I'm already on-record about how fascinating Prison Architect is. Seriously, it's SimPrison — or ThemePrison, if you will — made by people who seem to be damn near fearless about making video games about uncomfortable topics.
The game is from the indie studio Introversion, who have also made the saddest/best game about nuclear war. I recently sent Introversion's own architects some questions about their newest work. They served up some fascinating answers about the possibilities of a game about building and running a prison.
I'd e-mailed my questions to Introversion's Chris Delay and Mark Morris a couple of weeks ago, after I'd started playing Prison Architect. I'd never played a game like this, never played anything a game that was about incarcerating human beings (and, no, I'd never played Dungeon Keeper). I was fascinated. I think you'd be, too, so do be aware that you could stop reading this now and start playing. The game's not finished, but you can pay to start playing it in its ever-evolving alpha state, through Steam or even directly from Introversion.
Here's our exchange, with answers from the Introversion developers.
We started with a question that had fascinated me as I played the game's tutorial, which gives you the option, as virtual prison-creator, to pay extra money to put a window in the cell of a man who will be executed the next day.
Me: What would I get out of putting a window in a prisoner's cell? Does it make him behave better? Or it's just an act of possibly unwarranted kindness?
Chris & Mark: Currently: The windows have no effect.
However, the plan is that all cells will be graded on their quality, with a higher quality cell including a window, hot & cold water, TV, desk, nicer furniture etc. You'll be able to reward well-behaved prisoners with these better cells, and (more subtly) hold that over them once they have the better cell, because they will know they will lose it if they cause trouble. The larger the gradient between a high quality cell and a low quality cell, the more unwilling prisoners will be to lose them due to misconduct.
"Why should taxpayers pay for TVs for every prisoner? But many guards believe TVs are actually an incredibly effective form of control...We hope to capture that subtle dilemma."
The issue of luxuries in cells is very interesting. It has been noted before that TVs in cells can be thought of as one of the ultimate luxuries, and sometimes people become upset that prisoners are given such luxuries while in jail. Why should taxpayers pay for TVs for every prisoner? But many guards believe TVs are actually an incredibly effective form of control—misbehave and lose your TV. We hope to capture that subtle dilemma.
Me: What's the end-game? I'm pretty early into my prison-building career. I'm not sure if the game terminates or is infinite.
Chris & Mark: It doesn't currently terminate. The end game is the least-designed part of the game so far, and we are still in the "discussing" phase about potential ways to deal with this. Certainly there needs to be some sort of "grade" applied to your prison that reflects the quality and also the type of the prison (high-security hell-hole? lefty-liberal holiday-home? industrial workshop with slave labour force?), and ultimately you will probably sell your prison and use the massive cash injection to start another from a much stronger starting position, enabling a more ambitious design from the start.
Sim City always had a great end game in that you destroyed everything. Their destruction tools were fantastic fun. This is one of those areas that makes no sense but is fun for the player. We might consider something like that.
Me: I noticed in one of your updates that you said some prisoners might be innocent? How does that affect the game?
Chris & Mark: Yes, in-game, about 50% of prisoners plead innocent to their crimes, and about 5% of all prisoners are actually innocent. You have no real way of knowing, but it does affect their behaviour, because all prisoners have a set of internal "traits" that govern how they respond to trouble. So some prisoners are violent, murderous, or thieves, or whatever. If they are guilty of murder they are likely to have the first two at least, and you will see that in their behaviour while in jail—lots of fights, lots of serious injuries. However if they are innocent and don't have those traits, they will behave very differently, maybe even fleeing from fights when they happen.
"In-game, about 50% of prisoners plead innocent to their crimes, and about 5% of all prisoners are actually innocent."
This will ultimately affect your decision when they come up for parole—if you are convinced they must be innocent because they've exhibited none of the behaviour you'd expect based on their crime, you may then choose to let them go.
Me: The legal branch of the bureaucracy currently doesn't do anything. But there's a reference to penalty points. What's that all about?
Chris & Mark: Penalty Points used to be in the game as a simple "game over" event—you got a few points for a fight, more for a murder, more for an escape etc, and if you got 100 penalty points you were fired and it was game over. However, your lawyers could "get you off the hook" and clear your points for you, so long as you paid them enough. It was a nice idea but ultimately got scrapped a long time ago. Just part of the process of game design!
Lawyers will be making a return in a future alpha.
Me: What sources of income are there in this game? Just government grants and funding?
Chris & Mark: There are three major sources of income, two of which are working already:
Large government/industry grants, which pay for big construction projects with objectives like "educate 100 prisoners" or "build a state of the art medical facility".
Daily income from the government, i.e. a fixed fee for every prisoner you have, more for the dangerous ones
Private industry income from prisoners working on site. You will be able to employ your prisoners to produce trinkets from raw materials—e.g. number plates from sheet metal, which you can then sell for a profit. Pay your prisoners a small wage (which they love because they can then buy basic items from the shop like cigarettes, phone cards etc), and use the profits to expand faster. The only danger is the number of tools your prisoners will undoubtedly need to do the work.
Me: I think that's it, but if you want to also update me on the status of the game, release plans, thoughts on which platforms will or won't accept this, please let me know. Incidentally, in light of you guys dismissing your prospects on iOS, I started wondering if Sony, which seems to really love indies these days, would embrace a game like this. I asked them about Sweatshop (a game blocked by Apple) and couldn't get a straight answer beyond being told that every developer has to meet certain standards. I'm curious if you've interacted with the Sony folks at all.
Chris & Mark: We've been following the established plan of one alpha approximately every month. This has worked well for us, and gives us enough time to attempt meaty updates every month, but also gives our community new material to play with regularly. Alpha 9 and Alpha 10 were both pretty big updates.
We haven't chatted to any console manufacturers about Prison Architect. I think we are all still feeling a bit sore about the Microsoft / Darwinia+ experience. Prison Architect has been on sale on our website and on Steam, for PC & Mac, and we are working on Linux as well. This is our natural home turf, and there are no shortage of gamers here. We don't need anyone's approval to just do our jobs. We don't need the consoles right now.
For more on the game, check out the official Prison Architect site, or, better, follow Introversion on Twitter. A batch of videos tracking the progress of new alpha builds is also worth a look on YouTube.