Breaking out with Prison Architect

Breaking out with Prison Architect
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

October 15th 2012 at 5:50PM

Develop speaks with Introversion on its latest hit in the making

After two years in development, Darwinia and DEFCON developer Introversion recently began the open-Alpha of its latest title, Prison Architect.

The title, available for PC and Mac, is based around the concept of building a large prison, whilst keeping all the inmates from escaping and preventing riots from breaking out.

Speaking to Develop, Introversion’s Mark Morris says the idea originally stemmed from the small studio’s uncompleted project Subversion, which saw users break into high tech security systems, with the new idea sparked after development problems after working on the game for years and a trip to Alcatraz.

“We were working on Subversion for many years, but that project simply never came together,” he explains.

“There was never a moment when you could launch the game and have actual fun playing it. Chris Delay got pretty dismayed about this and things came to a head when he was on holiday in San Francisco. He was taking a tour around Alcatraz and the idea hit him that building a prison would be a lot of fun.

“Subversion had you breaking into high tech buildings and defeating all their security systems, but he knew laying out the level itself would be a lot of fun. Prison Architect is kind of like Subversion turned on its head - now the player designs the levels and the security systems, and the game tries to break them down.”

Partly funded through the studio’s own funds from it’s healthy back catalogue of games – including Darwinia, Multiwinia and DEFCON – the developers have taken to the ever-increasingly popular method of crowdfunding to raise the finances to further develop Prison Architect.

Users can pledge $30 to purchase the game for PC and Mac, gaining immediate access to the Alpha phase of the title and subsequent iterations before full release. And they can also bid up to $500. The title previously had a $1,000 limit for up to five users, but this is now sold out.

Morris says that whilst the launch of Uplink for tablets earlier this year and the Humble Bundle had played a big part in getting them to the alpha stage, adopting a unique Alpha stage-crowdfunding system was the obvious choice after its proven success for many other indie titles.

“It just made a lot of sense to us, we'd seen Minecraft, Overgrowth, Frozen Synapse etcetera all do well from paid alphas,” said Morris.

“We knew we wanted to do one, but we also thought that gamers are incredibly benevolent - Kickstarter and Humble Bundle proved that. We wanted to try to find a way to combine all these ideas in a new way that would work for us.”

The method has worked wonders for the small indie outfit so far, with last week product revenue standing at an impressive $277,775 from 7,724 purchases.

The average investment users were willing to pay stands at $36, with 5,578 of the consumers spending $30 for the initial base pack.

But why not take to Kickstarter to raise money from interested customers? The website has seen huge crowdfunding successes during the last year with the likes of the Double Fine adventure Game, Wasteland 2 and Oculus, and continues to prove a viable funding route with Obsidian now raising more than $3million through the site.

Morris says the idea of taking to Kickstarter didn’t sit well with the small development team given that the game had already been in development for two years, and that not using the site gave them greater control over deadlines.

“Kickstarter is for getting projects off the ground and we were already 2 years into Prison Architect development so it just didn’t sit well for us,” he says.

“By doing it ourselves we don’t have to time limit the alpha and we hope that we’ll get more and more gamers interested as we progress and start releasing the updates. We also didn’t have any kind of idea about what revenue target to set, so by controlling the process ourselves we can shape our development to the success of the alpha.

“We don’t have to pay the Kickstarter fees which is nice, but I guess Kickstarter may have added value if they had listed us a featured project. We also had to take the time to set up our own technology to implement the tier system, we used a service called Digital Delivery App which I can really recommend, but it did take effort on our part.”

Asked whether he feels more developers should take to crowdfunding instead of the traditional publisher route, Morris was unequivocal in his feelings towards the usefulness of publishers towards small-to-medium sized studios.

“I think publishers add value for triple-A titles, but that’s it,” he states.

“At the small and medium level, there is absolutely no benefit from working with a publisher. I firmly believe that developers are best place to form the relationship with steam and control the marketing and PR for a game launch. Publishers are completely redundant in the indie world.”

By not taking the publisher route and keeping a relationship with Valve to release on digital distribution platforms such as Steam, Introversion has been able to keep the same indie spirit that it has had since it was founded in 2001.

The studio still has the same three core staff from its early days, consisting of Morris, Chris Delay and Thomas Arundel, with extra employees brought in throughout various projects to aid development.

Introversion had previously expanded up to 11 developers when working on Darwinia+ for XBLA, but Morris says this project didn’t work out well for the studio, with the studio shrinking back down to its trio of founders.

Prison Architect currently has Al Lindsay handling audio and Ryan Sumo on art, whilst Morris says they are also considering bringing in more freelance programmers in the New Year, but would make sure they are tightly managed to ensure the vision of the game is not lost from a larger development team.

Visit the official Introversion Software website for more information on Prison Architect.