The podcast itself can be found here. The interview begins at the 22-minute mark.
Okay, so here with us today, we have Thomas Arundel, who is the commercial director for Introversion Software, makers of Darwinia and Defcon which is coming out this Friday, I believe.
That's right, yep.
And, so basically, just tell us a little bit about Introversion as a company, Tom.
Alrighty. So, probably best to start with talking about how we got started, which was about five years ago... Almost to the day actually. We left university, and a friend of ours, Chris, he'd written a game called Uplink at university, in the dorms, and Mark and I, and Chris decided to get together and sell the game. And we started with about a thousand dollars between the three of us... We started making the units, and burning the CD's and printing out the labels, and sticking them on. We took orders over the Internet, and then, within a couple of weeks, we made enough to buy a pallet load of CD's, which we could send out, which saved us a lot of time. And then, in about four months, we made a hundred thousand pounds.
And this was just from a couple of news postings on a couple of really busy forums. And it just kind of starting really running off, and that's how the ball sort of got rolling. And then from that success, we were able to get distribution into stores, and from that poured in even more money. And we started working on our next game, Darwinia. And we had a bit of a rocky ride with Darwinia. We had to take no salaries for ten months, and sell everything we owned on eBay to get through it. (laughs) And we did make it through, just. And Darwinia was, I'll say a critical success; not quite a commercial success until we put it on Steam. And obviously that's kept us going, well enough to get through to now, and we've got Defcon coming out in about five or six days' time. I guess the thing about Introversion is that we're self-funded. We make our own games, truly independent. We just make the games that we want to make, so... Uplink was about computer hacking, Darwinia was... a very difficult game to describe, and even between publisher pitches, I still can't describe it particularly easily. (laughs) But it was a very cool game, from the heart. It was really sort of an inspired game. And Defcon is... well, as you saw, you can see from the screenshots that it's inspired very heavily by the film WarGames. I think we all have a secret inner feeling to be Matthew Broderick.
(laughs) I do. I do indeed.
So, yeah. That's how we got started, and what we're about, really.
So, how did you guys come up with the game concept for Darwinia? I mean, it's a very unique style of gameplay, and I've just never seen something like that done before.
Right. The inspiration came from, uh... There was this competition in the US, it was like an indie coding get-together. And these guys realized that with these high-powered graphics cards, instead of making a ten-thousand poly model, you could paint ten thousand sprites using the same sort of graphical power. So, on screen, we've got an army of ten thousand sprites all marching over this little rugged landscape. And it was quite a cool game. And that's sort of how Darwinia started off. It started off with a game called FutureWar, and the idea was that we have these massive armies of these green stickmen, and they varied in color depending on which side you had. And you march them over landscapes, and they sort of find ships that would fly around and help with their attack. And it was kind of a strategy game. It looked kind of impressive, cause you can zoom all the way out, and there'd be huge armies all over the place, even though they were very simple sprites. But the gameplay didn't really work out. And that's why Darwinia took 18 months longer than it was supposed to.
Right. So we had to scrap this idea of these massive armies that you were controlling because it just wasn't very fun to play, and then focus much more on the sort of real-time-strategy arcade, and start what we've gotten with Darwinia.
Graphically speaking, most of the inspiration came from things like Tron (you can see that in the Engineers and the landscape), from old games (the Air-Strike is delivered by a load of Space Invaders), there were sort of Centipede monsters in there, that if you shoot him, you can cut him in half, just like in the original Centipede game. That's really where it came from, and the green stickman, which is the Darwinian, which you're trying to protect, you're trying to save their planet. It was just really an afterthought. And, quite strangely, in many ways, it's actually become quite iconic. And people, you know, they've repeatedly said to us, you know, this is one of your biggest brand assets, and you can't really believe that this little stickman was an afterthought. It actually turned out to be quite important.
So, PC Gamer gave Darwinia 90%, they called it a "must play" game for the PC. PC Format gave it 90%, IGN gave is 8.8 out of 10, Eurogamer gave it 9 out of 10, what's it like to meet that kind of success with your first commercially released game?
Yeah, that was really awesome. We were kind of overwhelmed by the response. And in fact, we were also thinking that the commercial success of the game would also live up to that. We had this HUGE wave of critical acclaim. But, oddly enough, the distribution method we were using at the time (retail, and mail order via the website) didn't really live up to the expectations. It didn't match the critical acclaim. But nonetheless, it really gave us a pat on the back and... Remember, we'd been though... like, I had to move back in with Mom and Dad... (laughs) for like, ten months. And we really had sold everything we'd ever owned. (laughs) We literally had nothing left. So, to get that back, we've obviously had an excellent start. It's really helped to raise morale, and keep everybody keen.
