Prison Architect Comes to Mobile: An Interview with Mark Morris

By Joe Robinson 18 May 2017 1

Paradox Interactive, a company best known for their PC-based catalogue of hardcore or specialised strategy games, announced earlier in the year that they wanted to make a serious push onto mobile platforms. They've dabbled before: Knights of Pen & Paper (and the sequel) worked best as mobile experiences, and their game-book companion apps to titles like Hearts of Iron and Crusader Kings were intriguing, if a bit tame.

Companies make grand announcements of expansions and new initiatives all the time, and in a lot of cases it can be anyone's guess what it really means. What they ended up announcing at the recent Paradox Convention in Sweden, though, I don't think anyone could have predicted.

markmorris

Introversion Software bringing their award-winning game Prison Architect to mobile makes sense as soon as you hear it, but Paradox being the publishing partner not so much. Mark Morris, CEO and Founder of Introversion, was at the show promoting PA mobile, and he made lots of noises about how Paradox was the perfect fit for the company due to shared values and their passion for what they do. Things you'd expect him to say, of course, although that doesn't make them any less true. Paradox DOES sound like a good fit for a game like Prison Architect, when you think about it, and they seem to be serious about owning this space as well.

We had a chat with Mark about the new venture:

“When we were first talking with Paradox and we were showing them the version we had and Paradox were looking at it, they did some internal QA analysis and came back to us with a long list of changes that would need to be made. We turned around pretty much straight away and said we're not your guys, can we jointly agree to find a third party.”

Tag games is a Scottish company who's actually been handling the porting of Prison Architect and have completely re-design the UI to work on touch devices. For Mark, doing the work themselves wasn't even an option.

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“For us, we've done mobile games before. We did a mobile version of Uplink, and we've also done a console version of Darwinia. We realised that that is NOT our skill-set. I mean we can do it, in terms of getting it to run, but what it needed was a whole new skin. A new interface, and people who cared deeply about touch interfaces. That's the expertise we needed for Prison Architect, and we don't have that at Introversion, and we're not interested in acquiring it either.”

“Getting experts in their filed to then take that and port it to tablet is absolutely the right way to do it. Publishing on tablet is hard, that's why we've partnered with Paradox, you've got to put a lot time and effort into Apple and Google to try and find the best way to expose the game.”

Mark had known of Tag before partnering with Paradox, but he couldn't remember who'd actually brought them to the table. Introversion basically pitched out the project to a number of different studios, and Tag's proposal was the best by far.

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“[They] were head and shoulders above the other guys in terms of the work they had done and the solution they were proposing. They also had really spent time to understand the depth of the game. This is one of my fears right at the start of the project: If a developer doesn't really understand the complexity of what the game and simulation is.”

What was also interesting to learn is that even though Prison Architect started life as an Early Access title, releasing on mobile has been in Introversion's minds since the beginning.

“It was originally designed to go on iPad, right at the start. It always had that in the back of out mind. I love my tablet, and I think they're a great way of interacting with games like Prison Architect. When we work on a game and it sells well, I want to put it on as many platforms as possible. I'm a little frustrated that there aren't more hardcore strategy games on iPad – they sit really well there.”

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Tag, under Introversion/Paradox's guidance, have done a great job in porting the game to mobile. The controls seem smooth, intuitive, and there are safeguards against making mistakes. The UI fits sleekly around the edge of the screen ad doesn't detract from the action too much, and the it seems well optimised overall. It'll be releasing on both iOS and Android simultaneously (or at least, subject to the whims of the Gods of Apple and Google), although no word yet on minimum hardware specs at the moment. We did learn they've been having to do a lot of work optimising for Android, and there are many low-budget tablets that probably won't make the cut.

Of most concern to mobile gamers is going to be price point. This is the thing that Mark is most concerned about, but they're considering their approach carefully. To breakdown what we know so far:

  • Prison Architect will be freemium. “Free-to-Try” is the official term being used, involving a free download with IAPs to unlock the rest of the game's content.
  • Introversion look at the free version as something akin to a free demo on PC – you get access to the first story chapter, and a “limited” sandbox experience.
  • The rest of the story chapters and the full Sandbox/Pre-made Prison modes will need to be purchased in order to play.
  • Introversion are adamant that, to unlock everything, you will never pay more than $15. This is the price of the full game on PC.

The question for them is how they end up ultimately pricing all of the components available via IAPS, and generally Mark is very aware how carefully they must tread here.

“Which of the these packs are going to be charged at what price points. Do we make the sandbox $10 (as that's where the value is) and then make the story packs $1 each, or do we make everything cost equal amounts? That's what we're trying to figure out.”

“The question we're grappling with is – is that better than saying the whole thing is $15. You will put people off that way but we don't know which of the two approaches is better. Obviously, there's a minimum revenue level we're trying to hit. I don't particularly mind how we get above that line, as long as we do!”

“We feel this is a more honest approach.”

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This pricing structure is going to be tweaked in the run up to launch, and may even be changed further after full release. They're not even sure how the sandbox is going to be limited at this stage – it might be a time limit, or a limit on who much space you can play around with. Perhaps even lock out certain building options.

We enjoyed our brief time with PA and we can't wait to see the full release It's already soft-launched in Sweden, Netherlands and Australia, and the full release is scheduled for sometime in the Spring. Freemium is a bold move for them, and it's a word that can instantly turn people off but we see promise in the way they've handled it. It will all come down to how Paradox/Introversion price the Sandbox mode. The story packs are something one can take-or-leave, but PA is defined by the free-play mode that will offer so much replayability. If they price it right, then I see this port doing very well for itself.

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