Once The Last of the Bedroom Programmers, the Robin Hood of Independent Forest, the David to the industry's Goliath, the [that's enough metaphor - Ed], Introversion nowadays finds itself beavering away on an Xbox Live Arcade version of Darwinia+. It's quite the transformation for a tiny studio that won the Independent Games Festival's grand prize a few years ago and celebrated by sticking two fingers up to publishers. Following the developer's turn at Eurogamer Expo 2009, we spoke to managing director Mark Morris to get the whole story.
Eurogamer: During your Developer Session you suggested you hadn't enjoyed your Darwinia+ partnership with Microsoft. What's the full story here?
Mark Morris: When we first embarked down this route we we really worried that Microsoft were going to be really invasive with regards to the content of the game. We set ourselves up as a company as being really independent and not wanting that publisher interference to sand the edges off, if you like, and one of the big fears we had was that Microsoft was going to do that with Darwinia+.
The first message that I'm trying to get out there is that they didn't do that at all. There was never a point where they bullied us in any way into changing the content in a direction we weren't happy to go down. What did happen, though, was that we had different quality standards in our mind - a different perception of what we wanted to deliver, and what constituted an Xbox Live Arcade game. We found going through that with Microsoft was very difficult. It was like everything we did wasn't good enough. We were working quite hard and sending [builds] through and constantly getting "that's not good enough" back from them. And that was what I was joking about during the presentation - at them driving us really hard.
The other thing is the way in which they helped us to improve the game was really good as well. One of the things they did was a big usability report for us, this massive, 80-page document on everything that was wrong within the game. We took it and were going through it and thinking, "What in this do we agree with and what do we not agree with?" And actually it turned out we agreed with most of the problems that were happening, and then we had to figure our how we were going to solve it. Also, things like the menus - and we talked about that a lot during our sessions - a lot of that came from Microsoft's user interface team. That broke this stalemate that we were in.
The key message is that we found it a lot longer and a lot harder than we expected, but ultimately they've always been fair, played it straight, and been evidence-based and given us the tools we need to move forward.
Eurogamer: In 2006 you leapt onto the Independent Games Festival stage to grab your well-deserved Seamus McNally grand prize and infamously told the world you hadn't wanted any publisher "f***ing with" your game. Yet today you have stood there and told us Microsoft was right to criticise your game and suggest you alter it in certain ways. Thinking back to that infamous quote - would you give the same speech today?
Mark Morris: Back then we didn't have... We're stood in this room now with all these wonderful indie games around us, and I'm confident a lot of them are going to make it to market. That wasn't the case back in 2006, because the publishers really were considered the enemy, sucking the life and the creativity out of game development.
What we've seen now is a new breed of entity; Microsoft as a platform holder, Valve as a platform holder, providing really big markets to developers and, in Microsoft's case, providing really useful services like this deep usability work that they were doing. In the past, publishers had stopped providing those services. Publishers were taking all of the the money and not actually delivering any value back. What we're seeing now - certainly with Microsoft and Valve - is people that aren't taking the lion's share of the royalties, are demanding a very high standard, but are helping developers to get there. That's a workable and sustainable model.
I wouldn't get up on stage and say, "F*** the new breed of useful and decent guys!" But that said, even with Multiwinia when we launched on PC, we were still getting these atrocious deals from publishers coming up and saying, "Oh look we'll take the whole global rights off you for ten-, fifteen-thousand dollars." Come on guys, wake up.
Eurogamer: Darwinia was a champion of that original indie surge. Can Darwinia+ be a champion again? Where do you see Introversion within the movement today?
Mark Morris: We used to call ourselves The Last of the Bedroom Programmers, and we started taking flak from that. When we first started out we did consider ourselves to be really flying the flag for small teams. Indie now is quite an established genre: people have indie sections and there are indie reviews in magazines. This didn't exist back in the day. There was even a lot of consternation whether Darwinia was an indie game because we were on Steam therefore we'd sold out.
