A few weeks before the launch of the Planet Coaster closed alpha—a perk for those who bought the “Early Bird Edition” of the game—Frontier Developments’ Jonny Watts is scolding his team. Rather than work on squashing bugs in the game’s complex path-finding system, or making sure that the tiny details on flat (pre-made) rides were correct, they were making roller coasters and theme parks. Some of them had been at it for days, obsessively chipping away at their creations using tools like environmental deformation and coaster editing that wouldn’t even be in the alpha.
“We still have jobs to do,” he told them.
Deadlines or not, how better to show a game works than a group of people who can’t stop playing it? At the very least, there was plenty to show on press day. There are wonderfully complex roller coasters that slide effortlessly through the sides of hills and across other rides, and parks with a slick pirate theme made up of carefully placed wooden barrels and caged skeletons. Most impressive is a coaster that twirls around a huge tree in the middle of a park, a product of careful track placement and the game’s pre-production environmental deformation tools.
These are just a glimpse of what’s possible in Planet Coaster. As a spiritual successor to the Frontier-developed RollerCoaster Tycoon 3—itself a sequel to ex-Frontier employee Chris Sawyer’s RollerCoaster Tycoon 2, Planet Coaster is suitably deep; a hardcore strategy sim for those with a penchant for clowns over conflict. The aim is to build a theme park, placing down paths and shops and rides and giving visitors places to line up for them. Parks have to be entertaining, yet expertly designed to extract as much cash out of customers as possible.
Everything is based on the first principle that customers have a particular amount of money in their pockets, which they use to buy entrance to the park, burgers from food stalls, and riding rides. Planet Coaster doesn’t approximate this. If there are 50 people in the park, then there are 50 people rendered on screen, each with their own wants and needs and cash supplies. Success is about intelligent design. Sure, you can plonk down a few rides and a few paths and you might make a few quid. But placing the best rides at the back of the park to lead guests past gift shops, or placing toilets near a overly quiet ride can give it a boost: these are the expert techniques that turn a Blackpool Pleasure Beach into a Walt Disney World resort.
This is the sort of thing that gets Watts up in the morning. Despite spending nearly every day making a game about roller coasters and theme parks, Watts is a self-confessed theme park addict; a super-fan that has taken his family on a tour of nearly every major theme park in the world. “My kids love me,” he says, before waxing lyrical about his two favourite roller coasters in the world: the Grand National at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, a wooden mobius strip roller coaster built in 1935, and Shambhala: Expedición al Himalaya, a “hyper coaster” in Spain’s PortAventura park that sports a 78-metre drop, and speeds of up to 83mph. Watts even keeps a picture of the coaster as the background on his iPhone.