Kicked Out Of The Bedroom

May 13, 2009 | 11:17

Tags: #arundel #darwinia #independant #mark-morris #multiwinia #uplink

Companies: #defcon #indie #introversion

If something you do costs you money it’s a hobby, if something you do makes you money it’s a business.” These were very comforting words to me during the early years of Introversion. Back then we were a small operation – three people, no office, I was working only part-time, and I spent a lot of my time worried and embarrassed that we weren’t a “proper business”.

We had been lucky with our first game release, Uplink, and had made (almost) enough cash to drive us forward and make our second game Darwinia. Darwinia then won a number of awards at the IGF in 2006, and we rapidly followed up with DEFCON which has been our strongest seller to date. Looking back, I guess there was a certain sense of invincibility within the firm, coupled with a sense of arrogance that somehow we just “knew better” about what to do and how to do it.

It was May 2007 and I had grown tired of living and working in the same space – working from home sounds like a good idea, but I found I could never switch off and it was slowly driving me crazy. We rented a town house in Bermondsey and for the first time ever Introversion had an office. This certainly felt like a major step forward, but it didn’t really change the way we worked or behaved. We were working on Multiwinia at the time and the game design was really coming together well, the X360 port of Darwinia was in full swing and we had made the decision that Multiwinia would be Introversion’s fourth major game launch.
We were developing in the same organic and evolutionary manner that we had always used, but our ability to manage our money had improved and we were convinced that Multiwinia would be our biggest and best game launch yet – not least because we would be launching on PC and X-Box Live Arcade simultaneously. The future looked bright, but unbeknownst to us we were facing a series of blows and knockbacks and a very rough future ride.

Kicked Out Of The Bedroom
DEFCON is still our best-selling game

Our first mistake was to massively underestimate the quality bar required by Microsoft. We were labouring under the impression that a direct port of Darwinia would be all that was required – literally a modification of the code base to get it to run on the 360 and a mod to the control system to make it functional with the controller. We had spent much more time designing the control scheme for Multiwinia (as from our point of view this was our number one project) and we saw Darwinia as a tacked on extra (at one point we wanted to sell Multiwinia and offer Darwinia[/i] as DLC).

Microsoft allowed us to proceed on this assumption for a while, but eventually they drew a line and basically told us that the port as it stood was not up to scratch. The controls were inconsistent between then two games, there was no help or tutorial, and there was none of the “personality” that had caused Darwinia to be such a success on the PC. “Fine,” we said “Multiwinia will be much better and bigger than Darwinia, but we can’t make those changes this side of the Multiwinia PC launch so the XBLA version will have to miss out on all the publicity that we will get – we think this is a stupid decision, but what do we know.” Remember that arrogance that I mentioned earlier?

Eventually Multiwinia PC was launched and we turned our efforts back to the 360 project. Multiwinia had not performed as well as we had hoped, and suddenly Microsoft’s idea of bringing the personality of Darwinia, together with the crazy mayhem of Multiwinia, into one package didn’t seem like such a stupid idea.

Although we now embraced the broad concept we still struggled to appreciate the attention to detail that Microsoft required. We threw in a bunch of ill-considered achievements, knocked up a couple of leaderboards and borrowed the menu scheme from Multiwinia PC. Time and again, Microsoft came back gently and firmly rejecting our work and asking us to do it again – pushing us to turn our grade C work into the A+ job that we were capable of.

Kicked Out Of The Bedroom
Uplink was our break-out title

The finished result is a truly stunning realisation of both games, but it took us a long time to appreciate the gulf between developing a self-published PC title and a fully-integrated XBLA one. Right from the start we massively underestimated the time and effort that we would need to put into Darwinia+ (Darwinia and Multiwinia on XBLA) and although we have finally learnt our lesson, I’m not sure we could have learnt it in a harder way. Constantly having work knocked back and watching the end date slip right is a very miserable position for a dev team to find themselves in.

Part of the issue came from our reluctance to work from a design document - our strong creative drive seems to actively resist tools that attempt to pin down ideas before they have a chance to develop and flourish. But having massively underestimated the scope of the D+ job means from now on all new Introversion Projects have to have a design doc. This might not completely define the game play, but will certainly cover “easier” design issues such as menuing, control systems, meta -ame integration and UI issues. Are design documents abused by Publishers? Definitely. Is there a place for them in game development? Definitely. Rather than using a Design Document as a “Specification” for a game, I see it more as a tool to manage the expectations of both the design effort and implementation timetable for the various components and systems required for the final game. It was our inability to understand and manage our own expectations that led to us having such a rough ride, but development wasn’t the only area in which we had made a massive error of judgement.

Introversion Software is a game development and publishing company. Company. In order for us to survive we have to make money. We don’t exist to maximise shareholder return, but we do need to earn a living, and personally I thrive on growth and challenge, and so the firm needs to expand, and run bigger and better projects year on year, if it is to retain my interest. With this goal in mind it now seems crazy that throughout our first seven or so years we had never bothered to generate a profit and loss prediction for any of our games. Our mindset was to assume that the next release would make us rich and to run the business in such a way as to ensure (as much as possible) that we could release the next game before running out of cash. We had taken this “Multiwinia will make us rich attitude” and when that didn’t happen the company nearly fell apart.

Kicked Out Of The Bedroom
We had a lot of problems developing Multiwinia

Disappointing sales of Multiwinia led to a crisis on the board, with directors deeply questioning their involvement with Introversion. We fought on and eventually identified that it had been our failure to accurately model Multiwinia sales, coupled with unreasonable expectations about it’s revenue generation ability, that had precipitated the dissent. This lead to the second major process change – each project now has associated with it a profit and loss spreadsheet that we can monitor and control.

Now ignoring profit and loss would seem crazy even to an AS Level Business Studies student on their first day at college, but our avoidance of them stemmed from the fact that predicting the sales of a game is phenomenally error-prone – how many copies of a game will you sell on XBLA? Probably somewhere between 10K and 250K. So whilst prediction may be a bit of a gamble, it is possible to model the minimum sales required to get to the next game release, and from this number you can tell if your business is viable or not, and more importantly you can take corrective action early to address the balance if it isn’t. Similarly having an understanding of the various possible scenarios also enables the senior management to predict their personal positions over the next year or so, and steps can be taken to manage the withdrawal of key personnel in such a way so as to minimise the effect on the organisation.

I used to think that it was pretty easy to set up and run a game company as long as you had enough talent to make good games. I now reason that this view was coloured by the phenomenal success that Introversion had enjoyed in its first few years. I look back on Multiwinia PC’s launch as a kind of heart attack for Introversion – it didn’t kill us, but it was a serious wake-up call that our development and business processes were inadequate and despite having the ability to make great games it was going to take a fundamental change of lifestyle to avoid finding ourselves in the same position down-stream. I started this article with some comforting words and I’m going to finish with some more: in 2009, success is survival. Introversion will survive in 2009, but you won’t hear us claim to be the last of the bedroom programmers again – we’re not compromising on creativity (check out our fifth game concept, Subversion, if you want proof), but we work in an office now. We even have an accountant.

Mark Morris
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