Community Spotlight: Plague Inc. by Ndemic Creations

We chat with Shacknews community member James Vaughan, head of Ndemic Creations and developer of the runaway indie iOS strategy hit, Plague Inc.

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Plague Inc. was featured near the top of the iTunes "Top Paid Games" list for a good part of June. It's an addictive strategy title that tasks players with eliminating all of mankind by choosing and evolving a communicable disease before a global cure can be produced and deployed. Plague Inc. infected about 750,000 iOS devices within its first three weeks in the wild, even without any significant marketing behind it. The game was created by indie developer James Vaughan at his studio Ndemic Creations. Vaughan just happens to be a member of the Shacknews community, so we took the opportunity to reach out and pick his brain about Plague Inc.'s development and runaway success. As noted on the Ndemic Creations website, Plague Inc. took Vaughan just under one year to develop. Vaughan is humble about the game's success, and when I asked him how it felt to have created such a viral hit (pun intended), he explained how the game began as a passion project to make a compelling and polished strategy title for mobile devices. "Hah, well it feels unreal and absolutely fantastic. Bear in mind that I started work on Plague Inc. because I wanted to give myself a personal challenge, not because I wanted to top the app store," Vaughan said. "I hoped that there would be a few people like me who wanted deep, strategic games on their mobiles, but had no idea that Plague Inc. would turn into a global hit. I am acutely aware that with no marketing budget, I owe everything to fans spreading the game through word of mouth and I am extremely grateful!" Obviously, many other independent developers making titles for iOS have had trouble finding their audiences. I asked Vaughan about his take on the "special sauce" that made Plague Inc. a hit without having taken any significant marketing initiatives, and if he'd learned anything he could share with other aspiring developers. He thinks innovation is one of the more important factors in getting recognized. "My key lesson is 'make a game that people want to play,' and if there are other, similar games out there, then recognize that people will not have as strong a desire to play it," he said. "Plague Inc. exploits a gap in the marketplace and offers radically different gameplay to other games out there. Because it is so different, people find it easily and then want to tell their friends about it. I believe this is why Plague Inc. went viral. It was helped by being highly polished, easy to learn but hard to master and having an intriguing concept ('you have to kill everyone')."

Will you be able to destroy the world?

