Monday, January 2, 2017

An Ode to Rollercoaster Tycoon

Joe's Memories

I first played Rollercoaster Tycoon around 1999 at a neighbor's house in Richmond, Virginia. A group of us middle schoolers were gathered around what was probably a Gateway 2000 PC running Windows 98 to play a newly acquired game from the Scholastic Book Fair: Rollercoaster Tycoon.

Games at that to me were Doom, Quake, Sonic, or Mario, but here is a new game that scratches my interests in theme parks and planning! I quickly acquired my own and the Corkscrew Follies expansion pack was the first item anyone in my family bought from Amazon. I dedicated days of my life to this game.

There were several theme park or coaster creators in the 2000s with the two prominent being Sim Theme Park and NoLimits Roller Coaster Simulator. EA's Sim Theme Park focused on the park management aspect. Minimal creativity or customization was allowed in Sim Theme Park, instead the rides were pre-themed and developed. Sim Theme Park was a true spin off of the SimCity model, focusing on operations and guest flow over customization and building of individual units. NoLimits focused all on building coasters and nothing else. Players could create hyper real rollercoasters that simulate actual physics, accurate design styles, tons of animations, and first person on ride views of the coasters. But that's it, no operations, no guests, no paths, no flat rides, and no budgeting. Rollercoaster Tycoon fit squarely between these two experiences.

Rollercoaster Tycoon is an offshoot of the Transportation Tycoon games developed by Chris Sawyer. Transportation Tycoon focuses on building efficient transportation systems for communities and running a profit. This expanded with Rollercoaster Tycoon as the efficiency was compounded with excitement, intensity, and nausea ratings for each ride. Additionally separate stalls for consumables were created and little guests to walk around and vandalize all your benches.

Rollercoaster Tycoon 2, released in 2002, improved on the original by adding more rides, kiosks, refined UI, a more robust building interface, track editor, custom music, and Six Flags parks in the scenario mode. While the original RCT caught my attention it was RCT2 that captivated my heart. I have spent probably the hourly count of months if not years playing or at least running this game. At one point in college this game was a sort of "screensaver" for my PC as a perfectly created park was allowed to run for decades. Rollercoaster Tycoon changed my life by bringing me closer to video games and theme parks, two passions I keep till this day.

Alan's Memories

With all the new (and new-old) games now on the market - I’m talking about Planet Coaster and Roller Coaster Tycoon (RCT) Classic obviously - someone had to go back in time a little ways and talk about the olden days, right?

What it really did, more than anything, was inspire a new generation of real young kids to get interested in park and ride design. You can’t find anyone in the industry between 30 and 40 who didn’t play the hell out of RCT. Guaranteed. From the salesmen to the creative types, they all were deep into it. I bet at least half of ‘em still keep 3.5” floppies around with files they can’t bear to part with. How could anyone just trash a wood coaster that got an overall excitement rating over 9? The only other game that had even close to the same effect was NoLimits, but I think RCT’s total holistic nature as a park simulator was far, far more important.

So a history lesson for those who weren’t around then: At the turn of the millennium, almost all the traffic for amusement park discussion happened in one of two places: rec.arts.disney.parks or rec.roller-coaster (RRC). Disney people had their little space to talk about Pirates ad nauseum, and over in RRC was everyone else. For me being who I am now, RRC was a fundamental place for me finding new friends and establishing a life external to the insular small town I lived in. It occupied a place for me that various web forums and social media channels now do for others today. But RRC, like all of non-binaries USENET, was text only. Text is limiting stuff. There was a binaries group, but practically no one posted to it, and even if you did, the majority weren’t running T1 or DSL. ISDN wasn’t even widely available. Does anyone even know what that is now?

Anyways, prior to RCT, there were a couple games that theme park people played like Disney’s Coaster which were really crude and for which file sharing of rides or parks existed, but to a really minor extent. My buddy Spatch was one of the few of us with his own FTP, and he would host some stuff on there, but we’re talking a really small community. Really small. Count on two hands kinda size. Then RCT came out. RCT, in terms of the kind of detail that could be put into the parks and rides was just unmatched. And everyone played it. Everybody. Not just us geeks, but regular ass people. And then those people wanted to go somewhere to talk about it and share their work.

There’s no doubt that the game itself being really great was the main piece of success in the puzzle, but 1999-2002 was also the peak of the “coaster wars” in the US. Six Flags had just been bought by Premier Parks and was going crazy with purchases all over the world. Cedar Fair was doing big things and bought Knott’s. Paramount was doing big things. IOA opened. DCA opened. A bunch of regional parks opened (Bonfante, Visionland, Jazzland). In 2000 alone Custom Coasters Inc. built 7 new wood coasters which was and still is just a crazy number. So there’s this great game and it is released at exactly the right time. Rec.roller-coaster was just doing huge traffic going along with that, and the game ramped it up even more. It brought people to the hobby via the game who might not have encountered it otherwise. That was cool.

