11 February 2013

"Review": Prison Architect Alpha 6

Imagine a game about an architect who had to go to prison for white-collar crime.

I played the Prison Architect alpha and wasn't impressed.

As far as I can tell, Prison Architect has two main selling points:
  • It's a game about running a prison.
  • It has emergent gameplay similar to Dwarf Fortress.
There's also the (all too familiar these days) deal of "pay now for an unfinished game and maybe we'll finish it one day". I think this is bullshit, especially with Prison Architect's $30 price tag and what you are getting for it.

The Business Model

As I will hopefully make clear below, the current Prison Architect version (Alpha 6) is worth nowhere near $30, if anything at all. So why would you buy it?
  • You’re not getting a pre-order discount. As far as I can tell they intend to sell the full game for the same price so you could just wait until they release the full game, and then pay the $30 for it if you still want to. At least you won't have wasted your money if the game they do make isn’t very good.
  • Regarding participation in the development process: This comes down to being their pro-bono alpha tester, and you can’t even put it on your resume as work experience.
  • It’s not supporting them to make this game. They could just offer up some cheap bonds to the public, and you could support them by buying those. If they release the game and you are satisfied, you can buy the game with the payout on your bond. If you're not satisfied, you get your money back anyway and the developer is disincentivized from not delivering on expectations. If they don't meet their release deadline, you still get your money back and you get the option of buying another bond if you still want to keep supporting them.
With Prison Architect, you pay $30 now for a game that might not even be finished, and even if finished you could still buy for the same price when it’s finished. You're gambling.

At least if you play the lottery1, there’s a chance you to get back more than you put in. With Prison Architect, you can only ever get back what you put in, and maybe not even that. The alpha itself is worth maybe $5, and I think the chance they will release a satisfactory game (at $30) is less than 83%2.

Emergent Gameplay

Emergent systems are systems that have complex behaviour despite arising from a set of simple rules.
It's common to define emergent games by swapping "system" for "game" in that statement, but that’s a bit misleading:
  • An emergent game's rules don't have to be simple - indeed, often they can become quite complex (much of Dwarf Fortress's large wiki is devoted to explaining the simple rules, and similar games tend to have big tutorials and/or manuals).
  • The "point" of an emergent game is not to watch it, have it guide you3 in creating a complex system. It's not just taking the game's rules, building a system, and watching what it does - that's making a simulation, not playing a game4.
When I first saw the Prison Architect trailer, I thought it was either a joke, or some kind of Art. It threw up tons of red “unplayable” flags. There's only one level. The graphics are too simplistic. The prisoner/guard AI would be hopelessly difficult to make. Unless your prison is tiny it'll run like shit. There's no sane way of evaluating prison quality. The demands and regulations of external legal entities would be a nightmare to model right. There are so many reasons it just wouldn't work!

Well, they did make it after all. And, lo and behold, it doesn't work very well. Precisely for those reasons.

Actor AI

There are three kinds of “actors” in this game:
  • Prisoners, which act like kids at Disneyland.
  • Civilian employees, which act like emotionless, unthinking machines.
  • Guards, which act like brainless zombies.
As you can see they aren’t the most realistic. 

Civilian employees

Employees spawn on your cursor when hired, and aimlessly wander around until there is a job for them to do. They never leave at the end of their shift. They never call in sick. They never quit work because they are sick of getting beaten up by convicts5.

Your cooks are particularly egregious examples. You can trap a bunch of them into a cell of their own in the middle of your max-sec wing, and they'll happily cook prison chow 24/7 for the rest of their lives. Who are the real prisoners here?

A fundamental challenge of running a prison is the routine interactions between inmates and civilian staff. But the only time employees in this game are endangered is when they enter a rioting crowd (riots are very predictable and preventable). Otherwise they are perfectly safe; they can readily mingle with the worst offenders without supervision, and never get attacked. In fact, it would be extremely difficult for this game to "work" if civilians without guard escorts were attacked prisoners – I doubt the guard AI could handle it.

Employees are the only civilians, by the way. Inmates have a "family" need, but they satisfy it using a payphone If they add visitations at all, I’d guess it will be a "visitation room", which must be 5x5 and have a chair and table, where "visitors" walk in, stand next to prisoners for a few minutes then leave (maybe the prisoners gain a weapon "from smuggling or pickpocketing"). What about "please don't make physical contact with prisoners ma'am"? What about smuggling in contraband? What about confidential lawyer visits? What about gang members coming to get orders from an imprisoned crime lord? What about inmates getting orders to kill other inmates? No other working feature has that sort of depth.


