Academia: School Simulator, developed by the Philippine based Squeaky Wheel Studio, is an early access challenger in the management field that has been dominated by Prison Architect. How does it stack up against the heavyweight champion?
Clearly, Academia is heavily influenced by Architect. The Squeaky Wheel art director worked on Prison Architect, and a similar visual style is immediately obvious. The UI, room zoning, and staff recruitment, among others, are essentially carbon copies. This highlights a very important aspect of management games; P.A. is so good at what it does, that even games that follow it’s formula struggle to match it. Everything Academia tries to do is done better in P.A. It’s a true testament to the genius of Introversion Software that their game is so well done.
Let’s start with the positives. Academia is, like a lot of early access games, one with a whole lot of potential. Management of a school allows for some truly gripping simulation possibilities. As of now, it’s barebones – you can zone a computer lab, classrooms, a library, and a club room. There’s a lot of growth area here that could be fun. It’s easy to imagine a gym, specialist classrooms, after school programs – the concept is limitless. In line with this idea could be running a boarding school, with the player needing to build dormitories and guards to keep an eye on the students at night. It could be like a management version of Bully which would be wonderful.
It gives the developers a chance to try something interesting in a simulator – personal drama. Bonds could develop between students, and their teachers. Students could have romances and fights. They could find teachers that become their mentors, or that they just have to argue with. Students could be expelled, or rewarded if they score highly in exams. A human aspect to a management game would add a real extra layer of depth that games in this genre don’t have.
The teacher system is interesting – each teacher has specific skills and abilities, and this has space for development. Hiring teachers for specific subjects, and having variable skills would mean careful planning. Classes also graduate to the next year fairly regularly – every 12 days – so it means thinking ahead. If you have a large group of Freshmen, but few Sophomores, you’ll need to build extra classrooms and hire teachers accordingly.
In regards to the actual management side of things, there are some changes I like that others may not. One of these is not having to worry about water pipes and electrical lines – everything just works when it’s placed. It means less complexity but to me, it’s more enjoyable to just play simple. Money comes in fairly easily, and I built up my 300 student school with few financial issues. A downside however is the lack of priority building – the workers go about their tasks in chronological order. You can’t hurry a specific item, it just gets done in its own time which is unfortunate.
The game does have some issues that will need ironed out as early access progresses. An example is meal time. Both Prison Architect and Academia are identical – you need cooks, who take food from refrigerators, cook it on stoves, deliver the food to the cafeteria, then wash the dishes in sinks. In P.A., you can designate kitchens to prepare food for specific cafeterias, there’s data available to show many prisoners were fed and not fed, and the ability to select the quality and amount of the food served. You have complete control, and can micromanage your prison to work the way you want it.
In Academia, the food is served and that’s that. The cafeteria is a mess of bodies, and it’s very hard to tell which students have eaten and which haven’t without clicking on each student individually to check their hunger. My school at one point had 300+ students so those checks were just not realistic. Is it game breaking? Not at all, but it makes it harder to manage and care for your charges when you cannot get relevant data about them. This example highlights what the game really needs at this point – more depth, more numbers, more data.
Another example is the club room. There’s so much potential here – you could have rooms dedicated to each club. There could be sports rooms with lockers and showers, board game club with playing tables, and debate club with chairs and judges tables. As of now however, it’s just a room with tables and chairs. This also spreads to the classrooms – students go to one classroom, and have one teacher for the whole year. They don’t move between classrooms, or have different teachers. It doesn’t force you to make decisions about which teachers students should learn from – just hire all the 3 star teachers and you’re done. Going further, there is no ability to control the school regime. It’s completely rigid meaning you have to watch as a passive observer which I don’t like in a management game. Some of my students were struggling to eat in the lunch hour, so I wanted to extend lunch so everyone could be fed but alas, it’s locked currently.
To conclude, we’re looking at a game that has buckets of potential if the developers want to stay committed to their project. The prospect of running a boarding school with lots of unique parts sounds really fascinating. As of now, it’s paper thin but with so much room for expansion, they could be sitting on a real competitor to Prison Architect.