You don’t get a lot of strategy games or management sims on console anymore, and there’s a pretty simple reason for it. Unlike the heady days of the first PlayStation, which saw the likes of Red Alert, Theme Hospital and more grace its CD-ROM drive, there are no mouse peripherals to lend modern consoles the inputs that these games are primarily designed for. Oh sure, there’s been plenty of releases adapted to a dual analogue stick controller, the battles have been scaled up and down to suit, they’ve tried using motion controllers and so on, but nothing’s really stuck.
Something like Prison Architect is slow and considered enough that it might just work, and Introversion Software and Double Eleven are both hoping that’s the case. After years in Early Access development – the game’s alpha release actually preceded Steam Early Access – it finally released on PC toward the end of last year, and with over 1.5 million copies sold, it’s already been a big success. So Introversion are taking a bit of a gamble, to see if that success can be extended to console.
Mark Morris, one of Introversion’s three co-founders, explained that you might view it in a slightly different light. “At the core of the PC game,” he said, “there was a kind of directed game. You start off with limited funds, prisoners were coming, you could fail and there were failure conditions, so there was this idea of an opening-game, a middle-game and an endgame. The console build comes at it from the other angle, which is that there isn’t really any pressure. I like to think of it as a Sunday afternoon hangover game where, you know, there’s no pressure on you by default – you can turn those back on.”
Even so, that leap is inherently difficult, not least because Mark readily admits that the mouse and keyboard’s flexibility helping to support each new feature and system that’s been added along the way. Without that, Double Eleven have had to try and rethink how you can interact with the game via a controller. Though it’s still fairly menu heavy, it also looks quite manageable, with a number of things that try to ease the transition.
It still feels like a PC game though, with the camera control on one analogue stick and a mouse pointer that you move with the other. At the same time, there’s two versions of the menu system, so that you can have a slightly fuller view of all of the building tools available to you, or something a little more minimalist that lets you view more of the prison you’re presiding over.
At the most fundamental level, Prison Architect is built on a grid of squares, and that makes drawing out new buildings and placing new items very simple. However, these things can always be simpler, and there’s a fair amount of complexity lying beneath the surface of Prison Architects construction tools. It’s not as simple as idly slapping down some walls, but you also need to ensure that there’s power, water and more, in order for even the most rudimentary of buildings to be fit for prisoners. Except for solitary confinement cells, maybe. The console version adds the ability to quick build from a number of room templates, letting you very easily fill an entire cell block with cells, before kicking back to watch the construction teams swarm in like ants to complete the task.
The quick rooms are something that will be rolled back to the PC version of the game at some point, but the control schemes won’t be. As Mark explained, “I think out of everything we want to do with Prison Architect, because we’ve still got ideas, that’s fairly low down the list. I’m not sure how many people are currently playing on their PC and are sat a long way away from the screen. […] I don’t think a big interface update to Prison Architect will suddenly bring in a whole new swathe of PC players or make it that much better. If Steam machines had become more of a thing, then that would have been a different world.”
There’s going to be a slightly odd mismatch in how the two versions of the game continue onward after release. Where Introversion themselves are still adding a few features here and there, Double Eleven want to wait for those features to be complete – partly to see how the game sells – before adding in things like women and children.
“Hopefully we’re going to be a blistering success,” Mark said, “because it’s just the economics now. We’ll keep going on PC, but it’s easy for us, whereas this is the old model of game development, where all of the effort goes in up front and then you see whether or not there’s a market for it afterwards.”
Even Escape Mode, which was added for the 1.0 launch on PC, isn’t currently part of the console game. It is quite high up the list of priorities, though. “We know how popular it is!” Gareth Wright, Design Manager at Double Eleven who are handling the port, said. “Everyone on Xbox Game Preview, every question I post, going ‘Hey guys, what do you think about this?’ and they’re just like ‘What about Escape Mode?’
“So it’s not in at the moment, and on the PC version it’s still kind of in development as well, but we would love to do it and it’s just the thing where we had to draw the line. Gangs was one of the last things where we were like, ‘Aww, can we get the gangs in? Can we squeeze them in?’ We did that, then we squeezed in the new wardens as well…”
That seems to be another focus of the console release, with more variety and more content that lets you get your prison up and running quicker, in addition to the Prison Stories and content from the original. The All Day and a Night DLC pack adds eight additional wardens to play as – from a cowboy builder that gets things done on the cheap, to those who want to reform criminals – eight unusual plots of land, and eight prison maps that are already set up and going through their routine. These include a prison based on Alcatraz, which was Chris Delay’s original inspiration for the game, but also range to prisons that have taken over a Centre Parcs-like resort.
It’s a testament to the core idea of Prison Architect that, through the entire demonstration, my mind’s whirring away and coming up with ever more cruel and inventive prisons. Take the Lap of Luxury map’s resort, for example, but have the chalets labelled as solitary confinement, while general population is rows upon rows of squalid cells, forcing prisoners together and building tension, so that they snap, riot and are then sent off to cool off in a private chalet. The World of Wardens mode will let me share this nonsensical idea with the world, as a parallel system to the PC version’s Steam Workshop.
In many ways, they’re just the icing on the cake, as the game is brought across to console. What’s most important is that Double Eleven seem to have created an interface that can work well on a gamepad, to let you toy with the prison and its occupants in as devious a fashion as you can come up with.