For those who enjoy playing god with digital peons’ lives comes a new simulator from Squeaky Wheel Studio, which counts a member of the Prison Architect team among them. Instead of designing the perfect jail and deciding the fate of your inmates, you’re building a place of learning and deciding the outcome of children’s education. Pipe down in the back there, Timmy — there is a difference.
If you’ve played Prison Architect before, starting this game should be quite a simple task, with a fairly similar style of organisation in its user interface. It’s worth noting that Academia is pre-early-access. There’s no tutorial at the moment, so it takes a while to build up a picture of a) what you should be doing and b) how you’re meant to do it, but it isn’t impossible to get to the bottom of. After setting up your school crest and motto, you’re ready to begin.
One of the best places to look at the beginning of a game is at the To-Do list stored in the upper-right corner on the screen. Clicking this will open the grants menu, each of which will give you something to work toward and a more directed objective. At the moment you can only select one at a time, but you can always select grants that have already had their conditions fulfilled. Much like in Prison Architect, they reward an upfront bonus and a payout when completed. Goals range from building, furnishing and staffing a certain room to accepting a certain number of students.
Since you’re greeted with a blank map (not counting the area for deliveries, rubbish and workmen), the first and most obvious thing to do is get some building work on the ground. Everything you can create exists in tabs along the bottom of the screen and it’s in the build menu that you can find walls, floors and doors. Clicking and dragging these will create plans for your workmen to build, although doors don’t snap to wall orientation so you’ll have to pay careful attention not to mount them sideways. You can’t blame that one on the contractors. And try not to make mistakes, since there isn’t a click and drag cancel tool in the current build.
Objects are placed in a similar fashion and would also benefit from a cancel tool. They are grouped by room, with a few listed under the ‘common’ section that can be placed anyway. The section and object order feels a little odd since none of it is in alphabetical or any particular order. Placing objects works well, but some can only be rotated in certain directions, which limits the way you plan your space, and it can be quite difficult to deselect some objects (you usually click the object menu to dismiss the menu and object, but this doesn’t work for all objects).
Of course, nothing will happen if you don’t tell your staff and students what a particular room is. This is accomplished using zones, which you drag over an area to place. Each room has a criteria for being functioning, the tasks for which are conveniently listed when hovering over the unfinished zone. This part of the UI will take slightly longer to figure out, as you have to use ‘zone edit’ to delete or change the options of a zone and it isn’t immediately obvious.
It’s all very well having classrooms, but you can’t exactly run a school without staff. You start with a handful of workmen to begin building work, but after that you need to start hiring your own employees. Each has a signing bonus and daily wage, so have to be selected carefully against the rest of your income. You can hire cooks, cleaners, nurses and teachers on top of more workmen. Teachers are the most important and expensive of these, each having an education level (bachelors – masters – doctorate) and subject skill level. They can be assigned to classrooms through the zone edit menu.
With everything it place, it’s time to bring in your first students. The first batch arrive automatically, but all others will have to be transferred from other schools throughout the school year. Much like staff, you receive an initial bonus for accepting them, then steady tuition income throughout the year. It’s this balancing act that leads to prioritising large class sizes over smaller rooms and lessons, cramming as many chairs into a room as possible.
Unless you want to be nice to your students, but that’s just silly, right?
Students have their own set of needs which must be managed, with obvious needs such as bladder, hunger and hygiene mixing together to form motivation, which affects how well they learn. There are no exams at the moment, so it’s not certain that the grade system works (with three years stuck at ‘F’, it’s doubtful), but you can definitely see their skill levels in certain subjects progress. This can be hindered by students being off sick, which presumably happens when your school isn’t clean enough or doesn’t have enough nurses. It doesn’t help that cleaners seem to be quite slow and inefficient at their jobs.
Being an early version, there are a couple of bugs we encountered, such as staff members walking on the spot because they all needed the loo but couldn’t be bothered to walk to the toilets and the game not rolling over into the next day despite everyone having left. These should all be fixed with time (reloading fixes them for now), but the current clunkiness of the control system and user interface deserves some attention as well. There are quite a few interactions that don’t quite feel as they should and this is hopefully something which will be ironed out with further testing.
There comes a point in the current version where there isn’t much to do other than increase the number of students, but planned updates should see this end-game loss of interest minimised. Students will be made more complex, able to interact with each other and take exams. Teachers will be able to go on strike or resign and interact with students and parents alike. Your school may be able to specialise in a field and (we hope) more customisation options will be added to the school crest designer (and a longer text field for those who appreciate a bit of Latin). Not only that, but modders will be able to contribute with the workshop as well.
What would be really interesting to see implemented in Academia is a house system. It’s somewhat unlikely thanks to being based on the American system but just think of all the inter-house competitions and events you could have! Having staff toilets separate from student toilets would be something to take into consideration along with the ability to prioritise jobs, display classroom names instead of types and have a toggle make zones invisible.
If everything looks disturbingly familiar, that’s because it uses the same artist who worked on Prison Architect and as such the two games look quite similar. They are different, however, and all the animations fit together well enough to give a smooth impression to the movement and flow of characters.
While it is a little awkward to use at times, Academia in its early state is still a fun game to play for a little while. When more features and more definite goals get added it will become something to pour a fair amount of time into and a solid addition to the ranks of simulation games.