Game Over Online ~ Uplink: Preview & Interview with the Creators

Uplink: Preview & Interview with the Creators

Published: Sunday, July 8th, 2001 at 10:24 PM
Written By: Lothian

Note: for more information on Uplink, visit Introversion's website at

Like the majority of computer gamers in our early twenties, I’ve followed the “scene” adamantly since the mid 80's; Those being the days of four colour CGA, PC speaker beep music and 5¼" floppies. Most of us fell in love with certain genres then that we still seek out to this day. For me, Infocom was God and the adventure game ruled supreme. Whether you were an adventure gamer, into FPS’ or RTS’, you would always secretly desire something more. Games held a certain affinity with the outside world, or “real life”.

The things that we always hoped to achieve could be simulated. To some, SimCity and its kin was more than enough. For me, the opportunity to explore something darker and more sinister always seemed much more appealing. It was around 1990 when I discovered Rockstar. The blend of the music scene and the drug scene coupled with a text adventure-ish approach was more bells-and-whistles than I could possibly want from eye-candy laden games.

Later that year, the great AT&T crash occurred, as well as Operation Sundevil, which swept across the United States, targeting hackers and phreaks. As we neared mid-decade, the likes of Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulson were behind bars and the fledgling Internet was now a vehicle of commerce. Hacking was no longer excused as the antics of curious teens, but as a criminal offense that earned its perpetrators jail time.

Introversion UK has created a title that drops players into the world of a hacker. Though some may not agree, this title instantly appealed to me because I felt that it was the embodiment of a text adventure of yore. Utilizing the OpenGL API and almost entirely mouse driven, those who were always fascinated by the darker side of programming but lacked the UNIX or VAX skills, will finally be able to act upon that desire.

To begin, allow me to thank you on behalf of Game Over Online Magazine for sparing some of your valuable time to conduct this interview. Would you please tell the readers a little bit about yourself and your company.

Introversion Software was set up a few months ago as a joint venture between myself (Chris Delay) and a couple of close friends from University _ Mark Morris and Thomas Arundel. We were all living in London at the time. I already had a 90% complete version of Uplink up and running, and I was getting ready to start selling it on the Internet. We realised that we had something cool on our hands, so we decided to invest a little bit of money between us and try and get a company off the ground, using Uplink as our launch title. The demo version of Uplink was going to be called "The Intro_version", which at the time sounded very clever to me. I scrapped it after a while, but we thought it made a good company name so we re_used it for that, resulting in "Introversion Software".

The story behind Uplink is rather basic; You play as an Uplink Agent who makes a living performing jobs for major corporations. As a computer hacker, you have certain tools and hardware at your disposal, all of which can be upgraded. Credits are gained upon completion of tasks, which can involve hacking into rival computer systems, stealing research data, sabotaging other companies, laundering money, erasing evidence or framing innocent people.

Have you been involved with any other game development projects prior to Introversion?

Uplink has been in development for over two years, and it still isn't finished. Before Uplink I was writing a role playing game engine called Shadows. The idea behind Shadows was that you could create atmospheric rpgs and adventure games _ similar to classic games like Dreamweb and Baldur’s Gate. I worked on it for a long time but never got as far as distributing finished copies and making money out of it. After working on the Shadows engine for so long, I wanted to just make a game. Eventually I settled on Uplink. I also spent a while working on the Bullfrog game Theme Park Inc _ full time work rather than my own project (obviously). I think it was released as "Sim_Coaster" in America.

What influenced you to create Uplink?

Influences come from a lot of different places, but I would say that films are the biggest source. High tech thrillers like Mission Impossible, the Net, Hackers, Sneakers etc. A lot of the great ideas from Sneakers are in the game _ like the connection bouncing stuff. Sneakers is probably the only genuinely good film out of the bunch, but they all had some great ideas in them. The first time I actually said "I'm going to make a game about Hacking", i'd just finished watching Johnny Mnemonic. It's an appallingly bad film, but I loved the hack sequences where the main character is flying through cyberspace.

