Interview: Introversion Software on Prison Architect, Early Access, and Escape Mode

If you haven’t noticed, Introversion Software have been busy beavering away on their next game for the better part of five years and come October 6, their next game, Prison Architect will officially launch, so we caught up with Chris Delay and Mark Morris to find out how that process has been and what’s in store for existing and future players of Prison Architect when it launches next week.

For the past three years, Prison Architect has essentially been in Early Access, though this is way before Steam’s Early Access program came into place. Players could opt-in to the early alpha, and since then the developers have launched monthly updates adding new features as well as taking advice and guidance from existing players of the game.

With a total of 36 Alpha updates, we asked whether Introversion Software had ever thought the game was ready for release at any point before the current release date of October 6.

“Well, the decision to kind of finish it and launch it a while ago became more of a marketing decision than based on gameplay, we’ve had this huge list of features we’ve wanted to get into the game and we just suddenly realised, and came to the point last year, that we’re just getting a little bit fatigued with the project,” revealed Mark Morris, Managing Director at Introversion Software. “We’ve been working on it for, well, since about 2010 actually, we were working on it for a couple of years until our first launch – we’ve been working on it for a long old time, and we just though we need to end this, we need to put a deadline on it.”

“So we put that deadline on it, then there was a list of features we said ‘right, these are necessary for launch,’ and then as we got closer to launch it was, ‘right, they’re critical for launch,’ then we had a few weeks out of launch and we were like ‘yeah, these are absolutely super critical for launch’ and then stuff after it gets just bumped into the kind of update path.”

“We wanted to draw a line in the sand and say ‘this is V1.0 of Prison Architect, this has everything in it that we think is the minimum requirement to make a prison simulation game of this caliber and of this nature.’ So I’m happy and I’m delighted with what Prison Architect has become and where we’ve sort of arbitrary decided to draw the line is a good place to draw it,” Morris concluded.

“I don’t think Prison Architect could have existed without the fans and the process.”

Personally I’ve avoided buying into Prison Architect as I’m more a fan of a finished product than preying and hoping an Early Access title would eventually launch. But with over 1.3 million players, Prison Architect is already doing pretty well for themselves, and with that, Introversion Software have the fans to thank, because without them, Prison Architect wouldn’t be where it is today, in fact, Morris went as far to say that the game probably wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for fans.

“I think it would have been very difficult to do it without the fans playing the build and feeding back to us. We’ve had a lot of ideas about the sorts of things we’ve wanted to put into the game but the fans have tempered those ideas, when we’ve got things wrong they’ve told us immediately, and that’s the most use they’ve been so that we can cull that feature completely so that doesn’t work and put it out,” he revealed.

“There have been other times where they’ve helped us kind of tweak certain features and help us move in certain directions but Prison Architect is an incredibly complicated interaction of multiple systems. I don’t know how many systems there are now, probably about 20 or 30 which all kind of interact in a particular way.

“Now, the way we’ve been able to develop that is by, pretty much every month, there’s been a new system that has gone out to the player base which has grown over time and it’s continued to work, and if we hadn’t been able to put it out to that live testing what we would have now, all of these systems kind of untested, it doesn’t matter how much money you pay for QA, until it’s in the wild you don’t get that sense that it is really solid and working. And I think that without 10s of 1000s, 100s of 1000s, and now millions of players there playing the builds, we couldn’t have layered this amount of complexity with the confidence that we’ve been able to do, that it’s actually working. So I don’t think Prison Architect could have existed without the fans and the process.

“This is by far the most successful game we’ve ever done, so it’s a success on every criteria, so all we can do now is fuck it up with a bad launch! But let’s hope it doesn’t go that way!”

The game has had a pretty lengthy development process and with regular updates I think the team are looking forward to a little down time. With nothing on their calendar following the launch of Prison Architect we wondered what post-launch support plans they hoped to put into place, and it seems things aren’t going to change that much.

Interview: Introversion Software on Prison Architect, Early Access, and Escape Mode - n3rdabl3

“We’ve made these monthly update videos that people quite enjoy, they’re quite popular, I think, with me and Chris talking, and also there’s still a lot of things on the Prison Architect list that I want to sort of see in it eventually, that’s just been bumped, so it’s definitely, going to be the plan for us to keep updating it. Perhaps not quite monthly after we’ve launched it, we might need a little bit of slack, but yeah, definitely going forward,” said Morris.

