Prison Architect (PS4/Xbox One) – Interview

Prison Architect is coming on to Xbox One and PS4 on June 28th. In fact if you’re in the Xbox Preview Program then you can already play it and help the final product with your feedback. The game, which has now won a BAFTA since its full release out of Steam Early Access, has captured millions of PC gamers with its Bullfrog-esque charm and unexpected deep moral implications. Communities have built mega prisons to Gulags and now the console audience has the opportunity to do the same. I got the chance to speak to Mark from Introversion and Gaz from Double Eleven (the developer who also ported Goat Simulator) who are helping with the console version.

The first question I had to ask Mark was why did they want to bring the game to console in the first place, especially as strategy and building games, typically, have not translated well to controllers and console audience.

Mark: At Introversion, the economics of things tend to be quite low on our agenda. [Prison Architect] is the biggest game we’ve ever made and the thing with the games industry is that it changes constantly. As soon as you think you know something, someone will come along and upend the apple cart. For us, the real goal was to bring what we know is a great game on PC to a bigger audience, simply to get more players. What Introversion is about, isn’t mass market games, we’re an entertainment company. The more people playing stuff, the happier we are.

Our thoughts here were “Can we take this core building mechanic [and make] that construction of buildings fun?” And that was our first question to Gaz and the team at Double Eleven, can you make this fun and stimulating, and enjoyable, before the rest of it comes together. I’m not sure the strategy genre has ever been executed that well on a console. I think the interface on console has been clunky in the past and I don’t think we have that here. For me there could not be a better implementation of strategy to console.

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So the biggest problem with these games, especially with Prison Architect is how you get the menu system moved across to the console. Prison Architect is at times, a series of menus and sub menus. On console there is a carousel. You can press a relevant topic from the D-Pad and that will bring up a L1-R1 carousel to select what you want and you press X to select it. The carousel itself is slightly opaque so you can see everything behind it when you’re building and the game continues so you never actually leave the screen of your prison. You can pause by holding triangle, but things will just continue, like the PC game. It’s very clever and not the hassle I was worried it could be. So I asked Gaz from Double Eleven about how they went around creating the new menu for this release.

Gaz: We essentially mapped out every single UI in the game and did a lot of reference from the PC version. I guess we didn’t know what we were getting in to at the start, just how much we’d have to change it. When we talked with Sony and Microsoft their concerns were the same – How are you going to make feel and control like a console game? So we have this brand new UI system and its started from the ground up. We wanted to make the screen as minimalist as possible. We looked at what players need to do at any given time, which is a lot. You can’t second guess players, some want to build first, others want to do something else. We found out we could put everything in to four categories, and at the same time the player can zoom in and out, with the sticks mimicking the mouse movement. A lot of this has been adapted with game focus groups and the Xbox preview community with being able to control the carousel and play the game at the same time so you don’t need to leave the menu. One of the earlier versions we had was you had to choose the object then the menu would close and you’d add it, go back to the menu and it was just really sluggish. We got that feedback from a 50/50 split of console gamers who had already played Prison Architect on PC but also had consoles, and just new console gamers. So we found unanimously we found [the carousel] was a much better approach.

Of course this isn’t the first, and other games that have come to console such as Theme Park/Hospital, The Sims, etc, all have construction elements and menus to navigate but always seemed to be like controlling a PC game with a weird interface. Some things just weren’t easy enough to access or do. I asked about how that affected the design.

Gaz: We looked at other games, particularly with the construction. On the console we have a number of quick options which are unique to the console. If you put down an object by mistake you can pick it up and move it, if you hover over a wall you can add a door straight away to that area, if you want to demolish things quickly you can hold the RB button and draw it out quickly. The time pause button was the hardest to do (it’s mapped to triangle) because we can’t use it anywhere else, but players often want to pause quickly if there’s a riot or something. It was important if you wanted to want to speed up time or pause that you didn’t have to come out of the menu. Everything is just one or two buttons away.

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The thing with a port, especially with a game that has been slowly added to over many years, is how do you find a clean way to tackle and approach the games controls without changing the look of the game itself, but that’s something Mark is quite happy about due to the way the game has been developed previously.

Mark: The naive way to approach a port, which happens quite a lot, is to take every separate interface on the PC and just kind of port that to console. But Gaz didn’t do that. He took the correct approach [asking] “what does the player do within Prison Architect?”. Our interface because it evolved over five years was quite disparate. We never sat down and thought “what’s the correct way of playing  the game” because every month we just layered another system in and layered another screen in somewhere. And we knew it worked because the PC audience just accepted that this was the new way of working it. But Gaz was then able to take those disparate bits, [ask] what should it look like, what should the flow be, and once you’ve established that, how do you then deliver that on console. We haven’t had a single piece of feedback about the control system. If you had an issue with that, you’d see it popping up. You never get positive feedback on menu systems, the positive feedback is that no one notices them.

Essentially though, this is Prison Architect. Absolutely nothing has changed and the console version will be the same version that released out of Early Access last year. There will be updates to bring it in line with the PC version at present and of course future DLC plans along with community maps. But, after five years of constant development and now a final on disc release impending, this is going to be it for Prison Architect.

Mark: At Introversion we make new video games, we aren’t the franchise games guys. It’s been five years, it’s time for us to start moving away from Prison Architect and move on to new things. For us, we’ll always be supporting Prison Architect, but the continual edition of new features (as the Early Access model has allowed) will be stopping this year. My hope is that the game finds that audience on the platforms. This is the final stage of the project for us. And that’s right. For us, the game is the most important thing and I never want to look back on Prison Architect and think “that was when we jumped the shark.” The pride in Prison Architect, it was a proud moment when we won the BAFTA because that’s when I felt we nailed the PC launch and as we exit 2016 in to 2017, hopefully with some of the new projects, that will be the point where we say “yes, we did an amazing job delivering Prison Architect.” And I’m proud of this version. With all the care that Double Eleven have put in to this, this is the best version of Prison Architect.

Prison Architect will be released for Xbox One and PS4 on June 28th both digitally and on disc and is already available on PC/Mac.

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