The next game from Frontier, creator of Elite Dangerous and Planet Coaster, is a zoo simulator. It makes sense, really. The developer has created zoo management games in the past, and it feels like a natural extension of the Planet series. But Planet Zoo it's a very different game from Planet Coaster, with a focus on caring for animals, ecology, and preservation over the immediate, gut-churning thrills of a theme park.
You can read all about the game, including interviews with several members of the development team in issue #331 of PC Gamer, released May 2 in the UK. But until then, here are some highlights from our first look at the game.
It's super authentic
Just as the Planet Coaster team spent time at real theme parks, speaking to the people who design and run them, the Planet Zoo team has consulted with zoos in the same way.
"I can't name drop, but we have spoken to zoos," says Piers Jackson, game director. "We've visited them, spoken to the staff, vets, keepers, and management. We've immersed ourselves in it. It's important that we understand the inner workings of a zoo. We have people working in the company with experience of it, and we've consulted with researchers who've given us large amounts of information about the animals. So really there are many approaches we have when it comes to authenticity."
"Animal husbandry is core to any modern zoo, and some of these zoos are doing a fantastic job in that regard," he says. "We've spoken to zoo keepers as part of our research on this project, and they are there for the animals. They're trying to repopulate the wild wherever they can. That's something we very much wanted to reflect in Planet Zoo."
The animals are incredibly realistic
Planet Zoo's animals are fairly astonishing, with subtle, realistic animation and a sense that they're weighty, distinctive living things, rather than just hollow 3D models. Frontier wants you to care deeply for the creatures in your zoo, and a lot of work has gone into building that empathy.
"When it comes to animating the animals, it's not just about making sure they move right, but that we capture something about them," says Chris Marsh, lead animator. "We took trips to a few zoos and collected a lot of our own reference material. I wanted to know how they feel when they're in a habitat, and existing together as a family unit. You can make the weight and animation timing perfect for a single creature, but when you drop five of them into an enclosure they need to interact believably."
"We want these animals to feel like they're important to you, that you do need to look after them and care for them," says Piers Jackson. "And we have seen these attachments grow. One team member followed one of his elephants through a full life cycle, and it was distressing when it died. That's a really cool moment. A real bond. The work of the team, be it the character modellers, the animators, or the guys doing the AI, has come together to create something that people are really invested in."
Keeping them happy will be a challenge
"In any simulation management game you have to allow people to do things badly," says Piers Jackson. "People have to be allowed to fail or push the simulation in a way that you didn't intend. And there can be consequences to that. Creating a habitat that isn't good for an animal will have a negative impact on its wellbeing and the guests. But I think people will find ways of creating successful habitats that we haven't thought of, and that's part of the joy of making a customisable game like this."
"Running a zoo is all about making sure the animals are well cared for, and that's really the core of Planet Zoo," says Jonny Watts, Frontier's chief creative officer. "You have to make sure the habitats have the correct biomes and temperatures. But there's also a whole other area called enrichment. This means things you put into the habitat to stimulate the animals and break up their day, or recreate experiences they would have if they were in the wild."
Everything affects the simulation
"You'll have emotional highs and lows," says Jonny Watts. "When an animal dies it also affects the economy. Money stops coming in, which is an important gameplay mechanic. It works on two levels, emotional and financial. If a ride breaks down in Planet Coaster you can send the engineers to fix it. But you can't bring a dead animal back to life. That's a beautiful bit of destruction and, from a pure gameplay perspective, a great ingredient for the simulation. And from that you get this emotional ebb and flow."
"Pathing is also important, because you need to create an efficient network for your keepers to restock food and so on," he adds. "If they're miles away from an animal, or the path there is too complex, they can go hungry. Your paths also have to offer places for the guests to get a clear view of the animals, as well as effortlessly guiding them between habitats in good time. We want everything you do in Planet Zoo, from a creative point of view, to affect the management simulation too in some way."
It's a very Frontier game
"Attention to detail is almost an obsession at Frontier," says Piers Jackson. "Grounding things with a scientific background is what we do best, whether it's mapping a galaxy or making the most authentic rollercoasters down to the nuts and bolts. Or in the case of Planet Zoo, making sure the zoo the animals are part of is representative of what a modern zoo stands for, and that conservation and husbandry are catered for properly."
"A streak of authenticity runs through all our games at Frontier," says Jonny Watts. "I'd love it if people were inspired by them to pursue a career in zoology or astronomy, the same way Life on Earth inspired me to study zoology. Our games are fun, but there's always a message in there. Not an overt one. But enough to inspire people, I hope."
"We have to make sure Planet Zoo abides by the principles of the Planet franchise," explains Watts when I ask him about what his high level goals for this new game are. "It's all about this deep, piece-by-piece construction, giving people the tools to create anything they can possibly imagine. We have this Lego philosophy where it'll take you time to build something, but when you do it you really revel in your achievement."