"Any tycoon game without [user generated content] support in 2016 is quite simply not up to par," Atari executive producer Matthew Labunka told me. I was asking him about RollerCoaster Tycoon World (RCTW), the long-awaited update to the iconic franchise that had spent years in limbo.
I'd taken a couple of pot shots at the sloppiness of some of the game's public materials last year, from low-res screenshots to trailers with dodgy frame rates. The entire game had been handballed from Area 52 Games, to Pipeworks Software and now to Nvizzio. It wasn't a good sign. And on top of that, the prevailing question still remained.
How exactly do you make a tycoon game relevant in 2016? How do you get people excited?
The answer, for fans at least, is user-generated content.
"We have focused on integrating Steam Workshop directly into the game UI to not only make it easy for creators to upload content, but just as importantly, make it accessible to all users," Labunka told me. An added bonus: fans can also import assets from Unity-compatible 3D editor straight into RCTW.
When the game launches (supposedly this quarter), players will have the ability to design and import saved games, theme parks, blueprints for coasters, and any piece of scenery they like.
So that's the Steam Workshop checkbox ticked.
Another obvious base to cover: better AI. Much like Planet Coaster, RCTW will have AI that factors in the theme of a park, and the quality of that park, into their overall enjoyment. "If a player wants to build a western-themed park, that’s still an option. Now, however, players will have peeps who seek it out, invite their friends to visit, and in time, the people who visit a personalized theme park will manifest what is being built," the executive producer explained.
Realism's another important factor, even if it's not the kind of headline feature that might jump out to those who aren't fans of the series. The world's largest regional theme park firm, Six Flags, have been collaborating with Atari and Nvizzio on RCTW's development. I asked how the partnership came about -- which was intriguing to me, given the game's troubled history -- but Labunka was vague on the detail.
"Their know-how brings enormous value to the game, as they’ve provided advice on how theme parks are effectively run, general layout, points of interest, as well as very specific and in-depth expertise on coaster engineering," he said.
Still, having the extra consultancy helps. The added freeform tools with the coaster builder is also a massive bonus, especially considering how the game doesn't restrict you from building a patently unsafe track. You might want to create a Metalocalypse-themed park, after all: you can import all the themed assets you want with a 3D editor, before setting up opportunities for peep bowling all over the place.
It's been a while since a RCT game, mind you. And compatibility issues aside, the older titles aren't the most friendly for newcomers. I asked about what kind of tutorial options would be available for newcomers -- given that it's been so long since the RCT games were fresh -- and whether the tutorials would be interactive, or the grating YouTube kind.
"The tutorials will include a combination of in-game videos and guided play," Labunka explained. "Specifically, our coaster builder will be a focus in the tutorials, and will include instructional videos and a guided walk through to help players understand how to use it and other features in the game."
There will be a Campaign mode as well teaching players how to build a park from scratch, something that reminds me a little about the opening from Bullfrog's Theme Park. "There will be a wide range of environments and theme options for players to choose from, which will also allow players to customize their parks to appeal to certain peeps and increase their park’s popularity."
It's hard not to look at RCTW and draw comparisons to Planet Coaster, the rival theme park title being developed by Elite Dangerous developers Frontier Developments -- which also developed RollerCoaster Tycoon 3. Does a rivalry develop between two studios when their games are so patently targeting the same fans? Will fans have time to play both games? How does that affect morale in the studio?
Labunka didn't really touch on any of that, however, instead speaking of Atari's history in the franchise. "We fully respect the work that Frontier does, but Atari has deep roots – of more than 15 years – in the RCT franchise, which has come with a lot of player engagement and feedback, giving us a leg up in understanding what the next evolution of RCT games should deliver."
After watching hours of streams and videos, however, RCTW just seems like it's trying to add and update all the features you would expect it from a Tycoon game in 2016. That's admirable, and given how much easier it undoubtedly could have been to cancel the project entirely -- when asked directly about the budget, Labunka stressed that RCTW would be the "greatest AAA game in the history of the franchise" -- fans should feel pleased.
But I keep searching for a feature I wouldn't expect, something to set RCTW apart from Planet Coaster and the series in general. That's probably a little remiss though; it would be like expecting Cities: Skylines to launch with the crazy mods that fans created after release.
It'll be interesting to see how RCTW shapes out regardless. It's was supposedly due out by the end of the first quarter, although the game's Steam listing says "early 2016" for now. And for what it's worth, the game is looking a hell of a lot nicer these days too.