UK indie developer Introversion has revealed how Subversion's death led to Prison Architect's birth in an exclusive interview with Eurogamer ahead of its developer session at the PC and indie game show Rezzed.
It is the story of how Introversion creative chief Chris Delay took a 2010 holiday to the world's most famous prison and left convinced that Subversion had to be canned after four years in full development - and Prison Architect had to be the indie developer's next game.
Subversion was an ambitious hacking game that featured procedural city generation and complex AI simulations. But despite gathering a good deal of interest from gamers and press, Delay felt the gameplay never came together in the way he'd hoped and, ultimately, the core experience "sucked".
"Externally, Subversion probably still looked pretty cool," Delay explains. "It looked like it was going to be a good game. That was always the problem with Subversion. It did always look like it was going to be a great game, and it sounded like it was going to be a great game, like all this hi-tech hacking in buildings and sneaking your team in through the elevator shaft and breaking locks.
"Ultimately the game just fell apart because there was never any choice about what to do. Ultimately, a high security building is nothing more than a series of locked doors you have to get through linearly, one after the other. It never got around that. It was starting to turn to the point where it had been months of work for what would amount to a 10 minute mission.
Delay and his wife went to San Francisco in part to take a break from development of Subversion, but mainly in the hope he would find some inspiration, discover some way to fix Subversion. This changed, however, during a trip to Alcatraz.
"It was in my mind at the time that Subversion wasn't working at all," Delay says. "I started having all these great ideas looking around Alcatraz, that it would be a great location for a game. You could see all these systems everywhere. You could see the mechanics behind all the doors. Everything was completely mechanical. They had these enormous metal levers you could pull that would open one or all of the doors on one cell block. It had a mechanical dial you could set to say which doors you could open.
I started having all these great ideas looking around Alcatraz, that it would be a great location for a game. You could see all these systems everywhere. You could see the mechanics behind all the doors. Everything was completely mechanical. They had these enormous metal levers you could pull that would open one or all of the doors on one cell block. It had a mechanical dial you could set to say which doors you could open. I thought it was all totally brilliant.
"I thought it was all totally brilliant. I was geeking out over the place. I started thinking about taking Subversion and turning it on its head. Rather than having it so you break into a location like a prison, have it so you actually build a prison. Build the security systems that stop someone from breaking out."
Delay's desire to create a prison game was fuelled by the prison level that already existed within Subversion - a level he found himself spending more and more time working on.
"You had to bust one of your teammates out of the prison," he says. "It never worked. Just like most of Subversion it never worked as a level. There was all this work required to simulate a prison and make it play realistically. But it was no fun. You only had two choices. You could either go in with the tranquillisers through the main entrance tranquillising every guard you run into, or you could blow a hole in the wall and get your guy out that way. It was turning into weeks of work for what was ultimately going to be a crap decision in game that wasn't going to be satisfying.
"So we had a lot of prison stuff already. We had a lot of simulation stuff to do prisons. But it was visiting Alcatraz that made me thing for the first time about making it so you build the prison, rather than the designer building the prison and then the player trying to break it."
On the 10 hour flight home Delay spent eight hours working on a design document for the game - and two hours drinking a bottle of wine (it was the best long haul flight of his life, he says).
Having landed, something else happened, in a taxi ride from the airport home, that sealed the deal.
"I was talking about this idea and I mentioned it to my wife, and I could see her eyes rolling," Delay reveals. "She knew Subversion was in the doldrums at this point and I was looking for an excuse to try and do something else with it. And on the way home, coming back from the airport, we got this taxi back from the airport to get back home, and the taxi driver was an ex-prison guard in a British prison. Complete coincidence.
"So we had this two hour taxi ride, and this taxi driver was loving chatting about his old job, and I was questioning him. I was making loads of notes. I was asking him about all the different procedures that went into a British prison and all the different things that had happened to him and different events that had occurred, getting all these great stories and anecdotes out of him.
"I was so convinced, before we even got home, I was absolutely convinced I was going to switch onto a new game. It was such a strange coincidence there was that taxi driver who had that previous job. But he was a great source of information."
Having the idea was just half the battle. Delay had to convince Introversion managing director Mark Morris to scrap Subversion and begin production of Prison Architect. He prepared a Powerpoint presentation, and sat down with his friend, who he studied with at university, to demo the idea. At that moment, Delay felt, Introversion would either come to an end or go forward renewed.
I was so convinced, before we even got home, I was absolutely convinced I was going to switch onto a new game. It was such a strange coincidence there was that taxi driver who had that previous job. But he was a great source of information.
"I told him one of the good things about Prison Architect was I was going to be finished in about four months. And that was in 2010."
"Did they believe you?" we ask.
"Well, no. They never believe me when I tell them time-frames. And nor should they."
Introversion will launch a paid alpha version of Prison Architect in September, hoping to capitalise on a Minecraft-esque development model. It will launch on PC and Mac, with Linux to follow. The finished version will launch at some point next year.
Is Subversion cancelled for ever? For ever ever? Morris hinted on stage today at Rezzed that we may hear more of the game in the next few months, but for Delay, its death is clear cut.
"I wouldn't say no going back. But certainly we wouldn't go back to the game as it was. Since cancelling it I've had a few good ideas about how to do it properly, but it would be a huge change and I probably wouldn't even call it Subversion just to avoid the issue of people getting the wrong impression."