"I wanted to make a game that plays like the Theme Park I imagine in my mind, rather than the one that actually exists." That should definitely resonate with anyone who remembers Bullfrog's colorful but merciless mid-90s amusement park management game, and the result is Let's Build a Zoo by Springloaded Games. We talked to Springloaded's lead developer James Barnard about old management games and how to capture their essence.
DailyBits: Let's Build a Zoo looks like a lot of fun. What is it about and how does it play?
James Barnard: It’s a light-hearted zoo game, which lets you build a perfect animal nirvana, or a diabolical animal hell. While there is a lot of simulation detail hidden beneath the surface for hardcore players, it’s still first and foremost a fun take on the simulation genre.
DailyBits: The trailer evokes Theme Park and even has a bit of a Game Dev Story vibe. What are the main influences?
James Barnard: Well, Theme Park is a huge one, probably up there as the main one actually. I played the hell out of Theme Park on the Atari Jaguar of all things! I have fond memories of playing that game for long sessions that would stretch deep into the night and sometimes on into the morning.
I feel like sim games have lost something since then, while they have gained a lot in terms of depth and simulation, a lot of the humour has gone, and more importantly a lot of the elegance and simplicity too. If I play some of the more recent sim games I get overwhelmed by long tedious tutorials, and overly complex interfaces.
I have gone back to try and play Theme Park again recently, and sadly it doesn’t really hold up today. So I wanted to make a game that plays like the Theme Park I imagine in my mind, rather than the one that actually exists.
All five of us at Springloaded have different experiences with sim & building games, with a range stretching from Factorio to Forager. Everyone’s experience and opinions have helped shape Let’s Build A Zoo into something quite far removed from its original inspiration, while still striking those chords I originally set out to hit.
DailyBits: How did you decide to go for a retro look?
James Barnard: I started in the games industry back on the GBA, and have loved Pixels ever since, apart from a brief stint in AAA I have almost exclusively worked with pixel art. All of us at Springloaded still really believe there is a lot of space to be covered with the art form.
Also, when looking at a game like this one, the volume of things on screen can be huge, and the clean lines that come with pixel art help keep the density of the world readable, while also allowing Cindy and Yvonne to inject a lot of character into the world with their art.
DailyBits: Management sims are notoriously difficult to balance properly. Are you aiming to appeal to hardcore fans of the genre, or is it more of a casual affair? What was your design focus?
James Barnard: We do want it to be a game for everyone, it’s structured in an unusual way for a simulation game, with a lot of freedom that leads to various narrative elements. But if you like a particular element of the game there is enough there for you to get lost in it for days.
DailyBits: There have been a lot of stories of development teams struggling to remain productive during lockdown. How has Springloaded Games coped with the situation? Has it affected Let's Build a Zoo in any way?
James Barnard: We are based in Singapore where the pandemic’s impact has been kept mostly under control. We no longer all work in the same room every day, but we still talk a lot so it hasn’t been too bad. I think that being stuck at home, or feeling distanced from the people you work with does have a long term impact on morale, and the closeness of the team. But we are holding up pretty well all things considered. I suspect a lot of people are in far worse situations than us.
DailyBits: What are you most proud of in Let's Build a Zoo? Is there any particular feature or experience you can't wait for players to enjoy?
James Barnard: I think it’s a split between the crossbreeding system that allows you to make more than 300,000 unique animals, and the morality system. I think adding good and evil as goals in a sim is something that hasn’t really been done enough.
DailyBits: Why, in a nutshell, should gamers look forward to Let's Build a Zoo?
James Barnard: That is a tough one to answer because I might suffer from creator's bias! But, Let’s Build a Zoo is the sim game I have always wanted to play, but didn’t exist. It’s a collection of all the things I love about older sim games, but made using today’s sensibilities.
Let's Build a Zoo is available this summer and will enter a closed PC beta soon. You can wishlist the game on Steam right here.