Darwinia is a world where little computer people mine polygons to fuel their machines and soldiers fight a computer virus with space invaders providing the air strikes.
Ironically, it's a world which has undergone a gradual evolution over its three years on PC, only recently becoming a game developers Introversion are happy with. It's that version which will be the biggest Live Arcade release of the autumn, and the first console game from the tiny team working out of a house in London.
"Back in 2005, we talked a bit about trying to get Introversion games onto a console" says director Mark Morris, "but it seemed impossible due to the upfront royalty requirements. If you make a game for, say, Xbox then you need to pay Microsoft at the time you manufacture your disks, not when you sell them. To afford this we'd need a publisher, and you know what our views are on those guys!"
A truly independent operation, Introversion have made, marketed and sold their games from a house in London since releasing their first game in 2001, even when Darwinia overshot its planned three-month development time by three years and threatened to leave the team collecting benefits. Introversion released Darwinia on PC and Mac in March 2005 and shortly after met with Microsoft's Ross Erickson, then boss of what would become Live Arcade. As Mark explains, "Chris and I took the PC version of Darwinia and demoed it to Ross. He loved it and asked us to put together a document explaining how we could sex it up a bit for the 360 and how we would implement a 'multiplayer component'."
The multiplayer component given life by Microsoft's interest in Darwinia accounts for the Multiwinia half of Darwinia+ on Live Arcade. The other half is the classic PC Darwinia RTS, now a very different game to the one released in 2005. "I suppose you could call it an (ongoing) experiment if you wanted to avoid the truth. The truth is we made some mistakes in the early days and really messed up the first version of Darwinia. That version opened with a view of the landscape and the player is expected to press ctrl+c, and then draw a triangle to make some mysterious "knights" appear. It was expecting far too much of people in the initial stages and it wasn't until we released Prologue that we really got the control system right."
The Prologue update added a new tutorial and controls based around old-fashioned icons and hot keys rather than mouse gestures. The evolution continued, and the Darwinia bundled in Darwinia+ is yet another step on from the latest Vista version, already modified to accommodate the 360's pad controls. Thanks to Darwinia's simple design which places only a few units under your command, it's the first strategy game to feel at home on a two-stick controller.
"We've worked hard with Darwinia+ to ensure that it's simple to pick up and play" says Mark. "I think that really good game design should be playable without reference to the manual. Often game designers are lazy and expect the player to understand a concept by explaining it in words or having boring tutorial missions. We've made those mistakes and we corrected them with Prologue."
The initial design showed faith in the player's ability to learn, but asked too much of newbies. The Introversion of today isn't trying to be so clever nor obtuse, offering simpler controls to console gamers without treating them like idiots.
"Are console players stupid?" asks Mark. "I don't think so, but I do think that Microsoft wants every game to be played by every 360 owner and so they ensure that your game is totally accessible. Some people may see this as dragging the game to the lowest common denominator, but I just see it as a usability design challenge."