Play Prison Architect now: a paid Minecraft-style alpha has begun

"We've never done this before; it's a big experiment."

Prison Architect is playable at the Eurogamer Expo this week. Developer Introversion is also putting on a pair of special developer sessions at 3.45pm on Saturday and Sunday to talk about the decision to go for a Minecraft-style alpha sales model. Check them out.

Promising indie game Prison Architect has launched, like Minecraft did, in paid alpha form.

That means British developer Introversion Software will finish building the game while you play it.

The Prison Architect alpha is available for PC and Mac at a base price of $30. Paying that nets you a final copy of the game when it's ready. A Linux version will be available later.

Introversion has added tiered prices akin to Kickstarter that scale up to $1000 as well. The rewards are pretty good. At $40, Introversion's other four games - Uplink, Darwinia, Defcon and Multiwinia - are thrown in.

bronson

Arrgh oh my god look out it's Charles Bronson!

Introversion's Mark Morris and Chris Delay will be at the Eurogamer Expo this week demoing the alpha build of Prison Architect. They'll be giving away discount coupons for the alpha, and wearing Prison Architect t-shirts either because they never change out of them or because they want you to notice them. And they'll be very happy to talk about their game.

The alpha build contains one full chapter from the Prison Architect campaign plus the sandbox mode. Those are the two modes of Prison Architect.

"The sandbox is a lot further on at the moment," game maker Chris Delay told Eurogamer ahead of the Expo. "The sandbox is a large component of the alpha."

The sandbox starts you with a big plot of land and tasks you with building and running a prison using all of the things you've acquired from playing through the campaign. Introversion will add more campaign chapters to the alpha as and when they're ready.

Introversion decided to do a paid alpha for Prison Architect just over a month ago. Various other options like Kickstarter were on the table, but Mark Morris - Introversion's mouth, if you like - said it would be "disingenuous" to put a nearly finished game on Kickstarter and ask for funds. "We know that there is enough revenue coming in to get us to a version of Prison Architect to put out there," said Morris, and Kickstarter is all about funding new ideas and getting projects off the ground.

"With all of our other games we were really pushed when it came to the launch phase, because you're at the end of all the revenue from the other games. Everything was very very pressurised at the end to get the game out."

Mark Morris, Introversion

$30 (18.50) to play the Prison Architect alpha sounds like a lot to me. But I'm told that's sort of the point. "We want fewer people who are more involved," Chris Delay explained. "A smaller number of people who are really involved in the game and really want to contribute to the alpha process and really want to get stuck in; they want to post on the forums, they want to talk to us about their thoughts about the game. Rather than the mass, mainstream, millions of people that have paid 10 cents each who are actually immediately pissed off because the game doesn't work properly and they expect it to be finished already."

So how much money does Introversion need to raise? "We genuinely have no idea," Morris verbally shrugged. Steam sales of Introversion's old games "drip" in a small income, and the company does only employ two full-time people (and two freelancers helping on Prison Architect). "If we get hundreds of people a day then obviously we can hire a bigger team, get more people on board, put PA out faster," Morris outlined. "If we're not seeing that many, then maybe development will take a slightly longer period of time, but we'll be able to engage with the people within the alpha and talk to them and really understand what their wants and needs are.

"And equally, if the whole thing really flops," he added, "then we can knuckle down and get something out in maybe four to six months."

"We've never done this before; it's a big experiment," Morris pointed out. "With all of our other games we were really pushed when it came to the launch phase, because you're at the end of all the revenue from the other games. Everything was very very pressurised at the end to get the game out. And all of them were followed up pretty rapidly by patches and add-ons that took the games to where they should have been on launch day, really.

robbins

Idea for possible reaction to paid alpha financial success.

"What we're trying to do is bridge that funding gap of the last stage of the project to get us to a really solid build that we can sell on launch day, but also engage, hopefully, with a large group of people and make the game better by listening to their views and thoughts."

I present the worst-case scenario - something Introversion has come to prepare for following years of varying misfortune. What happens if the funding doesn't roll in and Prison Architect is finished by Chris Delay more or less alone - then how long will it take?

"I refuse to make any estimate!" Delay refused. "Because there's no point - I'd just be plucking an estimate out of the air.

"I don't think the take-up rate of the alpha will radically affect how we finish the game," he went on. "We don't need tonnes and tonnes of income from the alpha; we're not launching the alpha to survive financially.

"This process of doing an alpha and getting people involved early on makes a lot of sense to us. One of the big things Introversion has been guilty of is just missing some quite big things towards the end of a project, like a couple of control glitches in Defcon, or gestures in Darwinia. Stuff like that, that we think is totally brilliant, but a day after launch it's a really bad idea, so we have to patch it out really quickly. We're hoping to get all that done in the alpha phase.

"It's a much more healthy model of development, generally speaking, for indies to do a long alpha phase towards the end of their project and engage with their community. Rather than do a big, cannonball launch on one day, and find out that it's the same day Gabe Newell announces Half-Life 3 or something. And then nobody wants to listen!"

"It's a much more healthy model of development, generally speaking, for indies to do a long alpha phase towards the end of their project and engage with their community."

Chris Delay, Introversion

Mark and Chris talk about Prison Architect at Rezzed, and what went wrong with Subversion.

Hey, it worked for Minecraft, and fantastically so. But Minecraft was a phenomenon like World of Warcraft. That kind of success is unlikely ever to be reproduced. But what happens if Introversion's tills do start ringing for the first time in many barren, difficult years - do Morris and Delay dare dream?

"We've not talked too much about what the plan for Introversion is in five years or so," Morris replied. "We will just play it by ear. We did the thing of expanding and having an office full of people with 10 people in there, and working with publishers - we did all that. And now we're in a position where both of us have got small babies, we're working from home and it's much more relaxed - we're kind of back to our indie roots. And we're quite happy with this.

"Obviously I'm not going to tell you that we don't want Prison Architect to sell as many copies as Minecraft. Of course we do. But because we've been through that expansion once, we would be very careful about what we did. Our go-to position would not be for us to suddenly get an office and hire 10 people and put them back in and start trying to work on new games. It wouldn't work like that.

chrismark

Introversion's leaders Mark Morris and Chris Delay at the Rezzed game show this summer. Maybe the lights will be on at the Eurogamer Expo.

"Chris and I haven't really had that discussion about what are we going to do if PA goes massively huge and we've got a franchise on our hands, potentially. We'll deal with that when it comes up.

After all, Morris said, Chris Delay doesn't do sequels. His "fundamental guiding principle is making original video games". He likes to take untested concepts and take "about four years to make a game about it" - a remark Delay snorted at.

"That's how you work, right?" Morris asked him, a smile in his tone.

"It doesn't take four years to make games!" Delay replied.

"It does! You've been in development for like two-and-a-half..."

"Two years," Delay interjected. "Two years."

"Yeah, OK."

"Not one of our games has taken four years, well, except Darwinia+," Delay pressed on.

"So Chris doesn't want to do Prison Architect 2," Morris said, "he doesn't want to do 'the space mod', all of that stuff that could go forward...

"Nursery Architect!" Delay blurted. "That's the next one. Airport Architect..."

"That could be good," Morris mulled.

"We've got a franchise," Delay agreed.

And breathe.

"The answer to that question is we're taking it one step at a time," Morris finally said. "We hope that people like playing Prison Architect, and we'll see."

Prison Architect is playable at the Eurogamer Expo this week. Developer Introversion is also putting on a pair of special developer sessions at 3.45pm on Saturday and Sunday to talk about the decision to go for a Minecraft-style alpha sales model. Check them out.

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