In the fifth of our exclusive editorials from indie developer Introversion, creative director Chris Delay explains the early attempts at multiplayer gaming in Darwinia, how it eventually evolved the gameplay into something else entirely different, and details some of the modes that never made the final cut.
Darwinia was originally designed to be multiplayer. The first prototypes we built of the game were called Future War, and were based around a fairly lightweight RTS style game in which four primary coloured teams fought each other for control of map objectives. We planned to procedurally generate every battlefield so the game was constantly changing, and we planned armies with tens of thousands of troops per side. It sounded a lot of fun on paper.
But we realised during Future Wars development that this wasnt a lot of fun, that you had too little control over your massive armies, and so we moved away from this core concept. The multiplayer elements in Darwinia were slowly reduced and removed until there was very little of them left in the final game. Despite all of that, we always planned a multiplayer mode in Darwinia, and had originally wanted to include this in the game before we totally ran out of time and had to cut the whole feature.
So several years later when Microsoft asked us to write a multiplayer mode for Darwinia on the Xbox 360, we werent that worried. We knew the technical foundation was there Darwinia was running the reliable network simulation system wed written for Future War, despite being single player only. We also had lots of ideas on how to make Darwinia interesting in multiplayer ranging from large RTS style battles to co-operative squad control. We also believed that the focus of the Xbox 360 version was entirely Darwinia the single player, story driven game that won the IGF in 2006, and that the multiplayer component wasnt that important in comparison just something we had to provide to satisfy the requirements of the Xbox Live service.
We set to work grafting multiplayer back into Darwinia, taking the shortest route possible. We effectively recreated the original four-team primary coloured battles. Darwinians would spawn at bases, march towards a middle point in the map and fight each other. We were concentrating on the technical implementation at this point, so the game was basically playing itself youd set it running and a basic AI would take over each team, and a battle would unfold. The multiplayer side of Darwinia remained this way for many months - we were busy with the massive job of porting Darwinia to Xbox 360 and rewriting the whole control system for a control pad. It was a nice screensaver and fun to watch.
As the priorities of the Xbox project changed, we slowly realised the multiplayer aspect was seriously letting the whole game down, and was a long way below the kind of quality we were used to putting out. This was the first time wed worked on a game that wasnt our own personal creation the multiplayer side of Darwinia was a console requirement, rather than something wed invented and pushed forward with passion. We eventually realised that you cant fake fun games, and that if we wanted the multiplayer part of the game to be enjoyable wed have to give it the same attention all our other game projects received.
We held a series of brainstorming meetings in which the whole team were invited to pitch multiplayer game ideas, set in the world of Darwinia. We quickly hit on the idea of making the multiplayer component into a series of smaller, simpler and quicker games less like a long winded RTS like Command & Conquer, and more like the quick party fun of Worms or Chu Chu Rocket. We didnt want to make a serious RTS game and we didnt believe it would work that well in Darwinia anyway the Darwinians just werent reliable enough in combat. Sometimes theyd throw grenades and blow themselves up, sometimes theyd panic and run around screaming, sometimes theyd charge in completely the wrong direction. These were all deliberate flaws in their programming that made them seem more real, and gave the single player campaign its heart and soul.
Wed also insisted in the single player campaign that players use Officers to order their Darwinians around. This was designed to reinforce the idea that the Darwinians had their own free will, that the creator of the digital world had made it that way, and it was against the lore of Darwinia to directly move a Darwinian. So they would follow their own leaders, and you could control those leaders directly. This worked great in the single player campaign, but was a total nightmare in Multiplayer. You just couldnt control your armies quickly enough, and it was hugely cumbersome if you wanted to send a small number of soldiers to a particular objective quickly. It took us a long time to arrive at the now obvious conclusion we had to break this aspect of Darwinian lore for multiplayer, and allow the player direct control over his Darwinian Soldiers. This was a vital step in making the multiplayer work, and was a tough decision for us, because it broke some of the consistency of the original storyline, but it was the right choice the game always comes first, and in any case wed started to think of Multiwinia as a separate game by now, perhaps set many years after the original single player campaign.
