When 2013’s SimCity came out, it was broken. It didn’t work.
The servers fell over and the critics and fans did what they do when a game doesn’t work: they crucified it.
Even when the game did get up-and-running, eventually, there were a few dissatisfied customers. The game’s developer had in some ways simplified SimCity, made it prettier but also a bit easier to manage so that it can appeal to a broader market. Hardcore fans used the words ‘dumbed down’.
Then in 2015, a tiny development studio called Colossal Order made Cities: Skylines – a full-scale rival to SimCity. This team had no interest in broader markets, so it made a full, hardcore city simulation game. Critics loved it. 2m people bought it.
Cities: Skylines was an eye-opener. Not only did it prove that the perceived dead simulation strategy genre was anything but, it also highlighted to the world’s publishers that you shouldn’t talk down to your customers.
12 months on and another sim strategy sub-genre is making a return: the rollercoaster tycoon game. In fact, there are three theme park-style titles on the release slate for 2016, and they’ve all been excited by Skylines’ success.
“The tycoon simulation genre is back,” declares Frontier’s creative director Jonny Watts, which is working on the upcoming Planet Coaster.
“You’ve got Cities Skylines, Prison Architect, Parkitect, even Rollercoaster Tycoon World, it shows there is a market for them. From our point-of-view, it is unbelievably gratifying and exciting that this genre is back. We like coaster games, and if people are making more then it suggests the genre is back, which makes us very happy.”
Sebastian Mayer, the programmer of the game Parkitect, adds: “It’s been relatively silent in the last few years - not just in the theme park management genre, but in the simulation genre in general.
“It’s really cool to see that there’s been more interest in the genre recently, and especially to see games like this from somewhat smaller teams, like Cities: Skylines and Prison Architect.”
Parkitect started as a reaction to the lack of decent rollercoaster tycoon games. It was funded via Kickstarter (where it raised £35,000) and is being built by just three people.
“We all grew up with the Theme Park and Rollercoaster Tycoon games and there hasn’t been a game like these that we thoroughly enjoyed for 10 years or so,” explains Mayer.
“Just half a year or so after we announced, we suddenly had two competitors from well-known companies. We had been waiting for a decade for a new entry in the Rollercoaster Tycoon franchise, so that was quite the surprise when their new game was announced just after we had decided to take things into our own hands. As a player, I’m very excited by this development though, and I think the renewed attention for the genre will benefit our own game too in the end.”
He continues: “Rollercoaster Tycoon World and Planet Coaster both seem to go for a big, 3D, ‘ride your rides and design a cool looking park’ kind of game, and we’ll happily let them battle it out. We’re going more for the old-school type of business management game.”
Cambridge-based Frontier Developments is the team working on Planet Coaster. It’s an outfit that has worked on multiple rollercoaster games, but they’ve usually been more simplistic console or mobile titles, with the notable exception of 2004’s Rollercoaster Tycoon 3.
"In 2014, we launched Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 on mobile. It was downloaded over 20m times, which is proof that people love this game."
Fred Chesnais, Atari
All of the games had been created for other publishers, such as Atari, LucasArts and Microsoft. Planet Coaster, however, is a self-published effort, and will be all the better for it, says Watts.
“We are making a game that has the best creativity and most sophisticated management in a rollercoaster title ever,” he insists. “Some titles we worked on after Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 moved away from that a little bit.
“We are now self-published and nobody is telling us not to make a tycoon game, nobody is telling us to make the tools dumbed down. We are making what we want to make.”
The third game, Rollercoaster Tycoon World, launched in Early Access last month, and Atari CEO Fred Chesnais denies that the firm had previously abandoned the genre.
“If you look at 2014, we released a mobile game called Rollercoaster Tycoon 4,” he reminds us. “We have in excess of 20m downloads, which is, for us, proof that people love this type of game.
“We’ve been selling Rollercoaster Tycoon games for 15 years now. This isn’t anything new.”
All three games have adopted a similar business model. Parkitect arrives this week on Early Access, which lets players buy and test the title before it is fully completed.
Planet Coaster is adopting a similar model by letting customers access numerous alpha builds, so they can offer feedback.
“We know how to do coasters, we really do,” boasts Watts. “I’ve made more coaster games than anybody in the world. However, our simulation is so pure and is based on first principles, if it says there is 1,000 people in the park, there is 1,000 people in the park, and they have to physically get to that ride and put money in to the pot. There’s no lightweight simulation going on the background. Therefore, to get the balancing right we need thousand of people’s help. We are not leaving this to chance.
“It is also a lovely opportunity for us to listen to our customers and fans. We are hoping we are in tune with them because we are mad coaster enthusiasts. It’s an inclusive way of developing a game.”
However, it can also backfire. Rollercoaster Tycoon World has had a troubled development. Fans were expecting it to arrive at the end of last year fully finished, but instead it emerged in Early Access just a few weeks ago, and was not in a fit state. The backlash was fierce.
"We are self-publishing Planet Coaster. No-one is telling us to dumb it down - we are making the game we want to make."
Jonny Watts, Frontier Developments
Atari and dev Nvizzio have been fighting to rescue the game, with a series of major updates to improve the title’s visuals and gameplay.
“This really is why the game is in Early Access,” says Chesnais.
“We do read what people are writing. We look at it and work out what we need to work on. We do read all the reviews. We do care.
“You’re right, it’s not fun to read. Especially as a developer, which I’m not, so you have to love your job, right? The good thing today is that you can fix the game and add to it. It’s not the same as the days when you released the box version and hoped for the best.”
So here’s the ultimate question, even if Cities: Skylines proved there is a big market for these titles, is there really room for three rollercoaster games?
“You’ve always had Battlefront and Call of Duty in shooters, so genres can have more than one game in it,” defends Watts.
“What is quite interesting is that you guys think there is a rivalry, but we like each other. We are developers making coaster games, and if you are making coaster games, you are not a mean spirited person. [All these games] justify that the time is right and that there has been an absence of proper Tycoon games for ten years. It is a beautiful world in which to make games.”