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'Planet Coaster' Takes the Theme Park Game to Even Greater Heights

The makers of 'Rollercoaster Tycoon 3' and 'Thrillville' are returning with their most detailed simulation yet.
March 28, 2016, 5:00pm

All screens from the alpha of 'Planet Coaster'

Frontier Developments have form when it comes to simulation games. The Cambridge-based company's got the Elite series to its name, for one, and then there's 2013's Zoo Tycoon reboot for Xbox consoles. But amongst the sci-fi epics and zoological escapades there's a host of pleasure-filled theme park "builder" affairs, ranging from casual-appeal titles to those demanding a lot more concentration and commitment to get the most out of.

2004's RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 invited the player to build and manage every little aspect of a theme park as major as they wanted it to be. It featured a variety of customers, called "peeps," from children to teenagers to their parents, whose needs constantly required monitoring, and parks—or areas of them—that could be themed. Want a park with a pre-historic vibe, or a sci-fi day out for the family, or even both at the same location? Not a problem. Tycoon 3 was followed by a pair of expansions, Wild! (safaris and zoos) and Soaked! (water parks and aquariums), and Frontier went on to produce further theme park titles: the strategy-based Thrillville, Coaster Crazy for iOS, and the futuristic Screamride.

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In 2016, Frontier is releasing its most detailed theme park creation and management sim yet, Planet Coaster. The full game is expected toward the end of the year, but an alpha version featuring a small selection of the tools available in the finished product (but no actual coaster building) was made available on March 22. Just ahead of the alpha's launch, I spent an hour beside the game's lead artist John Laws, playing around with the endless possibilities available—building up and flattening terrain to create new areas for commercial use (and yes, obviously, I made some cock-and-balls shaped hills), setting up ground-level rides and connecting them to existing thoroughfares, building burger joints and shake shacks to fit a pirate theme, and shifting the day/night cycle to see my creation lit up like so many Christmas trees.

The user interface is, like most management sims, a little fiddly at first, with several layers of options in each category of assets. But give it ten minutes, and it feels as natural as swinging a Wii controller to strike a virtual tennis ball. And after my very enjoyable, eye-opening hands-on preview with Planet Coaster, a game that takes the Tycoon formula and spins it out into far greater scope, I spoke to Frontier's creative director Jonny Watts.

VICE: So I've been having a lot of fun here, just making my park, making sure that all of my little peeps are happy. Is that the real intent here—to have fun with the tools, create a monster park, and then share it with others online?
Jonny Watts: Well, you can play it that way. We are going to have a campaign mode, which will have some traditional bits that unlock, depending on what you complete—like, there will be sets of puzzles within certain scenarios. But that's just one facet of the game. If you can't have fun in a coaster game, we're missing something. So if you just want to play with unadulterated creativity and simply build the park of your dreams, as crazy as you want it, that's what we're working hard on achieving.

And in terms of the alpha, you're giving people some of the tools, but far from the full set. What do you hope to achieve from running the alpha, when it comes to feedback?
There are two threads to the alpha. One, I'm hoping to see some amazing castles and shops built out of all the modular scenery pieces, like fountains the size of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, just really crazy stuff. But I'm also hoping to get information on telemetry, about the flow, how hard is it to place assets, where are the little stumbling blocks. We're so close to the project, and we've played it for so long that we sort of skirt over some things that may not be quite correct. Also, the alpha is important for our usability testing: What can you learn in half an hour? From first impressions? This is a game with lots of longevity, so I want to know what our community is thinking about the controls a week into playing it, two weeks into it. That's when those things that may seem a little longwinded are actually fairly liberating, and give you a lot of control.

'Planet Coaster,' alpha launch livestream, showing off a lot more of the game's features (skip to two minutes in)

Frontier's got its history with theme park titles. But why come back to the genre now?
Yeah, we like to think we know a little about rollercoaster games. I started off on the expansion packs to RollerCoaster Tycoon 2, a 2D game, a beautiful game. I got totally wrapped up in it, I loved it, and I think that helped when it came to pitching Tycoon 3. We did that, and then Thrillville took things away from the super-simulation; Coaster Crazy was improving our coaster rendering technology. We even did Kinect: Disneyland Adventures, in which you couldn't build any coasters in it, but it was still about the fluid dynamics of how a crowd goes around. With each one of those games, we learned more and more, so when we had the chance to do Planet Coaster, with the revival of the simulation genre, we could really do things that are expanding upon all the different areas of this sort of game.

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How do you feel about the word "simulation," when it comes to pitching a new game to the public? Perhaps it's just me, but something about the word implies "work," and that's no way to have fun.
I think "simulation" did turn people off, from about 2000 to 2015. I don't think there were that many proper simulation games, and games in general got more dumbed down. But now we've got Cities: Skylines and Prison Architect proving that there is a market for these games. There are people like me, we still exist! But there are also younger players now who want to stretch their creativity. So yes, there's absolutely a market for simulation games now. We are working really hard on the user interface to ensure that its "nested complexity" is as simple as possible—in other words, that it's really easy to put things down. And the park will function, and the guests will go here and there. But if you spend a little extra time on customizing your shop, putting up signs, making sure the theming's correct, and its positioning is ideal, you'll extract more money. So it's all about depth and longevity.

And making money.
Well, that is one of the aims in the game, and a lot of players are very into maximizing their profits. I think it was John (Laws), actually, who said about this that what you're doing is trying to build this marvelous, mechanical machine full of coasters and rides and scenery, to extract the maximum amount of money out of pockets. And that's true to the simulation pitch—the game is so deep that everything you build feeds into this economic simulation.

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And there must also be the appeal of making things that you just couldn't in real life, practically. I mean, a fountain the size of the Leaning Tower… that's doable, sure, but its cost effectiveness must be questionable, for real.
It's a mixture of reality and fantasy, for sure—a lot of the terraforming options, for example, are things you really cannot do in real life. But when it comes to the coasters themselves, we're really trying to make them believable, so that you have that connection with them. If we made them too fantastical, when people were being catapulted from here to there, players wouldn't feel it was real. Rollercoasters can be scary things, in the real world—you go on some of the really good ones, and you're really thinking that you're not going to make it.

Hands up, I am a total coward with these things. Which is why I'm happy to ride the Planet Coaster attractions, from the first-person perspective, and do my extreme coasting that way.
Some people really love riding the coasters; others just want to build them. But I like that this is a game with many different facets that you can hook into.

And after the alpha, what's the timeline like for Planet Coaster?
There will be another alpha, which will be interesting. We want to use these alphas to help us make the game better. I make this statement, and it sounds obvious, but it's true: You don't start off with a finished game. We start off with a blank canvas. We think we know how to make coasters. We've done our time there, so that's not a risk. That's why those are coming later. Right now, we're aiming to get the user interface right, and test our rendering of thousands of people. Can they navigate around these paths? We're doing things that really haven't been done before, and that's why this game is going to be great. The crowd is so important—they have to physically get onto that ride, or buy that burger. And when you see that number saying there are 2,000 people in your park, there really are—this isn't a cod-simulation guesstimation. It's done from first principles. You have to entice your guests to go to these areas of your park. And we needed to test this, to get this right. We will have thousands of individual figures moving around in your park. So you'd best make sure there are enough bins, and toilets. That balance is going to be a challenge.

Find more information about Planet Coaster at the game's official website.

Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.