Self-styled 'last of the bedroom coders' Introversion may have preached an independent mantra in the past, but its latest title sees them getting in to bed with one of the biggest corporations in videogames - Microsoft. Set for release on Xbox Live Arcade this summer, Darwinia+ is the developer's first attempt at a console game, as well as its first project in association with an official publishing partner.
In a regular series for GamesIndustry.biz, Introversion intends to lift the lid on the secretive development process behind Xbox Live Arcade, as well as revealing it's own business practices and honest observations on the industry.
In this introductory piece, producer Byron Atkinson-Jones discusses Introversion's first meetings with Microsoft, the developers initial work on Darwinia+ and how the commercial failure of Multiwinia forced the company to rethink its approach to console development.
The Early Days
I originally joined Introversion as a coder to help out on the network code for their upcoming XBLA title, Darwinia+. I was content with this role but Mark Morris (the managing director) had other ideas and decided to promote me to lead producer after a few months. At first this seemed like a hell of an opportunity, and one that I would grasp with both hands, but up to this point nobody had told me about the legendary curse of Darwinia and what effect it might have on Darwinia+. Would I have taken the role had I found out beforehand? Probably, but then it helps to be a little mad to work in games development.
The curse started when three Imperial college graduates who just wanted to make and sell original, engaging games, founded Introversion. Like all would-be game developers the three had lofty aims of standing out from the crowd and making unique games in a world of greedy publishers and cookie-cutter sequels. As far as Introversion was concerned the games industry had stagnated; there was a fear of creating anything original, and publishers were risk-adverse, only releasing titles they knew could turn in a profit.
Introversion launched with Uplink, a spine-tingling, deeply intense game all about hacking, designed and coded by Chris Delay while he was at uni. Chris initially intended to release the game for free, but Mark Morris who would go on to become Introversions MD, and Thomas Arundel, the financial brains behind the enterprise, persuaded him to found a games company to sell it through. So they did, and Introversion was born.
Given their view of the current publisher crisis and the state of the games industry, the fledgling Introversion decided to try to direct sell Uplink via their own Internet Store, supported via a hugely successful guerrilla marketing campaign. Uplink did so well in the download market that it enabled Introversion to embark on their next game, Darwinia.
The Theory of Evolution
Darwinia was an entirely different kettle of fish to Uplink. For one, Darwinia was in 3D, while Uplink had been a totally 2D game. Uplink was fairly easy to describe but Darwinia was more abstract, bigger in scope and much more organic in its development. These differences created enormous cash-flow issues as the project spiralled out of control and deadlines were missed. A game that was meant to take 18 months to complete ended up taking three years - the curse of Darwinia was in full swing.
Towards the end of Darwinia's development Introversion ran out of money and the directors struggled to keep things afloat, selling their belongings on eBay and moving back in with parents. When Darwinia was finally released in 2005 it was well received by the press, who were intrigued and impressed by this strange and unique game, but despite the promising start, Darwinia did not sell well. Mistakes were made in the demo and with price points, and it took a new distribution system called Steam to save the company. Suddenly, introduced to a whole new market of gamers, Darwinia was selling.
If Uplink was a hard sell to the publishers, then Darwinia was a nightmare. No publisher would touch it - Darwinia was just too unique and original for their profit and loss sheets. Young, ambitious and persistent, this did not however stop Introversion from trying to find a publisher to team up with. They knew they needed to broaden the potential audience for the game and at that time it meant getting onto consoles - but how?
It was around this time that Microsoft had launched Xbox Live Arcade. It just so happened that Introversion had hired a PR agency who introduced them to an agent, who in turn had a contact in Microsoft called Ross Erickson. Ross at the time was heading up the acquisition group for XBLA, and he agreed to meet with Introversion in London to discuss Darwinia. This was Introversion's big chance and they eagerly awaited the meeting, not knowing entirely what to expect from such a large company. The pitch for Darwinia went reasonably well but at the end of it all Ross was pretty non-committal - at least it wasn't a complete "no".
