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Endless Space: When Triple-A Developers Go Indie

November 29, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

Alpha… Beta…

Without making things sound too simple, after all of the preparation work had been done it was more or less a matter of turning the crank and getting the job done. There was of course a great deal of give and take during the Scrum sessions and the technical planning meetings; it was complicated at first to get to grips with the project management style and the way estimations were made and tasks were tracked. However, the small physical size of the studio (900 sq. ft. for 12 people) and the readiness of the leads to dive into the details helped enormously in creating a driven but supportive studio culture.

Of course, free Coke and espresso might have helped that.

From the first round of discussions with the core team in early 2011 to the final launch date, roughly 18 months passed. In those 18 months, Amplitude generated:

  • 200,000 lines of C# code
  • 273 MB of design documents
  • 4.4 GB of textures and images
  • 1.6 million polygons

And consumed:

  • 2,600 sodas
  • 12,000 espressos
  • 4,500 cookies

But the first public, critical milestone occurred on May 5, 2012, when the alpha went on sale. This was in and of itself a coup for the studio; it's unusual that a new independent studio is allowed to roll out an alpha version under the glowering eyes of Valve.

However, as several team members had worked with Valve and on Steam -- and in fact on Dark Messiah, the first non-Valve game ever to use Steamworks for multiplayer -- the good folks in Seattle decided to give us a chance. However programmers never get a break; as Unity is in C# and Steamworks is in C++, Eric's team had a lot of work to do to get the back ends of the two packages talking to each other.

The alpha launch went as well as we might have hoped. It helped, of course, that using the Scrum process meant that we had been testing and iterating the game, playing on stable (if limited) versions for weeks before the alpha date. Had the alpha version been full of bugs, the story would have been entirely different. As it was, the alpha and beta of the game garnered glowing comments for their stability and reliability.

We saw a number of development hypotheses validated:

  • The market was waiting for a good 4X space game
  • The ships were good looking, and the lore of the universe was interesting
  • The gameplay mechanics were solid; reassuringly familiar and cleanly executed
  • The game was surprisingly stable and bug-free

And some surprise comments:

  • The GUI got lots of praise, with some saying it was the best ever in a strategy game
  • The battle system was truly love-hate; some wanted tactical battles rather than ES's cinematic ones.

For the release, we built a standard "Admiral" edition ($29.99) that had a few extras, plus the "Emperor" special edition ($34.99), which added more extras and included a new faction with re-skinned ships (The color of the new skins, incidentally, was chosen in a G2G vote). The alpha only had four of the eight factions and was released at a 25 percent discount to the list price. The beta version was content-complete, and sold at only 10 percent off the list price.

Some interesting stats are:

  • In Alpha, players purchased more than twice as many Emperor versions as Admiral versions.
  • In Beta, players purchased them in roughly equal quantities.
  • In the Final version, players purchased about 20 percent more Admiral than Emperor.

During May and June studio activity hit a peak; in May it was making sure the beta version would be content complete and in June it was balancing the beta's AI and fixing bugs. That was the only real crunch period that the studio had to handle. Otherwise, the pace was intense but rarely did the developers have to work outside the unofficially official hours of 10-ish to 6 or 7-ish.

Launch!

On the down side, we had some bad luck with release dates. The alpha came out ten days before Diablo III, and the final version just one week before Steam's Summer Sale. We had some worried days and sleepless nights, wondering if the announcement of our baby's birth would get lost amid the noise of the elephants trumpeting.

In both cases, however, we didn't really have other options. A self-financed studio has a development plan and a bank account; if the game does not launch and start bringing in cash the studio will go out of business. Early July ended up being the date that made the most financial sense, regardless of the risks due to Steam's annual sale.

Community reaction to the launch was generally positive, but some members felt that the game needed more time in beta to smooth the rough edges and, in particular, improve the balance of the AI. We didn't disagree with them; the launch was version 1.0 and as of publication, we're on 1.0.30 and are still tweaking the AI. But as explained previously, we didn't have a whole lot of options. We needed to generate cash, and even though we had very encouraging sales during the alpha and beta releases, we weren't earning enough to keep the lights burning for several more months of dev work.

Overall, we are ecstatic with how great the community has been and are very happy with our sales. The sales arc has been fairly predictable; three weeks after launch we had sold a total of 110,000 copies (all versions and all editions), and a month later 150,000. We are now working on free add-ons in 2012 and probably a paying expansion in 2013. The first add-on, Rise of the Automatons, was launched October 1st and included a new community-created and G2G-voted faction. We have started asking the community what they would like to see in the expasion.