What we're trying to do is reposition ourselves so we can stay true to the indie creative vibe: the quirkiness; the not triple-A, photo-realistic graphical look; the ability to plunge into different areas, different genres and try and be really challenging. But with Introversion I want to do that on multiple platforms - so on PC, PSN and Xbox Live Arcade - and I want our games to be increasingly more highly polished and a better experience for the user.
I see ourselves as making this transition from non-professional developer - a couple of guys in a bedroom making great games (not that it's not worthwhile when I say "non-professional" - I just mean doing it as a hobby) into sustainable long-term development studio that's putting out great titles on multiple platforms but without compromising on our creativity or values.
Eurogamer: I remember reading Chris Delay's four-part journal about the bad luck Introversion had suffered over recent years - you've certainly had your fair share. Is it fair to say that there's an air of desperation surrounding Darwinia+?
Mark Morris: You say "bad luck", I'll say "bad planning". I'll put may hands up and say we should have and could have managed this better. Subversion is our next major IP and we're all really looking forward to getting onto this...
Eurogamer: What, even Chris?
Mark Morris: Yeah yeah ha ha! Just a bit! Chris has had a really hard ride because we were doing things with Channel 4 and all sorts of things just to keep us alive, right? And the only reason Chris wanted to be part of Introversion was to develop his own games, so he's had it worse. But he's now off of Darwinia+ and he's working with Subversion, so that's in development and it's looking great.
Also, we've Defcon coming up on PSN. That project is starting to take shape, and hopefully the lessons we learned from Darwinia+ [means] we'll be able to do that project swiftly and less painfully.
In order for this future to materialise for us we don't need a huge number of sales [of Darwinia+]. We're not far above Space Giraffe levels, which is the bottom. If we can hit that level of sales then the future of Introversion is going to be brilliant - we're going to be back on track making Subversion, new, original IP that we really want to do, broadening our base and everything's wonderful. However, if we don't make that number of sales then we won't have the resources to carry on, so there is this point and the whole company is focusing towards it. Either that will be the end or we'll come back with a very, very different attitude and level of capability for making games.
Eurogamer: Are you concerned that Darwinia - first released four years ago - will no longer be relevant?
Mark Morris: The Darwinia and Multiwinia package together is really the right way to present both of these games. I still think Darwinia is a really strong game - it's a really great idea and a really wonderful concept. I don't think necessarily that it's a game particularly of its time. I think as a package the two together really represent great value and also from a gameplay point of view they sit together really, really nicely. And I'm hoping that the 360 audience - many of them having never seen or heard anything of Darwinia - are going to come to it with fresh eyes and really love it.
Eurogamer: Would you work on Xbox Live Arcade again?
Mark Morris: Yeah, we really would.
Eurogamer: Why did you decide to take Defcon to PlayStation Network?
Mark Morris: We were in talks with Microsoft for Defcon, and Microsoft, they really want differentiators for games on their service. And because Defcon had been out on PC before they really wanted something new to differentiate it. And that was where the problem started with Darwinia+. It's fair - Microsoft has got more games out so they can act in that way. Whereas Sony are just a bit keener to increase the number of games on the system. If you've got a good game that stands up well and looks good, they'll take it.
The reason that we've gone with PSN is really about development speed, because we think we can do it quicker - we think we can do it really fast. Also, I really want, strategically, to be able to work with both Sony and Microsoft, because I really want to get our game out to as wide an audience as we possibly can. I still maintain that the difficult part is making the game itself. Once you've got that core game and it's fun and all the rest, then the technical aspect of putting it onto the different systems should, in theory, be a little bit easier and a little bit less risky. That's the direction I want to take Introversion on, so that we can take anything and put it out on any of the platforms.
Eurogamer: There's another platform that appears to be a great fit for Introversion's independent values, Introversion's small team and Introversion's market - and that's iPhone. Are you exploring there?
Mark Morris: Not really, not really. And the reason I say that is I've heard very, very mixed reports on how well Apps do on iPhone. It's very difficult to get any kind of presentation to the user; there are so many Apps out there that getting through all the noise and getting people to download and play is very difficult. There have been some success stories: I was talking to Charles Cecil about Beneath a Steel Sky that he released recently and he's been very pleased with the response that he's got. But for every one of those there's 50 others. I was chatting to another developer recently, and he said, "If you can't get your game out within a month on iPhone then you're not going to get any profit from it."
