Panache Digital Games talks about creating ambitious epic Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey
The studio started out with a handful of people, but has grown to 35 developers that are collectively able to punch above their weight. To see how Panache Digital Games is creating a game of AAA quality as a new indie developer, we reached out to Désilets and Ancestors Development Director Frederic Laporte. The two talk about how they balanced making a game that is historically accurate and fun, share how they unconventionally recreated ancient Africa, and discuss how they designed a game with no predetermined narrative. The duo also elaborates on how they created a gameplay loop that doesn’t hold your hand, and provides tips to developers who are thinking of starting their own studio. With the game charting the course of human evolution across eight million years throughout Africa, Ancestors certainly has a novel premise. How did you come up with the concept and setting for the game?
Cofounder and Creative Director Patrice Désilets: When we founded Panache, we needed to create a first game that could serve as a toolbox for all future games at Panache and have our three Cs: character, camera, and controls. I also needed to find a game in the same vein as what I had done before, [which is] historical games. And then one night I had this idea: a prehistoric game about our ancestors. We wouldn’t have to create cities, civilizations or combat systems with swords and stuff. But I also didn’t want to approach the subject like it has always been done. I wanted to go back all the way to the very beginning of the evolution of our kind, 10 million years ago. The game design followed.
Considering the game is built on the core principles that players will need to "explore, expand, and evolve," how did you come up with Ancestor's unique gameplay loop?
Désilets: I always study the subject of my games and it is through the subject that I identified the pillars of the game design. Human evolution was done through exploration and we needed a clan to survive. In order to evolve, you also need to make babies and befriend outsiders to have a stronger clan and pass generations. Survival is obviously an important aspect. We need to eat, drink, and sleep to survive. But if you stay too long in one location, resources will deplete and that’s why you need to explore and expand your territory. You then encounter all sorts of dangers and you learn skills. So, the gameplay loop is based on human nature itself. In the end, the most important thing was to let the player make their own decisions and evolve their own way.
How much historical and scientific research went into the production of the game?
Désilets: The first two years consisted of studying the subject, reading, watching documentaries, and meeting specialists, but then I needed to distance myself from all the scientific facts in order to create a fun game. So there was a lot of research put into the game, but it is not an accurately scientific game as we took liberties to focus on the pure fun of playing.
How did you walk the line between developing a game that would be historically accurate yet fun to play?
Désilets: Being historically accurate is what we tried at first, but we soon realized it was a little boring. So I decided that we were going to put all the ingredients in the game, right from the start, and let the players make their own choices. So, someone might actually discover some tool way before what science tells us. But that’s okay! [That just means players] were curious and intelligent enough to make this new discovery.
With dangerous predators that include crocodiles, sabertooth tigers, and giant centipedes to fend against, how did you decide and design what creatures to include in the game?
Désilets: We put some classic predators in there such as the sabertooth, snakes, etc. Then, through research, we learned about some animals and predators that we had never heard of before so we included some of them. But again, we took some liberties. And what is important to remember is that the world hasn’t changed that much since then. 10 million years might seem like a lot, but regarding Earth’s story, it’s quite short.
On another note, what we found most interesting is that many plants we thought were indigenous African plants weren’t!
The studio has been upfront about Ancestors being a survival game that doesn't hold players' hands. It doesn't feature an inventory system or minimap, and even allows users to turn off the in-game HUD. What was the studio's reasoning behind this approach?
Development Director Frederic Laporte: Immersion was the key here. Spending time in menus reminds the player he’s playing a game and our goal was to get players lost in Africa 10 million years ago. This philosophy pushed us to make the game understandable without any in-game HUD by providing visual and/or audio feedback for everything that usually requires HUD feedback. Playing with the HUD is considered a bonus, not a necessity.
Désilets: On top of that, it was about real life. Our ancestors, those hominids, did not have maps or anyone to show them the way. They did it on their own, using their instinct. And that’s why I’m asking players, “Hey, you Homo Sapiens, can you survive like our ancestors did?”
