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EGX 2015: Behind Bars with the Creators of Prison Architect

Prison Architect Logo

After a lengthy spell in Early Access, Introversion’s prison construction and management simulator Prison Architect is now ready for its full release next month.

The game sees you, as the head of a private prison company, directing the construction and overseeing the management of a high-security jail. The aim of the game is, in short, to ensure that your prisoners don’t escape or die under your watch. While it’s a simple enough premise, beneath that ultimate goal lie numerous layers of complexity. As well as being responsible for conceptualising the layout of your prison and ensuring that escape opportunities are minimised, you must also ensure that the basic human rights of your inmates are being met and that you respond, in an appropriate fashion, to the numerous emergencies and tricky situations that present themselves.

Don’t let the game’s three-year alpha phase fool you into thinking its development has been unnecessarily protracted, though. It’s been a hell of a journey for the Surrey-based studio, whose dedication to constant iteration is illustrated by the fact that 36 monthly updates to Prison Architect have been released since it was initially put on sale back in 2012. Their hard work is already beginning to pay dividends, with the game now boasting over 1.25 million players and 12,000 community-created prisons available to download on Steam. Producer Mark Morris and creative director Chris Delay, who I’ve just pulled up a chair beside in the press area at EGX 2015, can’t hide their delight at such impressive figures, describing the game’s reception as “phenomenal”.

The duo certainly haven’t had time to let all this success go to their heads though, as they’ve been busier than ever prepping the game for its full release. Mark explains that the team are keen to have all of its early alpha adopters return to the game over the launch period, and they’ve crafted a number of all-new gameplay modes in order to entice them to do so.

While Prison Architect’s sandbox remains at the core of what the game is all about, the developers have expanded its story mode to a five-chapter campaign, which also serves as the game’s tutorial. They’ve also created an escape mode, which, according to Mark, “turns the game completely on its head”.

Prison Architect 01

More on those later, though, as I’m keen to find out what inspired such an intriguing title. Chris, the mastermind behind the project, explains: “I’m a massive Dwarf Fortress fan; a massive Dungeon Keeper fan. I love that kind of game where you build things, but you don’t really have to do it yourself. You make a little team and the team do it for you.”

I point out that my immediate thought when seeing the cartoony style and over-the-top humour of Prison Architect for the first time was that it felt very reminiscent of Theme Hospital, which saw players tasked with building and running a private hospital as patients with all sorts of ridiculous maladies came through the doors. I’m curious to know whether or not Chris was influenced by that game at all.

“Yeah, absolutely, Theme Hospital was a big source of inspiration,” he affirms. “One thing Bullfrog did that was really similar to what we’re doing is that they took a subject that wasn’t funny, and they managed to make it a presentable, fun game. It’s not that we gloss over prisons or anything, but it is a fun game, first and foremost.”

But why a prison, I ask? It’s a far cry from Dwarf Fortress, after all.

“I went to Alcatraz five years ago, and that was a big source of the inspiration,” says Chris, who began conceptualising the game and its core mechanics on the plane journey home. “The ideas just came together and connected to make a brilliant theme for the game. And the more we’ve worked on it, the richer and richer we’ve realised it is as a theme.”

That theme has become richer still with the addition of the aforementioned campaign mode in time for Prison Architect’s V1 launch. Chris explains: “In every great film or TV show you’ve ever seen about prisons, the prisoners are always really deep characters; really interesting, dubious people. And we have that in our story.”

The pair show me the game’s first mission, Death Row. A prisoner is facing the death penalty for committing a crime of passion after catching his wife in bed with another man. Illustrated with polaroids, in-game cutscenes and subtitles, along with a sombre soundtrack, the story adds another yet another layer to what is an already complex game and may well have you questioning whether you wish to proceed in creating the execution room he’s to be sent to.

Prison Architect Screen

As well as giving players real characters to relate to, a story to sink their teeth into and over ten hours of all-new gameplay, the mode will also serve as a tutorial to the core mechanics found in the game’s open-ended sandbox mode, which Chris admits is a little “hard” and “intimidating” to new players.

Mark adds: “That’s really where you want to start. Because it’s such a deep and complex game, you’ll just get lost trying to figure out what to do. Whereas if you play through the campaign, it will give you the core concepts of what to do – and also, the story’s good as well!”

We then move onto the other major addition for version one of Prison Architect: escape mode. To illustrate what it’s all about, Mark challenges Chris to download one of the more complex prisons created by a member of the game’s Steam community and attempt to escape from it.

As our prison of choice loads up, Chris explains: “It opens with you arriving on a jail bus in handcuffs, and the guards will escort you to your cell. There’s a fog of war thing going on, and you can’t zoom out beyond the default view. So although we’ve seen the picture in Steam Workshop, we don’t really know what’s going on or where everything is. It’s a completely different sort of game; it turns it on its head to a large extent. Because all of those decisions that people made about security, about who they were going to give tasers to, about whether they were going to put metal detectors by the kitchen to stop stealing knives – all of those come back to haunt you now as a player.”

Prison Architect Escape Mode

It seems the user who created this particular jail had security in mind, because Chris is forced to give up after a couple of hilariously foiled escape attempts, in which he first steals a knife from the kitchen and then a pick-axe from a workshop before being thoroughly battered by a number of prison guards and dog units. He explains that if you can actually make it past this point undeterred, you can stash the items in your cell and begin constructing an escape tunnel.

