Good news: You no longer have to commit a horrific crime and be judged and sentenced by a jury of your peers in order to experience the exhilarating rush of a good old-fashioned prison break. In fact, the all-new Xbox One title The Escapists lets you stage a great escape from the comfort of your living room couch. It’s quite a unique little game, and we recently caught up with creator Chris Davis (from The Escapists developer Mouldy Toof Studios) and production director Kel Aston (from publisher Team17) to figure out just where the heck this innovative gem of a game came from.
Xbox Wire: What was the first inspiration behind The Escapists? How did it evolve from that initial idea?
Chris Davis: It started life as a top-down, school-themed game – a tribute of sorts to one of my favorites from the ZX Spectrum era called Back 2 Skool. It was one of the very first sandbox-style games, and I loved the freedom it gave you to mess about in a school, skipping lessons and being a menace.
I can’t remember what triggered it, but a few weeks into development, I switched the theme of the game to a prison one instead. I felt it was a more unique angle with a better endgame (escaping), so I went with that.
Xbox Wire: Have you ever been to prison? Or is the game based mostly on what you’ve gleaned from watching various television shows and movies? Any in particular that really stand out?
Chris Davis: Nah, I’ve never been to prison! I just watched every prison-based show, documentary, and movie I could get my hands on, harvesting anything that would translate well into a game. Standouts are obviously “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Escape from Alcatraz,” and “Prison Break.”
Xbox Wire: How did you guys end up coming to the pixel art aesthetic? Was that the plan from the start?
Chris Davis: It wasn’t really a decision as such; it’s just the way I’ve always done my game artwork. I like to keep it simple, so I can focus on the gameplay. I think Minecraft taught everyone that pixelated retro visuals still have a place in gaming.
Xbox Wire: What were the biggest challenges you guys faced in bringing the game together? How long did the project take?
Kel Aston: The biggest challenge was the sheer amount of events and outcomes the game has to handle. You’ve got all the A.I. for guards and inmates… then there are the opinions, reactions, and player stats on top of all this, as well the tracking of the days, escape routes, items, and so on. So with this huge amount of logic and data, you need to be ultra-careful when changing things, to ensure that you don’t bring the house crashing down. We spent around six weeks getting the Gamescom demo in place, then after that, we took about five months to build the game and get it ready for Microsoft submission at the end of 2014.
I guess another challenge was taking a mouse-and-keyboard game and getting it working on an Xbox One controller. We soon found that the paper designs we had for the game weren’t as intuitive when they were in there. So we constantly iterated and usability-tested the controls throughout the project. What we ended up with is awesome!
Chris Davis: Another challenge was knowing where to draw the line. It’s quite a unique concept, and there were a lot of additional good ideas that could have been added, but there’s a point where you have to just stop adding things and polish what you have, or the game will never be finished.
Xbox Wire: The game seems to lean toward being a Roguelike. Is it intentionally challenging in that hardcore, Roguelike way?
Kel Aston: It is intentionally challenging although we made is easier in the last few weeks of development due to the feedback we received from usability testing. We found that people were enjoying the game without really “getting” it (for example, one player was more than happy to spend his days walking about the prison, stealing socks, flushing them down the toilet, rinse and repeat – he’d gotten to day 10 without any attempts to escape, yet he said he was having a lot of fun with the game). So, we added the tutorial and redefined some of the controls. The tutorial is pretty basic, but it shows the player that there is both an underground and vent layer, plus it covers combat and crafting – which we found were being missed by players. With the basics understood, this equips the player with enough information to go out there, explore, experiment, and have fun.
Chris Davis: I grew up playing games that didn’t hold a player’s hand as much as they do these days. I always loved the huge sense of achievement I had from solving something myself instead of just following a pointer around. That said, we didn’t want to make it frustrating, either. It was tricky trying to achieve a balance between the two, but we seem to have found a great balance that our players love!