Frontier Developments, the creative team behind Planet Coaster and Zoo Tycoon, are taking the traditional zoo simulator formula and re-engineering it for the modern age. In the latest installment of the popular Planet Franchise, Planet Zoo focuses on the concept of the ‘modern zoo’ which, according to Liesa Bauwens, Senior Artist, is about “education and conservation” and where animal welfare is “at the forefront of everything.”
I had the opportunity to sit down with the development team for an exclusive look inside Planet Zoo and get up close and personal with some of the animals that will be available at launch. The gameplay demo took 30 minutes to complete and showcased Narrative Mode, which tasks players with exploring different types of zoos and playing through different scenarios. Our Safari Guide Driver was Samantha Marsh – QA Technician, and we took a look at an African Savannah Biome to conserve local animals and release them back into the wild.
Here’s a look into some of the things I found on this adventure:
Liesa: [Regarding the African Savannah Biome] It’s got a lot of open expanses; it’s a really good testament to our playable area and that is because it is a Safari Park, so it’s got a lot more open space than you might expect for a traditional zoo – which you can of course also build if you want to. It’s just that you have a lot of possibilities and that’s really quite nice to see. So we’re going to start our journey here, and this is a really good starting point for us to take you from the Macro (large) all the way down to the Micro (small) and show you just how well Planet Zoo scales. So, as we descend into this habitat, we can see our tallest and possibly our most majestic animal – the Reticulated Giraffe. As you can see, these are a social group animal, so they will want to live in groups and they will breed to create offspring.
[Baby Giraffe comes to say hello]
Chris: Awe, he’s a little cutie!
Liesa: Haha, he’s showing off! We haven’t had them showing off that much, the juveniles. So we really tried to go for the most authentic feeling of animals as we can possibly make them, and one of the ways that we try and really bring them to life is not just the animations, but also how they look – and a big part in that is our…
[All of the Giraffes start pooping]
Chris: Oh, haha! There we go.
Liesa: That’s going to happen a lot. That’s going to happen so many times.
Samantha: Majestic animals.
Chris: Yeah, majestic!
Liesa: Majestic, they’re all pooping – all of them, all of them!
Chris: I think we came at the wrong time.
Liesa: Behave yourselves, guys! So, we do have a new fur shader that we’ve been working very hard on, which makes the Giraffe’s in particular, look very nice. So we’re going to see if we can get up close to one of the… why are you all standing in a circle and pooping?
[Giraffes are still pooping]
[Giraffe walks into the area; not pooping]
Liesa: There we go, so now that we can get up and close, you can really see the amount of detail that’s gone into the fur. I think the Giraffes are a really good showcase for this as well because they’ve got that lovely mane on their back and when you look at them when they’re back-lit, you can also see the light coming through the fuzzy horns and the ears.
Chris: It’s beautiful.
Liesa: It’s really, really gorgeous. And as you can see, Reticulated Giraffes, they have spots on them; they have a pattern and these patterns will be unique, so every Giraffe essentially has a genetic imprint, and that will determine how its spots look. That also means that if you have a baby Giraffe–that one is going to look like its parents, so you’ll be able to kinda see where the family tree is and it’s a really fun way to distinguish between your different animals. And these things don’t just affect how the patterns look, they will also affect the animal’s size, its longevity, its immunity to disease, and how fertile they are–which is very important if you’re breeding animals, you want to make sure you don’t have any inbreeding, and especially in a scenario like this, where you’ll be looking to conserve and release back into the wild, you want to make sure that your animals are as healthy as you can possibly make them.
Liesa: We have a couple of enrichment items in here as well–in this case, a feeder. It has holes in it because Giraffes–fun fact–have a 45cm-long tongue and it’s completely prehensile (capable of grasping), so the Giraffe has to put its tongue inside and look for the food. This allows them to get fed but also enrich themselves because they stay mentally alert. We’ve actually talked to zookeepers and asked them “how do you keep your animals happy and mentally alert?” and have implemented those ideas into the game. Every animal will have enrichment to choose from to make sure their lives are as full as we can possibly make them.
