Most creative types don't like audiences second-guessing their artistic decisions, but that's not the philosophy held at Paris-based Amplitude Studios, an "independent gathering" of strategy-loving video game designers and players that recently released the turn-based tactics game Endless Space on Steam.
There's two parts to this story: the game, and the way the game was designed. First, the game.
It's a sci-fi-themed entry in the woefully underserved category of 4X turn-based strategy simulations. The four 'x's in 4X stand for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate, the genre's pillars of play. Sid Meier's Civilization games stand as salient examples of this formula, and clearly served as inspiration for Endless Space.
Players begin the game with a colony on one planet in one star system in a vast galaxy. Then, one turn at a time, they perform actions designed to grow their civilizations. They'll research scores of new technologies that allow for faster space travel and more efficient industry, design and build new ships and fleets for the purposes of conquest and defense, and engage in first contact and ongoing diplomatic relations with different species as they are encountered.
I've spent about a week building multiple space empires and have had a great time. The multitude of game-altering parameters – galaxy size and shape, custom races with different temperaments and bonuses, the existence or dearth of space pirates – that you can set before starting ensures you can play countless times and never have the same experience twice. Plus, the game successfully and impressively manages to balance a wide range of multifaceted and interconnected civilization development systems.
Expand too fast and you'll exhaust your people and make them angry. Go too slow and you'll lack the resources and industry necessary to build an effective fleet and defensive systems capable of repelling invasions. Managing it all can prove extremely challenging – but also quite rewarding.
There are still plenty of areas that could use improvement. The outcomes of space battles, for example, feel a bit random and confusing, and options for diplomacy are frustratingly limited at the moment. There are some circumstances under which you can't even open a dialogue with an enemy.
However, the core of a deep and challenging strategy game is clearly evident. It's a habit-forming exercise in galactic civilization management, and fans of turn-based tactics sims will likely find it a minor delight that will keep them playing late into the night, promising themselves just one more turn before switching off.
However, what makes Endless Space stand out isn't necessarily the game itself, which feels similar to many others that have come before, but instead the manner in which it was conceived and developed.
Amplitude espouses a game-crafting methodology it calls Games2gether. Basically, the studio wants the people who play its games to help them design them. Its fan base has access to a wide array of production documents, from core design tenets to concept art. They can review and comment on these designs on forums, take part in community votes that end up determining aesthetics and rules, and even communicate with and follow the work of the studio's primary gamesmiths.
It's an extraordinarily open and transparent development process that both educates and empowers players. You don't need prior game development experience to participate. In fact, your untrained eye might even find game improvements otherwise unnoticed by skilled developers.
Endless Space, which was developed in just over a year, is the first game Amplitude has designed using this methodology, and the studio continues to employ it post-release. At this moment players are voting on the priority of features slated to be added to the game, including a new victory condition (annihilation), the ability for fleets to auto-explore the galaxy, and an option to raze systems that you've invaded.
Has the Games2gether philosophy resulted in a better game? It's hard to say. Endless Space is entertaining, but it's safe to say some 4X games developed in a more traditional manner are still superior in their scope, polish, and balance.
However, this new way of creating games is undoubtedly making for a highly involved and loyal community that will likely follow Amplitude on to future projects. The value of such a fan base ought not to be underestimated. As demonstrated by player petitions that have risen around major recent releases like Diablo III and Mass Effect 3, many gamers clearly want to have more say in the games they play. Amplitude is offering just that, and Endless Space is the first result of this novel collaboration between gamer and game maker.