This article originally appeared in issue 247 of PC Gamer UK. Written by Owen Hill.
As a game designer and co-founder of Introversion, Chris Delay is a respected, successful indie developer. He and his partners, Mark Morris and Tom Arundel, won the grand prize at the Independent Games Festival for their virus-infected strategy game, Darwinia. They’ve haunted a thousand multiplayer servers with the spectre of global thermonuclear war in Defcon. They’ve also established themselves as a cornerstone of the independent developer community.
But before all that, there was just Chris and an idea.
“By the end of sixth form I had the idea for the game. It was going to be like Frontier Elite 2, in which you fly a spaceship around and visit starports and upgrade. I wanted to do that, but in the online world.” He called the idea Uplink.
When it was released, Uplink was an austere, menu-driven hacking simulator, where players navigated electric blue interfaces to manipulate mainframes, race against progress bars and escape without trace. It took place in a murky, cyberpunk world where the act of electronic pilfering was fast and panicked, sleek and cool. A world viewed through a computer screen within a computer screen, where the player was always seconds from detection.
How did Uplink get from that Tron-like idea of flying inside your computer to a slick vision of hacking?
Chris calls his Uplink notebooks ‘bibles’.
The first problem was that real-life hacking is boring. Really boring. Chris explains: “The first thing you’ll probably do is a port scan on a device. You scan every single open port. It’ll probably have a hundred open ports; you need to look at every one. It could be hours of work to get there and it might not even work. Even I can’t be arsed with command prompts.”
Uplink was inspired by classic ’80s movies like WarGames, where Matthew Broderick cracked into government computers with a tape deck and a few typed command lines. Whatever the game was going to be, it had to be similarly streamlined. Even when removed from the dull slog of real hacking, Chris was sceptical that his game would ever be commercially viable.
“I wasn’t even planning on releasing it publicly,” he admits. “It seemed that the subject matter, lack of 3D graphics, and dominance of the big-name publishers would make this game impossible to sell.” This was in 2001, a short while before indie game development became popular, or minimalism was an accepted game design choice. Given that it’s the simple, 2D menus that keep Uplink timeless today, we’re lucky it turned out that way.
Early in development, Chris’s hacker vision was clouded by a slightly more modern movie. He was drawn to the futuristic world depicted in 1995 cyberpunk action flick Johnny Mnemonic.
In fact, his concept for Uplink was cluttered with misguided influences: “You would be able to enter your own computer and see the CPU as a soaring skyscraper, and you would routinely be attacked by a virus that you would have to destroy. Target computer systems looked like small cities. The game originally looked more like a surreal flight simulator than anything else.”
The ideas they contain are surprisingly cogent and recognisable.
It set development off in the wrong direction, and it took two months before he jettisoned the idea of a 3D world. “I think 2D’s brilliant. I love 2D to death,” Chris says with the benefit of hindsight. Far from discouraged, though, the setback made him focus more. He grabbed a notebook and started writing down every idea he had for Uplink.
“Once you’re two years into the project, that’s when you realise you have to write things down at the start, because you forget what the point of the game was. Being able to open up the original book and figure out what it was that excited you in the first place is a great guideline, a really good touchstone.”
Chris calls these touchstones his bibles, and it’s a fitting name. The notebook pages you can see in this feature are an uncannily accurate representation of the final game. They aren’t a set of notes, they’re synoptic gospels. There were three of them in total, used to store Chris’s ideas before they evaporated. He’d jot them down in university lectures, or moments of inspiration. “It was probably 12 months before what you see on those pages ended up on screen,” he says. As a kind of tribute to their importance, Chris even made the books available in-game, on a secret server.
Even though 3D graphics had been scrapped, Uplink was still vulnerable to feature creep. At one point, Chris had the player organically linked to his computer, cyberpunk style: “You were totally immobile but you could install security such as cameras and laser trip wires to defend yourself. You had a couple of helper robots under your control, which could run around your room performing maintenance on all your hardware.”