The studio has mentioned that the game doesn't have a predetermined narrative and that "players' own curiosity will drive the show." Was this philosophy challenging to design around?
Désilets: Yes and no. Obviously, we always think of the players when designing. We always ask ourselves, “Will players be curious enough for that?” However, there are different types of players, so we had to make sure to find the right balance. Some might be overwhelmed with the freedom at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty awesome.
With a motto that asserts "extinction is the norm, survival is the exception" coupled with all of the deadly creatures and environmental hazards that the game has to offer, how do you set about balancing the game's difficulty?
Désilets: Once again, it’s all about the players and how they will play the game. We have to make sure to balance for one way of playing, but keep in mind that all players will play differently. People will get better. You can actually get good at it! The more you play, the better you will get. And not having a narrative makes the replayability infinite.
With vast and realistic-looking jungles, plains, and lakes, the game's various biomes look like they were crafted with care and attention to detail. How did you set about recreating ancient Africa?
Laporte: We first spent a lot of time doing research and built ourselves a huge reference library to ensure we could get as authentic as possible and all have a common vision. That being said, when building virtual worlds, devs usually start with a set of character metrics and the environment is first grey boxed in by level designers and later covered up with art. We didn’t do that. We started with art right away. This forced us to adapt what our character could do to the environment and not the other way around. This also generated gameplay we didn’t initially anticipate, which was a nice bonus!
The concept of a skill tree seems like a perfect fit for Ancestors. Can you elaborate on how you’re designing a system that allows players to evolve throughout the course of the game?
Désilets: This is the most scientific aspect of the game I would say. We started by deconstructing what makes us hominids and separated those elements across four categories: sense, intelligence, communication, and reflexes. So we track how players play and depending on their actions, they unlock new abilities.
Neuronal energy is accumulated through babies, so the number of babies in your clan will have an effect on the speed at which you will evolve. That neuronal energy can then be used to lock abilities when passing a generation.
How many developers worked on Ancestors and how long did it take?
Laporte: Ancestors started with a handful of people and is now, four years later, 35 strong.
Désilets: And I’m blown away at the scale of what we created with such a small team. I’m so proud!
What has been the biggest challenge making the game and how did the studio overcome it?
Désilets: The biggest challenge was to create an open world that makes sense, with characters that don’t speak. The subject matter of our game made it impossible to make a conventional game, however, we managed to make a game that is fun, unique, and mind-blowing. Unreal’s tech was a great asset in creating with a small team.
Considering Ancestors will be the first title from Panache Digital Games, how has development been different as an indie studio?
Laporte: Big teams obviously have advantages, but being agile is not one of them. By having a small team, we have been able to quickly change direction whenever it was needed. Knowing everyone around you also makes interdisciplinary work easier as you’re always aware of who does what.
Being smaller also forces everyone to wear multiple hats and step out of their comfort zone. While it’s sometimes uncomfortable, it’s also super exciting to do more than what’s in their job description. In the end, it makes everyone more versatile.
Désilets: At Panache, we also decided to get rid of all the middle management stuff. This allows everyone to concentrate on their craft and to create the game.
As an independent studio working on their first game, can you provide any tips to developers that are thinking about starting their own team?
Désilets: Don’t be afraid to be bold. And stay passionate about your game! That might sound cliché, but it really is the key. Also keep in mind that your initial vision might change and that’s okay. You should embrace change.
What made UE4 a good fit for the game?
Laporte: Being a small studio means we obviously have limited resources and UE4 provided us a solid tool base and rendering engine. This allowed us to focus mostly on gameplay and less on non-game related issues. Plus, it allowed us to test our ideas from the very beginning and make design decisions in accordance.
Does the studio have any favorite UE4 tools or features?
Laporte: The Blueprints system empowers people to prototype ideas and thus quickly validate, or invalidate game concepts. While we can’t often ship those prototypes as is, they still provide us with a lot of freedom and save us engineering time.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about the game?