How Prison Architect freed Introversion Software

Though most will know the studio for its work on the hugely successful Prison Architect, the history of Introversion Software makes for some very hard reading.

The studio was started by a group of friends at Imperial College London: Mark Morris, Chris Delay and Thomas Arundel. Delay had been working on a hacking game called Uplink, which they teamed up on. The group set up a website and sorted physical distribution deals in both the UK and the US, but the firm handling the US release – Strategy First – went into administration, meaning Introversion never saw its money.

The developer limped forward and put together AI-themed title Darwinia, which launched in 2005 to critical acclaim. It won the IGF Award in 2006, but it was not commercially successful. Undeterred, the team started work on its third game, DEFCON, which was at least profitable for the studio.

Hoping to gain some momentum, the firm then signed a deal with Microsoft to release an Xbox 360 port of Darwinia, yet it proved difficult working with the game’s old code base. The platform holder also demanded a multiplayer component. It was a tough task and when Darwinia+ launched it barely sold any units.

The result was Introversion effectively shutting down. All staff apart from Morris and Delay were laid off.

At that point we had removed all of the expense from the cashflow. There was no office or staff, so the trickle of revenue that was coming in from the back catalogue on Steam actually became a stream,” Morris tells MCV.

It was enough for Chris and I to continue. Humble Bundle had just launched, too, and we went out to GDC and tried to convince them to do a bundle of all of our back catalogue. Unknown to us, they were also very keen to do an Introversion bundle, so that happened. We made just under $1m in the Introversion bundle, which was an astonishing success.”

"Without the Alpha releases, we wouldn’t have
been able to make a game as complicated as
Prison Architect."

Mark Morris, Introversion Software

Now able to sustain itself, Introversion began work on a highly ambitious management simulation game called Prison Architect in 2010, and launched the first build of the title in September 2012.

But this release was a little different – the game Introversion had set loose was not finished. Actually, it wasn’t even close to being complete. The firm decided to experiment with a relatively new business model whereby consumers would purchase a game that was still in development.

Roughly six months later, in March 2013, having supplied its Kickstarter backers with regular new versions of the game directly, Introversion brought Prison Architect to Steam’s new Early Access platform. Harnessing the business model Introversion had been using previously, Early Access allows PC gamers to pay for unfinished titles and receive periodic in-progress versions before the main game is released. Prison Architect was one of the first 12 games to use the service.

Early Access has been perfect,” Morris says. At the time we launched Prison Architect in 2012, there was nothing better that we could have done with the game or that the market could have done. The sales enabled us to know we were working on a really strong concept.

And having that feedback from the players enabled us to layer in all of these different systems into Prison Architect. We just wouldn’t have been able to make the game as complicated as it is without that really tight monthly feedback loop.”

During the course of its paid-Alpha run, the developer sold 1.25m units before Prison Architect was even finished, and the game grossed over $19m. But it was not without its challenges.

The biggest worry was over-promising to people, telling people we were going to do something and not being able to do it,” Morris explains.

At the start we were very cautious about what we said and the language we used. We never promised anybody monthly updates for instance, we just settled into that pattern. To begin with, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to build in meaningful features every four weeks, alongside ensuring we weren’t breaking old builds and weren’t releasing a version that would just crash on launch. We were very careful to be clear about what people were actually paying for at the start, which was a very buggy and broken version of a game. We didn’t want people coming back and saying they couldn’t play it.

We wanted them to understand that they were getting involved with a development process.

As it turned out we actually managed to maintain a monthly development cycle and meet the expectations of the players,in part because we had so carefully ensured that they weren’t raised. The bar we were shooting for in a player’s mind was quite low so we were able to constantly exceed that. That management of expectations and community management of – by the end – well over 1.25m players, was the biggest challenge.”

"Apple’s business model is not healthy
for games with scope, scale and ambition."

Mark Morris, Introversion Software

Introversion isn’t just looking to release Prison Architect on PC – it has a tablet edition in the works, too. But Morris has some issues with the game market Apple’s App Store has created.

Apple’s model is not healthy for games with scope, scale and ambition,” he says.

Apple might disagree with me, but there are hundreds of games released each day on iPad, most of which are little bite sized experiences. The market that’s being set up is one where you pay a dollar for an app. It doesn’t transition well to fully-functioning, scaled, proper game experiences, which is what I consider Prison Architect to be.

We’ve never confirmed a price or anything like that for the tablet edition, but part of our thinking was always to price it as a premium product. We charge $30 on desktop, and it’s not cost us less than that to put Prison Architect on iPad, so why are we going to be charging $10? I have no expectations that we are going to perform in higher numbers on iPad than we will on PC, so the idea that from a development perspective that we should be charging a few dollars just doesn’t work. It makes development for the iPad unviable.

Something is going to have to change there. That’s partially why we haven’t launched it just yet.”

Interface takes place on November 12th at St Mary’s Church. Indie devs can bring their projects along to pitch to the likes of Execution Labs, Channel 4’s All 4 Games and 505 Games.

You can book tickets to the event here, and find out more

A limited number of sponsorship opportunities are available. Contact Jennie Lane atjlane@nbmedia.comor Charlotte Nangle, or call them on 01992 535 647, to find out more.

About MCV Staff

Check Also

Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!

“Insisting that DDLC must be experienced in one specific way would be a very elitist and pretentious mindset for us to have.” – Behind the scenes of Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!

We talk to Dan Salvato and Serenity Forge about the challenges of releasing a premium version of a free game, and the introduction of content warnings to Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!