Even though Prison Architect is still some way off, at Eurogamer Expo this year I was able to sit down with Introversion Software’s Mark Morris and speak to him about the game as well as how his studio has been doing over the last few months. Enjoy!
How was the Humble Bundle for you in terms of success?
As always we were really pleased with it. I think it did 2.5 million dollars, so yeah. Amazing. A few years ago, I don’t want to sound blasè, but it’s just that is what Humble are able to deliver and deliver consistently when you’re part of a bundle. So, no change. They’re still absolutely brilliant guys to work with. They are so perceptive to our needs and requirements. Prison Architect hadn’t dropped under the $10 point yet and we weren’t ready to drop it beneath $10, and they were just completely fine with that. They’re so interested in helping you achieve what you want, that they always seem to be able to find enough developers whose ideas are such that they all mesh together nicely and the bundles always work really well. So yeah, a joy to work with and really successful from our point of view.
I know that one of the good things about Humble Bundle is that you always get a bundle of games that are considerably lower priced versus buying them individually. I know the lowest price would have been say $10 for the bundle including Prison Architect, but do you know what the highest price was?
I don’t actually. Isn’t that on the Humble Bundle website? I think it is. I think they track the biggest donators.
Do you know what the biggest percentage is that Introversion Software got?
Do you mean on the sliders? No, they don’t tell us. They don’t expose it. I mean, if I wanted to I could ask them if anyone gave us 100%. I know that the majority of people just leave the sliders where they are. I’m not even certain you can give to individual developers. You can give all of it to developers, or all of it to Humble, or all of it to charities or whatever. I can’t remember, I honestly didn’t look this time to see whether or not there were sliders so that you could say you wanted to give all of it to Introversion or not. I would expect out of all the people that bought it, maybe one or two were big fans of us and gave it all to us, but it’s not really fair. The fair thing to do is just kind of leave it. Like I said, I’m not even sure there’s individual developer sliders now. I think it’s just a straight split.
Prison Architect is still in it’s Alpha stage of development. It hasn’t actually been commercially released yet as a Beta. What was the impetus for Introversion Software to include Prison Architect as part of the latest Humble Bundle?
Obviously we’re interested in getting as many people to play Prison Architect as we can. When we first started, the game was ready for fewer people. As it moves on and develops with more features and gets more robust, it’s ready for more people to play it. We know that Humble have an enormous mailing list and they reach many, many players, and we felt that the time was right for PA (Prison Architect) to be in another bundle.
Do you not think that releasing the Alpha for $10 with all the other games would’ve somehow devalued its future viability as a commercial project?
No, I don’t think so. I think players are used to sales, they understand sales are a part of our business. If you want to wait, you can get a game at a reduced price. You don’t know when you’re going to be able to get it, if you want to play it now, you pay for it now. So, I don’t think there’s any devalue.
Because that’s obviously an argument that some people in the gaming sphere have put forward…
We used to think about that, but we’ve just never seen it. We’ve never seen it that people say the price can ever only go down. No it can’t, the price can go whatever you like. There are so many gamers now they’re not tracking the price of each game, they don’t really know. They make a decision that they’re going to… I don’t know, they see a video for Prison Architect and they go and just say, “I’m going to buy it.” Its $30, maybe some of them think that’s too much. What they don’t think at that point is, “that was in a Humble Bundle last week for $10, I’m not going to pay $30”, you know? Some people might think to themselves that Prison Architect is a $5 game, and when it hits $5 they’ll buy it. Eventually Prison Architect will be $5, in a year’s time or whenever, and then those people will be able to play it. What’s wrong with that? We still sell Uplink, our first game which is now 13 years old. People are still coming and enjoying that title even 13 years later, so if somebody wants to wait a little bit and play PA in a year’s time, that’s fine by me.
Obviously a lot of developers out there, including yourself, are open to sales. But you look at a company like Nintendo, they never reduce the price, they always keep the games at the $40/£40 mark. Even their digital sales are not that much less than beforehand. Why do you think most developers in terms of business practices are so anachronistic from what Nintendo offers?
