Future Tense

How Prison Architect Could Liberate Gaming

Crowdfunding has failed to revolutionize video games. An oddball game about building penitentiaries just showed there’s still a way.

prison architect.
GUARD: The prisoners are revolting!
WARDEN: They certainly are!

Screenshot of Prison Architect via Introversion Software

Kickstarter was supposed to ignite a renaissance in video gaming. Developers would propose games they’d envisioned, making their pitch in video and vision-statement form. Gamers would fund projects based on these appeals, not to mention the reputations of the people making them. We’ve gotten some great games out of this model, like Pillars of Eternity and Wasteland 2. But the model hasn’t been perfect, and not just because many of the most financially lucrative Kickstarters have come from established creators with pre-existing followings looking to sever the strings that come with other models of funding, like video game publishers.

Even worse are the heavily buzzed Kickstarters that lead to high-profile stumbles: Peter Molyneux’s disastrous Godus fell prey to its creator’s terrible combination of massive hyperbole and inadequate execution while Tim Schafer’s Broken Age ran over budget, needed to be split in half, and delivered a disappointing final product. Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen, which has garnered $90 million and counting in donations, is looking suspiciously like a Potemkin universe. Hardly a week goes by without gamers hearing about either a creator running off with crowdsourced money, a pitchfork-wielding community angry at some perceived betrayal, or a game’s simple failure to deliver. It’s no wonder that game funding through Kickstarter is now on the decline, as Ars Technica recently reported.

Amid this mess, however, one crowdfunded video game project has stood out to me as a model for cultivating an audience and then effectively meeting its expectations—not to mention delivering a great game in the process. It’s Prison Architect, which has raised more than $19 million through crowdfunding. Game designers and companies alike would benefit from studying its success.

In Prison Architect, an ambitious business/management simulation from British developer Introversion Software, players design and manage their own penal colony. It wasn’t funded through Kickstarter but through Valve’s game distribution platform Steam, whose “Early Access” program required that Introversion deliver a playable experience before anyone could even donate money. Consequently, Prison Architect’s concept had to be sufficiently fleshed out and coherent to yield a minimal prototype before its creators could ask anyone for money. Second, after releasing that prototype in 2012 Introversion updated the game almost every month with new features and functionality in order to get ongoing feedback from the funders. And third, Introversion never promised more than it could deliver—quite the opposite.

After being available for three years as an open, prerelease “alpha,” Prison Architect was officially released two weeks ago and appears destined for long-term cult success. With a current user base of more than 1 million players, many of whom have already been playing for months if not years, the release carried significantly less risk for both players and creators than most project launches, its slow launch limiting its vulnerability to the caprices of the market and the media. I spoke to Introversion Software’s Mark Morris about the company’s approach to crowdfunding, project management, and community relations. His first rule: “Never promise anything at all.” By offering concrete and tantalizing glimpses of the whole experience, allowing funders a degree of control over the direction of the project, and not promising the sky, Prison Architect earned a loyal and fervent funding base that provided the financial security to complete development while its makers retained creative control.

Morris explained that Introversion, a four-person company that’s released a half-dozen games since opening in 2001, didn’t want to experience the backlash that has beset a number of other crowdfunded projects. While promising nothing may seem a perverse way to attract attention, there’s little doubt that for Introversion it has worked. (Back in 2013, I contrasted Prison Architect’s project management favorably with that of Godus’ Molyneux.) They didn’t say when the game would be released, nor how often there would be updates, and presented only a very partial roadmap of the game’s future development. “We just said, here is a game experience you can play right now,” Morris told me. “It’s about managing a prison, and it’s full of bugs. When we get to Version 1, we’ll give it to you for free.”

The strength of the concept, which was apparent even in the first alpha, clearly played a part. “What we delivered even with alpha 1 was an enjoyable four- to five-hour game experience. That’s critical to making early access work,” he said. While the game grew inordinately more complicated and rich in the subsequent years, its creators conveyed their broad vision in a playable experience from the first moment people heard about it.