The original Revelation Virus, which still features in Uplink in a different form, would trap hackers, keeping them fixed to their CPUs and starving them over time.
“I hit on the idea that it was going to be a piece of Total Fiction – capital T, capital F. The idea that it never admits to you that it’s a game,” he says. It’s easier to suspend your disbelief when there’s no art and very little story to criticise, and eventually every extraneous idea was boiled away. “Uplink had become a rather silly cyberpunk romp, which wasn’t what I intended. It can be hard to make decisions like this, but in the end I just hacked it all out – weeks of work spent writing the ‘bioware’ was simply torn out and thrown away. I think it was the right thing to do.”
Chris worked for 18 months before he shared his first build. “It can be very difficult to expose yourself to that kind of risk – when a close friend could demolish months of hard work and late nights with a couple of off-hand comments.”
Eventually, Chris’s flatmates and future founders of Introversion, Mark Morris and Tom Arundel, got to see Uplink in action. The interface was brutally unforgiving, but it showed promise, and impressed them enough to invest.
Mark and Tom created a business proposal. “The gestation was that in Imperial College in the final year there was a business competition, and the premise was you had to write a business plan and submit it. So we wrote a business plan for Introversion before the company really existed.” The plan didn’t place in the top three, but it was good.
“They estimated that we would need maybe £200 each to get the company off the ground – a tiny amount of money,” Chris says. So they did it. Introversion was formed on £600, and no more cash has ever been injected into the company aside from earnings from game sales.
An uncannily accurate picture of the final game.
“None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for them; I would have given the game away probably. It would have been donationware – send me some money if you like it – and no one would have ever heard of it again. They were really, really fearless and really pushed it.”
The three friends spent £100 on legal fees to register Introversion. The other £500 was spent on printers and blue ink, so they could print the game’s now iconic artwork. “We had no advertising budget to speak of, no money to pay for production, and no formal training in any relevant areas such as marketing or advertising. We didn’t even have a proven game concept,” says Chris.
Fortunately, they had the smarts to send the game out to the press. One copy landed on a desk here at PC Gamer, where Kieron Gillen awarded it 80%. Uplink started to sell. Chris, Tom and Mark were burning the game to CDs, printing their own labels, and packing the parcels in their living room.
Uplink was Chris’s creation, but it was Mark and Tom who pushed the game out to the world. “They were talking about doing a shop version,” says Chris, “What? Get it in the shops? Next to FIFA and Warcraft?” They managed exactly that, with a lesson in distribution from the manager of a local HMV.
“They went into HMV with a copy of the game and asked somebody behind the till ‘Can we start selling our game in your shop please?’, and they basically said ‘What planet are you from?’. They stayed there and spoke to the manager of that HMV store. He told them that they would need a deal with a major distributor.”
The freshly-formed company picked UK game distributor Pinnacle Software to publish Uplink. And sure enough, HMV ordered a batch of 10,000. “We kind of did the shop deal in the same way as the game. It was all absolute first principles: start from nothing, then figure it out,” explains Chris.
The first copies of Uplink were burned, packaged, and sent out by the gang.
Introversion was formed with a clear agenda – to make money – and it did that without any advertising. “So far, everything we’ve done with Uplink has happened because of word of mouth. It’s a very simple principle: somebody likes the game, so he tells his friends.”
Chris reminisces about the moment when he realised the game had become a success in his essay, The Genesis of Uplink: “The moment when I knew Uplink had been a success was when I stepped into Tom’s living room and saw the stacks of CDs that we’d ordered. Boxes and boxes of them, piled up to my waistline. As I sat down and admired the sight, Mark informed me that this was half the order, and that the other half were in the back of the garage.”
Chris had turned his old idea into a finished game, with help from three notebooks and two friends – but no marketing budget, no contacts and no experience. The money Uplink brought in allowed Introversion to start planning for the future, and Chris could start working on his next idea: Darwinia.]
Today, Introversion are working on a new game, Prison Architect, the paid alpha for which has already made it a success. But if you want to go back to that first idea, Uplink still stands up, as slick, tense and fun as ever