Prison Architect is the latest project from Introversion Software, makers of such memorable titles as Darwinia and DEFCON. While Darwinia are DEFCON were both different takes on the RTS genre, Prison Architect is far closer to the ‘Theme’ simulation games made by Bullfrog Productions in the 90s.
Like Theme Park and Theme Hospital, it gives you the job of running a large corporation and building a successful and profitable business from scratch. However, instead of having to build and run a park or hospital, Prison Architect tasks you with overseeing a fully functioning prison, complete with buildings, utilities, staff and prisoners.
While the game is still in alpha, there is currently a fair bit of content to experience. After completing a short tutorial that sets the tone and introduces a few of the basic mechanics, you begin with nothing more than a large field next to a road and a handful of workmen. The first steps of building the prison is to construct somewhere for your electricity generator and pump to go, along with a communal holding cell for prisoners and the facilities to keep them washed and fed.
Once the basic structures have been assembled, you can build internal walls to divide the spaces up and allocate their function using the rooms tab. Most rooms have essential requirements in order for them to be usable, such as benches, beds, toilets and the wire and pipes that provide power and running water. Soon you will need to individual cells and other facilities to keep your growing prison population happy. Needless to say, all of this costs money and you start with a very limited budget, but you can take out special grants to fund the expansion.
Once the grant money is spent, your main source of income comes from the number of prisoners you are housing, plus you can also build workshops that generate a daily revenue proportional to their size. Even so, it is quite challenging to actually turn a profit on your prison. The staff you have to hire to keep things running smoothly do not come cheap, and once you’ve employed multiple guards, workmen and chefs, plus a warden, a doctor, a foreman and various other administrators you will be lucky if you break even.
Simply trying to keep your finances healthy can be challenging enough as it is, but it becomes an almost impossible feat when riots break out and inmates start destroying their beds and toilets, smashing up phone booths and generally wrecking stuff. Ultimately, most of your day will be spent trying to avoid this scenario by trying to keep them happy. In the build I have been playing, the inmates seem to be an incredibly angry lot – no matter how much I try to pander to them it is very hard to stop fights breaking out.
As I mentioned earlier, Prison Architect is still only in alpha so unsurprisingly the game is still very much a work in progress. Crashes are not uncommon, and the AI used to route the prisoners around seems to go wrong from time to time, causing them to freeze up and never move again. The difficulty curve also currently seems extremely unforgiving. Most importantly, it feels like some important gameplay hook is still missing. While it is fun building up a prison and getting a stable income, once you have everything set up there isn’t much left to do.
Presumably when Prison Architect is actually finished there will be a lot more to do, but for the time being there isn’t any real drive to keep playing once the prison is set up and the grants have all been completed. It’s possible that the game will ultimately follow the same route as Theme Park, with you needing to get your prison value high enough so you can sell it and move onto the next one. Theme Hospital also had many novel ways of keeping the player interested, including special events like patient emergencies and visits from VIPs. I particularly like how inmates are currently able to steal items and weapons and use them to escape, and I would love to see this expanded on even further. A black market economy of drugs and weapons could add some depth to the game, and more complex interpersonal relationships between prisoners would be interesting too. It would be fascinating to watch the prison population forming a hierarchy, with some individuals assuming more power and ultimately forming their own gangs that could challenge your authority.
As it currently stands, Prison Architect is a great idea and shows a lot of potential. While it is currently buggy and arguably still more of a framework than an actual game, Introversion have a reputation for making great indie games and I’m sure that they will be able to craft it into something truly special.