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A launch day interview with Ambient Studios, "Death Inc" Kickstarter

James Yee, Blogger

February 4, 2013

27 Min Read

Originally posted at Kickstarter Conversations.


Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am very pleased to be talking with the fine folks at Ambient Studios who are launching their first Kickstarter project today with Death Inc.  Thank you for joining us today!

TH: Hi, Tim Holleyman Art Director here.
JH: And I’m Jonny Hopper. My job title is just “Director”.
MG: And I’m Mike Green, I’m leading the design for Death Inc. Thanks for talking to us today.

With a name like “Death Inc” there are all sorts of dark directions this project could be taking, yet looking at the art work it doesn’t seem very dark, creepy, or scary.  Can you explain your project for us?  

TH: I think we all felt that, the game could have ended up very dark, that’s not what we’re about so we tried to turn it on its head. The world is full of colour, in some ways it gains more life when you infect the people and the whole thing is very light hearted. Not serious at all.
JH: Everyone’s so sad until you infect them.

Your team is listed as being the “Minds behind Little Big Planet, Fable, and Burnout” which is an odd collection of ideas on it’s own.  What made you guys think of Death Inc?

MG: The project started life as a question - “What would it be like to control a horde of zombies?” We all thought that was a really interesting concept that hadn’t been done before and the idea sort of snowballed from there....the places we could go, the gameplay we could create...it felt very different! There was some apprehension initially about having ‘zombies’ as so many games have them, but then someone had the idea of the player running a ‘business’ that happens to deal in death - so from there it spiralled into controlling the Grim Reaper and using the bubonic plague to harvest souls in the 17th Century.

JH: Someone said “Plague Cremate Scare” and we built a game around it (not really).

With such gaming pedigree behind you why come to Kickstarter?  Couldn’t you just use your industry contacts and get funded the usual way?  Or is Kickstarter becoming the usual way for smaller projects like this?

MG: If only it were that easy! I think this is a very challenging time for developers, its hard to get new IP signed up by publishers, especially something that is trying to do things differently. Publishers have very different needs to gamers, they don’t necessarily understand why a developer has picked a particular art style, or why they implemented something a particular way. Worst case they’ll want X, Y and Z added because another game has those features. It ends up diluting the original vision of the game and in the end that benefits no-one.

Kickstarter for me is a very interesting proposal, I love that gamers have come together to get concepts funded - One of my favourite games of last year is FTL. I never realised at the time that it had been funded through Kickstarter, I just saw it appear on Steam and immediately knew I needed it. It’s incredible that gamers made that happen through their generosity! I love seeing the communities that have built up around these projects and it’s great that developers can talk directly about the game they’re working on with the people who are going to be playing it. We’ve all come from studios that required intense secrecy about the projects we were working on, so it’s pretty cool being able to talk about our game at such an early stage!

As for Kickstarter becoming the norm, I think a lot of that stems from hungry gamers wanting to play something new and different or in some cases something they can’t get anymore.

JH: I think it’s important to see Kickstarter as a kind of publisher in itself. When you pitch to a publisher you go into a room with a bunch of people in it, you give them a concept of an idea worked up to a certain degree, and if it ticks the right boxes for them they’ll want to get on board.

That’s exactly the same as running a Kickstarter campaign - you go into a room (on the internet) with a bunch of (internet) people in it, you give them a concept and if they like it they’ll fund you.

It’s exciting because the potential audience is much broader than “a few guys in a room” so your potential to reach the right people is higher. Plus, the people who are backing you are directly the ones who will play it - so you get to gauge the audience much more accurately.

What kind of gameplay am I looking at here?  You describe it as “Paint your orders into the land and unleash your infected minions on serfs, wenches and noblemen.
Is this all in real time or is it turn based?  Will I be running around after my servants and collecting souls?

MG: So the game is played out in realtime, with the inhabitants of the world going about their business unaware of the imminent dangers ahead! The view is similar to most real time strategy and god games, looking down from above and players use the mouse cursor to pull themselves around the world, zoom in and out - It’s not too dissimilar from moving around in ‘Black and White’.

Most levels start out with the player having only a few infected units and from there you need to guide them past different obstacles and dangers, slowly attacking and infecting more people in an effort to build up a force strong enough to deal with some of the tougher opponents.

When we first started prototyping the initial gameplay for Death Inc, we initially opted for an RTS style ‘Select a group of units’, ‘choose somewhere for them to move’ and you know it worked and behaved in the same way as other strategy games, but it just didn’t feel right.  Having such direct control over your units makes sense when they’re loyal soldiers but your troops are zombies! You shouldn’t be able to tell them what to do.

So that’s when we came up with a new way of controlling hundreds of troops using drawing! You paint routes in the world that will attract the infected to follow their paths and if they’re near something they can attack or destroy along the way they’ll just do it instinctively. Sometimes thats a good thing to do, other times its not. It actually opens up a lot more strategy for players, you just draw where you want to attack, create pincer movements, or creep behind tougher units - Normally in an RTS to do those things you’d have to highlight, group units, give multiple orders and remember all the shortcut keys. In Death Inc. you can do all the same things with a few simple swipes. I’m surprised that no-one has done it before to be honest!

The painting mechanic sounds perfectly suited for motion controls, are there any plans to try and port this to the PS3 or Wii for use with a wand?  Perhaps the PS Vita, 3DS, or tablet market using touch controls?  

MG: I think we’d love to get this game out on as many platforms as we can especially if the game suits the hardware! If the Kickstarter is successful and then the game is successful after we’ve released it then I’m sure we’d look into that more. As of right now the focus is 100% on PC and Mac.

