Developer Hopes Nuclear-War Game 'Defcon' Leaves Its Mark

Indie designers look to 1983 film 'WarGames' for inspiration.

They've been making games for a half-decade, including a 10-month stint with so little pay they were selling their possessions on eBay just to get by.

They celebrated the peak moment in their team's brief career by telling an auditorium full of game makers, "We didn't take money from publishers because we didn't want any publishers f---ing up our game."

(Check out photos from "Defcon.")

And they have spent the last year or so trying to figure out who can win a global thermonuclear war.

If the game industry has an indie darling — a garage band that's made it (sort of) big without abandoning its digs — it would be the team at Introversion. The recently doubled crew, now up to an entire six full-time employees plus a few freelancers, will release its third game Friday, a simulation of nuclear war called "Defcon."

"It's very difficult to figure out how you win a nuclear war," Introversion producer Thomas Arundel told MTV News this week. "It's very difficult to assign a sort of endpoint where you can say, 'This person has won and this person hasn't.' Our tag line is: 'You can't win nuclear war, but you can lose the least.' "

Anyone who has seen the end of the 1983 Matthew Broderick movie "WarGames" has seen what "Defcon" looks like. The game appears simply as an interactive war-room map of the world, eventually rainbowed by the arcing neon trails of missiles delivering the world its destruction. Up to six players can bring the world to oblivion, using subs, battleships and planes to help plot that course. Anyone who remembers the sentient war-mongering computer featured in "WarGames" won't be surprised that Arundel and company were stressed. Nuclear war may not have decisive victors, but games are supposed to have winners. That's how it works.

That said, convention isn't Introversion's strong suit. The game developers that get press and win awards usually have the backing of a big conglomerate. And they usually operate on more than $1,000 (the start-up money the three friends who founded Introversion pooled together to start the team).

They started scrappy, coming out of college in 2001 with a hacking game that would become "Uplink," a product of lead designer Chris Delay's appetite for Red Bulls and Nescafé. That game had enough success to lead to 2005's "Darwinia," a real-time strategy game with colorful abstract landscapes that resemble the stuff you see when you close your eyes really tight. They staggered with that one too until hooking up with "Half-Life" maker Valve and re-releasing the game as a downloadable product for Valve's iTunes-style Steam service. That led to enough commercial success to double Introversion's staff to six and finance "Defcon."

The designers accepted top honors at the 2006 Independent Game Festival in March, where they let loose with their remark against publishers as they accepted the award. Rebels they were, but they were rebels who had made it. "As we were walking off the podium a bit later, a well-known publisher said, 'We would like to talk to you about f---ing up your game,' " Arundel said. They were going to be all right.

They still are kind of scrappy, though. There's no company HQ. "We all work out of our bedrooms or houses or whatever," Arundel said. "Some of the people work really weird hours. Some people get up at 1 or 2 in the afternoon and work to about 4 or 5 in the morning." The whole gang only gets together once a month.

"Defcon" came about because, during the development of "Darwinia," Delay got bored. He started messing with a prototype of a game based on that big screen from "WarGames." It was fun enough that Introversion considered releasing it as a "B-side" to "Defcon" and then decided that the concept might be sound enough to be Introversion's third game.

There was eventually that problem with winning a nuclear war in a video game. They've tacked on a timer that ticks down when a set percentage of the world's missiles are fired — a timer that inspires the mad generals playing the game to let loose with a final desperate fusillade — and then tallies the dead.

That kind of morbid endgame might lead some to think "Defcon" is one of those message games or some sort of cousin to "Metal Gear Solid," the king of nuclear-anxiety games. It's not. "We're all in our mid-20s," Arundel said. "When we were getting to 11 or 12, the world was getting better and the Cold War had finished. We had never really been through a time of real nuclear threat."

They're not preaching against nuclear weapons, but they don't expect anyone to get too cheerful about them after lobbing the nukes of "Defcon" either. That's because they've made the rarest sort of game — a somewhat sad one. The soundscape consists of a sorrowful symphonic score and the soft rumble of destroyed cities. Faintly in the background, a player will hear the typing of a teletype and maybe some crying and maybe a cough. The mood is blue.

"I think most games are designed to give players a rush, some sort of adrenaline, a positive feel," Arundel said. "There aren't many games that give you a feeling of melancholy." They wanted to make the player feel edgy and uneasy, like he or she is the last of the world leaders, holed up in a deep bunker, with fingers coldly on the button and the reports of millions dead from bombed cities clinically tallied on the screen.

There's some cheek, nonetheless. The game supports an Office Mode, designed to be played over a six- or eight-hour session, without sound. In that mode it can be minimized to an unassuming desktop icon with a quick double-tap of the escape key, in case the boss comes lurking. There's also an Alliance Mode that can start all players on the same team, giving peace a chance until someone decides to let the bombs fly.

Big companies don't make games like that, but Arundel thinks they might soon. Arundel said he thought the game could work well on the Xbox, the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS. He won't say what's actually going to happen and who's really partnering with whom, just that "because of our recent, newfound exposure to our company, Microsoft and Nintendo are more willing to meet." Introversion has already been listed as a partner for the Xbox 360's Live Arcade downloadable games service.

Arundel sees happy days ahead for small developers like Introversion. Digital distribution solves the problem of big companies monopolizing store shelves and keeping the small developers from reaching gamers. "I think we've gone back to the glory days of the smaller developers," he said. Sell 20,000 to 30,000 copies of a game for about $30 apiece with a staff of six over the course of two years, and you do OK. "You can make a comfortable salary," he said. "You don't need to be mainstream."

"Defcon" will launch on Introversion's game site (Everybody-Dies.com) and on Valve's Steam service — for $15 — at 1 p.m. EST on Friday.