Now, Darwinia won three awards at the 2006 Independent Games Festival: Technical Excellence, Innovation in Visual Art, and the Overall Grand Prize. Was there ever a moment during the development of Darwinia where it crossed your mind that it could possibly be as hugely influential as it really was?
Uh, no. No, actually, that really took us by surprise. In fact, we didn't even know about the Independent Games Festival, and somebody just suggested to us that we should enter, cause they said, you know, you've got an independent game, and it kind of fits the criteria, so why not put it in. So it was like $100 or something to enter the game into the competition. And we were just wanting to go to San Francisco anyway, so we got our free passes, cause we'd entered the game and they accepted it. It was part of the competition. Then, of course, we got to the awards ceremony, and someone told us about the awards cememony. They said, well actually this isn't like a UK award ceremony where you get a pat on the back and a few claps. This is like 2000 people in an auditorium.
Oh, holy cow!
Right. (laughs) So, I thought, this is kind of important, we'd better dress up. This is a proper awards ceremony. So, with about 2 hours to spare, we raced around trying to find ourselves some black tie dinner jackets. And actually, we managed to do it. We got there just as the thing was starting. We had a few beers and a couple of Jack Daniels to give us a bit of Dutch courage, (laughs) and the rest is a blur. We got the award, we managed to slur our speeches, which everyone is supposed to do, of course, at award ceremonies. And we had a really awesome time. So it was really top-notch. And the nice thing was because we were dressed in this black tie after the event, everyone - We were just walking down the street, and people would just come up to us and say hey, well done with Darwinia, that's really cool, we really like it, and so that was, again, just another really nice, genuine pat on the back, and that really motivated us to continue, especially now, with Defcon.
That's cool. So, what's it like being an independent game developer? I mean, what are some of the pros and cons that you get out of not working with, say, a larger games studio?
Well, the pros are - an obvious pro is that you can - you have no constraints. You can do anything. You're not gonna have some other guys in a suit come in and say hey, you know, there's a market for a space shooter, you think in a month's time, any chance you could change this game to be a space shooter? They're not gonna f... mess up your game, or as Mark put it... Well, I wouldn't say that word, but they're not gonna ruin your game, which was important for us. And the benefits are... You can have a much more sort of relaxed lifestyle. We don't have a central office, we just sort of work from home. Some of us live in different countries... So you're very flexible. So that's sort of another upside. And the other upside is that if your game does really well, then you get to make a lot of money.
On the flipside, is that you have to work bloody hard. (laughs) You are constantly - some months I've come - it's ten days to the end of the month, and I have no idea how I'm going to pay the bills. Somehow, we always manage to scrape through somehow, some money comes in from someone or, you know, so we've been quite lucky in that sense. It can get quite stressful, because, you know, you obviously have to live, you have to eat, and you have to pay the rent at the end of the month. And you can't - you know, because you're not backed by a large company, you can't really live this sort of lavish... Well, you can't rack up loads of debt, you've always gotta save some money away in case of a rainy day, in case the development time doubles again and something goes terribly wrong. It's a bit of a flipside. It's a different way of doing things.
You mentioned that during the first game, Uplink, you know, you really went through a lot of hardship in order to get up and running. What has publishing with Steam done for your company in a whole? How easy is it to become - to be a developer with Steam?
Well, yeah, that was quite an interesting story too, actually. We - Back in the summer of last year, somebody - well, we went to a presentation at a conference. Kind of a well-known industry person says oh, I heard on the grapevine that VALVe was going to open up Steam to third-party products as well. And I said oh, that's kind of interesting. Said well, I think Darwinia would work really well on it, so you should put it out there. You should go get in touch with them. So I wrote off to Gabe Newell, and I didn't hear anything back, and I thought okay, well. Maybe their email was unconfirmed and then two months later, I got an email back from one of the guys at VALVe, and they were really keen to put it up there. It turns out that Gabe Newell's kids had really enjoyed Darwinia. I think that quite heavily influenced their decision. (laughs) So, yeah, thank's to Gabe Newell's three-year-old, that was great. (laughs) So we were on Steam; I think the second non-VALVe game that was on Steam. And in our first three or four weeks we made enough - we made more back than we had done from our first six months in retail in the UK, which we had sort of set up ourselves. And also, there's sort of like a credibility, because VALVe games are very highly polished, and very high quality. So it was almost like an endorsement, right? So people would see this game coming out on Steam, oh, we should give it a go, because maybe it's a bit better than we first thought. So, that was very helpful as well. And I think in many ways that was probably helpful towards getting a huge amount of additional exposure in the US, which probably helped with our IGF win, and certainly helped with some other distribution of physical goods that we did afterwards. For example, we did a deal with eGames, to put the game in US retail.