Your guards:
  • Wander off in groups to deserted, distant cells while all the prisoners are rioting at the canteen during mealtime.
  • On their own, do not distribute themselves logically to see the most cells (if you have fog of war on).
  • After much climbing of the tech tree and substantial investment in the form of offices and employees, you are allowed to station guards in areas. You can't pick which part of the area they will stand in, and sometimes they pick very bad spots. They will never budge from their position (even if you order a prisoner to be searched and there are no other guards) - they won't go to the infirmary when injured and eventually die.
  • Every day at 8 AM a truck arrives with new prisoners. These immediately disembark and obediently wait at your front door6. Fetching them is the highest priority task for your guards: They will drop what they are doing and run to the door, meanwhile your other prisoners are free to riot during breakfast.
  • Prisoners sometimes conceal weapons on their person. You will sometimes see them brandish it for a second, and can manually order a search... Guards won’t care if it happens right in front of them.
The only semblance of intelligent guard behaviour is that they’ll call other guards when they spot trouble. Still, good luck if you’re trying to make a prison with different wings: A fight between two people will still summon all of your guards, except stationed ones. They don’t try to estimate how much manpower is enough to handle a situation.


These are the worst group. They are downright ridiculous and the most damaging to the player's experience: They just don't feel like prisoners. They feel like customers in a hotel builder.
Unless they are rioting, they are absurdly obedient:
  • They won't plot or look for lapses in your staff's attention7.
  • Riot only because of unhappiness.
  • You can schedule prisoner activities on an hour-by-hour basis - whenever it's time for an activity, presumably after an intercom system announces it, all the prisoners dutifully run to the appropriate rooms for the activity. Even with no guards around.
  • If you order a lockdown, all non-rioting prisoners, even those in the rioting crowd, will immediately go to their cell and stay there. Even with no guards around.
There are four kinds of prisoner disobedience:
  • All prisoners (or perhaps it’s those with a “violent” bit set) keep rolling their “should I attack something?” die. If it comes yes, they’ll start attacking another actor or an object. Once they’ve damaged it a bit they stop.
  • They will randomly take a knife from the kitchen or a dead guard. If someone steals a knife, you’d think they’re planning to kill someone at the first opportunity, but they’ll just, and they won’t murder any unconscious adversaries. Mechanically, shanks are just a small damage bonus to their fists.
  • They will “try to escape” by making a beeline to the nearest map edge, and attacking any doors in the way. If they see an unconscious guard lying around they may decide to steal his keys one day8 which will let them open the doors (there’s no checkpoints).
  • Rioting. Each prisoner has needs just like a Sim, or any customer in every mall/hotel/amusement park/zoo/whatever management game ever, and if these needs are too low, they will decide to riot. One prisoner's riot doesn’t trigger a chain reaction (except that if they beat up someone, their "not getting beat up" need will drop).
Of these, all except riots are non-issues. If there are guards nearby, they’ll automatically go and beat up the troublemaker. If not, eventually you’ll hear the fighting sounds and manually send a guard nearby. It takes them ages to do any real damage so there’s no pressure, the only time it’s hard to stop is when a prisoner with keys makes a run for it – but oddly enough escapes are desirable, because they reduce overcrowding and there’s no negative consequence.

The consequences of not maintaining order (there's none).

So the only problem you need to deal with in this game, the only other challenge in the whole game besides not having enough money, is the “riot”. Riots happen in two cases:
  • It's meal time. The entire, always hungry prison population arrives in the canteen. If there aren't enough meals they will suddenly remember how hungry they are9and start rioting. I think only the hungry ones will riot, because there's always a bunch of guys who obediently eat their meals and then go to their rooms when ordered.
  • It's shower time. The entire, always filthy prison population arrives in the shower. If there aren't enough shower heads for literally all of them to shower right away, they will suddenly remember how filthy they are and start rioting. See above.
I don’t even know if these are really riots per se. It looks like that many prisoners just go into their “attack something” routine at once. They don’t behave as a riot crowd, they may attack peaceful prisoners or objects but they do so independently, not together. They won’t lock the guards out of the room. They won’t instigate riots as cover for attacking a prisoner or stealing something. The riots are never premeditated or unpredictable.

That last bit is what ruins it. You know the only way you could get a riot is if you both schedule a specific activity and they have very low needs. You can avoid riots completely by either keeping them reasonably happy, or by giving them 24 hours of free reign.

Yes, in this game, prisoners who are so pissed off that they will riot at the first opportunity can be freed to do whatever they please, with no bad consequences.

