You could never criticise the guys at Introversion for not sharing their views of the world. From swearing at the mainstream industry during their Independent Games Festival acceptance speech, to Chris Delay's detailed and heartrending posts about exactly how bad their 2008 turned out to be, they have always been impressively open about what they've been thinking while making their chain of splendid independent games.
But as they work on Darwinia+, the Xbox Live Arcade version of that IGF Grand Prize winner (also incorporating last year's Multiwinia), they've gone a step further, and taken to open development. They've posted everything from emails to design documents to Microsoft feedback reports and, well, just go and look at the treasure trove. For anyone with the slightest interest in how games are made, it's invaluable.
What provoked them to do this? It's an oblique form of marketing for an ever-oblique game. "Anything Darwinia-related is incredibly difficult trying to promote," Delay tells Eurogamer. "It's incredibly strange-looking. It's never done well in adverts or screenshots. They don't really work. With Multiwinia, we spent more than we ever did before and did a whole load of videos which tried to simplify and explain the game. We tried to do a portal style video. Because Portal's not an immediately graspable idea when you just look at pictures. We tried to take a leaf out of Valve's book and do that... and weren't really that successful or garnered any attention.
"Coming around to Darwinia+, the question came up. 'What on earth are we going to do?' Darwinia's already out. Multiwinia's already out. The game's already released. How is this not just 'those games again on Xbox'? How are we going to get people interested?" How indeed. "We thought, 'How about we publish every email we ever did with Microsoft, right back to the start?'" This rapidly grew to become the whole open development concept.
"Xbox development is really closed," says Delay. "You can't get anyone to say anything about anything. Let's turn that around and open it up. Publish all the emails, publish our reports and design documents, publish what it's like to work with a company that's four orders or magnitude larger than ours. Sometimes, there were issues dealing with a big company like Microsoft. You only tend to hear about it... well, you either get stony silence or every now and then a developer will be let loose from the asylum and will suddenly rant. And that's all you get."
In other words, when a developer breaks silence, they've done so because they're at their most furiously bitter. This isn't an accurate portrait. "And it's not a rational opinion," says Delay. "They'd probably look back on that and think that it doesn't reflect their opinion at all - it reflects how they felt on the day. But that's on the record now. So forever 'Jeff Minter hates Microsoft' or whatever. He said that once, and was very bitter because the game hadn't sold that well. But when Multiwinia hadn't sold that well, we did all kinds of things, many of which remained within the walls of Introversion. Some of it leaked out, because you can't help it. It's not a sterile, purely business business, making games."
Since it could be so revealing, it does beg the question of what Microsoft would make of one of their developers wanting to do a kiss and tell even when they're still kissing. "We thought we'd ask them, and we'd ask different people at Microsoft, to compare all the negative responses we got. To see who was the least negative and start work on them..." says Delay, "but they liked the idea."
"They'd been struggling with a similar thing. I like to think they quite like Darwinia+, their company. They're quite excited about it. They could see that Darwinia is an old game, and they don't want it to just look like a port." So things were soon underway. "They suggested a few guidelines and we went ahead and pretty quickly stepped way over them and started publishing confidential reports with classified 'Do Not Publish Outside Microsoft' written on them," says Delay. The result is a site full of the sort of stuff you'd never get to see.
It's obviously of use to anyone considering this form of development. It's hard to actually just get information. "They can't get information about anything to do with Microsoft. If you were thinking about doing an Xbox game you wouldn't be able to find out what royalty return people had got from Microsoft... You'll never get it. There's just no way. No-one's going to tell you that on the record," says Delay. "You can't find out orders of magnitude of sales. This is a classic case of a very closed system, which has gone that way because Microsoft is a very big company. People at Microsoft aren't wed to the idea that it has to be a closed system - they just don't have any way of opening it up. We figured out what they'd be happy for us to do, and started doing it."
Response has been immediate. "A lot of people very quickly said, 'I can't believe you got Microsoft to agree to this, quite frankly'," says Delay. "And then a lot of interest in the site [followed]. I think it's something people are genuinely interested in. Developing games on the Xbox specifically. It's something we're trying to do with [our next game] Subversion. Less like, 'Here's a game. Here's our three-month marketing campaign,' and more, 'There's a process involved in making a game. And the process itself is interesting.' I'd have loved to hear about the process when I was at school and at university. I would have given anything to hear about the inner working of a game company."
