RollerCoaster Tycoon: A Timeless Design ~ Design Doc


Roller Coaster Tycoon is an all-time classic. It holds up incredibly well today even after
20 years of advancements in game design. And like so many other gaming classics, it’s
been remade, copied, mobilized, revived, and had spiritual successors, all with the same
basic idea, but with wildly different results. Let’s take a tour of Roller Coaster Tycoon,
its sequels, and some of its competitors, and see what made the design of the original
work so well, and how the others have tried to recapture its magic. 20 years ago Chris Sawyer and a VERY small
team made Roller Coaster Tycoon and boy does RCT feel like the late 90’s. This game has tons of UI cues taken straight
from Windows 98. Even the default prices of concessions scream
late 90’s. Hamburgers for $1.50? Drinks for $1.20? That’s adorable. Just to give you some perspective, Roller
Coaster Tycoon was launched on the same year as Diablo 2, the first Sims game, the Sega
Dreamcast, and Super Smash Brothers for the N64. It’s been a while, so it’s no surprise
that parts of RCT feel a little dated. But the game holds up incredibly well despite
its age. Below the worn surface is the game’s core
of not one but two great game design overtures merged into one – an intuitive coaster design
engine and a robust management simulation. These design elements are the backbone that
makes Roller Coaster Tycoon so beloved and they work as well today as they did back in
1999. The first layer is the coaster design engine. RCT is all about designing your own theme
park with amazing roller coasters, but it wasn’t the first game with that hook. Theme Park, from 1994, let you ‘design’
a, well, a theme park, but you could only drop in pre-fab rides, make pretty basic tracks,
queue up some lines and that’s it. Better than nothing, but not super creative. Roller Coaster Tycoon gave players a more
complete set of tools for designing in 3 dimensions. The game wasn’t rendering the tracks in
3D – a small team of developers in the late 90’s would be hard pressed to put out a full
3D game, much less one that would still run on low end hardware. So, the game was built using tiles and pre-rendered
sprites. Avoiding full 3D modeling came with a benefit
that wouldn’t be clear until years later. It’s really, really tough to make a true
3D park designer system work well. The latest games in this genre mostly use
a splines system where you make smooth curves and natural shapes for coaster tracks and
walking paths. It lets you make great looking designs if
you put the time in, but these splines systems can be really tricky to use. Weaving a track through terrain, around obstacles,
and back onto itself can be a giant headache. Something that looks perfect from one angle
can look like garbage from another. You can easily end up with an ugly hitch or
bump where you’re trying to force two ends of your coaster together. None of that is a problem in RCT1. The game limits your design to tiles you can
snap together instead of spline curves. You can’t get every track angle to work
in RCT1, but you can still make good designs, and tiles are just way easier to work with. A freeform coaster designer by itself is just
a creative tool. To make it a game you need to add some rules. There were some basic ones like how different
building materials let you build banked turns, or that some types of coasters were cheaper
than others. But maybe the most impressive piece of RCT’s
coaster engine is how the game models the rides you’re making. As fast as you can make your designs the game
will tell you how fun or intense your ride will be for your customers. Design a quick loop and the game will tell
you that it’s boring. Design something that looks more fun and the
game will let you know you did well. Most of the time the modeling engine gives
plausible reviews about your coasters which gives players another incentive for tinkering
with their coaster designs. You can optimize your coaster for the most
fun without making people lose their lunch, or make it a 15-G death trap. The modeling engine pairs creative freedom
with automatic feedback, which gives the game a ton of replayability. Roller Coaster Tycoon could’ve been an interesting
game with just the coaster designer – games like Factorio, Minecraft, and the Animal Crossing
series do well with a big focus on creative elements. But on top of the coaster engine is a second
layer of the design – a great management sim. If you strip away the theming, management
sims are more or less a progression system. Like an RPG, you set out to build stats and
guide development according to the options at your disposal. Instead of a character, in RCT you’re developing
your theme park business. Instead of taking actions to boost magic or
strength, you’re boosting customer opinions, cleanliness, and profit. Management sims and RPGs both use the mechanics
of progression but each with different facades. The building blocks of the simulation in RCT
are the park guests, officially called ‘peeps’. Each peep is modeled with surprising detail,
especially for a game from that era. They all have needs meters, kinda like The
Sims, and they wander the park to handle those needs. They react to new park rides, new concession
stands, price changes, layout problems, park conditions, and more. The way the game simulates hundreds of peeps
is really impressive for the time and works to make the management sim feel realistic. Management sims can get away with a lot of
other sins of game development if they can just make you believe you’re running the
