The last time we checked in on Prison Architect it was in its early stages and more of an idea than a game. Around 6 months have passed since then, however, and the game has grown beyond anyone's prediction. I think even the developers are surprised by the huge following they've gained over the past months. With the alpha of Prison Architect now available on Steam, there's no better time to launch back in and see what Introversion Software have been working on.
Prison Architect began as an independently crowd-funded concept in mid-2012 and by September was in a playable Alpha. With over $1M raised by February 2013, the game would be transferred on to Steam, making it much easier for the developers to distribute the regular updates. For the benefit of those who've missed all the buzz, Prison Architect is a title that looks to rejuvenate the once mighty Management Sim genre. From a lineage of games like RollerCoaster Tycoon, Theme Hospital and RailRoad Tycoon, Prison Architect has a lot on its shoulders as it attempts to update the genre for a modern audience.
As you'd expect, the game tasks you with designing and managing a penal institution. The genius of the game stems from the regulated and well planned nature of prisons, which make it a perfect option for a management title like this. The unavoidably depressing nature of real world prisons is swapped out for a cartoony look that takes some of the 'morals' involved with imprisonment out of the equation. Afterall, it's tricky to feel sorry for and/or actively disdain little triangular people who don't have legs. It's science, that.
Despite still being in Alpha, the game is brilliant to play. It all works on a few key mechanics that are seamlessly blended to form your perfect prison. In order to create a building you first need to lay down a foundation. Once your workers have completed this you can assign the role of the new room or rooms you've created. There are currently a good selection to choose from that all have an impact on your prison. Necessary rooms like cells, kitchens and showers are best to add first, followed by less important but still useful areas like a common room, workshop or infirmary. While it costs no money to assign a room, you'll need to buy and place required items into a room in order for it to function. So every cell needs a toilet and a bed, for example.
With this basic mechanic in place, Introversion have spent the past year adding to, and fine tuning, the game. There are other important considerations like utilities (power and water supply) and staff, but the developers have recently spent a lot of time implementing smaller, but fun and useful, mechanics. The ability to adjust the daily routine of your prisoners is an interesting element, so too is the deployment panel which allows you to assign your guards to certain sections of the prison as well as set your prisoners to work. Even newer elements like a tech tree and a contraband system are now in place, and while they don't serve much of a purpose yet, there's a lot of potential within the systems.
Truth is, it's hard to notice that Prison Architect isn't a full game. Admittedly, you'd be getting a somewhat small amount of content for your money at the current build, but it's still great fun to play around with the mechanics and starting a new prison is always fun and exciting. The medium ticket price point is what's turning certain gamers away from Prison Architect, considering the fact that it's from a small independent development studio and you're essentially acting as their Alpha testers. For that price, however, you do get the full game when it's released and I'd argue that there's plenty of content to consume your hours.
But of course, the in-game content isn't the only way to have a good session in Prison Architect. In what can only be noted as a move of pure genius, Introversion have recently implemented Steam Workshop support to the Alpha, which means players can share their penal creations with the rest of the world. It not only means people can see how to make the most efficient prison, it also means they can download and adapt it in any way they see fit. 24hr work schedule? Sure. It fits perfectly with the other new addition; riots. Another interesting use of Workshop that I've noticed is the creation of scenarios; while most currently available are a little on the unbalanced side, it's an intriguing concept.
There are a lot of possibilities in a scenario system and I'd love to see Introversion take a hint from the players and develop their own. The neat little introduction, in which you follow the sad story of a man sentenced to death, gives me hope that that they're looking into developing a story mode. It'd certainly be fun to have an objective based mode alongside the current sandbox.
Prison Architect is currently available to purchase on Steam, which allows you to access all the current and future content of the game. The management sim genre has been stuck in a rut of Facebook and free-to-play games for years, but thankfully Introversion look to be bringing this once mighty genre back to the top.