If you're of that particular mindset, Introversion are the closest the 00s have to a genuine underground heroes. Its story is a dramatic one.
From an initial flush of success with hacking sim Uplink, to borderline insolvency as its sophomore masterpiece Darwinia's delays lead to all the team signing on - made worse by it not finding an immediate audience, to a rejuvenation through its games hitting Steam, critical affirmation by winning the Independent Game Festival Grand Prize (and THAT infamous acceptance speech) and most recently its first step into the world of multiplayer games with the Nuclear Wargame of DEFCON.
With that stepping off the internet, into tiny boxes and moving onto the high-street from June 15th (as well as the looming shape of Subversion and Multiwinia on the horizon) now would be a fine to catch up with the self-pronounced last of the Bedroom Programmers to see what's on their minds.
In an interview. Yes, that sounds like a fine idea.
Eurogamer: Start at the basics: in a fundamental way, what does a real retail release of DEFCON mean to Introversion?
Chris Delay: Although we often talk about the merits of online distribution we still believe that retail is an important avenue for the independent developer and definitely one that you can, and should, take advantage of. Publishers and distributors will have access to many more resources than the average independent and, if you are lucky as we have been with the DEFCON retail release, you will be able to work together with them to leverage alot more exposure and interest in your title. In that case, everyone's a winner. For us, its not really a matter of choosing one form of distribution over the other, and it shouldn't have to be - you can take advantage of both as each gamer will have a different preference when it comes down to how they choose to buy their games. So far we're very happy with the way the retail launch is progressing and we've got some cool things going on this summer, like our DEFCON LAN tournament which we hope will bring some new gamers to DEFCON.
Eurogamer: Speaking more generally, how do you feel about the game now?
Chris Delay: We've been delighted with DEFCON. It did great in the reviews, and its been really popular with our fanbase and a whole new bunch of people too. It's our most popular game to date. Opening up the Server Browser in DEFCON reveals between 20 and 60 games running at any one time, depending on time of day. On day one we had a couple of thousand game servers before our metaserver exploded, which shows the kind of interest people had in the game. Darwinia definately made the press aware of who we were, but I think DEFCON made the gamers familiar with our name.
Eurogamer: You've got an actual back-catalogue now. How do you think DEFCON fits into it?
Chris Delay: Comparing DEFCON to our other games is difficult. Uplink is rugged and buggy and ugly and still sells more than Darwinia every day. Darwinia is our oddball second album, our very own love letter to the Amiga and the Soul of great videogames, and the game I'm most proud of. DEFCON is a relatively simple multiplayer game idea and I think that's probably the key to its success. Most of our creative experimentation in DEFCON was in the audio - we really tried to build the atmosphere of a nuclear bunker through the use of sounds and ambient music, and to create that feeling of reckless and insane genocide in the minds of our players. Our audio guy Al Lindsay is a genius, and when your popution starts dying in their millions he made the audio hurt.
Eurogamer: Are there any aspects which you think the community overlooked?
Chris Delay: My own personal favourite game mode in DEFCON is Speed-Defcon, in which the game plays at the maximum possible speed and is time limited to 15 minutes. But you very rarely see people playing this mode on the server listing, and I'm not sure why. It's so wonderfully brutal.
Eurogamer: My favourite mode too, randomly. Generally speaking, while all your games have communities who've grown up around them, an ongoing, competitive community is a different beast from what you're used to. How are you dealing with that?
Chris Delay: It's very different, and the reason is that the game keeps changing. The current "best players" of DEFCON use very different tactics to the best players on launch day - tactics which have literally evolved over many months of practice and experimentation. We have a whole forum dedicated to discussions of different tactical ideas, and the results gathered from experiments. We've found if we try to play against the best players now, we basically get our arses handed to us.
One thing we are particularly proud of though - nobody has yet come up with a "winning" strategy. There is no Zerg rush that simply cannot be defeated. It was always our aim to make a wargame that was closer to a game of chess than C&C - moves and counter moves, different types of opening gambits, different types of end games, but never a definitive way to win. The way the units are balanced is kind of an extended paper-scissors-stone - every unit is essential and every unit is vulnerable. It's a tactical puzzle that can never be solved.
