Following its initial launch on PC in 2016, Frontier’s Planet Coaster has seen remarkable success, selling over 2.5 million base game units, plus DLC Theme and Ride packs, as well as a wealth of community requested content and features that have been added as free updates over the years.
It’s not a huge surprise that the game has found such a passionate audience – as the spiritual successor to Chris Sawyer’s classic RollerCoaster Tycoon, with Frontier working on console ports and later editions of that series.
It’s somewhat surprising, though, that it’s taken four years for the company to bring the hit title to consoles but it’s coming at last, later this year.
To find out more we sat down with the Planet Coaster team for a peek behind the scenes.
“We have always wanted to bring the depth, charm and sophistication of the original Planet Coaster to the console audience, to thrill and delight as many players as possible,” opens game director Gary Richards.
Now bringing a mouse and keyboard-centric title to consoles is one thing, but Frontier have the added task of straddling two generations, releasing on both current and next-gen devices from Xbox and PlayStation.
“Planet Coaster: Console Edition is a unique gaming experience and to be able to tie that in with the upcoming next generation of consoles is a really exciting opportunity to be part of,” Richards tells us.
“We’ve been able to take advantage of the improvements to our in-house multi-platform Cobra Engine to develop the game in a mostly platform-agnostic way that allows us to ensure that whichever console you’re playing on, you’re still having the same great experience.
“Our Engine team is incredibly talented and has worked tirelessly to support the next generation of console hardware,” adds lead programmer Bradley Pollard.
“With the next-gen consoles being so new there’s a lot of excitement around what they can offer, which of course creates fresh technical challenges that we have to solve every day. When compared to developing on PC, it takes a lot of time and attention to detail to develop and test the game across four different platforms to ensure the game behaves identically regardless of the players’ platform.”
THE HOUSE OF MOUSE
As mentioned, straddling generations isn’t the only challenge facing the port. Those familiar with Planet Coaster will be aware of how reliant it is on a keyboard and mouse setup. Taking that environment and adapting it to a controller setup required some creative re-thinking.
“When designing the UI for console, we really wanted to take advantage of the gamepad and make the controls feel as natural and intuitive as possible,” says UI designer Jason Ware.
“We started by looking at some of our previous park-building and coaster titles, seeing what worked well, what we could learn from and what we could adopt for Planet Coaster on console. We then went through numerous stages of prototyping the interfaces, testing them and making changes based on the feedback. Gradually, each component has come together, tweaked and polished into the game that players will get their hands on later this year.
“The main challenge was taking the depth and complexity of a user interface designed for PC, and making it work for console. In the original Planet Coaster, there are often several different interfaces on the screen at once, and the player can use the cursor to navigate between them. For console, we’ve focused on showing players the most relevant options for the action they are performing. For example, when building paths or sculpting terrain, we’ve condensed all the tools and options into a single panel that the player can navigate using the d-pad, allowing them to quickly adjust settings and styles whilst continuing to build and navigate around their park with the analogue sticks. We’ve also introduced a new context-sensitive radial menu that contains shortcuts to frequently used tools and options, making the process even more efficient and accessible.”
If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. As Ware explains, the team had to completely start from scratch for the new UI.
“The entire user interface has been redesigned and rebuilt from the ground up, completely from scratch. It was really important to us that the UI felt at home on a console, and that it worked comfortably with the gamepad, not against it. At the same time, we still wanted the style to feel familiar to players of the original”
“From a design perspective there is so much that changes when you move to gamepad,” adds lead designer Andrew Fletcher, “and there isn’t really a precedent for a game like Planet Coaster on console, so we didn’t have any established conventions to fall back on.
“We had to think carefully about fundamental elements, like where the player’s left-stick focus should be in different situations, which interface or mode should take priority over another, and how the camera should behave during various operations.
“The mere fact that your cursor and camera are linked together so much more meant that our camera systems and object placement rules required continuous tweaking and testing across a multitude of different use cases.”
“We definitely focused first and foremost on creating a UI that allows you to build seamlessly on a gamepad,” Pollard adds in. “However, with PlayStation and Xbox both supporting mouse and keyboard, players who would like to try out the option can effortlessly switch.”
MAKING A FUTUROSCOPE
One benefit of rebuilding from scratch means you can make improvements on the original. This ground-up approach gave the team the opportunity to try new things and make some alterations along the way.
“Whilst our primary goal was to remain faithful to the original game and deliver the same level of granularity,” says Ware, “developing for consoles has definitely given us an opportunity to evaluate certain aspects of the original, make improvements and even try out some new things.
“One area of the UI that has received an especially noticeable facelift is park management. The important information is now presented much more clearly to the player, with useful trending statistics added to show not only how your park is currently performing, but whether things are improving or declining. We’ve also created a new section specifically for graphs, so players can easily compare data without needing to switch between different sections of the UI.”