Lessons and Next Steps

While we won't say that the game is a resounding success, it has at least sold over 150,000 copies and is breaking even. A lot happened in a relatively short time, and after polling the various members of the team the following elements are what stood out as Key Success Factors (or, depending on where the sales end up, Key Not-Total-Failure Factors):

  1. Experienced core team combined with high quality hires
  2. Collegial, friendly atmosphere leading to efficient workflow and teaming
  3. Scrum method -- transparency, communication, iteration
  4. Close, structured, and serious integration with the community
  5. Quality and stability of releases

What we might have done differently:

  1. Leave more time for coding and debugging multiplayer
  2. Leave more time for working out gameplay balance issues
  3. More clearly define some Scrum elements: sprint length, task approval, time for preparation / definition of a new sprint, better integration with the bug-tracking system
  4. Be clearer, more responsive, and more demanding with external suppliers
  5. Start the press and publicity efforts sooner, and anticipate predictable questions (indie or triple-A? Why no tactical battles?)

So what will we do next? Primarily, there is a serious desire to continue developing and evolving Endless Space. As Mathieu put it on the forums, "...this release is just a step in the life cycle of Endless Space, this is not end. We are committed to constantly improving and expanding the game for many months after release." So a dedicated team will stay 100 percent on Endless Space, and G2G votes will continue as the team and community decide what new features and gameplay needs to be added. We have the extension to work on, and will probably eventually start thinking about a second IP.

We just hope that close contact with the community, a passion for great games, and the fun of working with a great team will ensure a long and entertaining future for all of us at Amplitude.


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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Comments


Mark Sheppard
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A really great article. We have some amazing parallels with you guys in terms of our experience to-date and our approach, so we have a lot of respect for everything you achieved.

We're all huge fans of Endless Space here—it's a great fun game, especially in multiplayer.

Congratulations on your success; it is very well deserved! :)

Chris McLeod
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Excellent read. Congrats guys! I'll have to give your game a try. Would love to hear about your marketing strategies.

Jeremy Reaban
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"Stars, spaceships, aliens, and galaxies should be way cooler and more modern than the simplified, comic strip look of many previous games."

That's actually been one of my problems with almost every 4x game since the Master of Orion/Magic days - instead of hand drawn art, everything is 3d. For planets/etc, that's fine, but for aliens, you run into that uncanny valley problem, things look like mannequins, and starships that aren't detailed simply look like toy models. Ends up giving the games a very sterile feel.

Mike Ferguson
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This is a fantastic article, thank you for the writeup! Loved that you covered both the startup process and your dev process, lots of great insights throughout.

As a long time 4x fan I've been meaning to check the game out for a while but had to skip it until the steam free weekend showed me the error of my ways. After an hour of 4x heaven I helped push the post release emperor sales percentage up just a tiny bit. Feels like the game I'd been waiting for ever since I got tired of the original MoO, can't wait to dig into it more!

Congratulations on your success, and good luck on your future projects. I'm really glad that you are treating the game as an evolving product after launch, can't wait to see where it goes from here!

Sam Smith
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I've been reading (and lurking) postmortems on GamaSutra for years, but this article was so well written and was such a great, interesting story I had to sign up to comment.

1. Congratulations! Your story was so compelling (and matches my own story of a aspiring game developer), that I immediately purchased your game! I too have selected Unity for the exact same reasons you have.

2. Thank you for giving relatively new developers and designers a chance to work on your games! It was heart warming to hear how you picked up employees with such low experience - not enough project managers take chances like this. They clearly paid off, probably financially too.

3. The way you involved your community in such a positive way was amazing. Good work!


Thank you! If you have a blog or a twitter account, please post it here, so that others can continue to follow your great work!

James Yee
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I bought this game when I saw it on STEAM while it was still in Beta. I'm glad I did. Of the 3, 4X games I bought (Sins 2, Endless Space, and Legends of Pegasus) last year Endless Space was my favorite as it worked better in it's Beta state than the other two did as "launch" titles!

Steven Stark
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and look at that, it's 50% off at steam right now. talk about good timing. :)

Thierry Tremblay
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Bought the game and it's the first 4x since Master of Orions 2 that got me into the infinite "just one more turn" loop. Thank you for this postmortem, I wasn't aware this game even existed!


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