We're digging into the PC Gamer magazine archives to publish pieces from years gone by. This article was originally published in 2005, in PC Gamer UK issue 153. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US. 

Darwinia is more than just a game about a virtual world where you have to zap arcade-style baddies. It’s a theme park, and the theme is the Darwinians themselves. Their AI is cultivated by evolution, but they don’t actually reproduce. Instead they are reincarnated, their digital DNA (or ‘soul’) fed back into the system and reborn. The clever bit is that their soul contained information about what kind of Darwinian they were, and how it worked out for them.

Before the soul is reprocessed, this information is read in and the master template adjusted accordingly. If the little guy led a long and fruitful life by staying inland, that tendency will be strengthened in future Darwinians. If he learnt something the hard way about the Virus that is currently threatening Dr Sepulveda’ artificial world, future generations won’t make the same mistake. And with thousands of Darwinians roaming the place, they’re learning fast.

The best of it is that you see the whole process, starting with the main menu. The huge, pulsating, nebulous sun of Darwinia hangs at the centre of the inverted planetoid: the Soul Repository. It’s connected to every location in the game by thin streams of orange light, and it’s not immediately obvious what these are. Then you notice that one of them is flowing downwards, and the penny drops: they’re souls.

Virii and Darwinians are dying in every location, and their digital DNA is surging up into the sky along these curved paths. The downstream feeds it to the Receiver for reprocessing. It’s one of the most beautiful locations in the game. Large, glowing orange souls rain slowly down like floating embers from a bonfire, lost on the dormant arrays because the virus has killed the Darwinians manning them.

Almost as spectacular is the Pattern Buffer itself, which plays host to your epic battle for the soul of all Darwinians. This master template, a giant Darwinian atop a snowy blue mountain, turns green limb-by-limb as you wrest back the datastreams feeding into it. The final piece of the ecological puzzle is the Biosphere, at which point—for about the fifth time—Darwinia turns into a different game. Suddenly the souls of the fallen that have been your only resource thus far are rendered irrelevant—they’re being pumped into the Biosphere for rebirth constantly. All that matters now is taking control of the Spawn Points—claw-like buildings clutching balls of digital fire, spewing out evil red troops at an alarming rate.

The story changes at the Biosphere, too. The central spawn point is surrounded by monolithic polygonal human heads, which Darwinia’s fictional creator Dr Sepulveda sheepishly explains are the Darwinian’s idea of his effigy. When trying to change the sky texture of the world one day, the feed from his webcam was accidentally pasted all over the sky, and for one glorious moment the Darwinians saw their creator. This is the first you hear of their religion, but you’re about to discover a whole lot more: the final level is the Darwinian’s Temple, a shrine they’ve built in an attempt to commune with God. They’ve altered one of their portals to point straight at heaven: the great Soul Repository in the sky.

“For years they’ve been trying to communicate with me,” Sepulveda explains, as the blinding datastream casts long shadows over the Darwinian congregation. “It never occurred to me they might actually succeed.” Their talk with God did not go well, though. What they actually talked to was his PC, and what came down the datastream were the design documents for the Darwinians themselves. It’s one thing to talk to your creator, quite another to download your own source code.

They weren’t ready for the information, but they were even less prepared for what they found next: Sepulveda’s inbox, complete with virus-ridden spam emails. Suddenly the whole sorry story of this little green race comes into focus. Their plague wasn’t an invading force, they brought it upon themselves in their search for God.

Darwinia is for people who love games—not least because it’s like playing five of them simultaneously at times. You’ll be using your Cannon Fodder-controlled squad as a strike force to cripple enemy forces, while directing your main army like Lemmings to swarm in and mop up the remainder. You’ll also be levelling up specific bits of tech as you possess more of the map. And through it all, you’re fluidly controlling streams of your two-dimensional troops by creating new Officers and issuing them conflicting orders to split off Darwinians in their aura of jurisdiction. This is you. You’re like us—you love games, you love discovering new worlds, and you long for something genuinely original, brilliant fun and with enough strategic depth to set your brain buzzing.

