UK-based independent game developer Introversion has proudly billed itself as 'the last of the bedroom programmers', and the company's output has full reflected the rebel streak that this defiant slogan might imply.
Starting off with the refreshing 'hacker sim' Uplink, founders Chris Delay, Mark Morris and Thomas Arundel moved on to retro-visual festooned PC strategy title Darwinia, which scooped the $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the 2006 Independent Games Festival, and is currently being digitally distributed via Valve's Steam service and U.S. retail publisher Cinemaware Marquee.
Now finishing up Defcon, a dark RTS-style title featuring a "War Games"-style vector map and the objective to nuke as many of your enemies as possible, alongside the cheery tagline 'Everybody dies', Introversion's Mark Morris sat down with Gamasutra to discuss Defcon, keeping the 'bedroom programmer' spirit alive in today's corporate game world, and a possible handheld console version of Darwinia.
Breaking into the U.S. retail market has been one of Introversion's biggest challenges. How has the Cinemaware Marquee deal worked out?
It's still early, but so far we've been really pleased with the response. Retail is a lot tougher than on-line distribution both in terms of royalty rates and the complexity of the deals, but that said, Cinemaware have demonstrated to us that the U.S. high-street does provide a sales channel of which we can take advantage.
How has taking the IGF prize affected the company?
Well, the cash certainly helped us bridge the gap to the Defcon launch, so in real terms it has meant that we've been able to put meals on the table for a little longer. More importantly, the interest in IV has increased, and major publishers now take us much more seriously. Before IGF we struggled to get a meeting with the 'tier one' publishers whereas now we are having serious discussions about a number of projects.
Have you heard from fellow developers, or especially any publishers you've talked to since, regarding your acceptance speech?
Haha, no, not really. A lot of very supportive e-mails after the event - mostly from developers, although it made me laugh when a fairly senior guy at one of the larger publishers did grab me that night and said he wanted a meeting the following day to discuss how they could f**k up our games!
You've said that with the library of code you've built it's content that's your current bottleneck. What's the balance you hope to strike from here on? Keep content low? Contract production help? Experiment with generative content a la Spore?
We are never going to be big enough to compete against someone like EA in terms of content. That said, it is important to get the balance right and there are certain types of game (like Darwinia) that need content to work properly. I think the future will probably be a balance of our own automated content generation systems together with occasional outsourced content generation. We'll look at each game and determine a strategy based on what's feasible (cash-wise) for Introversion at the time, and what works best for that game.
Are there formal plans to continue expansion of Introversion?
Depends on what you mean by "formal". We have recently expanded by a level - taking on Vic (Tom's sister) to handle our PR and Marketing and another one of the Imperial crowd - Johnny Knottenbelt - has joined the board to look after porting and further game development.
The way we are starting to look at it, Chris will be responsible for producing new games, whilst Johnny's team will then port that to the other operating systems and consoles as the deals come in. While we want to avoid the trap of producing endless sequels, there is often a lot of work that can be done to "perfect" a game (making Darwinia multiplayer, for instance) and the hope is for Johnny to handle that aspect whilst Chris is producing brand new titles.
In terms of expansion, we are looking at hiring developers into one or other of those two teams. As always, it's sales of the games that will determine whether or not we can afford to do that.
Have you undertaken any other formal strategies to stabilise the company and assure yourselves that you could make it through another Strategy First situation [the U.S. publisher's financial situation at one point meant that Introversion was not receiving royalties]? Has the company grown successful enough that it's less of a concern?
We have definitely moved in the right direction. We know a lot more about the publishing business and the potential traps and pitfalls. We have started to use a lawyer who specialises in interactive entertainment and he has given us a lot more confidence about the deals we are signing.
That said, growing a small business is a risky proposition. Often we don't have a lot of clout and so we take a calculated risk - most of the time it pays off, but occasionally you get bitten. The situation with Strategy First was unfortunate, but it pushed us in the direction of Valve and that has proved really positive.
Have you fully hammered out the publishing strategy with Defcon? Will it be similar to that of Darwinia?
We are still in the process of finalising exactly how we will push Defcon, but it wont be dis-similar to that of Darwinia. We recently announced our continued partnership with Valve, so you can expect Darwinia out on Steam and also via our own on-line download system at our official website.
Regarding the high-street, we are talking with various publishers and are trying to take a more global approach, rather than the piecemeal one-at-a-time strategy that we used for Darwinia and Uplink.
Have you started any work in full with consoles, and are there any particular challenges there versus your previously PC-only focus?
I'd love to see Introversion titles out on a console, and it is probably the biggest challenge facing Introversion at the moment. The recent introduction of systems like Live Arcade make this goal much more achievable than it was in the past.
Probably the biggest challenge stems from the quality control requirements - getting certification can be quite expensive and time consuming. This has not been something that we have been able to afford in the past (PC testing is generally done in house with about 100 Introversion fans), although it would be great to see a highly polished IV title.
Introversion's output thus far has, even on a basic interface level, been very PC-centric. How much of an undertaking is it to bring your titles to a console?
The most difficult part of game design is converting a vague concept into a tangible product. There was an enormous amount of experimentation required to get Darwinia right. Once you have achieved this mammoth task, you have a much stronger base from which you can start to think about work on other platforms.
We recently brainstormed a potential design for Darwinia on a handheld. Initially we saw this as a port from the PC version, but we changed our vision and started thinking about the advantages of being on a handheld. We came up with an awesome design, now we just have to find a publisher to go for it!
What's Introversion's take on the recent indie-gaming populist rise with Microsoft's XNA club announcement?
Microsoft are putting a lot of effort into supporting XBox development. It's great to see them investing in something like XNA club as a kind of incubator for new ideas. I think the terms prohibit commercal release of any titles, so I don't think it will generate that many new independent games, but I do think it'll provide a breeding ground for experimentation that can then be taken forward - that can only be a good thing.
Do you have any words of advice for a team hoping to break into the business? Warnings? Are there specific mistakes you've made along the way that you'd have done differently in retrospect?
Hmm, my advice for a new team would definitely be 'go for it.' Now more then ever the opportunity exists for indie developers. Any new team has to be very aware of the amount of effort required to run your own business, be prepared to give up your social life!
I think the makeup of the team has been crucial for Introversion's success. Right from the start we have had one game designer and two "biz" guys. This has avoided the clashes of ego that often occurs with highly creative people, and has enabled us to remain focused on survival whilst staying faithful to our mantra of creativity.
With regard to mistakes, I think we have always made the correct decision at the time (even with Strategy First). Perhaps we could have acquired more "expert" advice from the start, but part of the fun (and point) of being an entrepreneur is trying those crazy ideas that everyone says will fail.
Introversion is an experiment: can three guys set up a successful game development and publishing company with nothing more than £200 and an awful lot of time and energy? Every analyst in the business would tell you it's not possible - but here were are, five years old, stronger than ever.