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Mobile needs gamers "to pay big dollars for big games" - Morris

Introversion dev sizes up the problems facing Prison Architect's planned ports for mobile and console

Introversion's first console game, Darwinia+ for Xbox 360, nearly ruined the company. The studio went deep in debt to finish the game, and it was clear when it launched that sales wouldn't be enough to pay back what was owed. The company wound up surviving through the grace of a featured spot in a Steam sale, and has since flourished by returning to PC development with the alpha-funded hit Prison Architect. So naturally, Introversion wants to take Prison Architect and bring it to consoles.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz earlier this month, Introversion director Mark Morris explained the company's desire to return to its own personal Waterloo.

"We had a bad time," Morris said. "We had a bad project. But that doesn't mean you then pack up and never do something again. That's not how I operate. If you look at the mistakes we made, I don't see any reason at all why we can't attempt another console project and not make those same mistakes again. Now if it does go badly, that'll be the end of our relationship with consoles forever and ever because the guys will never let me do anything on console again."

"If you look at the mistakes we made, I don't see any reason at all why we can't attempt another console project and not make those same mistakes again."

In Morris' estimation, the big mistakes made with Darwinia+ were not understanding how to manage the developer-publisher relationship with Microsoft, and assuming that developing for consoles would be as easy as it was for PC. However, Morris said times have changed. Deal structures are better in today's console environment than they were in the last generation, and Introversion is looking to get outside help for the console adaptation of Prison Architect. Morris said they want a developer to handle the adaptation, and are looking for publishing partners to share the risk of funding the project.

The console adaptation is "just an idea" right now, and Morris said it won't happen unless they can get the deal right. However, that isn't the only platform expansion planned for Prison Architect. Introversion is also bringing the game to mobile platforms, and that project is a lot less hypothetical. The studio has already had an external contractor working on the game for some time, and Morris said Introversion will soon bring it in-house for an added layer of spit-and-polish.

Exactly which mobile platforms will get Prison Architect hasn't been determined yet; Morris said the game's simulation requires a certain amount of power, and it's unclear exactly how broad the range of devices able to handle that will be. Wherever it appears though, it will command a premium price point. A final price hasn't been nailed down yet, but Morris would like it to be in the $10 to $20 range.

"I would love tablet gaming to take off," Morris said. "I think tablets are a wonderful form factor and a great way to play certain types of games. And Prison Architect is an absolute perfect fit for playing on your iPad. The thing is, Prison Architect on the iPad didn't take us any less time to develop than Prison Architect on the PC, and we simply can't afford to put it out there for $1 or $2. To my mind, there has to be a shift in the consumer mindset to pay big dollars for big games. That shift simply has to occur to make the market viable for meaty content and not just free-to-play or low-end and rapidly developed stuff."

"I want reviews to say, 'This is a great game but it's incredibly expensive.' Because sometimes people like that."

Morris isn't completely sure the strategy will work, but he would prefer the game come out at a fair price point and fail to turn a profit than contribute to the price erosion problem on mobile devices. After all, even if the game were available for $1, that would by no means guarantee success.

"I don't want to be arrogant and say it worked on PC so it's definitely going to work on mobile, but I sort of think mobile is such a roll of the dice anyway," Morris said. "There are so many games that come out, it's so difficult to get noticed that I'm not sure the price point would be a huge factor in that. In some ways, the fact it's quite expensive might be a plus point. I want reviews to say, 'This is a great game but it's incredibly expensive.' Because sometimes people like that. They want to feel like they're getting something premium and spending a premium amount of money for it."

It wouldn't be the first time a somewhat counter-intuitive pricing decision panned out for Introversion. When the team launched the original Prison Architect alpha funding campaign, the minimum price to get a copy of the game was $30, on the high end of what many finished and polished indie games can command. Morris said there were three main reasons behind the price decision. First, they saw it as charging people $30 to participate in the ongoing development process, not charging them for the game itself. Second, they wanted to have room to drop the price and spark sales in case the alpha funding flopped at first. Third, they wanted people to seriously consider the purchase decision.

"We didn't want people making a small decision to spend $5 or $10 and then writing all over the Internet that this is a piece of shit and it crashes," Morris said. "We wanted the decision to engage with us to have a little bit of thought behind it so you knew exactly what you were getting yourself into. Pricing it at $30 would give you that moment to stop and think and really read and look at what you're buying into. And as a consequence of that, you'd give positive reviews because you'd understand what you were going to buy."