But the sales figures we have here say most of you didn’t buy Darwinia. In fact, they say many bought mediocre, sci-fi, FPS Area 51 instead. We know you better than that: you don’t want the rubbish to win. Perhaps the demo put you off—it lacked depth and was a little obscure. A new demo will be out by the time you read this, a Half-Life: Uplink type one-off story, especially made to show off the game. Did the gesture system annoy you? You now have the option to click icons instead.

Unless something changes, Introversion will be gone within the year. Unless you actually buy Darwinia, we’ll lose the most exciting independent developer around. They spent three years crafting a refreshing, exciting, even spiritual experience, and the gaming world ignored it. Let’s not send that message to the people who control what we get to play: that anything deviating from the mind-numbing norm won’t sell. Shops are telling Introversion they won’t stock the game because you won’t buy it—you’re only interested in the next formulaic FPS or WWII strategy. Screw them. Buy Darwinia, pay £20 straight to the people who deserve it, and save one of the great hopes of gaming.

A note from 2019: Introversion did struggle, but the studio moved on from Darwinia and launch Prison Architect, which was brilliant, and enormously successful for the team. Prison Architect now belongs to Paradox, and Introversion is looking at new projects like space base sim Order of Magnitude. Today you can grab Darwinia on Steam for a couple of bucks.

Half-Life 2

Earlier this week, we asked you to tell us the last physical copy of a PC game you bought, while sharing our own choices. Today, as a kind of sequel to that question, we ask, what was the first downloadable game you bought on PC

In the PC Gamer Q&A, we ask the global PC Gamer team for their thoughts on a particular subject, then invite you to add your thoughts in the comments below. We'll also feature a few answers from the PC Gamer Club Discord, accessible to anyone who's a part of our membership program.

You'll find our answers below, and we'd love to hear what your first paid downloadable game was too. 

Jarred Walton: Half-Life 2

I'll take the easy route on this one, because it's also true: Half-Life 2 was the first downloadable game I bought. I also played Counter-Strike 1.6 on the platform (including using the Steam beta), but that was a mod for Half-Life so I didn't pay for it. Anyway, HL2 required Steam, so what else was I going to do? I'm old enough that having a credit card and high-speed internet back in 2004 wasn't a problem, and I was luckier than some, in that Steam worked basically without a hitch for me. Sure, there were a few outages, but I don't recall them ever really affecting me. 

I played (and benchmarked) Half-Life 2 all the way to the end in the first week or so after its release, and I thought the convenience of downloading a game was pretty awesome. Others hated the idea, but I don't think any of us could have guessed how huge Steam would become over the next decade. It went from a place where you bought Valve games and maybe a few others, to eventually becoming the virtual storefront for 95 percent of all the games I own. No wonder EA, Ubisoft, and Activision want a piece of that pie.

Jody Macgregor: Uplink

I kept buying boxed copies of games for ages because slow Australian internet made downloading them a hassle, until I got into small indie games that wouldn't bust my data limit. The first was Uplink, which let me live out the fantasy of being an elite computer hacker and also the fantasy of having really fast internet.

It's designed to make you feel like you're in the movie Sneakers, and for a while it did. Like every other hacking game I've tried—games like Hack 'n' Slash, and else.Heart.Break()—it eventually started to feel like work instead of fun. Now when I want to pretend I'm a hacker I just go to hackertyper.net. What it did get me into was playing more small, personal projects and I found plenty of those to love. The next two were Atom Zombie Smasher and Audiosurf, both of which became favorites.

Samuel Roberts: Audiosurf

Right when rhythm action games were blowing up on console, but tended to focus on guitar music that I didn't really like and plastic controllers that took up way too much space in a single person's bedroom, a friend explained how there was a rhythm action game where you could play your own songs. The novelty of this was huge to me. I was 20 at the time, working on a PlayStation magazine, and I didn't really have the cash for a good PC, having wasted hundreds of pounds on a PS3 I needed for work—which broke a year later. Sigh. At least I got to play Uncharted, I suppose. Eventually, my parents bought me an okayish laptop, and one of the first things I did was download Audiosurf on Steam. 