Every time we do a Steam sale we sell more copies of the game, more than the price discount. We make more money. When you’re the size of Nintendo, perhaps they think that even if they got a sales spike in the short term, over the long term if people started expecting Nintendo games to become cheaper they might start waiting for sales and not pay full price. I guess it’d be a little bit like in the hardware world, you know? You’re not going to get Apple producing their products, Apple sets the price point for an iPad and that is what you will pay for it. In a few years’ time it might be a bit cheaper, but they know that there’s nowhere else in the world that you can go and buy an iPad. Apple are the only people you can buy one from and so it’s not going to be in a sale. They’re just going to hold that price point and hold that value. If you’re big, maybe you can operate like that, but for me I think sales are an important part of the business. They also enable the gamers that don’t necessarily have as much money to participate and play the games. The “cost”, if you like, is just that you have to wait a little bit longer to be able to play the game, that’s what it is. You’ll still be able to play it, just not now. Whereas if you take the stance of never dropping the price, then potentially you’re denying a lot of people the ability to play your game. Ultimately, even though we obviously like making money, I’m in this to bring as much happiness to as many people as I can. So, really I want as many people as possible in the world ultimately playing Prison Architect.
Do you have an ideas to when Prison Architect will be reaching Beta stage?
We have an internal plan, but we’ve never been open about what that plan looks like and we’re not going to change that. We have a list of features that we want to get into PA. We are now in the end game I would say. Most of the game is quite nicely crafted and now it’s about coloring in the detail, removing the bugs, doing the balancing. Although we are still introducing big new features, the game is whole. Whereas it wasn’t a few months back. There’s still a reasonable amount of time before we will be ready to say this is version one, but I don’t really want to put timescales on it because I’ve done that in the past and have been wrong. I don’t want to give anybody any sort of false hope. I don’t want people saying, “you said it was going to be released in quarter one of 2015”, and then nothing happens. I don’t want it to be like that.
Obviously after the financial disaster that… was it Multiwinia?
Yeah. Multiwinia and Darwinia+.
For the Xbox 360?
Has Prison Architect been able to, given all the previous sales and all the other games you’ve done in the past, would you say that Prison Architect is your most successful game to date?
Yeah… by a long, long way. It is by far our most successful game that we’ve ever made.
Why do you think that is? Given that, even now it’s not really on the market at this moment in time.
No, I don’t agree with you, it is. There’s two combinations. One, Prison Architect is a brilliant game, and I don’t mind saying that I’m proud of it and where it’s headed. People really enjoy playing it, the look of it. Games have to be great to sell, but the other factor is that when we launched Prison Architect and now continually, the market is such that we were able to ask for large amounts of money in the early stages and people were willing to help with that. The whole Kickstarter thing and Humble Bundle, these were new innovations that didn’t exist when we launched DEFCON. Do I think that Prison Architect is a de-facto more popular game than DEFCON? No, I don’t necessarily believe that. But where the market is now in 2014, the size of the Steam audience, the job that Valve has done with their sales and with creating a platform is such that you can tap into so many more people than we were able to do so in 2006 with DEFCON. So, I think those are the two factors and I hope that where the industry is, where PC gaming is, stays like that for a long time because it means that the indie scene is just going to continue to become more and more vibrant. Games that are real commercial flops will sell in enough numbers to keep the one or two man team making it able to make the next game. If you sell a game and you make £20,000-£30,000, that’s a year’s salary. So, if you work on a game for a year and sell it and you make thirty grand, you can make another game for a year. And 30 grand is a pittance in terms of the sales that we’re doing now, and that’s such a healthy place for everyone to be.
With the number of games that are out on the PC platform, obviously the more games that come out, the more congested the marketplace gets, the higher the filter levels have to be in order to be able to distinguish the difference between what is regarded as being a “good game” versus say a “bad game”. That’s obviously a problem that the iOS store suffers from. I know that Prison Architect has done extremely well in the marketplace… maybe part of the reason why it’s done so well is because of its subject matter. It certainly appeals to me. For other developers out there, you know you’ve talked about the one or two man team, and they’re striving to hit that £30,000 plateau, which is like a year’s salary, what tips would you give to those bedroom coders, given that you are the “king of bedroom coders”?
Well, I wouldn’t say that. The oldest, I’ve been here for the longest I think.
The Grandad, yeah. It’s very difficult. We make strongly themed strategy games. I think those strong themes are crucial to press interest and the word getting out about our games in the past when the written press had an effect on your sales. Now, I’m really starting to question that.
I think it was Destiny, wasn’t it? Which game was it recently that got so-so reviews and yet everybody and their grandma still bought it?
