Interview by Quintin Smith
Introversion's gorgeous-looking sim Prison Architect is out now! Sort of. A range of Kickstarter-style rewards has been made available , with $30 getting you access to a current alpha of the game itself. The real question, of course, is whether this game is fit for a place among the law-abiding citizens of polite society. The answer to which is a lackadaisical “Probably not?” Not only is the alpha feature incomplete, it's also a bit buggy. The good news is, you'll be able to shape its development.
But why now? And what's their end goal with the game? The alpha announcement trailer and a big ol' interview with Mark Morris and Chris Delay await you after the jump.
PCG: Why is paid alpha the way to go for this project?
Mark Morris: There comes a period in... well, certainly any game that we've launched, where you're the furthest away from your previous source of income, which was the last game launch, and you're still a reasonable away from finishing the current project, and that's the point in the cycle where it's toughest for developers to continue.
So with all of our games in the past, except with Darwinia+, we've had to rush it out there rather than get it to the standard that we want it to. And we've made some pretty critical mistakes, the gesture system in Darwinia was a good example. We completely bollocksed up the control system in Multiwinia, and all sorts of major patches that should really have gone in on launch day.
So we knew that was coming up, and we looked at what was going on in the industry, with Kickstarter, Minecraft, Overgrowth, the Humble Bundle, and everything seemed to add up. We deal with this funding gap, but also engage with the hardcore fans to create a game where the development is much more driven by the community.
PCG: In another world, might you be calling this Prison Architect “alpha” the finished game?
MM: We're not quite there yet. We couldn't launch this game on Steam, for example. There's a lot of bug reports and it's not finished yet, but there's a lot of gameplay in there, and it's a lot of fun. But it's not fun to be had by people that just want to come along, sit down, and play the game with no interest in how it works.
PCG: People taking their food into the shower in the trailer makes me happy. It seems like such an aspirational lifestyle.
PCG: Isn't $30 a little higher than normal for alpha or beta access?
MM: There are a couple of reasons for that. We've got a pretty close relationship with the Humble Bundle guys, and we were talking to them a lot about how they do things. Another is that we're more interested in a smaller number of players that are more engaged in what we're doing, than a huge audience that want to pay less. There's a quality bar we're putting in there.
Imagine the [alpha] went on sale for $10. This is all “ifs”, right? But imagine it goes on sale for $10 or $20, and people chose to buy it, and it doesn't work for them, and they say, “This is bollocks. I hate this. It's crap. It's broken. It doesn't work.”
PCG: What's the structure by which fans will be able to shape development of the game?
MM: We've got a forum that's up and running, we've also got a wiki, and probably the bulk of it will be going through those mechanisms. We also did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit for the last Humble Bundle, so we might do something like that. “We'll be available to chat for an hour, from now.” That sort of stuff. And if we think a fan's got a really good idea, then obviously just email.
We've not really written down a formalised idea for communication. We don't really have any idea how successful this is gonna be, so we're going to let it evolve and find the best way of doing things as we go forward.
PCG: Something you mention in the Alpha video is the inspiration of Dwarf Fortress. It seems to me like Prison Architect has more in common with that than with “theme” or “sim” games.
Chris Delay: I think that's fair. I got heavily addicted to Dwarf Fortress, and it took me a long time to get into that game. It's a really dreadful learning carve. One of the hardest games in the world to play, I think.
What I love about it the most is that it's the opposite end of the sprectrum to most game design projects. He doesn't really do any game design. A better name for it would be a Dwarf Fortress Simulator, in which you just happen to be able to have fun because it's an inherently fun scenario. I love that style of game design. It's the same game design we tried to use for Subversion, but ultimately failed because we couldn't find a core game that'd be fun to play on its own.
But we've applied the same thing to Prison Architect, with a detailed simulation of what's going on in your world, which results in amazing things. The bug reports that you mentioned, the guys going and eating in the shower block – those are the results of really complex systems interacting. There are rules that say prisoners need to sit on a bench when eating, and there are benches in the shower block, but there's a rule that says when they enter the shower they need to take their clothes off. It's not even technically a bug.
Dwarf Fortress has had the same problems for years on end, but also never managed to solve its user interface and accessibility problems. [Prison Architect] is heavily influenced by Dwarf Fortress but much more accessible, and then by constraining it to prisons – which are such a rich, thematic area anyway – it creates a really interesting world. In Dwarf Fortress, you're building an army and fending off repeated attacks. In Prison Architect, you've got this really weird scenario where there's base building, and there's army building, but there's no enemy army. It's all within.