With a few game modes working and a decent control mechanism starting to appear, we hit upon the idea that really injected the fun into the game the idea of falling Crate Powerups. Again inspired by the likes of Worms and Chu Chu rocket, we wanted to mix up the games that were starting to seem a bit samey, and to make it possible to break the stalemates that we were seeing on a fairly regular basis. The initial crates were very fast to write and completely changed the game, morphing it from a fairly dull RTS to a hilarious party wargame. Initially we had falling equipment like gun turrets and troop carriers, but it didnt take long before we started adding some truly massive and game-breakingly unbalanced powerups to the mix. We designed crates that raised the water level gradually until everyone drowned. We designed crates that would open a portal to some demonic other-world and would suck everything on the level into it. Some crates were hugely destructive, opening up volcanos or weather effects that decimated entire areas of the map. Some crates gave massive perks to their army. We knew it was all hugely unbalanced, but we were having a lot of fun playing with these effects, and we knew that was a really good sign for the game.
Crate Capture became a vital tactic in the game, breaking the stalemates and forcing players to react to changing conditions on the fly. We slowly toned down the overly powerful effects of most of the crates, until we were happy a balance had been reached. We were always clear that we wanted it to be a random powerup system you didnt get to choose what powerups would come your way, so it forced players to think on their feet. A well placed powerup at the right moment could easily swing the entire game. It made the game feel alive and exciting, and we started to work on ways for the powerups to interact with each other. Magical Forest powerups would spawn a massive forest that seeded the area with Souls which could be harvested into more troops if you had a Harvester or Engineer powerup, but the forest was also a huge fire risk, and could easily be burnt down (killing everyone inside it) with any number of weapon attacks.
By this point we were holding daily play sessions of our games and all our maps, and it was a ton of fun to play. New game modes and new crates were being added all the time it was quite a creative hotbed for a while, with all these great ideas pouring out of the team and making their way into the game, and new and hilarious things would happen every day as we played against each other. Wed figured out by now that wed created an entirely new game within Darwinia, and wed put just as much effort and love into this project as any other game release wed done. We already referred to it internally as Multiwinia, a code-name for the multiplayer part of Darwinia Xbox which eventually stuck as the name of the PC release.
And thats how a simple request from Microsoft : Can we have multiplayer?, led us down a path in which we ended up inventing an entirely new game that were all very proud of.
Here are some game modes that didnt make it into the final game:
Run The Gauntlet (aka British Bulldog) One team has an endless army of Darwinians spawning on one side of the map, and has to escort them all to the safe-zones on the other side of the map. The second team controls a single set of Squaddies in the middle of the map, fully armed, and has to stop and kill as many Darwinians crossing the danger zone as possible.
Sepulveda Chess The map is a chess board, with giant statues for the pieces. The Darwinians on each team have to lift these massive statues all the way to the other side of the map. When two statues collide, they gradually take damage and reduce in size, eventually crumbling into nothing. Players can block enemy pieces this way, but must also be trying to get their own statues past the enemy defenses. Larger statues brought home give greater points. Nb. This game mode eventually became Capture The Statue.
Centipede Racing A rather silly game mode in which players rode on the back of giant centipedes around a figure of eight race track, passing through Trunk Port check points. Mario-Kart style powerups would enable the players to impede each other.
Shaman Based on the Spectrum Classic Chaos, each player controls a single, highly vulnerable Shaman Unit. This unit can summon any of the monsters or units from the game to fight for him. While summoning units he is vulnerable to attack. Players have to wipe out all the enemy Shamans, while protecting their own. This mode actually made it a long way into development, although controlling a single weak unit as well as your summoned army was just too much to handle.
Scrapheap Challenge Each team has to construct a doomsday weapon, using spare parts lying around a giant shared scrapheap. Teams fight over vital components and drag them back to their base, slowly assembling the device until one team completes it and wins.