It was pretty amazing, to upload my favourite tracks into the game and to have so many cool and challenging ways to play them, along with leaderboards. This was one of the first PC games of the modern era that really showed me why playing on PC was better—both in terms of the variety of games available, and the experiences that only PC could give you. If I wanted to play the theme tune from Max Payne 2 in a rhythm action game, I could do it, damn it! 

Now I own close to 1000 games across Steam, GOG, uPlay, Battle.net and Origin, and I don't know why I've done that to myself. 

James Davenport: SiN Episodes

Remember the short-lived SiN Episodes reboot? I can't remember why I chose to make that my first digital purchase rather than, say, Half-Life 2, but it was. It was this whole ordeal. I didn't have a credit card and Steam bucks weren't really a thing back then, so I went to a friend's house (hey, Anton, I'll find that copy of Kingdom Hearts and return it as soon as I can) just to ask their older sister to let me use hers. Digital game marketplaces were a new concept back then, and she didn't play many games anyway, so it 100-percent came off as a con. 

Your little brother's good friend rolls in with wearing the edgiest Linkin Park t-shirt he could find at Goodwill, then asks, under his breath, to borrow your credit card to purchase something from "Steam" called "Sin". My ma had just started preaching at the local Presbyterian church and everyone knew it, so the look Anton's sister threw my way had me worried her eyes might pop out. Not sure why she agreed in the end, but thanks, Roxie. Only had dial-up internet at the time, so my parents paid for it next with a phone line that wouldn't put a call through for a day or two. And when I finally played Episode 1, the only episode ever released, I remember feeling like all the trouble was worth it. The novelty of a game floating somewhere in the ether that I could call mine and play from any computer was incredibly empowering. Bit of a shit game, but SiN Episode 1 got me hooked on Steam, and set me right in the path of innumerable indie games I would have missed otherwise. 

Phil Savage: Prey, the original one

I spent most of my 2000s dealing with a laptop that became too hot to handle after just 20 minutes of Command & Conquer: Generals. As such, the advent of Steam passed me by—if it wasn't a sedate isometric strategy game or RPG, I wasn't prepared to suffer the third-degree burns required to play it. In 2008, though, I got a real job and saved enough money to buy a desktop PC. I downloaded Steam, fully intending to finally play Half-Life 2. Instead, I ran face first into a Steam sale. Prey was on offer for about £3. I didn't know what it was, or if it was any good, but at that price how could I not immediately buy it?

It was good. Prey is far from amazing, but if you don't know any better—for instance if you hadn't played an FPS since Quake because your last decade had been spent ordering many sprites to gib many orcs in the various Infinity Engine RPGs—it looked spectacular. I also bought Audiosurf on the same day, because everyone bought Audiosurf in 2008.

Chris Livingston: Half-Life 2, probably

My Steam purchase history only goes back to 2007 for some reason, but I have to assume it was Half-Life 2. I remember staying up late to unlock it. It launched fine, and I remember seeing those Combine metrocops walking around on the menu screen. Instead of playing, though, I decided to change a couple graphics options, and then had to restart. And that's when Steam completely tanked. I couldn't get back in. I missed my window to play a game I'd been waiting years for, and after about three hours of not being able to connect, I just had to give up and go to sleep because I had work in the morning. I'm sure glad that 15 years later games no longer have launch day issues, huh? Huh?

The PC Gamer Club

We got a few answers from the Club Discord, so thanks all who responded. "I'm pretty sure my first digital game was Mass Effect 1 &2 in 2010 because I'm old and until that point I always got games from a store," says user IronGnomee. "A podcast I listened to at the time was always saying how amazing Commander Shepard was so I finally tried it out." 

"As far as I can remember, it would be The Orange Box," says user Buttface Jones in Discord. "I had played PC games before TOB, like Quake, Command and Conquer, and WoW but always from a disc. I bought TOB on Xbox and fell in love with TF2, despite how bad and limited the Xbox version was. I eventually got fed up and downloaded Steam specifically to play 'the real TF2'."

