How a British indie bested the giants of gaming with the brilliant Prison Architect

Prison Architect bested smash hits like Destiny for a Bafta award
Prison Architect bested smash hits like Destiny for a Bafta award

When Introversion's Prison Architect pipped superstudios such as Bungie and Square Enix to the Best Persistent Game Bafta, it was the latest chapter in a story that goes back to 2001

With a BAFTA Award under its belt and over 2m players, UK indie studio Introversion’s Prison Architect has been one of the success stories of the last couple of years - but the story that lead to its creation dates back much longer.  

Prison Architect is now on consoles as well as desktops
Prison Architect is now on consoles as well as desktops

When we got the chance to speak with Introversion co-founder Mark Morris, we found how a combination of hard work, passion, and good fortune all combined to make a game that its fans love - including us.  

To give a little colour to how much it appeals to me, I’ll let you know that as grunger teenage nerd, I was beyond happy when a friend bought me a game called Uplink, a hacking sim that played like the films Hackers or The Net.   It’s a wonderful game that allows the player the ability to become a 90s cyberpunk, and was the first title from British developers Introversion Software, a company that continued the legacy of bedroom developers by producing Darwinia and DEFCON.  

Prison Architect bested smash hits like Destiny for a Bafta award
Prison Architect bested smash hits like Destiny for a Bafta award

Fifteen years later, I’m excited to be sitting in a room with Morris and getting to play a build of Prison Architect for the PlayStation 4. His voice is immediately recognisable from the YouTube videos Introversion produced to inform Alpha and Beta players of the PC version of Prison Architect, and I was keen to learn more of the history of Introversion and Prison Architect.

Humble roots

Mark explains: “We started Introversion in 2001, three friends from university, and it’s still a very small team. Between 2001 and 2012 we released four games, and were working on a project - Subversion, to simulate an entire city and procedurally-generate buildings - which we wanted to be a heist game.  

“We wanted there to be banks and prisons and art galleries and so on and your role was to complete these missions, to crack the bank vault. So we had this simulation kinda running but we couldn’t find a game to make it work. We were getting a bit down about it as we had just launched a previous game and didn’t have any money left and didn’t even have a project.  

More than 2m players have downloaded the game so far
More than 2m players have downloaded Prison Architect so far

“Chris [Delay, chief game designer and developer] who’s the creative influence of Introversion happened to go to San Francisco on holiday and visited Alcatraz. He was looking at this old panel where they could dial in which cell doors you wanted to open and crank a handle and a single door would open, or all the even-numbered doors or so on, and thought we could simulate it within Subversion - rather than simulating the entire city what about if we just simulated a prison?”  

It’s important to note that around this time, although Minecraft was bubbling up on forums with its Alpha build, the concept of creation and simulation games that had once dominated the 90s seemed pretty non-existent.  

Mark continues: “We had Theme Park and Theme Hospital and The Sims and so on in the 90s and then that genre had kind of been left a little bit. So those were the two ingredients and literally the penny dropped - on the flight back Chris fills page after page of his notebook of how this game is going to work.”  

“By coincidence, the taxi driver home from the airport turns out to be an ex-prison officer so Chris talks with him for the 90 minutes it took to get home, and after that he had the basic ideas. These were the ingredients we had - a game about building and about prisons - so we knocked up a really early prototype with no art or anything. The prisoners were just little blue dots but even that was brilliant fun because the little blue dots acted like prisoners.”  

Fans vs financing

However, a great concept can’t always pay the bills and game development is not cheap. Introversion were well versed in the concept of critical acclaim not always equalling sales, but took the step into an emerging notion of financing.   Mark remembers: “We’d always invested two or three years into making a game and then it drops and then you hope that lots of people buy it - but by then you’re in the hole, you’ve spent however much, maybe £100,000 for three guys which is a lot of money, that’s the kind of level you’ve built up. Kickstarter had started by then and we were kind of thinking it was a possibility but we didn’t know how much we should ask for.  

“So that’s why we thought we’d do this early access thing which no-one had really done the way we wanted to, to launch on our own site with different tiers and thinking maybe we could have a hundred people in a couple of weeks that’ll probably be enough for us to get the ball moving.  

"I can’t remember how many players we had but we had $100,000 in three days and so we were like ‘Hmm… this is popular!’. We had done $1m by the end of the year, just us from our website, no Steam support, nothing, all from us and we were thinking this idea is hot."  

Shared concepts

“The other thing great about it is that to a certain extent it writes itself - as soon as you say what do you want to see in a prison simulating game everyone says the same thing: we need drugs in a prison, we need a laundry in the prison, we need a canteen, we need gangs, we need orange jumpsuits - the whole prison mythology and cultural vocabulary from Prison Break, Oz, Orange Is The New Black, Shawshank Redemption and so on.”  

Prison Architect grew like previous Introversion titles through word-of-mouth, but this time around they had access to a larger audience of willing gamers who they could speak to direct to get feedback for improvements, and use the YouTube series to let players get to know the developers and learn about updates.  

“We really had the ambition and the videos worked really well for us, and part of how that format came about was because we’re not a video editing company and there’s not many of us. I said to Chris, ‘Don’t worry mate just phone me up on Skype and record everything we say’. And that was the first one and they picked up quite a big audience and we had a lot of fun making them.”  

The growth and excitement of the initial game could not last forever: updates had to finalise and at some point a line had to be drawn. “We had a Google Doc where we just kept throwing in new ideas and we got to the point where we realised not that we’re running out of ideas but we think that all of the major blocks were in place and we thought we need to launch this now, whatever that means. Which basically means us just labelling it as ‘version one’ and dropping in a load of new content no-one had seen before to make version one a much bigger event than just another pre-release update.  

“As we got to 2015 we started thinking we've got over a million players on PC and we know this is a really good game - can we interest console players in this? We had tried in the past but we weren’t the team to do it and that’s where Double Eleven joined the story.”  

Console time

Passing the console project to Double Eleven was a smart move: the team had previously made console ports of Goat Simulator and Frozen Synapse and understood the issues with changing the controls from keyboard to console controller.  

“We felt that they understand us and understand the indie mindset. They understand that in an indie game everything can be important and gameplay comes over visuals so that’s where they came in and took the interface that we had made for PC and completely re-envisioned it for the console audience far beyond anything we ever expected.   “We expected a technical port of the game but the work that they did to take it from a PC game handled some of the rough edges and bugs and somehow worked round them to this polished and very easy to play version."  

The move to consoles pitted Introversion even more directly against some of the goliaths of gaming but fans have lapped it up just as on PC - testified to by the Bafta, which won out ahead of platinum titles Destiny, Lego, Final Fantasy, and Guitar Hero. Not bad for three guys who started in a shared room!  

Prison Architect is available on PC, Mac, and Linux via Steam or direct from Introversion, or on PS4, Xbox One, and Xbox 360.