Prisons contain violent people who are very motivated to subvert official authority. They are often planning something devious, and their actions are governed by future expectations. Antagonising prison staff especially will be thoroughly premeditated, influenced by past experience and social (they will work together with other prisoners). But in a game like this, the best you can do is a Markov-like process where each prisoner considers only his present state to make decisions.

This is the best prisoner schedule.

For things like customers shopping at a mall, the real behaviour is impulsive enough that you can model your actors as taking only snap, uncoordinated decisions and it will look pretty convincing. But with situations like prisons, which expose the complex nature of human behaviour, you have to be really good at picking the rules or your AI won’t look convincing at all. Prison Architect’s rules aren’t particularly well-picked.

But fuck it, it’s a game, it doesn’t have to be realistic, right? Well the problem is, to “win” this game, all you have to do is build a rudimentary shower (a pair of showerheads can service a hundred people if they shower on their own schedule), a phone booth or two, maybe an exercise machine, and a single bare minimum holding cell with some beds and TVs. Hordes of prisoners will stream in, they will never complain, likely their needs will be quite satisfied because apparently ungoverned prisoners are very efficient, and you will count the crazy grant money (you get income per prisoner) without a care in the world. If you care, you can build a kitchen to feed them.


As I said in the beginning, Prison Architect has two things going for it: The emergent gameplay and the atmosphere. The first is heavily dependent on AI, and I’ve described in detail why I don’t think the AI in Prison Architect is very good.

The other interesting part of it is that this is a game about running not just any old establishment, but a prison. A grim and sordid place for where society exiles its worst. It has potential to be a rather dark sort of game. There’s even an electric chair and execution room!

Well, for one, the electric chair and the execution room are placeholders and do absolutely nothing. You can’t even dispose of dead bodies without hacking the save files yet.

Anyway, just the notion of a game about managing a prison already suggests an experience that isn’t altogether rosy. Much of publicity around Prison Architect has made a big deal out of this, and the developers have rolled with it. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with them exploiting an aspect of their material… But this game is just so not grim.

The graphics are cartoon-like. The game is sanitized in language and mechanics10. And most importantly, as I’ve said elsewhere, there is no semblance of a prison in the behaviour. If anything, it feels like running a boarding school full of spoiled brats or a holiday resort full of stupid tourists.

It is ridiculous to claim that Prison Architect is somehow dark. If you had someone who is deathly scared of prisons, this game is the sort of thing you’d use to cure them. You couldn’t handle prison in a less dark way- the attitude is on par with a Looney Tunes cartoon. So what on earth are all these people smoking?

Other issues

Compared to the AI, the other issues are minor, but I think some are worth mentioning.
  • Your prison has only one floor. That sound you just heard was half of gameplay depth (ha ha, depth) evaporating away. You are trying to design an efficient facility with many incompetent, stupid actors with distinct, incompatible classes. There's no way of making tunnels. There's no way of efficiently micromanaging them. There's no magic to smooth things out, like pseudo-3D extra layers or actors spawning out of buildings. Late game is fraught with frustration.
  • The game is slow, especially with larger map sizes. Unfortunately, on small maps you quickly run out of space (doesn't help that you can't build up) so that isn't a real option either. On the one hand, I’m optimistic since this area will probably be improved in the final game, but then again, doing pathfinding for a hundred actors is expensive and a layout that makes escaping hard may trip up fast algorithms.
  • The only interaction with the government is through a placeholder grant system (optional quests with money reward, there's only 4 and they aren't dynamically generated) and a placeholder "prison valuation" page (escapes and murders apply a deduction).
  • The interface is really not smooth. The mouse is weird and clicking to select doesn’t always work. They have that annoying thing where if the game is slow, the interface will be slow, so your mouse clicks will get “lost” unless you hold the button long enough for a frame change to catch it.
  • The game frequently crashes when auto-saving, which corrupts your save, and makes it unplayable unless you manually delete the save file because on launch, the game just loads the auto save (no menu).
  • There’s nothing to do. You can currently feed and wash criminals, and allow them to hang out at the yard. Their needs are trivial to satisfy. You don’t have much leeway in prison design because between the bad AI11, the bugs, the performance problems, and everything else there are only so many efficient designs that are possible. You can play the “never-ending stream of prisoners” mode, but it’s obvious you will eventually run out of space, and have to give up on control your inmates or just use the cheap game breaking tricks. The gameplay is shallow and quickly exhausted.
You get these 4 grants in every map and that's all you ever get.

Just so you don’t say I hate every single thing

There wasn’t a lot about Prison Architect that amazed me. I was amazed by their ambition. It is, after all, a huge project for such a tiny company to undertake (but then again Dwarf Fortress is made by only one guy, so was much of Minecraft). It’s too early to judge, but if I had to, I wouldn’t say they did much with their ambitious undertaking, though.

