About five years ago, the word "indie" took on a new layer of meaning. Xbox Live, Steam and iOS gave small developers a range of new options for reaching their audience; new marketplaces where their products could compete on a more level playing field with the major publishers. Independent hits like Braid and World of Goo spearheaded a wave of new development talent, making "indie" a sort of shorthand for "edgy and interesting." Earlier this year, I watched a feature-length documentary all about it, which spread the idealised view of the indie developer to an even wider audience.
But Introversion was doing edgy and interesting all the way back in 2001. Introversion's first three games - Uplink, Darwinia and Defcon - were all critical hits, and each sold more than the last. With a new project, Multiwinia, due to launch in 2008, Introversion was poised to take advantage of the wave of indie appreciation and record its greatest success. Things went differently: Multiwinia was well reviewed, but sales were below expectations.
"It took us a long time to realise that our old method didn't work... We were a cause célèbre, and we ran with that until it just completely stopped working"
"It took us a long time to realise that our old method didn't work," says Chris Delay, co-founder of the company and the principle creator of its games. "In the early days it was always a lot easier for us because there weren't that many indies around. When we did Darwinia we got pages and pages of coverage from everyone.
"We were a cause célèbre, and we just ran with that and ran with it and ran with it until it just completely stopped working - around the time we launched Multiwinia in 2008."
After years of feeling like the exception, Introversion's story had become entirely familiar. The indie scene was developing, but it was also becoming more competitive, and the company could not easily afford its next project to be received like Multiwinia. Instead, its next project just ran right into a wall.
In theory, Subversion should have been brilliant: a heist simulator that presents the player with a secure location, a target to steal, and a team of specially trained operatives to execute their elaborate plan. It featured elaborate gameplay systems and a procedurally generated city, and it even appeared in public a handful of times. But there was a problem: it wasn't fun; there was no game.
"I always thought that if we put enough simulation in it then a game would kind of emerge through messing with that," says Delay, "but by 2010 I started to get really worried about that not proving to be true: there was no game in Subversion and there was never going to be.
Delay spent the three months leading up to Subversion's crisis point working on a bank level. No matter how many new layers he added, no matter how much he tweaked the existing systems, players could always just blast a hole in the wall and steal the loot. That was always the solution.
"Ultimately, there was always a short-cut and no reason not to take it," says Delay. "The whole game was kind of fucked as a result."
The experience was evidently painful for Delay, trapped between the certainty that he was pursuing a dead-end with Subversion, and the inescapable fact that the company needed a new game to stay afloat. A fortuitous holiday to San Francisco provided the answer; specifically, a day-trip to the island prison of Alcatraz, where Delay spent several happy hours wandering the prison's building and grounds, admiring its antiquated security mechanisms and listening to the grimly fascinating stories on the audio guide. The trip was supposed to provide inspiration for a problematic level in Subversion, which centred on the abduction of a gang-boss from a maximum security prison, and generally resulted in the player blowing a hole in the wall of the cell. Instead, it laid out the template for an entirely new game.
"You're listening to the voice over and looking at this black scar on the wall, and you're learning about how the US Marines stormed the top floor and recaptured it from the prisoners, and that's where the hand grenades went off," Delay recalls. "Building the systems, the regime, the organisation, and having hundreds of prisoners moving around your prison, that would be fun."
On the flight home, Delay "drank a bottle of wine" and sketched out the bones of what would soon be revealed as Introversion's new work-in-progress: Prison Architect.
Even two years later, the game's core is essentially the same as those first sketches, and it's easy to see why Delay persuaded his partner and co-founder, Mark Morris, to leave Subversion behind. Prison Architect is a beguiling mix of building, management, charming 2D art-work and the dark underbelly of life in chokey. The player wires the electrics, lays out the sewer system, designs the cells, and tells the guards where to walk, but they also need to recognise their prisoners as individuals. Each little South Park-esque avatar has specific needs, and failing to meet them can have disastrous results: among the features being considered for inclusion are gangs, riots, and assaults, all of which will result in bloodshed on both sides.
"We've been told by many people that a game about prisons shouldn't be made. What they're implicitly saying is that they don't think that games should tackle taboo subjects"
"It's very political," Delay admits. "It's an emotional issue for a lot of people. We've been told by many people they don't believe a game about prisons should be made. What they're implicitly saying is that they don't think that games should tackle taboo subjects.
"Shooting people in a beach landing is the classic hero's journey: good guys storming the beaches to defeat evil. Prisons are so much murkier than that. It's quite difficult to have a good vs. evil story in a prison."
