Gaming prison architect

Published on September 26th, 2015 | by Tom May


EGX 2015: Prison Architect – Introversion Interview

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Prison Architect – We lock down all the info from EGX

In Prison Architect, players build and manage their own maximum security prison, built to hold the most hardened of criminals. Since the launch of the alpha, Prison Architect has gone from strength to strength, seeing high praise from all manner of gaming press and eventually going on to gain a player base in the millions. Prison Architect is a gripping new take on the well-worn simulation genre, having enraptured gamers worldwide with a unique premise and engrossing narrative.

After three years of early access, Prison Architect‘s 1.0 release is now only around the corner with just over a week to go. It may just be the game’s most significant update yet, not only signalling the game’s official release, but also bringing with it two very significant features that have only been revealed earlier today.

prison architect

Chris Delay, the creative director of Prison Architect, and Mark Morris, the producer, kindly took some time out of their very busy EGX schedule to give some fantastic answers to our questions:

NTC: Prison Architect was one of the first early access games. You kicked the fad off, so to speak. With that in mind, how do you feel about Early Access and how it’s gone since then? Do you think it’s evolved at all? How do you think it has been used?

Mark Morris: I think it’s difficult to get early access right. We had big success with it, and both Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program had big success with it. I think there are reasons it worked for all of us.

NTC: Is it because you got ahead of the curve, do you think?

Mark Morris: No, I think it’s a question about honesty. About why you’re putting a game out into early access and the reasons behind it, rather than just seeing it as “oh, another revenue stream. Put my game in there before it’s finished.” Not every game is suitable for early access. I’ve thought quite a lot about that, about making sure that as soon as you paid to play Prison Architect you had a good experience. So when we first launched, it had already been in development for eighteen months to get to a point, it was a long time ago now, that had a good sort of three or four hours of gameplay in it.

So we were very clear what people were getting for their money. You know, broken game and all the rest of it. Equally, we made sure that once they had played that first three or four hours they would have had a good experience. Every time we’ve updated the game since, everyone that’s played it has enjoyed that new update. And I think that not everybody who is participating in early access has had that mindset, you know?

NTC: Yeah, you definitely hear some horror stories.

Mark Morris: “Here’s our broken build”, you know? “It’s early access, I can do what I want.” It’s like flipping up two birds to the players. So I think that early access is here to stay, I don’t think it’ll go away. I don’t think it’ll die, it’s too good for that. When used effectively. And I don’t think it has fully evolved yet, I think there are still a lot of people who don’t use it properly. I think that there might be a slight drop in the popularity of it, at least for a little while. But then just like with Kickstarter, gamers will start getting savvy about what makes a good early access program and what doesn’t. It’s still got a little bit further to go with maturing.

NTC: Do you have any advice for new developers who are looking to crowdfund?

Mark Morris: Similar to what I’ve said already, I think it’s very difficult – if you’ve got no pedigree, if you’ve got nothing – asking people to support you for a vision is… not going to work. It’s just not going to work. Because why am I going to give something to somebody who doesn’t have a track record? Earning that respect is what they need to be thinking about. How they’re going to do it. And I think a good way of doing that is making sure that you’ve put enough work in for the first build that they get the same day that they buy into the Kickstarter or whatever it is, is fun to play. Fun enough that they’re going to start talking about it and encourage other people to come and join them.

Some things in this industry are a constant, and having a strategy for getting attention to your game is crucial right from the beginning, even if you’re going to crowdfund it.

You need to be thinking “Right, if I get a hundred people playing my game in the first seven days, that’s quite a lot of people. But how am I now going to ensure that those hundred people turn into a thousand people at the end of month one. Because at the end of month two I want that thousand people to be ten thousand, and then maybe month six I want that ten thousand to be fifty thousand.”

And you should be able to sit down and explain how that happened, I think. Before you even think about setting up a website or taking any money or anything like that. Everybody hopes that it’ll snowball but creating that climate where the snowball can occur is the art to it, you know? The ‘build it and they will come’ attitude just won’t fly any more. Seven games are released each day on Steam now, something like that. It is a busy, busy world out there. That’d be my advice.

