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I've been privately lamenting the lack of PC game demos lately. There was a time when demos were commonplace: a chunk of a brand new game you could try out for free before you bought the full game. Demos gave us a chance not only see what a game had to offer and whether or not we enjoyed it, but also allowed us to continually tweak the settings and try different graphics options to see how our PCs handled it. Plus, instead of waiting months for a sale to try the game without a lot of risk, you could play right when the game came out, while everyone else was still talking about it.
While I was at this past weekend I spent a few minutes talking with Kim Nordstrom, former general manager of Swedish game company King and current leader of Paradox Interactive's mobile initiative. We chatted about PC and mobile games, and especially about Introversion's Prison Architect, which is making an unlikely appearance on mobile platforms with Paradox as the publisher. Nordstrom's plan for Prison Architect provide a few lessons PC games could learn from with its unusual, almost shareware-era approach to pricing.
Big, meaty mobile games have a challenge when it comes to sales. The roots of mobile are in free games, or exceedingly cheap ones: 99 cents, maybe a couple of dollars. Pricing a mobile game at $15 or $20 is a dubious prospect, which is why so many are free-to-play with microtransactions: get the game into players' hands first, and try to get money out of them later. The issue is that 'microtransaction' has become something of a dirty word, and that's mostly true on PC as well. While there are a number of great free-to-play games on PC like Dota 2 and League of Legends, there are scores more that have left us highly suspicious of the F2P model, with gated progress and gameplay designed around making you so damn impatient you'll pay just to advance at a reasonable pace.
On mobile, Prison Architect will cost around $15. That feels like a fair price for what you get—it's a complex management simulation and , —but Nordstrom knows simply plopping it on mobile stores with that price tag probably won’t fly. So it will be free to download, and unlocking the complete game lands somewhere between free-to-play and full-price.
"It's not a free-to-play with microtransactions, nothing like that, it caps at $15 right now," Nordstrom told me. "But we basically just made it so anyone can install it, and it's a try before you buy."
Nordstrom holds out his hands a few inches apart, then widens them as he describes how the game unlocks more content for those who purchase it in chunks. "And the game size is this big, we offer you this much for free, and then we're very clear on if you pay whatever dollars, you get the sandbox, if you pay [more] you get the chapters, and if you pay the full price you get the full game."
So, you get to play a portion of the game as much as you want for free, just like a PC demo. Inside the game itself there's a store that lets you unlock the rest of the features at certain price points. While that sounds suspiciously like microtransactions, there's a difference: the total amount you can spend is capped. You won't be nickel-and-dimed forever. If you decide to spend money, you'll know exactly how much, in advance, it will cost you, and once you've spent it, you're done. You own everything, and you're never prompted or even tempted to spend more.
As Tyler concluded recently, big-publisher games can cost a lot on PC, especially when you factor in their many special editions, and that along with having no way to try a game before buying it has kept me away from a lot of games in the past few years. With Steam refunds, you can play a game for two hours before returning it or deciding to keep it but as we pointed out recently with Prey, which had a console demo but irritatingly none on PC, that's nothing like a proper demo at all. (The reason given by Prey's co-creative director Raphael Colantonio was "It's just a resource assignment thing. We couldn't do a demo on both the console and on the PC, we had to choose.")
Sometimes there are free weekends for games, which are great, but that's usually well after launch (this weekend’s Rising Storm 2 beta excepted) and usually long after people are actively talking about the game and your friends are still playing it. I've never bought a game just for a pre-order bonus, because pre-purchasing isn't a great idea and the bonuses aren't much to speak of (what am I really going to do with a digital art book, besides either flip through it once and forget it, or completely forget to flip through it at all). And pre-orders don’t always include a discount, so there's rarely any real reason to pre-purchase anything.
