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RPG Codex Interview: Prisonscape

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RPG Codex Interview: Prisonscape

Codex Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Sun 4 May 2014, 19:44:05

Tags: Kickstarter; Lunar Enigma; Prisonscape

[Interview by Crooked Bee, with contributions by DarkUnderlord, felipepepe, and Zed]

As you may have guessed from its title, Prisonscape is an RPG set in prison. Featuring the traditional "indie game" pixel art and influenced equally by Japanese and Western RPGs, it aims to be complex in its mechanics and focused in its scope. No wonder some of the RPG Codex users took interest in the title, creating a dedicated thread about the game on our forums. Recently, Prisonscape's developers launched a Kickstarter to help them devote more time to the game, with the funding goal of $49,500. Unfortunately, so far it has only managed to collect about a third of that sum, with just 4 days left to go.

We reached out to Prisonscape's designer, Pekka Kallioniemi, to ask him some questions about the game's concept and the Kickstarter campaign. Here's the result.

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Please tell us a bit about yourself and what motivated you to make a game like Prisonscape in the first place. Both thematically and mechanics-wise, what were the main influences on the game's concept?

We are two Finnish guys who decided that developing games could be our thing and decided to give it a try. Tuomas used to be in QA of a Finnish gaming company, Universomo, but I had no prior experience in game development. As a designer, I draw a lot of inspiration from pen and paper RPGs, such as AD&D 2nd edition, Twilight 2000 and Cyberpunk 2020.

Originally, Tuomas (the programmer) wanted to do an arcade/action game similar to the hospital scene in the Amiga classic It Came from the Desert. Eventually the game evolved into an adventure/roleplaying game. We felt that prison from the inmate's perspective was something that wasn't done properly before. Thematically the biggest inspiration comes of course from HBO's Oz, but also from classic prison movies like Shawshank Redemption, Midnight Express and Escape from Alcatraz (see a pattern here?).

Before this we have said that mechanics-wise most of the inspiration has come from classic JRPGs, but this isn't really true anymore since we moved from 1 vs 1 / ATB battle system to grid-based, tactical combat with henchmen, and there aren't many other similarities between classic JRPGs and Prisonscape. The current combat system is probably closer to Fallout, but actually most of the stuff we've come up with comes from pen and papers. This is a bold statement, but I think that AD&D 2nd edition with the Player's Option expansions is THE best combat system ever made, it just needs a lot of adjustments so that it fits in a cRPG taking place in modern prison.​

Prisonscape is a bit of a weird name - it sounds not only like a mash of "Prison" and "Escape", but also like some kind of bizarre twist on the Planescape D&D realm. How did you come up with it?

Let's just say that there's no deeper meaning to the name and that Planescape influenced the naming process heavily. And prisonscape.com was available.​

Prisonscape puts an emphasis on "advanced" RPG mechanics, and aims to include barter, crafting, factions and faction reputations, choices & consequences, as well as a variety of non-combat skills. That sounds quite ambitious! How did you go about deciding which of these features to include, and how are you going to ensure they all work together?

That's a great question, and not a day goes by when I don't think about possible feature creep in Prisonscape. Most of the ideas for these came from Oz, as all are very prominent in the show. We also feel that these are the features that make prison environment so interesting - these guys have their own micro economy, rules and hierarchy, and the things the inmates come up while being locked up 23 hours a day is unbelievable.

Ensuring that they work together is just a matter of adjusting, testing and adjusting some more. Our aim is to have a small but effective beta team that gives us constant feedback that is then used to balance out these game features.​

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Among the non-combat skills on the stats screen, there is a skill called Literacy. I'm curious: what does it do? There's also a screenshot on your Kickstarter page that shows the main character "reading up on some high school materials" in order to raise different attributes - is Literacy connected to that? How does training and raising your skills and attributes work?

Literacy is kind of a 'hard mode' - when you start the game, you can select your background and there's an option for being illiterate. Many of the jobs require you to be able to read and/or write, but the main story doesn't require this, and you can try playing the game through as an illiterate inmate if you want. This also limits your Intelligence score as you can't get all that knowledge that's available in the books. You can also learn to read inside the game if you start it as illiterate.

Skills and attributes can be increased by training - the most effective method being actually using them. For example, getting into melee fights exercises your Fighting skill and trading with other inmates exercises your Haggling skill. This is the most effective way to learn, but there are others, too. After every game turn (about a week in prison) you can choose what you want to do while being locked inside your cell or at rec time. These are related to either training your attributes or skills. Attributes are better in all-around stuff, whereas training skills gives you expertise in more specific areas. You can also get trainers to boost your skills by hiring them or getting them through jobs. ​

The game is supposed to feature grid- and turn-based combat. Could you tell us more about how a typical fight will play out? What are your ways of making combat tactical? Can you totally avoid combat in Prisonscape?

Okay, let me tell about this in a form of a story: The player has decided that for some crazy reason he wants to join the Aryan Brotherhood. To join, he must kill Hector, a member of a rivalling latino gang (or 'make his bones'), Nuestra Familia. When the victim has been found, the fight ensues. Most of the battles are fought in secluded separate areas with no guards to interrupt the fight.

One of these grids is randomized and the combatants are put on the battlefield. The positioning is based on Fighting skill and Intelligence score of the player and the enemy along with some random variables. If the enemy wins the initiative, the player chooses his starting position and then the enemy can take his position based on their AI. This is done for all combatants, including the player's henchmen. When the fighters are in their positions, the turn-based combat begins. The movement and hitting is based on Agility score, damage and fitness is based on Strength, and taunts/threats are based on Intelligence.