The opening chapter of Prison Architect's campaign makes that abundantly clear: the player has to construct an execution chamber and put a man to death, though not before they've heard his story. It's a poignant and thought-provoking moment, in a genre where such moments are in eternally short supply.
"[The player] thinks they're playing a management game, like Theme Hospital, and then it goes into this murder backstory, and they're surprised," says Delay. "They haven't seen that combination before, and it works. It's a bait and switch. We suck them in with our cartoon-y graphics and then we slam them with some proper hard stuff."
"There was a certain kind of person that, at the final moment when a prisoner was executed and the screen goes white, would just sit there, stunned, for 20 seconds or so," Morris adds. "Those were the people I was trying to approach and talk to about the game."
However, after Multiwinia's poor early performance and the steady collapse of Subversion, Delay and Morris understand that a strong premise and abundant indie credibility aren't necessarily enough. Prison Architect needed to embrace the changes that had swept through the industry in recent years. The problem was that there were just too many.
"At the start of this year we were looking at a variety of new business models for Introversion," says Morris. "This year has been so exhausting, because almost every time we found a way that we thought we needed to go, something changed," says Morris.
"It would be nice if the industry would just stay still for six months," adds Delay.
Looking back, Morris marvels that the company hadn't tried to take advantage of its situation sooner. As a functioning indie studio for more than a decade, Introversion was uniquely placed to implement something like the Humble Bundle concept - a Humble Bundle of Introversion's games generated almost $800,000 at the end of 2011 - or to be a prime mover on Kickstarter.
"But we didn't," Morris says. "We just weren't thinking about new business models and new ways of running the company."
With Prison Architect, that has changed. Introversion has designed a paid alpha, which grants a limited number of players access to the game and influence in its development for cash. The pricing tiers begin at $30, for access to the beta and a pre-order of the finished game, and escalate a further seven levels to $1000 tier, the five buyers of which will help to design the game's five Warden avatars. It has shades of Kickstarter, touches of Minecraft, and it made Introversion $100,000 in less than three days.
For Morris and Delay, it's a win-win proposition: they get extra time and resources with which to refine and improve the game, and, thanks to the relatively high cost of entry, a group of engaged users who are serious about being a part of that process. At the same time, the paid-alpha concept has attracted more press than the company has enjoyed in several years. Between that and the noise made by their alpha testers - who are allowed to blog, tweet and post videos about their experiences - Prison Architect should remain on the public radar for just as long as Introversion deems necessary, and hit the market with plenty of interested consumers waiting to play.
"When we launch and Call of Duty 18 launches at the same time it almost won't matter, because we're already embedded in the consciousness of the gamers"
"We had no idea how successful it would be," says Morris. "We could have switched on and had 20 people willing to pay $30, and that would have been quite embarrassing for us. And useless, because we wouldn't have got the kind of feedback we want.
"We're very happy with the financial success and we've got around 2,500 people, which is a perfect amount. We do want more people to join in - of course we do - but we're talking thousands, not hundreds of thousands.
"They'll be spreading the word for the next year or so, until we can launch a version 1.0. By that point we will have also drawn in the press, so they'll be interested in our next updates. There'll be a lot in the public domain... When we launch and Call of Duty 18 launches at the same time, it almost won't matter really, because we're already embedded in the consciousness of the gamers."
These figures were accurate as of one month ago, during the Eurogamer Expo, when Introversion unveiled their success to the world. The number of alpha testers and the money they have generated will inevitably be higher by now, but Morris insists that they will never accept more participants than they can handle for the sake of a few extra bucks. After years of being on the back-foot as the brave new world of indie development raced ahead, Introversion once again has its nose in front.
"We haven't looked at the cash flow, but it gives us a long time to continue working on the game. That's really what it comes down to," Morris says. "We're not doubling our salaries and taking people out to dinner or anything like that. It lets us know that we can take Prison Architect to the place it needs to be… We're free from having to worry about Defcon iPad.
"That's always how Introversion had to operate in the past: we've only got three months worth of money left, so we either get the game out in three months or we look at the back catalogue and do something there that will get us to six months. We've always had to play that game, that give and take.
"With [the paid-alpha] we think we have produced another potential business model that will work for indie developers. That's why we're being so open about the sales numbers... [Other indies] want to know if this alpha structure, the Kickstarter inspired tiers, did we get the price points right?"
Morris pauses for a moment. "I think we nailed it."
Since the publication of this article, Chris Delay published an update on Introversion's forums. The Prison Architect alpha has now generated around $360,000 in the four weeks since its launch.