A year before the launch of their second game, the founders of the small independent game developer Introversion ran out of money. Their first title, the hacker simulation Uplink, had surprised them by selling quite a lot, mostly on the strength of rave reviews and thunderous word-of-mouth across internet forums. The success convinced Introversion’s team of self-styled “bedroom coders” to approach their game-making as a career rather than a part-time hobby. But after spending two years working on Uplink‘s follow-up without knowing when a final product would actually be delivered, a member of the team says he started to question the whole project.
“At that time, there were a lot of sort of personal choices involved in Introversion,” says Chris Delay, the British developer’s Creative Director, “because in order to survive we all had to start taking out bank loans and stuff, borrowing money from parents and things. And it was a feeling that to get through, each person kind of had to decide for themselves whether they really wanted to do that. … That was definitely a time when I thought that it was a lot harder than it should have been. I was kind of thinking, ‘What exactly are we doing here, spending three years developing a game without any money?'”
Sales of the game, Darwinia, went on to rescue Introversion from financial ruin, largely thanks to its release through Valve’s popular download service, Steam. But the graveyard of the videogame industry is littered with the corpses of starry-eyed developers who weren’t as lucky. Impressing critics, building up a loyal cult following and staying true to your artistic vision are sadly often the signs of a failed company in an industry where licensed properties and repetitive sequels still dominate. So, why do people continue to make these cult games if they know there are greener pastures out there?
“I really don’t want to be a snob about it, but I don’t really care if my game’s popular with a lot of people,” says Tarn Adams, half of the American team behind the fantasy-world simulator Dwarf Fortress. The ambitious project uses circa-1981 graphics to let players shape the lives of a colony of dwarves. Critics have fawned over the game’s detailed AI that makes each dwarf behave with a startlingly deep sense of individuality and personality.
Adams knows Dwarf Fortress‘ old-school graphics and text-based user interface turn off many people, but he’s just not that interested in appeasing them. “I don’t have a shiny game,” he says. “It’s very difficult for people to get into that. I have the perspective of being a veteran gamer and starting around the mid-’80s, so I don’t care about graphics at all. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I could play anything. It doesn’t matter.”
Adams and his brother, Zach, have been making videogames together since they were kids, releasing their first publicly available game in high school through America Online. Throughout college and graduate school, Adams continued to make games while working toward a Ph D in mathematics, releasing some through his website, Bay 12 Games. He recently gave up a teaching job at Texas A&M to pursue game development full-time
Dwarf Fortress is available for free download, with a PayPal donation link on his website serving as Adams’ primary means of income. Before Dwarf Fortress, the offerings merely covered his website’s monthly $20 hosting costs. Now, monthly donations sometimes reach four figures. “I’m just kind of hanging on by the skin of my teeth,” Adams says. “Barely in the black one month, a little in the red another month. … It’s a risk I’m willing to take, and really I couldn’t have it any other way.”
Thanks to a long career as a successful comic illustrator and writer in Belgium, Benoit Sokal isn’t in the same financial situation as Delay and Adams, but in his second career as a videogame designer, he shares their dedication to artistry and creativity. “Money is probably the worst ‘fuel’ for an author,” Sokal says in an email interview, adding that he knows he could be making more money as an “image mercenary” illustrating for other companies.
Working in the oft-maligned adventure genre, Sokal’s games have a cult following. Fans and genre-friendly critics praised his Syberia games in particular for their beautiful pre-rendered graphics and emotionally involving story. Outside of Europe, however, Sokal’s games are little known.
Antagonistic reviewers make it hard for Sokal’s games to break through to the mainstream from the adventure niche. “Gaming media is very often made by ‘core gamers,'” Sokal says. “They like games that are far from the one I am doing. So, this created conflict situations many times, with reviewers that are just completely upset with what they see as not being a ‘real’ game. Frankly, I have learned lessons from the past and am avoiding some gaming media now.”
Delay and Adams, on the other hand, have had important support for their games from some journalists and reviewers. Having had no budget for publicity or advertising, Delay credits British writer Kieron Gillen‘s reviews of Uplink and Darwinia in the U.K.’s PC Gamer magazine with attracting many of Introversion’s most loyal fans. Games for Windows recently featured Dwarf Fortress in a three-page spread, and Gillen also wrote about it for PC Gamer, calling it an “instant indie classic.”
Adams says he’s very appreciative of the support from journalists, reviewers and bloggers who try to spread the word about his game. “You work your ass off for a bunch of years and people say, ‘Hey, this is really original, really neat, really deep, got a lot of things going on and I like where this guy’s going. And hey, that’s cool.”
For Introversion, Delay says the good reviews are nice, but mainstream success has never been a goal. “We all have our secret desire to drive Ferraris and be mega-rich, but it was never the primary aim of the company,” he says. “And there are certainly things that we could have done differently to increase our chances of driving Ferraris and so on that we haven’t done because the primary aim of the company is really to make new games.”
Delay says he enjoys interacting with fans and getting their feedback, something he doesn’t think a bigger developer would have the same chance to do. In 2006, for the launch of their third title, the nuclear-war strategy game Defcon, Introversion threw a party at an old civil service building in London. Currently a war museum, the building had served as a bunker for British heads of state during World War II. Delay and other Introversion staff came dressed in military uniforms, and to his surprise, many Introversion fans arrived in soldier attire, as well.
“I like the fact that there’s a fan base that aren’t necessarily into Uplink or Darwinia, but they’re just into Introversion games. So each time we release a game, they’ll give it just as much time as they would any other game.”
In his next project, codenamed “Birdy,” Sokal is branching out into an action-adventure, 3-D game for the PlayStation 3, but he says good storytelling remains his primary focus. “An author is always willing to have success. The kind of romantic appeal for ‘misunderstood creation’ has never been mine. But I am also 100 percent sure that you cannot build success. It happens if you are sincere or it doesn’t. … I don’t want to think with ‘mainstream appeal’ in mind, otherwise I may just ruin the project.
“I would be very happy if one of my games entered into the top 50 as long as I created it with the idea of building something I could be proud of.”
With Dwarf Fortress, Adams says he likes being paid by donation because it tells him that people truly enjoy his game. Otherwise, they just wouldn’t pay. Players often send him emails or forum posts, too, with stories they’ve written about the events that happen in the game. “It’s really gratifying,” he says, “because it’s one of the things we set out to do is to get people to write these narratives about their game.”
Adams admits to ignoring most of the games released in the last 10 years, explaining that the underlying mechanics just don’t interest him. He is content to concentrate on producing the kind of projects he wants to create, rather than working within the game industry system where he says designers seem constrained by bureaucracy.
“From what I’ve seen from the transcripts from these conferences and stuff, [mainstream developers] really are trying to do all kinds of interesting things, but their most important thing always has to come back to the money. … It’s kind of depressing. I’m not going to sit here and toot my horn, but as far as design is concerned, I just think that I’ve happened to fall into a little sweet spot where I get a lot of freedom, but I guess the cost is my livelihood.”
It may be a trade-off, but these three cult developers have decided the ability to make games on their own terms is worth the risk.
Chris LaVigne is a Canadian freelance writer with a passion for indie games and Slurpees.