Originally Uplink was going to look like Johnny Mnemonic _ the true Hollywood vision of futuristic hacking. Looking back, that wasn't such a good idea. This made me dig out an old list of game ideas that I keep updating every now and again, and there was a three line idea in the middle of the list that i'd written years ago _ back at Sixth form college when I was 18. It read:

"Hacking game _ You start of with a pathetic computer and some hand written software. Aim of game is to hack into big places and make money. Start off by hacking small places and gaining money, which you use to buy more advanced hardware. You lose if you are caught, so you have to pick targets according to risk."

That eventually expanded into the game you see now _ and it took two years to do so.

Two years?! That may seem like a lot of time to focus on what some might perceive as a simple programming venture. Uplink however, is far from simple. Upon spending any time playing this game, you’ll marvel not only at the sheer depth, but also at the small details that give the demo such a high replay value.

Did you draw from past experiences (questionable or not) for your research into Uplink?

Yes and no. I've spent four years learning everything about computers from University (including some "questionable" stuff) but I've never considered myself a hacker (or cracker, if you prefer the term). The few occasions where I've messed around with hacking, it's always been competition hacking _ ie totally legal and safe. I've usually been a little bit too worried about getting caught to do anything interesting or illegal. The idea behind Uplink is that you can hack without worrying too much _ it's just a game at the end of the day.

I did a lot of research while I was making Uplink, but the aim was never to make a totally authentic simulation. There are a couple of those around and they tend to get very tedious very quickly. I wanted something that was realistic enough to suspend disbelief, but also had the Hollywood elements of voice print id's, connection tracing etc.

So I read loads of fiction in the area _ “Cryptonomicon”, “Snowcrash”, and “Neuromancer” being the most interesting. They're all very different stories, some more related to hacking than others, but they're all fantastic books and they gave me stacks of inspiration. But since it was all fiction, it's also all pretty unrealistic. So I also read as many genuine accounts of hacker exploits as I could get my hands on _ "The Cuckoo's Egg", “Takedown”, “Hackers” etc. It's not just about learning the subject area _ it's about getting into the right mind set, and keeping yourself interested enough to finish the project. Hopefully the mix was about right in the end.

I must admit that I was surprised that no mention was made of FASA’s Shadowrun or Steve Jackson Games’ Hacker. Though Shadowrun was more cyberpunk than anything else, and interfacing with computers was a direct “meat-to-machine” connection, when I thought of the last game I played of this type, that’s what popped into my mind. My second thought was “has there ever truly been a hacking game?”. A few games, namely System Shock, may have contained hacking elements but were they “hacking/hacker games”. This is what ultimately sets Uplink apart from the rest. Though I don’t mean to speak too hastily, we may be looking at a cult classic here, even before its initial release.

In the Uplink forums, you mentioned that the Network settings were to "connect multiple computers together and display different information on each". I think what people were hoping was to be able to expand the play arena over a network and work for/against each other in an online community. Will Uplink ever evolve into a network game?

At the moment the Networking stuff exists for connecting computers together and displaying different information on each screen. Basically I wanted a set up like the character Tank out of the Matrix _ with a whole rack of monitors stacked up in front of me, each displaying useful information on the game world.

The other advantage of this is that a lot of networking code is already embedded and working in Uplink _ it just isn't used for multiplayer at the moment. We've got quite a few ideas in the pipeline on how to make this work, but really it all depends on the success of Uplink. If it does well, we will start producing patches and add_on disks which will hopefully add features like multiplayer.

What is the Neuromancer rating system and how does it work?

Your Neuromancer score is basically a morality rating on your character. It's an unofficial rating which you earn over time, based on the types of activities you get involved with. It can go in several different directions as well. If you break into a bunch of Government machines and sabotage data, you'll earn a Neuromancer rating of being an anarchist who is against the state. If you start messing with people's lives (slamming people in jail, closing their accounts etc) then you'll earn a bad Neuromancer rating and people will think of you as an evil hacker.

It becomes important in later missions...some employees won't go near you if they think you are the wrong sort of person for the job. People won't trust you if you've broken that trust before.

How many of you are now trying to recall The Mentor’s Hacker’s Manifesto? By incorporating morality into the game, Introversion has essentially doubled the replay value of Uplink. This feature alone may make the game more appealing to those who would initially shy away from this title. Whether you choose to be a good or evil hacker will affect the outcome of later missions. I wonder if one of the computers you have to hack will be called Wintermute?

