Hacking the system

 
 

Mark Morris, co-founder of veteran UK indie developers Introversion Software, talks to Niall Gosker about the tough early millennial years and their vision for cyberspace in video games

Before indie games development as we know it today really took off, Introversion Software were hard at work desperately trying to make it. The company came together at the turn of the millennium in 2001 when three friends, some of whom already had full-time development jobs at other companies, decided to try their own thing.

Since then, they’ve become known as one of the UK’s premier independent developers with a small, but very dedicated, following. The journey hasn’t always been a smooth one, with some bumpy patches along the way to a currently comfortable status.

The group’s debut game is arguably their most striking, a considerable feat in light of how imaginative future titles from Introversion Software continued to be. Uplink is certainly a product of its time, capitalising on the sudden mass interest in cyber hijinks in light of the success of The Matrix.

Mark Morris, co-founder and Managing Director, recalls what inspired the team to delve into the shady world of hacking for their first project. “We’d been teenagers during the time that the whole cyberspace theme started becoming prevalent. Neuromancer, Sneakers, Lawnmower Man etc.

“Hollywood had done a great job of portraying the exciting side of hacking, but nobody had made a video game that did the same thing, abstracted the boring and tedium of being an actual hacker and replaced it with a thrilling story in which the player participates.

“I think we actually really nailed that vision with Uplink,” Morris says. “Even 13 years later, I personally don’t think there is a better hacking game.”

It was a homemade endeavour in every sense of the word, with creative lead, Chris Delay, and business manager, Thomas Arundel, having to make the CDs for each order themselves. It’s important to remember that at this stage the idea of purchasing games digitally wasn’t widespread, making distribution for smaller teams much more difficult than it is now.

Despite being very well received, like many great experimental games, Uplink didn’t sell in huge numbers. Further compounding the impending financial woes was the issue of US publisher Strategy First, who stopped paying royalties.

Two years after its release, Uplink was continuing to sell, but only in the region of around £3,000 worth of copies a month, just enough for key infrastructure, such as web servers, to remain in play. By the summer of 2003, the company was almost broke. All hopes lay upon the success of the team’s second title, Darwinia, which wouldn’t come out for almost two more years after being subject to delays.

Darwinia followed a familiar pattern, launching to positive reviews and modest sales, but then petering out within a few months. It seemed as though they were heading for a second financial crash, until they decided to get in touch with Valve, the company who own the digital distribution platform Steam, which had gained momentum in the several years since its rocky launch with Half-Life 2 in 2004.

Valve was all too eager to arrange for Darwinia to join the ever-growing ranks of their store. With this, Introversion Software gained a new level of exposure to a greatly increased worldwide audience.

They had come a long way from having to press their own compact discs. Game number three came in 2006, a global thermonuclear war simulator named after the United States’ defence readiness system, DEFCON. It finally marked the beginning of a period of stability, which has only gotten stronger since.

While the team’s projects are very varied in both concept and gameplay, certain recurring themes and ideas run through most of them, such as the consequences of human interaction with technology. Morris suggests that they don’t deliberately go after these specifics, but rather they tend to pop up naturally.

“We don’t set out with a particular set of characteristics that we want to include in the next Introversion game, but there are similarities. I once boiled it down to cerebral, strongly thematic strategy games. Hacking, nuclear war, prisons; Darwinia is the exception. I think that’s what we do best.”

Such a mandate probably shouldn’t come as a surprise from a group with the word ‘introversion’ in their title. Many of the company’s games are thick in atmosphere, DEFCON being a particular highlight in this regard with a wonderfully bleak depiction of the apocalypse. Most impressive about this is how such an evocative tone is created with such minimalist visuals.

With DEFCON, players see only a blackened map of the world with the millions of human lives hanging in the balance represented by mere simple symbols.

“It’s almost all about the audio. We have an absolutely marvellous audio guy, Al Lindsay, who really understands Chris’ vision for a game and creates a soundscape that provides the atmosphere that you’re talking about. We wouldn’t be half as successful as we have been if it wasn’t for Al.”

For the past two years the team has been working on Prison Architect, which is something of tonal departure, opting for a more light-hearted approach. Despite only being in alpha, the game has reportedly made approximately $11 million USD for Introversion, the decision to go with an early access model having paid off handsomely.

It’s a remarkable contrast to the difficult situations Introversion Software faced in their earlier years and a testament to how game development has changed so significantly over the past decade, so as to allow smaller teams the ability realise their visions without having to starve for it.

To keep up with the development of Prison Architect visit http://www.introversion.co.uk/

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