In an excellent two-part interview with CVG (part 1 and part 2), Mark Morris of 2006 Seamus McNally Grand Prize award winners indie darlings Introversion gives some pretty frank answer on the problems with developing Darwinia+ for Xbox Live Arcade and some of the pitfalls in general with being an indie.
(Note: At one point Introversion created a whole website talking about the difficult process of bringing Darwinia+ to XBLA including detailed posts talking about every step of the process with accompanying internal emails within the company and from Microsoft. They said they had cleared this information with Microsoft, but apparently someone else thought otherwise so this great little resource is now gone. One of the most memorable passages from these disclosures was that during the release party for Multiwinia they rigged an actual counter to see sales go up in real-time upon uploading the game. The counter was moving so slowly they had to check and make sure that it was functioning properly.)
One of the interesting topics broached in this interview is the general business on how Introversion (and most indie studios for that matter) survive in their business.
How much does Introversion need Darwinia+ to be a success? Are you banking on it financially?
Morris: Our success is inextricably linked with every project that we make. We haven’t been able to get away from serial game development yet, which means that all of our money is generated from sales of the previous game and some back catalogue sales that really help out – Valve helps us a lot.
There is a minimum sales figure for Darwinia+, a level that it has to achieve. If it doesn’t achieve that then we don’t have enough money to continue going – simple as that. We know how much money we’re going to make from the back catalogue next year so we have to hit this minimum sales level.
So if fans want to see more they should buy this game?
Morris: Yeah, basically. That’s the message. There isn’t any other mystic source of income for us, we haven’t got reserves.
Being an independent developer who effectively doesn’t do either freelance games or licensed products, but exclusively works on their own projects is a tough road. It’s tough when a studio is a simple one or two-man operation and it becomes even tougher once you start becoming a larger indie studio like Introversion (which I believe has over 6 employees working full-time). And in a situation where you’re only as good as your last product it produces enormous pressure to not only deliver hit after hit (or at least moderate success after moderate success), but also do so in a timely fashion.
Introversion is lucky in a sense that they managed to survive one misstep, the poor marketing/release strategy for Multiwinia. And if Darwinia+ is successful on XBLA it looks like they’ll be back on track to deliver Subversion (the game) which even in its early prototype phase is already intriguing. But it’s sobering that one of the original stalwarts of the rise of indie gaming with such critically-acclaimed and loved titles like Uplink, Darwinia, and Defcon is still a single poor release or unfortunate delay away from ceasing to exist.