While all this was going on Darwinia had been nominated for awards at the 2006 Independent Games Festival, held in San Francisco. Since they were going to be in the general vicinity of Microsoft (North America, at least) it seemed like a prime opportunity for a follow up the meeting with Ross. This time they were going to be better prepared and they put together a video of Darwinia+, describing exactly how it would differ from the PC version.
As they drove from the airport to the Redmond studios, nerves started to kick in. It suddenly occurred that Mark using a Mac to deliver a pitch to Microsoft might not have been the most diplomatic of choices. As it turned out the meeting went okay and Microsoft didn't seem to mind the Mac transgression, but once again Ross was very non-committal, although, again, at least they hadn't been given a straight "no". There wasn't much time to worry about it though, as Introversion headed straight back to catch their flight to San Francisco to attend an awards ceremony that would unknowingly change their fate for good.
The Spotlight Beckons
One thing you quickly learn when you start working at Introversion is that they never do things by halves. Going to an awards ceremony? Then you wear dinner jackets. This alone seemed to create something of a stir at an event where jeans and t-shirts were the dress code of choice. So, there they were, sat at the awards all dressed up, settling the nerves with triple Jacks, when to their complete surprise and delight they hear Darwinia being called out for what ended up being the first of three awards during the night. Chris would later recall that it was the proudest night of his life, and for Introversion it more than confirmed in their heads and hearts that the sweat, tears and endless project plans had all been worthwhile - the curse of Darwinia had been exorcised, for the time-being a least.
They were riding on an adrenaline-alcohol fuelled high when they were called up to receive their third and final award, the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. It was at this point that Mark decided to make a speech, which has become infamous within the games industry. None of the others had any inkling about what he was planning to say (they probably would have tried to stop him if they'd known). Mark took hold of the mic, thanking the award organisers and went on to explain why Introversion "didn't take any money from a publisher because we didn't want them f*cking up our game". For a second they wondered if they had blown their chances for any future deals, but the auditorium erupted into wild applause and a standing ovation. Later, amongst the ensuing confusion Mark felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Ross; he leant in and whispered, "We've decided to f*ck up your game". Darwinia+ was born.
A Change in Gears
The birth of a game is an exciting time and this chance to finally break into the console market was more than Introversion could hope for, but at the same time it was not something they were fully prepared for. None of them had worked on a console before so they approached the project in the same way they had approached their previous PC based projects and this would prove costly.
The biggest headache was the XBLA requirement for multiplayer. Darwinia itself was not designed as a multiplayer game, even though the original vision of what Chris had wanted Darwinia to be did. The initial idea was to create a game where massive armies of sprites fought against each other, with each player taking control of a separate army. The decision was made to resurrect this old vision and make it the multiplayer component of Darwinia+, but the task was to be a lot larger and more complex than anticipated.
As development of the multiplayer component of Darwinia+ continued, the cash reserves started to dwindle, and it appeared that the Darwinia curse might rear its ugly head once again. Introversion decided to halt the XBLA work briefly and worked on releasing the multiplayer part of the game as a stand-alone PC title, called Multiwinia to help support the finances. Unfortunately, despite some great reviews, Multiwinia did not sell well, at least not well enough to re-coup the costs of developing it, let alone replenish the money expended so far on Darwinia+. Faced with these issues for the second time in its history, Introversion went once again into emergency mode and tightened up its money belt.
The effect of Multiwinia's failure has had a massive impact on Introversion's morale. Up until now all of Introversion's games had sold large enough amounts to enable the company to flourish, but all of a sudden the prospect of failure has been a very real one. Surprisingly perhaps, out of this has come a new level of determination to make Introversion a success, and a renewed effort has been poured into completing Darwinia+.
Over the next few months, we hope you'll join us as we look back over the rollercoaster ride of sweat, tears and project plans behind Darwinia+'s development, and hopefully reveal what the curse of Darwinia+ has taught us about making games, so that it may finally be laid to rest.
Byron Atkins-Jones is producer of Darwinina+ for Introversion.