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RPS Interview: Introversion's Chris & Mark

While at GDC '08 I met up with Mark Morris and Chris Delay from Introversion. We talked about their forthcoming games, Multiwinia, Subversion, the state of the industry, and their aspirations towards being indie publishers.

RPS: Busy year?

Chris: Yes, lots of projects, lots of stuff. Multiwinia is the big one, with Subversion being the longer one. Multiwinia is really good, really there. Well, Mark says it's not there, he keeps saying “Chris, you still have to finish it,” but it is actually there and it's great fun to play and watch the anarchy unfold. So much stuff going on on the screen, many things collide and explode.

RPS: What's the first hour of Multiwinia going to be like?

Chris: Well, it's probably going to be like playing Defcon. Your first experience was a slightly nervous game against the computer... and you probably lost. It's going to be similar here, it's going to be an initial battle against a computer opponent, or maybe even another player. You'll lose, but we wanted to make that fun. Knowing why you lost is a big part of that, but also allowing the player to really grasp the controls quickly. We've been working towards a more user-friendly interface. With Darwinia it wasn't particularly friendly, especially at the very beginning, and that's something we want to solve for Multiwinia. Have solved.

RPS: Accessibility seems to be this year's key theme in PC gaming.

Chris: I think this is partly down to Valve producing a bunch of games that are really accessible. You can't look at those games and say, “Yes, but you've dumbed it down or reduced the complexity,” it's just that they've made it easy to get into. Team Fortress and Portal, in terms of accessibility, are right there. And it's aspirational for me, I can't help but think, “Multiwinia can be that easy to get into”, it just requires the talent to make it like that.

RPS: Okay, I've had enough, what's going on with Subversion? Tell me about it.

Chris: We genuinely don't know what's going on, it's true. Not everyone believes that, but it's true.

RPS: Well something is going on, we've all seen those lovely cityscape screenshots!

Chris: We're experimenting pretty heavily at the moment with procedural generation. We're generating huge amounts of content using algorithms, and you can make vast amounts of material using this method. It can fill in a world, create the backdrop. The case with most games now is that you'll work on a specific storyline, and that's all you can play. You face the Fable effect: try to go off the path and you run into a wall. I don't think it needs to be like that. You can expand outwards using procedural generation. That's what we're looking at. We're working on creating cities, big ten kilometre city blocks. Our original aim was to go from a satellite view, right down to a pen on the table in an office, and everything in between.

RPS: Wasn't that Republic's claim five or six years ago?

Chris: Yeah, they were banging on about that with their million polygon engine thing. But they were never doing procedural generation. What they said they were doing was creating an engine that could create any number of polygons. The idea being they could create a street in infinite detail. It was more of a tool to allow artists to make whatever they wanted. And I think they turned most of that stuff off in the game. I played Republic and I never got it to zoom in and out like that. You were always looking down at something – it's one solution to the problem of having so many polygons – lock that camera downwards.

RPS: So Subversion is just an experiment? For how long?

Chris: As long as Mark will give me.

Mark: There's a lot of stuff to be done about working out the world. We need to understand exactly where we are. We don't know what's possible with this yet. How far down can we go? I don't think Chris will be able to generate pens on desks (and I'll be amazed if he does) and I think we'll hit a middle level. There won't be a time limit for this, instead Chris will keep working and creating detail until he can put missions or a story in, then the rest of the team will be able to follow the template and start putting in content and content generation systems of their own. The game will just evolve. If there was a definite time limit then we wouldn't be Introversion... Chris, I want it by August.

Chris: This thing of being free to explore is a big deal for us. To have the time that we need is very important. Everyone says that we spent too long on Darwinia, but I don't think it really hurt us. It would have been far worse if it had been a turd game that we pushed out because we were running out of money. That would have hurt us far more. I'm not saying Subversion will go like, I do have a direction for it, but I can't really say so because I've got a strong sense of how much it is likely to change.

RPS: No promises.