That said, a lot of things elicited a sort of satisfied, approving “hmph”. I don’t like that it’s hard to tell what’s going on sometimes, but overall; I like the simple graphics a lot. They work well. And the shadows (although shadows are a bit broken right now) and time of day cycling just looks beautiful.

I like how you can turn the scroll wheel and seamlessly zoom in or out to arbitrary levels, and the sprites scale gracefully. I like how the game still looks fine when zoomed out or in all the way.

As I said, I have my complaints with the interface, but they’ll all probably be fixed, except maybe uncoupling the control processing form the game update loop. If they do that as well, and they probably will, the interface will be very good. With some intelligent organization of the statistics screens, it would be perfect.

The system for laying out walls and flooring is great, and having to research the ability to rubber-stamp sections of prison is a great idea (although I don’t understand what purpose is served by limiting the clone size to 4x4 tiles).

I like that you have to build a foundation first and then fill in the interior, although having only one level doesn’t exactly help the roofed/unroofed distinction. I love that they made lights be ordered automatically when you build a foundation.

I really like the look of the deployment screen. You get a white schematic of your prison where you assign guard stations, it looks very nice and works great (except for how AI responds to stationing orders), and I like how they’ve handled generation of the schematic. It’s quite clever and recognizes cell blocks as well.

I like the sounds in this game. They’re not great, but they are minimalistic like the graphics, and you hear them according to camera position or zoom level. The graphics are a bit opaque for conveying the action, but thanks to the sounds, a triangle-figure standing over a desk suddenly becomes a prisoner dining loudly or rioting.

For the most part, these aren’t core elements. But as far as non-core elements go, they appear to have done everything right. If core gameplay isn’t up to scratch (so far it falls a bit short), they won’t save the game, of course, which is why I really hope (despite my scepticism and negativity) that they exceed my expectations and make a really good game.


Once upon a time Minecraft was in alpha and sold for ten bucks a pop. People gave Notch their money, not because they wanted to support him, but because “fuck it, the game is already worth $10 in its current state and there’s nothing like it on the market, even if Notch stops developing tomorrow it’s still worth it”. Ironically enough, Notch did stop developing… But anyhow, as I was saying, some games have an alpha that stands on its own. Prison Architect doesn’t.

Now, I know it's normal for an alpha to be buggy and incomplete. I know they're selling the game this could become, not what it is (although I don't buy into that logic, as I described above). But the fact is, they do expect people to pay full price for the alpha. So all I can do is discuss my experience with the alpha and leave speculation about what they will or might make to the reader.

My experience with the alpha is quite negative. In a word, the game is frustrating. Factoring in that “it’s only an alpha”, I correct it to slightly negative. As I said, who knows, maybe they’ll make a great game by release date and I’ll eat my words. Certainly Introversion has made some decent games; they may very well pull it off. Obviously they will improve on the alpha in the future.

However, with the current state of the game, it seems to me that you’d need not to merely improve on it, but improve on it substantially for it to be good. Can they do that? Well I hope they do. But it’s not as obvious to me.

“Prison Tycoon”12 is a really cool game idea to think about and it gets you curious. I’d definitely recommend checking out some videos of the game to see if they’ve done something cool with it. They haven’t, really, not yet at any rate. It’s just a buggy tycoon clone reskinned with a prison theme. If they fix the bugs, it will still be a tycoon clone. If they put in some really innovative AI, it’ll be a great, unique game. And that’s about the deal with it.

Score: 3/5

Bias: +1 for not being finished yet, +1 for being an indie game.

1: In fact, you could literally take $30 to a grocery store and play scratchcards and it would be about as entertaining as playing the Prison Architect alpha 6.

2: Here's how I came to that figure: You pay $30, and you get $5 worth of stuff immediately (the alpha) so you end up paying $25 for a future game sold for $30. The chance of this happening has to be at least 25/30 for your purchase to make sense. Incidentally, Introversion has released 4 games so far: Uplink, Darwinia, Multiwinia, and DEFCON. If you thought any of those games weren't good enough to buy for full price when they were released, then based on historical precedent alone, it does not currently make sense for you to buy this game at more than $20 – add up $5 per previous game you liked plus the $5 for the current alpha (assuming they will sell it for $30 when finished, and assuming the alpha is worth $5, and assuming the future value of your money is not important to you).

