In March 2006, Jonny Hopper left a job working for Peter Molyneux's Lionhead Studios to join a then unknown developer called Media Molecule, where he helped build the prototype for a game called LittleBigPlanet. Then, in 2011 he decided it was time to move on again. He and Daniel Leaver, who was the very first designer hired to work on LBP, went back and forth on the idea of leaving the studio "because we had games we wanted to make and things we wanted to achieve that we didn't feel we could achieve at Media Molecule," says Hopper. "It's the most scary thing in the world until you've done it, and then it's amazing." The two went on to form Ambient Studios, a now 11-person strong studio that has just revealed its very first project — Death Inc., a strategy game where spreading the bubonic plague is a good thing.
spreading the bubonic plague is a good thing
The game puts players in the role of a freelance Grim Reaper in 17th century England, with the goal of infecting as many healthy humans as possible. Those who are infected will then attempt to spread the virus, while the healthy population does its best to defend itself from the plague. This real-time strategy-style gameplay is mixed with a simulation element, as in-between missions you can spend harvested souls on upgrading your units and your dingy reaper office.
One of the goals for the team at Ambient is to strike a balance between making Death Inc. a deep and rewarding strategy experience and one that's accessible even to those who don't spend hours dissecting StarCraft techniques. With that in mind, the game does away with some of the more complicated aspects of the genre — you don't have to build units in the middle of a mission, and there's no form of resource management. Instead, everything you can use is already in the level at the outset. If you want more units you'll simply need to infect more villagers, who you can then use to infect even more.
And then there are the controls. In a further attempt at accessibility, Death Inc. uses a gesture-based control mechanic where you "paint" your infected soldiers with commands using your mouse. Drawing a circle over a crowd, for instance, will tell them to scatter and avoid hazards like boiling oil. Other gestures let you do things like split your mob into two groups or distract archers by sacrificing a few peasants. "It makes it super fluid to plan your actions and very clear what is going on, or what will be," Hopper says of the painting mechanic. "I think we can reach a new audience by making it really easy for them to do cool stuff."
"We can reach a new audience by making it really easy for them to do cool stuff."
While the gameplay is significantly different than LittleBigPlanet, Death Inc. is similar in at least one respect: it features an incredibly charming art style, which should help when it comes to attracting that new audience. The look is inspired in part by tilt-shift photography — "it's a great way to play with scale and focus" — as well as a host of other influences, ranging from Pixar artists Dice Tsutsumi and Noah Klocek to games like thatgamecompany's Journey on PS3.
All of these elements combine to create an experience that looks to be quite a bit different from your typical strategy game — which is a good thing, considering the small resurgence the genre has seen thanks to Kickstarter. Titles like Molyneux's Godus have already managed to do quite well on the crowd-funding platform, and Ambient is obviously attempting to emulate that success. "I think the audience on Kickstarter is pretty discerning," says Hopper. "A lot of what they want to play isn't necessarily what risk-averse publishers would call 'mainstream.' So you get these amazing opportunities to make games that excite you — and find out early on if it excites other people."
Death Inc. has been in development for around two months and, if all goes according to plan, Ambient hopes to ship the game on Windows, Mac, and Linux in October. And if things go better than planned, a mobile version is also a possibility, and it seems like a natural fit for the gesture-based control scheme. But first there's the little matter of raising the £300,000 (nearly $470,000) the studio is looking for on Kickstarter. If that doesn't happen, Death Inc. might not either — making this possibly the first time people have pledged money to help spread the bubonic plague.