Interview with Darwinia Lead Developer - Chris Delay
By Simon 'Tarn' Jones (2006-07-12)
Simon (SJ): Darwinia has clear influences from the likes of TRON and early computer games. While these are cult favourites, they're hardly mainstream. What gave you the confidence and determination to follow such unusual themes and visual stylings?
Chris Delay (CD): One of the best things about cult classics is that when people are into them, they’re REALLY into them. We know that not everyone is going to be into the game, just like not everyone thinks TRON was a groundbreaking film. We’ve tried to make a fun experience no matter what your background, but we also made the game with these hardcore cult fanatics in mind. Independent development is all about being outside of the mainstream, so it’s natural that we would take ideas and influences from outside the box and incorporate them into the game. When we first came up with the idea for Darwinia it wasn’t as much for others as it was for ourselves and our friends. We wanted a game that appeals to fans of sci-fi, gaming and the like. A big part of being a developer is believing in your project, and it doesn’t hit much closer to home with this one!
SJ: Another big inspiration would seem to be Cannon Fodder, given the game mechanics as well as the Sensible Software intro. What is it about that game that made such an impact on you as developers?
CD: We knew from the start we didn’t want Darwinia to be a strategy game – we wanted it to be mostly action with some strategy thrown in. So when controlling our key units we didn’t want the player to just click on the enemy and let the fighting unfold – we wanted the player to actually have to aim and fire his weapons manually. Cannon Fodder is one of our favourite games from the Amiga days and they nailed this element perfectly – ie quick and easy control of your units in an arcade manner, so it was a natural place for us to draw inspiration from.
SJ: Some so-called gamers often dismiss Darwinia's visuals as being primitive, ugly or plain 'bad' (this seemed particularly noticeable in the Steam forums, traditionally populated by first-person shooter gamers). How do you respond to such comments?
CD: Well as we all know, not everyone is at the point where they can appreciate gameplay over graphics. To us there is a distinct nostalgia associated with the wireframe/grid-like environments of Darwinia. Growing up with early gaming influences as well as the sci-fi breakout of the 80’s has had a profound impact on us as people and thus, as developers. Darwinia isn’t meant to have the highest graphics possible that needs a $600 video card to run it with dual core processors. Darwinia is a step back into the past in many ways with a new and interesting mode of gameplay.
SJ: Contrary to the aforementioned gamers' opinions, Darwinia has some of the most distinctive and memorable visual concepts I can ever recall seeing in a game. How did the game world acquire its look and themes?
CD: Everyone pretty much had their own idea of what they wanted to do and how to do it, but the catch was that we needed an inexpensive yet captivating game. So we all sort of stepped back and thought about gaming history, how they started out as side projects or hobbies (Tetris for example). A new game modeled after an old school game could be inexpensive, fun and gave us a chance to be completely unconventional by today’s standards. Once we had our theme, going for a retro-gaming, 80’s sci-fi vibe, we started working on making it happen. Geometric shapes and designs have been a staple of video games and sci-fi digital effects since day one, so that was a perfect start. As far as most of the design we wanted to keep it as simple as possible. I love the way wireframe design and bright colors – like in Tron – come together. It makes you “feel” like you’re inside of some virtual world. The bright lights representing some sort of electric lifeline throughout the environment with the geometric patterns sprawling out like masses of circuits. If you really think about it, wireframe is the basis of most if not all digital design, so it’s sort of a peeling back the glitz and glamour to see the raw game, and it’s still beautiful! Anyone who is a fan of sci-fi or retro games knows that there is nothing in the world like a brightly lit grid to induce feelings of a virtual environment.
SJ: Did you expect Darwinia fans to invest such emotion into the game and to be so protective of their Darwinians? For such a simple visual design, they seem to possess a surprising amount of character.
CD: It was great when we started hearing about people who are so genuinely concerned with the well-being of our little creations! As children of sci-fi and gaming we are used to the idea of expecting the unexpected. The magic of the Darwinians is that they are both simple, yet complex as they are ever “evolving” and learning new things. Additionally, I think it’s easy for us to look at these simple Darwinians milling about and attach a personality to them. This is another interesting aspect of the game, a sort of subconscious customization! I know when I play though the game there have been more than a few times where I’m two inches from the screen tapping the mouse in hopes of saving one of them before the virus attacks! Overall, it’s a real compliment to us as the developers to hear about people who are so genuinely interested and involved with saving the Darwinians.