Chris: Exactly, we'd hate to be in that situation where designers make promises and talk about things that fans end up looking forward to, without being able to deliver. That won't happen to us if we don't talk about them, because no one will know about them to miss them.

RPS: How useful has GDC and the Indie Game Summit been for you?

Mark: Amazingly useful. We had no plans. I was looking forward to a really relaxed GDC, then from about the beginning of last week we got booked up. It's now nine to five each and every day. We know everyone is going to be here, existing partners, previous partners, and so on. We're also going to get bigger in the next year and we get the opportunity to go and sit and talk to people who have already been through that sort of growth.

RPS: So what else has been inspiring you at the moment? The Indie scene at GDC is pretty wondrous.

Chris: It is, isn't it? It's amazing to see what people have come up with. In the last year though I think Valve have been the big inspiration, and it is down to this accessibility thing. They nailed that with the Orange Box. It was exactly right.

RPS: And is Steamworks of interest to you?

Chris: Not quite yet. It's interesting. We've been developing our auto-patcher for a while, and then suddenly one pops out for free. But going back, games aren't always the big inspiration for me. I get much more inspired by movies. Inspiration isn't much like saying, “I saw this, and I'd like to do that,” it's more of the sense of something that you get a bit of creative energy from. The games we've made have all been directly movie inspired, but it depends on the game. With Multiwinia we tried to give it a bit of polish that Darwinia didn't have.

Mark: But that was forced on us, I think.

Chris: With Darwinia?

Mark: Yes, we made some mistakes because we were learning. The increase in production value you'll see is a measure of our being six years older. Chris isn't having to worry about rendering windows or whatever, because that code is written and we know it works. We get to spend more time on just making everything work better. We're also working with, “an unannounced platform holder,” and their certification process forces the bar upwards. We're not able to release anything unfinished just because of that.

Chris: Mass Effect is interesting, because it's an example of a game that is so polished in so many areas, and yet it's still really naff looking. And I played a lot of that. Thirteen hours to get to the sex, and then it lasts for one minute.

Mark: A bit like real life, eh?

RPS: Ha. So, the future: where now for Introversion?

Mark: Well for the next two years there's a massive effort to getting two games out. That's huge for us: working on two games at the same time and getting them out of the door is a major thing.

RPS: And you have to expand to do it.

Mark: Yeah, I think we want to. Until we get bigger we're always on the verge of another Darwinia, we're always under threat of having to pack up and go home. And as we get older we're always going to need higher salaries. We need to move in a direction that is more stable, so I think we have to grow. We'd like to reach out into the Asian market, we can finally handle different languages now, which is really useful. And we need to think about more games, maybe not developing five or six games at once, but a publishing wing could be very useful. Right now half the staff are publishing staff, and half are development. There are long periods of time when the publishing staff are sat not doing anything. That's not good, because people will just go and find a job that is more fulfilling. There are games out there that we could have taken and published, and used out contacts and our expertise to bring them to marketplace, and probably make more money for the guys than they would have done otherwise.

Chris: One of the problems we've always had is with remaking what we've already done. Lots of people, including Mark, asked us to remake Uplink, and people wanted more Darwinia, which we're kind of doing, but not doing. Multiwinia is quite different. We're not too keen on this because you can't make that many games. The loophole for us is that we can take our games and release them on every platform under the sun. They start out as a little PC release and then go wider. It's a way to monetize what we've done that isn't just cranking out the same game again and again.

Mark: We're trying to come round to a view of Chris as a creative director. He was the programmer, web designer, graphic designer, ideas man, but there comes a time when he's just wasting his time doing handle-cranking work. We need to be able to plug someone into that. We want to see Chris jump on to a project, work for a year or so, and then he can move on to something else. The project runs on and the rest of the company worries about that.

RPS: And that means recruitment?

Mark: We need a programmer, right now. We'll be working on that when we get back from GDC.

Chris: It's new territory for us, recruitment like this, because we've always hired directly from the community.