“Then figuring out for Introversion how we’re going to continue to support Prison Architect continue to bring new features into it, not forever and ever, we definitely conscious of the fact that we don’t want to wreck this game, and when things start going silly, we’re going to have to end it, but equally for Introversion we’re going to start working on the next game, the next Introversion thing some time next year.”

As for what they might have up their novelty tattoo sleeves, we wondered whether a new Uplink would be on the cards. Unfortunately, that won’t be the case. Gutted.

With the launch of Prison Architect V1.0 a number of new features are coming to the game which were announced this past weekend at EGX. The first of which, and the most exciting, is the new Escape Mode.

“One of the issues that we’ve got, one of the problems, well, it’s a nice problem to have, is that we’ve got this huge player base that have played Prison Architect over the past three years, and when we launch we want the whole community back playing Prison Architect, a reason for them to all come back to the game, to talk about it at the same time, get that buzz and excitement,” explained Morris.

“So we’ve developed two features in the background that nobody knows about, that are quite big.”

That’s when Morris handed me over to Chris Delay.

“you can actually do everything that all the other prisoners can do.”

“What Mark was alluding to there was a brand new mode we’re adding to the game’s extras menu called Escape Mode, and it’s essentially the game turned on its head, the name suggests what it’s all about, but essentially it’s based on an old punishment in the game. If you cocked up to the extent that your prison fell apart, you could be arrested for criminal misconduct I think it was, or criminal manslaughter or something, corporate manslaughter, that’s the one. And as a bit of a joke, we put you in your own jail – this is around about the Alpha 20 time – and you’d arrive at your own jail as punishment, it was a bit silly, but it was funny, it was a funny way to have a game over event, but you couldn’t actually do anything.”

So with that idea, Introversion have been busy working behind the scenes on the Escape mode, a mode which in essence has you thrown into jail with just one goal: to escape. The great thing about it though is that the Prisons still work as they would in the sandbox simulation.

“So you can actually do everything that all the other prisoners can do; steal weapons from the workshop, dig escape tunnels, fight your way out, team up with other prisoners, and form a posse and try and raid the armoury, and try not to get shot, and your aim is to escape without getting dead,” Delay revealed.

“It’s a completely different game to Prison Architect because it’s very different in tone, it’s silly, it’s fun, and you fail a lot, it’s also quicker to play. But, it’s build on the same simulation that makes prison architect tick, so the prisons just load and they’re simulating away, ticking away, but you’re in the world now rather than building it.

And on the Steam Workshop we’ve been amazed, ever since we set that up, there’s been 12,000 user made prisons on the Steam Workshop now, and you can escape from any one you like.”

This of course opens up the game to even more creativity as Introversion hope that, along with sharing prisons they can manage themselves, players will also make prisons built with the sole purpose of escaping.

“In the meantime, there’s even a button that says ‘Escape from random Steam Workshop prison’ so it downloads a random prison from 12,000 and you have no idea what you’re going to get, and you just arrive on the road in a prisoner bus, you can’t see anything because there’s fog of war everywhere, all you can see is what’s in direct line of sight, you’re handcuffed, and thus begins your life in the prison,” Delay concluded.

Interview: Introversion Software on Prison Architect, Early Access, and Escape Mode - n3rdabl3

In addition to this new gameplay element, Introversion have also kept a keen eye on newcomers to the game, such as myself, and have decided to extend what was the introduction story into a full five-chapter story introducing the game’s mechanics in a creative way.

“For those who have never played Prison Architect, the game is quite complex now, there’s a lot to it, so we’ve expanded on what was the original tutorial into a five chapter story, and because the PA sandbox is a system, a quite dry simulation, all the best films and TV shows about prisons are about Prisoners and people in prisons and corrupt guards and stuff, so we’ve tried to craft a story that’s about the prisoners and staff, with various interesting scenarios,” Delay explained. “I don’t want to say too much, but it is a story, we don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but that’s definitely there to help new players to learn about the game, and have a really good time with it.”

As for extending the story if players enjoy said feature, Morris added:

“Yes, if there is a great pick up we may consider additional chapters. They take quite a lot of effort and don’t offer a lot on the re-playability front so we tend to have a leaning towards developing the sandbox or escape mode, but it very much depends on how they go down with players. Nothing is left out!”

Prison Architect launches into version 1.0 next week on October 6.

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