Architects of Their Own Demise – Introversion Talk Prison Architect & Subversion Cancellation

Introversion have had a hectic ride on the games development rollercoaster. Being a small, independent developer is hard work it turns out. Who knew?

Their latest game, Prison Architect, is looking fantastic but only came about thanks to the failure of their previous title, Subversion, that was in development for years.

Their talk at yesterday’s Rezzed went some way to explaining how this potential disaster was turned into what looks like a sure-fire success.

As mentioned earlier, Introversion are a tiny team primarily made up of 3 people. Chris Delay, Mark Morris and Thomas Arundel all started the company after meeting at university. Their first game was a success (after a while) and since then the team’s gone from strength to strength, riding the wave of increased exposure for small-scale indie PC games. Their website explains it better than I ever could.

What was to be their latest game, Subversion, looked extremely interesting. Features such as procedurally generated cities, full of roads, power networks, buildings and people, could be created and then controlled. Buildings would have security systems that worked very closely to how they would in real life. Cameras were hooked up to monitors, trip wires were connected to security networks and wireless routers picked up wireless signals. All of this cool tech created in the space of 2/3 years left one massive question. “Where’s the game in this?”

One example of the ‘game’ was a bank heist. You controlled a group of 4 people and the aim was to steal a priceless gem. The bank vault is filled with video cameras, trip wires and guards that are patrolling thanks to an impressive AI routine. Sounds cool, right?

The massive problem, as was demonstrated, was the player could simply walk in, shoot the guard, unplug the network and steal the gem. The whole heist took about 30 seconds, wasn’t that interesting to watch and couldn’t have been that interesting to play. Chris, who was demonstrating, did say that he could artificially force the user to interact with the systems more, by removing the guns, but it would be just that. Artificial.

It was explained that a great deal of time was spent with Subversion trying to find the game within it. One particular level that was also created and had a lot of attention devoted to it was a prison level. You were meant to be charged with rescuing one of your team-mates from prison which, like the bank, was fully kitted out with realistic security systems. Chris often found himself spending more time (and having more fun) in the level editor. He would spend ages trying to perfect the prison level and, thanks to said level editor, it was easy and intuitive for him to do so.

Deciding to take a break from it all, he went on holiday where he found himself taking a tour of Alcatraz. He was immediately impressed and taking in by the atmosphere of the place and convinced that his next game wasn’t going to be Subversion, he’d admitted defeat, but was instead going to be a game based around prisons. Thinking about the fun he had creating his prison level in Subversion he came up with the Prison Architect game on the flight back home. In a 10 hour flight Chris manged to create a design doc for Prison Architect in 8 hours, leaving him 2 hours to “finish off a bottle of wine”. Best. Flight. Ever.

Of course, Introversion isn’t a one-man-band, so he had to convince the other members of the team, specifically Mark, who described himself as being in charge of the ‘business side’ of the company. A meeting was scheduled and Chris was ready for Introversion to end there and then. A lot of time had gone into Subversion, with Chris convincing everyone that it was the way to go, so to turn around and say ‘actually, that was all for nothing, we’re starting again on this’ was a big call to make. Thankfully, Mark agreed and was relieved to hear it. Everyone knew that the ideas and the tech on show in Subversion were great, but there just wasn’t a game. With Prison Architect already near figured out, work began right away.

Naturally development of any title is going to hit a few bumps and one of the first was hit when deciding on an art direction. Some of the first attempts involved using ‘Alien Breed’ sprites which Chris described as looking ‘a bit shit’ in the game. As Chris decided to show the screenshots as he spoke,  I’d have to agree.

The rest of the developement process has been fairly easy going on Prison Architect. A new art direction was decided upon and is looking great and to top it all off, Subversion didn’t die in vain. A lot of the tech, such as the level editor and AI routines I mentioned earlier, have been repurposed to go into Prison Architect. This means creating your prison is easy yet full of depth and it also means that AI never feels like it’s just being random, but instead feels unpredictable. Much like a cafeteria full of 50 convicts should.

The team realise that prisons and the control of convicts is a touchy subject, but they feel they’re doing it with taste and despite the game’s light-hearted look, the subject matter is never treated as a joke. Stories exist within the game that give some of the criminals a back-story, ensuring that we never forget just what it is we’re dealing with. One area that is being avoided at the moment is the issue of gangs and race. They don’t feel that they could tackle the issues in a way that was acceptable or that would actually add anything to the game. The last thing they wanted to do after tackling a touchy subject like prisons is to then be accused of making light of racism. What was then noticed with regards to race is the fact that currently there are no black guards in the game. This gave everyone a laugh and Chris admitted that this was a complete oversight and that it’d be fixed.

That’s pretty much that. What looked like being years wasted on a product that never came out eventually turned out helping the production of what looks like being Introversion’s biggest game yet. Mark left us by saying that they didn’t want Subversion ‘to die’ and that there would be announcements made in the coming months. I wouldn’t find it hard to believe that the tech was to be sold on as middleware, though maybe I’m just reading into it too much…

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