Darwinia: Survival of the Fringest

Darwinia: Survival of the Fringest

“I think the [independent film] movement, if there ever was a movement, I think it’s largely over. I saw a film a few months ago called Memento that [Christopher Nolan] directed. I heard before I saw it that every independent distributor in town had seen it and turned it down. So I saw this film, which I thought was brilliant, and came out thinking, ‘If we needed any indication that the independent movement is over, this is it, that this movie cannot get picked up for distribution’.”

I heard Steven Soderbergh say that at a screening of Traffic on January 15, 2001. The next year, Memento would screen at the Sundance Film Festival and it would basically launch its own studio, Newmarket Films. Newmarket would go on to make a bazillion dollars for Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie and an Academy Award for Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster.

This is what comes to mind when I hear that Darwinia, an odd ingenious little creation from out of left field, can’t get a US publisher. Because after playing it, I came out thinking, ‘If we need any indication that independent gaming is over, this is it, that this game cannot get picked up for distribution’. But if Memento can find a way, can’t a game as unique and brilliant as Darwinia?

The good news, however, is that you can buy and immediately download it – all 40MBs – directly from the developer.

You can also read my review on 1up.com for more details about what exactly Darwinia is.

It would help your review if the first picture one sees is of Darwinia and not Fable.

That’s advertising, like the banner on top and the banner on the right, and the approximately 532 other flash banners you see on 1up.com.

Brief argument I’m too lazy to massage into coherence right now:

I can understand the desire for an “independent” film or music movement because it is largely predicated on themes or subject matter that is deemed too difficult or controversial to be profitable by established labels/studios. However, since I believe that the core of any successful game is going to be good gameplay, which has little or nothing to do with courting difficult topics, the opposition between “mainstream” and “independent” makes little or no sense to me in games – especially considering the mainstream release of games that involve rolling balls, petting virtual dogs, going to virtual nightclubs, beating on bongos, etc.

Unlike film, which has basically a single outlet of expression that is commercially viable (the feature length large-release that eventually makes its way to DVD), videogames have several different levels of commercially viable outlets, such as mobile phone games, digital distribution on the PC, handheld games, PC and finally console titles. Granted, to be competitive on console and PC you need big teams and large budgets, but it is possible to make a living as smaller developer. It’s not easy being a developer regardless of size, but it’s possible.

Finally, I don’t think we should equivocate “independent” automatically with “good.” Having just sat through 20 indie films at this year’s Toronto film festival, I always think to myself that the quality-to-crap ratio of indies isn’t too different from the quality-to-crap ratio of mainstream release. And those are just the films that were accepted to the festival, ignoring the dozens if not hundreds that didn’t even make the cut. We often only see the great foreign films that get distribution here in the States and wrongly assume that there must be an overall higher quality of filmmaking in other countries.

In short, every segment of the culture industry has limited means of distribution, advertising, development budgets, etc. and certain big players largely control those means. But in videogames the gulf between creativity and innovation in the major players and “independents” is not very wide in my opinion, and there are many more options for those indies in games than in films or music. So it just doesn’t make sense to me to say that independent games are a “movement” and that such a movement “is over.” What little I’ve played of Darwinia makes me want to play more, but the fact that this game doesn’t have retail distribution yet doesn’t make me wring my hands for the state of our industry’s creativity.

Okay, I’ll get right on that, since I am, in fact, in charge of all of 1up.com and am not merely a freelance writer with no say in how they display their advertising! :)

Me either, but I just thought it was an interesting parallel: Memento’s great, Darwinia’s great, neither had an easy time getting published, and that’s a sad fact about the state of trying to make commercially viable movies/games.

I think the more interesting point is that Soderbergh was dead wrong.


how’s the demo?

You have it exactly wrong. The film industry has multiple revenue streams from the SAME PRODUCT: (1) theatrical release, (2) VHS/DVD release [often with multiple releases over time], (3) PPV release, (4) premium movie channel release, (5) brodcast network release, (6) airline release, (7) secondary broadcast outlet [basic cable nets, UHF stations]. To tap these revenue streams, all the studios need to have is 2 versions, the original theatrical release and a family-friendly version for airlines and commercial TV. Any necessary substituted scenes are often shot at the same time with multiple voice-overs by the original actors.

In contrast, you cannot release the same game code as a PC game, [multiple] console game, GBA game, PSP game, DS game, or phone game. There might be some reusable art assets, but it’s not nearly as simple as having a digital version created for DVD release. So, instead of multiple revenue streams for the same product, you have multiple products for multiple revenue streams. The individual game SKU has only two iterations, the full price release, and [if you’re lucky] the discounted “greatest hits” release. Otherwise, the SKU will just lose value on the shelf without a re-release.