But there was a problem. The first problem was structural: RRC couldn’t be a place for sharing parks or coaster layouts. It was totally inadequate to do so. The second problem was a social one: RRC was unmoderated. When the content was good (or at least fresh), people could handle the noise ratio. Eventually, the newness began to wear off, and it was pretty much wearing off for everyone in a very consistent, almost synchronized manner. Now, the community at RRC would have splintered no matter what as virtually all of USENET did. But RCT and RCT2 generated traffic actually managed to speed up the process. Luckily, we had some enterprising people out who caught onto the desire for a moderated platform and regular chats beyond a once a week IRC get-together. And they also realized that people wanted to share their content; RCT content, specifically.

The first spot that became a hub outside RRC for discussion was a website called Danimation. Whereas RRC was a playground that appealed more to the “September That Never Ended Set” - people who first got onto the internet via university portals when they were undergrads prior to 1994 - Danimation was a lot closer to my target age. Basically you got a group that was primarily teenagers/early 20s who thought Daniel Smith, a professional animator, had dope parks. We all congregated there, and he opened up a forum and had a 24 hour/7 day a week chat client. Hey, the man understood his brand. The people he drew, in turn, really started to push the limits of the software and created all sorts of wild stuff. Every week would be a new Spotlight we’d download and marvel at. We all drew inspiration from real parks, we were pretty international (lots of Europeans were on board, even more so than RRC), et al.

Like almost any virtual communities, Danimation ran its course and was pretty much dead within 4 years. By the time it was gone, there were other new channels people could go through to share their parks and nascent communities at Coasterbuzz, Westcoaster, RCTPro, and ThemeParkReview. Lots of people out there from Danimation are long gone from theme park discourse, but I still recognize names of some, often now as the grizzled vet mods of r/rollercoasters (and maybe CoasterForce?), on Facebook, volunteering with the American Coaster Enthusiasts, and so on.

Jeff's Rant

I always thought I was strangely fortunate to have been born when I was. I know that sounds like a mind-bending sort of “wow Jeff, we’re making some real progress in this session” statement, but let me explain. I was born in the late 1980s. That means, when I was a wee lad, the Disney Channel was very new (and commercial free! Remember those days?), the theme parks were CHEAP, the Magical World of Disney had just re-started, and Disney had just started mass-producing its animated classics on VHS home video BUT still re-released the classics every 7 years. When I hit elementary school, kids games were mass-produced on floppy disks (IN COLOR, finally!) Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were all the rage (games in your house! No quarters!), the Disney Afternoon had literally spawned an avalanche of kids’ animation competition (from Nickelodeon, the WB, and Fox), and Disney had decided that the theme parks were unending money spigots that sang profits and tooted rainbows.

Pictured: Disney Vacation Club, circa 1992

During this time, it seemed like as I steadily graduated to higher grades, our school’s favorite computer class games graduated with us. The original classic, of course, was Oregon Trail. Oregon Trail taught us that shooting 20 buffaloes and piling them all into your wagon before trying to cross the Rio Grande was a Bad Idea.

Paging Tom Bodette

After our class graduated to full color games, there was one game that occupied all of our time, after we were done being tortured with Mavis Beacon Teacher’s Typing and Math Munchers. It was a game that presented a park setting with some simulations similar to the SimCity line of games. I’m talking, of course, of DinoPark Tycoon.

You forgot this existed! Admit it!
Obviously looking to cash in on the Jurassic Park craze, MECC’s DinoPark Tycoon (released in 1993, the same year as JP) tasked the player to build a DinoPark literally from the ground up.

This was Level 2. You think I'm kidding.

What was cool about the game was that it was the first (that I know of, anyway…I’m sure people will correct me) to actually challenge the player to manage a theme park-like setting. Players were tasked to set admission prices, food prices, merchandise, etc. while managing the maintenance and upkeep of the park. The park started out as a dirt mound and had to be cleaned and planted. Wood fences had to be turned into chain-link and then concrete (also, you had to start out with herbivores like Triceratops or Stegosaurus because the carnivores would destroy the cheaper wood or chain-link cages). And, since this is 1993 and we’re also on a Harvest Moon craze, we’re also going to be tasked with the most inane chores imaginable, like replacing the streetlights and maintaining the consistency of the parking lot gravel.

At the same time, there were several games (like Alan’s aforementioned “Coaster”) that allowed one to design/test/build their own roller coasters, with about as primitive an effect as you can imagine. These games were for coaster geeks only (guilty) since they had literally no practical elements involved.

But come 1999, RollerCoaster Tycoon combined an amusement park setting in the Six Flags mode with a for-real strategy Sim engine. I was just starting to enter my teenage years. Off to the races.