Yeah, yeah exactly. That’s always sort of been the case, isn’t that? That you can buy enough exposure for people to just get so excited and want to play. I think that, and I don’t really have a lot of evidence for this, but I think that the way that Steam casts a spotlight onto a game that a player is playing so that his community of friends see that he is playing that game, and are then more likely to buy and join in with that playing experience. I think that is really crucial nowadays to success, so I think the meta-game achievements and those kind of things really help drive your sales because other people can see you achieving these in your Steam profile. That’s going to have a big ripple effect. Certainly you have to get on Steam. There are other platforms, but you need to be on Steam and if you’re not on Steam through Greenlight or whatever it may be… A lot of people were angry with the way Greenlight worked out, but it is the first filter that you’ve got to move through. Like you said, the reality is there is thousands of games, there’s tens of games being released everyday and so you need to be finding a way somehow of moving to the next level and getting noticed. When I first started in this industry that was a very difficult thing to do. Now, a lot of the systems that do that are almost automatic. It’s not that you have to go and get that meeting with PC Gamer editor to try getting coverage in Gamer to boost your sales and make sure you’re in retail. You don’t have to do any of that work anymore, you know? It’s now about the market seeing your game, and if they don’t like it, it will die quickly and if they do like it, it will flourish.
Does that mean that given the instantaneous nature of what the internet provides, do you think the media now plays a less crucial role in affecting the game’s success?
I would say that, yeah. It sort of depends what you mean by media, but for us the big eye opener with PA is the prevalence of the YouTube play-throughs and the YouTube reviews. When they happen, we see sales spikes. Those are the guys that are moving the needle for us. The old written media… not really. Whether you want to call those YouTubers part of the “press”, I think in that regard they are still having an effect and I would still always work with journalists and press and do interviews and send out review copies, because I think it’s important. I think those people give us a lot of positive feedback. They’re critics that understand games and play a lot of games, and write about what’s working and what’s not. I certainly wouldn’t ignore them, but I think their influence is significantly reduced as to how it was.
I know there’s been some backlash from the games community, if we can even call it the games community anymore, which some people have argued about. Some people have questioned the integrity of game journalists… Some of it had to do with the Zoe Quinn saga, some of it also had to do with the Doritos scandal that happened last year. Obviously with the gaming media having less of a crucial role in how things operate, it puts a lot more pressure on journalists and how they get to present themselves…
Yeah, I agree with you. I know what you’re getting at I think. It’s harder now to be a journalist. Or, I don’t know whether it is harder… In the old days you could go and get a job at PC Gamer which was a very hard thing to do, you know? But then you would be paid to be a video game journalist. Now though that old root isn’t where it is anymore. Of course there’s still a big readership of PC Gamer and Eurogamer and all these other big sites, but the individuals with most influence are these 10-14 year old people with these big YouTube channels with 2 million subscribers. Whatever they’re doing, I personally don’t care whether a journalist is being paid to write a review or not, I don’t really mind. If I’m following a particular journalist, I’m following him because I like the same sort of games that he likes and the reviews that he’s writing appeal to me and I enjoy the reviews and enjoy the rest of it. Whether there’s business transactions going on in the background doesn’t really matter to me. I don’t think it matters that much to the community either, as a whole. There will be some gamers who absolutely do want to have unbiased reviews, and so there will be a market for journalists who don’t take any money from developers and publishers. But how are those journalists going to get paid? They have to get paid somehow. So maybe that’s where a subscription model comes in. If you really want your journalist to be unbiased, you need to give them £10 to write the games that you want.
It would never work.
It won’t, because people wouldn’t do it would they? And this is, as the world moves on and that whole Yogscast affiliate scheme, you know? It has to be like this because ultimately the people that are doing these things have to put food on the table, and it will work as long as the journalists are still delivering to the gamers what they want to see. It’s when the journalist suddenly goes and reviews a ‘Hello Kitty’ game and says, “This is the best thing ever”, when their markets been FPSs or whatever, and says it’s brilliant but everyone knows its rubbish. That’s when corruption becomes bad, but being paid to write a review, I don’t think that’s a major issue. Let’s be fair, it’s always been that way. It’s always been a very gray line between where the money comes from and what words land on the page.
There’s always perks associated with any job. Journalists get freebies and people at McDonald’s get free food.
Yeah, that’s right.
