Prison Architect has been in development for two years. Introversion Software, the team behind Darwinia and Multiwinia, launched the Alpha build that recently garnered over a hundred-thousand dollars in the first seventy-two hours. Not bad for a game that only has its first chapter completed, so far. Having spent some time with it at last weekend’s Eurogamer Expo at Earl’s Court, London, it’s not hard to see why people have been so willing to invest. TheGamersHub took the opportunity to engage in some mutual ear-bending with Mark Morris and Chris Delay, of Introversion Software, to find out just what Prison Architect is all about.
TGH – Prison Architect seems like quite a unique concept. You’ve described it as the world’s first lock-em-up, what exactly is Prison Architect, for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet?
Chris Delay: “Well, in Prison Architect, you build and manage a maximum security prison so it’s a Bullfrog-style management game. I love Bullfrog, they’re my favourite game-developer ever. Games like Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital are classics to me, I was also a very big Dwarf Fortress fan, and I love the level of depth that Dwarf Fortress goes to in all of its simulations. So we decided that we would make a game of that ilk but that we would combine it with the subject of prisons – a lovely contentious topic. On the surface it seems like that’s maybe exploitative – maybe we just picked that to be controversial, but the more you think about it, the more you realise how much depth there is and how much richness there is in the possibility of a prison game – how many different systems you can explore and how many different types of stories you can tell in that game.”
TGH –What inspired you to get into the murky world of prisons?
CD: “It all came from my trip to Alcatraz. I went to Alcatraz with my wife and we got a brilliant audio-guide that had all these really gravelly voiceovers of prisoners reading out there diaries about how they were in solitary confinement for three weeks, and they had nothing – they had a two-cent coin and they would flick it over their head, in the pitch black, and the scour around to pick it up. [It was] a really, really atmospheric, wonderful place to visit.”
TGH – It seems like you guys have put some considerable thought into creating background and substance for the individual prisoners. It sounds like this was a conscious decision, how important do you think this is bringing life to the game?
CD: “Yeah, definitely, because we normally make abstract games at Introversion and I think all of our games so far have been very abstract. We knew you couldn’t do a prison game abstract, because it’s just too controversial. It would be cowardly as a game designer to make a totally abstracted prison game, as if you’re just building a hotel or something. We knew that we wanted to try and tell some stories within prisons but we also knew that would be very difficult. And so what you see in the first chapter, is the first chapter of a larger story where we try to bring out some of the characters is the prisons.”
“For me, The Shawshank Redemption is the ultimate prison film and it’s wonderful because the main characters are all prisoners and they’re all real people. They’re not reduced down to just, ‘You’re a criminal – we don’t want to know’, and when you’re living in a sandbox-mode, you might have a hundred prisoners, and it’s quite difficult to bring out any one prisoner. You probably won’t really get to know any of your prisoners’ names, or anything, so we thought that the sandbox had to be paired with a story. The story had to bring out individual characters – you kind of explore their plight.”
TGH – To take Shawshank as an example, that’s quite a moral movie and the protagonist obviously isn’t guilty – do you expect that any of that will bleed into the game in terms of moral decisions?
CD: “In the first level you don’t have a choice, because you’re building an execution facility, you’re a private contractor, so you’re kind of just handed this job. It’s almost a direct play on the idea that you’re effectively playing this hotel building game, except it’s a prison and that is enough to make a huge emotional difference within you, and I like that moral conundrum. In the later chapters, more choices start to come into it, it’s still story driven – so there’s still a limit to how many choices you might have. The sandbox is where we let it be completely open and you can build whatever you want in the sandbox. If you want, you can have some sort of god-awful, Darth Vader dungeon and at the other end you can have some sort of left-wing, liberal holiday home where prisoners go to rest. We’ll provide you with the facilities to do that and the gameplay mechanics that support that, but we’re not telling you morality at that point, you’re just playing it as a game.”
TGH –Obviously, you’re quite open about the fact that this is still in Alpha and there might be a number of bugs along the way – some of which, from what we’ve seen, look pretty hilarious. How important is the collaboration and feedback from the community in helping build the final version of this game?
CD: “It’s very important. We really wanted to have that classic alpha process where the game comes out in a very rough state – it’s playable and it’s fun, but it’s nowhere near finished. This game doesn’t just need bug-fixing and then we’re done, we’ve only got one chapter out of however many we’re going to have. There’s loads of stuff missing from the game – you can’t even respond to fights properly at the moment because we haven’t made a decision about what mechanism you’re going to use to respond to fights. So we want the people that get the alpha to be involved in the forums and on the wiki and via Twitter telling us what they think and what they’re interested in and what areas they’d like us to explore next.”
“We could go completely nuts on the whole prison industrial complex. We could have prisoners doing all this metal work and machinery and having whole production lines coming in. That would be a very classical gameplay mechanism because that would effectively be like an economy, like a Starcraft-style resource-gathering economy. You could bring that into the game and theme it as ‘Prison Industrial Complex’. But maybe no-one’s interested in that, maybe no-one cares, maybe they’d rather have escape tunnels. At the moment, we’ve worked on this game for two years and we can’t really see straight any more, we’re quite myopic.”
TGH – It sounds like there are quite a lot of possibilities?
CD: “Yeah, and we don’t really know where to go next. We could spend months working on something that no-one’s really interested in. And we also don’t necessarily know how to solve some of the big issues.”
TGH –As a team you’ve mentioned how proud you are of your independence, what is it that you enjoy the most about being an indie-developer?
CD: “It depends who you ask. We’re both quite different people and I think that Introversion is actually the hybrid of the two of us, so it’s like a weird mixture. For me, all I ever really wanted to do was make videogames of my own design, so I did work in the games industry but I never really liked it because I never got to make my games and it wasn’t like I was working on some really cool shit, either. I was kind of working on crap and I think that’s quite a common experience. I just kind of arrogantly and selfishly wanted to make my own game and Introversion lets me do that. [We’re] a smaller company, successful enough that we’ve been allowed to run for twelve years now, we’ve got four games made, which pisses me off because I think that it should be more like double that by now. We should have got more stuff done in the time, but it’s the best we’ve managed and we’re on our fifth one now.”
Mark Morris: “The best way I’ve ever heard it being described is that when you’re running your own company, whatever sphere you’re in, you’re able to challenge your own assumptions. That is exactly why I want to do it because when you’ve got an assumption about something and a bigger company doesn’t give you the ability to test that, and see if you’re right or wrong, you can build up a whole belief that everything the firm is doing is wrong because of that one assumption. So an assumption might be ‘gamers are willing to pay a thousand dollars for a tier in an Alpha’. You’re at a company and a hundred people shout you down and say ‘no, they aren’t – don’t be an idiot’. But when you’re in a small team, even though we do have some friction between us, you’ve got the ability to say ‘we can actually put that out there and test it’ – because nobody actually knows.”
Prison Architect looks great so far, head over to Prison-architect.com to check out the full details, and take a look at the trials and tribulations that went into the pricing model for Prison Architect.