User Buttz says Garry's Mod on Steam. Imbaer adds, "Orange box in 2008 for me." Fellow user erdelf adds "Stargate Resistance honestly, before that I bought games in the store or played f2p online games." 

Let us know the first downloadable game you bought below!


Most patch notes are boring. Fixed a bug that stopped a menu from opening properly. D.Va's Defense Matrix doesn't last as long. Wukong's attack speed is 10 percent slower. That's the usual stuff, chronicling important but dull balance changes across years of a game's life. And then there are patch notes like this: "Added cat butchery." "Made all undead respectful of one another." "Tigerman does not have ears."

That's the good stuff.

Those are the kinds of wonderfully crazy patch notes Dwarf Fortress has given us over the years. Determined to top the absurdity of Dwarf Fortress's bizarre changelogs, I put on my deerstalker, grabbed my magnifying glass, and set out to find the strangest patch notes in the history of PC gaming. These absurdities are the result. 


Alpha 12

  • Colonists will visit graves of dead colonists for a joy activity. 

Alpha 16

  • New alert: Unhappy nudity 

Alpha 17

  • Raiders will no longer compulsively attack doors. 


Conan Exiles

Patch 15.2.2017

  • Rhinos should no longer try to walk through players 

Patch 15.2.2017

  • Emus now give less XP 

Patch 23.02.2017

  • Players can no longer use chairs to travel great distances 

Update 24

  • Imps, ostriches and other non-humanoids no longer go bonkers if you hit them with a truncheon 

Update 25

  • Seeing dead people can now lead to great rewards 

Update 28

  • Fixed a small issue where a player in some instances could walk underwater. 



Update 149

  • Bucket no longer hostile to peacekeepers 

Update 152

  • Pumpkins only have 1 season (instead of 7) 

August 28, 2014

  • Bald inmate digging grows hair bug fixed 



  • The game will no longer look for the square root of zero. 


  • Mice can no longer spawn in hell 


  • Red Stucco no longer spreads corruption. 


The Sims 4


  • Sims carving pumpkins or working at a woodworking table will no longer ignore Sims who die near them. 


  • Babies will no longer send text messages congratulating your Sims on their marriage, engagement, or pregnancy. 


  • Confident children will no longer get a whim to practice pick-up lines. 


  • Babies will no longer change skin tone when they are picked up. 


Don't Starve

January 29th 2013

  • Darts and poop won't magically accumulate at the world origin. 

October 1st 2013

  • You can no longer trade with sleeping pigs. 

November 19th 2013

  • You can properly deploy or murder captured butterflies 


Ark: Survival Evolved


  • Beers can no longer be eaten by Dinos 


The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion


  • Taking items from dead owned creatures is no longer a crime 


World of Warcraft


  • The quest NPC Khan Jehn no longer becomes confused and unresponsive 


  • Roast Raptor now has an more appropriate inventory sound 


  • Fixed an error where some characters appeared to be drinking while standing up 


  • Zapetta will no longer become confused about whether the zeppelin in Orgrimmar is arriving or leaving 


  • Yaaarrrr! now has a detailed tooltip 




  • Fixed : Dead or jailed people don't answer their phones 


  • Fixed : LAN Spoof progress graphic overflow 
  • Fixed : Time freezing and unclickable buttons on computers running for several weeks



July 10, 2001 

  • Reevaluated the values of the various fish fillets 


August 15, 2001 

  • The Giant Tree Flayer is now Large instead of Tiny 

December 6, 2001 

  • Fixed a bug that was preventing characters from being bald 


Two Worlds 2


  • Horse behaviour - improved 


Battlefield 1942


  • Bots do not jump in and out of vehicles anymore 


Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic


  • Dead party members will no longer show up later in the game. What with thembeing dead and all 


Black and White


  • The word "Death" no longer said when villagers die of old age
  • Creature doesn't become constipated if you punish him for pooing 


No One Lives Forever 2


  • Fixed problems with camera rotation after slipping on a banana 


Hitman: Codename 47

Patch 1 

  • Dancer in "Gunrunner's Paradise" is no longer confused by dead bodies 
May 13, 2015
Why I Love

In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil explains why Uplink is the best depiction of hacking in gaming.