Prison Architect is exactly what it says on the tin, a top-down sandbox simulation of a prison, with clear influences from management games like SimCity and Populous, though it also draws on the genre’s uncompromising extreme, Dwarf Fortress, which includes intricate models of the anatomy of every single dwarf. While Prison Architect doesn’t approach Dwarf Fortress’ level of minutiae, it’s still far from a casual game. Scaling up from dozens to hundreds of prisoners requires supervising the inner workings of a prison, from personnel to food to sewage to education to execution.

Despite the bugs, the initial alpha was intriguing and enjoyable enough to attract a base of support and buzz that practically guaranteed the project’s future, a change from Introversion’s past projects, where it never knew for sure how its next game would do. “We thought that if we picked up 100 players in a couple of weeks, that would be an audience that would justify continued development. The opposite happened; we did 100,00 in three days,” said Morris. These supporters were experienced and savvy gamers who participated in the game forums, reporting bugs, offering suggestions, and providing both enthusiasm and criticism. The latter proved invaluable when Introversion introduced a “fog of war” feature in Alpha 3 that obscured parts of the prison that weren’t under surveillance. The initial rollout of the feature practically destroyed the game, according to Morris: “The way we implemented it in the first instance made the game unplayable.” The immediate, near-unanimous feedback allowed the company to implement a better “fog of war,” which meant it had avoided sticking with an early design decision that would have negatively impacted the entire rest of development. “That monthly feedback cycle was able to give us confidence that what we were doing was working,” Morris said.

Nonetheless, Introversion rarely engaged directly with supporters. “We were never really posting lots of messages in forum and tweeting. It was us broadcasting what we were going to do and kind of monitoring the response,” he said. What mattered was supporters’ perceived investment in and influence on the project. Sometimes Introversion asked supporters which feature they’d like to see next out of a list of features that they’d all planned on doing; they would make the selected features more central to the final product. Morris compared the game’s development process to an oil tanker with thousands of tugboats pulling on it: “No individual can do anything to alter the course the boat is sailing, but if a lot of people get together they can change the course a few degrees, and the final destination hugely depends on early tweaks to the direction.”

prison architect.
The City of Chesterfield prison, a minimum security “town” that lets prisoners live “as normal as possible.”

Screenshot via Introversion Software

For a strategy game such as Prison Architect whose nuances only emerge over extended playtime, reviews, in a substantive way, are superfluous. The opinion of a reviewer, who will have played the game for a handful of hours, matter far less than the opinions of people who have been playing it for months. And Prison Architect already has thousands upon thousands of those players, ready to tell you about the game and answer your questions. This is particularly useful in our bizarre cultural moment, where reviewers are taking Prison Architect as an opportunity to ignore gameplay in order to pontificate on race and show off the Foucault they read in college. Skip the reviews; players will, in fact, learn far more about the ideas of imprisonment from playing the game and studying the designs other players have shared, from the utopian “City of Chesterfield” to the hellish “Got Medieval,” Jesus Quintana’s attempt at building a Supermax-style prison with more than 1,200 cells. “How far can we push the idea of an evil prison?” Quintana writes in his description of the prison. “I’m not an evil person, but I had to run this thought experiment.”

prison architect.
Jesus Quintana’s “Got Medieval,” “Prison Architect’s worst  dungeon.”

Screenshot via Introversion Software

Introversion plans to continue developing new features in Prison Architect while planning out its next project. “We are figuring out how to take lessons from PA and apply them to our mission in life, which is how to make independent video games,” said Morris. The company’s four founders quit their day jobs for the company while in their mid-20s, something that Morris speculates might have been a lot more difficult without the free health care provided by England’s National Health Service, particularly during some lean times in the mid-2000s.

I find Morris’ sober and cautious perspective on making games refreshing next to some of gaming’s bigger misses of the Kickstarter era. The indie gaming market is not an easy one to thrive in. The increasingly crowded Steam scene for indie games is far from a ticket to great success or wealth. While one designer in a basement can work on a shoestring, funding a more ambitious multiperson project requires networking and funding abilities. To my eyes, Prison Architect comes close to a best-case scenario. It may not be easy to replicate, but it shows that an honorable and honest job of crowdfunding development can be done.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.