Winds of plague: a chat about Death Inc.

By Dave Cook
27 February 2013 12:38 GMT

Death Inc. is one part Pikmin, one part business sim. Dave Cook speaks with the ex-Media Molecule devs at Ambient Studios to learn more about the zany project.

Death Inc.

Death Inc. is the debut project from Guildford-based Ambient Studios, a team made up of former Media Molecule, Lionhead and Criterion developers.

The team is currently raising funds for the project over on Kickstarter. You can check out the game’s campaign page here.

Ambient also believes that Death Inc. would be a great fit for Wii U. Based on the game’s ‘paint’ control method, I’d have to agree.

You can play Death Inc. today thanks to Ambient’s free demo prototype. You can play the first ten minutes of the game here.

“The indie scene is in ascendancy right now”, Ambient Studios co-founder Jonny Hopper told me. “There are opportunities like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight that just didn’t exist five years ago. And similarly, big publishers aren’t being as generous with their cash as they were five years ago.”

Freedom away from big labels can be a dream ticket for many developers. There’s nothing wrong with operating under a big banner name like Sony or EA, but staff working in large teams are just small cogs in a well-oiled machine. They have little say in how a project turns out.

The prospect of being small cogs felt uninspiring for Hopper and his friends, so they left Media Molecule and founded Ambient Studios. The team’s first project is Death Inc, a bizarre hybrid of Pikmin herding and business management that sees players spreading the plague across 17th century England.

“It originally came from our artist Jon Eckersley,” Hopper said of the game’s elevator pitch. “He’s had this idea kicking around for a while about a zombie game where you control the zombies. And to his credit he’d had that idea way before zombie games were cool.

“But the problem is, zombie games are so done—the world seems to be growing weary of them, understandably. Why further crowd an already crowded space? So we started thinking about what exactly makes zombies cool. Why does this core concept make me smile?”

The team batted around several ideas and time periods, and while looking at the plagues that ravaged medieval England, asked themselves who would benefit most from all of the death and misery they caused. The answer, naturally, were the grim reapers and so the idea of turning mortality into a business was born.

Starring freelance harbinger of death Grim T. Livingstone the game is colourful yet sadistic, delivering a brutal slant to something that otherwise looks quite charming and innocent. It’s not innocent however, as both the player and Livingstone will be getting their hands very dirty indeed.

Hopper explained that players will expand Death Inc. – dubbed by Hopper as an “Outsourced mortality solution” – by spreading disease, and literally reaping the profits. There’s also the matter of a tyrannical king who needs ousting.

Hopper continued, “Like all start-ups, [Livingstone] starts out in his nan’s basement. She’s away on a cruise or something and he’s house-sitting. Like any business the idea is to make a profit, but unlike most businesses the profit is souls.

“All the souls you reap in a level are your currency, and you use them to pay for employees, minions, underlings and suchlike. You can send them away on side missions and they’ll return with more souls, and perhaps rare artefacts or items – perhaps some kind of rare scythe handle that unlocks a particular special ability, or a creepy sarcophagus that increases productivity.”

“Eventually you have enough employees and you need to expand out of the basement, and so those gravedigging skills come in handy. You end up with this underground lair and your employees bodding about, and you’re trying to manage them to keep them efficient and keep them happy. It’s kind of like Dungeon Keeper or Theme Park.”

Already the concept is bat-shit crazy, but brilliant. It gives rise to the same brand of humour and imagination Hopper and his colleagues would have been steeped in while at Media Molecule. The game’s dark management slant is only one half of the story however.

When he’s not kicking his skeletal feet up on some mahogany desk, Livingstone is out in the field laying waste to England’s peasants and tussling with the king’s guard. Once infected, Grim’s victims obey his every command, giving him a personal army of spluttering minions with varying abilities. It’s like Pikmin meets RTS, but much madder.

Hopper explained the depth of Death Inc.’s strategy, “We have peasants which are the grunts, then vigilantes who run around with crockery on their heads—they’re the next level up. Then the heavy infantry is Andrew The Giant. He’s great. Then you have Plague Doctors who heal your infected minions—and of course healing them means they’re not on your side any more.

“Strategy wise, well, you name it. You can lay down orders to a good level of detail. So navigating through a field filled with bear traps, as you frequently had to do in the 17th century, becomes easy.

“Or for example you might need to attack a bunch of archers on a hill: you could send your cannon fodder – villagers and vigilantes – towards them and draw their fire and wheel your Andrew The Giants round the back to flank them. That’s a simple example I guess.

“Alternatively you could find a trebuchet and launch some plague rats over a castle wall. The guys inside would open the gate to escape in a panic and BAM! – You’ve got them out in the open. But of course those wouldn’t be the only ways to defeat those challenges. It’s non-linear in that way, and the gameplay really rewards choice.”

It’s a superb concept, employing a simple control mechanic that allows players to ‘paint’ complex commands with minimal mouse clicks. It’s a decision born out of the team’s dismissal of ‘click-heavy’ control schemes. Fun and accessibility are the name of the game here, and from what Ambient has shown so far, they’re nailing the concept dead-on.

If Death Inc. becomes a success, Hopper revealed that the team would love to add new time periods into the mix – ancient Egypt and the Roman empire were two examples he gave – suggesting a long-term commitment to the title. The concept is ripe for expansion.

Many developers say we’re in a golden age of creativity and independence, giving rise to a new wave of unique ideas. Death Inc. is yet another project to add to the list, and it underlines the importance of the indie scene’s continuing resurgence.

Anyone disheartened by the deafening presence of the big budget franchise will surely testify to Kickstarter’s importance, and may find Ambient’s game to be quite endearing. But like all Kickstarter projects, Death Inc. needs your help to become reality.

At the time of writing the campaign has amassed £75,208 of its £300,000 goal, which is still a long way off. If you’re interested you can play a free prototype build of Death Inc. now, just grab it here.

Let us know what you think of the game, and of course the free prototype below.

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