The 2015 title The Escapists put players in charge of daring prison breaks, having them weave complex plans of escape while under the eyes of watchful guards. By concealing their actions, making the right friends in jail, and carefully going through daily prison life, players could gradually formulate plans that would give them that sweet taste of freedom.
How do you follow that up, though? How do you make new prisons, provide new opportunities for escape, and draw more people into making that plan come together?
“It was essential to retain the sandbox nature of the first game, so we inherited all the ‘traditional’ methods (digging tunnels, chipping through walls, switching off generators to disable electric fences etc.) that returning players would be familiar with,” says The Escapists 2’s designer James Witcomb of Team 17 Digital, who co-developed the game with Mouldy Toof Studios. "But we also wanted to add an entirely new type of escape to the game."
This new type of escape, along with added multiplayer, larger multistory prisons, a more nuanced favor system, would add new challenging ways to bust out of the big house.
Cellmates and strange settings
"We asked fans what prisons they would like to see before we started work on the sequel, and we got some truly out-there ideas. For instance, a space prison was much-requested!"
The sequel was partially made in response to fan input. “The Escapists was a big success, and seeing the fans response to the game and subsequent DLC was amazing," says Witcomb. "It very quickly became clear that fans really wanted multiplayer, but the only way we could get multiplayer to work was to re-write many of the game systems.”
The developers liked the idea of multiple people working together toward a similar escape plan, each dealing with different aspects of security. A sequel would also be a fine excuse to clean up some issues.
“This presented us with the opportunity to not only add multiplayer, but to work with The Escapists' creator Chris Davis to iron out issues with the first game, and show our gratitude to the community by taking on board their ideas and feedback via community surveys prior to starting development,” says Witcomb.
The fans, naturally, had some wild ideas for a new title. “We asked them what prisons they would like to see before we started work on The Escapists 2, and we had some truly out-there ideas. For instance, a space prison was much-requested," says Witcomb. "That offered a challenge for us to design!”
Features like this built off of the humor the original title wove into its prison break narrative, and also gave the developers some ideas on how to really branch out into new, unique escape opportunities. “Fans really responded well to the humor of the first game, from the despondent tones of the job officer to the random, meandering stories of the visitors," says Witcomb. "That tone really allowed us to add some more… ‘unorthodox’ escape ideas into the mix.”
Building better prisons
"Many of the prisons have their own unique mechanics, such as the one that's on a moving train."
The Escapists 2 would need bigger, better, more complicated prisons to give fans of the original some new places to break out of. Drawing upon some of their silly ideas, as well as a deep look at the mechanics of the original, would lead the team to help create those brand new break-outs.
This lead them to give many of the prisons their own unique mechanics, such as the prison that is on a moving train. This would not only make each prison stand out, but it would also give players a special means of escaping it, providing some truly special escapes.
"One of the biggest level design challenges was the verticality of multiple-floored prisons."
“We wanted an escape that really instilled a feeling of having to find something unique about each prison that could be exploited, and the process of preparing for the escape. We added a brand-new type of ‘special escape’ which are themed and unique to each prison.
They may be to find and fix up a vehicle, or construct a device to fire a zip-line across to a building outside of the prison. On completing one of these special escapes, a cinematic shows the player(s) escaping via this unique method,” says Witcomb.
This would give players something really new to work toward, granting them something that was vastly different from what they would have seen in the previous title. It wasn’t just the theme of the jails that would change, nor the silly nature of some of the structures, but also the size of the prisons involved. Something as simple as making the prison cover multiple floors was also used to make breaking out more involved.
This would create some challenges for the developer. “One of the biggest in the level design in The Escapists 2 was the verticality of multiple-floored prisons. We had to now consider not only where a room was located in the prison, but also what rooms were directly above/below it, and whether a vent system would allow access between them,” says Witcomb.
"Favors were an integral part of earning currency to buy escape materials in the first game. We created a much larger library of favors, with much more randomness in the requests they make,"
It wasn’t just the layouts that brought new considerations with them (and therefore more opportunities for players to plan their own escapes), but also the new prison themes.
“We had to pay attention to the layouts of buildings to ensure that they visually looked interesting and fit their intended theme, but to try and retain an ‘evenness’ to the different escape options available to the player. For instance, we might put an outbuilding next to a perimeter wall, but to balance the shorter distance, the player will need to dig to get out of the prison, that outbuilding may require a certain key to access, or may only be accessible via a vent on the roof.”
