Whether it’s necessarily true or not, a lot of interviews are prefixed with the term ‘we sat down with’. Last weekend, at Eurogamer Expo, London, TheGamersHub actually sat down with Mark Morris and Chris Delay of Introversion Software. One of my few criticisms of this year’s Eurogamer Expo was that there probably weren’t enough seats – so we sat down on the show-floor, to talk about the biggest gamble of their careers.
I was just being lazy – Mark and Chris, however, could probably do with a rest. The folks that have spent almost the last twelve years bringing you Uplink, Darwinia, DEFCON and Multiwinia, and the last two of those years working on a new project – Prison Architect – have had plenty to keep them busy lately.
“[We’ve got] sore throats. We’ve been talking continuously for forty-eight hours,” said Chris, when I asked them how they were doing.
Mark echoes the sentiment. “It’s not just the interviews. When you’re not doing interviews, you’re talking to fans and everybody else.”
On top of that, Mark had already completed the first of two panels over the Eurogamer Expo weekend – detailing how to become an indie. That’s not to mention a pair of additional developer sessions talking about the future of Prison Architect, due over the same weekend. Factor in the additional stress of releasing the Alpha-build of their latest labour-of-love a few days earlier, plus promoting the game on the show-floor, and you might forgive them for wanting to just get back to work – or take an extended holiday
Mind you, after finally getting to the point of having a product to put on show – I get the feeling they’ve been staring into the precipice, recently – it’s a point they’re glad to be past. The reason for some additional jitters is Prison Architect’s tiered pricing system – several different price-points are available, from thirty dollars up to one-thousand dollars. People who invest now won’t be getting the full game either – they’re effectively asking you to put your faith in them to produce a quality product in the future. The model is something they’ve never tried before, and it’s been cause for some pre-launch consternation.
“We had no idea whether it was going to work,” says Mark. “We spent the summer arguing about how to do this, what the pricing should be, whether we should have tiers and what those tiers should be. Even the day we were launching we were scared that there was going to be no take-up. Everyone was going to say, ‘thirty dollars is too much – what were you guys thinking? Why would I give you a hundred dollars – you idiots?’”
It’s a reasonable concern, even the most successful Kickstarter projects have been met with their share of criticism. It’s a concern, though, that seems to have been misplaced.
“Every one of the price tiers sold at least one within about three hours – even the thousand-dollar tier,” Chris says.
“And so if that happens, you know that you’ve pitched it right,” Mark continues. “You know that that’s okay, as soon as everyone’s bought one, the numbers almost don’t matter at that point. By definition, if someone’s going to give you a thousand dollars, there’re a lot of people out there that are going to give you less.”
I suggest that it must have been quite a relief after already investing so much time, with so little certainty.
Chris agrees. “Yeah, it all builds up, doesn’t it? It took me two weeks, just to make the [promotional] video – it’s only three minutes long. I spent two weeks staring at the trailer and it all builds up, we probably started planning [the Alpha launch] four months ago, or so. It all comes down to the hour that you launch everything, and within an hour or so, you know what your fate’s going to be.”
Having spent time hard-wiring what they describe as a “plastic flap, old-school [London] underground display,” with their systems to help count sales for the launch of Multiwinia, and seeing subsequent unit sales at launch of “about one every fifteen minutes,” Introversion have felt the burn of a slow start before. Thankfully – and from what we’ve seen so far, justifiably – that’s a problem that hasn’t repeated itself this time around.
They aren’t on Kickstarter, but I wondered if it factored into how they structured their pricing tiers?
“We argued about this a lot,” says Mark. “We both wanted to give really good value at the tiers – so it isn’t complete benevolence on the part of the audience. There are a limited number of wardens,” he continued, referring to the thousand-dollar price-tier, allowing you to design one of the five in-game prison wardens. “And a limited amount of time that our artists [have] to bring your image in, so there is value there. But then, I wanted to push it harder, I wanted to have five-thousand and ten-thousand dollar tiers, both of which were lunch with us.”
This conceit isn’t born out of narcissism or arrogance, though. If anything it’s the opposite.
“I wanted it to be stupid because I’m not valuing lunch with me at five-thousand dollars,” Mark continues. “But I believe that there are people out there willing to give five-thousand dollars to us to do this. It’s a silly way of saying, this is what you’re going to get for your money – we’re going to spend time with you, we’re going to really engage you. If you want to do that, you become almost a patron of the arts, and it’s not a commission, we’re not being paid to do something for you. You’re saying ‘I really support what you guys are trying to do and here’s some resources to help you get a little bit closer to it.’“
In spite of Mark’s faith in potential investors, Introversion decided against higher price-tiers – for now.