You’ve mentioned as to how Introversion Software is primarily doing strategy games. I know that the iOS/Android markets are filled to the brim with indie titles. A lot of games that were successful on the PC platform have migrated across to the mobile platform. Even though you’ve talked about in the past where you don’t necessarily want to be associated with a $1 or $2 product. I don’t want to say this in a negative way, but the fact that Prison Architect went for $10, with the next tier down going for $7
I’d say yeah to both questions. I’m unashamedly an Apple fan. I love Apple, I’m not an Android fan. I really like my iPad, I think it’s just a lovely device and I enjoy the physicality and the interaction with an iPad. I think that Prison Architect would work well on an iPad and on Android, and it’s definitely something that we’re thinking about doing. It won’t be a dollar, it won’t be two dollars, it will be $10 or $15 or $20. This is a bit sort of backward thinking, but I’m not putting it on the iPad purely to make money, we’re putting it on the iPad because I want to play Prison Architect on my iPad. I hate the fact that the Android market is all at $1 and $2 and I don’t believe it should be. If you want to watch premium content, then you can pay a premium price for it. If you decide you don’t want to play Prison Architect, you want to go and play a game that some lads knocked up in his bedroom over a week and it doesn’t play very well and it’s buggy and all the rest of it, that’s fine. You go and spend $1 or $2 on that. If you want to play Prison Architect, that’s three years of development and everything else that went into crafting this game that I’m proud of, it will be $10. That’s just how I see it. If any businessman was listening to me they would say that’s crazy, but I sort feel as if we have a bit of an obligation on us to try and lift up the prices. We wouldn’t be the first, there are other games that are sort of drawing a line. We really did it with Prison Architect‘s $30 price point. We said, “Indie games are $10, but Prison Architect isn’t, it’s $30″, and the world was happy to pay that. Sales notwithstanding. At the time people were willing to give us that money because that’s what we needed to be able to continue and work on PA and deliver it.
But given that people like me paid what is essentially $3 for Prison Architect, and I’m not saying that the game’s crap because obviously I wouldn’t have interviewed you three times [in the past] now. In the eyes of people like me who have only paid $3 for the game, and I’m not saying it doesn’t offer a premium experience, because I jumped at the deal. I literally went “oh my god, I’ve got to buy that”, but I would have paid $10 for it alone. The thing is I wouldn’t have paid $10-15 for an Alpha, I would have paid $10-15 for a Beta. Because for me, Prison Architect at Beta stage represents a premium experience at $10-15. But when you’ve asked for the asking price to be $3, inadvertently speaking, does that not mean that whether you like it or not, you have devalued the perception of how Prison Architect is going to be perceived in the gaming community?
No, I don’t think so. For the reasons that I said before. We’ve noticed any dropped in our revenues since the Humble Bundle sale has been on. I don’t think it does.
We’ve spoken about PSN, about how you’d be open to be going to Sony’s platform, but what about Microsoft? Do you ever consider working with them again?
Yeah, I would. I wouldn’t have a problem. We did have a rough ride, but there are different views within each version. My view is that we didn’t go into that deal with our eyes open, and Microsoft did some things that we weren’t happy with, but they weren’t ogres. I’ve never said that. They just had a… we were on different pages, you know? Of what they wanted and what we thought we were going to deliver, and they held us to account to deliver something that was better. We’re just more experienced now, and I wouldn’t do the deal that I did last time with them. I probably wouldn’t want to do the port ourselves, I’d find someone else to do the port. I’d want to find someone else to manage the relationship with Microsoft. What we do at Introversion is we make great games. We come up with new game ideas and flesh them out. What we’re not is a porting house that takes them onto something else, and understands and manages the relationship with Microsoft or Sony. If we were going to do that then I would want that to be at arm’s length. We would license the game or something like that. While that was going on, we would be moving onto the next thing. A good example… I wouldn’t really be interested in giving them any exclusive content. That ship has sailed for us. We’ve made a lot of money on PC. I would like to put the game on XBox One or PS4 because I’d like more people playing the game. However, if they came and said we needed to do exclusive content for them, I think we just wouldn’t be interested. “We’ve made a game, you can have it on a platform, if that’s not good enough for you then that’s okay”. We’ll walk away, we’ll work on our next game. We’re doing so successfully on PC that we don’t need to jump through any hoops for them anymore. It needs to be a genuine mutual relationship.
