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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 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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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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