Seeing as there's a Linux port already available, can users expect further *nix ports?

Certainly. Uplink is nicely cross_platform and uses a lot of platform_independant libraries like openGL. We'll be shipping a Linux version with the full game when we start selling Uplink _ the Windows and Linux versions come on the same CD. The Linux group is much smaller than the Windows group but still makes up a good fraction.

We're currently working on getting Uplink running on WindowsCE as well. We have a ported version of openGL running on a PDA, which means we can take Uplink accross and get it running as well. This will take a little longer because we have to shrink down the interface panels and redesign a lot of the screens, but it's totally cool. You can play Uplink on the train ;)

Why did you decide to use OpenGL over DirectX?

The answer to the previous question is a primary reason _ you can get openGL for any platform under the sun. It totally opens up the possibility of Uplink running on all the major platforms.

On a technical note, i'm not a big fan of the directX API. Unfortunately it looks like directX has won the battle over openGL, and directX has a lot more features built in these days (since openGL only does 3d graphics) but at least openGL was designed by people with a sense of programming style.

Can you offer the readers a sneak peek at some features that will be available in the full version?

It amazes me that people have managed to get so far into the Beta. We designed it so that it would quit out after about four missions, but people have figured out how to keep playing and have managed to get into bank accounts, they've figured out how to use the voice samplers (which weren't supposed to be in the Beta _ ooops) and they've found a bunch of hidden computers that the development team put in there simply to amuse themselves.

The missions that are directly available in the Beta are the building blocks of the higher missions. For example, a corporation may be trying to topple a competitor by systematically destroying each aspect of their company. This means destroying research data, sabotaging equipment and software, destroying the lives of each of the company directors (preferably taking the company reputation down as well) and (eventually) bringing about the complete collapse of the company's stock values, leading to liquidation. This can take a while, and a lot of smaller missions are frequently involved.

In the Beta you get to delete a couple of files...that would have been part of the attempt to sabotage their research systems. As you get higher up the ladder, you'll get to do more. The targetted company will themselves be offering missions, in some cases to defend their systems against the attacks, and in some cases to retaliate. You can play both sides if you can get quite profitable. If you catch the eye of any one company, they may offer to take you on as a full time hacker working for them. This can lead to big opportunities. The top level missions available on the Mission board involve removing people from the world _ either by slamming them in jail by forging criminal records and arrest warrents, or (if appropriate) modifying their medical records so they are given the wrong prescription medicines. If they are a hacker, you can often do a hack on a high_profile computer, plant some incriminating data on their home computer, then make some small changes to the logs so that the target person is charged and convicted of the offense. This can be very hard to do properly, but you can earn big money.

There are a bunch of special missions which aren't available on the Mission board _ you have to be working for the right people to get these. They are mostly formed around the background plot, which started to appear in the Beta and revolves around a company called the Andromeda Research Corporation. We have one mission where the target system is a stand_alone computer (not connected to the Internet), and you are contacted by someone on the inside who has access to the computer room. He's willing to go in there and attatch a short range radio modem to the system for a short period of time, but he's worried that you'll take too long and he'll be caught. The outcome of this leads on to other special missions...all tied to the main plot.

But I've said enough now, and I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone. You'll just have to buy the full game to see the rest.

Sometimes, game designers spend more time developing a game’s “look” and as an afterthought, creating a semi-unique “feel”. To demonstrate what I mean by such a vague comment, enter the RTS scene of the past couple years. Almost every title that hit the shelves tried to emulate the Warcraft “feel”. Sure, some of them looked different, but when you stripped away whatever graphic improvements were there, you’re left with more or less the same game. Now I’m not knocking Warcraft, but I already own that game, so if I want to play Warcraft, I’ll play Warcraft. Uplink cannot really be compared to anything that’s currently on the market. Therein lies the attraction with most gamers I’ve spoken with. I’m sure Chris and his crew could have souped up the title by a few gigabytes by adding mad graphics and sound, but the gameplay tends to take a backseat in these cases. When Uplink hits the general scene later this year, I have a feeling that it will mainly appeal to a small niche, but soon more players will venture into this twisted world of corporate espionage ... and like it.

“Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for. I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can't stop us all... after all, we're all alike.” -The Mentor

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