The market has changed in other words…
Yes, yeah definitely for us. PC is more than big enough for us. We’ve done very well with Prison Architect, but whenever we’ve been in a sale or anything on Steam, Kerbal Space Program has always been almost twice as good as us in the sales charts and things, so they’re making even more than we are. I think Kerbal and Prison Architect are quite comparable titles, and even though PA is the most successful game we’ve ever made, seeing Kerbal doing so much better than us shows me that there’s a huge amount of scope within the PC market to do even better. We don’t really need the consoles, but I would like to be on consoles if those guys are happy to meet us almost as sort of equals. They might say, “No, we’re not interested, we’ve got enough people that are desperate to be on Xbox One or on PS4, we still want exclusivity and things like that”, okay well that’s fine, so we’ll pass.
I assume that’s the same with Nintendo?
You mentioned Kerbal Space Program and how the game has done better than Prison Architect, and let’s not forget about Minecraft as the mega indie blockbuster. As the “grandaddy of bedroom coders”, how do you feel about these “new kids on the block” coming along and, as it were, stealing your thunder?
I remember when the first time it happened was with World of Goo and Multiwinia back 2008. We had grown accustomed to being the only indie studio in the world, and we really were sort of resting on our laurels. We expected we would get coverage just because of who we are. The fact that we were just two or three guys was the story, you know? When that changed, that was a bit of a jolt to us that we’re not a story anymore and that indie is a genre now. Once we were over the shock, it’s brilliant. It’s just really good that indie games are what we always wanted to see: a creative video game market where you can play wonderful things with very small barriers to entry. Indie as a genre makes it easier to understand what an indie game is, so we don’t need to worry about communicating that message.
Why do you think indie games have come back in such a big way?
Because they’re the best games. They’re the most creative and most interesting. You can’t be that innovative when you’ve got teams of hundreds of people doing it. For people that want to play novel and interesting experiences, they will come from the indie scene and they won’t come from the big players. I’m not saying the big players won’t do great things, they will, they’ll do things that we can’t achieve. People always want to play new, they want to see new. We’re better at that than the big guys.
I totally agree. One of the reasons I like indie games is because I like something new, and I don’t like seeing the same game five years on like say… I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Call of Duty, but it’s still the same game.
It is what it is, isn’t it? That works for a while, but then you want something new to play.
Even though there are signs of franchise fatigue, why do think games like Call of Duty are still so successful so many years on?
People enjoy them. It is as simple as that. They’re not innovative games, but they’re great games. They do what they do very well. There’s a big market for that, and they just keep nailing it.
You mentioned about how you don’t want to be outsourcing Prison Architect or any of your games to Sony or Microsoft or anybody else out there…
No, I didn’t say that. I said that if we were going to work with Microsoft or Sony, we would outsource the port. We wouldn’t do it ourselves because I would want us to be focused on another game and the next concept, while that port was going on.
My misunderstanding… Building on that, would you ever consider the notion of maybe doing expansion packs for Prison Architect? Almost like how EA have done it with The Sims?
Maybe. We don’t want to be the “Prison Architect Company”, but equally game development is quite a risky business. We’ve had multiple failures over the years, and there’s nothing to say that our next concept won’t turn out to be a massive failure. One of the options for us, I think potentially if we did have another flop, could be to do some expansion work for Prison Architect. But that’s not really what we’re about. We’re about the next game, and so we need to be moving forward and making the next game. If the next game doesn’t work, what we then need to be doing is making the next game. Introversion looks forward, not back. Sort of never say never.
Would you ever consider outsourcing expansion packs to other third party developers?
Probably not, because that’s new content and changing the game and that’s what Introversion… it’s our game, that’s what we do, so I don’t think we’ll be contracting that sort of thing out.
Prison Architect has been phenomenally successful for Introversion Software. If I was to make a comparison between say… Nintendo. Nintendo, based on their operating loses can still go on for another 40 years based on how much money they have [in the bank], so they have a lot of money to burn. Given how much money you guys have been able to rake in, say if you decided to just rest on your laurels and maybe take a few holidays… how many years do you think you could go for without necessarily having to get back into games development?
To be honest with you, not many. We’ve sold a lot of copies of Prison Architect, but when all the taxes kick in and the money goes four ways, we’re not rich men by any stretch of the imagination. Where we are now in our lives, most of us have got children and things you know, starting to think about where the children are going to go to school and those kind of things. We haven’t got a lot of time to last without something else coming in and filling that gap. We can’t make the mistake of thinking we’ve got our kind of drop dead money, and we can just draw a line.
So you can’t retire yet?
No way. No way.
I don’t think I have anything more to say.
Brilliant, Az, it’s always good talking to you.
That’s it, thank you.