NTC: For a layman like me, what would you say are some of the biggest changes and additions that have come about in the game thanks to feedback during early access?

Mark Morris: I’ll let you answer that. (Gestures to Chris)

Chris Delay: During the entire process?

NTC: Of early access, yeah. The biggest ones.

Chris Delay: I spent quite a lot of time snooping about in our forums, actually. I used to post there, but I don’t have time these days. Every time we do an alpha build, I read the forums and Twitter and stuff. So it’s a very, very good way to find out if you’ve ballsed it up. (Laughs) Really badly. Because you really find out about that in the forums.

There’s been a couple of occasions… actually, just the recent events system. We put that in and it’s a random system. It means that on various occasions something random and bad will happen. Like a pipe will burst or there’s a flu virus outbreak or a bunch of gang leaders arrive or something like that. And the system was fine, but it was tuned much too punishingly, you know? People complained that they had these nice prisons that they’d spent twenty hours building, reduced to a smouldering pile of rubble… and bodies! (Laughs) Within days of the events system being turned on, they had three kitchen fires in a row, then an electrical failure.

So you read the reports and go “Actually, yeah. That is too much.” And then we go about turning it down and nerfing it really heavily. And that system, it was a brand new system that we’d just added to the game, we take it down and blend it in with everything else and it just becomes another system within the game. It’s not too intrusive, it’s not the main thing any more.

There’s been a few times, actually, where we’ve done a full-on poll about what to do next. Just straight up asked “Of these ten features, which would you most like to see next?” That’s always really interesting to do.

NTC: So did you carry over those options that weren’t chosen on to the next poll?

Chris Delay: Well, we did them and then we’d use that for a few months to determine the order that we’d do things in. Because we kind of knew that we were going to do most of the things on there anyway. It was more like “What order would you like to see things? Which thing do you want to see the most?”

prison architect

NTC: Are there any particular inspirations within video games or without that have influenced Prison Architect?

Chris Delay: It came about for me because of a visit to Alcatraz, actually. I had a look around and I was just really fascinated by that place. I don’t know if you’ve ever been, but it’s really atmospheric. It has a really good tour. They give you these headphones and you can listen to a tape of inmates telling the stories about what it was like living at Alcatraz, guards telling what it was like. You know, what happened the day the US Marines stormed Alcatraz. You see these stories and think “Oh my God, you just can’t make this stuff up!” This stuff all really happened. You know, the guys who maybe escaped and were portrayed in that Clint Eastwood film. Escape from Alcatraz. It’s supposed to have really happened and nobody really knows if they made it or not.

Coming back from Alcatraz, I really wanted to make a game about building prisons. Just on the same day of being there.

I’m a huge Dwarf Fortress fan and going back a bit, a big Dungeon Keeper fan as well.

NTC (Mica): It’s one of my favourite games.

Chris Delay: It’s a wonderful game, isn’t it? And I think that genre just kind of got lost a bit. I think Bullfrog stopped making them, didn’t they? Or they went wrong and split up to form Lionhead and then… It kind of went away, that genre, and it’s seen a bit of a resurgence I think.

Dwarf Fortress is like the most extreme version of simulation. I wanted to do something that’d be like that but mixed with this really interesting theme, you know? That Alcatraz theme of prisoners and guards and all the shenanigans that go on in prison. It’s a really rich theme. That we’ve been tapping into for five years. (Laughs) That was 2010 I was at Alcatraz. That’s a long old time ago now.

NTC: What is it about simulation games that you think players connect with so much? Because they’re getting more and more popular again.

Chris Delay: They’re definitely coming back in force, aren’t they?

