“The following is a guest post by The Sincere Scholar Mage.”
In April 2017 Introversion, the developers behind indie darling Prison Architect, released their newest game on Steam. A small and niche game where you paint invisible walls with little dots of light, Scanner Sombre was supposed to be a palate cleanser after many long years of working on and perfecting Prison Architect. While their previous game had sold well over 2 million copies and given them a reputation and financial cushion to fall back on, expectations for Scanner Sombre were a little more reserved. Surely it would do well, but being so niche and small it was not likely to reach anywhere near the numbers Prison Architect had. It was a test, an experiment.
Built in only nine months, the game was shorter and less replayable than Prison Architect. It would stretch their audience, challenge their tastes and offer them something they had not seen before. With their past experience in mind good things were thought to be once again on the horizon. Four months later the game has been a failure, selling only ten thousand copies worldwide and seeing it’s average player count per day vanish to nearly nothing.
“It hasn’t done very well, has it?” Chris Delay, head game maker at Introversion says during a video on YouTube discussing the game.
“No, it’s bombed.” Co-founder Mark Morris adds in.
Neither of them expected Scanner Sombre to become the next big game, but there was a suspicion it would at least do respectably. Prison Architect was a smashing success and had gained the company tons of goodwill and a large following of fans. The hope was that some of those fans would show interest in the game and give them a solid groundwork to build up and off of.
“I didn’t think that was possible after [Prison Architect],” Chris Delay remarked. “Our last game sold over 2 million so I kind of wrongly assumed that would give us a minimum number of people looking at our game”.
“I just thought there was a minimum number of people floating around on Steam, and if you did a reasonably good job on a game you were gonna get a reasonably big audience to it,” Mark Morris said. “It’s not news. The so called Indie Apocalypse has been a thing for quite a while, but I’ve always thought to myself that not every game does really well… I didn’t realize quite the extent of [it].”
Thanks to the success of Prison Architect, this failure did not mean the company would go under but it was a clear blow to their business model. Ten thousand copies for a developer who was seen as talented and highly successful? Almost unthinkable.
“It’s not the best game we’ve ever made – we knew it wasn’t – and we knew it was niche but we didn’t think it was going to be that niche – crazy, crazy, nobody’s-interested-in-this-game niche.”
“We’d hoped for better.”
Explanations for why this happened obviously vary from person to person. A first-person shooter, players are taught to use their gun to shoot light particles at walls. It’s the only way to see in the otherwise complete black of the world. Rainbows cover the scenery around you, lighting up the path as you progress further into the game. It’s dark, atmospheric and at times a little bit scary. Maybe this is what turned people off; it just wasn’t what they wanted. As a fan of Prison Architect myself I’d been keenly aware of this games existence, and a small amount of excitement existed for it from my end as well. But I didn’t buy it. It just wasn’t for me.
I’d wager that most fans felt the same way. The game gives you about an hour and a half of gameplay with no real reason to ever go back to it. Does that make it bad though? No, not really. The game is only 10 dollars, offers a free demo and seems like a decent experience (the game is sitting at Very Positive reviews on Steam). With so many games out there though, maybe people just didn’t feel like it was worth setting time aside for. Being different doesn’t automatically guarantee you sales.
Being a popular game studio sometimes does though and that’s where the shock comes from. Console fans will know people who buy Call of Duty only because one company made it. Some prefer Treyarch and will shun Infinity Ward while others are more keen to buy from Infinity Ward or Sledgehammer than Treyarch. Even though the games are largely similar, good will has been created and fans have become loyal. You can see this with some other companies such as Blizzard, Platinum Games, Bethesda, Naughty Dog or even the Batman series by Rocksteady Studios. Creating good games can sometimes guarantee that people will be willing to try out anything else that studio makes.
Watching the developers talk about their failure and shock over it fills me with a few different emotions. Obviously there’s the fear for a small company seeing a massive failure, but there’s also sadness and disgust that a good work doesn’t always get rewarded. But is that the right emotion to feel? Shouldn’t that instead be replaced by pride?
When brand loyalty can be seen in every aspect of our lives shouldn’t we celebrate the moments when it doesn’t occur, no matter the consequences? Some people are diehard iPhone users, some stick only to Android. Nvidia commands a “team Green” against AMD’s “team Red” and a similar loyalty war can be seen between Intel and, again, AMD. Being the impartial consumer who chooses based on results doesn’t usually happen. You pick a side and that’s where your loyalties lie. But they shouldn’t.
I’ve owned and played Prison Architect quite a bit, and I’m a big fan of Introversion. Seeing them stumble is not a happy moment for me because I truly want the best for them. It’s this line of thinking that makes it almost feel like a betrayal not to snap up the game, the good game, they made. This thinking is inherently wrong though. Like all the companies and developers above, you don’t owe them anything but your honest opinion. Maybe Scanner Sombre was too different. Maybe it was too niche. Or maybe people just didn’t want to play it.
In a world where people will buy blindly because of the logo or names behind a product, showing restraint over a game simply because you didn’t want it should be praised. Steam can be a cesspit of personalities and opinions, but the failure of Scanner Sombre can be taken in a positive light. Gamers showed a maturity they don’t usually show: they chose not to buy a game despite the names behind it because they just didn’t want it. Is Steam growing up? Probably not, but this is a good first step. Maybe Scanner Sombre failing was a good thing after all.
The Sincere Scholar Mage is an aspiring writer that is Majoring in Professional writing at Michigan State University. When he is not on Twitter, he spends his time playing and writing about video games at Support Role and getting emotionally attached to little digital people.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to entertainment journalism. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a podcast and webzine with paid contributors! See our Patreon page for more info!