So, your upcoming game, Defcon is due to be launched September 29th, this Friday, on Steam.
Yeah, that's right.
And it's based on the 1980s movie WarGames, right?
Yeah, it's inspired by it. Uh, I have to say inspired, cause you say based, and they'll probably sue us on copyright. (laughs)
(laughs) That's true.
Yeah, it's clearly inspired, it looks pretty similar, in some ways, yeah.
Okay, cause I - it was actually one of my favourite movies. And as soon as I saw the screenshots and stuff like that, I immediately thought oh wow, this looks like WarGames! And then, once i found it actually had been inspired by WarGames, um, I was pretty excited, and I've already preordered, so there you go, I'm doing my job to help you guys pay the rent.
Cool! Thank you very much, thanks!
(laughs) Oh, no problem. And also I've noticed in your website that you've just recently started a Defcon tournament with your beta testers.
Yeah, that's right, yep.
How has that gone, and do you think you will keep running tournaments after the game is released?
Yeah, definitely. The tournament for the beta testers was like a dry run, if you like, for doing it for the public when the game is released.
And it's worked really well, actually, cause Defcon's multiplayer games have 6 players - up to 6 players in a game. One of the really cool things that makes Defcon work, is the alliances you have, you can form an alliance with somebody, and you can share, for example, your radar coverage, you can see what status their silos are in, if they're in attack or defense mode. And so, as they're going to attack one of your neighbours, you can see that they've changed all of their silos into attack mode, so they're pretty defenseless now, and you can do a sneaky attack against them, break the alliance, and really stab them in the back. (laughs)
You get all sorts of, right, that's good, you get all sorts of cat and mouse, this Cold War tension, because, you can also, in the ingame chat, talk to everybody, or you can talk to just the people on your alliance, or you can talk to some of the spectators who are - also, you can also log in to watch the game. So, yeah, that's kind of a neat thing, and that works really well for the tournament, cause you get teams of people, like duos and then you might find that one duo gets a bit cheesed off with the other one, and then someone else averts him away, and it's like a deal, so people are constantly forming and reforming, these sort of little groups, these sort of cliques that they can use. They uh... It's quite fun to watch.
So could you give us maybe some extra tidbits here and there about Defcon for our listeners?
Um, yeah, sure, so do you mean like tips and suggestions, on how to play?
Well, any information.
Um, let me think what hasn't already been said, what can i say that's unique. So Defcon is - a few little tips that I'm going to give you, um, one is, when you're playing Defcon, one of the coolest things, one of the very useful things it is, you got to defend your cities against incoming attacks, so a little tip is to make sure you pick your silos, which are a very strong defensive force, in and around areas of major population, and they'll do a pretty good job of defending against the incoming nuclear missiles. Also, my favourite territory to play is Europe, again, because of that very reason,because it's such a compact - the population is in a very small area, it's very very easy to defend against, which means you can sort of just say, sit out most of the game, just sort of let people extinguish their nuclear battery, and then when they're sort of a bit down, or when they've gone to attack each other, you can launch a major onslaught. That usually works out really great. And the third thing is - when you're doing your naval fleets, cause you can make naval fleets, you can make combinations of units. You've got a battleship, you've got an aircraft carrier, and you've got a submarine. Often it's quite good to put submarines in little teams of two and three, and them send them up to your enemy's coast, and do a really quick surprise attack, and often they might miss it cause if you do them in teams of two or three or small numbers they're quite difficult to spot. They can take on a number of different cities or a number of different points at the same time. It's really really fun to play, and I think it'll be quite good. So, yeah.
So what are some of the other plans that Introversion has for the future?
Well, with the advent of making things a lot easier for small companies to distribute on console, we'd really love to see Defcon on a 3rd-Gen console. We're working to put Darwinia on a 3rd-Gen console as well, maybe throw it in for a download, and so we're working on it, hopefully maybe sort of next year. Um, we've got some multiplayer stuff for Darwinia coming out some point next year as well.
That should be pretty neat. We're gonna add a lot of stuff to Defcon as we go along. One of the nice things about digital distribution, like Steam, is that you can start off with a base idea, and let your fans influence how you're gonna continue to develop the product. Say, for example, people might find that one thing they particularly like about Defcon is missing, or one thing maybe isn't emphasized enough, so we may continue to support for a continuous update for a - just make the game a lot more fun in that particular area. So we'll be doing that for a good six months. And then we've got another game which we're planning to put out maybe about two years time. I can't say anything about it, I'm afraid, my lips are sealed.
