Introversion Software's latest game, Scanner Sombre, has "bombed" in terms of sales, an outcome the company's co-founders thought "impossible" following the success of Prison Architect.
"It's bombed," said Introversion creative director Chris Delay in a YouTube video. "It's bombed in a big way. I didn't think that was possible."
Prison Architect passed 2 million sales in July 2016, at around the same time as its launch on both Xbox One and PS4. At that point, it had generated $25 million in revenue for the British indie studio, and both Delay and his co-founder Mark Morris believed that success would give its next project, Scanner Sombre, a boost.
However, the game sold just 6,000 copies in two months on Steam. "It's not that I arrogantly believe we're the best people in the world or anything," Delay said. "It's that our last game sold over 2 million. So I kind of wrongly assumed that would just give us a minimum number of people looking at our game. So that numbers like that would be impossible."
"If that's what drives you - to make yourself as rich as possible - you can get a job in the city. Go and be a management consultant"
"I just thought there was a minimum number of people floating around on Steam, and if you did a reasonably good job on a game you were gonna get a reasonably big audience to it," Morris added. "It's not news. The so called Indie Apocalypse has been a thing for quite a while, but I've always thought to myself that not every game does really well... I didn't realise quite the extent of [it]."
Scanner Sombre did make it into the top ten games on Steam on its first day, which suggests a relatively low bar for games to appear to be successful on Valve's platform. "Our sales numbers, as dire as they are, put us in the top 25% of all Steam games at the time," Delay said. Morris added that earning $50,000 in revenue actually puts a game around the top 15% - "which is a bit of a nuts thing, really."
Scanner Sombre has "very positive" user reviews on Steam, so neither its apparent quality nor the studio's reputation could save the game from bombing. "People will mock us and say, 'You've got Prison Architect. You should have done Airport Architect, you should have done Parkitecht,'" Morris said. "But there's a genuine and legitimate reason we didn't do that."
In part, it was down to "burnout" from the years spent making and supporting Prison Architect. Moving on to a smaller project like Scanner Sombre was more appealing than going straight to another big game, Morris said, and the goal was only ever to break even. Both Morris and Delay expressed doubt that it would achieve that goal.
"If we were hard-nosed businessmen we wouldn't be working in the games industry," Morris said. "That's the other reason it's a fallacy to think we should make a follow up game to [Prison Architect]. If that's what drives you - to make yourself as rich as possible - you can get a job in the city. Go and be a management consultant. There are plenty of routes to huge wealth that are a lot more reliable than what we do."
However, while Prison Architect's success didn't influence the fate of Scanner Sombre, it has softened the blow of its failure. The game's nine-month development time represented "a punt" for Introversion, a risk that it can now afford to take. Delay compared the situation to the one the studio faced after launching Multiwinia in 2008, which ended the trend of each of its games performing better than the last and brought the company close to bankruptcy.
"The difference now is that we've got Prison Architect," Delay said, "which continues to do amazingly well even years after launch. The great thing about that is that it allows us to try weird stuff like this and not be too terrified."