3: You might wonder why a game has to guide you. Consider MS Paint that comes with Windows: Some people make amazing artwork with it, but you wouldn’t buy MS Paint for a hundred bucks because "look at all the awesome pictures you can draw in it!". Paint doesn’t enable you to draw all those great pictures - you can already do that. Its value is in making it easy for you to draw them - and unsurprisingly, MS Paint has practically no value in this regard. Likewise, you can already code up something like Prison Architect over a few days (the system itself is easy to simulate). You’re not paying developers for that. You’re paying them to do the boring, laborious boilerplate code, figure out a good model, and provide visualization tools (graphics) and an interface.

4: There's nothing wrong with liking emergent simulations, but it shouldn't be used as a cop-out to defend poor emergent gameplay. If you're into simulations, there are far better tools to explore them than currently popular emergent games, and especially compared to those tools, these games offer horribly awkward bases for simulating things. Trying to compete with actual simulation tools would also dilute and take away from the actual gameplay.

5: One hilarious, common occurrence is how at meal time, some hungry prisoners will walk into the dining hall, realize they are late and there's no food left, then go to the kitchen and start beating up the cooks. (Although it’s obvious that when unhappy, they roll a die, and if it comes up “attack staff” they go for the nearest employee, which happens to be the cook if they are in the meal area.)

6: There’s no police escort, just handcuffs. They will stand there for days if it takes that long for someone to fetch them, they’ll never attempt to escape, and they’ll never complain about being hungry or tired (although they might once they are processed into a cell). This is why I say the prisoner AI is bad – why don’t they try to escape? It doesn’t make any sense!

7: Prisoners act like guards don’t exist. They aren’t more prone to misconduct because no one is watching. Even when they are caught, there’s no “oh shit they saw me, better stop” moment, they’ll keep fighting or damaging furniture, while being hit by guards, until the guard “defeats them”.

8: Again, it’s not like “hey a guard’s down, get his keys quick!” at all (and certainly not “let’s start a fight so we can nick a guard’s keys”). The guard will lie comatose in some corner for days (because the other guards’ AI fucked up and won’t bring him to the infirmary), politely unmolested by the prisoners, until one day a prisoner thinks “hey man, I feel like stealing something!” and the closest thing happens to be the guard.

9: Another quirk of the prisoners is that their exceptional sense of personal responsibility. If you just give them a ton of free time (which means they can run about fulfilling whatever need they want) they will never complain even if their needs are low, presumably because they correctly recognise that they have no one but themselves to blame. Unfortunately, the moment a structured activity such as mealtime starts, their "reap what you sow" sensibilities disappear and they start complaining about how mistreated they are. Unfortunately, they will not eat without an official mealtime, but on the other hand they will assume that being hungry is somehow their own fault and won't complain, so it's perfectly viable to just set them to constant free time and leave them unfed.

10: For instance, there’s no mention of race tension, gangs, prison rape or corruption/misconduct from staff. I’m not crazy about having any of those things, but I would say those are some major things that make prison a grim place. Not a friendly round of fisticuffs with Joe over who gets to use the shower first.

11: Other than everything else I’ve described, there’s one thing that really pissed me off: Whenever I tried playing without cheating, I would always get a bunch of assholes who run into the canteen at meal time, after 4 hours of free time, and complain about how they couldn’t call their family. What the fuck have you been doing for 4 hours, you goddamn cunt? It’s like 5 minutes to empty your family bar, if you wanted it that bad, why didn’t you take a few moments out of your busy schedule of complaining about how prison isn’t a fucking picnic and call them? I’ve given you ungrateful dogs everything you want, how is it my fault if you are too dumb to use the goddamn payphone? I mean, for crying out loud. It’s literally just like dealing with a 5 year old. “Mommy, I want to pee! I don’t care that we left the station 5 minutes ago, the gods of childish incontinence have chosen to bless me now!”

12: Funnily enough, it seems there actually is a whole series of Prison Tycoon games made by ValuSoft. The fourth one sounds pretty bad, but oddly enough not that far off from the current Prison Architect. Yes, it’s an unfair comparison because Prison Architect is in alpha and Prison Tycoon is finished (and probably also because ValuSoft isn’t an indie darling). I just hope that when it is finished it does end up being much better.


  1. Have you maybe thought that you just don't like this game style? Considering the vast number of positive reviews, and the total revenue so far of $11 million, it would seem that you and your harsh review style are almost alone.

    1. Excluding some exotic definitions of the term, I do happen to like this game style.

      In the interest of good faith, I will assume you did not mean to imply that revenue somehow has anything to do with the quality of a game; especially this game.

    2. For whatever is worth, I've been reading your blog, and I plan to send you a pre-release copy of the next game I get to work on, so you get to tear me a new one, before it hits the general public.