The game itself has a lot of interconnected systems running underneath its surface, requiring players to actually think in relatively real-world terms about how best to infect the planet. Part of Plague Inc.'s appeal has to do with figuring out how to best exploit these systems. Keeping things spoiler-free, I asked Vaughan to talk about some of the factors he hopes players will pay attention to while playing. "I hope that players think about how their plague would be perceived by the world. Are people likely to notice (or care) if 100 million people in Africa have a cough? Probably not," he said. "What about if one hundred thousand people in the US suddenly go insane and drop dead?" "A key part of the game is deciding how to evolve your disease so that it spreads to as many people as possible and then kills them before they are able to develop a cure," he said. "I spent a long time balancing when a country would first notice a disease or when the world would begin to panic about the plague. It is a fine line to balance to but I am moderately happy with the result." That said, Vaughan discovered something interesting about the plausibility of global infection during his research and development of Plague Inc.'s underlying systems. "I am pleased to report that development of Plague Inc. has led me to be fairly confident that it is impossible for humanity to be completely wiped out by any single pathogen," he said. "I started off with one hundred percent accurately modeled disease spreading / infection algorithms (R0 etc.) and the player (disease) could never win. The game as it stands today has a significant and unscientific bias against humanity." Plague Inc. is conceptually similar to a series of browser-based titles, Pandemic and Pandemic 2, which also task the player with dominating the globe by evolving a contagious and lethal disease. Pandemic 2 even saw an iOS release around the same time that Plague Inc. hit iTunes, but in the case of Vaughan's game, it really seems like there's a lot more going on under the surface than is true in the title that inspired it. I asked Vaughan about the game's development, and what he did to improve upon the idea that inspired it. "I'm a huge fan of the concept behind the web game Pandemic 2 but always wanted more from it," Vaughan said. "One day, I started thinking about what would make the ultimate game in the genre. I ended up with a huge list of ideas: deeper strategy, more options, compelling narrative and more realistic models. In my head, the game was awesome and I really, really wanted to play it. There was nothing remotely like it on the iPhone and I knew I had to make it happen." But what are some of the new things Plague Inc. brings to the idea of playing as a disease? Vaughan cites things like random disease mutations, poppable "DNA bubbles" that appear in newly infected countries, and in-game story events presented via a news ticker--some of which actually require the player to think on the fly and adapt their sickness accordingly. "Story events like the 'iCure' require players to react to the world in order to get the best outcome," he explained. Plague Inc. contains a number of disgusting, real-world symptoms the player's disease can evolve, but everything in the game is viewed from a distance. I asked Vaughan if it was a deliberate decision to not include graphic imagery in the game--which makes it easier for the player to be dispassionate and strategic about the carnage he's causing--or if the presentational choices had more to do with practical reasons about being a team of one. "Ease of development was certainly a key factor," said Vaughan. "I had to be on constant guard against scope creep and only focus on the true essential areas. There is also a style element. I do not think random bits of graphic imagery would be in keeping with the broader theme of the game. I quite like the clean, dispassionate 'DEFCON' feel, as it lets the player act on a truly global scale without getting bogged down in the details. Plague Inc. is an intelligent strategy game and graphic violence would mis-sell it." Other design considerations were made as well. Those who have played Plague Inc. have probably noticed that a handful of geographic borders have been consolidated. I asked Vaughan to touch on why this is the case. "Alaska, Ireland, Portugal and Holland have been the most contentious countries/regions that I had to merge," he said. "Of course, absolutely no offense was intended; they were indeed made for the sake of gameplay." He further explained that some of the border-consolidation had to do with making sure that each "country" could be easily seen and selected on the world map. "Some areas of land would be too small on their own," he said. Another related practical consideration for merging certain borders has to do with how the infection appears to spread. "If part of the country is separate to the other (e.g. Alaska), then it looks very odd and can appear to get infected spontaneously." Vaughan added, "I do hope to add more countries into the game in the future but the only way that Alaska will escape Canada is if it becomes its own 'country' and I don't think this would be good either." The final product is an elegant, menu-driven experience that allows players to focus solely on the evolution and transmission of their personalized disease and relevant statistical information. Sound also plays a supporting role to help beef up the game's ambiance. The evolution of certain systems and world events often translate into subtle background audio queues that help dynamically enhance the game's mood. "To get the sound effects, I worked with a guy called Joshua in the U.S.," said Vaughan. "I gave him a list of the effects that I wanted and he produced some fantastic ones! Each sound effect has a number of triggers and conditions so yes, they absolutely do tie in with the gameplay." Though by any measure, Plague Inc. has already been a resounding success, Vaughan has some interesting plans for updates in the future. Feedback from fans is playing a critical role in the development of said updates. "Fan feedback has been brilliant and we have responded to each of the tens of thousands of emails that we have got," Vaughan said. "It helps me prioritize various tasks and also provides new ideas to add to my 'cool things' list." The next update (1.3) "will add a new plague type to master, bring new world events, let you see the impact of an evolution before you evolve it and play your own music whilst playing. It will also have a load of smaller tweaks and functionality enhancements." A number of fans have also requested some sort of multiplayer functionality, and though it'd be a pretty large development undertaking, Vaughan is receptive to the idea. "There are some really exciting ideas I have for multiplayer in the Plague Inc. universe," he confirmed. "It will be complicated to do properly so it is not my immediate priority but definitely something I would like to look at in the future." Plague Inc. is currently available on iTunes for $0.99, and I personally recommend that strategy game fans give it a shot. An Android version of the game is also in the works, which Vaughan describes as a "key priority." Ndemic Creations will reveal more news about the Android version "very soon!"

From The Chatty

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    July 10, 2012 3:00 PM

    Jeff Mattas posted a new article, Community Spotlight: Plague Inc. by Ndemic Creations.

    We chat with Shacknews community member James Vaughan, head of Ndemic Creations and developer of the runaway indie iOS strategy hit, Plague Inc.

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      July 10, 2012 3:15 PM

      Great article! I think Community Spotlight is a terrific idea.

      I really need to pick up this game. I've read a ton of positive stuff about it.

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        July 10, 2012 3:27 PM

        You should, it's a pretty cool game

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        July 10, 2012 3:54 PM

        The wife and I have played the hell out of it.

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        July 10, 2012 5:02 PM

        It's a pretty great game. Plus it's always fun to wipe out humanity!

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        July 10, 2012 5:59 PM

        I've played this quite a bit, it's so good!

        My gf unleashed a wretched flatulence one day, so I named a disease 'Laurfart' to commemorate how disgusting it smelled and watched her giggle with glee as the world slowly collapsed as it spread around. Such a good game.

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      July 10, 2012 3:19 PM

      I played as virus for the first time yesterday and almost killed everyone without devolving any symptoms, except for Greenland which managed to stay completely uninfected. I'm determined to get them next time.

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        July 10, 2012 5:39 PM

        And done. Now what do I need to do with fungus spores?

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      July 10, 2012 4:08 PM

      Hope you guys find this interesting! Happy to answer follow up questions here

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        July 10, 2012 4:13 PM

        Congratulations on your success!

      • DM7
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        July 10, 2012 5:22 PM

        When is retina support coming? ;(

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          July 10, 2012 5:28 PM

          Well retina for iPhone is already in there so I guess you are asking about Retina for iPad.

          Will be updating a number of graphical assets in 1.3 (bubbles, airport icons etc) but I don't want to promise a 100% iPad retina experience from 1.3 as I'm having to balance a lot of competing priorities at the moment.

