Surprising English poet William Blake probably wasn’t talking about developing videogames when he said, “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s,” but his point still stands firm. If you’re going to create something, rather than simply manufacture it, you have to decide how much of it you want to belong to you, and how much you are willing to give way to the aspirations and demands of others. Are you simply willing to craft something for someone else? Or is your act of creation going to belong wholly to some personal, private ambition? Most game developers have to make a decision along these lines, and, for the most part, whatever road they choose will end up being pretty rocky. But the hardest and most obscure route is that of the genuinely independent developer – one that controls all aspects of the games they produce. Such a situation is rare, and one of few the companies that walk that path is the British development house Introversion Software.
“We didn’t take any money from publishers because we didn’t want any publishers f—ing up our game.” These fighting words from Introversion’s acceptance speech (uttered by Mark Morris) at this year’s Independent Games Festival drew a roar of agreement from the audience. Anyone who has ever railed against the corporate homogeneity of the mainstream games industry couldn’t help but feel a twinge of vicarious pleasure on the team’s behalf. It was a moment of victory in a struggle against considerable odds – a struggle for independent success in the games industry. Introversion had done well, and received due credit from their peers, receiving the top prize at the indie games awards ceremony. Their strange strategy-combat dreamscape title, Darwinia, had captured imaginations, and was unlike anything the corporate game studios had attempted in 2005.
But Morris’ war-cry speech would not have been possible without the sheer determination of the small British team, and the talents of their lead designer, Chris Delay. Delay is, like so many programmers, partially self-taught. He started making games in his bedroom; something that happened a lot in the 1980s, and has become a near-impossibility in the corporately dominated environments of 21st century games. It’s Delay’s desire to create his own games (and be “The Last of the Bedroom Programmers”) that has found a mature form with the creation of his company, Introversion Software.
It began with the home computers of the 8-bit era. As Delay recalls, “The Spectrum came with a programmer’s manual – a sort of quick-start guide to BASIC. I didn’t even look at this for the first year, but it did make me curious. At first, I started typing in programs direct from the manual, but after a while I started to experiment. Spectrum BASIC was really where my interest in programming started, and it matched my love of games perfectly. It sounds crazy, but by the time I moved on from the Spectrum, I’d written a complete game (based on Garfield), and made the packaging for it and everything. It had a title screen, a few levels, a hi-score table – the works. Of course, I was about 13 at this time, so it was never published.”
Later on in life, Delay’s talents found new purpose in the understanding of friends. A few of his peers saw that Delay’s homemade hacker-game, Uplink, was potentially more than just a private exercise in programming creativity. Chris Delay, Mark Morris and Thomas Arundel met for the first time at Imperial College in London, U.K., in October 1997, and by the end of their degree courses in 2001, the team had completed Uplink together. A clever take on the idea of hacking as a game, Uplink was finished, packaged, sent to magazines, and given a website (and they even sold a few copies). This bedroom-programmed videogame was well received by the gaming press, and its accomplishments signaled the beginnings of Introversion as an evolving company.
“After Uplink‘s launch, we really didn’t know if we wanted to form a game company or not,” Delay explains. “I can distinctly remember coming back from our first (and only) trip to E3 feeling incredibly demoralized – why on Earth would we want anything to do with this industry? For a while, we planned to put Introversion on indefinite hold until we had another game to sell, and go back to doing real jobs. But something made us stick together and push on until Darwinia was finished, and I’m glad we made that decision. But if we’d known in advance how long and hard Darwinia was going to be, we probably would never have started. We went without money for over a year, wracking up huge personal debts to banks and parents, and no sensible person would willingly put themselves through that.”
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.”
Moreover, Steam represents a niche for which developers who want to follow Introversion’s independent trajectory can aim. “Something interesting is happening with online digital distribution,” says Delay. “Specifically regarding Steam and Xbox Live Arcade – we now have two distribution channels that offer excellent royalty rates direct to the developer along with high numbers of potential sales, with none of the problems of retail store releases. Both of those channels are open to indie games made by small bedroom teams, without a publisher or retailer in sight. To my knowledge, this is the first time this has ever happened, and it’s very exciting to be part of it.”
Very exciting, but also fairly profitable for a developer who has, so far, avoided taking any of that tainted publisher cash. Could it be that Delay and friends are just trying to make a buck, after all? Is Introversion doing this all for love, or for the almighty dollar? “We’re, of course, working for love,” says Delay. “But money is nice, too. For a while, we worked for love only and no money on Darwinia, and it was a very difficult and painful experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat. Furthermore, we’d never have finished Darwinia or started on DefCon if we hadn’t made some money to keep going. I guess you could say we work for love and money, and most companies just work for money.”
That’s the core difference between what independents like Introversion are doing, and what it means to be a small cog in a large company. Even the bosses of those big companies are directed and manipulated by forces that will never be under their control. As I was putting this article together, I took a trip to see some other game industry folks who are following their dream and stepping outside the accepted way of doing things. One of these people (who shall remain nameless, since this article is not really concerned with his story) was once one such boss of a very large company. As he drove me back to the train station, he admitted how relieved he was to finally be doing something other than simply aiming to make money. He shuddered at the memory of over-marketed franchise-farces of old. “At last,” he smiled. “It feels like I’m doing something that’s actually good for the soul.”
In Introversion’s case, what’s important is they keep a light on for those people who do want to take another path. Who do want to make it on a shoestring, and to make it their own.
Introversion may not win the war, but their battles have been joyous, even righteous. They are making what they want to make, and at the same time remaining independent. They’re creating their own system. That’s definitely worth fighting for, and it’s definitely good for the soul.
Jim Rossignol is a writer and editor based in the South West of England. He writes about videogames, fiction and science.