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Humankind Interview – Talking World Development and Woolly Mammoths with Jeff Spock

Sep 16, 2019
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It was only a little over two weeks ago I wrote up a preview of Humankind, which I was able to see some of at Gamescom. During my time there I was also able to speak to Jeff Spock, the narrative director of Amplitude Studios and Humankind.

During our chat, we spoke about everything from the selection of cultures within the game, the way you and the world around you will develop and possible moves for the game in the future. I was, sadly, a little disappointed when I found out that my plans to save the Woolly Mammoth from extinction were going to be foiled. You can read all about it below.

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Chris Wray - Hi there! So, just to get started, would you mind you introducing yourself for the recording?

Jeff Spock - My name is Jeff Spock. I am the narrative director of Amplitude Studios, one of the co-founders back in 2011, with the initial team. Ever since then, I'm basically the person responsible for the narration, the writing, the world-building, all that sort of stuff.

CW - Okay, perfect. That's a lot! [laughs]

JS - Well, I'm part of the design team, then we have the designers and the artists and all that. It's a great thing about Amplitude, we're a very close team. We share ideas all the time. I mean, you have faction ideas come from the artists from the designers. It's really great.

CW - You've also had a lot of input from the audience. Especially - I always forget the name of your platform, sorry!

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JS - Games2Gether

CW - Games2Gether, that's the one. I know there's always been a lot of input from the audience, votes and such as that. I've literally been with you from day one, with Endless Space in early access.

JS - Yeah? Oh, wow. Excellent. Definitely.

CW - So, that leads me to my first question. So… not Endless. Have you moved away from the Endless Universe or will there be an easter egg or two to find?

JS - Well, we're moving in parallel to the Endless Universe, look at it that way. You know, if they came up to me one day and said: "Jeff, no more Endless games" I'm like "I'm out of here" [laughs].

It's kind of my baby, you know, I love the universe, I love what we've done with it. I love the stuff the artists and designers have come up with. That's like the core IP of Amplitude. You know, of course, we're thinking of things, what do we do next? That sort of thing. So the Endless Universe is endless. It will keep going. But this is the game I guess you probably heard it in the uh...

CW - Presentation.

JS - Thank you, man. It's been a long day [laughs]. In the presentation.

So this is what we've wanted to do since we started the studio. We literally didn't know how to at the beginning. All the founders love 4X strategy games, turn-based games and others of that style. Master of Alliance, Civ. I mean, there's tonnes of precursors. So we've always had this in mind.

We had to go through a number of steps because you can't just do that out of the gate. Starting with Endless Space, which was relatively simpler and more inexpensive, it was done in a time where we got together and we raised money. If we didn't ship by the deadline, we closed. Very straightforward business plan, you know?

CW - I suppose that will make you do your work anyway [laughs].

JS - Yeah, you know, it's like, deadlines were serious back in those days [laughs]. No, but after that, we got our own funds going, we could build Endless Legend. We started learning the terrain, the movement, 3d issues and all that sort of stuff. Then back into Endless Space 2, more sophisticated diplomacy, trade systems, adding a little bit more each time.

So we decided now we're ready to do one that's clearly much more of a mass-market product than what we've done before. Sci-Fi is niche, fantasy is niche. Sci-Fi 4X turn-based is even more niche. We love it and it's a niche that's treated us well, but we've always wanted to take a shot at this.

CW - So this is sort of the Civilization version of your style of game? There seem to be a lot more input here based on the actual cultures, the history of the world compared to other titles in the genre. You've mentioned sixty different cultural influences?

JS - Yeah. So the idea was that one of the things is - it's not just civilization, it's our games as well - you pick a faction, you play it all the way through. Once you pick of action, you've kind of picked the gameplay style and the victory condition. You're kind of on the rails, more or less, 80% of the time.

That's unfortunate, particularly with a historical Earth game. It doesn't allow you to shift your strategy much in midstream. If you do, it's a huge risk. Whereas if era by era, you're seeing what the world looks like, you know what situation you're in, you can adjust - go more science, go more military, open up trade routes because it's a pretty peaceful planet, that sort of thing. I think it's great to be able to react in-game - culture, by culture.

Even more importantly, I think there's this idea that we're not monolithic. I mean, I'm American. That doesn't mean like necessarily, I'm a white dude from Western Europe. That means I can be Native American, African American, Central American, and even if I am from Western Europe, I've gotten pieces of a dozen different cultures me and that's the reality of a modern nation.

CW - Essentially, we're all a hotbed of different inputs.

JS - Exactly! We absolutely are. We're like this DNA stew of everything that came before. We really wanted to make a game about our history that respected that. So this idea of having 10 cultures in six areas which mathematically is indeed one million potential play through possibilities. I think it's respectful of Earth history and Earth cultures, more than playing the Americans, being American, they're always Americans and always going to be Americans.

It's like "Yeah, but, I'm in the medieval era now in front of the Babylonians who were gone by now", that sort of thing. We'd like to get away from that kind of anachronism. If there is an anachronism, we like it to be purposefully chosen by the player. So, I chose the Romans in the classical era and I'm doing well enough and I want to gain more fame - which is our victory condition - so I'm going to push and be the Romans in the medieval era. If you're going to be out of step, it's voluntary. When you're the medieval era, you're going to look around see medieval cultures, not classical or Bronze Age cultures. So we have a nod to historical accuracy as far as the other cultures that appear at a period in the time of the game.

CW - I'm guessing since you can choose to remain as an older culture, the AI is able to remain as an older culture?

JS - The AI theoretically could. I don't know how it's being coded. I mean, it would have to be the optimum path for the AI, given the game situation to earn fame. I assume that's what it be. You may need somebody more technical than I am for that.

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