Prison Architect: how Introversion avoided jail by embracing their hardest project yet

Graham Smith


This article originally appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 256 .

Prison Architect has sold 124,691 copies and made a gross revenue of £2,679,730 ($4,031,925). If you're one of the remaining major videogame publishers, that's pocket change, but if you're Introversion it's more money in ten months of alpha sales than your previous four games made in over 12 years. If you're Chris Delay, the game's lead designer and programmer, it's the opportunity to start a family. And if you're the three founders - Chris, plus college friends Mark Morris and Tom Arundel - it's the difference between being comfortably wealthy and living in fear of spending time in a real prison.

“Tom was convinced that we were going to go to jail,” says Chris. “He was convinced that we were going to go to jail because he thought that for most of 2010 we'd been trading insolvently, which means trading knowing that there's no chance you're going to survive.”

Prison Architect is the game that saved Introversion, one of gaming's most interesting and longest-serving indie developers, but if you're a gamer then it also represents a bunch of other, similarly excellent things.

It's intensely British, like all of Introversion's games. This time, it's a continuation of what Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog were doing in the '90s, crafting darkly funny management games like Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital.

It's proof that alpha funding can work, benefitting everyone involved by giving Introversion the money they need to make the game, and letting players be a part of that process from an early stage.

And it's another example of how videogames are at their most exciting when they put control in the player's hands. Prison Architect will have a story-driven campaign mode, but at its heart is a rich, Dwarf Fortressinspired simulation of tiny digital men, their needs, their grisly crimes, and even their families.

In its alpha state, that campaign mode hasn't been added yet. Play the game today and you'll begin instead with an open field and a ticking clock counting down to the arrival of your first batch of prisoners. Before they arrive, it would be prudent if you had built them a holding cell, using the few starting materials and handful of workers provided.

Once they arrive, your next steps present themselves naturally. People need go to the toilet and shower, forexample, so you'd better place those things. You'd better place a water pump too and lay the pipes for that. Also, people need to eat, don't they? So you'd better build a cafeteria and stock it with benches and tables, and create a kitchen stocked with ovens and chefs.

And since some of the people in your prison are murderers, you should hurry to place some locked doors on that kitchen, and hire guards to patrol the cafeteria to stop your captives from fashioning shivs out of sporks (shorks). And also, wait, they need to sleep, so some beds are needed, and probably cells for privacy, and solitary confinement for punishment.

And suddenly it's four hours later, and the 150 prisoners now trapped within the walls of your failing prison are rioting, and escaping, and you're broke, and you can't quite remember how it all went so wrong. So you start again, and vow this time to do it all better.

Or instead, maybe you open Steam Workshop and download one of the hundreds of prisons built by other resourceful players, to see how it's done. You install huge, sprawling mega-prisons, and prisons in the shape of the FTL spaceship, a space invader, and the Tower of London. There's a vast amount of content here, and even with the game incomplete, a tremendously dedicated community.

“When people buy into an alpha now, it's questionable as to whether they're even buying the game itself or whether they're buying into a process: to see a game be developed and be a part of that,” says Chris.

“For me, with DayZ, I was there in the beginning. Back in those days, it was updating every week, and it was extremely exciting because there was all this new stuff going in all the time, really big game-changing stuff. I wanted it to be like that for Prison Architect: that every update would add something big and meaty that would make you reconsider the game again, like 'I'm going to build a whole new prison as a result of this because the whole game has changed again.'”

Steam Workshop support came in alpha version 8, released March 20, alongside a new planning mode. Alpha 9, released April 24, brought the ability to put your prisoners to work in your laundry, kitchen or workshop. May 30's Alpha 10 added riots and riot guards, and June 28's Alpha 11 added hearses, allowed prisoners' sentences to end - which I'm sure they appreciate - and introduced native support for generating timelapse videos.

