Interview: Ambient Studio's Johnny Hopper


Co-founder and director disucsses Death Inc. Kickstarter and risky but ethical crowd-funding.

Ambient Studios is young new studio formed by the talent from a number of bigger cousins, such as LittleBigPlanet maker Media Molecule and Fable creator Lionhead. As the new generation of consoles peeks its head over the horizon, you couldn't blame this new studio for jumping on the bandwagon and making the best use of its console-rooted history to tout some next-gen projects. However, Ambient Studios has gone in a different direction, embracing the PC as its foremost gaming platform and looking to resurrect neglected genres. Death Inc. is the first offering by this promising group and has taken the unusual step of offering up a work-in-progress demo as part of its Kickstarter campaign.

Here Is The City spoke with the company's director and co-founder Johnny Hopper about the game and how Ambient Studios is happy it approached Kickstarter ethically, even if it ends in failure.

HITC: Can you tell us a little bit about Death Inc?

JH: Sure. Death Inc. is a game where you play the grim reaper in the 17th Century and you're tasked with giving everyone that you can the bubonic plague. It's a strategy game and it's a business sim and it's quite a light take on the genre, I think. It's light-hearted.

HITC: There's an element in it where it almost feels like Discworld.

JH: Yeah definiately, there are certainly those kinds of inspirations in there. I think there is some Monty Python in there some Blackadder – all those kind of things. Because it could potentially be a reasonably dark subject, which we really didn't want it to be, so we thought that we should lighten the mood a little bit with some bright colours and fair dash of whimsy.

HITC: You put up the demo recently as a taster to get people involved in the Kickstarter campaign, that must have been pretty nerve wracking?

JH: Yeah. It certainly was. We've had about 70,000 downloads now which is great. It was definitely nerve wracking because its such an early view on the game and we genuinely had no idea how people would react to it. Whether they would be able to see it for what it is or see it for what it isn't.

HITC: I guess gamers are usually so sheltered from works-in-progress that they only ever see the polished end result.

JH: Exactly and this is deliberately not polished because we wanted to show people exactly where we were at and exactly what the game was about, so they could play it and have a go and really see if they actually liked it. We've had really good feedback actually. People did seem to really enjoy it and really understood the point we're at with the game.

HITC: Do you feel confident that your Kickstarter campaign is going to make it to the deadline?

JH: We're a little bit apprehensive, as you might imagine. It's not out of the question that we'll do it but we've still go a long way to go. These things do happen, we'd like to be further along than where we're at. What we were hoping for was a bigger spike at the start than we initially got. It's hard to saw quite why that didn’t happen, it could be just the fact that we didn't have that kind of nostalgia [appeal], we don't have the star power of some projects to attract people's support.

HITC: Also, you have been quite honest about what you hope to produce as opposed to promising the world.

JH: Exactly and that was a very conscious decision as well. It would have been a lot easier to say: 'Let's ask for 100 grand.' If we did that we'd be three-quarters of the way there, we might even have done it [now] because people might see that as an easier target. There's a potential that people have been put off of the cost of the target we set but ultimately we sat down, the director sat down, and we thought: 'We need to be able to sleep at night when we do this.' Because we didn't want to say 'OK lets ask for a smaller amount of money and, fingers-crossed, we'll be able to get funding from investors or something like that.' If that didn't happen then we'd have taken somebody's money and not been able to do it [Death Inc.] because 300-grand is a realistic cost for how much the game is going to cost. We know that if we got that we could do it without any sort of external input at all whereas if we asked for less we definitely couldn't. It's a risk, definitely a risk, and you can see it's a fairly nerve-wracking one but it was the right way we wanted to do it. We felt like it would be wrong to pretend that we were going to make something we weren’t, to basically pull the wool over the eyes of the people that are trusting us from the very start with their money.

HITC: Trying to be ethical about it whilst pushing it.

JH: Yeah, exactly. That was a tricky decision and I think the hard-nosed business people might have said 'no, you should have done it this way', and I look at that and think we could have done it that way but we stand by the decision we made. Win or lose, we believe that we made the right call for ourselves.

HITC: There's a been a narrative going around that Kickstarter's initial enthusiasm towards games is a little bit on the wane, do you think that's true?

JH: Yeah. I agree, I think a lot of people have been burned by it. One of the comments [we received] was very telling, because someone said: 'I haven't got any of my Kickstarter games yet!' He's backed games over a year ago and he hasn't seen them. People are thinking: 'I've plugged in a lot of money into stuff I haven't got any significant return from yet. So why should I do yours?'. Ironically, you can play ours earlier than some of these other games that were fully funded a year ago. There is certainly this feeling of 'I pumped quite a lot of money into these Kickstarter projects and haven't got a lot back from it yet, so I'm not willing to do that'. That's an unfortunate side effect of the funding, which we really didn't anticipate.

HITC: Looking at the game itself though, you say you didn't bill it on its nostalgia value, but Death Inc. certainly looks back on genres which have been neglected in the modern gaming environment.

JH: You're right. I think, when we didn't go for the nostalgia thing, we perhaps didn't realise explicitly the nostalgia trips we could plug into. But it definitely is in some ways quite a nostalgia thing, when we realised what we were doing and we realised we are drawing from Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper, it definitely made a lot of sense. The genre is not overburdened with amazingly new things, so we thought 'let's give it a go'. It just really appealed, we grew up on these games. I remember sitting in the car, coming back from the shop with Dungeon Keeper in my hands and being so excited by the idea of this game – and the same with Theme Park. It's exciting for us.

HITC: For a long time it seemed like there were only a few places that were championing these genres, such as Good Old Games, now it seems like Kickstarter has opened the door again for these types of titles. Do you think there is a big demand for these genres?

JH: I think so, I think there's this resurgence of PC gaming in general and the idie gaming scene is certainly a part of it. It's [indie gaming] has partly come of that and is partly responsible for that but PC games are definitely coming back into the forefront. The PC is such a great platform for this sort of RTS, it just works and it's never really worked well on a console for example. There's definitely room there for us to make our mark. The iPad as well is perfect for this game, no one's really done a great one yet so that could be exciting too.

Check out the company's Kickstarter page here and download the demo.

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