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Endless Space: When Triple-A Developers Go Indie

November 29, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

From its start in a fourth floor apartment (no elevator) in Paris in early 2011 to its final release on Steam on July 4th 2012, Endless Space was both a work of passion and an unexpected adventure for our small team.

Star Empire

The entity now known as Amplitude Studios was the brainchild of Mathieu Girard and Romain de Waubert. Unhappy at the existing crop of space-based 4X games and desiring more creative freedom than they had as executive producers at Ubisoft, the two of them decided to strike out on their own. As Romain later said, he wanted to "...fill bookshelves at home with all the games I wanted to play that were never developed." The only way to do that, they agreed, was to go it alone.

When we first got together, we used "Star Empire" as the working title. Star Empire would be a space-based 4X game, using some of the classic mechanics from games like Civilization and Master of Orion. The 4X genre might be a strange niche to start with, but we felt that it would play to our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.

4X games are challenging to design, but we had an experienced team and believed that this would not be a problem. In addition, the genre also has lower requirements for production of expensive elements like animation and art, and budget was definitely a concern.

We also had to think about what we could do to make the game stand out in an increasingly crowded market:

  • Platform/Engine
    In order to maximize the reach and potential customer base, the game needed to be PC and Mac-based, with ideally the possibility of being able to port it elsewhere. We looked at a number of game engines (Gamebryo, Unreal, open source tools, etc.) and ended up choosing Unity for a few reasons:
    • Multi-platform (PC, Mac, iOS, browser)
    • Free trial copy, permitting a quick prototype of the game, upgradeable to a Pro version, which included high-end game engine features
    • Level tools adapted to an open sandbox game (unlike e.g. Unreal)
    • Ease of use of the C# coding language
    • Instantaneous compiling for test and workflow
  • Visuals
    We felt that most space-based games had mediocre graphics. Stars, spaceships, aliens, and galaxies should be way cooler and more modern than the simplified, comic strip look of many previous games.
  • Battles
    Following on to that, the influence of movies and series like Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica radically changed the idea of what was "cool" in a space battle. There was a strong desire to give that sort of powerful, cinematic feel to the battles.
  • Universe
    Finally, the backgrounds and universes of most science fiction-based games often seem tacked-on and poorly developed. For Star Empire, we wanted a universe that felt deep, real, and consistent; a universe that had a past and a future in which Star Empire portrayed just one particular era.

The name Star Empire lasted almost through the end of the project; even though it was a working title it was devilishly difficult to agree on something else. The naming process consisted of Max and me in a room, each of us coming up with names that the other one didn't like. Then we'd take our best ones to the team, and they wouldn't like them either. The process at least had the advantage of being predictable. In fact, it was only when the first article went to press (an interview we did in March 2012) that we finally managed to agree on "Endless Space."

But that was far in the future. To make the game, get the team together, and find the money, the first thing we had to do was found a studio.

Amplitude

"Hive Mind" was the original name for the studio, based on the feeling that it indicated a lot of smart brains working toward a common goal. We decided to change it, and after an insanely long and complicated and time-consuming series of arguments and discussions we narrowed it down to a shortlist. This list was problematic because most of the names had both strong supporters and strong detractors -- whatever was chosen, somebody would be unhappy. In the end the team went with Amplitude, because it seemed to suggest most of the key values:

  • Technology
  • Growth
  • Flexibility
  • Modernity
    ...and, besides, no one hated it.

The next step was to figure out who, and how many, and for how long, and all those other questions that involve talent, cash flow and financing. Mathieu and Romain shanghaied a friend who would become the unofficial CFO, and together they developed the first business plans.

The initial plan was for €1.5 million in development costs. After a few cold showers in front of banks and business angels, the number was brought down below €1 million. This required cutting a few things that hurt -- intro and endgame cinematics, the number of ships per faction, and the number of types of ships. But we knew that we would have to let some things go if we wanted a realistic -- and profitable -- project, and we figured that we could still maintain the core gameplay mechanics and the game's depth. While the project and goal were ambitious, recent changes in the game industry meant that this kind of project was very realistic. In particular, the fact we could avoid selling through the traditional retail channels.

In retail, a game studio would be lucky to receive 20 percent of the retail price of a game after costs (publisher, manufacturer, distributor etc.) were taken out. With online storefronts, that number is closer to 50 percent. In other words, it had become 2 1/2 times easier to hit break-even. Even so, given the world economic situation it was a worrying time to be going around asking for money. What came through in the end was a large round of financing from friends and family. While it is not much fun, administratively speaking, to manage more than forty shareholders under French business law, we all figured that the extra hassle was worth the price of trying to fulfill a dream.

Amplitude was also fortunate to be contacted by a number of distributors and publishers who were interested in the team and the project. Late in the dev cycle we ended up partnering with Iceberg Interactive, a Dutch company that was a good fit internationally as well as being familiar with strategy games and that market niche. Iceberg was happy to handle retail and non-Steam online sales, freeing our team to focus on development and the Steam relationship.

But of course, it takes more than money to build great games; you also need a team.

Before we get to that, though, here's how our financing broke down:

Financing Sources

Financing model pros and cons:

  • Find a publisher
    PRO: Someone else carries financial risk.
    CON: Loss of IP control, loss of creative control, loss of schedule control
  • Kickstarter
    PRO: Trendy, fast, wide-reaching
    CON: 'One-off' with the community/fans, project stops if you don't hit the target, no one on the team was a rock star
  • Self-financed
    PRO: Control, independence, long-term relationships with fans
    CON: Someone has to find the money...

Final Decision: Self-financed

  • Final Funding Sources:
    • Team: 16 percent
    • Friends and Family: 49 percent
    • Private/Gov′t support: 26 percent
    • Loans: 9 percent

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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