The Curse of Darwinia

March 9, 2009 | 13:23

Tags: #curse #d #darwinia #development #multiwinia #subversion #xbla

Companies: #indie #introversion #microsoft

The Curse of Darwinia, as it has become known at Introversion, actually began way before we ever got near the Xbox Live Arcade deal with Microsoft three years ago. So before we delve headlong into a discussion about the murky world of commercial independent game development, let me give you a quick recap for those unfamiliar with Introversion and the infamous Darwinia.

Darwinia was released on PC back in March 2005. It got a lot of critical acclaim, but suffered from a bit of a botched retail launch (our fault for over-pricing it), and seemingly had only a small hard core following online. That all changed in late 2005 when Darwinia was released on Steam as only the second non-Valve game on the platform. Sales shot through the roof, and almost seemingly overnight everyone knew about the game and Introversion.

After that we got an email from CMP, the folks who run the GDC games conference. They suggested that we'd be eligible for the Independent Games Festival which was running at the next GDC in March 2006. We entered and waited. Sure enough, we soon found that we'd made it to the short-list of games and received some complimentary invites to the conference which was being held in San Jose. Yay!
With our newly found riches from the game's release on Steam (and once again staving off salary cuts for the foreseeable future), we tagged on a few days to the conference either side for some acclimatization. Mindful that we might soon be propelled into the limelight, we decided to practice being fashionable new-kids-on-the-block. We pitched up to the IGF auditorium in black-tie and with recently purchased money-clips full of $50 notes that we had just got from the ATM. We figured that if we won, we might meet some important people, and we wanted them to know that we were flush, and wouldn't be taking any crappy deals.

The Curse of Darwinia

That day, we cleaned up. We won 3 awards out of 4 nominations, and Mark laid down the law to the standing ovation of 5000 odd independent developers, fans and industry veterans. "We didn't take any money from publishers because we didn't want them to f*** up our game!". That one line sealed our fate as rock-stars of the evening and surprisingly opened some previously locked doors.

In fact, I recall as we walked back into the auditorium there being a number of publishers clamouring to talk to us. It wasn't hard to recognize us. We were the only people in San Jose that evening wearing black tie. The party continued in the Fairmont till the wee hours, and our newly found fame granted us access to several private parties - the sort where deals get set in motion over a cocktail or a game of poker.

This was the genesis of D+. We had spent some of the evening with a team from Microsoft who thought Darwinia would open a new genre of game on their Live Arcade platform. It sounded like a good idea to us. As it had happened, we hadn't taken any publisher's money because, somewhat embarrassingly, no publishers had offered any. This meant that MS was the first major-league publisher that we had ever dealt with. Daunted by the task of negotiating such a large deal with a company whose reputation precedes it, we enlisted the support of a veteran to look after our interests whilst the contract was being drawn up. He did a very good job, and 9 months later we ended up with a perfect and bullet-proof contract.

Meanwhile, by Summer 2006, DEFCON which had been developed whilst we were negotiating with MS, was ready to be released. It did extremely well, and again we had another major boost to the cashflow, just as we needed it. By the time that DEFCON had been released we had a rock solid in-house game-matching system on which to base the multiplayer gameplay that MS had insisted Darwinia should have. As the clocks rolled over to 2007, we drew up plans for how the multiplayer mode of Darwinia should work. Team IV, now in its 4-story Regency period town-house, was comfortable but creatively lost. Shoe-horning in multiplayer to Darwinia just wasn't working. A re-think was required.

The Curse of Darwinia

Come the summer of 2007, the trickle of cash away from our coffers had become something of a torrent as we expanded the team to cope with the added work required to make a new multiplayer game based in the world of Darwinia. Dubbed Multiwinia and with the tag-line 'stick-man slaughter' it was shaping up to be a very neat looking game.

There was however a bit of a problem with it. Multiwinia which was now going to be our 4th game on PC and part of the D+ package on XBLA was something of an expletive to us - a sequel. After all, Introversion doesn't make remakes of its best selling games to cash in again and again, does it? Conversely it seemed that we had all unwittingly decided to continue the series of what, despite Steam's helping hand, had been our worst (!) selling game of all time.

Through 2008, XBLA technical and playability issues dogged the development of D+, to the extent that our cashflow forced us to separate out the launch of Multiwinia PC from Darwinia+. Multiwinia was launched in Sept 2008, and became our lowest performing game to date. Gamers thought that Multiwinia was just an add-on rather than a totally new game. Our banishing of the word sequel to save face, destroyed our chances of educating potential customers that Multiwinia was a great stand-alone game, and jilted many reviews as well. The Curse of Darwinia that had blighted the title’s original development on PC seemed to be rearing its ugly head every which way.

The Curse of Darwinia

Fast forward to the present day and all eyes then are on D+ for XLBA. Now that we've nearly drained the bank dry, and are close to running on vapour, will D+ propel Introversion forward again, or will it go the way of Multiwinia on PC? The jury is out - the game has had much more polish applied over the last 6 months, and the quality of the experience is honestly much better too. The fact that Microsoft seem to be pretty behind D+ has been an enormous help – they see D+ as adding a new genre to the platform, and they have generously showered us with resources. But still there in our heads the niggling track-record and the confidence-sapping results that we got from Multiwinia PC.

One could argue that the curse of Darwinia therefore lives on. Either way, someone loses out. If it's a great success some might argue that will be further commercial imperative to continue with the Darwinia brand and develop it into a proper franchise, much against our indie roots, and I think much against everyone’s better instincts here at Introversion. If it isn't successful then we'll have invested all the money we have made over the last 8 years into a gaming folly, whose only reason for being, was that no-one in Introversion had the courage or conviction to stand-up and urge the whole company to leave Darwinia behind and move onto Subversion.

Thomas Arundel
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