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Evolution of an Indie

Tue 27 Oct 2009 8:00am GMT / 4:00am EDT / 1:00am PDT
Development

Introversion's Mark Morris on how the Darwinia team has survived a tough past twelve months - plus what's ahead

Introversion Software has been one of the key independent developers in the UK in the past few years, but this past year has been a tough one for the Darwinia developer.

Here MD Mark Morris explains how the company has survived key publishing partners going bust, as well as the sales of key title Multiwinia not living up to expectations.

Q: You're involved with a few events, including Develop Liverpool - what draws you to that event?

Mark Morris: Well, in terms of the event itself - I've been to Develop Brighton a few times and always enjoyed it because it's UK developers getting together and talking about UK development issues. It's a little bit more intimate than the GDCs around the world - they're great as well, but they tend to be massive events that you lose yourself in, whereas Develop is a much smaller, so I hope they recreate that up in Liverpool.

I'm familiar with quite a few developers around London, but throwing it out and getting up into the North will be useful for hooking up with developers up there... and that's one of the main reasons I'm heading up. Plus Liverpool's a great city, and events up there have always got a relaxed atmosphere.

Q: Do you get a sense that, with events aimed at other UK developers, you're talking to people who are facing similar industry issues?

Mark Morris: Yes, you do - in terms of things like networking, for example we're starting to do a little bit of work with Sony. That's all well and good, and when you're at a GDC you can talk about Sony, but over here you could see the guy you need to deal with having a drink at the bar and go have a chat with him now.

In terms of production methodology, and the manner in which games are created, I think those issues are pretty similar wherever you are in the world - the best way to get maximum performance out of your Xbox or PC, they're pretty common.

But the business side of it is very different, and the climate in the UK at the moment, I think, is quite supportive of the creative industries. A lot of the finance and support we've got from the government I've picked up from just talking to people, who have suggested looking into an EU media grant, or whatever it might be.

And also, because it's not a huge community in the UK, you tend to see the same people again and again, which I quite like - whereas at GDC, there are so many people... of course you do bump into old friends, but not in the same way.

Q: You sound quite positive about government support in the UK - most people, particularly independent developers, are pretty critical about it.

Mark Morris: Well, I think the government does more than it is credited for in the industry, actually. But it's a bit tangential - you've got to work a little bit more to find it, it's not on a plate. I'm talking more now about the money that the government makes available for small businesses, which of course independent developers are.

So there's a fair amount of money out there for training, for example - now, people might say they're not interested in money for training, but if you think that taking your guys away, having a code jam and coming up with new ideas can be construed as training - it actually is - you might be able to get money to fund that, or overseas trips... it becomes quite useful.

We've done quite a lot of work over the last few years with the Technology Strategy Board - they've got a lot of money, over GBP 1 billion over three years - to give to companies in general for research... and a big part of that research is directed at the creative industries.

So it takes a little bit of work to figure out exactly how you're going to make best use of this money, but lots and lots of the work that we do at Introversion (and I think other independents do) is research. That money is there, and it can be tapped into. - we've got the R&D tax credits as well, so fill out your paperwork and make sure that you're claiming as much as you possibly can.

I've got some friends in other small businesses and they're not given anywhere near the level of support the games sector is given when it taps into some of these creative awards. That said, there's a big disparity between interactive entertainment, and the help that film and TV gets.

There was talk recently about the EU media grant, which is something that's been around for a long time - they match funding, and it's something that's really designed for making films. So you'll have a EUR 100,000 project - you'll find EUR 50,000 for and the EU team will match it with another EUR 50,000.

Now, they've exclusively said that this time around, interactive projects will only be funded if they're supporting an audio-visual component, so they've cut out the mainstream games industry completely from this grant programme. The games that they're talking about now are the Flash things that the BBC or Channel 4 put out to support their programmes.

I think that's very interesting, that the EU has taken this stance to draw an absolute line and say that games aren't going to be applicable to this grant scheme. I wonder if - and I hope that - it's because they're developing a programme in the background that's going to be more amenable to supporting videogame development across the EU?

But I suspect it could just be because, for one reason or another, they just don't want to support videogames - and I do agree that within the EU and UK we need to address the disparity between the money that TV and film gets and the support that we get.

I'm not quite as angry as some of the other developers out there, because I think I'm wily enough to extract money where possible, but I do think the government could help us out more.

Q: You've been working on Darwinia+ for a little while now - has the timing of that project insulated you at all from the effects of the economy?

Mark Morris: We've had a really tough year, actually, we've been hit really hard. Multiwinia went on sale last September, and it didn't do as well as we were hoping. I think there were a couple of reasons for that looking back - I think we mismanaged the media with regard to that particular game. We weren't clear on what it was, and as a result the message that got out wasn't as clear as it should have been, so it didn't do hugely well.

But at the same time our long-standing partner Pinnacle Software went into administration in October/November time, and that hit us really hard because they'd been doing licensing deals around the world on our behalf, and all of that revenue just fell away... so we were unable to move forward with that.

Also, we developed a version of Defcon for the DS and that was literally weeks away from launching - but with Pinnacle going under that project was pulled, so that's been sat on my desk for this year as we've tried to find another publisher. But nobody's been interested, a combination probably of the DS market being a tough area to go into, but I'm sure the economic climate has hit that market as well.

We live, basically, on the sales of our previous game together with the back catalogue sales - we sell everything from our website, so we get a relatively healthy stream coming in from that. But it's been a very difficult year for us to make ends meet - our projections included more income from Multiwinia, Defcon DS going out there as well as Darwinia+ launching much earlier in the year... and none of that materialised.

We've really been living on the grant money I mentioned, and while we haven't borrowed yet we're in the process of trying to borrow a little bit just to ease the cashflow and make sure we're okay.

Q: So it's a case of getting through until the release of Darwinia+ now?

Mark Morris: That's what it's all about now. A couple of weeks ago we finally put together a cashflow plan that meant we were going to be okay getting to the end of Darwinia+ with reasonable confidence. So now, although we're hitting these snags, it's kind of in the plan - we weren't expecting to submit the final version and have it cleared through, so there's not too much of a worry here.

But we've always got to be as prudent as we can.

Q: I guess while there are a host of upsides to being a small, independent developer, there's always a bit of a risk when you rely principally on good game sales?

Mark Morris: That's absolutely the core of what Introversion does, and it's risky. The alternative is to take work-for-hire projects on, and I think a lot of developers take projects on because they're forced to - and then actually getting your own IP off the ground becomes increasingly difficult.

Because if you look at the numbers, you can carry on with work-for-hire and earn a certain amount of money, or you can take a big punt on your next game. Fundamentally what we want to do is make original videogames, and we don't want our creative freedom to be curtailed by a publisher sat there with a spreadsheet, trying to make the game similar to other games released in the past because they've done well.

That fierce determination has worked so far, and once we get over this final hump it's going to keep working because the way to manage that risk is to get more games in development at one time, or to release more.

So next year we'll have Subversion in development, as well as an unannounced port. That's our next big PC endeavour, and it has all the risk because we don't really know how long it will take to finish, we don't really know what it looks like at the moment - we've just got a load of technology that we're just putting together.

But the port is a much more straightforward process, and that should then generate enough revenue for us to keep us going until Subversion is out there. I'd rather be in a company that risks all on the products, and therefore takes the time to make them as good as they possibly can be, than someone churning out sequels or just doing work-for-hire.

Mark Morris is MD of Introversion Software. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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