An interview with Chris Delay of Introversion

At this year's Eurogamer Expo I got to chat with the man behind Uplink, Darwinia and DEFCON about Introversion's new "lock-em-up", Prison Architect.

Acclaimed British indie developer Introversion Software, responsible for such great original titles as DEFCON, Darwinia and Uplink, recently unveiled an immensely entertaining trailer for the alpha version of their new game Prison Architect. As well as getting to play the alpha for myself for the first time at this year’s Eurogamer Expo, I was also very fortunate to be able to interview lead programmer Chris Delay about the game.

Bitscreed: You recently released your alpha trailer, and in it games like Theme Hospital, Dungeon Keeper and Dwarf Fortress are mentioned as inspirations for Prison Architect. Are there any other inspirations that you didn’t mention in the trailer, and not just games?

Chris Delay: Those are the main game influences but Prison Architect was born out of a visit to Alcatraz. I went round Alcatraz on holiday and I was listening to the audio guide – it’s absolutely fantastic – and it’s got all these really gritty stories about people who actually lived at Alcatraz. It was just such a wonderful place to visit, it’s so atmospheric, and that was where the idea was born to make a prison game.

B: It just sort of popped into your head right there and then?

C: Pretty much, yeah! We were trying to do Subversion at the time and it wasn’t going very well. What I liked about Prison Architect was that I saw it as Subversion turned on its head because now you’re building the facility rather than infiltrating it.

B: On the subject of Dwarf Fortress, that game very much has a philosophy of “it’s fun to lose”. Have you gone for a similar approach with Prison Architect or are you going to be a bit more forgiving?

C: At the moment the sandbox is kind of like that. If you build a sandbox prison your first prisoners arrive after 24 hours and they just keep coming. Every day you get another influx.

B: So it’s a constant stream of prisoners?

C: Yeah, and there’s some randomness as well. So on your first day you get 8. I noticed somebody tweeted a bug saying that he got 71 prisoners in one delivery, and he only had 12 prisoners in his jail at that point, so it’s a massive influx. That’s obviously a bug.

B: Obviously.

C: But a funny one nonetheless!

B: Absolutely! Prisons are generally not very nice places though and a game about prisons could potentially stray into some uncomfortable territory. How challenging has it been walking that fine line between light-hearted management sim and the cold, hard reality of prison life?

C: It is tricky because you don’t want to be exploitative. You don’t want to just glibly make use of a theme like prisons and just graft it onto a hotel or something. We are obligated to treat it seriously and we try to do that a lot, especially in the story. We try to bring out some characters and go into their backstory, talk about why the prison they’re in is the way it is. You’re exploring the backstory of a guy who is on death row.

B: They’re not just some faceless commodity going through the prison system.

C: Exactly, and hopefully that’s where we’ll be able to deal with some of those really difficult issues.

B: To use a non-gaming example for comparison, would you say it’s close to something like the TV series Oz or the movie Scum? Albeit not as graphic.

C: Oz has been quite a big inspiration for how it mixed backstory with its time spent in the prison.

B: Is there similar social commentary in Prison Architect?

C: Not really, no. Only that prisons are so taboo, and they are! A lot of people think a game about prisons should never be made. We think otherwise. We think it should be dealt with and a game is a very good medium to explore the pressures on a prison building team. We see it as a very rich theme to be honest.

B: I can’t think off-hand of any other games set mainly in a prison or about managing one. Perhaps some FPS’ where you escape one at some point, but none that actually take a deeper look at things like prison infrastructure, culture or the way they’re run.

C: It’s really fascinating because they are micro contained societies. In many ways they’re cut off completely from the real world, like a bubble. Nobody really sees in and they don’t really see out, and within those walls different rules apply than to normal society.

B: Do you take a look at prison culture, like how gangs develop and so forth, in Prison Architect?

C: It’s definitely a plan although it’s not in the alpha at the moment. We’ve tried various things related to gangs and we haven’t really got a good system that works yet, but it’s definitely on the list of big topics to cope with.

B: So you definitely dealing with real crimes here. You haven’t considered going for a Theme Hospital approach with made-up crimes?

C: I haven’t made the final decision on that yet. Theme Hospital did a brilliant job of inventing a load of illnesses that were funny but semi-plausible. It was brilliantly done but I think it would be a mistake to hide the crimes.

B: Will there be any Hannibal Lecter or Charles Bronson type prisoners?