Films and TV shows have a patchy history when it comes to the accurate depiction of technology and computing. It's hard not to feel let down when a film like Inside Man uses invented over-the-top violence to prey on the worst assumptions of the gaming illiterate. It's hard not to roll your eyes when admittedly dumb shows spout streams of nonsense, safe in the knowledge that many viewers won't know any better. And that's just games. The more specialist the technical knowledge needed to understand a thing, the dumber its on-screen depiction seems. For instance, hacking.

But unrealistic depictions can be fun, too. Take the film Hackers, which I fully and unironically love. It's dumb, but in a way that lets everyone be in on the joke. It doesn't sneer like Swordfish; it celebrates. It invents a world of 3D operating systems and neon punks, and then works hard to make you want to be in that world. It helps that it was set in the '90s, and everything in the '90s was already ridiculous.

Uplink—the first game from Introversion Studios—creates a similar fantasy. You re a freelance hacker using a dial-up modem and an remote 8 gigaquad computer to work for a global organisation dedicated to cybercrime. To do so, you create long networks of connections and run various programs to break into a target server. It's absurd, but taps into the same feelings of excitement and subversiveness that are reason filmmakers keep unrealistically depicting hacking in the first place.

At their core these films are stories of a single person able to stand-up to and destroy an entire corporation. That same idea is at the heart of Uplink s campaign. It starts off small, asking you break into servers to delete specific files, but soon ramps up in scope. Once your skill rating is high enough you ll destroy research servers, track down rival hackers and frame innocent people for high-tech crimes. It all builds to a gloriously over-the-top technophobic finale, in which you're given the power to save or destroy the entire internet—Tumblr and all.

Uplink is great because it gets every aspect of this fantasy right. It's a tense sandbox of tools and possibilities that rewards initiative and punishes mistakes. It's a peerless lesson in how to make a game about hacking, and one I wish every maker of a hacking mini-game would learn from. Yes, it's unfair to expect a small section of an RPG or immersive sim to be as good as a game dedicated solely to hacking. I'm not saying these mini-games should have the same depth as Uplink, but there are some basic lessons that could be learned.

The most important lesson: tension. Too many hacking mini-games treat the hacking as a separate entity that's removed from the world of the game. Hack a shop in Bioshock, and the world stays frozen in place as you piss about with some pipe pieces. Break into one of Fallout 3's computers, and people politely wait as you play a word-based guessing game. This is pointless: hacking shouldn't be about the act, but the tension between the act and getting caught in it. (This applies to lockpicking, too. Automatic real-time lockpicking is inherently more tense than a convoluted mini-game in which the outside world ceases to exist.)

In Uplink, the tension is brilliantly realised through one of the game's most basic programs: the Trace Tracker. It emits beeps that mark the time remaining before a security system finds you. It starts out slowly, but as your window of opportunity diminishes it may as well double for a heart-rate monitor. The ramp up in tension it creates as you race to finish your objective in time is almost unbearable. Disconnecting with seconds to spare feels amazing.

Uplink's other stroke of genius is that it makes you click on and type things manually. It's such a basic idea: forcing you to use the real-world tools of mouse and keyboard, thus creating a difficulty curve that's directly based on how much pressure you're under. To break into a system, you have to juggle programs like the agonisingly slow password breaker, firewall bypasser, vocal analyser, proxy disabler and log deleter. That done, you still have to perform the task you've been hired for, whether it's typing in search queries or editing records. It's a race, and you'll only win if you perform every action to perfection.

That's what so many games get wrong about hacking. It needn't be complex, just frantic and demanding. Uplink has plenty of depth to its content, but the hacking systems themselves are relatively simple. You execute programs and perform actions. You manage your computer and search for information. You watch the timer and, at the last possible second, cut the connection. It's these basic actions, and the tension that bubbles under them, that makes Uplink the best example of silly sci-fi game hacking.

