British independent game developer behind Darwinia, DEFCON: Why now is the best time to be an indie

Mark Morris, a co-founder of Introversion Software on the indie games scene, the impact of Minecraft, and how before Notch "we all had a dream, now we know the dream is achievable", on distribution platforms - how Steam is a priority for developers - and on how the best route in to games development is trying indie, before aspiring to work as part of a team at the 'old guard' (a big name studio).

Mark Morris Introversion

Formed in 2001 by three friends, Chris Delay, Mark Morris and Thomas Arundel – all Imperial College undergraduates at the time, British independent game developers Introversion Software originally coined themselves ‘the last of the bedroom programmers’ until moving in to an office when working on their fourth game Multiwinia. The indie studio is behind games Uplink, Darwinia, DEFCON, Multiwinia – and upcoming Prison Architect.

Mark Morris of Introverson, tells us about the story behind their conception – “Chris Delay had written uplink during his spare time at university and I saw an advert for an entrepreneur competition that offered £10k for the best business plan.”

“Tom Arundel knew all about stocks and shares and things” “…so I got the three of us to write a business plan based around selling Chris’ game. We didn’t win the competition, but we did launch the company and we’re still going today.”

So as an independent games developer – how do you stand out in a crowded market?

“Our games are focused”, Morris tells us. He describes them as “…theme-driven strategy games that aim to provide a great gaming experience, whilst also making you think about the particular issue explored in the game. Many indie game developers produce casual titles that may be great games, but perhaps have trouble standing out. We try to give our games lots of depth that reviewers and gamers can really get their teeth into.”

Darwina

Darwinia is the second game by Introversion Software.

So where did the creators of these games get their inspiration – what inspired them to create DEFCON, UPLINK and games like Prison Architect?

Morris tells us how “Chris has tended to make games based around great movies and books from his teenage years – Wargames, Sneakers, Neuromancer, Cryptonomicon. That whole early internet ‘future hacker’ scene was really interesting to all of us.”

The inspiration came from the desire to make a game in 24 hours, and that iconic bit at the end of wargames when all the missiles are flying around

We are told how the inspiration for DEFCON came from “…the desire to make a game in 24 hours” (DEFCON ultimately took a year to complete) “…and that iconic bit at the end of wargames when all the missiles are flying around”.

DEFCON Game

In DEFCON, the gameplay is reminiscent of the "big boards" that visually represented thermonuclear war in films such as Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and WarGames.

The inspiration for Prison Architect came from Alcatraz and a chance conversation with a cabbie who used to be a prison guard

The inspiration for Uplink came from the 1992 thriller “Sneakers” and Morris tells us how the inspiration for Prison Architect came from “Alcatraz and a chance conversation with a cabbie who used to be a prison guard”.

“We don’t really cater for the pick and play audience. Introversion customers are smart, strategy fans who enjoy novel gaming experiences. We’ve never really defined an audience or tried to design with a particular demographic in mind. We make games that we really want to play and then try to make it as widely accessible as we can.”

PC Gaming

"I look at our continuing strong PC sales and know that they don’t know what they are talking about"

“I look at our continuing strong PC sales and know that they don’t know what they are talking about.”

Whilst Morris believes the future of PC gaming is hard to predict – he has strong words for those who proclaim that it is ‘dead’ – “I look at our continuing strong PC sales and know that they don’t know what they are talking about.”

“I don’t know about the future of PC gaming though. In the short term it is secure, but it’s very difficult to predict what the future will look like. Things seem to be very cloud based at the moment and I think that onLive / Gaikai could be the future, but who knows what devices we will be absorbing the content on.”

Before Notch we all had a dream, now we know the dream is achievable.

Minecraft – the sandbox-building independent video game for PC, originally by Swedish creator Markus “Notch” Persson and now by his company, Mojang, is now easily one of, if not the most renown indie game. We asked Morris for his thoughts on the impact it’s had on the indie scene, to which he described it as being “inspirational”.

“I had a lot of discussions prior to Minecraft about the size of the indie gaming market, but Notch proved that it’s pretty much unlimited.”

“I’m sure they’ll be lots of clones and things, but most indies just make their own games so I don’t think it’ll radically change the landscape. Before Notch we all had a dream, now we know the dream is achievable.”

Markus Persson

Before Notch (Markus Persson, pictured) we all had a dream, now we know the dream is achievable.

Is being on app stores and distribution platforms – like Steam, Gamersgate, GOG.com (formerly Good Old Games), etc) now fundamental to the success of independent game developers?

Morris describes a “massive variation in the quality of those app stores”.

Steam is an absolute priority – if you are not on steam you need to take a long hard look at yourself and ask why.

“Steam is an absolute priority – if you are not on steam you need to take a long hard look at yourself and ask why. The other sites are less critical. Many of them can’t shift 100 copies of a title and you can spend a lot of time dealing with them when you could be working on new content for the games.”

Humble Introversion Bundle

Introversion took part recently in the ‘Humble Indie Bundle’ project.

