A small-time doctor in a Central American village notices a strange new disease. Symptoms range from vomiting and fever to a full coma. The locals take to calling the virus “Itchyhead,” since it sometimes causes insanity in its hosts.
Ten minutes later, the disease has mutated and gotten stronger, and 6.2 billion people have died. I pinch inward on my iPad screen and observe the devastation from a closer view. All of Europe is toast. Asia too. Canada and the U.S. fall to the rampant pestilence flowing out of Mexico.
In other words, things were going great.
Plague Inc., a game for iOS and Android, has spread just like a virus in 2012. Challenging players to wipe out the entire world with a carefully constructed disease, the 99-cent game has been chronically infecting the App Store’s charts since its release in May, selling over 2 million copies on iOS devices alone.
James Vaughan, a 25-year-old former business consultant from London, developed Plague Inc. with the help of just three freelancers and a MacBook he borrowed from his parents. The total budget for the first version of the game was just under $5,000.
“I thought if I made back the costs from doing it, that’d be amazing,” Vaughan said.
Three days after launch, it became the top paid gaming app in the U.K. Two days later, it was number one on the U.S. charts. Today, Vaughan is a millionaire.
In the early days of the App Store, tiny games made by individuals or small teams often dominated the charts. Doodle Jump and Soosiz exploded onto the scene and attracted hundreds of thousands of paying players, as well as many clones.
In recent years, that’s changed. Today, games published by Electronic Arts, Disney and Rovio monopolize the top of the charts for paid games, and even the most successful indie games struggle to claim more than a brief moment of glory at the top of the heap. The market for free games remains a wild territory, but the paid downloads side of the app industry has become dominated by Angry Birds Star Wars and its ilk.
Plague Inc. has bucked the system by staying near the top of the charts in numerous countries for the entirety of its existence, pulling in millions in revenue while competing with the big players.Perhaps the greatest factor behind Plague Inc.’s success is its unusual premise, a humorous twist on mass extinction.
The game allows players to name their disease whatever they like, so if you want to call a disease that kills 6.2 billion people “Itchyhead,” as I did, you can.
Vaughan tracks the names that players use, and reports that many of his users are pretty morbid and rather uncreative: “Death” is themost-often-used disease name, followed closely by “AIDS.”
“There’s vast numbers of rude ones out there,” Vaughan said, laughing. He refuses to reveal some of the more grotesque disease names used by players, but admits to getting a kick out of the popularity of “your mom.”
Vaughan is open about the fact that his game takes heavy inspiration from Pandemic 2, a free-to-play browser game released in 2008.
“I thought, ‘I like Pandemic 2 but it could be so much better,’” Vaughan said.
Some have accused Vaughan of “cloning.”
“[Plague Inc.] is, unquestionably the better game,” critic Simon Parkin wrote in May, “but it is also unquestionably a game that wouldn’t exist were it not for Pandemic.”
Then again, Pandemic was not entirely original, either. In 1985 a PC game called Contamination, possibly the grandaddy of the “global disease simulation genre,” was released. It put players in control of world health organizations and had them fight ever-evolving diseases using a variety of tools — a reversal of the role a player takes in Pandemic and Plague Inc.
Vaughan plans on expanding his company once he’s done tweaking and updating Plague Inc. He hinted at the possibility of movie tie-ins for future games in the franchise, but is currently focused on adding zombies to the game in the next major update.
Maybe I need to enlist the undead. In the end, “Itchyhead” failed to destroy civilization. Although my hand-crafted plague killed over 6 billion people, some crafty New Zealanders were able to keep their scalps unmolested.
Culled from Wired