'Endless Space:' How 4X strategy fans have helped design the genre's next big thing

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Amplitude Studios set out to develop a 4X strategy game and simultaneously built a new form of community interaction.

In February 2012, when "Kickstarter" became the game media's new favorite word and Double Fine popularized crowd-funded development, everyone assumed the big news was that players were taking control away from publishers and giving it to developers. Which, of course, was true.

But soon after a curious side effect occurred, with many of these developers inviting fans to vote on their games' features and allowing them to be part of the process. Depending on your perspective, it's either the equivalent of having incredible community outreach or inviting thousands of mini-publishers to the party, each with their own quirks and demands.

Whatever the result, it's quietly become one of the industry's biggest trends.

Community-driven game development isn't a new concept, of course. The thing is, it hasn't always worked well in the past. In 2011, Capcom asked for fans to help design Mega Man Legends 3, only to later ditch the project - arguably due to a lack of interest.

Independent developers whose games first grew popular through Internet communities have fared better. Minecraft, for example, occasionally draws on forum suggestions for new features. And strategy games, first-person shooters, and MOBA titles rely on their fans to help balance and tweak and stamp out bugs - but that kind of input often comes after a game's release.

The new trend is seeing fan feedback serving as the equivalent of holding a design meeting while a game is still early in development. But before crowd-designing became a byproduct of Kickstarter becoming a household name, Amplitude Studios - working without fan funding - found itself ahead of the curve. By making fan suggestions the centerpiece of its debut title, it's been giving fans the power to impact Endless Space's content. And in many ways, this idea has taken over the whole project.

Prototypical beginnings

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In April 2011, Amplitude's development team of 15 in Paris, France set out to build a turn-based 4X strategy game, but it wasn't planning on tackling one of gaming's most complex genres alone. It had a plan: build a community around Endless Space and give the fans a say in how the game developed. Fans would suggest features, argue over game balance, and vote in weekly polls that would inform the course of the game's development.

Amplitude called the initiative Games2Gether. It expected - hoped - to have between 2,000 and 5,000 players registered on its forums by the time of a 1.0 release later that summer.

On May 16, two weeks after the alpha build released on Steam, it had 13,000.

"After the alpha we just fell off our chairs when we saw how huge the community was becoming," says Max von Knorring, a game designer on Endless Space and Amplitude's director of marketing. "Suddenly it's multiplied by a hundred. So we were like: 'OK, how can we handle all this?'"

From Ubisoft to Amplitude in the name of strategy

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Amplitude's co-founders Mathieu Girard and Romain de Waubert de Genlis love 4X strategy games. Love them so much, in fact, that they left careers at Ubisoft - where they'd worked on series like Ghost Recon, Call of Juarez and Might & Magic - to makeEndless Space, which they'd been hashing out over nights and weekends.

"The thing is, we'd always wanted to work on 4X games, and when you work for big publishers, it's really hard to sell them a niche game," says de Waubert, creative director on Endless Space. "We had to be independent to work on our dream games, and that's why we started to work right away on Endless Space."

Explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. Those words could technically apply to practically any strategy game, but the 4X subset prioritizes deep, layered gameplay systems over combat. Or, at least, it offers ways to win - economic, political, technological - that don't require extermination.

Though Civilization has become the ubiquitous entry in the genre, successful traditional 4X games are rare. The most popular, like Creative Assembly's Total War series, are often considered genre hybrids.

High profile space 4X games are rarer still: Other than 2008's Sins of a Solar Empire, you have to look back years to the likes of Galactic Civilizations, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, or Master of Orion 2 for a game fans rally behind.

"WE'D ALWAYS WANTED TO WORK ON 4X GAMES, AND WHEN YOU WORK FOR BIG PUBLISHERS, IT'S REALLY HARD TO SELL THEM A NICHE GAME ...""... WE HAD TO BE INDEPENDENT TO WORK ON OUR DREAM GAMES."

"Our big dream was to be able to work on a niche genre and make it more accessible, make it good looking," says de Waubert.

If there's one defining factor that separates 4X games from the larger strategy umbrella, it's an inherent lack of accessibility. Why, then, would existing fans of the genre be interested in a new game from an unknown indie developer prioritizing accessibility? 

Because Amplitude was giving them a say in how that game turned out.

"Community was already part of the initial vision, more or less in a closed loop creating games for the community, kind of having the community as our publisher," says de Waubert. "Most of the games we worked on in the past, the fan feedback came after the release. Very often when the game came out we realized [mainstream fans] were reacting to the game very different from the hardcore fans. So that's why we definitely wanted to get all the feedback early."

Amplitude spent 2011 running silent. On March 6, 2012, it announced Endless Space and launched a website and discussion forums with Games2Gether featured prominently on each. The Endless Space Twitter account celebrated 132 members on March 8. Four months later, Games2Gether had raked in 30,000.

