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Becoming Introverted

Mark Morris on Darwinia creators' struggle for independence

At this year's combined Independent Games Festival and Developer's Choice Awards ceremony in San Jose, two groups of developers took the stage over and over to collect armfuls of awards. The Japanese team behind critically acclaimed PlayStation 2 title Shadow of the Colossus beamed with delight, but sadly could only stumble out a few platitudes and stock phrases in English to express their pleasure, so we didn't get a chance to hear what they really thought. The English team behind indie title Darwinia, however, made sure that we knew exactly what they really thought as they collected their three awards - informing us in the process that the reason they'd never taken any money from publishers is because they didn't want them "fucking up our game."

Cue massive applause from an audience who are, of course, likely to be the world's most sympathetic to that particular plight. However, the firm's outspoken director Mark Morris wasn't just angling for a soundbite - the philosophy of independence is one which Introversion, creators of cult hits Uplink and Darwinia and the forthcoming Defcon, take very seriously indeed. It's not an easy philosophy for a game developer to live by, but as we discovered when we spoke to Mark, it's a tough path that this group of British enthusiasts have navigated with great success - albeit with some nasty bruises and scrapes along the way - and they now wear their motto, "The Last of the bedroom programmers," as a badge of pride. You guys did pretty well at the IGF awards this year - in fact, you've had a lot of critical acclaim since Darwinia was released...

Mark Morris: Darwinia was March last year, so it had its first anniversary a few months ago. It was quite a slow start though, with Darwinia. Uplink was mad; Uplink really sold quite well in the initial stages, so well that we thought we were on a rocket to stardom! We really thought we were going to go; we went to E3 and burned all the money...

Darwinia was much slower, and we had thought we were going to cane it - it's a bigger game, and all the rest of it. Since we signed with Steam, that gave us a big boost, and obviously, IGF was just phenomenal - to get an industry award, our very first award, in such a huge auditorium with two thousand people all looking up - it just makes it all worthwhile, and especially for a game like Darwinia, which hasn't sold hugely well.

We're trying to make creative games, trying to explore what you can do with the medium, rather than just going for commercial success all the time. To achieve the award that we did at IGF was just such an awesome pat on the back, which is brilliant - we go home and we're all re-enthused, we want to keep doing it. It's absolutely awesome.

How did the Steam distribution deal come about, and how has it been working out for you?

We were prompted to do it when Alison [Beasley, from Introversion's PR firm Lincoln Beasley] said, just after the Edinburgh festival, "You should talk to Valve about going on to Steam" - so we did. TJ got in contact with Scott over there and showed them the product, asked if they were interested... They were, and they took it, and it's had pretty good initial sales, which has raised our hopes. It's gone down a bit since then, but it's prompted us to do digital content on all sorts of things.

It's much nicer to work with Valve than it is to work with some of the big publishers, where you're so far away from your customers - with Valve, it's you, Valve and your customers, which is great.

Do you guys have a deal with Valve now that will see future content that you do being distributed on Steam?

We want to take it one step at a time, because in order to maintain our creative freedom, we've got to have our creative independence - we don't really want to sign deals and say, "right, the next four titles are going to go out over Steam," because we don't know what's going to happen. At the moment the relationship with Steam is really good, and I'd love to have just put title after title after title out on Steam. We're talking with them about Defcon, and I'm confident that we're going to get Defcon going over Steam as well.

However, if we can hedge our bets a little bit - so that rather than signing with one publisher, we sign with three or four on different platforms - then that makes us much more robust. If a relationship goes sour, which has happened to us in the past, and all your eggs are in one basket, then, well, game over. Equally, with retail the numbers are quite complex, because you get returns and all the rest of it, and product cost of good deductions and all those sorts of things as well - you don't want to end up in a situation where they're taking off the retail deductions from your online sales, so you want the two of them to be completely separate.

That's how we're trying to position ourselves now - we're trying to have a few channels to market, so we've got Ambrosia who are doing all of the Mac stuff for us, and that's important because the Mac is quite a big portion of what we do. We've got Steam on the PC retail, hopefully Live Arcade - we're talking to Microsoft, so hopefully we can work that out. Then of course, we're selling from our website as well - that's the basic core of Introversion.

