Introversion's Mark Morris
The indie studio boss on the importance of Steam, and why the company nearly failed
In the past few years one name in particular has been synonymous with the UK's indie scene - Introversion - with a string of original titles, including Defcon and Darwinia.
At this year's Develop conference we caught up with MD Mark Morris to find out how things had been going in the past year, only to discover that the answer was somewhat unexpected.
Q: How has the past 12 months been for Introversion?
Mark Morris: It's been quite a difficult year, actually. We launched Darwinia+ in February and we had really high hopes for that, while we were - in crude terms - right at the end of our money, we were really running out.
We found out two days before Christmas Eve that we'd passed certification, so that was nice - it was a happy Christmas, as it could have gone the other way - then we had a break. After that we went into the crazy marketing push for the launch.
Now, we haven't been particularly vocal about this, but Darwinia+ didn't sell enough - we just couldn't carry on trading in the same form that we were in before. I think it probably took us about three or four weeks to accept that, because you just don't want to. And it looked at one point as if we were going to be close to achieving what we wanted to.
So the first thing we had to go was get rid of the staff, which was a sad thing. I'd never done that before in my career - it was hard, because they'd all been working hard on the product. We didn't put in too much crunch, but after working so hard to basically say "Thanks for all your hard efforts, by the way now you're out..."
It's part of working in the games industry, but it's never nice - and we shut down the office as well, and kind of crawled back into the core Introversion team of just myself, Chris, Tom and Johnny... the original four directors, back in our bedrooms again.
Once the dust has settled, that was actually quite a good place to find ourselves, because the burn rate had gone through the floor and working and managing are two very different jobs - while we're quite good as a management team, implementation is what we're best at - we started working very efficiently again.
We were looking at trying to create Steam achievements for Defcon - because we wanted to get Valve to run a Defcon promotion, as a good way of generation some revenue, but also because we were a little bit done with Darwinia and we were looking for a new push.
At the same time we were also hoping we could do something with Microsoft to see if maybe the poor sales for Darwinia+ were down to the price point - because it was expensive, 1200 points, for quite a strange game. We thought if we could get down to maybe 400 or 800, we might pick up more people.
So we integrated the achievements, took it to Steam and asked if we could use it as a promotion - and they did the Valve thing of not responding.
Q: It's not an uncommon problem.
Mark Morris: The way you work with Valve is that you fire things at them, and when you get a response you know they've bitten. They don't tend to discuss with you... They do say yes if it works for them, but actually everything we do with Valve seems to work out quite well - so we're happy.
Anyway, we ended up about six weeks ago with Darwinia+ as Deal of the Week, in with five other games at 800 points. The needle moved, but not much. It was interesting as well, because we were around sixth or seventh in their download chart, so comparing the numbers we were seeing at our end... it was interesting, it makes me think that maybe there's a very sharp drop from between the top two and the rest.
Q: Sounds a bit like the core games market at the end of 2008.
Mark Morris: I found that interesting - people who are looking at that from the outside world would have thought that Introversion was doing okay. But if they'd correlated that with the leaderboard score, they'd see it's not a lot to be seventh on the platform.
But the Valve sale - it was just phenomenal. A couple of statistics that I'm sure Valve won't mind me sharing: We've now sold more than $2.5 million through Steam, which is pretty good for Introversion, through life. Not all of that comes back to us, because sometimes it's been in bundle packs, and we've gotten less. But basically it equates to almost bang on £1 million, so we're really pleased.
The sale did in the ball park of $250,000 - so when you're back to being a team of four people, that's a lot of revenue.
Q: It's a lifeline.
Mark Morris: Yes, it is - for the first time in a long time we've got a cash flow that extends out for two years at our size, which is nice. We've got two projects on the go at the moment - Subversion, which we're talking a lot about at the moment. It's new IP, very interesting stuff, but still not fully worked out in terms of which way the game will go... even on a daily basis Chris decides more about what the game is going to look like, but we're still not quite at the point where we can put together a production plan and say "It's coming out in two years".
We've also been working with Sony on Defcon PSN - given our Darwinia+ experience we're a little bit less to just jump in bed with Sony if we can't find someone to share the development risk there. My original thinking was that the consoles open up and pour more sales into your existing market - but that just wasn't true with Darwinia+, it was such a tiny movement in scheme of things.
I know that Sony is a different platform, Defcon is a different game and the price points are different - so I am confident. But at the same time...
Q: I guess of you look at the other kinds of games that are on there, they're a little bit different - PJ Shooter, Flower - they seem to be quite successful there. XBLA seems to favour slightly more traditional games, if you're being general about it.