PCG: Are you pursuing Dwarf Fortress' powder keg gameplay? The more you build, the more unstable your holdings get?
CD: There's two sides to Prison Architect. There's the Story side, then there's Sandbox. The Story mode is objective-based levels, one after another, that teach you the game and give you, hopefully, a fun experience. At the moment, Sandbox mode is that you start on a fixed plot of land which is initially large and empty, but every morning, at 8am, more prisoners are delivered. And every now and then you get a random event where you get, like, 20 in one day. But they just keep coming. It's like a pressure cooker. Eventually, the overcrowding will be just too great, and you lose control.
That said, it's still an alpha. I think that pressure cooker is a good motivator for sandbox mode, but it might end up as one particular game mode.
PCG: How did the polaroid-style cutscenes come about? It seems like you're trying to make your prisoners sympathetic.
CD: In the first chapter, definitely. Every film you've ever seen about prisoners lives or dies by how much you care about the prisoners themselves. And prisoners often are very fascinating people who've led very different lives. Originally, Prison Architect was just a sandbox, but we realised pretty early on that since we were dealing with something as emotive, and potentially political and prisons, we'd have to deal with some of these issues... we couldn't have made Prison Architect as an abstract game.
MM: If we're brutally honest, we hadn't really given it a lot of thought until we announced Prison Architect, and the first builds and videos were going out, and we realised what a contentious issue prisons are. Especially to people in the States. I think they have a very different view on incarceration than we do in the UK... We're not trying to stamp down on our own views of prisons and incarceration, but we want to make an accurate-ish model where you can explore punishment vs. rehabilitation, those sorts of things. Learning quite quickly that we didn't have an understanding of all this, we reached out to quite a prevalent rehabilitated prisoner and currently serving prison officers to talk to them about whether there was anything ridiculous in our game.
We're not trying to make a serious model for the Home Office. It's a game. But it's also an interesting and in-depth project.
PCG: Is it set in an American prison?
MM: It's not! We try to be quite careful around that. Obviously the orange jumpsuits and the capital punishment imply it's a US prison, and a lot of the language is US derived, there's no particular time or place Prison Architect is set in. Probably as the development goes on we'll throw in more British cultural theming, to make it a little more ambiguous.
PCG: So, in summary- You guys have stumbled upon something unwittingly huge, and you want the money and time to do it justice.
MM: Exactly. We want systems that are fun to play, but that are also a nod to particular issues. A great example is the Prison-Industrial Complex. One side of that says that prisoners should be put to work and pay for their crimes. The other says that it's slave labour, the human race is better than that, and that in getting prisoners to bash out number plates we actually undermine the wider economy.
At the moment, within Prison Architect, there's no ability for the prisoners to work. To put that in there, we'll need AI routines for the prisoners to understand how to produce work, and workshops, which need inputs and outputs and resources. So we have to write that system, but we have to do it in the context of this broader moral issue... We've got this list of systems that we want to go through and implement, that are fun, engaging and that ask interesting questions.
PCG: Wow. I think people might have imagined the game would be focused more on preventing escapes.
MM: That's interesting too. We have an embryonic escape system in there, and escaping and tunneling out is going to be quite an important part. What we don't understand right now is how strong to push that. If you suddenly find out all your prisoners are tunneling out, all the time--
CD: It's a tower defense game.
MM: It's a different game, yeah. At the moment we've got this system where when someone's just come in, and they're doing 10 years for murder or whatever, they're going to try and escape. But if a prisoner's relatively happy and they're due for parole, they're not going to get involved in escape plans.
But these are problems that are almost impossible to tackle on paper. You can only balance them when everything's done. We need all of these things in place. Then there's the actual juggling act to ensure the game's fun.
PCG: Finally, after watching that alpha video- all the prisoners armed with drills? Really?
CD: Yeah! Prisoners can be carrying something, but it's hidden. So they can be carrying a knife, but you can't see it. It's just a bit of data. In that case it got corrupted, and everyone ended up with the drill that the workmen usually carry. They don't have a clue what to do with them, mind you.
Prison Architect early access, and a host of other rewards, can be purchased here: www.introversion.co.uk/prisonarchitect