Saturday, September 29, 2012

Prison Architect: Hows the Kool-Aid Tasting?

Yea, you read right: Prison Architect. Wow. Where to begin? I guess with a proper introduction instead of the verbal equivalent of me standing before you mouth agape. The Prison Architect alpha funding campaign was recently announced by Introversion Software. They're the indie folks who did, among others, DEFCON. I have a few thoughts about this game. First is the price point which is $30 (the minimum amount accepted) and will get you into the alpha as well as the final copy when it's finally released.

I've stated elsewhere on my blog that $15 is about the most I'd be willing to pay to fund an alpha. These games aren't complete yet and though I like to fund indie developers anything over that just seems like too much in today's market. So right off the start I'm a bit annoyed, and then I do some reading and come across an interview with the dev stating they purposely made it a bit pricey to limit the amount of folks who would be participating in, and helping to direct, the game's development. This strikes me as a bit....uh...pretentious. After a bit more digging I found that the forum is a secretive affair where you need a pass (ie have funded the game and are in the alpha) to even look at it.

Insert expletive here. Okay, now I feel better- let's continue.

What the hell does the amount of disposable income have to do with someone's ability to contribute meaningfully to the development of a game? In fact, if you think about it, the people who are willing to fork over a higher amount of cash are the last people you'd want feedback from. These guys are so sold on the idea of the game they are willing to jump in head first. Can they be counted on to test, and properly critique the game for a mass market? If you're answer is yes, then all I can say is 'Hows that Kool-Aid taste?' I would venture to say that anyone with that amount of cash to 'donate' is likely someone who's never actually set foot inside of a prison and, again, the least likely to make any meaningful contributions to the game.

And speaking of the masses and their Kool-Aid drinking ways it seems like I may be very, very wrong about all this. Before I could even get this post up, Prison Architect sold 1,000 copies in 36 hours and raised $100,000. H-o-l-y S-h-i-i-i-t. That means the average sucker customer donated $100. If you're a stat-monkey like I am it breaks down in a bit more detail like this:
They say over a 1000 copies were sold, so let's go with 1100. We will assume all the limited top tier donations sold (5 at $5000, 20 at $500, and 100 at $250. That comes to $40,000 and leaves 900 people forking over $60,000 at about $66 each. For an alpha. Of a game set in one of the most desperate, dirty, god-forsaken, horrible places imaginable populated by violent narcissists, mental health cases, and sexual predators. And that's just the staff- we still have the inmates to consider.

Moving away from that for a second I guess I should say I really like the idea of this game (I know, hard to tell from that introduction). It is a fortress-management type game (like Dwarf Fortress or Gnomoria) where the idea is that the enemy is always in your base. You keep getting more and more inmates which you have to guard, feed, house, and take care of. Eventually a boiling point will be reached and the fort will explode. It is a fatalistic game in that the devs want you to lose- it's built in. This is a common idea with a lot of game types (rogue-like I believe is famous for this and the recent Faster Than Light also kills you quick but at least it's reasonably priced at $9). I like this game because I'll play any old management game to give it a go, and I am not easily put off by 'dark subject matter'.

The opening tutorial claims to deal with 'dark subject matter' in that you have to build an electric chair to execute a double-murderer sentenced to death. It is a way of introducing you to the UI and there are artistic 'Polaroids' that are used to cover the back-story in the cut scenes. The story, of course, is morally ambiguous and designed to get you to think. It is, I'm sure for many, a tug of war as you prepare the chamber and see the story of the convicted murderer who you are charged with killing: he caught his wife cheating, you see, and killed her and her lover. Ahh, how sweet. A real dilemma that will have people divided between those that see him as human and can understand his crime of passion, and those who think that murder is always wrong and inexcusable. Oh, and because you can't hear my tone as I write this, I am being sarcastic about the 'real dilemma' bit.

Why am I being sarcastic? For that you'll have to come back for Part II where I take a look at this game in a bit more detail and discuss the mechanics, game-play, and the inherent problems with the game's design (yes, keeping in mind it's Alpha and things may change). Oh, and if you're thinking I drank the Kool Aid you're wrong. I grabbed a copy off one of the dead guys on the floor to take a look as I don't have an extra $66 bucks to throw away.

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