Exclusive Interviews Interview

Exclusive Interview: Prison Architect – Inspiration, Emotional Narrative, and… Electrocution?

Introversion Software’s latest management sim, despite its current alpha status, is doing criminally well, with the game earning almost half a million dollars since its release. With the latest update to the game adding the inclusion of Fog of War, partnered with a CCTV system, all eyes are on Introversion as the company seeks to develop the next greatest game in management simulation.

Not since Theme Hospital have we been so excited about controlling the general public’s affairs, albeit it immoral ones. It’s fair to argue that a game of this nature is way overdue; therefore you’ll be pleased to know you can pick the game up now in it’s alpha state for a reasonable price of $30 (around £20).

There are different tiers of purchase dependant upon how much you want to get from the game; however, it’s worth noting that any spending you make now guarantee’s you a final copy of the finished product upon its release. Not a bad deal eh?

As a result, we decided to catch up with both Chris Delay and Mark Morris, the creative duo behind Introversion Software. OnlySP was offered the opportunity to go behind bars, and we questioned the pair on inspiration for the game, the inclusion of an emotional narrative, as well as the motivation to launch and support an Alpha build. Be warned however, the interview truly is no holds barred…

Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves, your role on the team, and what your role involves?

M: Yeah, I’m Mark Morris. I’m the Producer of Prison Architect. I produce Prison Architect.

C: I’m Chris Delay, and I’m the Game Designer for Prison Architect.

Let me guess, you design the game?

C: I design the game, I code the game, I make the game.

Now I have to ask, where did you get the inspiration from to make Prison Architect? How do you decide upon exploring such a specific theme within the management genre?

C: That comes down to a holiday that I was on with my wife in 2010. We were in California and we were visiting Alcatraz to have a look round. They’ve got this fantastic audio tour where you put headphones on and it reads all of these diaries of prisoners that used to inhabit Alcatraz. It’s really atmospheric and it was a really great place to visit.

Everywhere I looked I could see game mechanics leaping out; here are all the prisoners funnelled into the kitchen, the way the guards patrol the corridors and man each room etc. I was a big Dwarf Fortress fan at this point, and I was really sort of lusting after Dwarf Fortress, and doing something similar. As a result, the two combined together, my visit to Alcatraz and the gameplay mechanics I imagined. Let’s do a really complex simulation, but in a prison.

Similarities have already been made to Dwarf Fortress, as well as Theme Hospital and the Bullfrog games of old. Do you accept those similarities, and do you feel Prison Architect could appeal to those fans?

C: It definitely does, yeah. Bullfrog is definitely one of the best games developers there has ever been, and they made so many great games. I love the Bullfrog management theme. Prison Architect is kind of a Bullfrog management game in that it’s old school. It’s even 2D in the same way. Theme Hospital is a very close touchstone in terms of its title, and Theme Hospital also found a way to deal with a very potentially tricky subject with quite a lot of British humour, which Prison Architect does too.

After experiencing the hands-on demo, it’s apparent that there is a deeper emotional connection between players and the NPC’s that occupy Prison Architect. Is this connection going to be prevalent throughout the game’s campaign?

C: Yeah definitely. That’s the intention. The way I see it is that there are two sides to Prison Architect. There’s the story mode, which is going to involve the exploration of characters, their backstory’s, and why you should care about them as a result. Every prison film that you’ve ever watched is interesting because the prisoners are engaging right? They’re the main characters.

The other side to it is the open sandbox, which is a bit more abstract and a lot less story driven, because you can just build whatever you want. Each mode is like a separate side of the same coin, as they go together. I like the idea of mixing a sandbox with a story, and I don’t think that’s quite been done like Prison Architect before.

The game is already available to download in its Alpha build. How did you come to the decision to make the game available in its current format?

M: Yeah that took a long time. That’s basically what we’ve been doing this year, thinking about the best way to put Prison Architect into Alpha. We suddenly became aware of all these new funding models that had come up.

Like Kickstarter?

M: Yeah exactly. The success of the paid Alpha’s with games like Frozen Synapse and Minecraft present these new ways of paying for a game and being able to interact directly with the developers. We knew we wanted to be a part of that, and that the way we make games could be improved. As a result, doing a paid Alpha was a very natural thing; there was no argument about that. We came to that joint agreement together very quickly. I think Chris said, ‘I want to do a paid Alpha’, and I said, ‘Yeah that’s brilliant.’

However, the argument came over about how we were going to do this. We thought a long time about offering people the opportunity to pay what you like, because at this current moment, we can’t really put a value on Prison Architect, so maybe we should just let everyone decide its worth? This would allow us to get huge numbers of customers coming in, but what we wanted for this is not 100,000 customers each paying a dollar screaming, ‘This is a piece of shit! It doesn’t work!’

We wanted a smaller, more discerning crowd of people who understand what an Alpha means and understand that the game is fundamentally broken, however is still fun to play. You can still have a great time with Prison Architect but it’s not complete yet, and we needed people who were willing to help us make the game better.