Mark adds that Introversion are hopeful that users will begin designing and uploading prisons with escape mode specifically in mind, and that they’ll be able to designate them as easy, medium or hard escapes (or in the case of the level Chris played, extra-extra hard).

I ask the duo if the Team 17-published title The Escapists, which has a similar concept, played a role in influencing the addition of the game mode. Chris points out that Prison Architect’s escape mode, in its earliest form, actually predates The Escapists completely. “Escape mode was originally a funny add-on to the game, where if you were so bad at the game that a lot of prisoners died in your prison in one day, then you’d be fired and then arrested and charged with corporate negligence,” he says. “And then I put a quick hack in there so that you would arrive by bus at your own prison. At that point, it was just a joke; you couldn’t do anything. But then we expanded it into a whole game mode.”

Prison Architect Screen

Changing the tone somewhat, I feel as though it would be remiss not to ask Chris and Mark about some of the outcry and controversy that has surrounded the game through its alpha period. Back in April, for instance, Mark appeared on MSNBC to respond to some of the criticism Prison Architect was facing state-side. Why do they think it had such a hostile reception from some quarters?

“They thought that we were just going to trivialise the whole thing, that we weren’t going to bother looking at any of the real issues; they thought we were being exploitative,” Chris suggests.

Mark has another explanation. “I think you’re giving them far too much credit, mate. It’s just a standard knee-jerk reaction: ‘I don’t think you should make a video game about that’,” he says. “If you would ask them even the smallest thing or peel underneath that opinion, you’d find that it’s just completely vacuous and just an attack on our medium, in the same way that video nasties ‘scared’ people in the ’80s.”

Chris concurs: “If film and TV can have prisons and everything, that’s fine – but video games aren’t allowed to? The sandbox doesn’t compel you to build anything in any particular way. You can build a prison that’s all about reform: you can have education programs, skills training and spiritual guidance lessons, and you can make every effort possible to treat your prisoners as humanely as possible – sort of like the Scandinavian approach.

“But we’ve seen people as well who have made absolute hellholes: they’ve abused their legal powers so they can have tiny cells, they have their prisoners locked up for 23 hours a day under armed guard and they’re given their food in their cells; just horrific human rights violations in a super-high security prison.

“We just think the sandbox is the best way to explore that, because the player can just do whatever they want, and we’re not really sitting there judging them.”

It raises the important topic of retribution versus rehabilitation; one which the pair were keen to explore in Prison Architect. Both Chris and Mark show a deep appreciation for issues such as these, and it should go a long way to quash any misconceptions that they’ve created a shallow and insensitive game simply for the sake of mindless fun. Indeed, they’re actually keen to challenge their players’ perceptions of justice along the way.

Mark says: “Everyone has got an opinion on prisons, on what they think about whether or not they’re too soft or too hard. And we want to try and make a game that might challenge your opinion on that. A lot of the people who we’ve spoken to, who probably sit slightly on the left and favour the whole rehabilitation approach, start off by building their nice prison and so on – and then the first time one of their prisoners nicks a drill and stabs someone in the neck, they’re like, ‘Right, that’s it!'”

Chris agrees that the rules go out of the window when something goes wrong for the first time in a user’s prison. “I think it’s actually a really interesting topic and I think video games are very well placed to explore that topic,” he says, “because unlike in a film where you’re dealing with other characters and you’re just a passive observer, in a game, you get to try it out; you can be like, ‘I’m going to make a prison that’s perfect. I’ll educate all my prisoners to degree level.’ Well try that, and see why that’s never happened in the real world – because the simulation will show you what goes wrong when you try that.

“Firstly you’ll go bankrupt; secondly, some of the criminals that arrive will take advantage of your principles and cause absolute mayhem; and eventually you’ll probably be fired. And so, you’ll have to come back to this much more measured, considered middle ground, where you’ll have to do a little bit of both, and maybe you’ll start to think, ‘Ah maybe that’s explains some of the decisions the prison companies make, because they’re trying to find a balance.’

“This is all unique to video games; this idea that the player is in charge of trying out these options.”

Prison Architect Screen

So now the full version is finally upon us, where do Chris and Mark see Prison Architect going from here? When I ask them about their post-launch plans, the two pipe up in unison: “Sleep!” You certainly wouldn’t begrudge them for it, either.

Mark assures fans that Introversion will continue updating the game, although it understandably might be slightly more spaced apart than their current monthly release cycle. “We’ve still got a big list of things – not things that we thought were critical for launch, because we’ve done everything that we think would be clearly missing if we didn’t do it in V1 – that we’ll be tackling over the next few months,” he says. “To a certain degree, it’s also led by the players. If escape mode is successful, as we hope it will be, then we will put effort into developing that. Perhaps if people really enjoy the story, we’ll look at that; we’ve always been steered by the community and that will continue throughout next year.”

With our time coming to an end, I have a couple of final questions for the duo. I ask Mark if he thinks there is any scope for Prison Architect multiplayer somewhere down the line. “No, probably not,” he replies. “It’s a single-player game and that would be a lot of effort to turn it into a multiplayer experience, so I don’t think that’s on the cards.”

As the game is currently only available on Windows, Mac and Linux (a tablet version is also in the works), I cheekily ask if there are any plans to bring the game to consoles. “Yep…” Mark says, before pausing with an enigmatic smile. “We have plans.”

Prison Architect V1 is set to launch on Steam on October 6, priced at £19.99. Our full review of the game will be available in the coming weeks.

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