Looking at these monthly updates stretched out behind and in front of the game, you quickly get a sense of how big a project Prison Architect is. As Chris and I talk about the issues that surround the game - from its simulation and its politics - I also quickly get a sense of how difficult the project is. It's an example of an indie developer tackling a huge, unexplored mountain, of the sort mainstream development might find too risky to scale.

The monthly update schedule means that by the time you read this, Alpha 12 will have been released. Chris isn't shy about talking about Prison Architect's future.

“I'm working on contraband and stealing contraband from around the prison,” he starts. “Gary's working on dogs and dog handlers. The idea is, because there's going to be a lot more contraband floating around the prison, dogs are going to be there, primarily detecting narcotics and booze and poisons and anything that can't be detected by a metal detector.”

A lot of the game's development works this way: every system is interdependent, so long-requested features sometimes take a backseat until the groundwork has been set.

“We actually have escape tunnels working right now,” says Chris. “A few prisoners can dig escape tunnels. They intelligently dig around buildings, and if two prisoners are digging, they join up and form one master tunnel digging out, Great Escape-style. But we've never put it in the game because there was no way for the player to deal with it.”

Dogs are the way to deal with escape tunnels, too. “Dogs on patrol around the edge of the prison will bark and scratch at the floor when they walk over an escape tunnel.”

The Great Escape reference is significant. Prison Architect isn't aiming to simulate a real-world prison, but the idea of prisons as they exist in the public consciousness. That means it's not really set in America, despite the iconic orange jumpsuits, and it means that tunnelling is a problem, when real prisons have steel re-inforced walls that make tunnelling impossible.

“As soon as we say 'the game is set in America' or 'this prison is in Scandinavia' or 'this is a British prison', we just create all these false connections of what it should be like that we're not really interested in creating,” says Chris.

This doesn't necessarily mean cutting features entirely, but it does mean making sure those features are applicable across cultures, like the game's treatment of gangs. “Our gangs are like street-punk gangs. The American systems have got vast organisations. The Aryan Brotherhood was such a big gang at one point that they managed to arrange to have a whole bunch of other Aryan Brotherhood senior members transferred to the same jail temporarily, and they had seniorlevel board meetings. I don't think this exists in British jails.

“If you go to South American jails, they're completely different again - they're heavily into drug cartels, very violent and often have huge areas of the jail that are no-go areas for the guards and staff and are self-policed. They're almost like a rough neighbourhood, but the guards would never dare go in because it's just too dangerous.” Setting it in a nowhereland allows Chris and the team to dig their own tunnel around some of the setting's politically dangerous terrain. “In the very first trailer we ever did, we only had one prisoner sprite, and he was white. Somebody posted a comment saying, 'I see there are no black prisoners and no black guards. No surprise that a bunch of white guys from Britain would be utterly racist in their presentation of prisons.'” Avoiding geographical ties - and even a specific time period - makes it easier to be ambiguous about these other issues.

The solution was to make skin colour random for the entire population, but it wasn't an easy decision. “We obviously had a discussion of, 'are we going to model the percentages of each racial group that'll be in the jail, because that would be realistic?' No, I don't think so. Even though it is based on reality, it's still potentially racist to do that. And for what? You've gained no gameplay mechanic for doing that.”

Even by sidestepping contentious issues like race, and darker material like prison rape, Prison Architect has to walk a fine line in how it balances its simulation. Not everyone's idea of prison is the same, and there's a difference between the statistical realities of incarceration, and the role plays in people's ideology. As an example: there are a lot of studies which detail how best to reform prisoners, but not everyone agrees that prisoners should be reformed.

Speaking to Chris, it's clear that he's read a lot of those studies, and a lot about prisons around the world and throughout history. It's also clear that he has his own worldview, even as he fights to make sure the game allows multiple playstyles.

“We have this sort of long-standing aim to make it possible to have a right-wing prison,” says Chris. “Not because we're right-wing. Our game is ridiculously left-wing at the moment, because at the moment the way to win is to satisfy your prisoners' needs, which is a profoundly leftie view on how prisons should operate.

