RollerCoaster Tycoon, the theme park building and management simulator, is one of those games that is quietly way bigger than you think. The series has generated over $220 million in North American sales and sold 14.4 million units worldwide since the first 2D game launched in 1999. More than a decade later, stories about players creating terrible and amazing coasters are still going viral.
The management simulation genre and the theme park management simulation sub-genre specifically is not one that every big games publisher in the industry is competing in with annual releases and multi-million dollar marketing campaigns, but one that is due for a comeback. Much like last year when Cities: Skylines proved there was an opportunity in the market for a city-building game after SimCity dropped the ball, the right theme park game at the right time could similarly strike gold.
After seeing a fair bit of RollerCoaster Tycoon World at Atari's offices in New York, I'm choosing to be optimistic when I say that it could very well be that game, though it's been a troubled journey for the series. At the least, it seems like Atari is trying its hardest not to fuck it up.
"This is certainly the most important brand, the most important franchise that we're working on now and we treat it as such," Atari COO Todd Shallbetter told me. "We're throwing everything we have at this, all of our resources, because not only do we believe in the franchise and believe it can be commercially successful, we also hold it in the highest regard as fans."
RollerCoaster Tycoon, based on the reputation of its name alone, should be the obvious contender for the next big theme park game. But publisher Atari, which now owns the rights to RollerCoaster Tycoon, has made several critical errors along the way.
Chief among those is RollerCoaster Tycoon 4, a free-to-play mobile game with all the disgusting monetization schemes of a FarmVille. If the RollerCoaster Tycoon games were loved for letting players create and customize unique theme parks, RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 committed the unforgivable sin of locking those customization options behind a series of small, real money purchases.
And then there was the first RollerCoaster Tycoon World trailer. It just looked bad and dated before it was even released, as if someone made the mistake of revealing early footage far too early. The game then switched developers a couple of times before it landed with Nvizzio Creations (a former Funcom team that previously worked on massively multiplayer online games), and got a beta test that was received so poorly the team decided to delay its initially planned release date.
That's a lot of baggage and good reason to be skeptical. At the moment, RollerCoaster Tycoon fans have more faith in Planet Coaster, another theme park building game that's being developed by Frontier Developments, which created RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 and more recently the space sim Elite: Dangerous.
However, based on my demo with RollerCoaster Tycoon World, the delay seems to have paid off.
Much like SimCity, the old RollerCoaster Tycoon games were a hit not because of what the developers made, but what they allowed players to create, and Atari and Nvizzio seem to realize this.
For example, a major reason for the delay was the the coaster-designing tool. RollerCoaster Tycoon World has two broad categories of rides: readymade rides that a player can just plop down in the middle of their park—carousels, ferris wheels, etc—and coasters, which players can design on their own if they want. Players' feedback from the beta test was that the coaster-designing tool wasn't up to snuff, so back in the oven it went. A few months later, it looks pretty great.
Players can intuitively adjust the angle, height, and speed on every turn, drop, and loop. In the park that we built for my demonstration, Viceland, I saw executive producer Matt Labunka easily and quickly draw rails in the air by pulling the mouse cursor above the park. Where he didn't like the angle on a turn, he clicked on the rails, and pulled them in the desired direction. Within only a few minutes, we were looking at an insane, totally unique coaster that would put anything Six Flags has to shame.
Luckily, we looked at a test run before we let people on the ride. Players ride coasters in first person to see what riders see, and before I even had time to ask, Labunka said that yes, they are looking at virtual reality integration so you can design virtual reality coasters to scare your grandma.
I wouldn't put my grandma on the coaster we designed for the demo, however, because the cars went too fast into one of the twists, which launched them off the tracks and flying all over the park. The park visitors, or "peeps," as they're called in the game, wouldn't like that, and making peeps happy to spend money on rides is basically the point of the game.
On that front, the simulation seems deep enough to make RollerCoaster Tycoon World a good management simulator in addition to a crazy rollercoaster laboratory. Even the data players can get from a single coaster is impressive. With a click of a button, the game color-coded the tracks so I could see which sections were making peeps excited, bored, nauseous, and more.
The same principle extends to the rest of the park. Different peeps are attracted to different kinds of rides, themes, and food. Striking a balance so most of them are happy and willing to spend money on overpriced theme park food and hats, making sure the park has enough staff to repair rides, clean up after all that vomit, and entertain peeps waiting in line, seemed like just the kind of tinkering that made Cities: Skylines a surprise hit.
The hope is that, depending on what your peeps want and how you address those needs, your park will look completely different than any other park. That variety, and the weird parks people make just to test the limits of the simulation, is what keeps this kind of game alive years after release. Atari knows this based on its experience with previous games, which is why RollerCoaster Tycoon World is built with the social aspects of the genre in mind.
Players are not only able to share specific coaster designs and entire parks with other players, they're also able to create entirely new art assets from scratch.
RollerCoaster Tycoon World is built with the Unity game engine, which allows modders to import anything they create with a 3D modeling tool of their choice. Players can then also share their creations via Steam's integrated user-generated content community, Steam Workshop, so it's easy to imagine it will overflow with weird creations, just like Cities: Skylines did shortly after release.
Of course, many terrible things can happen to RollerCoaster Tycoon World between now and when it's released later this year for $50. Demos like the ones I saw are highly controlled situations, and for all we know, the game will crumble under the pressure of a thousands of fans who want it to be the rightful heir to the RollerCoaster Tycoon name. For now, though, it at least looks like a serious contender again, which is a huge improvement compared to everything we've seen until now.