Interview with Chris Delay of Introversion Software

By Matt Bailey

This article was part of Darwinia Week, a week-long set of features in the run up to Darwinia's release on the 4th March 2005. For more information on Darwinia, visit the Darwinia Web site, or read our review.

Introversion Software were kind enough to give us an interview with Chris Delay, lead developer of Darwinia.

Before we begin to talk about Darwinia, I thought I'd ask about the project that came before it; Future War. What was it, and how did it lead to Darwinia?

FutureWar was the original project that we began (myself and Andy Bainbridge) back in 2002, which eventually became Darwinia. It was based on the very first IndieGameJam, and the idea was to have battles with 100,000 troops on the battlefield. It was multiplayer only and you controlled your units from an extremely high altitude. We'll be putting some screenshots up on our site in the Extras section soon, but suffice to say it certainly looked nice, but didn't play very well at all. There really wasn't much of a game there. You were so high up that you couldn't see any of the action, and there were so many troops that you never felt you had any fine control over their actions.

We eventually dropped most of the game design and moved on to what you now see in Darwinia, but the visual look of the game was established during FutureWar, with each troop being represented by a 16x16 sprite that we now know as [a] Darwinian. We also had the retro fractal landscapes and most of the technology well underway.

Multiplayer was originally announced (and hinted at on IRC) for Darwinia but didn't make it to final release; is it still planned, and if so, is there an estimated release date?

It's something we'd very much love to do. Darwinia is still based on the same code base as FutureWar, which means it's a multiplayer game at its core even when you're playing it on your own. Most of the technical side of making the game multiplayer is solved - it's now a gameplay issue of how to improve the game with multiple players. Which in some ways is a harder problem to solve. If we simply made a player versus player wargame we'd be wasting our time, as more traditional RTS games would do a better job. We've considered co-operative multiplayer a few times, but that would require levels that are specially designed with multiple players in mind.

In short we're not sure what we're going to do about this yet.

There are plenty of retro references in Darwinia, such as the space invaders which carry out airstrikes; what inspired you to create such a unique game?

Answered in the next question.

The visual style of Darwinia has made it quite an eye-catcher - despite the fact that it's a contrast to today's increasing push towards photo-realism. Was it the intention to make the graphics engine something that would catch people's attention, or did it simply fit your vision for the game better?

You have to remember that Introversion Software is a very small company. Darwinia was made by 2 programmer/designers (myself and Andy Bainbridge) and 2 sound engineers (Alistair Lindsay and Michael Maidment). With such limited resources, you have to be very creative to make something stand out. If we'd gone for realism then we'd inevitably have failed to produce anything that looked up to scratch. You just can't compete with Valve when you have 4 guys.

So we spent a lot of time trying out visual styles that we could accomplish, and would still make the game stand out. We're fortunate that every other games company is currently obsessed with realism, and we're all big fans of movies like Tron, and one day it just suddenly seemed so obvious - we should make the whole game retro, with flat shaded low poly models and pixellated monsters.

It instantly stood out to us and we knew we could do it with the manpower we had available.

One of the brilliant features of Darwinia is the way you've created a living breathing world, not just visually, but also through audio. How do you feel sound has had impacted on the game?

I think the audio is an extremely important part of the game. We've seen a lot of reviews that say the atmosphere of Darwinia is awesome - the ambience of the levels and the "feel" of the world really blows people away. What they don't realise (and often don't write about) is that this is down to the Audio as much as the visuals. The audio is much more subliminal than the graphics but it really makes the world feel more real - it sells the illusion to you.

The audio engine we have is the most complex and competent part of the game we've written. Myself and Andy spent a while just talking to Alistair about his requirements for an audio engine....asking him what kinds of things he'd really like to have available. Then we spent months writing the system we now have. We knew the Audio would be extremely important right from the start so we felt it was time well spent. When Darwinia is running our audio engine is mixing hundreds of sounds together in 3d space, as well as applying dsp effects like echos and low pass filters in real-time on a per-channel basis. We've devoted something like 10-20% of the CPU time to audio processing, which is pretty unheard of (no pun intended) in the games industry.

Instead of providing a large menu bar to select what unit will be created, and some of the abilties they carry, Darwinia features a gesture-based system where your mouse draws the desired patten for a certain action. What made you decide to use this system as your interface in Darwinia, as opposed to a more traditional icon-based system?

Darwinia isn't a strategy game - it's an action game. When you attack the enemy you don't just click on them and watch the attack take place - you control the attack yourself directly using the mouse, aiming your weapons by hand. Broadly speaking the key difference between strategy and action is that strategy requires you to think and plan how to win, but Action requires you to use your responses and hand-eye co-ordination to win. Using gestures during the heat of battle introduces an additional challenge - an element of skill that takes time to master. When you start out you can draw the gestures but it takes time. By the end of the game you've mastered the system and learnt the skills to win. Clicking on an icon requires no skill, and as such is perfectly at home in a strategy game, but not for Darwinia.

Darwinia shuns the traditional RTS concept of having limited, exhaustable resources which are needed to create units, in favour of having a limit on the number of units which can be run at a time. Do you feel this approach has payed off?

We think so yes. The limited number of units, and the fact you have to directly control them in order for them to be effective, means you don't really have unlimited units as some people have suggested. And again, Darwinia isn't an RTS - there's no resource hogging and bean counting, its an action game.

How do you feel about the way Darwinia turned out in general, and is there anything in particular you aren't satisfied with and would like to improve upon?

I'm extremely happy with Darwinia. I think everyone at Introversion is too. It took us a long time to develop this game (nearly 3 years), and for the first 18 months we really didn't have anything that was particularly playable or enjoyable. It looked pretty grim for a long time. But we pulled it together and made something special in the end.

As for things to improve, we have a big list, but mostly we just ran out of time. We supported Uplink for a long while with new features and gameplay in the form of free patches, and we'll do the same with Darwinia.

How difficult was it to produce a game with such high production values that, at £29.99, would be going out to compete with the mainstream tites?

Finishing Darwinia was the hardest thing I have ever done.

How do you feel the game will fare commercially, considering it's getting a release on the same day as such big titles as Metal Gear Solid 3, Project: Snowblind, Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, Star Wars: Republic Commando and *ahem* Playboy: The Mansion?

We honestly have no idea. The game isn't yet available to buy, so we have no clear sign of how well it will sell. Certainly the retailers have stocked up very well on the title, so its available for purchase in the UK at least on the high street. We were originally planning to launch in time for Christmas and there were a bunch of high profile titles around then too. Basically unless you come out in January you're going to go up against somebody's AAA title. And it's worth pointing out that Darwinia is doing better than those games in reviews at least so far :)

Do you have any plans for your next title, and if so, is there anything you can reveal to us now?

Yes we have plans...but it will take us a while. We didn't announce Darwinia until it had been in development for 2 years, so don't expect to hear about it for a long time :) At Introversion we believe its a bad idea to announce products when they are still in the concept stages, or to hype products that are barely finished. The design for the game changes so much during its development...if we'd announced FutureWar when we started we'd look terrible right now, having made something that's nothing like the original design. A number of developers have fallen into the hype trap and we'd like to avoid being one of them.

We'd like to thank Chris Delay for his time in answering our questions.

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