Eurogamer: What about what the community has given back to you. All your games have Mod-support, but this was added to DEFCON post-release, yes? How has that gone?
Chris Delay: The Mod system was introduced in our second free DEFCON patch and enabled people to make new maps, new graphical themes etc, and play them easily over the internet. You can see some really good ones on our site. One guy was so pissed we didn't allow Australia to play a part in DEFCON that he made the entire map out of that one continent. Other users have translated the game into space with planets and stations orbitting each other. One particularly evil person made a Christmas mod in which you have to deliver boxes of presents to all the major cities of the world - you hear christmas elevator music playing and the messages say things like "Presents delivered to New York - 5.4 million children happy!" We love this kind of thing.
Eurogamer: I remember that you pictured this as being a quicker project, but I know you faced larger challenges than you expected. Care to elaborate on the biggest sticking points?
Chris Delay: DEFCON was a quicker project - we made the entire game in under a year, and that included all the multiplayer networking stuff (which was new to us) as well as five months of beta testing. In fact, looking back, it was astonishingly quick. I've spent longer than that on emails sometimes. We did face some serious technical challenges making the internet play work reliably, but creatively speaking everything was pretty much sorted in the first prototype (which took just 7 days). DEFCON is probably the least creatively ambitious of our games, but we knew from the start it was going to be a smaller project - it almost ended up as a "b-side" freebie on the Darwinia disks, and that would definitely have been a mistake because absolutely nobody would have played it.
Eurogamer: You've revealed your next major project being Subversion, and have been showing off your work in process on your blog. Why have you decided to do a development blog this time?
Chris Delay: There are two primary motivations. The first is that we normally operate under complete secrecy, and that was getting pretty boring, for us and for the fans. We'd do all kinds of cool stuff that nobody would ever see - during Darwinia we experimented with all kinds of cool stuff for months on end behind closed doors, and in hindsight it would have been great to share that with people while it was happening. The second reason is that I always wanted to read a developer diary from any major game. There have been a few along the way - such as the diary of Bullfrog's never-released game Creation in PC Gamer, but they are very rare and rarely include any juicy details. But the process of game development is absolutely fascinating to me, and I want others to see it. Movies like Lord of the Rings come with "making of" documentaries that are often longer than the movie itself, diving into every technical detail of how they shot every scene and how they curled every hair in Gimli's beard, but somehow games are released, they get their two pages, and that's the last you hear of them. Our blog is an attempt to make the process more interesting, internally and externally.
Eurogamer: Of course, despite you doing this developing in public... you haven't actually revealed what the game's going to be about. We're seeing technology, graphic experiments, everything... but we have no idea what it is. I can't help but wonder if you're being a bit meta with the title "Subversion". By showing exactly what you're up to, without revealing what you're doing, are you trying to play games with people's expectations?
Chris Delay: There's no attempt at manipulation or "playing games" in any of our blog postings - I'm just writing about the stuff we're prototyping on a day to day basis. It's true that I haven't yet cleared up the mystery and written anything like "this is exactly what the game will be", but that's mostly because we're not sure ourselves yet. We really are experimenting - as much with technology as gameplay. We've learnt from Darwinia that a game design can undergo seismic shifts during development, and we don't want to do a Molyneux and end up disappointing everyone when our game doesn't solve the world's energy problems.
Eurogamer: I see that entirely. But you must have expected speculation. For example, I found myself with a group of my peers, watching you generate a city in the latest video. It immediately prompted a rambling conversation with us trying to work out what on earth it could be (and citing a load of games we had half-forgot had existed).
Chris Delay: We've read similar discussions on our forums. We can understand that everyone wants to know what it is, but we just can't say. If someone had access to all the source code and all the design documents for Subversion, and had listened in on the last month's telephone conversations between the directors, they still wouldn't know what the game was going to be about.
It's experimentation. I think part of the problem is that people can't quite believe it still exists in the games industry, and no longer recognise it when they see it.
Eurogamer: Okay, moving on - one of the areas you're experimenting in is using a mass of procedurally generated content in Subversion? Could you talk about what excites you about it and why it's so important for a smaller developer like Introversion?