Needless to say, from the sounds of it, and I've only got - Chris generally keeps his ideas very close to the chest, it could be really fun. We've got two game ideas, we're trying to figure out which one to do right now. It should be good.
So, let's say, oh actually you know what? You mentioned the multiplayer for Darwinia that you guys are going to be working on. Are there any - is that all you've got planned for Darwinia, are there gonna be more expansions available, or - do you have any future plans for expanding any of your games?
Um, we've always thought that Uplink would make a really awesome MMOG game, so that might be an option to consider in the future. Obviously we've got the multiplayer thing for Darwinia, cause it's such a small team, cause we're like only three or four people, in terms of development staff. We can't take on that much, we have to take some sort of break it up into additions and expansions, but definitely after the multiplayer is done for Darwinia, we'll be working on some other stuff, definitely. So I think one of the things we really pride ourselves on, is updating the games and just listening in. Being a smaller sort, you need to have a - to deal with your community, I think once you get a bigger company that becomes less of a responsibility for people in the company to deal with your community, and stuff doesn't carry - transfer from one department to the other. Whereas us, it's much more easy for us to get feedback from the fans, and then, uh, you might think we have a really - they will really like it when they see their ideas and comments in the game they're playing at the moment. We'll just sort of, uh, we're definitely solid for the multiplayer, and see where that takes off. I'm sure there will be some very interesting developments after that.
And that question was actually from one of our users, who had a question directly for you. So that was from Pilot.
Oh, cool beans!
Yeah. It's nice to be able to, and actually to any of our listeners out there, hopefully we'll be able to let you guys know about our interviews beforehand, so that you can submit your questions that you want us to ask, so there you go, the system works. (laughs)
So let's say that one of our listeners want to pursue a career in game design, whether it be in an independent area, or even if they wanted to go off and work for a larger company. do you have any advice that you could give them for pursuing that track?
Yeah, I think that the key there is really experience, so... Chris is our, sort of, lead developer, is our creative guru, and he's had about 3 or 4 games before Uplink, that he never - that he was working on as he was growing up, learning how to code properly, and learning more about, you know, what games' designs work and what games' designs don't work. Because it's always quite easy to find someone who can program something, who can implement an engineering problem, but it's much more difficult who can come up with a game, and actually make it work, and sort of, make people who are playing the game actually feel something. Feel like in Uplink, this sort of tension, and paranoia, or the same again in Defcon. Say, I think the key would be to, either way, you need to make some games, you just need to give it a go. Try some stuff out, see what works and see what doesn't work. Of course, we need to say that the best way to do it, is just to get out there and make your own game, and then try and sell it. The key there is to do something that's not been done before, because time and time again I meet people or people say, I've got this really good first person shooter idea, it's based on World War Two. (laughs) And I'm like, this is not gonna work, you know, cause your off against teams of two hundred people who are spending millions of dollars a month to have a gun that's perfectly modeled, and - So, get fixed on something - get fixed on a cool neat idea. Get fixed on a game - bring a game. Forget the idea that you can - you might want to make an immersive virtual movie, like the biggest studios are focusing on, well, if that's what you wanna do, you gotta join the biggest studios, but if you wanna have all the benefits of doing your own thing, then you really need to fix on a an idea that's unique. And something, yeah, something that's just gonna be different. So, I think that would be my suggestion.
So, is anything else you'd like to share with our listeners, you know, whether it be about an upcoming release, or future updates people can expect, or just generally anything?
Well, obviously Defcon's coming out in six days time; we've actually done pretty well with our pre-orders, so there's gonna be a lot of people playing that when it's launched on the 29th. It should be at 6 PM GMT and so that's gonna be a really fun weekend. Even if you don't want to play, just come along and spectate, um, you'll be able to download the Defcon game, and you'll get a lot of games, and see what's going on. And that in itself is quite interesting, it's quite fun to watch people murder each other. (laughs) And that is the sort of next big thing we're all crunching for right now. And then, later in the year, what, certainly in the beginning of next year, we should have some, hopefully have some pretty decent anouncements about some console-related stuff too.
So, um, just quickly touching up, cause a lot of members are gonna be confused about how Defcon is gonna work. I mean are we gonna have a ranking system along with you know, a place for everyone to meet and play games, or will people have to organize that beforehand, or is there just gonna be a room where everyone can meet and organize a game on the spot?