We do get a few demos nowadays—though most often they don't arrive as a game is released, such as Dishonored 2's demo which came months after launch—but we need more, and more games with something like Prison Architect's mobile model. If Deus Ex: Mankind Divided had been downloadable for free on day one, with a nice chunk of it playable indefinitely (like Prison Architect's mobile version), players who were undecided about purchasing it for $60 could have gotten a good long look at what it has to offer. It would have given players like me time to play with a selection of augs and try out different playstyles. And it would've provided us with a good chance tweak the settings to see how well the it ran on our PCs, something the two-hour Steam refund window simply doesn't allow for (and really shouldn't be used for anyway).
If a potential customer such as myself ultimately decides not to buy the rest, what does the publisher really lose? I know creating game demos means more work, and that it's not as simple as cutting off a slice of the game and plopping it in a folder. But in addition to demos being beneficial to gamers, developers and publishers can gain valuable information from making free demos available. As Kim Nordstrom told me, there's value not just in the sales a company makes but in having information about the sales they didn't make.
"The problem is that we as a company, we would never learn if we [had] a $4.99 price point in a storefront, or even a $14.99, because we wouldn't know," Nordstrom said. "We would just know who bought it, [but] we wouldn't know who didn't [buy] it."
Information on who didn't buy your game is useful. How many people were interested enough to download it but were turned off by something in the opening hours? How many people were willing to pay some, but not all, of the full price? Plus, it could whet the appetite of some customers who would then buy later during a sale instead of simply forgetting about it. This strikes me as a net positive for both developers and players.
Even if people don't buy Prison Architect on mobile after trying it for free, Nordstrom says, "...they'll play the game and if they enjoy it they might get interested in the company, or the brand, or Introversion's games, and such. And they might spread it in terms of [word of mouth], and some people say 'Holy crap, this is a great game, I'm going to buy it.'"
For publishers and developers, demos put a game in front of more players on launch day, provides them with additional information on how their game is being played and received, and can increase interest in their games even if not everyone who tries them, buys them. They can even get more technical feedback if their game is having problems on launch day. For players, they're given a chance to sample more new games, to properly try before they buy, and less incentive to abuse Steam's refund policy or wait months for a sale. PC demos are good for everyone, and it's time for them to make a comeback.
A beautiful and novel game suffering from something of an identity crisis, Scanner Sombre [official site] is the latest from Introversion Software, making a play for artfulness after a few years of successfully popularising themselves with Prison Architect. But though Scanner’s central conceit – using a laser scanner to ‘paint’ dot-array colours and shape onto your pitch black, subterranean surroundings – is gloriously atmospheric, it lacks the lightness of touch needed to achieve the emotional clout it so clearly wants to have. … [visit site to read more]
When Mark Morris and Chris Delay of Introversion Software began working on Prison Architect, they knew it was a game that would stir controversy. They never expected, however, that a simulator about the incarceration of cute, blobby humans had the potential to make them criminals themselves. Their crime? Displaying a tiny, five-pixel wide red cross on the hood of the ambulances and backpacks of paramedics. It might sound laughable, but it just so happens that those five pixels arranged just so are an internationally protected symbol.
Days before Christmas, Delay and Morris received a concerning email from the British Red Cross.
"My immediate reason for writing is that it has been brought to our attention that in your game ‘Prison Architect’ a red cross emblem is displayed on vehicles," it reads. "Those responsible may be unaware that use of the red cross emblem is restricted under the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of War Victims of 12 August 1949, and that unauthorised use of this sign in the United Kingdom is an offence under the Geneva Conventions Act 1957."
Delay and Morris didn't know it, but for years they had been breaking the law—a very serious sounding one at that. "We actually thought we were being spoofed by somebody and that this couldn't possibly be real," Delay tells me. But, to their amusement (and anger), it was.
Delay and Morris, like many of us, had made a common mistake. "In my mind that the red cross is the universal symbol for health packs and health add-ons—anything to do with healing in videogames," Delay says. "I'm sure there are red crosses on Doom health packs from 20 years ago." And while he's right about Doom, he was wrong about the red cross.