Introversion took part recently in the ‘Humble Indie Bundle’ project. This is a series of game bundles that are sold and distributed online at a price determined by the purchaser (the ‘pay whatever you want’ approach). The Humble Indie Bundle included the entire catalogue of Introversion’s games.

Humble Bundle has been great for us. What are the Cons? I can’t think of any.

“Humble has been great for us”, Morris told us. “Jeff and John really put their finger on the pulse of the new wave indie game movement. Their core belief that people will actually donate anything above one cent and won’t pirate the game was a huge departure from conventional sales thinking. I never would have backed that venture if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Those guys are real visionaries and I’d completely recommend working with them. We doubled the number of players of Introversion games over a weeklong period and made a healthy chunk of cash to boot. It also supported charity.”

“What are the Cons? I can’t think of any.”

Kickstarter

“I think that the Kickstarter thing is a fad”

Morris also added “I think that the Kickstarter [crowd funding] thing is a fad, but I may be wrong.”

“If that becomes an established long term funding model than the apple cart will be upturned. Again.”

“I don’t think the consoles are a good place to be right now”

Should indie game developers be looking to consoles? “I don’t think the consoles are a good place to be right now”, Morris tells us.

“Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have huge requirements lists that take a lot of effort to satisfy, but that extra effort isn’t always rewarded by sales and there is very little that can be done to boost volumes if the game is poorly performing. I think the big three have some serious thinking to do if they want to encourage indies back to those platforms.”

Uplink Introversion

Uplink: “It’s a hacking simulation, and we really thought that would appeal to linux gamers.”

Why we like to continue to support the linux community

Introversion is unique in that it widely supports Linux with it’s games – which is unusual. Morris tells us how this originates from their first game – Uplink. “It’s a hacking simulation, and we really thought that would appeal to linux gamers.”

“We made a version, picked up a Slashdot hit and all our servers fell over. Linux definitely isn’t the biggest section of the market, but we’ve got found memories of that first slash dot hit and we like to continue to support the linux community.”

Morris tells us how their audience is “definitely hard core gamers”, adding that “…in total we’ve sold around 250k of each of our games.” “That varies a bit, and the games continue to sell on a daily basis so I guess it’s up to you to decide if that’s niche.”

iPad has encouraged a lot of people to get into making games but I’m not sure how many of those companies have been successful.

iPhone iPad SDK

“iPad has encouraged a lot of people to get into making games but I’m not sure how many of those companies have been successful.”

When it comes to mobile – Morris believes that the “iPad has encouraged a lot of people to get into making games but I’m not sure how many of those companies have been successful.”

“It’s great to see a vibrant development community, but I wouldn’t base my business solely on a mobile platform – there is simply too much competition and it’s very hard to get above the noise.”

The biggest challenges facing Introversion, according to Morris, have been managing the cashflow.

“Getting from game one to game two is the biggest test for a game developer”

“Darwinia+ took about 4 years and that’s a long time without much revenue coming in. There is a glut of money that (hopefully) floods in after a launch followed by a draught until the next game comes out. 2012 has been a turning point for us as we now have a strong enough back cataloug to keep us going until the next game launches, but getting from game one to game two is the biggest test for a game developer.”

Having said that, Morris is enthusiastic about future prospects for the indie game scene. “I think it’s the best time to be an indie.

“The apple App store and steam services are mature and reliable routes to market. There is an “indie” section on most gaming review sites and journalists that understand Indie games and are willing to review them and devote time to them. There are indie conferences where you can chat with other developers and pick up ideas and business tips. None of this stuff existed when we started.”

“This has made the process of selling a game much easier. The biggest challenge now? Making a great game.”

Prison Architect

Prison Architect: Introversion's upcoming simulation-management game where you have to design and maintain a prison

Does an indie games developer have to be entrepreneurial? Morris takes a middle-of-the-road stance – “…that depends on what you want to achieve”

“If you want to simply make games, then you don’t need an entrepreneurial spirit.”

“You can go and do a 9-5 and code in the evening and release games for your whole life. If you want a comfortable living, then you need to be (or employee) a business partner.”

“Someone who thinks about maximizing revenue and exploiting the market and doing all those crappy “suit” functions that a lot of indies don’t like.”

The best route in to games development is trying indie, before aspiring to work as part of a team at a big name game developer

Morris is of the belief however, that the best route in to games development is trying indie, before aspiring to work as part of a team at a big name game developer.

“I think that when you are young you are much more able to take a risk.”

“Wait until you have a partner and a child and giving up that regular salary becomes really tricky.”

“I don’t believe that the old guard (bigger studios) really have much to teach the indie game developers”

“I don’t believe that the old guard (bigger studios) really have much to teach the indie game developers. They operate on a completely different business model and make completely different products that really have no relevance to the small team. If you have the talent to make video games, and by that I mean the whole thing – design, coding, art, music – or at least you can do three out of the four and find a friend to complete the package then I think you should take a risk and try to make a go of it yourself.”

“If you flop, you can go and get a job at EA”.

EA Campus

“If you flop, you can go and get a job at EA” says Mark Morris of Introversion

This makes perfect sense – and after all, as Morris told us, “If you flop, you can go and get a job at EA”.