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Infectious: Ambient Studios Explain Death Inc

Kickstarting Another Apocalypse

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.

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