C: Yeah. At the moment we have one type of prisoner, just the normal prisoner type, and pretty soon in the alpha we’re going to have a new type of prisoner which is the maximum security prisoner. He’ll be a much harder type to deal with, much tougher, less willing to co-operate. How you deal with that is part of the game because not all the prisoners are like that.

B: Prison Architect reminds me a lot of Theme Park, which had you competing against other park owners. Are there any plans to have you competing against other AI controlled wardens with their own prisons?

C: I don’t think so. I never really liked that part of Theme Park, and I don’t think it really worked that well because it kind of metricated what you built a bit too much. I mean you could metricate your results in Prison Architect and say “you’ve had X days without incident and you’ve got this many prisoners so your score is this,” but it kind of reduces it down a bit too much.

B: Speaking of competing, are there any plans for multiplayer like in DEFCON?

C: No direct multiplayer. If there is any it’ll be in the order of map sharing and sharing your successes through social media.

B: So if I build the ultimate panopticon could I share that with the world?

C: Yeah, we want to have that. We have it in a very rough form in the alpha and we want to sort of tidy that up so it’s nice and well-presented. We actually wrote a system for the first trailer that does time-lapse recording of your prison, and I really like the idea you could click a button, watch a thirty second video of your whole prison being built and then put it on YouTube. It’d be so cool wouldn’t it?

B: I love that idea! Now you’ve gone for a funding model similar to Kickstarter, with different reward tiers depending on the level of individual contributions. What made you decide to go down that route?

C: We’ve seen a real revolution in funding with Kickstarter and with the Humble Bundle. Greenlight’s a part of it now you could say, although that’s not funding, but Kickstarter is definitely a major thing. There was the indie fund too. We wanted to do something like a Kickstarter with tiers.

B: But without actually using Kickstarter itself?

C: Yeah. Otherwise it’s a bit of a perversion of Kickstarter because Prison Architect is not a startup project. We are selling a pre-order now and you’re getting the game.

B: So it’s much closer to the Minecraft model?

C: Yeah, an alpha funding model. We wanted to make sure we gave you something for each tier. Once you get to the really top-tiers there’s quite a lot of benevolence in your purchase because you’re not getting enough to compensate for how much you’ve spent. But definitely at the lower end you get so much more for each tier. So much so that we don’t think we’ll actually make much more money on the $100 tier than we do on the $30 tier because there’s so much physical stuff in there. Particularly if we have to post it all to America.

B: So when can we expect a release?

C: You can go and buy the alpha right now at We going to be in alpha for at least a year so people need to understand that the alpha is unfinished.

B: With game-breaking bugs included.

C: Game-breaking bugs and also omissions, just things that are missing. At the moment if a fight breaks out you’ve got no way of sending in guards to stop it. So that’s a fairly major missing feature.

B: And prisoners all waking up with drills!

C: That one I fixed.

B: Aw, I liked that one! Most of the game-breaking bugs in the trailer, like prisoners eating their meals in the showers naked, were hilarious in a surreal way. Any possibility of a hidden game-mode where a selection of these bugs are still in? Like The Shawshank Redemption if it were directed by David Lynch.

C: I know what you mean. That would be weird, and I doubt it as they will get squashed gradually over time. The alpha is full of bugs. People have already found that you can dismantle a garbage truck, load it into another garbage truck and carry it away. They’ve also found that you can put the garbage above a delivery area, it gets loaded into the delivery truck. Then it gets moved down into the delivery area, then gets unloaded into the delivery area, and then moved back to the garbage area in a permanent never-ending loop of garbage. So if you really do want to see all that buggage then buy the alpha. There’ll be plenty of it!

Later that same day I attended the Prison Architect developer panel hosted by Chris, along with Introversion’s Managing Director Mark Morris, where I got to see some of what’s coming up in the next version of the alpha along and witness Chris doing live development on stage. Alpha funders will soon be able to deploy guards to key areas and assign them patrol routes, as well as bring in special call-out units like riot police, firemen and paramedics if the situation in their prison gets a bit too Strangeways.

A planned fog of war mechanic will make CCTV cameras serve a more practical purpose and riots more difficult to deal with. Areas of your prison that aren’t regularly patrolled or under surveillance will gradually become obscured, allowing prisoners to pilfer knives from the kitchens or dig covert escape tunnels right under your very nose. Chris also offered interesting insight into how some of the systems controlling prisoner behaviour are governed by Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, the mention of which unfortunately triggered uncomfortable flashbacks to doing Business Studies in my university days.

The alpha version of Prison Architect is available to buy now at for Windows and Mac.

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