See, the red cross doesn't belong to the public domain. It's the protected emblem of the (ICRC), an organization that dates back to the 1863. The ICRC was critical in establishing human rights during wartime as laid out in the Geneva Conventions that 196 countries have since agreed to abide by. For the average person, these conventions are usually understood as "don't harm prisoners, the wounded, and the people who are just trying to help them." For the ICRC and its various child-organizations around the world, that mission is a lot more complicated—especially when it comes to their emblem.
"The reason for this strict control is that the red cross emblem is an internationally agreed symbol of protection during armed conflicts," the email continues. "It is used to safeguard the wounded and sick and those who seek to help them in a totally neutral and impartial way, and can save lives."
Originally, laws prohibiting the misuse of the red cross emblem were used to prevent armed forces from exploiting it to gain a tactical advantage. In 2008, one such instance occurred when Colombian intelligence forces to save political prisoners who had been held for years by FARC rebels. Doing so is a war crime. But is there really no difference between a tiny red cross on a videogame ambulance and one used to misrepresent military personnel in combat?
"If the red cross emblem or similar signs are used for other purposes, no matter how beneficial or inconsequential they may seem, the special significance of the emblem will be diminished," the email reads. "The red cross emblem or similar designs are not general signs of ambulances, health care, first aid, the nursing or medical profession, or similar matters. Moreover, they are not signs to be used for commercial purposes, such as for advertising campaigns or on products."
Yet the use of the red cross for just those reasons is common. A Google search for 'health pack' for everything from Doom to Halo. Outside of videogames, it appears in , , and even . With misuse of the symbol so apparently widespread, Delay tells me he was a bit upset to find that Prison Architect had been one instance where the hammer would fall.
"Red crosses are such a minor five-pixel wide symbol in Prison Architect," he argues. "There's one on the ambulance and one on the back of a health pack. They are so tiny. I think it's ridiculous. It's not like we had these enormous red crosses everywhere on the sides of vans in war zones. It's this miniscule pixelated red cross you can barely make out."
But Introversion Software isn't the first developer to draw the attention of a Red Cross organization, either. In 2006, the David Pratt of the Canadian Red Cross sent a letter to a law firm representing several game developers urging them to stop using the symbol in their games. "Our philosophy is that there's no emblem abuse that's too small to report, because you have to try to get them all, which is a practically impossible task—but one thing we saw with the videogames industry is that it has a huge reach, especially with young people," Pratt said in an . "It may create an impression that the red cross emblem is part of the public domain."
On the surface, this sounds like a typical case of enforcing the misuse of a trademark—the kind that videogames have been for decades. Except that the Red Cross isn't a business where misuse of their logo might result in financial harm. According to an article published by the Canadian Red Cross, it's that misuse of the emblem could lead to physical harm.
The real issue, at least where Delay and Morris live, seems to have more serious consequences than just being sued. In the United Kingdom, the provisions of the Geneva Conventions in 1957. Prison Architect's misuse of the emblem wasn't just breaking the Geneva Conventions (which feels kind of like some distant bogeyman), but the laws of their own country. That's why, upon getting the email, they were quick to comply. Boot up Prison Architect and call in some paramedics, and you'll no longer see that red cross. Now it's green. Delay tells me the change took seconds to make in Photoshop. "It's not worth taking the stand," Morris says. "You have to pick your battles."
While both developers recognize that the red cross can be an important symbol in the right context, they can't help but raise their eyebrows at the fact that a charitable organization is spending its donated resources to cracking down on indie game developers.
"Lots of people donate money and the assumption is that that money is going to treating [people in need] and it turns out that a portion of that money is going to lawyers writing letters to videogame companies who are apparently abusing use of the red cross symbol," Morris says. "How much money do they spend every year enforcing their abuse of the red cross emblem? We are one videogame out of thousands, so many of which use that emblem to indicate health. Do they just cherry pick the odd person to approach? In which case, it would feel like a complete waste of time to spend any money at all, if you're not going to enforce it consistently. If they were spending large amounts of money to persistently and consistently enforce ownership of their red cross around the world in industries that are completely unrelated, is that a legitimate use of money for a charitable organization?"
