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Culture Shock

Introversion's Darwinia+ producer on how a small independent adjusted to working with one of the biggest publishers in the business

In the second of our exclusive editorials on the ongoing development of Darwinia+, producer Byron Atkinson-Jones discusses the learning process of a small team as it works closer with Microsoft, and his own experiences scaling down from a larger company to a small independent outfit.

For a company that started out with just three students, a stash of saved up beer money and some interesting game ideas, Introversion did remarkably well in the PC download market. Successful and moderately famous within the PC indie-gaming realm, Introversion experienced something of a crisis in confidence once if got the deal to port Darwinia to the Xbox 360. Working with a gargantuan company like Microsoft required a radical change in the working practices that Introversion had become accustomed to.

Joining Introversion after having worked for a number of other games companies large and small presented a bit of a personal shift in my thinking too. I had certain expectations based on normal practices at other companies that Introversion as it turned out didn’t do. When I was asked to be the producer for Darwinia+ I knew there’d have to be some compromise on both sides in order for us to provide a framework upon which to successfully deliver the game.

Culture change in Introversion hasn’t been easy. When I joined Introversion, the port for Darwinia+ had already been in development for three years, almost as long at it had taken to create the original game. Nevertheless, Introversion has grown and matured significantly over the past year or so – how did we do it? What follows is a look into how we learnt to deal with culture shock, and how Introversion moved well and truly out of the bedroom and into the office.

Communication breakdown

I am a great advocate of as much communication as possible, and when I joined Introversion I began supplying weekly reports on the project. This went down well with the management and soon became a job requirement. One of the biggest challenges with team management in Introversion is the fact that for most of the time we all work remotely; there are a couple of us who go into the office on a regular basis, but others may only come in once a month. The team would keep in touch on daily basis via Skype but for the most part once tasks are given out each team member worked autonomously.

Communication had to be improved and we're still working on this. Take what happened recently when we employed someone to do some QA work for us: for some reason Chris Delay, our creative director, was missed out of the communication line - he only found out we’d employed someone new when he read the news post on our website.

The trouble is it’s all too easy to assume that everybody knows what is going on – sometimes important information falls through the cracks and before you know it stuff stops working. At worst miss-communication can lead to blow-ups within the team itself and then you're in fire-fighting mode in order to resolve conflicts.

Dealing with Microsoft

A part of my job role as producer is juggling the needs of the team with the needs of the publisher, and finding some middle ground. So when Microsoft suddenly announced one day that they wanted a total re-design of the front-end menu system - and here was the design they had come up with - there was a certain amount of negotiation to be done with the Introversion dev team to ensure that the proposal wasn’t just thrown out without consideration. I wasn’t as attached to Darwinia so was able to remain fairly objective when the proposed redesigns turned up but there was a certain amount of internal resistance from the team. As it turned out the mock-ups supplied by Microsoft looked good and one of the development team went into super-productive mode and managed to get a few of the proposed designs up and running. This helped enormously and the decision was made to go with them.

It may seem like quite a small thing to worry about but it marks the very first time in Introversion’s history where creative control was passed over to somebody who didn’t work for Introversion, and more importantly somebody who wasn’t Chris Delay.

Dev kits

Darwinia+ is Introversion’s first console project so the dev team had no experience with developing on console hardware. In the first article in this series (Genesis of Darwinia+) I mentioned how Introversion’s financial status went up and down on a regular basis; one of the repercussions of this is that Introversion had to be creative in development, and this meant developing Darwinia+ entirely on Xbox 360 test kits. They didn’t know what the differences were between test kits and full dev kits, but the price difference made the choice an obvious one for them.

The major difference between the kits is that you cannot debug your game on a test kit, which makes developing on them very difficult. It was a credit to Introversion’s determination that they had managed to work for three years this way, getting the game to quite a high level of quality, but as the dev team would attest, it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

Part of moving forward with Darwinia+ therefore was correcting this early dev kit mistake. It took some negotiation but Microsoft made an offer - if we purchased three dev kits they would back it up with another three at no cost, and the cost of the three kits would come out of future royalties, rather than us having to pay them up front.

Bug hunt

Introversion has a great resource at our disposal – the fans, who are also loyal and enthusiastic enough to make a great beta testing army. This came in very useful for Multiwinia but unfortunately couldn’t be used for Darwinia+, mainly because we can’t give every potential beta tester an Xbox 360 test kit. We already had VMC on the books to do the major compliance and milestone testing, but I knew we’d need to hire a day-to-day tester. This was a hard sell to the rest of Introversion – they’d never had a QA department before, mainly because they couldn’t see what a full time in-house tester could provide that our developers and VMC couldn’t already do. As we began to realise, there were areas which neither party had been testing and within one week of hiring our in-house tester he’d already proved himself invaluable by hunting down bugs we’d never even known were there.

The Monster

When we were gearing up for the Code Complete submission it became clear that I needed to introduce regression testing into the build process for Milestones. This realisation came about during one such Milestone QA report.

Up until this moment we would make a build, send it over to our in-house tester, get the reports back and fix whatever was necessary. Throughout the build day we would also be talking to each other over Skype. At the end of the day once all the issues had been resolved and I believed we were ready to submit a build to Microsoft, reading through the final QA report, one line leapt out at me: “Prologue was not loading.” Prologue happens to be one of the levels in Darwinia. This came as a big shock – how could we submit a Milestone if one of the levels didn’t load? As it turns out one of the developers had mentioned this in the Skype conversation during the day but somehow I had missed it and the lack of any response to this had led them to assume it was okay.

I’d love to say that this was an isolated case, but there had been a few cases where we would lose a level or some other feature of the game through normal development work. Our problem was that we didn’t have any form of regression testing: we would go in and fix a bug but not make sure that our fix didn’t break some other part of the game.

Microsoft has a list of test cases that your project has to pass in order to qualify for a particular Milestone called the ‘Milestone Acceptance Test’ or MAT for short. This was a useful test to keep running the game through to make sure that we hadn’t broken something along the way but it only covered elements relevant to the requirements of the milestone. This method of testing led me to create what I call ‘The Monster’ but the rest of Introversion call somewhat more diplomatically the ‘Introversion Milestone Acceptance Test’ or IVMAT for short.

Essentially it’s a massive list of test cases that gives us a snapshot of the status of the game and highlights anything that’s missing, or more importantly been broken since the last build. About one week before submitting a build to Microsoft, we’ll lock down the build and go through the entire list – it takes time, and some headaches, but the results are more than worth the effort.

At first we were worried that working with a publisher would chip away at the very core of Introversion’s quest for independence and creative integrity. Learning to accept creative guidance from Microsoft, whilst following our own artistic instincts has presented a juggling act, even the most diplomatic managers would be wary of. Despite these initial concerns, evolving Introversion from its PC indie-development roots into a console developer able to work with one of the world’s largest games publishers has proved to be of vital importance. With a stormy economic climate forecast, and an increasingly fickle industry already saturated with content, I believe the need for Introversion to diversify and develop for more platforms is a crucial one.

Byron Atkinson-Jones is producer of Darwinia+ for Introversion.