Prison Architect thumb

The orange jump-suited felons of Prison Architect have escaped, and are causing havoc around the home of the Humble Weekly Sale. It's Introversion's turn this week, with a pay-what-you-want offer that will secure their back catalogue, including Uplink, DEFCON, Darwinia, and Multiwinia. And, for the next few hours, you can pay $20 to get their early access prison management sim for 33% off its regular price.

The Prison Architect deal runs till 7 pm BST (11 am PDT), today, (the 9th August), after which the game's wardens will round up the fugitives and lock them more securely - only accessible for a still discounted $25 purchase. The bundle also comes with a variety of extras from the Introversion vaults, including soundtracks, source code, and tech demos from the indie developer's cancelled game Subversion.

What it doesn't come with is a fetching, and indie-centric issue of PC Gamer UK. Only the free Introversion Bundles that are placed inside said issue of PC Gamer UK will also give you access to that issue of PC Gamer UK. THIS IS THE END OF THE SHAMELESS PLUG SECTION.

The Introversion Humble Weekly Sale will run until Thursday, August 15th.
Dec 23, 2012

A couple years ago we gathered three shadowed men in our secret, extremely leet lair to discuss 2001's Uplink, the film-inspired hacking sim by Introversion Software. In 2006, Uplink came to Steam, where it's still humming away today for $10 (or only $2.49 during the Holiday Sale!). Though it's over 10 years old (and actually takes place almost three years ago in 2010) and our panel had a few issues with it, there's a strong case to be made for retreading the rise from script kiddie to black hat hacker one more time.

Logan Decker, Editor-in-chief: I know that crime is bad. I understand that it’s wrong to steal. And I realize that the reality of computer hacking and subsequent criminal conviction is not as easy or as pretty as it is in the movies. But the truly awesome achievement of Uplink is that all of that gets turned on its head. Being a sociopathic criminal with the l33t3st skillz this side of Angelina Jolie in Hackers is high stakes, low-risk and fun as hell.

Robert Hathorne: Knowing nothing about Uplink going into this, I was blown away by how minimalistic everything is. The game is nothing but a fake OS interface. There’re no cutscenes or mood-setting graphics, just some programs and the next job. What I was surprised by is how quickly I became comfortable with it. I didn't need high production values to be immersed; that was taken care of by great design. Shut the door, turn the lights off and hunker down in front of the monitor—you’re a hacker.

Erik Belsaas, Podcast Producer: Yeah, a rookie hacker. Your first email introducing you to the mysterious worldwide hacking organization “Uplink” makes you truly feel like a part of something bigger than your own computer. Unfortunately, working your way up from the bottom means your first job of changing a kid’s grades isn't exactly thrilling.

Logan: And that’s the game’s worst crime: repetition. Many of the missions—OK, most of the missions—are essentially the same thing: back and run a few more of those tedious missions before you can crawl out of the little leagues. But that’s not a terrible trade-off. It keeps the risk at the right level: low enough that rewards are worth the danger of getting caught, but not so high that you want to quit.

Robert: Uplink really gives me that “just one more turn” feeling; it has to do with the upgrade system. As I began a new job, I always had my next upgrade in mind, which would lead to another, then another. There’s always the next big thing to earn, and getting there is so fun you hardly notice how quickly you’re burning through missions.

Erik: It captures the hacker movie vibe so well—an alternate title for Uplink could be Action Typing 2001. I love the pressure of setting up a fake proxy server to get through a firewall. The overarching plot of (spoiler alert!) an ominous corporation developing a virus made to destroy the very internet adds a dose of drama, too. Yes, it’s cheesy, but it makes the game more interesting. The story keeps you on your toes, 'cause who wants to be responsible for the end of the internet?

Robert: There’s something to be said for a game that drops you right into an interface with a brief tutorial that you have to find and execute in order to use. You’re given all the tools necessary to get the job done from the start—you just have to figure out how to use them. This isn't a drawback at all. If tool tips walked you through the whole thing you wouldn't feel like a hacker, just a hack.

