Introversion Software recently released a video sharing their surprise about how poorly their latest game, Scanner Sombre, has done for the PC, moving only 6000+ units. It cameas a surprise to them because their last title, Prison Architect, did incredibly well, selling well over 2 million units. They've received a lot of guff from the gamer and developer populace for their perceived arrogance and foolishness at having such lofty expectations. Many say that the right thing to do would have been to capitalize on the success of Prison Architect by making a sequel or another “Architect” style of game. I'm here to argue making Scanner Sombre was not only the right thing for Introversion Software to do, it was the only thing they could do.
There are More Reliable ways to Make Money
Mark Morris essentially says it himself in the video:
“Yeah, I think that people will mock us and say about us, well you guys were idiots, y'know. You had prison architect, you shoulda done airport architect, you shoulda done parkitecht...”
He underlines this point later on by saying:
“If we were hardnosed businessmen, we wouldn't be working in the games industry...if that's genuinely what drives you, to make you that rich, just go and work in the City and be a management consultant. There are plenty of other routes to huge wealth that are a lot more reliable than what we do.”
There is and has always been a struggle between any art form and the business that drives it. A responsible indie game developer lives the struggle between art and commerce everyday. You need the art to sustain you spiritually, but you also need to protect your physical and mental well-being by making enough money to support a decent quality of life (even more so if you are a dev with a family and the responsibilities that entails).
Prison Architect was a once in a lifetime success story that succeeded beyond Introversion's wildest dreams and made them a lot of money. The idea that they would then turn around and think about ways to make even more money simply goes against who they are as a studio. The money is great, no doubt, but what it bought them was a chance to make a game in a shorter time span without the fear that it would bring the studio to the brink of financial ruin. It is a situation that I am quite honestly envious of as Squeaky Wheel pins its hopes of survival on our next game. But more on that later.
When I cofounded Squeaky Wheel after working on Prison Architect, it probably made sense to make a similar systems driven game to pitch to a publisher. Instead, we made a political strategy game called Political Animals.
Why? Well, while it would have made business sense to immediately ride the wave of Prison Architect's popularity, I really, really just wanted to make a different game. I wanted to make a game that explored the idea that it's really hard to keep your hands (or paws) clean in an election. That was the idea that drove the development of the game. I simply would not have had the heart to immediately run out and try to do a Prison Architect “clone”.
So how did our passion project do? I have gone into a lot of detail about Political Animals' launch and how its' done in terms of revenue (here, here, and here) but tl:dr it's done even worse than Scanner Somber! Thanks to the Steam summer sale, we've managed to finally move over 4000 units on Steam (If you want to try out the game during the steam summer sale I sure as hell won't stop you).
The Cash Grab
Given how adamantly I didn't want to do a Prison Architect clone as our first game, it might seem ironic that we're now working on Academia : School Simulator, or as others might call it, “School Architect”.
But essentially we've just found ourselves in the opposite situation as Introversion. Our project was a financial failure, so now we're doing what we think is the sensible thing to do, which is to ride the wave of Prison Architect's popularity to hopefully achieve financial stability, if not success.
But even at this point, the artist in me still can't help itself. Analyzing the elements that made Prison Architect work is an interesting thought exercise, but the process of actually implementing them is sometimes really depressing. It's at those moments that self doubt creeps in and I start to believe it when people say we're just “cloning” Prison Architect.
But honestly, I simply cannot imagine just cloning Prison Architect's mechanics. And it's not even for moral reasons. I (and the rest of the Squeaky Wheel crew) would just find it so incredibly boring to do that. We all left jobs (as a freelancer, I did a lot of artwork for iOS clone games) where we had to do that, so what's the point of starting a company to do the same thing?
Unfortunately for us, the parts that will be fun to work on, like school dances, varsity sports, dealing with issues like bullying and teen pregnancy and everything else that makes the school an interesting ecosystem to play with? That all comes later. And whether or not we will get to do that will ultimately be decided by how well our Early Access does. If we can sustain ourselves with our art, then great. If not...well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there.
We Don't want to Be Starving Artists
I want to end this by saying that I'm absolutely not advocating the “starving artist/gamedev” lifestyle. I'm too practical to ever go that route, and in many ways I believe that the idea that one must suffer in order to create great art is very harmful. But like Mark said, if we only cared about making piles of money, we wouldn't be making games for a living. We struggle to find the balance between art and commerce everyday, and its a tightrope that very few companies cane successfully manage.
So sure, make fun of the Introversion guys for not making Prison Architect 2. Criticize Squeaky Wheel for trying to make a ridiculous political strategy game featuring animals instead of immediately chasing after that “Architect” money. But please understand that for us to have done anything else would have been a betrayal of why we do what we do, which is the overwhelming desire to create new and interesting games and share them with the world.