And it's good for the team's mentality too. "We love blowing off steam, speaking out about what's going on. It's very cathartic," says Delay. "It's really very satisfying talking about all the problems we've ran into. We have a weird fanbase who are quite interested in that kind of thing. The accumulation of all those things is what brought Darwinia+ forth."
It certainly gives a perspective on how something like Darwinia is brought to consoles. "It's a terrifying thought that it may be thought of just as a port of Darwinia and Multiwinia. And it's not. And the reason it's not is because Microsoft have terribly high standards," laughs Delay. "We were ready about a year ago to go through their certification standards. And they basically said, 'I'm sorry. You've taken your PC game and you've ported your mouse and keyboard to your joypad and it doesn't really work. And we want you to do it all again.'" We really dived in and tried to make an Xbox-specific game. And we think of it as that - as our new game. The culmination of those two games."
Working with Microsoft has pushed some of Introversion's opinions in more accessible directions. "From the cynical point of view, they're big on the trial experience. People who've got the demo version of the game, but haven't bought it. That's the most important point for them - that first 30 minutes are crucial," says Delay. "We've come around to that way of thinking. Not even with Multiwinia, but with Defcon we knew the trial was very important. And ultimately, you want people to buy your game. If they don't buy your game, you can't make your next game. You have to get people to do that. If you take two games, one with a very good tutorial and help system and one without, you'd see a massive difference in purchase rates. Especially if it's an unusual game."
The "unusual game" has been Introversion's perpetual problem, no matter how much the team tries to mitigate it. Multiwinia's sales almost killed the company. They even considered becoming what Delay called "Zombie Introversion", where they would stop making games and just take the money from sales of existing products. Since there would be no staff expenses, the directors - who earn less than the people they hire, and on average across all the years in the business would have been better off working in Sainsbury's - would probably receive more money. They just wouldn't be making games any more.
"We really considered it," says Delay. "After Multiwinia's launch, we realised the best we could hope for was to limp forward to Darwinia+. We did the cashflow after Multiwinia came out, and realised we'd be dead in four months. What can you do in four months? But we were spending a lot of money. In the end, we didn't lay anyone off. We did move office and tighten our belt very heavily so we could last longer."
Multiwinia's lack of success is something they've picked over. Delay suspects it's a question of audiences. "It's a Venn diagram where the crosshatch between people who love retro graphics, people who love indie games, people who love Darwinia and people who love online, competitive multiplayer is... no people at all. It's like 100 people. Even amongst our sometimes-rabid fanbase, there was less interest in Multiwinia. Introversion nearly ended because of Multiwinia, beyond our ability to bring it back. We all took it in turns to feel like it was hopeless. All the other directors had to pull them out of it. We'd worked on it all this time. And there's a childish element to the unfairness of it. If we were going out on Multiwinia, it wouldn't be us going out on a blazing trail of what we stood for. This game was because we made it for Microsoft and Darwinia+."
Thankfully, they're past that, though obviously much rests on the sales success of Darwinia+, which will bring Introversion's games to a console audience for the first time - and there's also the hope someone will pick up the almost-complete DS version of Defcon.
And as developers, Introversion seem to know themselves better. "We make unusual games," says Delay. "All our games have been quirky and weird in some ways. To hit your first failure where you've missed the zeitgeist on your fourth game isn't bad. It'll be foolish to think we'd make every game a hit. When you look at it from a wider point of view - which is the only way you can look at it and remain sane - Multiwinia is a blip on the radar, and our hearts weren't in it in the same way they were with Darwinia and Defcon. And we'll move on. To our credit, we survived."
And survival is the tricky thing. It's not about becoming a monster company - it's simple existence. "We don't want to do three or four games at once. We want to be able to survive a game failing," says Delay. "You don't want to release a game, find out people don't like it and for that to be the end of your company after years and years of hard work.
"We're still here, albeit in a less interesting office than when we did Defcon."
Darwinia+ is due out for Xbox Live Arcade soon.