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GCDC 2007: Introversion's Morris Goes Up Against the Big Boys

Introversion Software (Darwinia, DEFCON)'s Mark Morris led a panel at the GCDC in Leipzig called "Against the Big Boys," detailing his company's indie success story, challenging development cycles and the benefits and risks of owning your own IP --
Introversion Software (Darwinia, DEFCON) participated in a discussion at the GCDC in Leipzig called "Against the Big Boys," on how to build a successful independent games company in the face of massive changes within the industry, such as evolving publisher/developer relationships, new distribution models, and other unique challenges to the burgeoning indie games developer. Managing director Mark Morris stepped up to tell the audience, mostly newcomers to the indie scene in operational roles, how Introversion made the leap from bedroom to living-room programming, starting with lessons learned from Uplink, Introversion's first commercial title -- which lost £50,000 when the licensee went bankrupt, in addition to £25,000 on advertising and £10,000 on E3, both of which Morris said were "wasted." "When you're small, you can't generate enough buzz," he explained. "You have really got to focus your efforts on PR; you have to got to have a close eye on your cash flow." What went right with Uplink? Morris says the cult status of a niche game, as well as word of mouth, press frenzy, a thriving community and, of course, strong retail sales were all big wins. Now, "when we release the next game, we already have our community we can build on," Morris explains. Discussing the development of 2005's Darwinia, which he feels was a "very great, a very good game," Morris described the early concept, initially called Future War. "[There were] massive amounts of soldiers, massive armies running around. Six months later, [we had] problems with controlling these massive amounts." So 10 months later, the team massively reduced the number of armies and soldiers, opting to stick to a small number of groups instead. 12 months later, a dramatic change in visuals took the game closer to the Darwinia we know today; at 19 months, the controls were enhanced, and the final Darwinia was achieved by 31 months -- leaving the developers with "hardly any money left," Morris recalled. So what went wrong? Besides taking three years, Morris feels that a poor demo, "bad" content, and initial overpricing ($29.99) were major problems for the game. "Darwinia is incredibly difficult to get into," he added. "We overestimated the tolerance of the gaming community to completely new things. In the future, we will be very careful about content." Still, Darwinia garnered 90 percent positive reviews, distribution via Steam, global retail, and 3 out of 5 awards at the Independent Games Festival including the $25,000 top prize. "I was too drunk to get aware of all of it," Morris admits of that night at the IGF. "I guess I slept on a park bench that night." Morris described the plan for DEFCON, Introversion's next title: "Make a game in 24 hours... okay, one week," he conceded. Day 1, the first layout; by day 3, the world map. Day 7, improved graphics -- and DEFCON was finished by day 357. So what happened to "one week?" "It's all about balancing to make sure the game is fun," Morris says. And the long process was expensive; "The last money we got left in our bank account was the check for the Defcon launch party," he recalled. DEFCON also had its problems. "Everything died after launch," Morris explained, recalling how the high number of downloads led to servers crashing on the very first day. In addition, there were issues with platform interoperability and increased support requests. On the other hand, DEFCON, like Darwinia, achieved high critical acclaim, with 85 percent positive reviews and $30,000 in sales in the game's first month. And of course, the party was cool, with 50 percent of that elusive demographic -- that is, females -- in attendance. How does Morris' team of 8 (plus a few freelancers) compete? "[We] create radically different, deeply creative games," he said. And, "[we] require creative freedom , so we work to minimize restraining influences like publishers and IP owners." "We try to create the games the players want to play," he continued. "At the point you stick to an IP you lose your creativity." Morris acknowledged that publishers provide development money, market knowledge and testing localizations, in addition to sales channels and market support for a given title. But, "they don't really know the market, I think," Morris said. "For them, it's all about managing their risks. They don't say, 'hey this is an great idea no one ever has done before. Let's put money behind it.'" "All we need them to do is to provide development money," he added. "The best [person] to push a game is the developer itself. It's not that the publishers are evil, are bad. But [giving money] is all they are here for. It [also] comes down to risk management on both sides. Can the publisher help you to minimize your risks?" So why develop your own IP? Morris cites fewer creative restrictions, firstly. Also, naturally risk-averse IP owners will seek to preserve their brand and developers are required to deliver game design documents up-front -- thereby reducing the scope for experimentation within design, and a tighter time scale reduces the scope for experimentation in implementation. And, as Morris reminded the audience, time is money, and time not spent acquiring a license means reduced overhead. With one's own IP, there is no owner with technical requirements to satisfy either, resulting in teams that can stay small and agile. Additionally, one's own IP can be licensed onto different platforms, and there's less competition, too. "There are many developers for hire, but there's only one Introversion," he noted, and creating one's own IP means maximum return from sales, independence from a single customer, and the potential for creating the next big brand. "It's a higher risk, but potentially, higher gain," Moore added. "The closer you can get to the customer, the better for your cash-flow." In the Q&A that followed, Morris was asked how Introversion landed its deal with Steam, to which he glibly replied, "We got drunk with [Valve COO Scott Lynch]. It was simple as that." Finally, asked what other marketing opportunities small developers have if they don't have a publisher, Morris concluded, "It depends on your distribution channel. If you treat journalists with respect, they will talk to you. Go and find somebody from the business school who is on the business side for you. If you don't have someone like that in your team [looking out for you] in that regard, you are a lot weaker."

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