Do you think that services like Steam will give companies like Introversion a chance to break out of the traditional retail models - where you really need a lot of money to get a product in front of a consumer?

Yes, I do. We could not have come at a better time. We've got our own online distribution system which we were using to sell Darwinia and Uplink for about two or three months before we signed the deal with Steam. Steam just dwarfed our sales completely. The same will be true with Live Arcade - you don't need to have big marketing campaigns, it's just going to be there on the dashboard.

What will be interesting is how that will change when they get more products. There will be a maximum number of products, and Microsoft are being very cagey whenever they're asked how they're going to do the so-called shelf edge management - when are they going to pull games off? At the moment, they're desperate for content, and they're going "yeah, great, we're going to put this on there..." But you can envisage a time where you write a game, you put it on Live Arcade, they leave it on there for four weeks, it doesn't do the numbers that they want and they take it off. You've just spent eight months developing that title, and then Microsoft have made that decision very quickly...

I don't think that will happen for a while, because I don't think there will be a huge number of titles - I think they're talking about 25 or 30 titles by the end of the year, something like that. That's quite a nice number, with the categories and all the rest.

What did you have to do when you approached Valve? They haven't really published a lot of content on Steam, especially not a lot of stuff that isn't based on Half-Life 2 - so what was their reaction when a bunch of lads from England knocked on the door and said "hey, we've got this game..."?

I was having a chat with their new products guy, the guy who's responsible for what goes onto Steam, and there are differences in opinion within the company. Some people will tell you, "we're going to put every game on Steam - all these things are going to be on there"; other people will say "no, we've got a very clear idea and a strategy of the sorts of games we want to have on Steam, and that strategy will become clearer over the next year or so."

I don't know whether it's the case that they do have this big master-plan, and Darwinia fits into it, or whether they're just actively looking for content, and there's not a huge amount of content out there at the moment because people are already signed up with exclusive deals with box copy publishers and all the rest of it. So, I don't know, but it's an interesting question alright.

What do you see as being the major defining difference between you guys and other game developers?

I think the big difference with is us that commercial success is necessary, rather than being what we're driving for. We're not sitting here thinking, "we want to be millionaires, we want to make as much money as we can off our games." What we want to do is make great games, independent games; games that have a creative edge to them that you won't have seen anywhere else, which experiment with the genre. Then, hopefully we'll make some sort of a living off that.

When I talk with other developers, certainly ones who have been in the business for a few years... I think it's something to do with the fact that when people get slightly older, they don't want to take the risks any more. They just want to... Well, it's not necessarily churning out sequel after sequel after sequel, but it's a bit like that. Once they've got a hit, they want to carry on supporting it, and they don't really want to go off in other directions.

Our approach is more a kind of shotgun approach; ideally, I'd like to have three or four gaming teams all working, led by people like Chris [Delay, the firm's lead developer and designer] who have that kind of vision and drive - I don't know how many more Chris' there are in the world, but probably not many - and the ability to make these great games, which then we can just publish and maybe they all do relatively small numbers, but when you aggregate those numbers, we can all make a healthy living. Also, you know, you might get that big blockbuster hit, and then you do get all of the millions and all the rest of it!

I think that's really the big difference - and from that creativity, comes the unique look and feel of Introversion's games. One of the things that people have been saying to us is, "what is it that makes your games into an Introversion game?" - and I don't think we know just yet. I think when Defcon is finished and we've got three, it'll be interesting then for us to start looking and asking, "what are the elements?" It's not graphics, because Uplink was tiny, Darwinia is big, Defcon is tiny again, the next one is going to change...

It's going to have something to do with a lack of content, with having to be clever with generating your content, and also being clever with the look and the feel of your game. They've been quite raw, I think, in terms of.... I don't really want to say bugs, but there are a few in there. Maybe a few rough edges, you might want to say, and maybe that will improve. Certainly, as we move onto the consoles, they don't want that; they want everything to be shiny. We're going to have to do that for them, and maybe that will rub off on our other titles.

I think it's that focus on the creative side that differentiates us from most of the other people out there.

How many people are actually involved in developing these games? How many are working on Defcon, for example?