show. Look at Football Manager or Out of the Park
Baseball, two games that simulate managing a pro sports team. They’re impenetrable for the people who
aren’t fans of the sport, they look like math homework, they have no music, no story
but the one you make for yourself, but they still work as games because of how well they
incorporate progression mechanics to make you believe you’re the person in charge
of your favorite baseball or soccer team. Now what if you could combine the structure
and mechanics of a management sim with something with a little more creative flair? Sound familiar? RCT uses the management sim as a vehicle to
add replayability and ‘stickiness’ to the game. The creative coaster design engine and the
substantial management sim work together to cover up each other’s faults. It’s a management sim, but it’s colorful,
fun, and easy to get into. It’s a creative sandbox with concrete goals,
progression, and strategy. The marriage of gameplay elements keeps people
interested in the game for longer than the coaster designer or the management sim could
do on their own. The core of RCT works as a blueprint for other
games to follow, and the others in the genre have clearly taken cues from RCT1, but they
all put their own spin on it. RCT2 was practically an expansion pack – a
good game, with solid additions to the formula, but really just a refinement of RCT1. RCT3 was a more dramatic revamp with a transition
to 3D. It still doesn’t use a splines system – the
build tools are still all about tiles, they’re just now actually rendered real time in 3D. The game’s aesthetics haven’t aged well
but the gameplay is still mostly the same. It’s good. It was also the last game that Chris Sawyer
worked on. *crash noise* Roller Coaster Tycoon 4 Mobile was an uninspired, glitchy cash grab, full of the worst of the
worst in mobile game design – wait timers, a pretty heinous microtransaction scheme,
features stripped out from the previous games. It handcuffs creative freedom, and completely
erodes the foundation of the original game’s design. RCT World is the most recent series release,
but it’s another bad imitation. The art direction is dull. You sometimes have to fight the camera and
interface. It chugs even on powerful computers if you
let it run long enough. On top of that, the creation tools are a mess. The game shows why a 3D splines system is
so tricky to implement. The jank breaks sidewalks at the drop of a
hat. RCT World is a buggy mess. Even if it has all the right design components
on paper, the execution ruins the fun. Your imagination can’t run free if you’re
waiting for the framerate to recover. You can’t get lost in the fantasy of running
a park if your guests glitch out, your terrain won’t behave, or the game crashes to the
desktop. It’s a shame that the series has struggled
to return to the highs of the first game, but other studios have tried to get there. Parkitect is promising, and it’s strongly
inspired by the original, but it’s mostly a sandbox for now. It’s still pretty early. The most interesting offshoot to talk about
is Planet Coaster. Developed by the same studio that made RCT3,
Planet Coaster’s biggest innovation is how it improves the fidelity and usability of
the tools used for making coasters and decorating your park exactly as you imagine it. The tools are still a little finicky, but
they give you enough control where if you really invest the time you can make some truly
stunning works of coaster art with themed elements, timed events, and countless configurations. The fantastic coaster design half of the equation
is paired with a management sim that is largely the same as RCT, but feels kind of like a
missed opportunity. The basic elements of the sim are all there,
and Planet Coaster does add a couple of items that weren’t in RCT, but they’re pretty
superficial. There are tons of options in concession stands
for what to sell and for how much, but the options don’t really matter. You can choose to sell or not sell different
toppings in the ice cream store for example, but it’s not clear that your guests actually
care one way or the other. *high pitched rising ‘AAAH’ noise* The new ride queue rating system matters a lot for getting park guests interested in
your ride but you can just stick random garbage near the line and still get a 100% rating. Look at this! 100%. Full stars. Would wait again. The game doesn’t do much to solve one of
the bigger problems of the original game. If you run into cash flow problems, you don’t
really have much to do until you dig yourself out of the hole. Especially if you’ve already taken out loans. On one hand, it’s a testament to the design
of the original that a repeat of the management sim design is still fun but you’d think
that at least some of the new additions would contribute more to the experience. The game’s way less buggy than RCT World,
but still a little buggier than you would like. It’s not perfect, and Planet Coaster isn’t
as beginner-friendly as RCT1 was, but it’s definitely the best 3D coaster builder and
a good game in its own right. Roller Coaster Tycoon is a great example of
two genres merging to form something better than the sum of their parts. Chris Sawyer and his team made a game that
was easy to start, addicting, and deep enough to keep players coming back for years. It’s a great design and it’s just as playable
today as it was 20 years ago. There’s no reason it can’t go 20 more. [Chill vibes outro music from Roller Coaster
Tycoon 3]

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