Mathieu Girard has already lived the indie dream. In 2011, he and Romain de Waubert de Genlis founded Amplitude Studios, the well-regarded makers of strategy games, such as Endless Space and Endless Legend. How good was its reputation? Strong enough that Sega acquired the company back in 2016.
Girard left Amplitude in January, and now, he’s ready to talk about his next adventure … a tactical one. Today, he’s announcing his new company, Tactical Adventures. It’s a studio in Paris that wants to make PC role-playing games that blend the rich stories of classics like Baldur’s Gate with the tactical choices you make in games like XCOM. It’s working on a yet-to-be announced game, one that will use the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition Open Game License (OGL). This means that it’ll use the base rules, but it won’t feature any of the worlds (such as the Forgotten Realms) that belong to Wizards of the Coast.
In a call last week, Girard laid out his vision for Tactical Adventures and how he and his colleagues want to bring innovation to role-playing games. This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Why found Tactical Adventures now?
Mathieu Girard: It’s a love project, really. I mean, I’ve done — I’ve released many games in my career, both at publishers and also at Amplitude. That’s been thrilling, but my — not shallow but teenage and young-adult dream was making an RPG. I’ve been a big fan of pen-and-paper RPGs, and I was looking for a way to do it right. Making a new studio seemed like a good way to do that. Even though I had a blast at Amplitude with my partner Romain — working with Sega was great as well — I needed to do my own thing, to make the game I wanted.
GamesBeat: When you say your love of pen-and-paper RPGs, which games are you talking about?
Girard: Well, it’s a bit tricky because I’m not supposed to use the brand itself, but let’s say that I’ve been playing the world’s greatest role-playing game for 30 years now. I guess we can say Dungeons & Dragons? But we have to be careful in terms of licensing and so on. That type of game. I’ve been playing Call of Cthulhu. I’ve been playing Vampire. I’ve been playing other homemade games. I’m a big fan especially of the tactical aspects, the grid and the miniatures. Sometimes building landscapes with cardboard and stuff like that. I’ve been a big fan for 30 years, of these types of games.
GamesBeat: I was reading the website, and you cite a game using fifth edition rules. Are you making a D&D game, or are you using the open licensing agreement?
Girard: I’m using the OGL from Wizards of the Coast. That’s still a 400-page document. There’s a huge amount of content. But obviously, we have to be careful with the copyrights and the universe.
GamesBeat: So, you can use the basic rules and all the stuff that’s in those 400 pages. You just can’t use the Forgotten Realms or other specific names.
Girard: That’s right, as I understand it.
GamesBeat: So, it’s an open game license game. It’s not a branded D&D game, and you’re not working with Wizards of the Coast.
Girard: No, no. We can’t do that.
GamesBeat: Why is now the time to start making your passion project?
Girard: Because I’ve learned a lot. I’ve made lots of different games. I’ve made strategy games and even Formula One racing games. I’ve made shooter games, management games, 4X games. Lots of stuff. I guess what I was missing was an RPG. But it can be a bit scary to make an RPG. It seems very complex. You have to build lots of environments and monsters and a huge scenario. But it’s not that complex once you have experience. I want to have a more systemic approach to an RPG rather than a purely narrative approach. The idea is to bring something new to the game mechanics of an RPG on a computer.
GamesBeat: You have some of that experience already with Endless Legend. To me, that feels just like a strategy RPG.
Girard: Yes, that’s correct. With the evolution you have with the heroes, the tactical combat. I guess I’m pushing this to another level. Some elements — the point is not to copy Endless Legend. It’s really a different game. But yes, there are some very interesting aspects of RPG in Endless Legend. What I can say is that what’s very different between an RPG and a 4X is that a 4X is usually procedurally generated while an RPG usually has designed levels. You have to build a whole environment construction pipeline. You have to build battle landscapes, which aren’t automatically generated as in Endless Legend. There’s a whole new perspective on editing content, rather than just finding the right algorithm to generate it. There will be more challenges on the battleground, in the possibilities of the characters and so on.
GamesBeat: What are some of the technical innovations you’re talking about? You said Tactical Adventures has the ambition to deeply advance the mechanics of computer RPGs.
Girard: I guess — I don’t want to reveal all my secrets so soon. For now, we just have a prototype, which is very exciting. It shows a lot of cool stuff. The foundation for us is that computer RPGs have been making — well, they’re great games, but they’ve been doing more of the same thing for the past 20 years since Baldur’s Gate. These are great games. I love them. I play them. But it’s the same way of doing exploration and combat. Some of them have had turn-based combat but not all the way, not with a very accurate grid system. Some of them have — well, all of them have great narrative and story, but the way the narrative is brought to you, with the same five dialogue lines when you speak to an RPG — you have to read a lot of text. It can be a bit tedious, I think. It’s not very modern. Even though lots of people love this, including myself, I think we can bring something more modern to exploration, combat, and narrative.
GamesBeat: One thing that intrigued me on your website, you’re talking about wanting to incorporate not just Baldur’s Gate and those kinds of games but components of XCOM as well. Is that where you’re looking for innovation?
