The Little Guy

The Little Guy
Good For the Soul

Jim Rossignol | 9 May 2006 12:01
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Now, of course, Delay is well into a new game - DefCon - a thermonuclear wargame that should arrive in the next few weeks. "DefCon is going to be great," says Delay. "It's such a simple idea but we don't think it's been done well yet, and that's always a good sign."

But, once again, it's also a radically different idea. Just as Darwinia was a unique exploration of strategy, storytelling and iconic presentation, so DefCon is unlike most games out there: a modernized multiplayer missile-command, replete with an armory of hi-tech options. Introversion isn't attempting to follow any kind of predetermined template with their development, nor are they trying to play on any unique successes that they've made for themselves. Delay does not want to been seen as a one-trick pony.

"I guess that's the high-level aim for Introversion - we want to create new things and experiment with new ideas with every game we release, and we want people to follow Introversion because we're the only company willing to do that. We want to be absolutely fearless in pushing on to the next new idea, when all of our existing partners are offering us small fortunes to develop our old games into franchises. We really believe it's so easy to fall into that trap - something you make is successful, so you make a sequel, and then another, and after a while all you are doing is making sequels, and all your original ideas are shelved because they are (of course) much more risky than those safe franchises. But then, one day, your franchise falls out of fashion or runs head first into its own identical clone from someone else, the whole dev team goes down the toilet, and what do you have to show for it? A decade's work and half a dozen games - all the same. That's not for us."

Darwinia was certainly not "the same." It was a real-time strategy with an ecosystem of digital souls, viral enemies, an analogue of British inventor Clive Sinclair as guide, and lavish geometric-color-against-black presentation. The tiny lives of the Darwinians had to be managed and saved from oblivion, and their plight was resolved through gesture-based mouse controls. Weird and satisfying, Darwinia seems to have made a permanent mark on gaming history for this little game company. It's iconic, beautiful, clever and fun. Even against the best independent and commercial games, it stood like a beacon. There was no danger of the stark retro colors of the polygonal theme park being confused with anything else. Darwinia was unique. Which, of course, created a problem of its own: Who would buy this oddity?

PC gamers aren't renowned for their capacity to seize the unusual. Worse still, this was not going to be a project that was written off as another loss by a big company. It was the entirety of what Delay and friends were doing. Being self-employed is akin to a nightmare, so was it really all worth it for Delay, Morris and Arundel? Hadn't they considered going and getting a well-paid job at an EA studio?

"It's been extremely difficult, and no, I've never thought about giving up and going to EA. I've worked in the real games industry for a year and a half at two different companies, and that was enough for me to know that I never want to go back. I have quite strong game ideas floating around inside my head that I really want to make, and the games industry is the hardest place of all for me to do that. At least if I had another type of day job, I could work on these game ideas during evenings and weekends, but in the games industry I can't even rely on that. Working on movie-licensed platform games really does take away any desire to do anything other than cry in your spare time."

Just when it looked like Darwinia's poor sales might mean tears before bedtime for the Introversion team, the last few months have seen things start to go their way. The IGF awards have been coupled with greater commercial successes. Valve's online content delivery system, Steam, has adopted Darwinia and doubled the tiny company's sales in just two weeks (and Darwinia posters on the walls of the Valve offices demonstrate who is the fan of whom in that particular relationship). "Steam has been awesome for us," reports Delay. "It's really given Darwinia the sales boost we never managed ourselves."

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