Games2Gether alpha success

Endless_space_-_sophon_leaders"[PUBLISHING THE GAME DESIGN DOCUMENTS] HELPED US TO GET THE COMMUNITY TO GIVE REALLY CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACK, AS WE ALL SPEAK FROM THIS FIRST DRAFT OF THE GAME DESIGN."

Amplitude began building its community in March, two months before Endless Space hit alpha status. The first step: give fans the power to vote.

Everyone who registers on Amplitude's forums gets 100 G2G points, which are used to vote in weekly polls on the main website. Points aren't spent: rather, they dictate how much weight each voter's voice (or click) carries. Buying the game adds 500 G2G points, and the special edition tosses in another 500.

The second step: Pull fans into the world. Amplitude published its entire vision forEndless Space on the forums, outlining the gameplay and economy and establishing the universe with 10,000 words of lore.

"[Giving] out all the game design documents ... was a big decision for us," says von Knorring. To make Endless Space's development as transparent as possible, Amplitude was publishing the kind of information most developers keep private for internal use.

The voting system gave fans who lacked the time or interest in forum participation an immediate way to influence the game. But by the end of March, being an active member of the community started to pay off. Amplitude launched a hero biography contest, letting community members create their own characters. They could write the backstory, assign the hero a class, and allocate stats. The best submissions made it into a G2G poll, and two winners made it into the final game.

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Instead of merely influencing the content added to Endless Space, community members were able to contribute their own. And by publishing its design documents ahead of the game's release, Amplitude ensured that some, if not most, of its forum members knew what would fit within the game world.

Ivan Danchev, an Amplitude community member who goes by the handle Raptor on the forums, won a hero bio contest by turning to the lore for inspiration. Of course, it was the fans, and not the developers, who voted his hero into the game.

"It is important to me that my hero bios are connected to the background of the race the hero belongs to," he says. "That means before writing one I have to read all the info released on that particular race, usually the faction articles on the main site and some additional pieces of info that the devs have released on the forums. My Pilgrim hero, Marcus "The Blade" Sarkin ... is a prisoner who hates the [United Empire] emperor and after a successful escape joins the Pilgrims. That's a background which connects to the Pilgrims being the resistance."

The public design documents became instrumental when Endless Space released as a playable alpha on May 2. Suddenly, everyone who pre-ordered the game could play it, and within two weeks 13,000 people registered on the forums. And they had things to say.

"[Publishing the game design documents] helped us to get the community to give really constructive feedback, as we all speak from this first draft of the game design," von Knorring says. "We don't lose time explaining 'this is not at all like our vision ...' I think that started everything really well and really quickly."

Thanks to word of mouth among 4X gamers, a 25% pre-order discount on Steam, and the novelty of Games2Gether, the Amplitude team faced an unexpected challenge while it worked to iron out bugs for a beta release: Its community was already triple the size it'd hoped for. The team had planned out their voting platform, but it wasn't prepared for hundreds of new forum topics every day suggesting improvements or changes.
 
Games2Gether had to grow to support its new community. And this time, the community itself would take the lead.

Fans in power

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"We started with a VIP group of like 30 people," von Knorring says. "Some people we knew from previous communities of the games we worked on ... So we gathered like 30 people that had really early access to the game and we discussed the design documents with them before even putting them on the forums for everyone to read. Then we launched the alpha. At the alpha suddenly it was 15,000 [people]."

Amplitude's team of volunteer moderators stepped up to deal with the ballooning volume of forum posts. It implemented new organizational methods for topics, then spent hours organizing threads into archives so that the developers could read balance and feature suggestions without digging through dozens of repeat topics.

"We had to make some decisions," von Knorring says, excitement bubbling up in his voice as he describes the community's rapid growth. "If you look at the forums right now you have a feature list for the forums, so [the fans are] not only helping us create ideas for the game, but they're also helping us improve the Games2Gether experience. We also hired an extra community developer to help us out, manage, and restructure everything from the back office side."

"IF YOU LOOK AT THE FORUMS RIGHT NOW ... [THE FANS ARE] NOT ONLY HELPING US CREATE IDEAS FOR THE GAME, BUT THEY'RE ALSO HELPING US IMPROVE THE GAMES2GETHER EXPERIENCE."

The growing fanbase dramatically affected creative director Romain de Waubert, who suddenly found himself listening to a community of thousands. "Usually in a small company like ours even the artists can come up with a cool game design idea," says von Knorring. "It's up to Romain to really choose the cool ideas and maybe integrate them into the game. So here, he was a creative director, but getting feedback from thousands of community members so it was like working with a huge team."

de Waubert elaborates: "As a creative director ... always listen to your team when you work on your game. They're your first customers; in a way, they're the first people who play your game. I always try to see in their feedback what fits in the vision and go back to the game and improve the game. And that keeps the team [happy] when they've been listened to, especially when they're right. It's good for morale.

