Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Prison Architect: Never Mind The Shanks, Television is Killing Me.

Now that some hard stats are out I have to backtrack on my last post as it turns out that 'over 1,000 copies sold' actually means that Prison Architect sold 2667 copies with four of the top-tier $1,000 options purchased. Wow. That's a lot of money to fork over for a game- especially one that's not fully developed.

That does, of course, change my calculations and bring the average donation level down, but my original opinion remains unchanged- it's too much for an alpha 'donation'. And yes, I'm still pissed that the forum is closed and they only care about what the Kool-Aid drinking masses have to say. When did it become common-place to pay to test someones game anyway? Didn't that used to be, you know, an actual job for people at some point in time? Never-mind: that's a topic for an entire post on its own.

I've spent a few more hours with the game, read a couple interviews with the lead-developer over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and at Bitscreed, and I am watching a fun You Tube play-through as well. I highly recommend you check out that You Tube channel. They are quite funny, and British, and who doesn't like listening to the British? They all sound like the Queen to me, except anyone from Essex...or East London...or the North....or Scotland....or Wales....or Northern Ireland..... well, okay, so not many of them actually sound like the Queen, but these guys are still worth watching and waaaaay more interesting than the Queen. Once again I seem to be digressing.....

Despite all my complaining then I have spent some more time with the game and it is, at it's heart, a pretty cool little management game. It's got a unique setting going for it, but as I mentioned last time it has some inherent design flaws.The developer acknowledges the Alpha is full of bugs so I'm not talking about the problems with AI pathways, UI issues, or general bugs like naked inmates eating in the shower. My issues then, are as follows:

The game has been imagined and created by someone who's never been inside of a Maximum Security Prison. Ironically enough the release of Prison Architect comes on the heels of a prison-related mania for me where I've gone back and watched almost every prison movie ever made. Now I'm only talking about the good ones like Cool Hand Luke, Escape From Alcatraz, Cell 211, Felon, etc, and not the crap ones like Lock-Up and the like. I prefer my prison movies to be based somewhat in reality and not like the television series Oz (which was a fucking joke, by the way, in terms of its realism but somewhat on the mark with the issues it presented). Unfortunately the developer cites Oz as a major influence and it shows in the game-play.

Like the developer I've also been to Alcatraz but it was back in the day when actual Park Rangers gave the tour and you didn't just get a head-set. I remember they locked us in 'the hole' as part of the tour and it was very, very dark indeed. Now watching all those prison movies and touring Alcatraz doesn't make me an expert on prisons, now does it? No, it doesn't, but then again nor does it give the developer any insight into what prisons, or prison management is like. Now that's not the end of the world is it? I mean there are people developing baseball games, for instance, who aren't baseball stars aren't there? Yes, indeed there are, but I'd venture to say they've been to a baseball park along the way and have likely watched a lot of baseball.

The game is grounded too deeply in television prison. Can this be a bad thing? I mean, no one wants a hard-core prison sim now do they? Not likely, no, but the problem with television is, well, it's television and most of the time it's crap. I do realize I'm in the minority and that many folks watch, and like t.v. but that still doesn't make it an accurate portrayal of whatever topic it's covering. Police dramas, for instance, rarely show the realities of policing and how can they when they have to reach a successful conclusion in 60 minutes or less? Where's the case that takes a year to investigate and two to get to trial, and then three more while the conviction is appealed because the jury was accidentally informed that he had 214 previous convictions and may have formed the impression that he's some sort of criminal? That would be a long, boring episode.

It is obvious that the prison and inmates in Prison Architect are based on t.v. role models and I can't explain why this annoys me so much. It's likely the same reason shows like Oz and Prison Break annoy me- I know a bit more than most about the realities of prison (maximum security in particular) and trust me- those shows do not represent reality. I can't help, as I play this game, to wonder where the gun towers are, and the razor wire, and the 24-hour armed response vehicles which will shoot escaping inmates? I'm also wondering why maintenance staff are wandering about in the prisoners cells. Why aren't there aren't any tiers (with netting to prevent suicides and murders), control rooms, staff pods (with riot-proof plexi-glass) or double-bunking or, quite honestly, why no one is getting raped?

Most of this could be avoided by simply making it a medium security prison instead of a max. 'Maximum Security Prison' has a more ominous ring to it, I know, but 'Prison' in general would be better and allow, for me at least, the willing suspension of disbelief required by all works of fiction (games included). Did you know, for instance, that in Canada, Correctional Officers in any prison designated as Maximum or above are required by law to do everything in their power to stop riots and escapes including using lethal force? The law also states that failure to do so can result in jail-time (I know, ironic isn't it). This is why the constant escapes through doors that would quite be out of reach of the inmates, and upcoming features that let inmates tunnel out bother me. It's just not that feasible in the setting they have chosen and if they had simply done a bit of real-life research on actual prison instead of t.v. ones I would be less inclined to complain (ok, maybe not as I do love to complain).

The 'heirarchy of needs' is flawed. The inmates AI is based on Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs and this is problematic not because the theory may or may not be correct (it's only a game so it's not that important really) but because needs in prison do not mirror needs in life. The developer states that prison is a unique world with its own rules and he's right. The problem is he doesn't really understand it.

In the end I will, of course, take a look at the final product but the Alpha price-tag combined with some flawed development models means I'll pass on funding this one.


  1. Well the same can be extrapolated right? Non developer for Call of Duty has likely fired a weapon, much less been in combat. Doesn't mean it will be a bad game. However, there is enough information out there on how to make a good FPS to suffice. Prisons though, not a particularly well-known subject...

  2. The Call of Duty series had a military advisor and likely did a lot of research about the weapons and tactics. Your right about prisons but I doubt the dev's are interested in actual research. They seem intent on making the already-developed AI pathways they made for another game fit this new idea.

    In the end it's a game so I'll just sigh, shake my head, and move on.

  3. Do what I do. Smile and nod. And be TF2's pyro in your head...