Girard: Our objective is somehow to mix Baldur’s Gate and XCOM. But that’s a very simplified idea. Actually, we have something unique in terms of — obviously, if you compare Baldur’s Gate and XCOM, Baldur’s Gate is very flat. You have some elements of 3D in recent computer RPGs but not all the way. XCOM has some elements as well. It’s one of the aspects we want to go to to move forward.
GamesBeat: Why are you choosing to make a fantasy game over another genre? You have experience with fantasy, with science fiction, with modern settings. Why did you pick fantasy?
Girard: I guess it’s my setting of choice, the one I love. When I play pen-and-paper RPGs with my friends, we mostly do fantasy. I really love that environment. The trick is to create a new universe, which is original but not too exotic, I would say. A universe that appeals to the biggest audience. Science fiction, why not? Maybe in the future. But for now, we want to focus on fantasy. What we’ve discovered is that it’s a more mainstream environment than science fiction.
GamesBeat: Is this universe something that came out of your home role-playing games, or is it something you’re making just for this game?
Girard: We’re making it just for this game. We already have some writers at work building the universe. Its lore and its cosmology, the gods that populate it, the peoples and how they interact together — we’re starting by building a thousand years of history. On top of that, we’ll build the script of the first game.
GamesBeat: Have you hired any big-name RPG writers I might know of?
Girard: I’m not yet ready to announce that, but we have someone with a big experience in RPGs, in pen-and-paper RPGs. You could try me, and I see if I raise an eyebrow [laughs].
GamesBeat: When did you leave Amplitude? I didn’t catch that.
Girard: The time frame was at the end of January. I’m still on very good terms with Romain, though. Since then, I’ve been doing some consulting with them to help them through the transition. But Romain is doing a great job. He’s working with Sega, and it’s going great. They’re in good hands at Amplitude. Obviously, they’re cooking up some exciting stuff that I can’t talk about. But they’re doing fine.
GamesBeat: Is this the first studio founded by somebody who worked at Amplitude and has left? Or have some of your other former colleagues done that already?
Girard: Some of our staff members, some junior programmers, they have started small studios. But I don’t think anything major with a big success has come out. But I may be mistaken.
GamesBeat: How does it make you feel that, out of this great thing you and Roman built at Amplitude, that now there are studios that have come out of that and people making their own games, including you now?
Girard: It’s a bit strange. When you’re inside, you want everyone to stay inside. [Laughs] When you’re outside, it feels the natural way to do things. There haven’t been so many people leaving Amplitude, though, because it’s a great studio. People are usually happy at Amplitude, working on exciting projects. Some people want to do their own thing. I’ve been working there for seven years after founding it. There comes a time when you have to maybe see something else, do something else. To me, this was the right time. I wouldn’t say I’m happy that people have left, but I understand that if they had a passion project, there was no point in staying at Amplitude and being demoralized or anything like that.
GamesBeat: Why use the open game license? Is it just because you love those rules and the creativity that can come out of that?
Girard: I’m a big fan of fifth edition. To me, it’s the easiest way to do it, using the OGL. Actually, I can’t discuss much more information because I’m bound by [non-disclosure agreements]. I can’t endanger my fledgling company [laughs]. But let’s just say that I love fifth edition, and the lowest-hanging fruit was using the OGL, so that’s what we’re going for.
GamesBeat: Does last week’s acquisition of inXile and Obsidian by Microsoft give you hope that the market for really deep and really mechanics intensive RPGs is thriving?
Girard: There’s a big appeal to this type of game all over the world. It’s natural that such great studios, that they would get interest in acquisition from big publishers. It seems to me that there’s an appeal for that kind of studio. Also, there’s an opportunity for innovation. If there are lots of studios that want to do RPGs and they’re all doing more of the same, there’s a need to innovate, to bring something new and fresh.
GamesBeat: What’s the last RPG that you’ve played, on computer on console, where you thought it was really new and interesting, really innovative?
Girard: I’ve played all the latest RPGs and felt — it’s great. I feel at home. But something that is really different — I’ve seen a lot of differences in console games, which bring a more immersive first-person experience to RPGs. Even in a game like Horizon: Zero Dawn, for instance, you have character evolution and other RPG elements. The narrative is great. It really brings you into the game. But in terms of — this is where I’ve been the most impressed, with this type of game, but it’s more action-adventure than RPG. But I haven’t really played an innovative RPG in the past years. I had a great experience with games from the studios you mentioned, but they basically offer a recipe that’s well-loved with some peripheral improvements. The core of the recipe isn’t changed, really.
GamesBeat: Why did you name the company Tactical Adventures?
Girard: I could have come up with a shorter name to start with [laughs]. But I didn’t really think of something convincing enough. Tactical Adventures really expresses the mix of deep yet accessible tactical gameplay, with lots of depth in features and content, with a compelling narrative arc. It’s a good mix. Some games are all the way into narrative and some of them are just systemic and tactical. I wanted to find a good mix. Tactical Adventures explains exactly the type of game we want to make.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else you want to share?
Girard: It’s hard, at this stage, to give lots of information while I want to keep some things secret. About the team, I can say that it’s a team of veterans and young developers. They’re all very passionate about this type of game. Not all of them have played fifth edition. I’m planning on introducing them to it. But really, for some of them, the oldest ones or the youngest ones, that’s the only box to check on their resumes, the list of games they’ve developed. They’re really passionate about doing an RPG. There’s a lot of excitement on the team.