Is the supposed dilution of the red cross' important meaning really of such importance? Internet activist, journalist, and author Cory Doctorow doesn't think so. "Is there any question that the use of red crosses to denote health packs in games will bring even the most minute quantum of harm to the Red Cross?" he wrote in a criticizing Pratt's letter. Doctorow reached out to the Canadian Red Cross for comment and they appear to not have responded.
On a broader spectrum, various Red Cross organizations have come under scrutiny for how they choose to spend their money and that can sometimes go along with it. While there's no denying that the mission of the Red Cross is noble, how efficiently it goes about it is contentious. "When you're a charity, you need to talk about these things I think," Morris says. "People donate, and I really believe that you have an obligation to tell people where the money is spent."
For Morris, who tells me he's donated to the British Red Cross, the situation has an interesting wrinkle: Some tiny sliver of his own charitable givings has fueled the action taken against him. "I'm not saying I'm going to stop, but until I get some kind of understanding of how much of my money they're using to pursue infringement claims, I'm starting to think, maybe they've got a little bit more money than they need?"
For a game that has of spawning , this latest development was never intended, but Morris and Delay see it as just another day at the office. "This is just the latest fascinating twist and turn. That's what's really interesting about it, Prison Architect gets people talking," Delay says. Now that the issue is settled, both developers are relatively good-humored about the experience.
"I think of myself giving an after dinner speech on my 70th birthday and talking about everything I've achieved in my life, and one of them will be my war criminal status," Morris jokes.
"That's not exactly a list you want to be on," Delay fires back.
But, among their jokes, one question still needs an answer: Is a little red cross really worth the trouble?
We've reached out to the British Red Cross for comment and will update this story should they reply.
The top-down shanking simulator Prison Architect [official site] has received an update that introduces needs for the prison’s staff, including the desire to go for a whizz, eat food in the canteen and the need to feel safe while working. The game was supposed to be fully cooked, or at least that’s what developers Introversion said in August with their 2.0 “final” update, saying that it wouldn’t be getting any more features. But they’ve gone back on their word, the dogs>, saying that this feature has been “something that has been niggling away in the back of our minds”. … [visit site to read more]
In August, Prison Architect launched its 45th update—version 2.0, the final instalment of the jail simulator's impressive list of feature-filled incremental amendments spanning Early Access into full release. With it, Introversion gave players access to the game's dev tools and cheat mode and announced plans to focus its attention on its next project.
That's been the case, so says producer Mark Morris and designer Chris Delay in the latest developer-led trailer below, however Prison Architect has also now received its 11th post-launch update.
"This frosty December, we give you guard needs," explains the video below's description. "No longer can you treat your hard working prison officers as robot gaolers. They're going to need their own toilet and canteen and your staff room is about to get a whole lot busier."
Morris notes above that until now, Prison Architect has focussed on its prisoners and not its guards for good reason—that narrowing the scope of the latter's credentials allowed the game to be more fluid in its earlier stages.
"You need your guards to do what you tell them to do otherwise it will look like it's just broken," says Delay. "If you say build me a building here, make a holding cell or a toilet block or something and your guards just don't do it, an early player is just going to go 'this game's rubbish'."
Morris adds: "Those are valid concerns and that's probably why we shied away from it for all this time. We thought from a gameplay standpoint it'll be better if your staff are more like automatons and the prisoners were where all the magic was. But I think the game is mature enough now and established enough, and there are enough systems in game to telegraph to the player what the hell is going on that we can get away with it."
A whole host of considerations are now tied to staff wellbeing including toilet breaks, meal times, health and safety concerns, recreation allowance, comfort in the workplace, and rest to but some of the new criteria. Full details can be found on the game's Steam page, alongside details for installing the Update 11.
Prison Architect is out now and costs £19.99/$29.99 on the Humble Store.
An entirely objective ranking of the 50 best PC strategy games ever made, now brought up to date with the riches of the last two years. From intricate wargames to soothing peacegames, the broad expanse of the genre contains something for everyone, and we’ve gathered the best of the best. The vast majority are available to buy digitally, a few are free to download and play forever. They’re all brilliant.