Prison Empire Tycoon is a well-rated and popular casual, mobile, strategy & time-management game. It’s easy to understand, unlike say a Clash Royale and easy to keep playing in that it doesn’t get progressively more difficult as you go up levels. It gets progressively trickier, but not more difficult. Also, it’s very addictive.
The premise is simple: You are the new manager of a prison and you have to grow the company by developing the prison. That includes rehabilitating prisoners in the shortest amount of time, which is done by increasing prison cells and upgrading prison facilities (showers, cafeteria, gym), both of which attract higher state-funding, which is your revenue model. Profitability is rewarded by promoting you to bigger prisons with more dangerous inmates.
While this game definitely has the potential for an article on how it’s an insidious way to normalise the prison-industrial complex by wrapping it in cute graphics, we’re going to focus on the valuable Product Management lessons that you can learn from playing this game.
User feedback loop
The first rule of product management is: Solve user problems.
There’s a fundamental difference between building solutions and building things that users want. When talking about user research and user pain points, it’s important to understand what the user wants vs trying to solve a user problem.
While Henry Ford never said “If you ask a user what they want, they’ll say they want faster horses,” the cliche makes sense. A payments company should not be obsessing over how they can make the phone tap work faster, they should be focusing on how to move money from the user’s bank account to the merchant’s bank account. So when we talk about user research, it’s always important to understand what the problem is that we’re looking to solve.
Back to Prison Empire Tycoon. The game gives you a nifty little tab that constantly tells you what the status of the prisoners are at any given moment. Bad things happen when that bar fills up and goes red…
Now while in real life, your users are (probably) unlikely to start a riot against you and your company, the metaphor holds.
Data-driven decision making
When studying the prisoner feedback tab, we have the obvious levers like food, shower/cleanliness, health and happiness but we also have the not-very obvious levers like comfort (feather) and security (shield).
Turns out that while feeding a prisoner does fill up their food bar, which in turn makes them happy, it doesn’t do much for anything else. Similarly, when a prisoner has shower facilities, it increases their cleanliness bar, which makes them happy, it doesn’t do much else. On the other hand, it turns out that if you keep a prisoner feeling secure (shield bar), they are more likely to be happy with slightly less food. And the comfort (feather) bar keeps the prisoner happy for longer compared to food and showers
Understanding your user’s problems is crucial to product management: If the user says they are hungry, don’t simply ship a cafeteria and consider the job done. Keep questioning and exploring till you reach the core user problem. Along the way, you might find additional levers that you can pull in order to solve the user’s problem.
Understand the difference between Users and Customers
A user that pays you is a Customer.
In this scenario, the State is your customer. You get paid for every prisoner you take in, you get paid for every reformed prisoner let back out into society, and you get ongoing revenue based on the facilities in your prison. And every prisoner spends the same amount of time in the prison regardless of how happy or discontent they are.
So, broadly, your choice is to either have fewer, fully decked out cells or more cells with limited facilities. The fewer facilities you have, the greater the chances of a prison riot, which adds cost.
Therefore, initially, you maximise revenue by keeping the prisoners happy enough during their time there that they don’t riot. As your recurring revenues grow, you’re able to then spend more on facilities, which is pure profit.
Making sure your users are happy is the heart of product management. But every user is not a customer. While some users may eventually become customers, when the two sets are discrete, it is crucial to make sure that you’re solving for the correct set of users.
Growth & Product must work together
Because any other way would be ineffective. Marketing teams are structured to work in silos and are incentivised to send traffic to your site/product/app. What happens to that traffic after that is of no concern to them.
In Prison Empire Tycoon, you have a van bringing in new prisoners at regularly scheduled intervals. So if your funnel isn’t optimised, you’re going to have a long queue at the entrance and very few users going through the funnel and, as a result, revenue not being generated in an optimal way.
Making sure that your Growth team and your Product team are working together is therefore crucial and essential. It’s no longer enough to have a team keep dumping new users at your door if the rest of the funnel isn’t being optimised as well. Making sure that the showers work and the yard has enough play facilities is more important than simply building more cells because you need to ensure that prisoners are happy, don’t riot and cycle through the system efficiently.
Always be shipping
But at the end of the day, none of these strategies matter if you haven’t shipped the product. Because, after all, a product isn’t a product unless it’s out in the wild in the hands of real life users. So no matter how many strategies and tips and tricks you may learn, the most important mantra of Product Management is: Always be shipping.