"In a way that's how we considered the community members early on: It's like a team, an extension of the team. We did the same work with them as we did with the team internally."

Community ideas take over

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As Endless Space progressed through alpha and beta releases, Amplitude gave its community more power to steer its course. To lean on video game terminology, development was still on rails - the game's turn-based structure and hands-off combat were locked in as part of the dev team's vision - but gamers had room to maneuver within those confines. Dozens of community ideas made it into new builds.

The weekly Games2Gether polls continued to host player-created hero biographies. In addition, players were able to vote on 3D models for ships and faction logos. Best of all, Amplitude regularly put feature prioritization polls on G2G, letting the community choose what would be implemented first in successive rounds of patching.

While Amplitude was organizing regular hero biography contests, the fans themselves were more ambitious: They started writing up backstories for their own custom game factions.

"At first the [custom faction creation competition] was just an idea from one guy posting a thread saying 'Hey! What about all the community proposing some cool custom factions, just for the sake of it?'" says von Knorring. "Then one of our moderators said 'Hey, really, this thread is cool. It's working well. Could you make it an official competition?'

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"It was a cool idea that just came out of nowhere. We had the competition go on for a month. We had Steph'nie, the community developer, coming back to me saying 'OK now we have 120 pages of custom factions created. We have to choose one.' And we were like, 'Oh my goodness; how are we going to do this?'"

Amplitude talked to two of the forum moderators, and on their advice decided to divide the factions up into a series of polls, eventually whittling them down to a final trio. Those three made it into the Games2Gether poll on July 18.

"We want to push forward these types of creations," de Waubert says. "We want people to be able to see all the fan fiction and fan art for the game. It's amazing how much people picked up on the universe and made it theirs ... We'll see if we can make a portrait for the faction that is different so it looks nice and is coherent with the rest of the universe."

By Endless Space's gold release on July 4th, the community had grown to 30,000 members. Max von Knorring estimates more than 7,000 of them voted in the latest Games2Gether poll. "The community has been tremendous in helping us and [appreciates] that we can really support Endless Space after its release," he says.

As of mid-July, Endless Space has sold over 100,000 copies - not bad for an unknown studio working within a particularly hardcore niche. With a successful launch under its belt, Amplitude now has big plans for both its 4X space opera and its unexpectedly successful message board.

Forward, to the sea of stars

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By building Endless Space with a focus on community input, Amplitude Studios has inadvertently created a development model other companies may be paying attention to. While it's certainly not the first company to listen to fan feedback, it's worked out a new way to walk the tightrope between creative vision and communal development.

But throwing up a few polls and message boards won't necessarily replicate Amplitude's success, de Waubert says. "It would be hard to [propose Games2Gether to other teams] because the concept, for me, really wouldn't exist without Endless Space today and vice versa," de Waubert says. "For us it's a way we work in development. In our schedule we have empty days basically that we just fill in according to community feedback to force ourselves to always do community features, and to have the means to actually do that. So it's not just forum tools."

Shipping a gold build of Endless Space didn't mark the end for Games2Gether. In fact, on July 17, Amplitude added a new layer to the platform, tying together forum activity and G2G points. The update awards points for achievements and level ups that stem from basic forum activities: posting, rating threads, and so on.

"IT WOULD BE HARD TO [PROPOSE GAMES2GETHER TO OTHER TEAMS] BECAUSE THE CONCEPT, FOR ME, REALLY WOULDN'T EXIST WITHOUT ENDLESS SPACE TODAY AND VICE VERSA."

"We want the forum to be a metagame in itself, a game around the game," says de Waubert. "So basically everything we'll do to evolve that is make it more gamey. We already know of a lot of improvements we'll add to the system. But every achievement, every award you get will add to your voting power."

Someday Amplitude may even turn that system around and have the meta game points affect Endless Space itself.

"It's clearly more a technical issue for now," von Knorring says. "For now we're trying to find cool ways to do that, like the hero biography competition, the custom faction competition that is going on right now. So we're doing it, but we're not doing it automatically."

"The more I do in the game, the more voting power ... Someday, that's something we'll want to do," de Waubert says. "But it's always a tricky thing. There could be some cool stuff we could do that way. But that's even further and further down for now. It's science fiction for us."

Meanwhile ...

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For now, Amplitude is busy working on features it's already promised. Mac and mod support sit at the top of the list, and de Waubert has a priority of his own: "Looking at the reaction from the players, I really want now to finish the game ending," he says. "I think the game ending today is something awful about the game - this game that I love, by the way - but I hate the way the game ends today. And I see a lot of people writing on that and I think they're right."

de Waubert tells me that the more than 100,000 gamers who have now played Endless Space put an average of 20 hours into the game. That statistic comes a mere two weeks after Endless Space's gold release - if there's any genre that has a long tail, it's the 4X.

Even after hitting a gold release, Amplitude is just getting started, and successive patches will bring new features and new ways to play. Where it goes next just might be up to you.

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