[Gamasutra writer Lewis Denby goes for refreshing lunch with Introversion's Mark Morris and Chris Delay to discuss Darwinia, indie aesthetics and what really makes them mad, in an article originally published on sister alt.gaming blog GameSetWatch.]
"How much am I allowed to swear?" asks Mark Morris. Introversion's MD has just been asked about the differences between retail and digital distribution from the perspective of an independent development company. He's silent for a few seconds, before leaning into the mic and explaining what he calls "the motherfucker scale."
"Digital distributors are lower down," he says, "but retail stores are very much at the top."
We're at Videogame Nation
, a summer-long celebration of the video game industry, set among the reams of more established art forms at Manchester's Urbis gallery. Mark, along with Creative Director Chris Delay, is fielding questions from a room full of press, aspiring developers and curious members of the public.
Far from the marketing-infested buzz that Leigh recently condemned
, these two are brutally honest, and not afraid to discuss their industry experiences in great depth. Though I audibly squirm at a comment about the laziness of the press, it's thoroughly refreshing stuff.
Still, it's not the press they're really resentful of. "One of the services that publishers traditionally claim to offer developers is press relations," Mark tells me over paninis in a hidiously overpriced cafe later. "But if you've ever heard a publisher's PR team speaking, they would always say 'the best person to talk about your game is you
.' My question is always, 'so why are we paying you
"Developers are completely missing a trick if they're not going directly to the press, engaging and talking and getting rid of the middlemen. My view has always been that, in business, it's best to get on the right side of people, try and be honest, and try to tell them what's going on. Have a few beers, you know? Not to sound too cynical - not just to get the contract - but because you actually get on with these people."
Introversion, which is currently completing Darwinia+
for Xbox Live Arcade and documenting the process
on its website, see honest and open communication with the press as a key critical component in development. When they showed an almost-final build of Multiwinia
to PC Gamer UK, meeting for a curry afterwards led to the revelation that the magazine's staff hated the game's control system.
"We went into panic mode," says Mark. "We're launching in three weeks and we're putting in a new control system at the last minute."
"We didn't have any hesitation, though," Chris Delay explains. "What they'd told us was so obvious. So we just spent two weeks redoing it."
"We see the press as always being a critical part of what we do," says Mark. "If we hadn't had the 82% review of Uplink
from PC Gamer, we couldn't have taken that review to the distributor and got our retail deal off the back of it. So it's always been important for us to provide the press with good access and good exposure in good time."
The Art of Programming
As insightful as Introversion's comments about their business outlook are, they're not the reason I was so keen to meet Mark and Chris. A fan of their work since Uplink
's release in 2001, I had become increasingly aware of a certain theme running through their releases. Where more mainstream developers have continually added to their feature lists, boasting about the best new technology or the most gruesome ways in which you can decapitate an antagonist, Introversion's titles are stripped back: simple yet entirely effective, without sacrificing the core experience of becoming involved in their games.
"Chris and I were talking about this on the train on the way up," Mark tells me. "We were talking about Assassin's Creed
, and the effort they put into creating those great animations. But when you've seen that animation for the tenth time, it's kind of like a mobile uncanny valley. You know that someone wouldn't climb up that exact same way ten times. They've missed, they've failed somehow: it looks good but there's something wrong with it. So our aim is not to try to simulate the real world; it's to create a self-consistent game environment that provides massive immersion for the player."
, it was all about the construction of the world," says Chris. "Everything's blocky and chunky because it's a digital world. They haven't put the shading in yet."
These game environments - be it a fully three-dimensional playing field or a futuristic computer monitor - are certainly novel, and seem to exist in a world where photo-realisim does not equate to the most arresting gaming experience. If you can invest in the fiction, even if it's a fiction driven by technological limitations, you'll have a lot more fun than if you're observing the pixel-perfect realisation of something that is, quite simply, not that interesting.
Despite the publicly available development diaries documenting their next release, Subversion
, Introversion remain tight-lipped about what playing the game will actually involve. "I don't want to tell people what it is when it might change," says Chris. "We had a vague idea at the start of what it was going to be, but we had a much stronger idea about the kind of technology we wanted to investigate. Some people say that's a bad way to design games, but from our point of view the game design and technological design are very closely intertwined, and one kind of informs the other.
"The Darwinians are the way they are because we were working with flat-sprite technology, and the story of why they're flat sprites came later. But you wouldn't really say the Darwinians came about because
we did flat technology. It's more integral than that. It's different steps that clearly fit together. The same is true of Subversion
, and we wouldn't have any fears about changing the core game quite severely if we hit on something that worked really well in a different direction."
The Indie Aesthetic
There's a common school of thought that independent development is heavily focused on the artistic side of gaming, particularly in recent years. Jonathan Blow's Braid
took platform narrative to new places, 2D Boy's World of Goo
revelled in its hand-drawn visuals, and Tale of Tales' The Path
was heavier in abstract symbolism than, well, pretty much anything. But despite the undeniably distinctive aesthetic of Introversion's work, they remain very much a programmer-led company. I was curious about their thoughts on this independent design ideology.
"I think there is an indie style," says Chris. "I mean, you can smell an indie game a mile off, can't you? The visual style is a very strong indie theme. It's innocent, almost. Things like Darwinia
, or Braid
, or World of Goo
, or Aquaria
, or anything like that - they've all got a sort of innocence to their graphics, which is brought about from technological constraints and their creativity within those constraints."
"I think there are probably a couple of components that make an indie game suddenly become noticed," adds Mark. "One of those is it has to be good, and the other is they have to finish it. I think that's a part of where that design ideology comes from, because whoever it is, if it's a small team of two or three people, I think they have to have a clear idea of the direction they're moving in. If they don't, they'll lose their way, and there's no requirement to keep going with it."
The independent style also seems to be fueled by an awareness of other media, and a self-awareness about the importance of such influences. Be it World of Goo
's Burton-esque imagery, or The Path
's riff of Little Red Riding Hood, this inspiration seems to drive the art and theory of a variety of low-budget releases.
It's been no secret that Defcon
, Introversion's 2006 thermonuclear war game, was heavily inspired by the film WarGames. Now, three years later, code-savvy fans have been invited to create AI bots
to battle against each other in the previously multiplayer universe. "It's a pretty cool idea, as it's gone full circle," says Chris. "The idea of AI bots playing Defcon
against each other, endlessly simulating again and again, playing game after game until the winner's declared - it goes all the way back to the original movie."
The confidence and openness with which Introversion discuss their work is a rare treat within the games industry. Throughout my time with them, the pair bicker and disagree without a care in the world of who might be listening.
"In that talk we gave today," says Mark, "we tried to give a window into some of the challenges that Introversion faces. We don't want to stand up and pretend we've solved them all. I think the fact that there's a difference of opinion between Chris and me is what keeps the business on the straight and narrow. If we were gearing up to sell Introversion then we might want to be perceived as being a bit more cohesive and professional. But that's not what we're about. We're just about running a company and making games."
[Lewis Denby is general editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. Wander over to his website for more information and contact details.