“Ultimately, we decided to cut those top tiers, which is fine,” he says. “Anybody that you ask in the real world, ‘Do I look like a dick if I charge five-thousand dollars to have dinner with me?’ says ‘yes’… but then when you look at Kickstarter there is proof that people were willing to pay that.”
It strikes me at this point (because I’m slow, sometimes) that Introversion’s main men have put a huge amount of thought into getting this right.
“The proof exists, and nobody says ‘you guys are on a different planet’ they understand what you’re actually doing and asking for,” he continues. “In no way do I think that we made the wrong decision. We didn’t know what we were doing with this, we had to cap it somewhere, and absolutely the worst thing we could have had was negative publicity. The story could have gone around the world ‘Introversion Value their time at five-thousand dollars a-pop’ [which would] kill the game, there was too much risk. But the next person that does this, I want them to put a five-thousand [or] ten-thousand dollar tier in there and find out if anyone pays it, or maybe we’ll add it.”
“It’s very new,” Chris added. “It’s that Kickstarter thing of big-price tiers, that’s so new. Why does anyone pay ten-thousand dollars for a Kickstarter tier? Who are these people?”
I suggest that hopefully the investment represents support for the product, rather than the material items that come along with it.
“Yeah, at that point you’re not actually offering things that are worth what people are paying,” he continues. “ We looked at it and thought [that] up to the hundred-dollar tier what you get is pretty good for what you pay and then above that, starting at two-hundred-and-fifty dollars, you’re paying a bit more than perhaps it should be – you’re starting to get a bit of a benevolent donation involved. Once you get to a thousand dollars, obviously you’re benevolently donating it but you’re becoming like a patron and supporting our project. I argued very strongly that we should take out the ten-thousand dollar ‘dinner with us’ tier, and ultimately won my evil way because I was really worried [about] the press summary of our output.”
So why all the concern about how the press might perceive higher priced versions of the game?
“We’ve put all this effort into the alpha and all this thinking into it, and most of the press would jump to that funny issue that it’s ten-thousand dollars for dinner with us,” says Chris. “I was also really worried that only twenty people were going to buy the Alpha and that it would all be at the thirty-dollar end and there would be this huge set of [high-end]tiers, and here we are down the bottom [which would be] so embarrassing [meaning] this has totally failed and we look like idiots.”
The concern was so great that at one point the thinking was to scrap them altogether.
“At one point we were strongly considering doing the whole thing as a pay-what-you-want, doing a humble-bundle,” Chris says. “Still have exactly the same tiers, but just [say] ‘give us a dollar, if you like’. And ultimately we figured out that, really, we actually don’t want a hundred-thousand people who’ve paid a dollar.”
By now it’s clear to me that pricing structure is more important than ever when launching an unfinished game. But why wouldn’t Introversion want a hundred-thousand people playing their game from day one?
“Because they won’t care,” says Mark. “We need people that understand what an Alpha is, and understand what they’re involved with, and understand about gaming and the process, and care about it. So there’s a lot of people who have said that a thirty -dollar tier is too high – it’s not. Maybe we’d have made more money if the tier had been twenty dollars but we don’t necessarily want everybody in right now. We’ve got a manageable number of people, and of course we want more – we’ve got thousands of people in the alpha, tens of thousands we could probably cope with, hundreds of thousands breaks down what we want it for.”
“[We wouldn’t want] hundreds of thousands of people who bought for a dollar saying the game doesn’t work and they want their money back,” Chris added. “We’d much rather have a smaller number of people who paid a lot and want to be involved in the process, and understand that it’s an Alpha and expect it to be broken, and even enjoy the fact that it’s broken.”
The feedback they’ve had so far suggests that the game is being received how they had hoped, in spite of – or maybe particularly because of – the bugs associated with an early build.
“We’ve had guys tweeting at us, carrying on the idea of the bugs,” he continues. “One guy managed to dismantle a garbage truck and pack it into another garbage truck and have it taken away – that’s brilliant, I love that. That’s somebody tweeting a funny bug at us. If it had been a commercial game that he’d have paid for, he’d probably be really angry at that, but you’re revelling in and enjoying the fact that the game is hysterically broken.”
Since we spoke to them, Introversion revealed unit sales of 2667, over the first seventy-two hours, totalling an impressive $101,145. Introversion’s choice of how to monetise Prison Architect seems to have been motivated more by encouraging the right kind of players and the right amount of users, in the Alpha’s foetal stages. That and providing a gameplay experience worth investing in.
“We made very sure that we had an actual game, even in the first month, that was playable, and was fun and enjoyable,” Chris says.
That’s a core philosophy that probably won’t steer them wrong. If the early number-crunching is anything to go by, the gamble has paid off big.
Now you’re done reading this, why not check out our Q&A session with the Introversion folks?