Planet Coaster could well destroy… if not lives themselves, then certainly the social variants. If you’ve ever meticulously raised the salt content of fries to increase the sales of drinks in Theme Park then you’ll know exactly what we’re on about; hours fly by in these sorts of games as you incrementally adjust ticket prices, lower wages, or add an on-ride camera section to //every damn coaster//, all in a bid to maximise profits.
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For Rollercoaster Tycoon fans, that’s been a sorely forgotten sort of experience, with the most recent theme park simulation games focusing heavily on the intricate – almost obtuse – construction of the rides and less on the business management side of things. It’s been a decade since Frontier Developments made Rollercoaster Tycoon 3, and boy does it feel like it.
Frontier Developments are terming Planet Coaster, their return journey into park simulation, the “next evolution” of the genre. This is a “ground up” deal, promising to maintain that familiar sense of business acuity alongside all-new, modern features.
“If you ignore the people underneath the rides and coasters they turn into a particle system without any thought or anything,” says John Laws, art director at Frontier, of the team’s approach to the simulation running beneath Planet Coaster. “And then all you’re doing is dressing a doll’s house, because when you’re actually thinking about the little guy and then the crowd and how they mesh on both a financial and an enjoyment level with the stuff in the park, that’s a deep simulation.”
Much like the Rollercoaster Tycoon games that Planet Coaster is a spiritual successor of, the guests in your park all have their own wants, needs and preferences; your job is to find out what those are, and exploit them for hard cash. Every single guest is being tracked in the underlying simulation, too, from the money they have left to just how intense a ride they can handle.
But that’s not where the innovation lies. No, that would be the game’s animation system – which you need to keep a close eye on.
“The game is going to be reporting back to you in a very visual way,” claims Laws. “Everything that you do in the game you’re going to see the repercussions of, and it’s going to come across in the crowd, at an individual level.” He’s talking specifically about the way your guests will react to your park.
In among that gorgeous, Pixar-esque art style is a system whereby your visitors aren’t simply cattle being shunted from one pumping station to the next; here they’re characters that follow their urges, avoid glancing into passers-by, travel in groups, and wear their emotions visibly. They won’t be ethereal, transient money pinatas waiting to be smashed open but active, almost tangible //people//.
“So with the variable width paths and the curvaceous paths that we’ve got going on,” Laws explains, “if you consider the guests as the lifeblood of your park – carrying all the cash that you need to build more things – if you start creating congestions with placing entertainment or kiosks or whatever that’s going to become a problem, and so you’ve got instant gameplay right in front of you.”
You may never have got pumped up about crowd management before, but this is something that rollercoaster park sims haven’t ever really attempted to tackle before. That, in itself, is pretty exciting.
There’s a real Sims vibe to Planet Coaster from what we’re told, with the highly emotive visitors making it very clear how they’re feeling. And just like Maxis’ long-running series, that colourful art style masks an incredible amount of detail. Sam Denney, lead artist on Planet Coaster, tells us of the “need for quite high detail, high geometry”, especially when it comes to the rides themselves.
“You know, the motors are all there and the brake fins, and the wheel assemblies articulate correctly, so there’s a real challenge to build all this stuff and make it feel realistic.”
This depth of detail goes into the concealed complexity of the game, too, with Denney adding that Planet Coaster has a “nested complexity” that every item – from kiosks and flat rides to track building and coaster configurations – can be opened up so “you can delve into that, and there are more and more options and you can open up a tree of configurations.”
This is integral, claims Denney, to appealing to both the hardcore and the casual audience. “On the outset,” he says, “you can see it in its simplest form that you go in and there are deeper and deeper levels so you can actually cover both demographics and give everyone a taste of what they want without hindering anyone by making it too complex or too simple at the same time.”
This is all well and good, of course, but how can anyone be so sure that Planet Coaster really is going to fulfil the demands of such a highly critical fanbase? That we’ll really be getting the ‘spiritual successor’ that we crave?
“We made Rollercoaster Tycoon 3,” says Denney proudly, “we’re really the only people who can make a true successor to that game – it was a really, really successful game, and we’ve still got the experience and the knowledge and the passion to make that game again and better.”
Laws agrees, adding that Frontier has “the ancestry, if you like, of RCT3 working at this place and we have key people who were key at the time. I think there is a knowledge base here that allows us to make that statement.”
It feels strange to say it, but the coaster park simulation genre is becoming crowded of late – with Atari’s own Rollercoaster Tycoon World due later this year, work on the classic RCT-inspired Parkitect coming along nicely, and even simulation-heavy Theme Park Studio providing a constant string of updates since its Early Access release. More than ever before there’s significant competition within the genre, which – as Laws puts it – “is going to drive Frontier forward”.
It’s partly Frontier’s history that gives Planet Coaster its credence, but as much as the team has the heritage, what’s most obvious is the passion – if not solely for Planet Coaster then for the genre as a whole. “We’re not just building a game to launch,” adds Denney. “We’re building something that’s going to keep going on.”
Whether Planet Coaster will live up to the prestigious name it is inspired from only time will tell, but there’s no faulting Frontier’s determination, even with the threat of a voracious – and often fickle – fanbase looming over them.
“We understand that and we’re not nervous,” says Laws, “but we certainly realise we’ve got to live up to it. It can easily just be a throwaway marketing comment, but we know that’s what we want to do.”