Their concerns weren’t just on building new things, though. Features from The Escapists would be brought back and improved upon for The Escapists 2. “Prisons in the new game have a footprint roughly four times that of the first game (that’s before we even take multiple floors into account!) so we had to make sure there was enough to keep players busy whilst figuring out their escapes.” says Witcomb.
“Favors were an integral part of earning currency to buy escape materials in the first game, and they received some criticism for their repetitive nature. We created a much larger library of favors, with much more randomness in the requests they make,” says Witcomb. “We also added multi-part favors which allow a single inmate to give multiple tasks to the player as part of completing the overall favor.”
"We felt that the first game became quite linear with some of the latter escapes, so we wanted to ensure that there were still multiple viable escape types in each prison in the The Escapists 2."
Combat would also see some tweaking to improve it. “Combat has received a complete overhaul, it’s gone from essentially being automated with little player involvement to a fully-fledged system where players can lock-on to targets, block, and use light/heavy attacks. It was one of the first new aspects of the game that we prototyped, and straight away it added a new fun dynamic to the game.”
By using some wacky ideas, making players consider their positions across multiple floors, and by tweaking some features of the original, Witcomb looked to really give players some new problems to juggle and new escape means to try for.
“We felt that the first game became quite linear with some of the later escapes, so we wanted to ensure that there were still multiple viable escape types in each prison in the The Escapists 2.”
The results have been pleasing to Witcomb. “The prisons themselves now feel much more alive, the NPC inmates now look through each other’s desks, go and use the gym equipment during free time, or may even have a relax in the social areas. The new mechanics, added verticality of prison layouts, and increased complexity in NPC behavior make the experience of being locked up more fun and dynamic, which if anything, makes the whole escape so much more satisfying to pull off.”
Runing away together
"Multiplayer exclusive escape methods are a larger scale than the traditional escape, and require the players to work together to gain access to areas that are out of reach during single player."
Creating new jails and ways of getting out of them was only one part of Witcomb’s plan. Another key part came from getting multiple players to work together on the same escape route, and how to change up the game so that everyone would have a use in helping their jailbirds fly.
“In terms of the traditional escapes, they still support up to four players who can work together to find the best place to dig a tunnel or the perfect location to access a vent system.” says Witcomb.
“To give multiplayer gamers something to really dig their teeth into, we have added multiplayer exclusive escape methods to each prison. These are of a larger scale than the traditional escape, and require the players to work together to gain access to areas that are out of reach during single player.”
Players can all still work together on the same plan, should they all wish to. However, these plans might not give everyone the most exciting things to do, and would have felt a bit like a wasted opportunity to use all of the people in play.
As such, Witcomb implemented some highly-complicated escape plans that would require multiple people working at various ends, allowing them to reap the benefits of some truly wild getaways. The developer, naturally, is quiet about how these will work, leaving it up to players to see how they’ll need to work together to be free.
This is nice in theory, but not all players are able to play with each other at all times. Players drop in and out of multiplayer games all the time for various reasons, and it’s hard to make a plan work when one of its lynchpins suddenly has an internet outage.
“An inherent aspect of escaping prison is the time it takes to plan and perform the escape, so it was absolutely essential that players could easily join each other to help try to figure out an escape when it suited them. We incorporated drop-in/drop-out multiplayer to make the online experience as seamless as possible, and to support players being able to (no pun intended) chip away at an escape with their friends as and when they had the time,” says Witcomb.
Witcomb implemented the drop in/out system to make it possible for players to comfortably work on the escape plan when they could, leaving when they needed to.
He also considered other types of multiplayer, as working towards a plan together might not always be feasible for the group, or they may have some problems working together, or they just want to see which of the players could come up with the craftiest plan.
“Alongside the cooperative multiplayer we offer a versus mode which is a competitive race to escape. The versus mode is designed to be played in much shorter sessions than the cooperative mode, with the first person to break out declared the winner,” says Witcomb.
New prisons and features would give players some new prison breaks to plan, and doing so together could add to the fun and complexity of the game. Or, multiple people could all work on their own means of escape to see who was fastest. Using player suggestions, building upon what made a good prisons to get out of, and thinking of multiple ways to have people escape together, Witcomb created many reasons for players to throw themselves back in jail for yet another shot at freedom.