Chris Sawyer on Transport Tycoon, management games, and not coming back to the PC

Transport Tycoon on iOS pilfers graphics from later remake, Locomotion.

There was always something modest about Transport Tycoon when compared to its more megalomanic peer, SimCity. Sole Scottish designer Chris Sawyer didn’t want us to play god, mayor, or statesman. We were just the bus guy – and if that happened to economically rejuvenate the entire area, then that was great too.

On the eve of Transport Tycoon’s re-release for mobile phones, we asked Sawyer if that modesty still appealed to him.

“Yes, it does,” he said. “I think I’ve always felt I was happier being the guy on the ground doing things rather than remotely running them, and perhaps that’s reflected in the game too.”

Transport Tycoon was published by Microprose in 1994: the year of X-Com.

Both games asked players to conquer every tile of an isometric map. But where the Gollops followed Civ in handing players the globe as their domain, Sawyer positioned us as a lowly transport startup, jostling for space and business with AI competitors set on aggressive expansion.

The game was never to lead the little people – visible only as numbers ticking ever upward at the stations – but to cater to their needs. Build a handful of bus stops, sit back to see where more are needed, and you’ll begin to appreciate one of the management genre’s secret truths – that it’s more satisfying to be observer than visionary.

That was twenty years ago. But Chris Sawyer has reworked Transport Tycoon for mobiles, and there’s an argument to be made that it’s more relevant now, after a real-life economic crisis. Starting a new scenario for the first time, players are confronted by a network of towns so devastated as to look post-apocalyptic.

“That’s an interesting observation!”, said Sawyer. “Yes, perhaps it [is more relevant], and it also demonstrates how a superior transportation system can bring prosperity and growth to a devastated area.”

Where XCOM and the turn-based tactics genre have had their cultural and commercial resurgence, management games have been denied the mainstream comeback they deserve – living on instead in promising early access projects like Prison Architect and Maia.

There’s a new Theme Park, and a new Dungeon Keeper. But perhaps because of their superficial resemblance to Zynga’s work, both series have taken on trappings from social games – and neither seem to have resonated with fans.

That’s something Sawyer has noticed too.

“It’s easier for developers to jump on the Facebook-style bandwagon and because of this, it is very difficult to break that trend,” he said.

“I think there’s room for both styles, and I hope Transport Tycoon starts a trend for bringing more in-depth strategy/sim games to mobile rather than over-simplifying them or changing the design to suit free-to-play with in-app purchases.”

Of course, mobile isn’t the only place lacking polished, playful, in-depth sims. It’s been a decade since Sawyer’s last PC game – the spiritual Transport Tycoon sequel Locomotion – but he says any future plans for bringing the series back to the PC “depend on how the PC market evolves”.

Sawyer thinks there’s always room to make the game “bigger and more detailed”, and maintains that the “playing with a model railway” backbone of Transport Tycoon makes it as fun to design as it is to play. But even the wealth of train and transport simulation sims that have found unprecedented success on Steam haven’t tempted him to return to PC development.

“It’s something we might look at, but at the moment we’re concentrating on the mobile and tablet market because we think it suits the game so well,” he said of his efforts with small studio 31X Ltd.

Transport Tycoon for phones is hardly the explicit PC management comeback we’ve seen happen on Kickstarter for adventure gaming or RPGs. Even finding a copy of the original game on PC involves braving second-hand sellers or the iffy legal territory of abandonware sites.

But with men like Chris Sawyer back on the ground working to rejuvenate a genre devastated by neglect and misappropriation, maybe it’s only a matter of time. Perhaps Transport Tycoon on Android is the village bus service that winds up getting the factory fires burning again.