Therefore, we knew we wanted a relatively high price point, so we thought, ‘Let’s do Kickstarter.’ However, Kickstarter is about getting new projects launched off the ground, that’s the model and how the site is designed to work, and it does that job incredibly well. In regards to Prison Architect, that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a base that we’ve laid down and a period of time that we don’t know how long it’s going to be in Alpha for. Therefore, we don’t know how long it’s going to take to finish it.

It felt to us consequently that we were bending the Kickstarter model too much, you know? However, we didn’t have a problem with using a similar tiering concept which works really well, and thinking, ‘Well why not just do this ourselves?’

Obviously there was a lot of time taken trying to genuinely pick things that people would want to pay for, that would be meaningful, and that would be interesting to them. There’s a tier for example that allows players to have their own name in the prisoner database within the game. However, we cannot put everybody in the world in the prisoner database right? There are only a limited number of prisoners in the game, but we both think that having your name in Prison Architect is a very cool thing.

The next tier up allows the inclusion of your own face in the game, and then we get our artist to customise this. That takes time, as he’s an artist, so we can’t have everybody in the world accessing this tier. These things have a natural value, and we’ve tried very hard to match these opportunities with their respective costs.

While we know its people’s generosity and benevolence when they purchase the higher tiers, we also hope that they are feeling euphoric that they’ve accessed a part of the game only a few others in the world will have seen.

Just out of interest, how many people have purchased the $1000 perk?

M: We’re now sold out. Yesterday me and Chris were talking about what level we expected Prison Architect to reach in terms of popularity, and we said, ‘Yeah we’ll be happy if 100 people sign up to the Alpha.’ Our current count is in the thousands, so we’re completely blown away by the support we’ve received.

Could you give us an idea of some of the facilities in the game that you can build? Are these all in a serious tone, or can we expect some tongue in check developments like the Inflator room in Theme Hospital?

C: At the moment it’s fairly true to the base level of what you currently have in your average prison. So the basic facilities are like the canteen, the kitchen, the cells, the common rooms and so on. As time goes by, more and more stuff is going to start appearing. For us, the idea of exploring the prison industrial complex was very appealing. For example, the idea of prisoners effectively going into a workshop where there are just tools everywhere, and then working to produce something that has some financial benefit, and possibly even of a benefit to the prisoner.

I notice that there is a financial system in the game. How is money earned to help the player continuously fund the architecture of the prison?

C: At the moment you get a federal grant for every prisoner in your prison, so the more prisoners you have the more money you get, which is received daily. You can then use these funds to pay for new things, as well as other costs such as staff upkeep, food and other consumables.

You then have, separate to that, a government grant system where you can get these large government grants to build, for example, a whole administrative centre, or to initiate an educational program. This is a big dump of money, whereby perhaps you have access to a third of it at the start, and then you have to work on your promise in order to acquire the rest. That’s the way you get the big sums of money in order to expand your prison.

What kind of prisoner threats can players expect to witness within the game? I imagine there’ll be riots and breakouts, but is there anything more unusual that players can look forward to experiencing?

C: That stuff is all there. Prisoners can also riot and capture a whole zone of your prison, with all of your staff thrown out of it, denying you visibility of that sector. The only way to retake it therefore is to employ riot guards. Escaping is also a constant threat, as well as fires and floods. Electrocution is also a possibility to the careless player.

M: If you put CCTV in the showers you can fry everybody.

C: Yeah that’s a bug.

M: Hey if you put CCTV in the showers everybody is going to get fried right?

Yeah of course! That makes total sense…

M: Exactly it’s true to real life!

Are there any plans for multiplayer or is this an exclusively single player game?

C: Nothing apart from map sharing, collaboration and social stuff like, ‘I’ve managed my prison for 365 days without incident.’ I’d love to put a feature in that records a time lapse of your own prison, where a picture would be taken every minute. Your prison would start out as a blank canvas, then you would slowly see everything spring into existence over three minutes. I would love to include a feature such as this that would allow you to upload your own videos of these experiences to share with other players.

So quite similar to the original trailer that is already circulating online?


C: Yeah that’s me using that technology. I’d love to smooth it out to the point where people are able to save a video file and do whatever they like with it. Youtube it, send it to their friends or whatever, and I think it’s really cool seeing that.

What platforms will the final version of Prison Architect be retailing on, and when can we expect the full release? Also, where can people go to pick up this game in its Alpha Format now?

M: They can go to http://www.introversion.co.uk/prisonarchitect/ to get the Alpha now. We don’t actually know when the final version of Prison Architect will be released. At the moment, with the current plans that we’ve got, our estimation is around another year’s time. However, if you want to get your hands on it now then come and join the Alpha! As for platforms, at the moment we’re in line with PC, Mac and Linux.

And what will Prison Architect be finally released through? Can we expect to see it on Steam for example?

M: Hopefully, we’ve got a good relationship with Steam, and we’ve not approached them officially with Prison Architect yet, but we’re hoping that they’ll take it. We’ll start it from the Introversion site and it’ll be on Steam eventually, fingers crossed!

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