So, in this fight Hector has no combat experience and he has to choose his position first. This particular player character is a bulky fighter, so he decides to go right next to Hector and start beating him up right away. The fight is quickly over after the player pounds Hector in the face a few times and flees the scene. If the player is carrying weapons, he can wield them anytime during the battle. Weapons are very effective, but the most deadly ones are very challenging to make and the materials are sparse and difficult to find.

Every fight ends your current turn, since any violence puts the prison into a lockdown. After every fight there's also a chance that the guards will catch you. This will immediately give you some hole time as well as, of course, confiscation of any possible drugs, weapons or other contraband you are carrying. Sometimes you are not caught red-handed but are still a suspect number one and go to an interrogation at the guard's office. Your interrogation dialogue options are determined by your Intelligence score and your skills. Also, your past as an aggressive inmate will make the guards more suspicious and throw you in the hole more easily. The last, and the best option, is when you get away from the fight without any trouble. This is the only scenario where you actually get loot (if there is any) from your opponents.

The outcome of every battle is determined by the current alert level. Every time there's a fight, drug bust or other event that the guards consider dangerous, the alert level goes up. This level also gradually goes down until another alarming event happens.​

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Your "Jobs 101" video shows that your aim with the game's jobs, or side quests, is for them to offer multiple solutions and approaches. What about the main plot - is it going to have branching, choices and consequences, and alternative paths? In general, how "open-ended" do you want Prisonscape to be?

The main story line is quite linear, but many of the choices the player makes affect other characters in the game. One could say that the player has a big effect on other NPCs' destinies, but not his own. There are a lot of optional side stories and choices that also have effect on the game world and its characters. Prisonscape is open-ended in a sense that the player can have a lot of freedom regarding the jobs he does, stats/skills he trains, and parties he associates and barters with, but the main story is always in the background, waiting for the player to progress in the game.​

Speaking of open-endedness, a prison sounds like a pretty small location, whereas RPGs are traditionally about exploring large cities, sprawling dungeons, and vast wilderness. Is it your intention to make the game's scale smaller than usual, or do you intend for it to feel large by some other means?

Social interaction plays a big role. Scheming, getting information, making allies and enemies and trading items and contraband with other inmates is a big part of the game. The game also spans four different areas, and hopefully there's replay value because of side story branching and different types of character builds. But yes, the scale is smaller than for example in classic JRPGs such as FF6 and Chrono Trigger, which have around 40 hours of gameplay. We're currently aiming for around 8 to 10 hours.​

One of your videos showed some kind of magical black blood... thing... in combat. What's going on there? Doesn't introducing magical creatures go against the game's setting and atmosphere?

We feel that it was a big mistake to add that particular scene into the trailer, especially when left unexplained. It's mostly just drug-induced hallucination. There is no magic or super powers in the game.​

Prison inmates are usually, at least in popular prison-themed novels, movies, and TV-shows, quite colorful with their language. How wild - or how mild - do you want Prisonscape’s in-game dialogue to be?

If you want to create an authentic feeling prison experience, there shouldn't be any sugarcoating. We're not going to filter anything. The only thing we're tryiing to be careful about is to not overdo it - constant ethnic slurs and profanities are just plain bad writing.​

You've followed the traditional indie path and gone with the low-bit pixel art style; some people on our forums have even compared it, perhaps unfairly, to RPG Maker graphics. What made you choose this kind of looks? And - sorry for the loaded question - when do you think this kind of “indie” art style will finally go away?

We personally like the pixel aesthetics, and they're fairly fast and cheap to produce. I have no problem with Prisonscape being called RPG Maker, I've played a lot of good RPG Maker games with great stories. We were raised in the NES/SNES era and it's just a nostalgic thing for us, but I also understand that it's not for everybody. I also feel that well made "indie" art style will not go away at all, but more and more games will eventually progress into some other style of graphics.​

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The game seems like a pretty concept but so far, the Kickstarter is only at around 1/3 of its goal. If your Kickstarter fails, will you still continue work on the game in some form or another? How do you think it will affect your motivation? And what impact will it have on the game?

We will continue working on the game like we have so far - hour or two here and there after our day jobs and full days during the weekend. It was our dream to be able to finish the game while working on it full-time, but now we just have to do it some other way. We'll set up Paypal for pre-orders some time next week, so that everyone who still wants to support to game or contribute to it in some way can do it even when the Kickstarter fails.​

What are the main lessons you have learned during the Kickstarter campaign, and what advice would you give to other developers who might want to turn to crowdfunding?

The beginning of your campaign is very important - be sure to send those PR mails early and don't expect any replies, especially from any of the bigger sites. They'll write you if they find the project interesting enough. Also, we really recommend running Greenlight and KS at the same time since they offer a great way for cross-promotion. Have a backup plan in case your KS fails and try to build a fanbase BEFORE you launch your campaign. Twitter is great! Kickstarter cross-promotions are also a good thing, and there's no shame in asking some of the bigger projects to give you shoutout in one of their updates.

Finally, you won't have much time for actual development while you're running the campaign.​

To conclude this interview, what are you most proud of about Prisonscape so far?

Well, it's my first game so I'm really proud that we have managed to make a working alpha version and that people are getting excited about Prisonscape. It's a great feeling when people show interest in something that you do with great passion.​

Thank you for your time - and good luck with the remaining days of the campaign!

You can support and learn more about Prisonscape on the Kickstarter page. The game has also been recently greenlit on Steam.

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