Erik: But if you spend too much money upgrading hardware and not enough on programs, you can dig yourself into a rut and get stuck. Something not too fun I've done more than once.

Logan: Agreed. The lack of information provided to make good judgements on upgrades is frustrating. It takes a lot of trial and error to understand when it pays off to upgrade, but that part is so tedious that I eventually caved and consulted a guide. And I've played the game before! The same goes for the software, which isn't clearly explained and takes a lot of painful stumbles to get the hang of, thus further extending your tour through the minors.

Erik: Totally forgivable in my mind, though. Introversion changed what I thought a game could be. Instead of blowing stuff up or crunching RPG stats, games can create entirely new genres. Uplink even had a secret IRC chat you could execute to talk to other people playing!

Logan: Lots of game developers at the time rocked us silly by crushing the barriers of what was possible on PC hardware at the time. But Introversion’s genius was to match its game—the concept of hacking as entertainment and the simple “terminal” style of its graphics—to the hardware and its own resources. That it’s still enjoyable now—and I don’t mean in the novelty “retro” sense—is proof of that. You could never fairly adapt this game to a console; it just wouldn't have the tasty verisimilitude.
Dec 15, 2012

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
minecon indie talks

Minecon wasn’t only about Minecraft. Mojang were good enough to invite along the bright lights of the indie dev scene to give a series of inspiring, funny lectures, describing how they got into the business and what they’ve learnt along the way.

Taking to the stage in chronological order: Hello Games, purveyors of deceptively chirpy stunt-biking game Joe Danger; C418, Minecraft’s maestro of electronica; Introversion, creators of Uplink, Darwinia and the tremendously tempting crowdfunded clink-sim, Prison Architect; Suspicious Developments, aka Tom Francis, aka maker of Gunpoint, aka PC Gamer writer, aka man sitting two metres two my right as I type this and looking rather dashing too, I might add; Mike Bithell, the dev behind clever platformer Thomas Was Alone; and Mode 7, creators of simultaneous turnbased-tactics masterpiece Frozen Synapse.

Hit the jump for the videos of each talk, and watch out for our PCG-helmed indie dev round-table which we'll publish in the next few days.

Hello Games / Grant Duncan

Hello Games' supremely talented artist, Grant Duncan, takes the mic to talk about conjuring Pixar-like delight from pixels and polygons in Joe Danger (and also to tease Hello Games’ next aesthetically divergent title, quite possibly coming to PC, currently going under the codename of Project Skyscraper).

C418 / Daniel Rosenfeld

The effervescent Daniel Rosenfeld, also known as C418, talks about the production of Minecraft’s electronica score, game music in general, his album, and the soundtrack for the upcoming Minecraft documentary (teaser clip within) - all in some impressive technical detail. A must for electronica nerds and aspiring musicians.

Introversion / Mark Morris & Chris Delay

British indie-dev double-act, Mark Morris and Chris Delay discuss the long and bumpy road they’ve taken, from early hits Uplink and Darwinia, to the calamitous production of Multiwinia and the aborted Subversion. But - spoilers! - it has a happy ending with the hugely successful crowdfunding of clink-building sim Prison Architect.

Suspicious Developments / Tom Francis

PCGamer’s very own tame indie developer, Tom Francis, discusses how being mean to games professionally has helped shape his development practices on Gunpoint, and how becoming a developer has changed his perception of the games he writes about.

Mike Bithell

The supremely affable creator of Thomas Was Alone discusses its origins as a rough-hewn Flash experiment and how the curiously emotive reaction to it - which saw players ascribe human thoughts to its simple cuboid avatars - snowballed into a project capable of attracting accolades and high-profile voice-actors.

Mode 7 / Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor, the co-director of Mode 7, who heroically multitasks as a musician and creator of hilariously terrible PowerPoint slides, tracks the company’s evolution, from its early swordfighting game Determinance, to the terrific tactical tour-de-force which is Frozen Synapse.

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