The decision was apparently a prudent one, as Prison Architect became one of the initial success stories out of Steam's Early Access program. Plenty of other developers have since attempted to follow in their footsteps, and plenty others failed.

"As consumers get burnt, they begin to understand what purchasing decisions they're going to make in order to not get burnt the next time around."

"You have to remember that there's only a small percentage of the market interested in playing or testing a game that hasn't been finished yet," Morris said. "And I think some of the early stories with Early Access--us, Day Z, Kerbal Space Program--might have set the bar a little too high. I think there were people making Early Access games, releasing them, not getting the numbers on day one that they thought they needed, and abandoning the project."

Introversion was committed to Prison Architect regardless of how the alpha funding went. The first release of the game had a good five hours of gameplay in it, Morris said, and the plan was to use the funding campaign's performance in the first few months to set the scope of the game. He also said the plan to produce monthly updates struck a good balance between keeping things fresh for players and allowing the developers enough time to make significant changes between builds. And on top of that, Morris said Prison Architect benefited from being in the first wave of Early Access releases.

"Early Access is very similar to Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and these kind of things," Morris said. "There was a benefit to being on them quite early because they were a novelty. What happens over time is consumers get more savvy. As consumers get burnt, they begin to understand what purchasing decisions they're going to make in order to not get burnt the next time around."

While Prison Architect has been a boon for Introversion, don't expect it to become the company's focus for the future. This isn't like Riot Games and League of Legends or Mojang and Minecraft. Prison Architect is scheduled to see its official release this year, and at some point after that, Introversion will "start drifting away," as Morris put it.

"Introversion's core reason for being is to make new video games," Morris said. "If we had a tagline, that's what it would be. So we have a desire even now to start moving away from Prison Architect and to start looking toward whatever the next title will be... We're not about sequels and continuing on one project. We want to do a project, do it well, and move on to another project. So even though it's sort of enticing to continue with Prison Architect or an Architect series of games, that's not what Introversion was formed to do, nor is it the desire of any of the directors."

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Latest comments (18)

Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop4 years ago
The thing is, Prison Architect on the iPad didn't take us any less time to develop than Prison Architect on the PC
Really? So even though you have the PC version there, the iPad version has taken the same amount of dev time, to port across?

There already is a market for $7+ strategy games. Look at Xcom, for example. It's just a much smaller market than for cheaper games. But weigh up the size of the market * the amount you're going to charge, vs the cost of porting it across.

Definitely don't release it for $1 though. That's the price point where games go to die.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Bravo, we've reached exactly the same conclusion. Our Epic Little War Game will be 10 bucks on Steam and 10 bucks on iOS and Android too.

We're pushing up the prices on all our other games tomorrow too, as they stupidly low "gotta catch em all" technique no longer works even in the slightest. Gonna be some self-entitlement glands a-poppin soon I reckon.
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André Bernhardt Free Bird, IndieAdvisor4 years ago
Totally agree!
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Martyn Brown Managing Director, Insight For Hire4 years ago
Little reality check here, it's a race to the bottom, not to the top.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend4 years ago
@Martyn

Sure, everyone says its a race to the bottom, but I think it is good that a few developers are going to try to buck the trend. Reinforcing that "race to the bottom" line doesn't really help, but if more and more developers stop racing to the bottom then we might, just might get some kind of equilibrium where good games can charge a good price and free to play titles live side by side.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios4 years ago
Rovio and King have won the race to the bottom, good luck eating into that market share!

Freemium is releasing a free app to the largest possible userbase in the hope that 1% of that userbase will pay you later. And you have to pay to grow that userbase.
Premium is releasing a paid app in the hope that 0.1% of the entire hardware userbase will take a punt and pay you first. You're targeting a subset of the market who want to invest in a game, not just kill time.

At the end of the day visibility is what counts, and premium allows you to pick a niche and focus on targeting that audience, instead of competing with the big guns for the attention of the mass market. Premium seems a much safer bet nowadays IMHO...
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I think the temptation to release your game for as cheap as possible has more pull (and is prolly smarter) if you're making a simple or casual game or a game that you're happy to aim at grandma. OTOH if you aim your game at people who respect and enjoy videogames as a key pastime (rather than as digital distractions while doing something else) you can charge a bit more because you've already lost the 'free & entitled' crowd and are onto the enthusiasts. I think we suffer from thinking too much of mobile gamers as a monolith, as if the rules or needs for one bunch of people ought apply to another just because they are on the same platform, and this problem of crossed wires is acute in paid vs. F2p games. The market is just too huge to think like this anymore.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd4 years ago
Putting a $10+ price tag on an iOS game is taking a big bet on the strength of your IP. Is it worth more than Minecraft and GTA? I'm sure it is to some people, but what is the point of porting a game to simply service the customers you've already got on PC?

