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The 25th anniversary of RollerCoaster Tycoon: 'It's amazing how it has sparked my creativity'
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The 25th anniversary of RollerCoaster Tycoon: ‘It’s amazing how it has sparked my creativity’


I would get home from school as fast as possible because all I wanted to do was play RollerCoaster Tycoon,” remembers John Burton, a senior creative lead at Merlin Entertainments. Merlin Entertainments is the company that owns popular theme parks in the UK, such as Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures, and Legoland Windsor. Burton is currently working on designing the new 236ft (72-metre) drop Hyperia rollercoaster at Thorpe Park. “I used to go to bed wishing I could be the next Walt Disney.”

When reflecting on the game, Burton, now an adult, expresses his enthusiasm and excitement for it just like a teenager on a sugar rush. He shares that he gained valuable knowledge about rollercoaster systems, including their block zones, and picked up tricks of the theme park trade such as strategically placed toilets and side queues. This confirms my suspicion that the Jumanji-inspired jungle world he helped create for Chessington has some subconscious similarities with the Jolly Jungle scenario in the classic PC game. Even today, when traveling for work to theme parks abroad, he still plays the original game on the plane and uses it to brainstorm ideas. He never truly stopped playing.

John Burton of Merlin Entertainment.

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On this day 25 years ago, RollerCoaster Tycoon became a top seller for PC games in 1999, experiencing widespread success before the concept of online virality was widely recognized. It sparked the creation of numerous geolocation-based forums where members could exchange their own versions of beloved real-life amusement park rides. These online communities continue to exist today, with one creator recently designing a disturbingly long rollercoaster that takes 12 years to ride.

Rephrasing: The 1999 theme park strategy game, RollerCoaster Tycoon, sold 700,000 copies in its first year. This success kept its publisher, Atari, afloat and today marks its 25th anniversary. Not only did RollerCoaster Tycoon provide fans with an endless toolbox to create their dream candy-themed parks, but it also helped to normalize and diversify the male-dominated theme park industry.

Candy Holland, the executive creative director at Legoland resorts and a long-time participant in the industry, recalls being the sole female on rollercoaster projects for many years. However, with the release of RollerCoaster Tycoon, a popular video game, there was a notable increase in the number of young women seeking employment in the field. The game allowed them to gain valuable insight and knowledge about an industry that had previously been considered a specialized and limited field.

Flora Lui, a senior project manager for Merlin’s team in California, was among the young women who stood out. She believes that RollerCoaster Tycoon, unlike many other games of its time such as Resident Evil and GoldenEye 007, focused on the joy of creativity rather than death and destruction and thus had a diverse player base of both male and female gamers. “Playing RollerCoaster Tycoon was a revolutionary experience,” she comments.

Screenshot of RollerCoaster Tycoon.View image in fullscreen

I would often modify the colors of my amusement park rides to make them all pink. I enjoyed creating queues that resembled mazes, which would often amuse and confuse customers. I also took pride in showing my parents all the designs I came up with. As a project manager, I constantly have to take into account budget constraints, the impact of higher numbers of visitors, safety concerns, and effectively managing guest flow to ensure a magical experience for all. During meetings where all of these factors are discussed, I can’t help but be reminded of how playing RollerCoaster Tycoon influenced my career path.

From the tranquil Leafy Lake to the more exhilarating Haunted Harbour and Diamond Heights, each of the game’s 21 scenarios was about finding quick solutions to dilemmas and creating a theme park capable of giving pixelated punters the times of their lives. “The game’s success really kept the Atari business going,” admits Atari’s CEO, Wade Rosen. “I think the fact that you could build these really intricate rollercoasters, or completely ignore all of that and launch [customers] into a lake or see how many of them you could nauseate, was really the genius of it”

Rosen claims that the game RollerCoaster Tycoon offered a unique and personal experience for all players, and that its potential for creativity served as a precursor for Minecraft. He states that he was a competitive, profit-driven player who particularly enjoyed the financial elements of the game. For example, he would quickly raise the prices of umbrellas when it was raining to increase his earnings.

