One of the PC's finest features is its ability to allow small, eccentric development teams to create great games without constraints. The spirit of the bedroom programmers of the '80s is just about living on PCs across the world. One such home-grown PC team are the British IGF winners, Introversion, who have been something of an inspiration in their attitude towards game development: the kinds of games they have decided to develop appeal to something basic about gaming. It's not a Retro appeal, so much as timeless. Uplink, Darwinia and DefCon each have their own encapsulated, deliberately self-contained idea, and each sits just outside the commercial comfort zones. These titles do what indie games do best: surprise, entertain, and challenge.
So how does Introversion's central programmer, the superbly-named Chris Delay, feel about independent game development in 2007? “Alive and well! PCs are still the best place to play genuinely indie games made by very small teams. It's worth keeping up with events like the IGF - a lot of teams that do well show up later as serious game developers. I think people's interest in indie gaming has been slowly rising and this is definitely a good thing.”
Introversion came away from the IGF as stars, but are now somewhat distancing themselves from their indie roots, with increased commercial success thanks to their exposure on Valve's Steam sales platform: “We're big fans,” says Delay. “Of course we'd say that, since all three of our games are now available to buy on Steam. But it's such a convenient system. I recently reached the end of my patience with Vista and wiped the hard disk, and installed XP from scratch. After installing Steam I had easy access to the latest versions of every game I'd bought over the system. From a company point of view Valve offer a direct link to a huge number of customers who might otherwise never have heard of our games. Certainly with Darwinia, Steam was kind of a saviour for us and sold Darwinia in quantities we'd never seen before. With Defcon (and all of our future games, we hope) we released the game on Steam and on our website and in the high street simultaneously. We've found that players like the choice – some people want the convenience of Steam, some people want it direct from the creators and not tied to any system, and some people like to walk into town to buy.”
And some of us just want to get rid of the towers of CDs and DVD boxes that currently dominate our tiny box-room offices...
Read on for thoughts on Multiwinia, Subversion, and the future of Introversion.
Introversion have talked on a number of occasions about what they've learned in their rapid progression from Uplink, the simple, quirky hacking game, to the Tron-alike action-strategy of Darwinia, but now they've moved on to multiplayer, with the thermonuclear Wargames homage DefCon, and a multiplayer sequel to Darwinia, Multiwinia. What is Delay learning now? “Darwinia was a big creative learning experience for us, but for Defcon it was much more about the technical challenges,” Delay explains. “The basic game of Defcon was set in stone very early on (it's a simpler game than Darwinia) and most of the challenge with Defcon revolved around solid Internet multiplayer.” What players have talked about with the most enthusiasm is the clarity and balance that DefCon offers. The shooting death-count, the rising tension: it's classic multiplayer, without being anything like any mainstream multiplayer game out there.
Of course, it was new to Introversion too. “We'd never done anything multiplayer before, so we had to create all of the game logic, network code, and all the server infrastructure stuff from scratch. The benefit of this kind of progress is that Introversion is growing with every game - releasing Multiwinia is now a lot easier than it would have been, because we've tons of experience in making multiplayer work reliably now. Each game we make we learn a little bit more, and develop a little bit more technology that we can use on the next game.”
So what can Delay tell us about the next games? “We're actually working on two projects right now,” says Delay. “Multiwinia and Subversion. Multiwinia will be coming out next - it's the most finished of the two. We've taken the world of Darwinia and ripped the play mechanics apart, and crafted a multiplayer game of massive Darwinian armies and carnage on a vast scale. It's been a real challenge to find ways to make Darwinia work in a multiplayer context, most of its original mechanics work well in single player only. Multiwinia feels a lot like finishing the game we wanted to make first time around - we always planned multiplayer for Darwinia, but never had the time to make it.”
The other project has already caused a bit of a stir, without really being announced in any way. This video seemed to carry the trademark Introversion retro-look, but their purpose was unclear. Just what are Introversion making in there? “Subversion is a longer term project,” explains Delay, without giving too much away. “It's still in an experimental prototype phase and a long way away from release. We've been writing fairly regular blog entries about its development. The game was originally intended to be our second - it was conceived towards the end of Uplink, but ultimately put on hold while we worked on Darwinia, and then Defcon. At this stage in development it really could go anywhere – I'm particularly enjoying having the freedom to try things and experiment, without the fear of bankrupting our company (as we nearly did with Darwinia). Working on a couple of games at once definitely has this big advantage - the whole company isn't waiting for me to finish Subversion in a hurry, so I can take my time.”
What has excited fans, however, is the kind of techniques Delay has been talking up for the creation of the game – the same ones that generated that video. “We're doing a great deal of research into procedural content generation - it's one of the core technical features we're developing for the game. It's basically the process of generating game assets using algorithms, rather than by direct creation. So instead of modelling a landscape in 3D studio, we might generate the landscape using some fairly simple mathematics that approximate the behaviour of real landscapes. The big advantage of this method is you can generate as much or as little content as you need, without needing an extensive team of artists and modellers (which we don't have). And virtually anything can be approximated and generated by algorithm - landscapes, cities, buildings, trees, and much more. It also means that every player will have their own game world which is simultaneously massive and unique to them. From a gameplay point of view it means we can craft a world that is much larger and more detailed than a player would normally expect. You still need the hand-made content for the core of the game (eg the main storyline, or the primary locations) but you can use procedural content to fill in the blanks that make up the other 80% of the world.”
For now at least we'll have to wait and see quiet what Subversion is. But as the game following Uplink, massive worlds, buildings, office environments, and landscapes might just give us a clue. SimCity meets a hacking game meets Tron-cyber ecology, perhaps? Delay isn't saying.
And so what does 2008 hold for Introversion? “Well, Multiwinia of course. We're hoping for a May/June 2008 launch. We're about to start showing the game to small groups of people for usability testing (making sure the interface doesn't suck Basically - ensuring we don't make the mistakes we made with Darwinia) and after that we'll be in a closed beta. It's very important to us to make our games more accesable in future – Uplink was quirky and buggy, but Darwinia was almost deliberately confusing, and we put a lot of players off right away with bad interface design. Defcon was the first game we did actual usability testing on, and we think it made a big difference to the accessability of the game. We're determined to get it right with Multiwinia.”
“We've been fairly quiet about Multiwinia so far (as is normal for Introversion - we like the game to be mostly done before pushing it) but during early 2008 we'll start showing the game to the public so gamers can see what we've been working on. It might not be what people are expecting - we've got a few cool surprises up our sleeves.”
Finally, with all the apparent success - are Introversion still "indie"? "As early as the IGF in 2006, we heard people saying (quite loudly in some cases) that Introversion did not quality as indie and shouldn't have entered their game Darwinia. Nobody ever managed to explain to me how finishing a game and then releasing it over Steam somehow stripped the game of its indie status."
"It's fair to say that we've moved on from the totally indie days - we've a staff of nine full-timers now, three games released and two more in development. Each game we release grows the company a little more, and it's no longer sufficient for us to just do the next game - we have to aim higher each time, achieve something new that would have been impossible in the previous game. We're certainly not a massive commercial success but Introversion has kept us all employed and put a few quid in the bank for us. All those things combined probably rule us out from being indie in most people's eyes, which is fair enough I think."
"Of course, nobody has defined what indie means anyway, so who knows. The slightly subtler yet more important and difficult to answer question is: Do you think you've lost anything along the way?"