SJ: Darwinia uses a camera control mechanism usually seen in first-person shooters - WASD to move, mouse to look. This works perfectly, yet isn't used in any other RTS-style game I can think of. What caused you to go this route, and why do you think it is that other developers haven't
realised its benefits?
CD: Interestingly enough, our usage of the WASD method was the brainchild of a pet peeve. You’re right, so many FPS games use this method and it has become a sort of intuitive and easy way to move around via keyboard. A lot of RTS games today use the arrow keys, but that can get uncomfortable especially if you’re a right handed person using the mouse on the right side. In short, it just feels a bit more natural to have your hands like that. Additionally, many people are accustomed to this method which allows them to focus on the game more than controlling the camera.
SJ: How did you go about crafting such an effective soundscape for the game, considering the visuals are populated by such abstract, invented creatures and landscapes?
CD: Again this goes back to our experience with sci-fi and video games. Sci-fi before video games was asking people to step out of the boundaries of reality and presenting us with far-fetched ideas. I guess the experience of having seen and heard so much via sci-fi and gaming just brings a somewhat innate understanding of what make-believe things should sound like. With that you sometimes have to try and tie things in to reality a bit, so anything that resembled something real (albeit not much) we tried to give it a sound that would “make sense.” I guess general experience and watching a ton of sci-fi flicks helped us to create an all encompassing and involved environment.
SJ: Darwinia is a very difficult game to describe or summarise - did this make marketing and finding a publisher even more difficult than usual?
CD: It did present a unique challenge to us, but again this is one of those things that is more like a compliment than an annoyance. When you create something so original that it’s hard to describe, you’ve done your job well. It was a little difficult to get people on the bandwagon with just words it took a bit more – i.e. showing them the game, letting them get hands on status, etc. We consider ourselves lucky that we got the chance to work with Valve for the Steam launch and now with Cinemaware Marquee for the retail version. Thankfully there are some people like us in the mainstream who can appreciate the retro feel and sci-fi and gaming vibe.
SJ: For all its retro stylings, Darwinia seems to be one of the more progressive of RTS games, with the rest of the genre seemingly stuck in a rut. How did you go about challenging some of the RTS gameplay staples, introducing ideas like direct control and combat with soldiers and the officer system?
CD: The game isn’t a run-of-the-mill military RTS or even a civilization based RTS you might compare to Age of Empires. We wanted to take the best aspects of the genre and pack them into one package. Rather than having people worry about tons of resource management and legions of warriors, we’d rather see the player in control of a squad capable of highly strategic movements. Give the player a more intimate feel when controlling the squads and directing the Darwinians, something more like a den mother, not master and commander. The officers are a way for us to show the versatility of the Darwinians. Not only are they in need of help, but when prompted they can rally to support each other. We thought it would be a cool way of getting the other Darwinians in on helping with the war effort. We’re all about the player feeling closer to those they need to protect, and our interface system really exemplifies this.
SJ: Darwinia recently won 3 awards at the IGF. Do you feel this is a validation and confirmation that the unusual design decisions you made all those years ago were correct? Will it help to encourage you to continue innovating with game and art design?
CD: Absolutely, the reaction on the indie circuit was a huge push for us, kind of put all those late nights into perspective and made it all worthwhile. Winning the awards is like a dream come true for us and really makes you step back and look at what you’ve accomplished. Some people might consider this a luck situation, the right decisions at the right time and it all came together in an amazing game. I’d like to think that it was more than that, perhaps those late night discussions over take-out and stale coffee had something to do with the way the game turned out. Overall it has really given us a reason to say, hey lets keep at it and never be afraid to try new things.
SJ: As a relatively small and new developer, how does it feel to suddenly be winning so many awards and be receiving widespread recognition?
CD: It’s always kind of overwhelming when you hear “Darwinia” called out as a winner and we all get up and head onto the stage. It’s like a bunch of regular guys saunter up onto the stage: “here we are, this is it, thanks for liking our game so much!” It definitely feels great though, I mean knowing that all your hard work, frustration and fun finally came to an award winning status is incredible. In a lot of ways we feel like Dr. Sepulveda, we created something that’s taken on a life of its own and is out in the world now running around growing and spreading. We definitely have our work cut out for us next time, and I really hope everyone is as enthused about our next project as they were about Darwinia.
Sffworld would like to thank Chris and Introversion for their time and a fantastic game, we look forward to their next offering.
Simon Jones © 2006