Apple are willing to give a level of promotion that money can't buy to quality premium games. Hanging a big "NO TRESPASSING" sign on your store page when you're in front of millions of potential customers is usually unwise. Monument Valley and The Room (and Threes, Ridiculous Fishing, etc.) figured this out and were rewarded for their efforts. These are not cheap or casual games.

Saying you want to change consumer behaviour is very noble but consumers will just shrug and play one of the thousands of sensibly priced games instead. Repeating mistakes of the past and assuming mobile has to be a lottery are excellent ways to sabotage success from the outset.

There are exceptions (Football Manager, Monster Hunter) but these are absolutely top flight IPs, hobbies in themselves. Maybe Prison Architect is on its way up? I'd like to think it is, but as I say it's a big bet!
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I rather think Introversion are being bullish on this point because they've managed to make a huge amount of money already without 'officially' releasing their game on any platform. Fireproof's decision to release at Ł4.99 was a risk (so everyone informed us) but we were at least in some way buoyed by the fact that, whilst we had no money of our own left, we didn't owe anybody else money, and were prepared to lose our investment rather than release at a price point we fundamentally believed was wrong. That lucky position is not one most devs find themselves in and so the race to the bottom continues. But at the same time if any dev like Introversion finds they *are* in that debt-free position, they'd be helping nobody by releasing a full-fat game that took three years to make for $.99c.
When considering one company's strategy, we don't need to constantly project it onto every other game out there before we consider it legit. It works for them, it's a big world, horses/courses and all that.
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Martyn Brown Managing Director, Insight For Hire4 years ago
@ Darren, if I'm not mistaken that's exactly the position we are at.

Mining a niche is what's left for premium. The mass won't (and don't expect to) pay.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd4 years ago
@Barry - Fair points. I didn't say they should go down to $0.99. But I can think of more instances where ~$4-5 has turned a polished, compelling game into a million seller on iOS than where a $10+ price tag has gotten anywhere.
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@Robin agreed, though its not impossible either. Personally I'm a big believer in paid mobile gaming being aaaaall about niches, or at least approaching what you make as if you're already niche and your players are fellow travellers. Freeing yourself from all the expense, blather and faff of being a "service" enterprise to the vast faceless horde is hugely enabling if you're too small, too stuck in your wants, or too damn lazy to become a blazillionaire using that method. There is room for alternatives as long as you don't expect too much.
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Spencer Franklin Concept Artist 4 years ago
Just slapping a $10+ price tag on your game because you "feel" it deserves it doesn't sound like a recipe for success. What is the quality of games on mobile now that are at that price point or above? Is it a known IP that made a jump to mobile? A classic that is now available on your tablet? These things make the price point make sense. I have bought many games on my tablet, but only select games have gotten purchased that were in the higher price range (FF, X-com, Monster hunter, Kotor, and a few others). Do you think your game can hold it's own against the quality of these titles and others like it? Is your game offering something that I can't get from something priced much lower, particularly if it's an unknown IP?

Just looking at the "Pay once & Play" section on the app store shows the kind of games you are up against at the various price points. That's what I look for when I see games at a price above the $2-3 dollar mark, quality on par with other games at the given price. It just seems some folks don't look at their game objectively... years in development doesn't factor in to the price just because.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Well, one day in from our little normalising process and results are that sales increased 2%. Insignifcant as an increase, but notable for not going down in the slightest. If someone with a PR department said that, it'd be considered a big deal.
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Reza Ghavami Marketing Analyst, NVIDIA4 years ago
I hope Introversion succeeds with this plan. The mobile games market is too saturated with clones, clones of clones, and the type of free trash that is essentially an advertisement app interrupted by gameplay. I respect the significance, place, and audience for F2P. But paying >= $10 for a mobile game should not be a hurdle, as long as paying >= $30 for a portable game system cartridge doesn't seem to be.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Two days in, remarkable changes. Downloads almost doubled, income quadrupled. Still not newsworthy though.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop4 years ago
Hey Paul, have you put out a press release about this, or approached journalists & sites about it directly? Just seems like there may be more productive ways of getting the story picked up than by commenting on a four day old news story.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Given up on instigating PR, it doesn't help.

Today, albeit assisted by the tradional weekend boost, our sales income doubled again from yesterday. If that happens twice more, our premium sales will be back to 2012 levels.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 22nd February 2015 11:10pm

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