Holiday Re-run: Plague Inc. developer James Vaughan and the end of the world

The Pocket Tactics crew is on holiday until the new year. This interview with Plague Inc. creator James Vaughan originally ran in June – before the wave of the disease RPG’s popularity crested.
Plague Inc. news ticker provides the occasional grin but is usually the carrier of grim news like this.

Plague Inc. news ticker provides the occasional grin but is usually the carrier of grim news like this.

There isn’t anything new about apocalyptic fiction. The George Romero-inspired zombies that have devoured the Earth time and again in films and video games of the last decades are young pups compared to Plato’s story of the deluge that brings down great Atlantis, which has been thrilling listeners for thousands of years.

So, in one sense, the new vogue for pandemic disease simulators is just the newest incarnation of a venerable entertainment genre as old as art itself. What I find curious about them is the role that the player is cast into. You’re not in charge of a team of scientists trying to stop the plague – you are the plague. You are a genetic Benedict Arnold, plotting to outwit your erstwhile fellow humans and bring about their wholesale destruction.

I don’t want to come across as a prude – I couldn’t really, as my affection for Pandemic 2.5 and Plague Inc. is no secret. Engineering the demise of mankind in Plague Inc. is a lot of fun and quite challenging. But the change in perspective is a jarring shift away from the fiction of the last 20 years. You don’t control the aliens in X-Com, nor are you meant to sympathise with the asteroid in Deep Impact. Even in games where you play the “bad guy”, like TIE Fighter or GTA, care is taken to make them at least relateable. Not so in the pandemic simulators, which present the task of evolving the perfect doomsday disease with no preamble and almost entirely humorlessly. The creators have taken it for granted that, in 2012, we need no motivation to annihilate our brethren, and the sales figures have proven them correct.

The best of these games (as I’ve mentioned before) is definitely Plague Inc., which takes the model established by Pandemic and polishes it to a high gloss. I chatted with James Vaughan, the man behind Plague Inc. developer Ndemic Creations to ask him if we’ve all become nihilistic monsters – as well as to get his take on his product’s chief rival and to find out what he plans to bring out as his second act. See our conversation after the jump.

Owen Faraday: Is it fair to say that Plague Inc. is “Pandemic Plus”? You’re taking an existing model and improving on it.

James Vaughan: To be clear, Plague Inc. is its own, unique game which I built from scratch – it is not “Pandemic Plus”, “Contagion Plus” or anything else Plus! I got inspiration for Plague Inc. from multiple sources, including the 5 year old, flash game, Pandemic 2 which has a similar concept. I am a big fan of Pandemic 2 and I loved the concept but I wanted a deeper, more strategic game with a strong narrative. There was nothing like it on the iPhone at the time and so I decided to make the game that I wanted to play. I would design a deep, challenging and thought provoking strategy game from scratch for the touchscreen which would use the iPhone to do things that no one had ever thought of before. The more I thought about it, the more cool things I thought of (random mutations, research teams etc). I wanted to play this imaginary game so much that I knew I had to make it.

OF: You weren’t alone with that thinking – there’s a lot of disease games on iOS now, including Pandemic.

Plague Inc. is so replete with charts and graphs that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was Football Manager.

Plague Inc. is so replete with charts and graphs that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Football Manager.

JV: Whilst there are now five or so games, I believe, with a similar concept, Plague Inc. stands alone as the ultimate infection simulator which has been designed from scratch for the iOS platform. Engaging story events, complex world simulations, detailed infection algorithms, advanced AI, a highly polished user interface, walkthroughs & tutorials, the ability to save your game… I could go on and on but I don’t think I need to. The facts speak for themselves: 750,000 downloads and around 25,000 5 star reviews in three weeks with no marketing. Both casual and serious gamers love it and are recommending it to their friends, there is no higher award than this.

OF: What do you think underpins the popularity of this new genre of games where we’re killing everyone we’ve ever known and loved? Are we all closet genocidal psychopaths?

JV: Plague Inc. is an intelligent and challenging strategy game which gives players something to master and also makes them think about geographical and scientific concepts that they would not normally encounter. Plague Inc. is so popular because people want to be challenged – it is easy to learn but hard to master.

I don’t think it’s a bloodthirsty game like Call of Duty. I wanted it to be thought-provoking – it is not a graphically violent game and its success is not due to the fact that it involves killing people. It takes an extremely relevant concept and shows people what could happen – making them think and entertaining them at the same time. This is a great result in my opinion and something to be lauded – far better this than staring mindlessly at a random TV programme!

OF: Is there anything you had to leave on the cutting room floor that you wish had made it into the final game?

JV: Oh yes, there is so much that I had to leave out, looking at my original design document makes me feel sad because I had to leave so much out to complete it. However, it also makes me look forwards to where I can take the game next! Lots of different disease types with very different strategies, various functionality, interface, and data enhancements – these will all be coming in future updates (we have already released 2 updates in just over three weeks!). As for the bigger stuff, time will tell how these get realised.

OF: You’ve said on your site that you’ve got a lot of fan emails coming in – have you gotten any ideas from the fans that you want to work into the game?

Directing the evolution of your disease in Plague Inc.

Directing the evolution of your disease in Plague Inc.

JV: Absolutely, feedback from players through email, Twitter, forums and Facebook has been brilliant. People are really inspired by the game and are coming up with loads of great suggestions for future updates. Hearing what people want also helps me prioritise the content of future updates. One great suggestion I got yesterday was to have a joke news item talking about Canada taking over Alaska. I get a lot of people wanting to know why Alaska is part of Canada in the game. The answer: gameplay reasons! It looked silly having infection randomly appear separate from the rest of the US.

OF: Do you think we’ve seen the apex of the disease mutation genre or is there still some life left in it?

JV: Plague Inc. transformed the genre but there is a lot more life in it. Already, I hope that there are people all over the world thinking of new things to add / change (I certainly have a lot more ideas!). I made Plague Inc. because I was annoyed that there were not enough high quality strategy games available for mobile – if Plague Inc. helps trigger an increase in these types of games – I can only be pleased!

OF: What’s next for you? I imagine you’re still working on updates to Plague of course – but have you started thinking about your next title?

JV: The absolute priority for us is continuing to drive and develop Plague Inc. We are not resting on our laurels. I am quickly bringing it to Android, working on localising the game for other languages and also looking to add completely new strategic experiences to the game through new disease types (zombies has been requested a lot!). I am an extreme perfectionist and will not compromise on the quality of the game – the new disease types will be awesome and require truly different strategies to what is currently in the game – in order to get this done, the team and I must work very hard!

Beyond this, it is too soon to say, I have a number of different game concepts that I would like to explore, both in the Plague Inc. universe and completely separate. I can’t wait to share them with the world in the future.

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