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        July 10, 2012 5:34 PM

        Follow up question: How much money have you earned from this, considering the year it took to develop.

        Rude to ask, maybe. But hey I'm curious and you said to ask questions.

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          July 10, 2012 6:11 PM

          Heh, fine to ask although I can't give an exact answer as I haven't actually costed my time due to having a full time job at the same time.

          Plague Inc. was very much in the hobby category and if I made my costs back , it would have been a plus. However, I can give you some general cryptic snippets which will be mildly interesting / sickening so only look if you want to...

          I made back my costs within 1 day of release (costs = contractors, apple dev license etc)
          Plague Inc. has been more profitable than my most optimistic business case
          I left my full time job a few weeks ago in order to focus on this opportunity full time

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            July 11, 2012 7:02 AM

            Well hey - awesome! Glad to hear it.

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        July 10, 2012 5:42 PM

        did you have a job while working on this?

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          July 10, 2012 6:03 PM

          Yes, full time job unrelated to gaming or development. Took up a lot of my free time!

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        July 10, 2012 6:34 PM

        i just downloaded your game. pretty fun so far. i just died like a noob on casual...but i think i know what i did wrong.

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        July 11, 2012 4:38 AM

        Any ETA on a port for us icky Android menz?.

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          July 11, 2012 8:32 AM

          See a few posts down - its coming soon. I'm an Android guy as well!

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        July 11, 2012 7:03 AM

        In the ipad version, can you shift the map down a bit? there's a lot of wasted space at the bottom of the map, and sometimes you can't click on the little popups at the top

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          July 11, 2012 8:32 AM

          Yes, working on addressing this. I know its annoying

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      July 10, 2012 4:09 PM

      Can't wait for android version.

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        July 10, 2012 4:11 PM

        That being said; HOW SOON!?

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          July 10, 2012 5:20 PM

          Soon soon - we are not talking about months and months here. Can't be more specific yet but as soon as I can - will inform the shack!

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      July 10, 2012 4:10 PM

      I have beaten all levels including brutal. Don't want to spoil it but shackmessage me if you want a few tips.

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      July 10, 2012 4:12 PM

      Rock on.

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      July 10, 2012 4:40 PM

      Wait, he never made Pandemic 2? Ugh, great, glad he took that idea and made a ton of money. Indie games ftw.

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        July 10, 2012 5:04 PM

        This just in: all ideas are iterative

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          July 11, 2012 9:17 AM

          My comment wasn't so much about the idea, because saying you can't iterate on any idea is pure nonsense. But there seems to be a prevailing factor popping up in modern society where new ideas aren't just iterative but very sourced.

          He made a better game than the original and acknowledged where it came from, so props to him. But he also said this "Plague Inc. exploits a gap in the marketplace and offers radically different gameplay to other games out there. ... It was helped by being highly polished, easy to learn but hard to master and having an intriguing concept ('you have to kill everyone')."

          So in that statement it sounds like he's taking credit for every iteration and polish in his game when he really had a tried and true template to work from.

          So my annoyance isn't that he made a sweet game that I enjoy, or that he doesn't acknowledged the lineage of it, but he contradicts himself in the interview and isn't calling a spade and spade.

      • DM7
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        July 10, 2012 5:04 PM

        Ugh! He talked about that issue in an interview he gave. Keep your bile in your stomach.

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        July 10, 2012 5:10 PM

        Pandemic isn't original either.

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        July 10, 2012 5:14 PM

        Imagine if the original inventor of the operating system was the only one allowed to ever build operating systems forevermore.

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        July 10, 2012 5:19 PM

        so Runic games should just give up and not release Torchlight 2?

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        July 10, 2012 5:20 PM

        Please stop posting.

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        July 10, 2012 5:24 PM

        Ugh, great, glad he took that 7th generation idea and made a ton of money. 8th generation games ftw.

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        July 10, 2012 5:28 PM

        * F R O N T P A G E R ' D *

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      July 10, 2012 4:45 PM

      a friend at work was raving about this game today. i was so glad to say he was one of ours :D

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      July 10, 2012 5:35 PM

      How do you beat the nano level on brutal??? :(

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        July 10, 2012 6:15 PM

        Move fast. Very different tactics required!

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          July 10, 2012 8:13 PM

          Move fast to infect or to kill? Or both?

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            July 11, 2012 3:12 AM

            You need to quickly disable their scientists through a high severity disease or just killing them

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      July 10, 2012 6:26 PM

      Fun game but after my third loss in a row I have given up for quite a while :(

      Not quite sure what else I can do, I only increase transmission, but still no dice

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      July 11, 2012 4:35 PM

      Downloaded this game last month I think after hearing about it on another podcst, It's a great game and took me days to complete! That said I think there's still some more that can be added in terms of workable strategies.

      Anyway great job and I'll keep recomending others to get this. :)