In the world of simulation games, Chris Sawyer’s RollerCoaster Tycoon is a timeless classic. It is a masterpiece which cleverly employs a range of simple techniques in its fairly traditional design to replicate a life-like image of the perfect 90s amusement park. The name RollerCoaster evokes a sense of thrill, as evidently, the odd-looking bogey locomotes on tracks that run high and then descends rapidly through cool air. In fact, the name itself denotes the core idea behind the game and what you are expected to do in it. It is here that you build your ideal theme park and the roller coaster is the ultimate symbol of entertainment.
Sawyer, in an interview with Eurogamer, said that he does not have any particular design philosophy which underpins his games. He said that he “worked on ideas which he thought were fun at the time. They’re games where you build things block-by-block in a rather simplistic and restrictive environment, and then interact with those models to keep things working well, improving and re-building things when needed and being rewarded for constructive skills and good management.” The word “simple,” as you will observe, will be reiterated several times during the course of our journey.
In this article, I will discuss extensively the idea behind RCT’s game design and how it excels as a simulation game using extremely simple but restrictive methods.
CORE DESIGN — BUILDING (GRID SYSTEM)
RollerCoaster Tycoon follows a common tile/grid pattern building system where every item occupies a certain amount of tiles. This may vary from one tile to numerous, but never less than one (except a few decoration pieces like flowers and fountains). There are different icons present inside a GUI located at the top of the game screen. There is no integrated building menu. However, there are separate options for separate sets of action, like laying down roads or terraforming – digging, creating mountains, hills. All of these revolve around the principle tile system. Roads/footpaths must be laid one grid at a time by clicking on the grid and connecting them. Alternatively, the roads can be raised ever so slightly to make footpath bridges with higher elevation. Terraforming, on the other hand, is a bit complex. There are essentially two options for terraforming, one for digging and increasing elevation (ref img. 1.0), the other one for adding water (ref img. 1.1). For the former, the ground can be dug into by clicking on a piece of land and simply dragging the mouse downward, to increase elevation drag it upward. If you want to elevate the vertices specifically, move the cursor to the corner of the grid. When the vertices are highlighted, click and hold and slightly drag the mouse up (ref img. 1.2, 1.3, 1.4) or down (ref img. 1.5). The area you wish to terraform can be increased or decreased by clicking on the positive (+) or negative (-) buttons in the terraforming box.
Adding water follows a similar procedure. The first step is to dig a hole and then selecting the option from above, hover the cursor over the pit so that it is highlighted. Then simply click and drag the mouse (ref img. 2.0, 2.1). Sometimes, it can be a bit difficult to see the highlighted area if the spaded ground is only one grid and goes several grids deep. Funnily, the elevation of the water can be higher than the normal ground level. The pixels somehow do not overflow (ref img. 2.2).
Over on the building menu, there are various things that can be constructed inside your amusement park. Starting from rides to decorations to public convenience buildings like burger shops and drink stores. Every building, as mentioned above, occupies a certain amount of space, which makes planning a challenging aspect of the game. There are separate menus for buildings/rides and decorations with additional sub-menus (ref img. 3.0, 3.1).
In the beginning, the space allotted for your park may appear huge but clearly is not. Packing every bit of infrastructure and every single ride inside this tiny space is not possible. Which brings us to the second part of the core design. RollerCoaster Tycoon allows you to expand your amusement park by purchasing plots. Plots can be purchased to be added to the amusement park or construction rights can be bought for building outside the boundaries of your park. (ref img. 4.0, 4.1). The following actions can be performed after selecting the main entrance of your park, then clicking on the highlighted button in the picture.
ECONOMY & MANAGEMENT
If the building system is the heart of the game, the economy is its brain. RollerCoaster Tycoon’s most laborious aspect is maintaining a proper balance between negatives and the positives. The moment you install a new ride, it will become the most popular attraction in your park, giving all the others a run for their money. There is no external system to monitor the popularity of individual rides. A reason why I found myself going over each ride individually to find out what the guests think about them. So far, that is the only way to determine the popularity of a ride. Guests have a pre-programmed thought process. They will criticize, complain and praise many things in your park, starting from cleanliness to safety. Sometimes, the popularity of a certain ride will drop and the resultant effect will lead to the increased popularity of another one. It is a changeless cycle that will give you a hard time if you have a sizable property to manage. You will soon find yourself over-encumbered with the burden of dropping and increasing prices. Whatever you do, a profit is not guaranteed. If you market your product right, it will sell. There comes the role of advertisements and marketing. There are options aplenty which let you sell coupons for rides for free or at half-price, even advertise your park or particular rides (ref img. 5.0). This is where things get dicey. Remember, profit is not guaranteed. If you market the right item at the right time you receive satisfying results. But the existence of an external monitoring system in the game makes it exceedingly difficult because advertisements are quite expensive.
There is a certain advantage of the Finance tab. It provides you with a clean chart in the form of line graph representations of whether the park is making profits or suffering a loss (ref img. 5.1).
RESEARCH & FUNDING
There are buildings that do not appear on the building tab from the beginning. In order to unlock them, one has to research them (ref img. 6.0). The research system is fairly simple, probably owing to the limitations of the engine. The mode of conducting research necessitates capital investment or funding. You can choose how much money you want to pour into your research (ref img. 6.1, 6.2), albeit the options are unintelligible. Even I don’t know how much money will be siphoned off your bank after you hit ‘maximum funding’. Or you can say, I was a little paranoid to try as I worked very hard to bring my amusement park to a certain stage of stability. Furthermore, there is no way of choosing what you want to research particularly. It provides you with categories. Checking one of them will lead to the selection of an attraction at random to be researched. Thus, over-simplicity has its own drawbacks. Running dry? Don’t worry, the game gives you an easy way out too, just cut the funding and the research will stop immediately.
WHAT MAKES IT SO SPECIAL
There are many games that boast visual excellence but RollerCoaster Tycoon has built its legacy on its simplicity of design. What enhances its playability is perhaps the little details― tiny pixel characters meandering through asphalt paths, how they litter your park if there aren’t enough trash cans or how they quickly open their umbrellas when it starts raining. It does not fall into the category of difficult games, neither is it a compounded melange of complex materials. It is like a very old comfort food item. You don’t eat it so you can stay healthy but so you get to taste how well it is cooked, relish all the ingredients. RollerCoaster Tycoon is to be enjoyed in a similar manner, not just to reminisce the past of video games but also to relish the traditional delight.