There’s something about simulations that are tuned to create interesting gameplay. It’s the idea that you can mess with a simulation. It’s a simulation but it’s under your control, so it’s not like you’re working your way through a series of pre-scripted events, or pursuing a Grand Theft Auto-style mission or something where you have to go here, then here, then here. Simulation games sort of work the other way around in the sense that the base level simulation of everything has been written and all you have to do is… give it things to do. Like build something, entities start arriving, they start behaving based on some rules. Then when you look at the biggest prisons in Prison Architect and all the systems are running all at once, you just see these huge effects rippling through your prison that aren’t really the result of any scripting. There’s no designer that said “And then there’ll be a massive riot that starts right here, and extends this far, unless the player completes objective A.” It’s nothing like that.

It’s top-down gameplay, you have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s the richness of things that can happen, that you can see happening. And the crossover when multiple interesting things happen at once create a really interesting scenario. Like there happens to be a fire at the same time there’s a riot, so the guards are busy dealing with the riot and the fire brigade can’t get through the front gates because there’s no one there to let them in, and the guys who happen to be digging an escape tunnel at that very moment have the tunnel collapse on them, because there’s a riot above and the firemen can’t get to them. And it all happens at once, and nobody ever programmed it to do that. But it’s like emergent gameplay, isn’t it? A buzzword a few years ago.  You only get that when you program the world as a simulation that the player can interact with rather than feeding them the events that you want to happen. I think it’s fascinating.

Mark Morris: Yeah, there’s an intricacy, isn’t there? It’s like watching a watch mechanism or something. You build something and then your prisoners start using it. And it’s a wonderful feeling. Slowly you start thinking that you understand the way they’re going to behave more and more, but you don’t really. You pop something new in, and it’ll have a subtle effect. And that kind of cause and effect tweaking, I think is quite addictive, you know? It’s also just a nice thing to watch. It’s almost like… people used to breed ants, didn’t they? They’d have ant farms, and they just used to watch ants go about their business because it’s fascinating watching a hive without pity.

Chris Delay: We don’t cheat as well. Because often with people playing, after ten hours of play, somebody will be killed by another prisoner. He attacks them with an electric drill. And the player will go “What do you mean, an electric drill?! Where did he get that from?” And then when they finally search and finds their source, they’ll have traced the electric drill all the way back. It was traded in the yard for some drugs or something, and it leads all the way back to the workshop. “How’d it get out of the workshop?! There’s metal detectors there!” And then you remember “There was a three hour power cut, wasn’t there?” A three hour power cut four days ago and somebody stole an electric drill. And we didn’t fake it, that trail, that custody of the electric drill legitimately happened. So players see things happen that seem unbelievable, but there’s always an explanation for how it happened.

NTC: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Mark Morris: The key message we’re trying to get out is that we’re releasing on the 6th of October, version 1. There are two new features, two new major features. We’ve had three years of people building prisons, but the first of the new features is Escape Mode where you play as a prisoner to escape from any of the prisons that are normally available.

There’s about 14,000 prisons on Steam at the moment and you take control of a prisoner. You can move around the prison, beat up guards, get experience points, break into the armoury, and escape. So you know, you can escape from your own or anyone else’s prison. We hope that the community understanding Escape Mode will start designing prisons specifically for it. They’ll all be nicely ranked, so that you can escape from a Supermax, a proper Prison Architect Supermax that’s really hard to escape from. So that’s a whole new style of play for Prison Architect which we think is going to be an awful lot of fun.

And there’s been one story so far, which has acted as the introduction, which just kind of explains the basics of building within Prison Architect and what you do. But it’s being extended to four story chapters.

Chris Delay: Five.

Mark Morris: Extended by four to five in total. So yeah, there’s five in total. They look at all sorts of different aspects of prison life and prisoners. Mafia and corrupt officials and all sorts of things, so that’s really cool. And more so eases the ramp up to playing the game.

Obviously we’ve done loads of updates in the past but that’s the new stuff that we’re trying to get the message out about now. We want everyone who’s played Prison Architect to come back and replay it on our launch.


A big thanks to Chris and Mark for agreeing to be interviewed and giving us some really engaging answers. Good luck to the whole team at Introversion Software for their big launch on 6th October 2015. Be sure to check it out!


Tom May
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