RPS: Funny, Splash Damage said the same thing about their recruitment when I spoke to them earlier. They can't just hire from the mod community anymore. Tricky in the UK... how do you guys feel about the UK development community?

Mark: There's always going to be talented people in the UK who want to work in games. That's probably enough for us. Even if we were the last games company standing, we could keep doing what we've been doing.

Chris: In the post-apocalyptic ruins of England, we keep on making the games...

Mark: Pulling a Redbull from the debris... I'd love to see a flourishing games industry in the UK because I'd love to see there being UK culture games. It's patriotism.

Chris: There's a lot of talent in the UK that has been sucked into companies that are essentially cutting them off and not using that talent. “No, no, you can't do that!” “Too weird.” “You can do that, not that.”

RPS: Does the game industry need talent from the outside? Movie directors and so on?

Chris: Well the industry is fixated on hiring from within. It's true that games thematically tend to fall into the “Warcraft or Starcraft” split, there's loads of stuff outside that of course, but loads of stuff falls into these categories. I don't see a problem with people coming in and shaking this up. That said, I think videogame development is quite a unique trait. It's quite an odd world, it's a hybrid of different interests and talents. It's as challenging as any piece of modern media production. The number of cross-disciplines is huge. I can't believe that only people who are into videogames want to do this. Mark, what do you think?

Mark: It does come down to the expense. It's so hard to get the quirky stuff through, there's no channel. There's no independent cinema. There's no vehicle. People can go to the indy cinema and go and see a Czech film and say, “I'm ready, let's go see some art,” and then decide it was arse. You don't have that for games.

RPS: Not even Live Arcade or PSN?

Mark: Maybe but they're not sold well. There's no channel for “weird offbeat stuff”, nothing collects and sells that. Live games aren't doing well. They're up there for a week and then disappear into the list. Valve might help, I suppose. But it's risky. The larger quirky projects are such a big risk, and that why you can't hire people from outside games. If you've already got a risky games you're not going to be able to hire a watercolour genius to learn Maya and make some games stuff.

RPS: Is there an “Introversion business model” for game development?

Mark: Well funnily enough I was reading Game Developer and there was an article on business models so I thought I'd have a look and see if the Introversion model was in there. To my delight, it was. It wasn't called “The Introversion Model”, which was a shame, but it was right in there. “Get a group of people together and publish it yourself.” It said, quite rightly, that 99% of people who try this will fail. I think we could write the book on it, but that's a big step from actually being able to implement it. We keep meeting a pair of guys who have made a game, and they say, “what should we do?” and I always say: “Go to the business school, find a guy who understands games, give him a third of your company, and start.” If you don't have that business mindset I think you're doomed to failure. How many guys go and find the business bloke? Almost none. And they do fail.

Chris: We had riotous arguments at the start about who owned Introversion and where all the effort went. It's very difficult when starting out to understand why a game shouldn't be all yours, but look at Valve, there are a lot of very smart business guys in there.

RPS: But, like you, Valve seem to be a singularity. They were a bunch of rich, smart guys who came together at the right time.

Chris: And singularities are now how it happens. Look at the Media Molecule guys doing LittleBigPlanet. His first game was like ours, very indie, very weird, and now he's gone massive. I think it's like that: each of these groups is a little bubble and it works inside that bubble, but it doesn't copy, doesn't clone.

Mark: And you can liken it to general entrepreneurship in the real world. You need a strong idea and a great team. There are loads of ideas out there that aren't being realised, despite all of the help, all of the suggestions. It's a shame when you see people with great ideas making fucking school-boy errors, it really annoys me. We saw a game recently that looked great and was great fun, oozing with fun. Great artwork. I said to them, “I'm going to have a meeting with my account manager in a week or two, give me the game and I'll get them to look at it.” And they sent me copy after copy to me, and they didn't work. It was basic. That was their big chance, and they blew it.

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Jim Rossignol