports and cities, topple knights and noblemen as you battle to increase your pestilential horde.
    Back in the Nether, use your harvested souls as currency and expand Death Inc’s base of operations. Hire underlings, build new rooms and refresh the decor. Use all of these to unlock new units, upgrades and special abilities.
    Take these back to the surface and continue your fight against the healthy as you spreads fear, loathing and most importantly, the bubonic plague.

    Gameplay vid was well done and they will be releasing an update on the base management on tuesday.