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What Prison Architect Teaches About Layered Game Design

Today's post focuses on Prison Architect and how its development presents a useful lesson for developers building multiple systems at once for their game.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

January 27, 2017

4 Min Read

Prison Architect is the most successful game from Introversion and the current poster child for Early Access success.  The growth from the alpha builds gives us a model for game development that designers should be taking notes on.

Prison Architect

Prison Architect

Layered Game Design:

Traditional games are built as a linear set of systems and progress. A game with 10 levels to design presents a basic guide in terms of what's done and what's left. Multi-system games that are built as a collection of systems all working together are different.

The problem is that with everything operating together, it's harder to see progress and if your game is working out. If you have a problem with one system, it could impact everything else in your game; forcing you to rebuild and redesign everything.

For games built on multiple systems, this can be the death nail in your project. What Introversion did with Prison Architect is what I'm describing as "Layered Game Design."

Looking at the Alphas of the game, Introversion figured out their core gameplay loop very early on. From there, they locked it down and built all subsequent systems based on that foundation. You could say the game was designed like floors in a tower.

Each month, they focused on one system (with exception to bug hunts) before moving onto the next.

While this did mean it took longer to develop the game as opposed to doing bits and pieces at the same time, this was the better option.

Laying the Foundation:

The beauty of this layered game design approach is that it gave Introversion several advantages. The first is that each month's work was built on top of something that they knew was done. If any problems come up, it's very easy to trace it back to the system they're working on. Because the design gets locked down with each new official build, it afforded them the ability to always have something to fall back to.

Since the core gameplay loop and all subsequent systems became the foundation, it made it easy to see if a new system is working or not. And with each month's progress, the game grew bigger and bigger. Older systems will still need to be connected to the new ones and vice versa, but it's still easier to design the game this way.

prison architect

Civilization 5 (2K Games)

Games built on multiple systems must be connected to the core gameplay loop

Multi-system games are typically not built around a linear experience.  A layered approach also helps with understanding when your game is "done."

You can keep adding systems in until you've done everything you wanted with the core gameplay loop. Anything that proves to be harder to implement or something secondary could be saved for expansions or DLC.

Growing Outward:

Expansion content for games built like this tends to be supplemental: They add new systems in without changing the old. A really good example of this approach would be the games from Paradox Interactive. If you look at the expansions to their games, they all tend to add in new systems on top of what's already there.

The content does get connected to the older stuff, but you'll never see them redesign a previous system with their DLC. With this mindset, it allows developers to have a more stable plan for developing their title.

Arcen Games with some of their more recent titles were built around the idea of core and secondary content. The core content are systems integral to the game and must be in the main release. Secondary content are the systems and features they would like to add in, but aren't necessary.

If their game does well enough, they'll have the framework already in place to expand their games. AI Wars' success and huge amount of expansion content is evidence of this.

Down the Rabbit Hole:

There is one possible issue with this layered approach that needs to be mentioned. Due to mechanics and systems being "stacked" on one another, it can lead to systems not being completely in sync with the core gameplay loop. Prison Architect's wiring system was a nice feature to have, but could be completely ignored.

prison architect

The Last Federation

A Layered approach works best for 4X or multi-system games

Even though the layered approach is easier in terms of planning, you still need to keep track of the content that you're putting out.

Being able to distinguish what's vital to the core gameplay and what could be considered secondary is still an important skill to master.

Prison Architect could have turned out any number of ways, but Introversion managed to put out their best game yet and an example of providing a framework for managing multiple systems at the same time.

Reposted from Game-Wisdom. Check out our new Patreon campaign with updated goals and rewards. Follow me on Twitter and the YouTube channel for daily content.

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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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