Right, so yeah, so you've got,um, it's in the game itself, there is a lobby where you can select a game that you want to play, um, there are methods, there are means by which you can form alliance - form teams before you start the game, so you can already start the game in an alliance. There will be a ranking system as well, so you can try and pick people of your - you get the same sort of skill level if you like.
So, but that will be obviously be improved with time as well, we really love the idea of having a really, a sort of high score leaderboard, and well that sort of stuff as well, which we'll tie in. But yeah, we've spent a lot of time on that particular bit trying to make it as easy as possible for people to meet up and match up, and meet and play games. The learning curve for Defcon is pretty quick, so you can get yourself up to a pretty decent level, quite quickly, and it's like a game of chess, in the sense that no two games are the same. Say, you're always playing different people with different strategies, or they might have a different territory, which might affect their strategy, or maybe an alliance, or something else which may affect the way the game pans out. So yeah, people should have a lot of different sort of games that they can play. Um, that should be great fun.
Yep, so just about the ranking system, are you gonna have some sort of system, where people can actually work towards something, I mean, are there gonna be unlocks with special things that people can try to achieve?
Sorry, I missed you there, could you repeat that last question?
Sorry, is there gonna be some sort of ranking system whereas people could say, collect points and unlock things, or have access to things that maybe other more novice users would not have?
Uh, not at the moment. At the moment, you start off with six resources, start off with your silos and your units, and as you get better you're just more likely to win more games. However, obviously we're very aware that we have to keep people interested, and keep people playing, so we've got a fast program of additional features we're gonna be adding in over the - up towards Christmas. Certainly to keep all these people who bought the game early - to keep them interested, and keep the game working well. So yeah, maybe we'll - with Uplink we did this great big easter egg hunt, there were lots of sort of hidden in-game cheats and stuff that people certainly found out, Defcon will be the same. Can't give too much away there . (laughs) But you could look for all the stuff we will be adding in, and as for distributing that against people who, sort of you know, the most sucessful players, maybe that would be a really cool idea actually, give them some additional stuff. Haven't really got any plans for that yet, but we'll figure something out.
So, ...Sorry, did I cut you off, Bob?
So, just quickly, so, very basically, the game is sort of pretty much, anyone who has a basic idea of strategy, they can pretty much pick up the game, and start playing. There's nothing too amazingly difficult about it.
Right, right, you got it. The game has been designed to be pick up and play. it's designed to be, Once you learn, once you've gone through the tutorial, takes about half an hour, you should have a pretty good game.
Say, depending on, as you get better you just develop, you just refine your strategies, you sort of learn to play in different ways. The thing, because of alliances, you know, it's almost as important, as sort of, how to have a diplomacy with people, cause you know, people playing that sort of people who are quite unpredictable, and if you can persuade them to join your alliance, sort of sway the game your way, then there's that whole aspect as well, then, you become better known in the communnity, for playing the games, that will have some sway as well, as to how games pan out. It's a bit of an unknown, really, I don't think anyone's made a game like this before.
I can't say that I know of one. (laughs)
I don't pretend to have all the answers right now, but certainly we will, uh, all I can say, is we'll do our best to make sure everybody, uh, the game continues to evolve in a way that the fans and the community suggest.
Great. Well, I'm finished up. Ramsey, unless you have anything else?
umm, No, pretty much, I'm done.
Well, okay then. Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you very much for coming on the podcast, Thomas. And again for our listeners, that is Defcon is coming out on Steam on this Friday. I highly suggest if you're interested at all that your pre-order it, cause you get five bucks off on Steam, and honestly, this is actually something else, Thomas, ten bucks for your games?! Pff! I don't even, I don't know how you CAN'T buy them, you know, it's such a deal. For a...
Right, well, you know, with the - because this is our first game we got keys and stuff, so, you know, it's a, it's to reduce the amount of piracy quite signficantly. At the same time we thought, if there are more people gonna play it, then you know, we shouldn't punish them, I mean, say, uh, I think it's good value for money, so I'll leave it at that.
So, if anyone of you out there are interested in Introversion and what they've got coming up, you can visit their website at www.introversion.co.uk, and uh, this is truly an international podcast now. (laughs) I've got me here in the states, it's coming up on 7 am, it's uh, what, is it about 1 pm where you are?
Well, actually no, its two pm there, GMT, right?
Yeah, about 3:30 now, and recovering from a hangover from last night. (laughs)
And then it's almost midnight there in Australia, isn't it, Ramsey?
Yup, Pretty much.
Wow, this is cool.
But, that's all we've got, so we'll see everybody next week.