That said, I think Uplink would be a really great fit: the interface would work really quite well. People talk about Defcon but actually the 'fat-finger' problem is really going to come in with Defcon. But Uplink could work really well. We might do Uplink as a vanity project for us; something that we're not really worried about making too much money from, but just put it out there so we've got an iPhone presence. I think a lot of the Uplink fans would enjoy that.
Eurogamer: Uplink 2 is a game that's been screamed for, but you say it's an itch that will be scratched by Subversion. How's Subversion doing as a project now?
Mark Morris: It's really good, actually. I can't talk too much about it but for a long time we were in just this technology exploration phase with cities. But recently we've started focusing a little bit more on what the game's going to be, on how you're going to interact with this world, and over the last couple of weeks we've taken some big leaps forward in understanding the game. We've never before run with the first playable [builds], although a lot of development studios go down that route. We're choosing to do that with Subversion because, for instance, with Darwinia it took years before we actually understood the game, so we want to avoid that mistake and hit our first playable quite quickly.
We probably won't be showing this to the world, but internally by Christmas - something like that - we'll have the first level of Subversion done and ready. That's brilliant. And then it's just a case of expanding that into a full game.
Eurogamer: What kind of development cycle are you looking at for Subversion?
Mark Morris: We try in general to tighten up everything we do, but I don't want to over-constrain it. I'm trying to run the Defcon PSN project very tightly, but less tightly the Subversion project. The timescale we're forecasting at the moment is about 18 months from now until launch. It'll slip, but maybe within a couple of years - that's when we need to get it out there.
Eurogamer: What's the right price for Darwinia+?
Mark Morris: Er, I'm not going to talk about that! Microsoft will... We get into a discussion with them once it's been certified to agree what it needs to be.
Eurogamer: Do you have a figure in your head at the moment?
Mark Morris: I do, but I want to talk to Microsoft and let that negotiation take its course.
Eurogamer: Once upon a time you, as a PC developer, would only consider PC. Does it feel strange now to be considering consoles first?
Mark Morris: Subversion is being developed as a PC game, but even now, Chris will be saying, "You can see how I could now flip this into a console-controlled game." He's now moving into that mindset. We're never going to move away from PC. Valve are just an incredible team of people to work with, they're so good at what they do. And Steam is just amazing. Even though we hope we won't have cashflow problems, on PC, by selling directly to consumers like we do, eventually if you need to just switch it on on one day then you switch it on, and the money comes straight back into your pocket and you can start paying the bills again. Whereas you can't do that on consoles. We've had so many false launch-dates for Darwinia+: when we came into 2009 we thought June, we had no conception that we might not be out in 2009. It just keeps moving and moving. We've had to do a lot of work to fund that, because we don't have any PC projects about to go live, because with PC you've always got that ability to flip the switch.
Coming back to this idea of being fiercely creative: if we wanted to make a crazy game that every publisher just goes, "Oh no that's just too hot, you're not putting that out on Xbox Live," then we could still put it out and make a statement on PC. So yeah: still very much PC lead, but hopefully with 360 and PSN also.
Eurogamer: You mentioned Darwinia+ being pushed back time and time again - is there a chance Microsoft might opt to have the game as a Summer of Arcade 2010 release?
Mark Morris: We need the cash quite quickly! We couldn't really hold back until next summer to launch it. Cert is a difficult process to go through. Up to recently we've been really happy with it, but there's been a couple of things where Microsoft have said, "Well if you don't like the process we can chat afterwards and do a post-mortem." There's a couple of things I think could be improved on.
What we've got to do is get through cert, then we can start talking with the marketing team about launch dates, price points and support that hopefully Microsoft will give us on the Dashboard.
Darwinia+ is due out for Xbox Live Arcade after Christmas. Mark Morris is managing director of Introversion.