I had a chance to play the demo of Darwinia a few months ago, pretty nice idea, on that note, has anyone had a chance to try out Introvisions’ oher game Uplink? It’s pretty good once you get into it.

Darwinia was my pick for best strategy game of the first six months of the year. It’s one of those games that takes the limitations of independent developers (How much can you give the player to do?) and makes it a central game mechanic by limiting how much can be done at a single time. Players have to juggle tasks and set priorities based on the situation at any given moment.

It’s easy to accuse reviewers of privileging its style over its substance (my review for DIY was criticized for being unthinking acceptance of critical groupthink re Darwinia), but I think it is a great example of how graphics can enhance gameplay through original and persuasive art direction. The TRON comparison has been made a lot; Darwinia’s computer world looks like what we’ve been conditioned to think computer worlds look like.

The difficulty in securing US distribution is shocking. Darwinia was one of the best reviewed games of the year in Europe. Is it too strange for American audiences? Why didn’t Matrix Games pick it up? They published the very good Starshatter. Or Shrapnel, even? They’ve wasted energy on all kinds of crap.


Starshatter was good??

What the hell are you talking about.

Starshatter was good??[/quote]

I liked it a lot. Most people didn’t I guess.


I think you may have misunderstood my point, or I didn’t express it correctly. My point was about single out of EXPRESSION, not about a SINGLE PRODUCT, as you put it. You are right that feature films have several different points of revenue generation and videogames do not. But my point was that there are several different TYPES of videogames that all have at least one point of viable revenue. I can try to make a go as small cell phone developer, or try to get into handhelds, or try to make flash games for the web, or try to do digitially distributed strategy games on the PC, or maybe with enough cash and people make a PC or console game.

Film, by contrast, has several different revenue streams typically for only feature-length live action movies, with the occaisional big-budgeted cartoon feature thrown in. How many of those many revenue streams support animated shorts? Or short documentaries? Or long-form documentaries? You can make a go of doing several different types of games and be successful, but in film the vast, vast majority of the money is in a single type of film: live-action, feature-length. Those multiple revenue streams really only support one type of product.

I liked the demo, but it takes it a bit easy on you and underrepresents the game a bit. The same level in the full game has more mechanisms for the virii to repopulate, and the game in general is tougher and more interesting.

I tried both the old and the new demo and didnt like it. I found the controls terrible and the visuals horribly blocky and couldnt really get excited about it. By contrast, I thought uplink was superb, tons tons better than darwinia.
I think the retail market is basically a disaster, and it doesnt suprise me at all to hear it cant get a publisher. They are better off concentrating on online marketing and selling direct where they can take 90% rather than 15% of the money.

I love the visual and audio style of the game, and it’s certainly a cool idea, but it seems to be really awkward to control, especially when you have more than one squad. That’s only going by the demo.

It reminds me a little bit of Magic Carpet, although more for the abstract, surreal gameplay than anything else.

I can’t imagine a demo conveys the best aspects of Darwinia. A lot of the appeal is how you gradually get the world working again over the span of several interrelated missions, clearing out the viruses and upgrading aspects of the game as you go.

If the demo just has a single level – and particularly if it’s an early level before you’ve gotten upgrades like air strikes, armor, or additional officer capabitlies – then it’s going to be like looking at an elephant through a keyhole.

Well, okay, maybe not flat, rough, and gray, with coarse hairs, but some such similar metaphor.


Has anyone mentioned that there’s a new demo of Darwinia available, with some additional training, a more standard control system (with optional fancy one) and more stuff?

I scan the thread, and can’t see it, so say so.


I thought it was pretty coherent argument, and you do have a good point, but when you consider the state of flight simulation games, you can see more of the similarities between games and film.

Good gameplay is in the eye of the, er, player. If you’re a flight sim fan and want good gameplay from a flight simulation, you’re going to have to get it from an indepenedent. Big companies are not willing to take them on for exactly the reasons you cite for videogames not needing independent distributors–there is only one viable outlet for the flight simulation, the PC title. I haven’t really played many consoles but I suspect it is the same for the driving simulations, too, although there may be a few complex driving simulations that would satisfy the hard core simulation fan.

Starshatter was good??[/quote]

I liked it a lot. Most people didn’t I guess.


Is Gamespot “most people”?


Starshatter was good??[/quote]

I liked it a lot. Most people didn’t I guess.


Is Gamespot “most people”?


No, but judging from the comments on the Matrix Games site, most review scores placed it right around where Gamespot did - 60s and 70s.