Prison Architect's Early Access Strategy

October 29, 2015 by Michael Stubbs

Three years after starting open development, Prison Architect 1.0 has launched.

Back in 2012 Introversion Software launched the alpha of their game Prison Architect upon the world. Now, three years later, version 1.0 has launched to critical acclaim and has already sold well over a million copies, thanks to the team’s unique alpha funding model. Mere days before the official version 1.0 launch, we sat down with Mark Morris and Chris Delay of Introversion Software to see just how well their alpha funding model and regular early access updates worked out for them.

“There were two key questions that Kickstarter requires of you. One of them is how much money do you want to make your project and the other is when do you want your campaign to start and how long do you want to run it for. We fundamentally couldn’t answer those questions,” explains Mark, when talking about why they decided to not go the Kickstarter route. “It wasn’t as if we had a fully specced-out plan for Prison Architect from the start. We had a game we had been working on it for about a year at that point, so we knew that there was enough in that game to test the market to see if people were interested. The difficulty with Kickstarter is that if we had made $50,000 we could have worked on Prison Architect for about a year. So we would have known with $50,000 we’ll make this game over a year and then we will switch to a new idea. What we ended up with is a million and a half players with and that’s what we wanted.”

“You don’t get your money on Kickstarter if you don’t reach your target, so if you are short by a few hundred pounds you get nothing.” Chris chimed in. “That always seemed really extreme to me. Nobody knows how much money they need at the start of the project and particularly not us, we have no idea how long it's going to take. You can see why everyone jumped on it because it seemed like the fountain of unlimited money for a while, but I think it's a much healthier approach to have on-going sales every month.”

While they decided that Kickstarter wasn't quite right for them, the funding service had a lot of features that appealed to Introversion. So when they first made the alpha available, they offered multiple tiers of rewards. Putting down some cash during the alpha stage meant that you received the current build of Prison Architect and every update released over the next three years. Splashing out a little more would grant extra rewards, such as getting your name or face in the game, or access to Introversion’s previous titles.

“Had we said back in 2012 we would like $20 million on Kickstarter please and we would like it in 2 weeks, we would have not have made our target,” jokes Mark. “So what we tried to do was take the best of Kickstarter, the tier ideas and the idea of treating your backers as investors in a project and partakers in a development process. That was the mind-set that we had. When we created the tiers, it wasn't an attempt to abstract more money from people. If you look at the revenue across all of the tiers, the PA base pack is like 99% of it, and then the wardens, the big $1000 tier, is probably less than a tenth of a percent of what we have got. But what we wanted to do is really give value to people that wanted to back us and back our project.”

It would be near impossible for any backer to claim that they didn't get much value out of their purchase. Prison Architect has seen a significant update almost every month over the last three years, usually a whole new feature or system. While many indie games utilize the early access model, very few stick to a tight update schedule like this, often leaving fans in the dark about when the next update is coming. But just how well did this work for Prison Architect and the fans?

“I think for us, it worked really well being monthly because it’s a known schedule,” explains Chris, the creative lead on Prison Architect. “At the start of the month we often don’t know what we are doing, we are trying out some new ideas that we think might make for a good alpha feature. By the middle of the month we know where we need to be and we know the feature needs to be a bit more solid and in the game by now. Then in the last week we spend a load of time doing the videos and getting the website ready. It also communicates to everybody else not to constantly be waiting for a new update. A month is long enough to go away and do something meaningful and chunky and get it finished and polished and into the game. If you did it sort of weekly it wouldn’t be long enough, if you did it way longer, like our previous project Subversion, and had big long stints, you can get quite lost in them.”

Having players in and actually playing very early on in the development has meant that they have been able to shape Prison Architect in a number of ways. They have decided which features should be prioritized in the development process.They’ve also been very vocal when an update has broken the game in some way (something that has happened on more than one occasion). To the development team their role has been key, as Mark explained.

“I don’t think we could have made prison architect without the players because it's a very very complex interaction, probably 20 or 30 different subsystems now. It's beyond anyone’s capacity to understand how those systems are going to interact with each other, and testing would be virtually impossible. Our testing company have already turned round and said it's just too big and too open, but because the systems have been layered in one at a time, and each time we have popped a system in it has suddenly gone out to an ever increasing player base, we have known that it’s functioning based on them playing with it. Without that I don’t think we could have made it as complex and as rich and as deep. It just would have broken.”

With Prison Architect having finally launched, Introversion’s started thinking about their future. “We are going to keep developing Prison Architect, we really like the current system and have become quite addicted to the monthly updates. Inevitably we will carry on doing more patching and adding more stuff post launch,” explains Chris. Mark jumps in saying: “We don’t know how long for, we don’t want to ruin the game, there will come a point when we know that there isn’t any more meaningful content to add.”

They also plan on keeping the same development model that’s been so successful for them over the last three years. “This model of monthly updates has worked incredibly well for us, and early access, in terms of allowing players to tell us the scope of the game early on in the process, is something that we would like to continue.,” says Mark. “But there are only a select type of game that are really amenable to that method, and that is kind of what we are wrestling with at the moment. How do we maintain this kind of rhythm but without it necessarily being a game like Prison Architect? What we don’t want to do is Airport Architect or School Architect, which would be a natural and easy thing to do. We are about and always have been about completely new game ideas and game concepts, and we have got some ideas in the pipeline, but at the moment we are figuring how Introversion as a company can continue to support Prison Architect whilst simultaneously moving onto something new.”