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The curious case of Introversion Software

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You might have never heard of Introversion Software, although you might have heard about their flagship title, Prison Architect, which was a big success on Steam between 2015 and 2019. So, how they ended up as curious case? Well, that is a good question.

The curious case of Introversion Software

Introversion Software was founded in 2001 in the United Kingdom by three friends, Chris Delay, Mark Morris, and Thomas Arundel, who called themselves "the last of the bedroom programmers". Their first game, Uplink, was in a way a hacking simulator. And I must add the "in a way" because it had not much to do with the reality of hacking, it was rather a simple and not very involving game, in which you planned breaking through the security of the servers around the world.

Their second game, Darwinia, was a mixture of real-time strategy, action, puzzle, hacker and god games. It was well received in 2005, praised for its creativity, but was hardly a huge success. The next title, DEFCON from 2006, was also a well-developed game, in which you took part in a global nuclear conflict, where nobody wins. Sounds a bit silly, but actually that was an excellent strategy game, despite its simple interface.

In 2012, Introversion Software started gathering money for their new game, Prison Architect, a sandbox kind of game, in which you build a private prison. At first glance it sounds not that interesting, but through the freedom of choices, well-developed interface and the nature of the game it was an instant hit that gathered plenty of players around that title. Enough said, they gathered around 9 million USD within a year, which gave them the freedom to work on the title as long as they needed to.

In 2015, they were ready to enter the early access program on Steam, where they reached the new audience that instantly fell in love with Prison Architect. In late 2015 the game was officially published, but Introversion Software did not stop there and for the next four years they were improving the title along with the modders, who were quite active within Prison Architect world. And I mentioned "next four years" for a reason, because in 2019 the game community was quite surprised by the news that the title was just bought by the Swedish company Paradox Interactive for an undisclosed sum.

It was particularly surprising because Introversion Software was quite active in development of the game, the title was downloaded over 4 million times on different platforms and everything seemed fine. Even more surprising was who they sold the game to, Paradox Interactive, a company with not great reputation when it comes to monetization of the franchises they own. Their business model is that you buy a basic version of the game for a reasonable price, but then everything above this is hidden in DLCs that you have to buy separately.

Soon after the acquisition of Prison Architect, the new owners confirmed suspicions of the players when they introduced a separate game launcher (which PA never had before) and a message "enjoy this free patch", suggesting next patches you will have to pay for. As it turned out, Paradox planned to offer DLCs that would contain new elements or mods of the game, something that Introversion was offering for free up to that point or were offered by the modders. And yes, the game did suffer some initial technical problems, which could be solved by the mentioned free patch, although (as the users were reporting) those problems did not exist before Paradox took over the title.

Since 2019, Prison Architect lost about 75% of active users and now barely passes 1500 users on Steam, while in the past (apart from "free weeks" and similar events) it had the steady number of users between 2500 and over 4000. I guess the 10 DLCs that Paradox provided in the last 4 years was far from what the users were expecting of the title with such a dedicated fanbase. Enough said those DLCs have steam ratings around 60-70%, so...

But what happened to Introversion Software? In 2017, they published a game called Scanner Sombre, which, quoting Chris Delay, "bombed in a big way" and sold only about 6000 copies. To be fair, the game was... inventive, but not in a good way - using a scanner you explored a cave and that is about it. A good-looking walking simulator is still a walking simulator. Some time after they sold Prison Architect to Paradox Interactive, Introversion announced that they were working on a new game, which will be sort-of Prison Architect in space.

In 2023, after at least a year of development, they published an alpha version demo of The Last Starship, which is the title of this new game. Yes, it looks slightly similar to Prison Architect, although more like to FTL: Faster Than Light. Yes, it is set in space. Yes, it was more or less completely ignored by the players. Even the Introversion Software youtube channel struggles to find an audience that would be interested in this game, with the development video reaching 10-12 thousand views at best. I really tried to find early reviews of The Last Starship on youtube and actually have, but none of them were from big channels and none of them were particularly excited about the game.

So what happened? How company that had universally praised titles like Prison Architect, DEFCON and Uplink now struggle to find an audience for their new title? I mean the reason they gave while selling Prison Architect in 2019 was, so they could concentrate on their new titles, now they have prepared something new and why nobody cares? And that is the curious case of Introversion Software. What exactly went wrong? It is hard to say, but I have some suspicions.

Prison Architect was funded by crowdfunding, people were also buying it in early access, so the game existed because people believed in it and paid Introversion Software good money for it. But suddenly, in 2019, Introversion Software decided to sell their fanbase to a different company, what is more for undisclosed sum of money. That must have angered some of the people, who invested their money into this project, which the creators just abandoned because they were offered bigger money by somebody else. That was a really questionable move, especially since they were sort-of champions of indie development, but when the big company slammed money on the table, the Introversion just went "ok, goodbye".

Prison Architect was a hit between 2015 and 2019, then Introversion sold the game to "concentrate on new projects" and... went completely silent for about 3 years. Yes, there was a pandemic going on at the time, but still, they waited until 2022 to announce what exactly they were working on. They lost some of their fans when they abandoned Prison Architect, they most likely lost even more while they were coming up with a new project, so now that they announced the new title it is hard to find people actually excited about what is going on with Introversion Software.

The game
The Last Starship is... Well, it is what it is, a FTL: Faster Than Light clone with some bits of Prison Architect and Elite Dangerous thrown in. This game is hardly original, does not look great (to be fair, it is in alpha stage), does not offer any great gameplay. It is, literally, what it is, there is not much to be excited about.

The market
Prison Architect was successful because it had an original idea behind it, it was a simple sandbox game that gave users the chance to approach the task in hand in any way they wanted. The Last Starship (as I mentioned above) lacks originality, lacks the freedom, the market of games set in space is pretty crowded, Introversion would have to come up with something spectacular to be noticed. And it does not look like they have something spectacular up their sleeves.

Oh yeah, and Introversion failed to notice that in 2022 a game called Cosmoteer: Starship Architect & Commander was published, which is pretty much exactly what The Last Starship hopes to be. Not similar, not in similar style, it is a game with overwhelmingly positive reviews that covers all the bases that Introversion could hope to cover, and then some. Cosmoteer was published in October 2022, months before Introversion managed to show the world their early alpha version.

Will The Last Starship be a hit? Will the Introversion Software make a comeback? Will they regain the trust of their former fans? I sincerely doubt it. And that is where we will have to wait for further development in the curious case of Introversion Software.


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