JH: The control scheme is incredible tactile and satisfying; Sometimes I catch Joss Moore, one of our coders, sitting there drawing pictures with the game. In the fullness of time one day, it would be lovely to expand the targeted platforms. Like Mike says though, right now we’re 100% PC + Mac focussed.

Grim T. Livingstone (A great name for a Reaper BTW) is already dead isn’t he?  What can a bunch of Renaissance era living people do to stop him?  Or the Plague for that matter!

MG: I hadn’t really thought about whether Grim was dead or not. Er...I guess he’s neither! We’ve talked quite a lot about the Death Business being something that has always existed out of time and space - so I guess that makes him an omnipotent being.

As for who can stop him in the renaissance. I guess no-one can truly stop the Reaper. But they can kill the infected, without which Grim would be powerless. The armies in this time period have plenty of weapons to stop the horde, so there’s a lot to watch out for.

JH: Grim isn’t really dead or alive - he’s a Reaper. And yeah, no-one can stop him sure but it’s all about spreading infection - and for that you need human (or rat or pigeon or chicken or cow) hosts. So if you run out of hosts, you’re stuffed.

The concept screams “The Masque of the Red Death” to me, tell me there’s plans for an attack on an abbey having a masquerade ball.  

TH: Ha ha, that would be great, you could imagine everyone having a bit of a boring time until you rock up and infect them, then all hell would break loose. It would be party of the century!

Why should people back this project?  Why not wait for you to show up on Steam or something down the road?  

MG: Well, first off... if enough people don’t back the project on Kickstarter, then thats probably it for the game with no chance of it ever appearing on Steam and the like. I try not think of the other consequences of that happening! So, er....thats one cheery reason to support us. Secondly, I think what we’re doing is very different and unique. Its getting much harder to get new innovative games out to gamers via traditional means but one of the benefits of being on Kickstarter is that gamers get to choose what experiences they want - which in turn will tell us whether our idea is a good one or not! We want to build this game with the community, give them an insight into game development, discuss design ideas with them, get their input on what features make it into the game or not - This is verymuch going to be a collaboration with those who choose to back us.

Plus, we’ve got cool things in the game like Exploding Cows! There’s not enough exploding livestock in games at the moment. We can change that!

JH: I suppose by the time you’ve played through the game there won’t be many exploding livestock left in it either.

You are asking for £300,000  that’s a good chunk of change.  Where does all of the money go?  How confident you are you that with that budget you can hit your goal of Autumn 2013?  Is that an honest goal for a project of this size?  

JH: We’re 100% confident we can hit the release date. It’s a very honest and accurate depiction of the work and the budget required. I think there is a trend on Kickstarter, especially with the larger projects, of asking for less than you actually need to complete the project, going for the early win and then hoping that you cross the line for what you actually need later.

This is pretty disingenuous. For example, we could ask for £100,000 knowing we needed £300,000, and then end up with, say, £125,000. We’d still be obliged to deliver the project we’d promised but the people who have backed us have only deemed it worth about ⅓ of what we need. Then we’d have to go looking for other funding behind the scenes.

This is itself not impossible but I don’t like the idea of pretending a project will cost one thing knowing full well it will cost more. It’s essentially deceiving the very audience who have trusted you enough to give you money on the strength of an idea.

Likewise, we’re not asking for more than we need. We know how much it costs to run the Death Inc team for a month and we’re saying we can deliver the game in about 6 - Subtract rewards and Kickstarter’s take, and the maths are pretty easy.

What determined this dramatic artistic style?  Was this a matter of game design follows art or was it the other way around?  

TH: I think the art style should be lead by the game mechanic, that sets some of the boundaries - they can influence each other later, but for me its about supporting gameplay. Themes and ideas then continue to feed that - being set in the 17th century for example, straight away we knew the style couldn’t be too realistic - the game is supposed to be fun and lighthearted so the art style reflects that.
I wanted the style to stay simplistic, the game has to be easy to navigate and you have to be able to read the environment easily, on top of that we have other limitations including team size and time scale all of which have to be considered when working out the best approach.

Ultimately I just hope people enjoy what they see and it enhances the experience for them!  

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

JH: We have some pretty exciting things coming up. Interviews with the team are definitely going to happen but we’re also going to do feature spotlights to explain certain things in more detail. We also have a kind of narrative planned for certain key updates to take you through playing a mission in the game. That’s going to be ace and full of surprises, I think!

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to help things along?

JH: Facebook and Twitter have both been seriously helpful in engaging fans. We have a blog on our company website but Facebook is more accessible to most - we’ve been running competitions and writing updates about the development.

Jon Eckersley, mega artist, is making a model house in his spare time which is going to be Grim’s office, and blogging the progress. If you’ve ever wanted to see how to make painstakingly detailed model furniture, you should check it out.

It makes sense that I should carelessly plug our Facebook page now. It’s at www.facebook.com/AmbientStudiosLtd.

What’s that? Twitter? Oh, it’s @ambientgames.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

TH: I think good preparation is a must, there are loads of good articles out there regarding people’s experience with projects that succeeded and those that failed. It can be overwhelming so you need time to go through it all and work out an approach that’s best for you.

MG: I agree. We’ve been planning this for a month or so, but there’s really never enough preparation you can do.

JH: It’s totally natural to be terrified. I’d go so far as to say if you’re not, you’re missing something. People naturally tend to want to shield their project until it’s perfect, but Kickstarter forces everything out into the open. Embrace it! Don’t be concerned about everything looking finished or super polished - that’s the whole point of Kickstarter.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

JH: Stay safe, love your neighbour, give us money.

[Chuckles] Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

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