“Another aspect that’s had a significant overhaul is the camera system,” adds gameplay programmer Philippa Moore. “The Planet Coaster console camera needs to be extremely versatile – you can be right up close adding finishing details to a ride, or panning over your park for a high-level view of your glorious coaster empire, and the camera needs to feel good in both cases and every case in between.
“We’ve really made the most of the gamepad controls for the new camera; the degrees of joystick deflection allow us to support both precision control and big, sweeping camera movements depending on the player input. We’re incredibly proud of the reworked camera system and how it works seamlessly with the gamepad.
“The camera completely dictates how you explore and interact with your park, so it was really important to us that we got it right – from obvious things like the control scheme, right down to far more subtle details like input scaling and focus points. Hopefully the players won’t even notice some of the things we’ve changed because it will blend so seamlessly into the gameplay experience!”
Despite the room to make improvements, that isn’t to say the move wasn’t without its challenges. The team runs us through some of the most challenging roadblocks they ran into along the way.
“There has been a lot of behind the scenes UI work that should probably get a mention here,” says Fletcher, “such as the underlying UI code architecture, and rebuilding the object browser interface in a way that performs well on console. However, from a game design perspective, it’s the creative tools and their usability that have posed the trickiest questions.
“Planet Coaster is a deep game with a huge variety of tools and options, originally spread across a keyboard full of shortcuts and a wide array of interfaces, and while it is important that you can build beautiful coaster parks, it’s essential the process of building feels fun too.
“Although the switch to gamepad introduced new challenges, because we’ve had to be focused in our use of the gamepad and design new controller conventions, we’ve found that there is more consistency between different tools now, and some are perhaps even more efficient.
“For example, path-building is more straightforward as a result of locking the camera to the path as you build, rather than relying on precise cursor control. When building coasters you have the ability to adjust track positioning with the left stick, build and delete track pieces with the face buttons, and adjust track settings with the d-pad, all at the same time, so there’s no cursor movement around the screen and everything feels available at your fingertips at once. This means the control system feels both cohesive and incredibly intuitive.”
While the team has nothing to announce regarding DLC at this time, console players will have immediate access to the content and features that have been provided as free updates since the PC launch – providing a fuller experience than was available on PC back in 2016.
“One of the cool things about bringing all of the post-release additions into one package is that it’s allowed us to integrate the newer levels and management features into Career mode,” Fletcher explains.
“This makes the mode feel a lot more rounded and better presented, with introductory tutorial levels to teach you the ropes, and over twenty subsequent parks that gradually increase in difficulty and introduce new management features along the way.
“Each level is now also framed with dialogue from our new cast of characters, who present the unique elements of each park and spur you on to achieve bigger and better things in your management career,” says Fletcher.
Still, this wealth of content at launch could be confusing for new players. So we ask Fletcher how they plan to onboard newcomers without overwhelming them?
“The original Planet Coaster was fairly bare bones in terms of tutorial and help features. With Planet Coaster: Console Edition not only did we want to improve on this area, we felt it was especially important given what a unique proposition this game is on console platforms.
“The main additions are two new tutorial levels that sit at the start of Career mode. These introduce the player to the core tenets of the game, with our new characters guiding you through the key areas of park construction, finances, guest management, and coaster creation. There is also a really handy resource of help screens that reside in the pause menu, and also appear at pertinent moments during the game, which offer a neat overview of the many toolsets and management options.
“Aside from specific new features, we’ve also approached the UI redesign and content presentation from a new player’s perspective. For example the object browsers, where players choose new content for their parks, have now been reorganised and bolstered with hundreds of new pre-built creations, which makes it a lot more straightforward to start placing down attractive rides, facilities and scenery, without having to get involved in the creative intricacies of piece-by-piece construction until you are ready.”
With all the work going on behind the scenes to make Planet Coaster’s creative process a seamless transition on consoles, the team is eager to ensure that all players will still be able to share their content, be it on PC or the
range of consoles.
“We have been both amazed and proud of all of the magnificent and incredibly detailed creations that the PC players have created and shared with the tools provided in Planet Coaster, and we want the console community to have that same experience.
“We’re letting players discover the creative freedom the game has to offer, building and sharing inspirational creations, growing the community at their own pace and inspiring others.
“As creating and sharing content is a core pillar of Planet Coaster’s DNA, we have created an exciting new seamlessly integrated workshop, which is available at any time during the game, allowing players to upload their own creations, as well as discover coasters, scenery, buildings and even entire parks created by the console community. We have made sharing on Planet Coaster: Console Edition a quick and easy process, so players can keep returning to find inspiration and ideas, or to share that iconic creation of their own and start to build a community of followers.”
Interview by Seth Barton, feature by Chris Wallace