Running a prison doesn’t sound like the most intriguing thing to make a game about. It surely can’t be something gamers will enjoy and pour countless hours into? That’s what I thought, too, when I discovered the game back in 2012. It was available as a crowdfunded alpha pre-order, and having just started to throw money at various projects on Kickstarter, I shelled out a few dollars. Even if the game was in an early alpha state, it had a lot of features, and it was perfectly possible to create a prison.
After a very successful initial pre-order period, Introversion (as opposed to many other developers that raise money from pre-orders and crowdfunding) continued to work on their game. Throughout the alpha period, the company released regular updates with accompanying release videos by producer Mark Morris, and designer and programmer Chris Delay. Introversion’s commitment to regular updates and their close connection with the community have undoubtedly contributed to Prison Architect’s massive success: As of September 26, 2015, the game has grossed over $19 million, making it the company’s most successful title to date.
So making a game about running a prison wasn’t a bad idea after all. Prison Architect Version 1.0 eventually left Early Access in October 2015, and Introversion continues to release updates for the game.
Visually, Prison Architect is very basic. It uses a 2D, top-down view of your prison, but all your prisoners and staff are displayed from the side. While this might sound a bit unnatural, it works well. There’s also an optional Easter egg 3D mode, which I’ve yet to try. The sound in the game is also pretty basic, and there is very little music.
One of my few gripes with Prison Architect is the user interface. A lot of the icons are too similar, and even after almost 30 hours, I find myself searching the menu bar for the right icon to click. This could have been solved by making the icons visually more distinguishable, or, perhaps even better, by keyboard shortcuts. But there are very few of those in the game, and the ones that actually do exist can’t easily be modified. Some of the sub menus tend to grow a bit large as your prison develops. There is a search function, but there is no short cut for activating it, which means even more mouse clicking that could have been prevented with a few, simple keyboard shortcuts.
So both visually and acoustically Prison Architect is rather primitive. It also has a lot potential for improvements on the user interface front. Does all this – basic graphics and a sub-par user interface – sound familiar? Yes, it does. It sounds a lot like Dwarf Fortress.
As with Dwarf Fortress, Prison Architect shines in terms of gameplay mechanics and simulation. And it shines bright. Each prisoner has his or her own personality and needs that you have to attend to. They also tend to gang up on you, and if you treat them badly and don’t take proper care of your inmates, you can suddenly find yourself having to deal with a prison-wide riot. With all that’s going on in the game, it tends to suck you in. I’ve found myself pondering about prison layouts when not playing, and it’s been a very long time since a game has engaged me in the way Prison Architect does.
But how long will it last? I’m about an hour away from finishing the final chapter of the all too short 7 part campaign, and I’m not sure how interesting it will be to play in sand box mode. The nice thing about the campaign is that it presents the player with various goals, and personally I think that playing to reach a given (smaller) goal is more intriguing than to play just to create the ultimate prison (or city, which was the case with Cities: Skylines).
At the current asking price, though, Prison Architect is an… erh… steal. I’ve currently played 28 hours, 20 or so of those hours being sandbox games during various stages of the alpha period. Even though I might not play much after I’ve finished the campaign, Prison Architect has given me amazing value for my money, and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who like to fiddle with guys in orange clothing.