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Staying Independent

There are a lot of crushed souls in the games industry. A lot of people who set out with the hope of creating fantastic new games that allow them to express their creativity, whilst simultaneously providing a great experience for the players. These are the people who were cut deepest when publisher’s pull the budget on the “risky” titles in favour of the “safe bets”. These are the people who lost a little more hope each time the producer told them that their idea was way too ‘out there’ for a modern audience.

We knew people like this when we set up Introversion and we run into them now and then in the bars and restaurants surrounding the games conferences.

When we first set out to write video games we knew the damage that publishers could do both to games themselves, and the people writing them, and we were not willing to let that happen to us. In order to ensure our creative freedom, we had to be independent from publishers and license holders, and that independence has become a guiding mantra for us.

Independence from publishers has allowed us ultimate freedom and enabled us to create without compromise, explore without boundaries and live by a work ethos that isn’t about setting limitations. After six years with the sole aim of keeping the company financially afloat, we did a spot of team building or as industry bods call it, ‘vision alignment’. We wanted to establish in what direction we might all be heading. Despite the fact that we’re a fairly disparate bunch of people with very different motivations, the exercise really proved that remaining independent was the key shared aspiration at Introversion.

"...after the suggestion that we add smiley faces to the Darwinian sprites to make them ‘cuter’, we knew that self-publishing was the only option..."

But to be honest, when we first set up Introversion in 2001, being independent was not a choice we made, it was the only option there was. Chris Delay, the creative force behind the company, had been hard at work creating a game called Uplink, a unique computer hacking sim, while he was at university. The trouble was that Uplink was weird; it looked odd and had stark, minimalist graphics at a time when developers were being pressured into jumping on the photorealism bandwagon.

Even worse for a publisher, Uplink didn’t fit into any specific genre – there simply weren’t any other hacking games out there.

With little hope of getting any reasonable offers from a publisher we decided to go it alone, each investing a small sum of beer money to pay for the ink cartridges and CD burners that would see us through our first home-production run. We set up an online store, Chris seeded a few forums with hints about this ‘strange new game’ and before we knew it Uplink was selling, to our surprise, extremely well. Buoyed up by our successes we were able to move away from in-house production, burn some money on fast cars and speed-boats at that year’s E3 and set to work on the next title.

Darwinia, like Uplink, completely bucked the trend – whilst everyone was moving towards seamless graphic-design and increasingly modern gameplay features, Darwinia was an irreverent throw-back to the halcyon days of gaming; a retro dreamscape with beautiful fractal visuals, iconic sprites and in-game audio that resembled the 8-bit sounds of the 1980s.

"...Darwinia’s 18-months of experimentation virtually bankrupted all of us but from a creative point of view it’s allowed us artistic integrity..."

At one stage we did visit a publisher who had expressed marginal interest in Darwinia but after the suggestion that we add smiley faces to the Darwinian sprites to make them ‘cuter’, we knew that self-publishing was the only option.

In the past, remaining independent has made periods of development at Introversion a financially precarious position to be in and Darwinia’s 18-months of experimentation virtually bankrupted all of us. From a creative point of view though it’s allowed us artistic integrity and enabled us to explore new ideas that challenge perceptions about gaming.

The success we’ve had from our games stems from a realisation that for some gamers, gameplay is more important than having 15 guns to choose from in an FPS.

Admittedly, the market we’re appealing to is niche, but it allows us to operate very comfortably in a zone which isn’t trying to compete with the bigger publishers. We can make precisely the kind of games we want without publishers breathing down our necks to jump on the sequel bandwagon.

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Mark Morris

Creative inspiration for us has nothing to do with looking at game sales figures and the production of countless cookie-cutter sequels – it’s something more random and organic than that. Inspiration can come from anywhere and our independence allows us to fully appreciate the uncertainty, but amazing fruitfulness of unconstrained ideas-generation. Whilst independence can throw up its own creative constraints (without a big budget, our ideas must be practically achievable given our limited resources) we’ve always tried to use this to our advantages.

"...one journalist in the UK actually disconnected from the Internet whilst playing Uplink because he really believed he was doing something illegal..."

We’ve spent a lot of time developing technologies that allow us to do more with less – for example in one of our new games called Subversion, Chris has been working on a procedural generation model to create incredibly detailed and realistic city maps all from the click of a few buttons. And rather than try to follow the photorealism trend we’ve looked at other ways to immerse the gamer than simply through visuals – we put a lot of effort into creating a ‘mood’ in our games through gameplay features or audio. I remember one journalist in the UK telling us that he’d actually disconnected from the Internet whilst playing Uplink because he really believed he was doing something illegal.

Meanwhile DEFCON, an apocalyptic look into the very real threat of global thermonuclear war, has been praised for the starkly moving audio soundtrack which combines melancholy string adagios with snippets of people coughing and women sobbing – all sombre-inducing stuff that’s specifically designed to draw the gamer in. The point is that our independence allows us to explore these sorts of emotional avenues which would probably send publishers running in the opposite direction.

Without doubt though there have also been some critical changes within the games industry over the past few years that have enabled us to remain independent, enabling more indies to creep out of the woodwork. One of the key enablers has been the advance in digital distribution, allowing systems like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade to prosper, or supply indies with the resources to set up their own online stores. In an age of desire for immediate gratification it’s a sure-fire hit with customers, and with much higher gross profits on each game sale going straight back to the developer, everyone’s set to be a winner.

Digital distribution could play a big role in rejuvenating what has become an increasingly stagnated and tired industry over time. There’s an opportunity to take more risks so developers will be more likely to take a gamble on creating innovative games that might not otherwise get aired in more staid climates.

Independence has always been more than an astute business model for us though – it’s gradually seeped into everything we do to become a way of life, allowing us the freedom and flexibility to reposition if we should ever need to. One could argue that corporate giants are trapped by their own success – with huge overheads and large workforces to maintain, they must at the very least cover their bases in order to survive. With the economic forecasters threatening global recession, it’s no surprise that these companies will continue sticking to tried and tested games in favour of anything more original.

At Introversion, we’ve been used to working from home and having minimal outgoings – we’ve been able to run with nothing in the bank and if we had to, we could go back to that and we’d still survive. When we left uni we used to joke that Introversion was just an excuse to prevent us from having to go and find proper jobs. In many ways I think we still all feel a bit that way – working here in the way we do can seem like a bit of a dream scenario. But one thing’s for sure, if that independence, that freedom, should ever end I doubt any of us would stick around. We’d all be out looking for some other way to avoid falling into that proper job.