Introversion is known for creative and quirky games such as Uplink, Defcon and Darwinia, but the independent developer struck a chord with fans with the development of Prison Architect. As the title implies, it’s a game about constructing the perfect prison that keeps the inmates contained and in relatively good shape.
“Build and manage a maximum security prison. That’s our tagline, but I think it actually sums up the game pretty well,” said Mark Morris, founder of Introversion, while describing the game. “You start with an empty plot of land and a bus full of prisoners heading your way. You need to get a holding cell built pretty quickly followed by cells and a kitchen/canteen. After that, things get interesting. Do you build a yard or solitary confinement cells? Do you add visitation rooms or install CCTV? Every action you take will have an impact on your prisoners’ behavior and also on your bank balance, but fundamentally you are free to make your own decisions in pretty every aspect of the penal system.”
What sets Prison Architect apart from most other games is how it was crowdfunded without the use of services such as Kickstarter. Instead, the company sold pre-orders of the game and used those funds to develop it. It then spent about three years on Steam Early Access before officially releasing last October and becoming a phenomenal success.
The developers stated earlier this month that Prison Architect sold over two million copies, generating more than $25 million. The announcement came days after the console version, developed by Double Eleven, released for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Morris discussed the success of the crowdfunding effort with [a]listdaily, and whether Introversion would consider doing something similar with its next project. “Yes and no,” said Morris. “I’m not a fan of Kickstarter, because I don’t believe it’s possible to accurately predict the cost or time required to make a game. Our approach was to run a campaign with no stated end date, but always deliver value to the backers. Right from the beginning, PA delivered a good 4 or 5 hours of gameplay, and over the following years we have continually updated and enhanced it.
“Not every game concept is going to be amenable to those kinds of regular updates and replayability. More narrative based forms can only really be played through once, so the idea of iterative content delivery just doesn’t fit as well.
“For us, it’s always about making great games, and the business strategy will always follow the game concept rather than trying to conceive an idea based on a business model. We’ve recently announced our next title, Scanner Somber, but that will be delivered in a very different way.”
Prison Architect spent a long period of time in Early Access, and when we asked how the game was being promoted during that time, Morris said, “We started out with a mail to four or five journalists from some of the big sites to cover the very first launch of Alpha 1. The response from players was just enormous, and I think that really got the ball rolling. We produced monthly YouTube update videos which now receive about 100 thousand views. The biggest change in recent times has been the huge YouTubers covering us. These are often totally out-of-the-blue, and suddenly we see a big sales spike and find that Sips or Markiplier or some other massive video maker has dropped a video.”
When asked what he learned about promoting independent, crowdfunded games while developing PA, Morris replied, “YouTube is massive. It’s the only channel that we have ever been able to track against a change in sales. Static ads make no difference. I’m not sure that any single review really contributed that much. Twitter was pretty much irrelevant and Facebook was like pouring a glass of water into an ocean. When we launched v1.0, we did manage to get over one million hits to our Steam page, but we didn’t have a major uplift in sales on that day. Perhaps the price was too high.”
We also asked how Morris imagined the game would continue to grow. “Honestly? We don’t know,” he replied. “We are shortly going to launch v2.0 which will be our ‘feature complete’ version. We’ll still keep the game current with the latest hardware and fix bugs, but it’ll be the last of our monthly updates. As a creative business, it’s time for us to be creative and put out a new game, but we have no idea how that will affect the background sales of PA. We do still have some cool ideas for some pretty major features that we may decide to implement at a later date, but at 2 million players, we’d be happy if PA never sold another unit on PC.
“That said, we’ve just dropped the console versions, and early indications are that PA is going to do well on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. I’d love to be able to get some title updates and new features in for the console audience, but we’ll have to see. We’ve also got a tablet version in the pipeline that we’re really excited about.”
Mark South, COO of Double Eleven, spoke to [a]listdaily about promoting the console version of Prison Architect. When asked if there were significant differences in promoting the console edition compared to the PC version, he said, “Promoting the console editions of the game was its own unique challenge, that Double Eleven worked relentlessly on.
“It’s pretty safe to say that, broadly speaking, at present, PA sits in its own genre—strategy, simulation, builder or any combination of those words. At the same time, we didn’t take it as a given that it would be as known of a quantity on console as it was on PC. That ‘known quantity’ factor on PC also presented its own challenges, as we needed to give something to our media partners that was fresh, especially when they had previously reviewed the PC version. In short, we operated on the basis that no one on console had heard of it and that we’d have an uphill struggle making it known—despite all the success and accolades PA has been fortunate enough to attract.
“Double Eleven’s key message for the console editions was more focused on the broader thematic elements of the game, more akin to someone’s favorite TV prison series. With that more familiar context, we could introduce them to the simulation heart of the game. To that end, the messaging was more to do with the lives of the inmates and the emergent behavior that could occur. For console players, PA would provide all the stuff they need to explore how they would build and run a prison and see the outcome of their designs on their prisoners.
“Double Eleven ticked the normal boxes carrying out interviews, previews tours and sponsored YouTube content but also engaged in smaller, more personal projects. This included activities like creating a web tool that would allow anyone to create a prisoner, becoming immortalized in the game as well as a number of videos focused on the heart of PA and what it had to offer.”
One outcome releasing Prison Architect on consoles was that there was no, in effect, two versions of the game with differing features. We asked South whether there were any plans to bring match the console release with the PC edition’s features.
“Double Eleven ultimately created their own edition of PA and introduced it to a new audience,” said South. “Although the versions play the same with the same core mechanics, they’ve made hundreds of changes, improvements, and tweaks to their editions in line what they believe a console gamer would want from PA. So to that end, we see the console edition not as a port but as a uniquely different experience on its own path.
“Given that we see both editions as being on separate paths, they were promoted independently but with a shared awareness of each other.
“Of course, it’s still early days for the console editions so we will continue to support the game with updates and content right for its community, not necessarily to mirror it to the PC version.
Finally, when asked about what he thought about Prison Architect‘s appeal, Morris explained, “I think everyone’s interested in prisons. I think everyone has an opinion on whether they are too lenient or not tough enough, and I also think people enjoy exploring their creativity in video games. I think we did the topic justice, but I guess a better answer to this question can be found in the pages of the Steam user reviews!”