The Little Guy

The Little Guy
Good For the Soul

Jim Rossignol | 9 May 2006 08:01
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Surprising English poet William Blake probably wasn't talking about developing videogames when he said, "I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's," but his point still stands firm. If you're going to create something, rather than simply manufacture it, you have to decide how much of it you want to belong to you, and how much you are willing to give way to the aspirations and demands of others. Are you simply willing to craft something for someone else? Or is your act of creation going to belong wholly to some personal, private ambition? Most game developers have to make a decision along these lines, and, for the most part, whatever road they choose will end up being pretty rocky. But the hardest and most obscure route is that of the genuinely independent developer - one that controls all aspects of the games they produce. Such a situation is rare, and one of few the companies that walk that path is the British development house Introversion Software.

"We didn't take any money from publishers because we didn't want any publishers f---ing up our game." These fighting words from Introversion's acceptance speech (uttered by Mark Morris) at this year's Independent Games Festival drew a roar of agreement from the audience. Anyone who has ever railed against the corporate homogeneity of the mainstream games industry couldn't help but feel a twinge of vicarious pleasure on the team's behalf. It was a moment of victory in a struggle against considerable odds - a struggle for independent success in the games industry. Introversion had done well, and received due credit from their peers, receiving the top prize at the indie games awards ceremony. Their strange strategy-combat dreamscape title, Darwinia, had captured imaginations, and was unlike anything the corporate game studios had attempted in 2005.

But Morris' war-cry speech would not have been possible without the sheer determination of the small British team, and the talents of their lead designer, Chris Delay. Delay is, like so many programmers, partially self-taught. He started making games in his bedroom; something that happened a lot in the 1980s, and has become a near-impossibility in the corporately dominated environments of 21st century games. It's Delay's desire to create his own games (and be "The Last of the Bedroom Programmers") that has found a mature form with the creation of his company, Introversion Software.

It began with the home computers of the 8-bit era. As Delay recalls, "The Spectrum came with a programmer's manual - a sort of quick-start guide to BASIC. I didn't even look at this for the first year, but it did make me curious. At first, I started typing in programs direct from the manual, but after a while I started to experiment. Spectrum BASIC was really where my interest in programming started, and it matched my love of games perfectly. It sounds crazy, but by the time I moved on from the Spectrum, I'd written a complete game (based on Garfield), and made the packaging for it and everything. It had a title screen, a few levels, a hi-score table - the works. Of course, I was about 13 at this time, so it was never published."

Later on in life, Delay's talents found new purpose in the understanding of friends. A few of his peers saw that Delay's homemade hacker-game, Uplink, was potentially more than just a private exercise in programming creativity. Chris Delay, Mark Morris and Thomas Arundel met for the first time at Imperial College in London, U.K., in October 1997, and by the end of their degree courses in 2001, the team had completed Uplink together. A clever take on the idea of hacking as a game, Uplink was finished, packaged, sent to magazines, and given a website (and they even sold a few copies). This bedroom-programmed videogame was well received by the gaming press, and its accomplishments signaled the beginnings of Introversion as an evolving company.

"After Uplink's launch, we really didn't know if we wanted to form a game company or not," Delay explains. "I can distinctly remember coming back from our first (and only) trip to E3 feeling incredibly demoralized - why on Earth would we want anything to do with this industry? For a while, we planned to put Introversion on indefinite hold until we had another game to sell, and go back to doing real jobs. But something made us stick together and push on until Darwinia was finished, and I'm glad we made that decision. But if we'd known in advance how long and hard Darwinia was going to be, we probably would never have started. We went without money for over a year, wracking up huge personal debts to banks and parents, and no sensible person would willingly put themselves through that."

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