Over the past 12 years, Frontier has made leaps and bounds of progress in the arena of sim gaming, evidenced by the debut of its new build-your-own-theme-park game Planet Coaster.
The game is revolutionary for several reasons: each simulated character in the theme park possesses his or her own "Guest Brain" that dictates individualised behavior; the game employs absolutely stunning visuals that transport users into the worlds they create; and every detail behind park design, down to the nuts and bolts of the coasters, has been crafted with meticulous care.
Last but not least, it’s just heaps of fun to play.
Below, we take a look at how the makers behind Planet Coaster brought this stunning game to life.
There’s a reason that real-life amusement parks can get away with charging absurd amounts for those snapshots of riders’ expressions at the crux of a coaster’s freefall: The looks on guests’ faces are often priceless.
Planet Coaster doesn’t disappoint when it comes to replicating these expressions, along with other satisfying details such as characters who run rampant dressed in full T-Rex costume. The entire game is infused with a quirky personality.
Bringing these details to life was no easy feat for the game’s designers, and the process began at the micro level — with the individual park guest.
Park guests, with their idiosyncratic personalities and individual needs and desires, are the lifeblood of the game. The whole objective of gameplay is to keep these guests happy — and encourage them to spend their money. Planet Coaster’s developers and artists spent countless hours addressing details such as the expressiveness of the individual sim characters, as well as the unique way each guest interacts with other characters in the park.
The developers began the process by creating a single character, Park Guy, as a test subject. Dozens of factors were considered in Park Guy’s infancy: What would the texture of his clothes look like? What kind of silhouette would he cast? How could he be distinguishable from the viewpoint of 30+ meters above the park (the standard view during gameplay)?
Once these elements had been solidified, Stefan Scheffers, the principal character artist, built out an entire family for Guy, as well as a number of characters of different ages, genders and ethnicities.
The Guest Brain, or Planet Coaster’s signature crowd dynamics system, is another impressive element developed early on in the prototyping process. Essentially, this system manages the ebb and flow of park guests through your park as you create and change it. The developers began with a "white-box" system that tested both the rides and the scenery, as well an incredible number of possible paths that guests can take to navigate through the park.
The team knew they’d created something special.
"There wasn’t a single person on the team who wasn’t excited at the potential of the crowd system we had made," says Frontier.
"Brand entertainer" characters were also born in the game’s development stage. For example, Chief Beef, a meat patty-shaped entertainer, interacts with park guests and attempts to entice them to buy burgers. Gulpee Rex is a lovable, charming T-Rex who runs around and entertains the crowds on behalf of the game’s soda franchise.
"Planet Coaster is full of personality. It’s full of character. When we do everything from designing the characters to the rides to the animations, we always look at the charm and the personality behind it," says John Laws, the game’s director of art.
Developing rides that are just as much fun as the real deal
The next step for developers was crafting the game world’s environment, and most importantly, the rides.
The goal was to create authentic, realistic rides influenced both by real-world coasters as well as iconic machines — with a dash of imagination added in.
"To create something exceptional takes endeavour and imagination," says Frontier, explaining that the "simplicated" (pun intended) nature of game development was instrumental to the final product’s stunning result.
"Every nut and every bolt is considered. We don’t do half measures; we are totally dedicated to the authenticity."
A great deal of prototyping went into making the coasters as realistic as possible. Seat designs, complex track systems, the scale of the rides and even the booths from which the rides are "controlled" by park staff were all taken into account. The developers also created diagrams to determine what the spatial relationships between the rides and the guests would look like (i.e. how guests would look getting on and off the rides, etc.).
"Almost every element on a coaster can change," says Sam Denney, Planet Coaster’s lead artist, explaining that there is practically an endless list of things that can be altered from one coaster to the next. "Some coasters are completely electric — from the electrical launch systems to the electrical braking system — which means you can get a totally quiet and seamless experience. But then, you get really heavy, mechanical rides like the wooden coasters. There are many rules to it, but no two coasters are the same."
James Taylor, the game’s senior designer, calls Planet Coaster’s rides a "good balance between realism and accessible physics." In fact, quite a lot of scientific data went into the game’s development.
"What we did was comparative measuring," says Denney. "We found something in a scene [in the real world] that we could measure … then used that to be able to build a full-size replica to the correct proportions and size [in the game]."
This results in incredible accuracy — down to the mm, in some cases.
The process of developing a series of thrilling themes
At a basic level, there are five natural environments for players to choose from when they begin building out their parks. These environments contain different types of foliage, rocks and terrain textures — "tropical" is the default (because who doesn’t love palm trees?).
But beyond that, the artists and developers were tasked with creating not just one world of fantastical possibilities, but several "themes" —Pirate, Fairytale, Sci-fi, etc. — for gamers to play around with.
In the early stages of prototyping, concept artists worked on ideas for scenery props such as the Galleon ship, the largest prop in the Pirate theme. Additional details such as street furniture, signs, etc. came to life later in the process. The artists tested all lighting conditions and various surface textures for these elements, and worked diligently to ensure that each theme was captivating without looking too cluttered.
To add life to the themes, each was assigned a fun backstory — the "Legend of Lockjaw," for example, is the basis of the Pirate theme, and the Fairytale theme centers around a princess who becomes entangled with a witch. These storylines serve not only to spark gamers’ imaginations, but they also helped inspire the artists and game developers as they brainstormed park aesthetics. Elements of each theme can be mixed and matched, so players’ options for creating fantastical worlds is practically unlimited.
"Theme parks are theatrical places," explains Frontier.
The comprehensive, realistic nature of the game and the construction and management gameplay is ultimately very satisfying.
"It’s almost therapeutic," says Taylor. "I’ve had more action-orientated gamers tell me this kind of game is the complete opposite of the high-paced, fast-action games they usually play – but it’s still just as enjoyable, and arguably much more immersive."
Planet Coaster is a truly revolutionary development in the world of sim gaming, but don’t trust our word for it: See for yourself by ordering the game here.
"You get lost in it almost immediately. As soon as you turn it on … there’s no time anymore; there’s no space. There’s just this world with so many possibilities."