The video game ultimately sold more than 6 million copies worldwide, serving as the initial platform for a successful series – even though its 2D isometric graphics were noticeably different from the advancing 3D graphics of other popular games in 1999. “The graphics, which were once considered outdated and limiting, are now viewed as charming and distinctive,” explains Chris Sawyer, the Scottish designer of the game. “Additionally, because less focus was placed on graphics and immersion, more attention was able to be devoted to developing complex and detailed gameplay.”

Screenshots from the game RollerCoaster TycoonView image in fullscreen

“Since I was young, I have always found joy in constructing Lego creations, particularly trains and mechanical contraptions. The beauty of Lego was the ability to create in your own unique way and experiment with different ideas to see what would be successful. The inspiration for RollerCoaster Tycoon may have stemmed from this desire to simulate a similar experience on the computer, where one could design and test their own rollercoaster designs, while also learning what makes for an enjoyable ride and what does not.”

After the mixed reception of his previous game, Transport Tycoon, Sawyer shifted his focus to researching RollerCoaster Tycoon in 1996. Interestingly, he had a fear of rollercoasters as a child and even believed that one of his rides would derail during a visit to Great Yarmouth. Despite his initial hesitation about creating a game centered around theme parks, Sawyer’s newfound passion for thrilling rides as an adult led him to realize the potential of his idea. He then embarked on a journey to visit and study the best theme parks around the world.

The game’s enduring appeal may be attributed to its ability to tap into players’ nurturing instincts. We all enjoy building and creating something of our own, then taking care of it, improving it, making it aesthetically pleasing and functional, and watching it thrive. This is the core of the game, according to the creator. Another noteworthy aspect is the game’s overwhelmingly positive nature. It stands out as one of the very few games where players are rewarded for good design and management instead of destruction. Ultimately, the game revolves around keeping your virtual visitors happy.

Apart from the large number of sales, Sawyer acknowledges the impact RollerCoaster Tycoon has had on the world when he visited a theme park in the early 2000s. He recalls seeing food stalls in the park that resembled those in the game, complete with oversized food or drinks on top. He describes the experience as eerie. When informed about the real-life rollercoaster designers interviewed for the article, he expresses pride at the thought that his game may have influenced some of them in their career choices.

Hyperia ride at Thorpe Park.

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Although RollerCoaster Tycoon was instrumental in launching the careers of Burton and Lui, they acknowledge that the game isn’t completely accurate when it comes to designing theme parks. Burton points out that real rollercoasters are not constrained to a grid and offer more flexibility. In the game, it only costs £50 to lay down a section of track, but in reality, it takes millions of pounds to create these attractions. The high speeds featured in the game are also unrealistic, as the G-forces would be fatal for a person in real life.

Meanwhile, Liu explains that if she were to attempt to recreate the winding lines she used to make as a child in the game, she would most likely lose her job. She believes that the most exciting rides are the ones that have a narrative behind them, but acknowledges that constructing roller coasters requires collaboration from numerous departments.

If you have recently experienced a lot of ups and downs in your life, it could be because you rode a rollercoaster designed by a member of the millennial generation who grew up playing RollerCoaster Tycoon. According to Atari’s Rosen, the franchise is set to expand with a new 3D installment, but the original creator, Sawyer, has no desire to remake the first two games with updated graphics. Regardless of what happens next in the series, Merlin’s Burton is just grateful that he got hooked on RollerCoaster Tycoon in 1999 instead of the other groundbreaking game of the year: Pokémon on the Game Boy.

“Burton explained that the game allowed for complete freedom, without any constraints or guidelines. This later proved beneficial when he showcased his recreation of the Alton Towers Nemesis ride on RollerCoaster Tycoon during his interview for a job at Merlin. Now, he is currently working on the development of the new Nemesis Reborn rollercoaster, which he credits to the video game that sparked his passion for becoming a real-life rollercoaster creator.”

Source: theguardian.com