“So you should be able to run a prison whereby the punishments for anything can be turned up to 11 and be ridiculously over-the-top, so even complaining gets you an hour in solitary. Then, once you've had your hour in solitary, you should be suppressed for a whole day. You're under the power of the prison, and you don't have the will to fight back for at least a day or so, and the more extensive your punishment regime, the more that will happen.”

Prison Architect isn't set anywhere specific, but there should also be room within the simulation to create real styles of prison. “You'll be able to build American-style supermax prisons. American supermax prisons are basically like your worst nightmare, whereby you spend about twenty-three hours in your cell every day and you get about an hour of exercise and zero human contact. Just basically hellish, horrible places, and we should be able to make prisons like that in Prison Architect as a valid strategy.”

The way to do that is through a planned Civilization-style scoring system. When each of your prisons comes to an end you'll be presented with a set of stats about how well you did: simple numbers like how many prisoners you held, but ultimately also how strongly you punished your prisoners, how well you protected society by stopping them from escaping, and how well you reformed them by discouraging them from re-offending upon release.

Things will work a little differently in the game's campaign, where the simulation at its core remains the same, but the story aims to explore more specific political issues.

Chris doesn't want to spoil the story, but he does offer up one example. “We have a chapter where a politician decides that he would like to run an experiment. He says to you that you should try and create a full reform prison where budget is no object. Assuming money was no factor, how much could you actually do with a reform prison? How well you do at that level has repercussions in the story.

“That's where we're going to try and deal with the really hairy issues head on. And then when people come to play the sandbox, we're hoping that we will have seeded their mind a little bit with some of the moral issues behind each of the decisions they might make. We'll let the player build an execution chamber in the sandbox, and I've no doubt that people are going to build vast execution prisons, but I don't really have a problem with that.”

The harder part of balancing the game is making sure that no single strategy overpowers everything else: both because of the ideological message that would send, and because that min-maxing playstyle can discourage players from being creative with their designs.

Right now, in alpha, the optimum strategy tends to change with each new version. “Everybody's got really into workshops,” says Chris. “They generate so much money, they keep your prisoners happy, and eventually they'll also give skills to your prisoners as well. So they're all good.”

This is one of the reasons why the revised contraband system is coming next. “Turn on the contraband overlay and you find that there are hacksaws and hammers and escape tools in the workshops in abundance, and that you can't possibly stop your prisoners from stealing them all, so you'll have that trade-off,” says Chris. “If you want to have an enormous prison workshop, you'll have to have a corresponding enormous security setup to stop the proliferation of tools and the digging of escape tunnels.”

If you do decide to build that enormous security setup, with metal detectors, dogs, and random searches, it will come with its own downsides. “More metal detectors and more dogs and more searches will piss off your prisoners and result in more trouble, so there's always going to be upward and downward pressure, and it should self-balance as a result.”

If all the talk of political ideology, race and simulation bias sounds grown-up, it's because Chris and Introversion are grown-ups. The game balances its dark subject matter with the cuteness of its sprites, and some humour. But for all the times when we think of indie development as being scrappy and punk - that Hotline Miami model of sloppy provocation - it's striking that Introversion have been doing this for almost 15 years. They are nearer to 40 than they are to their 20s. Two of the founders have children. They have mortgages.

It's taken a long time, then, but it's heartening that Prison Architect is Introversion's break-out game. Both because I'm talking to Chris from his home office and not a cell, but also because it means that indie development - the developers, the movement, the games themselves - are sustainable.

It's worrisome to consider how close Introversion came to collapsing. “When we were getting ready to close up and declare bankruptcy, I did actually apply for jobs at other games companies,” says Chris.

“I applied to Ninja Theory. Alas, I think I'm unemployable. I think they wrote a letter to me saying, 'although you've written a few indie games, we don't see how you're going to work in this big team.' I think they were probably right to be honest. I'm 35 now, the last time I had an actual job at a proper company I was 21. “Thankfully they said no, and that was when I decided I was going to stick it out with Introversion.”

This was in 2010. Development on Prison Architect started in September that year.

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