Two - well, two, and then there's a sound team of about three people. We've got Chris, who is the real force - he comes up with the ideas, he visualises it, he starts making the game. On Darwinia we had another guy, Andy Bainbridge, who worked quite closely with Chris, kind of as a second in command. With Defcon, we took one of the fans - his name was Icepick on the Uplink forum - and he did a lot of work for us, and we now employ him, so he's working with Chris full-time. So generally, about two people.

Then as I said, there's the sound team, and that's probably about it specifically working on the games - but then we've just taken Johnny [Knottenbelt], on board, and Johnny's role is porting the games to different platforms, and also doing some additional work. If we do multiplayer, which we're considering doing, it'll probably be done by Johnny's side of the business - multiplayer Darwinia, that is. It'll be done by an expert, working for Johnny, so that Chris can focus on the new IP. That's how we're structured at the moment.

How does the company work in terms of finances? Is everyone on salary now?

Yeah - when we've got enough money to pay the salaries, we do, yeah! It's very much hand to mouth. There's a very flat wage structure where the directors are all paid one amount, Icepick is on a little bit less because he's new... That's not interesting. What's interesting is that we give the development team ten per cent of sales straight away, before any corporate deductions have occurred at all. So if you buy a copy of Darwinia from our website, at say 20 pounds, two pounds immediately goes to Chris and the development team, and then they divide that up. That's to reward them for creating the product, which is the more important part of what we do.

The shareholding in Introversion is then split slightly in our favour, so if we make the company commercially successful, then we'll get our payback. So it works quite well - and it's nice because as soon as you sign a big deal, some of the money goes straight over to the guys that actually made the product, which is important to us.

How did starting up the company work? There must have been a period of time where there was basically no money, and no product...

Chris wrote Uplink when he was at university, so we got Uplink effectively for free. We put 250 pounds each into the business to set up the website, credit card ordering and all the rest of it - then as orders came in for Uplink, we were producing them ourselves. We used laser printers and bubblejets... TJ's bedroom looked like some kind of mad chemistry lab with injection needles everywhere for refilling these cartridges!

The money just rolled in off the back of Uplink, so we bootstrapped it that way. That was the point where we had no financial control in the company - we had no idea how to run cashflows. We understood the concept of a cashflow, and profit and loss, but we didn't know how to do it - so we were spending money when we didn't know how much we had, and all the rest of it.

We learned. Uplink taught us a lot of lessons - we spent about four months making big losses every month, but not knowing about it until the end of that four month period...

We signed with Strategy First for Uplink across the US, and started developing Darwinia. At the time, Uplink sales were doing enough to cover the costs - we need to sell about 15 units a day from our website in order to keep us ticking over. Unfortunately, because Strategy First got into so much trouble and filed for Chapter 11, they ended up owing us a lot of money - and the really annoying thing was that the money they owed us would have got us to the end of Darwinia's development, so we would have gone all the way through, launched Darwinia and then carried on.

Because they defaulted, we had to go on benefits. That's what it was for most of the year - difficult times.

It's a common enough thing for independent developers to hit that kind of problem with publishers, but for a company like yours, that must have been practically catastrophic.

Yeah, definitely. That's why, when we talk now, it's for us all about having multiple different companies and trying to spread the bets in case it happens again. Building relationships, too - relationships are hugely important. Ambrosia, for instance, were very good with advancing us royalties to assist with Darwinia. We couldn't ask for much more than they gave us, feasibly, because of how well it was going to do. Steam are very helpful like that as well.

Talking to both companies, it's because they trust us to deliver, because we've got that history with them. They know that we're going to deliver them a game - as long as they can see it fifty or seventy-five per cent done, they know we're going to finish it. That makes it a bit easier to just take a little bridging loan; but what we don't want to do is to end up as contract developers. We don't want to do any funded work.

I say that we don't want that, but it would be interesting if it arose. If someone like Microsoft, say, came along - or Sony, better example - and said "we want you to do a launch title for the PS3, you've got eight months, we're going to pay you this" - there'd be big arguments internally about whether or not we should actually take that project on.

Mark Morris is a director of Introversion Software. Interview by Rob Fahey.

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.