It was so unbelievably cool to be able to actually place your own coaster designs in an amusement park setting. Remember, before RCT, we weren’t able to do this. That was the whole ballgame. If it had been “Ferris Wheel land,” it wouldn’t have been popular. It allowed us to truly use our imaginations. And since we were just starting to be teenagers we could:

1. Take advantage of the “No Entry” sign introduced in Corkscrew Follies to trap guests in certain parts of the park. Sometimes we would have Mascot Raves where we’d trap guests in line for the Bumper Cars (which played disco-style music) with about 100 employees in animal costumes. Or we could isolate guests in a secluded island setting and, well, end their existence.


2. Using the aforementioned No Entry sign, we would also take advantage of the scenarios that had no “Guest Satisfaction” requirement (usually scenarios had an attendance requirement and a Guest Satisfaction requirement) by sealing off the exit to the park and forcing guests back in. Our satisfaction rating would be around -45. But boy did we hit our attendance numbers!

3. Give our attractions hideous bright orange and puke green color schemes with names like “Ah, my eyes!” without affecting our satisfaction rating.

4. Make the Whoa Bellies and shuttle loop coasters about 10 feet high and launch at 80 mph without testing. It’s like watching people strapped to the Fantasy in the Sky pyrotechnics. We would often countdown the occasion by finally yelling “BLOW ME TO BERMUDA!”

What was great, too, and endlessly fascinating, about RCT was that it was the most realistic amusement park simulation we had yet seen. Most of us had never worked at an amusement park. As Alan stated earlier, there were barely even newsgroups online pertaining to amusement parks, let alone literature on the subject. These were the days before Al Lutz and Kevin Yee and David Koenig and MousePlanet and all the rest, where we gorged on amusement park stats and operational practices. “Ride Per Cap” wouldn’t become a widely-known term until the Pressler years, thanks to the internet.

And yet, RCT taught us that it’s not practical to design the world’s biggest roller coaster and put it in the middle of a parking lot. Bathrooms had to be placed. Prices had to be acceptable. Employees had to be paid. Paths had to be maintained. You could not put the pizza stall next to the Gravitron unless you had six sweepers in the area. We also learned that:

1. The merry-go-round needed an increasing maintenance timeline. If you didn’t, it would suddenly get possessed and start spinning so fast it would break the fourth-dimension barrier and travel through time.

2. Each ride was on a timer that caused it to break down more the longer it was open, regardless of how simple the ride was or what it did. This is the only possible explanation for the frequent breakdowns of the Hedge Maze and Spiral Slide.

3. It was nearly impossible to design rides that had high Excitement but low Intensity or Nausea ratings. In the end, your pet Mega-Coaster the ULTRAMAXXX would have maybe two riders per day and they would both faint and throw up, somehow passing every bench and toilet within the tri-county area before doing so.

4. The key to beating the scenarios in RCT1 was to have rides with medium excitement and high capacity. Guests tended to avoid rides with high intensity, and low capacity rides would have the awful effect of keeping guests in line for literal eternity while they are NOT spending money (hey, just like in real life, IDIOTS WHO MADE FROZEN EVER AFTER). For the small rides, the Ferris Wheels were the winners. For the coasters, it was the Steel Mini and the Shuttle Loop.

5. The Shuttle Loop was the silver bullet of RCT1. The Guest AI only took excitement ratings into account, not ride length. The Shuttle Loop took six sceconds. Then everyone got off and paid to get back on. It was a gold mine.

6. The rides became less popular as time went on. The initial strategy is to lower the ride prices little by little. However, once the ride isn’t a money-maker anymore (or if you just have lots of cash to begin with), you can just demolish the ride and build an exact replica in its place. The Guest AI would catch it as a “new” ride and Guests would flock to it.

7. There’s a level in every game (we can call it the mid-boss level) that’s early-ish in the campaign that’s just hard enough to cause wussies to quit the game in disgust, but for those who beat it, causes a feeling of utter elation and mastery akin to Neo observing reality as Matrix code. In RCT1, that level was Evergreen Gardens. It had a 1,000 Guest in-park attendance goal (the average was 600 or so). Master that level and you feel like the RCT champion.

I think also, though this is impossible to prove, RCT tempered our expectations just a little bitty bit. I remember in the old Disboard days when everyone was speculating about the 5th WDW park being a Villains/thrill park of some kind as an answer to IOA. The idea proposals from fans were as astounding as they were ridiculous (to this day, I never thought Stromboli could bend like that). Of course, each park proposal had 17 individual roller coasters, each with 17 individual inversions and LSM launch areas. After one played RCT, it seemed like the conversations would be steered more toward practical concerns, with the original concepts being relegated to the “Blue Sky” thread. I wonder if RCT was the impetus to what made us all overnight theme park experts. Or if RCT helped give us ammunition for the Pressler Wars of 1999-2003. I wonder if a day will come when a company or obscenely rich individual will say, “I’m building a theme park, whoever builds the best park in RCT 12 VR wins the design.” With more technical sophistication and power, who knows, maybe THEY’LL LEARN HOW TO FIX THAT GODDAMN SPIRAL SLIDE.


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