Mark Morris: And the original Darwinia was such a different product for its time, back in 2004-5 - it could be the case that it's just too old. We got a lot of love I think because we were the only indie studio that was putting out big triple-I titles - that's why we wont he awards and got so much attention.
But if you look at where we are now, with things like World of Goo, Braid, Trials, Joe Danger - they're similar-sized games to Darwinia, but they have higher production values and are more accessible.
We set up Introversion primarily to work on new games, and I wanted to take the studio in a direction where we were able to put these games out on different platforms - but our first attempt at that hasn't really worked. So going forward I think it's more important for us to make Subversion and put a new game out there for people to play - another 80-90-plus Metacritic game, so people can see we haven't lost our touch.
That's more important to me than expanding is now, and working with Sony - but at the same time, if we can find funding for it, because I think Defcon PSN is a good bet, then I want to do it. I'd quite like to see Subversion on PS3, or maybe XBLA, who knows? Once it's a little more concrete, maybe it's an avenue we can go down.
Q: You mentioned that you'd done some marketing for Darwinia+ - how do you effectively market digital games, do you think, when visibility can be tough?
Mark Morris: I don't agree with that. For Darwinia+ we didn't have anything new - it was just Darwinia on Xbox - and we were covered by every major XBLA site. They all played it, and all reviewed it strongly, and I was quite surprised, because internally there was a bit of concern that journalists weren't going to be that interested.
But actually there's a kind of professionalism - they're Xbox journalists so they're going to review a new Xbox game. If you've got a lower barrier to entry with a platform like Steam, you're going to find it harder.
So we did what we always do - and we are good at it, but it's fairly simple to me. We put together a physical book about Darwinia+ with all the information, and we physically mailed that out to all the journalists - which is what we've always done, because even in the digital world physical things have more presence.
We organised a press tour in the US, which we'd never done before, and going from no XBLA knowledge to a successful tour... we spent about four days over there - it was quite an experience, but not as hard as I thought it would be.
At one point we were going to use a PR company to organise it for us, but we didn't really have the money. I wouldn't recommend it now - if you've got the time and you're our kind of size, do it yourself. It is a bit more hassle, carrying dev kits around and so on - you've got to know where you're going next - but we did it. We were quoted $30,000 for a PR company to basically pick us up from the airport and ferry around... and you don't need to spend that.
Q: What was the total marketing budget?
Mark Morris: We probably spent less than £10,000 in total marketing Darwinia+. We had a launch party at BAFTA too, which was quite fun.
Q: So you got a lot for your money, just by doing it yourselves?
Mark Morris: It's not that expensive. We didn't pay an awful lot for BAFTA, because they're trying to get into the games scene. Channel 4 are good people at the moment - I'm sure if somebody wanted to launch a game at Channel 4 they'd love to have you. So you can do all this stuff.
Maybe it's because of our status, I don't know. Maybe they take a call from Introversion because it's a call from Introversion, and it might be harder for other people - I don't know.
Q: There is a track record there.
Mark Morris: Maybe - but if you make the approach well, so they have the information they need, a demo, copies of the game, and you think about the package they're sending through... I think most journalists are journalists because they're interested in playing games - so they're going to put your disc in, or whatever, and that's your foot in the door.
Q: Maybe a call from the head of a studio just gets more attention than a call from a PR person?
Mark Morris: It's possible - I think PR companies have their place, but I do tend to think that sometimes there's just a template that they'll use for sending out a game press release, and that's a tried-and-tested, metricated method that's 'guaranteed' to work.
But what it means then is that every journalist receives the same press release from the same people... whereas if yours is slightly different, you're going to get a bit more attention.
Q: Steam's been a good platform for you, based on this year's experiences - would you go so far as to recommend it to other independent developers?
Mark Morris: I'd go so far as to say that if you're not on Steam, then you're not an indie game developer of any note. You absolutely have to be on that platform at the moment. Steam doesn't ask for exclusivity, and I know it's hard to get on there - Valve doesn't make it easy - but that's part of the challenge. If you want to run a company you have to find a way of getting your game on there.
Part of the reason for that is that Valve regularly runs promotions that mean you can really capitalise on your back-catalogue, and you don't have that control with the consoles. Thinks like the iPad and iPhone, I think they're too crowded, and awareness is too difficult.
And the other thing I'd say is that we've been doing a lot of work on the Introversion website recently, metricating it and putting all the analytics in place - we sell via our own site. I've always said this from the start, and still do - you have to be selling from your own website as well, because you see 99 per cent of every transaction that goes through there, so every piece of marketing that you do links back to your website.
A regular Steam month is about a fifty-fifty revenue split between Valve and our website, because although the volume isn't anywhere near what they're doing, the money coming through is enough to even it out.
Mark Morris is MD of Introversion Software. Interview by Phil Elliott.