Chris Delay: I've recently been playing (and enjoying immensely) Gears of War. It's an excellent example of the "Blockbuster" model of game development - this game took a team of thirty people five years and cost Ten Million Dollars to develop. I consumed it in about six hours, the first four of which I enjoyed immensely. The "Blockbuster" model of game development typically involves extremely high budgets, lots and lots of custom made content (levels, textures, cutscenes), and virtually no replayability. It tends to result in extremely high quality graphics and production values, and in the best cases (Gears, Half-Life etc) a stunning game.
There is absolutely no way that Introversion can make a game like this. We scoot around this problem on a daily basis, and all three of our games have been exercises in the avoidance of content-creation. Uplink had its teletext graphics and randomly generated missions. Darwinia had its fractal landscapes and simple sprites (it had ten levels - and took three years - we learnt the content lesson the hard way). DEFCON has virtually no content at all - freely available worldmap data, city data, and sprites.
Procedural content generation is basically a way of generating large volumes of game content automatically. If used correctly it can be extremely powerful and can produce staggeringly complex results. We believe its the key to creating the depth of data you need for a real game world, without having to do it yourself. It can't generate the really good stuff - for that you still need a human writer and creator, but it can create the other 90 per cent of the world that is less important to the experience.
Eurogamer: On the blog, you were talking about how thinking procedurally ends up with you trying to decode the world. What's that like?
Chris Delay: It is fascinating seeing the patterns emerge when doing this stuff. We've found that very similar algorithms can generate anything from city satellite views to office layouts to trees.
Eurogamer: Moving on from Subversion for now, how about Multiwinia? What made you decide this would be a good step to take something that was so solo-based and try and make it multiplayer? Was it influenced by the multiplayer success of DEFCON?
Chris Delay: It's a project we'd always wanted to do, and DEFCON's release made it possible and feasible. Even during Darwinia's development we had prototype multiplayer game modes working, but they never worked reliably in internet games and we just didn't have the time to finish them. With DEFCON we solved that problem as part of the games development, and this makes it much easier for us to work on Multiwinia (codename) without worrying about the networking stuff anymore.
Eurogamer: Multiwinia echoes back to Darwinia's origins as Future War, yes? If I recall correctly, you said that the whole thousands-of-people-fighting didn't really work, which is one reason why you moved Darwinia more solo. How are you making it fly now?
Chris Delay: I guess we'll let you know when we figure it out! It's been an ongoing discussion - we find ourselves revisiting concepts that didnt work the first time around during Future War's development, and they usually don't work this time around either. It's certainly proving to be quite a challenge - Darwinia seems initially to be perfect for multiplayer, but the reality is far from it. Darwinia is essentially an action game and you spend most of your time controlling squaddies, but neither of those things fit hugely well in a multiplayer setting. Having said that, we do have a rich back-story and mythology to draw upon, and established unit types and behaviours, and that helps to narrow things down thematically. Like anything connected to Darwinia its a massive challenge to make it work well, and we love that kind of challenge.
Eurogamer: And, finally, we hear that Introversion has moved headquarters - from bedroom to living-room. Has no longer being the last of the bedroom coders changed the group's dynamics in any way?
Chris Delay: The new headquarters are bearing up nicely - we're still shifting boxes around and trying to bring some semblance of order to the chaos but it's definitely a much better set-up than before. So far, its really the business side of the team who've been most benefiting from this new place so Vic, Tom and Mark [Vic and Tom Arundel and Mark Morris, Introversion's business, marketing and PR brains - Ed] are together most days trying to figure out more outlandish schemes for making some money. In that sense we definitely feel that we've grown up a bit - we have a more healthy working environment set up here, we work more sociable, regular hours and as you'd expect, general communication and efficiency has improved a lot. The dev team is still pretty spread out however, so I'm still up in Cambridge, working from home, as are John and Gary. But the great thing about this new place is that it gives us a solid base, we can hold dev and board meetings here and its a good place for everyone to hangout. We've got a massive BBQ set, a load of consoles, a big projector and lots of sleeping space - what more do you need?