According to Introversion, Prison Architect's alpha was successful because it didn't need to compete with Triple-A games.
If you want evidence of how much games publishing has changed over the past decade, look no further than indie developers. Teams like Introversion can bypass traditional retail distribution by putting games on digital platforms, sometimes before the project is even finished. At a recent Rezzed 2013 panel, Introversion's Mark Morris and Chris Delay stated that sales of playable alphas have become incredibly beneficial tools for indies. As proof, Morris revealed that Prison Architect's alpha is currently Introversion's biggest financial success, something that couldn't have happened in a traditional publishing environment.
"Publishers and retailers are c***s," Morris said. "I can expand on that. From our perspective we couldn't get our games anywhere near UK retail when we started out. There was no interest in picking up any obscure titles. They just wanted 100 copies of the latest AAA title. If that model had continued then the indie revolution would not have occurred."
Meanwhile, early access models popularized by Minecraft and Steam allowed Introversion to obtain revenue and feedback that paid off in the long run. "Prison Architect is the most financially successful project that Introversion has ever done, without a shadow of a doubt," Morris explained. "It's wonderful for us as we've never previously released a game that we were happy with - it always took us another six months to get to where we wanted to be on version one."
Obsidian's Chris Avellone, also speaking at the panel, added that Triple-A publishers admittedly have a hard time investing in risky projects. "To play devil's advocate here, to an extent I understand where publishers are coming from," he began. "When they're investing $20-30 million in a crazy Triple-A game, their desire to take risks and be innovative, their desire to experiment with a hardcore or PC-only game... They don't want to hear any of that. They know their investment is so large and they understand the level of return they need to get."
Either way, Avellone certainly doesn't want to drop digital alternatives for traditional publishing. "The more we can get out of the loop of the old business model the better."