Chris: And how did you get them to look so accurate? Did you guys actually go out to zoos and watch the animals? How did that work?
Liesa: We went to zoos and looked at them; we have loads of video references and stuff; loads of pictures. Before we start any kind of animal, we’ll do a really deep dive on:
- What do they look like?
- What are their characteristics?
- The differences between Males, Females, and Juveniles
Liesa: We’ll list all of those and then the Character Artist will do an excellent job at it and then it goes to our Animators who will try and animate all their mannerisms. We have a really good animation team, it’s been that way on Planet Coaster and Jurassic World, and they just love doing this kind of stuff.
[Camera moves along the water and into the Crocodile enclosure]
Liesa: We’d also like to give you a first look at some of our reptiles. These are our Saltwater Crocodiles – these, of course, do not have any fur, but when you get up close you can see that their scales are still quite magnificent.
Chris: That’s beautiful.
Liesa: I know, they’re really cool especially when they’re in the water because they get nice and shiny.
Chris: Yeah, even the movement is like what I’ve seen on Animal Planet; it’s incredible.
Liesa: We’ve done a lot of research into these animals to really make them as authentic as we can possibly make them. We have a researcher as well who’s been compiling notes for us; she’s a zoologist, so, all of the information that we have on the animals is actually relevant. And then that on top of all our talks with the zookeepers has really given us a good image of what these animals do, what they like, and what they need.
[Zoom in on Crocodile]
Liesa: So here we’ve got Dianne, you can see her welfare needs on the right there, so this ranges from the nutrition – the kind of food she has and how good it is, her social – how many social interactions she has, to her habitat and all the way down to her enrichment. There is a lot of depth here for the player to explore and to manage.
Chris: She doesn’t seem to like other Crocodiles, her social groups stat is quite low.
Liesa: Indeed–that is a really good spot. So, for the purposes of this demo, we have quite a bit more crocodiles in here than a Crocodile would typically want–they are more solitary creatures as opposed to herding animals. In the wild, you’ll usually see one male and they will only allow other females into their territory; they’re territorial and aggressive. Ideally, you won’t want to have too many Crocodiles in your habitat–I’m glad you noticed that you’re the first one to mention it.
Planet Zoo features a Habitat Composition system which tells players exactly how much land area each animal wants and, if it has swimming behaviours, how much water area it wants as well. Depending on the animal, players will have to make sure that each area tailors to their specific needs in order to function and maintain its happy and healthy lifestyle. The terrain is completely customizable with Terrain Painting – including options to influence and change the types of dirt, soil, and grass; among other things, within the enclosures–happiness and welfare will update in real time as changes are made to their environments. This is a returning feature that was previously available in Planet Coaster, but with a more meaningful and practical use – rather than for pure ascetics.
The animals in Planet Zoo will need a lot of care and attention, which is why it will be necessary to hire a Zoo Keeper; feed, care and maintain the animal habitats. These employees will utilize Keeper Huts to prepare food and carry out other duties; just like in Planet Coaster, the interior of the huts are fully customizable, with players having the ability to go inside and see the Zoo Keepers performing their daily tasks and duties.
Chris: You gotta make sure he’s not texting on the job.
Liesa: Haha. Yeah, pay him less if he does–dock his pay if he does.
In order to keep things running as efficiently as possible, more Zoo Keepers will be required to look after the animals. Adding more entry gates into the enclosures will be a great way for them to complete their tasks, however, the guests that are visiting the zoo won’t want to see all of this activity – they are there for the animals. A new feature called Staff Paths is a great way to keep your staff hidden from the guests, while also allowing them to perform their duties and care for the animals; these paths can only be used by your employees.
Your guests, like in Planet Coaster, have come to your zoo with a couple of things that they want to do:
- See some lovely views of all of the animals that you’ve got
- They want to be fed if they are feeling hungry
- Grab a refreshing drink if they are thirsty
- And of course, relieve themselves and use the restrooms
Liesa: But aside from all of these needs, they’ve also come with a new desire and that’s to learn more about the animals that they’ve come here to view. This new desire for education is one that you can fulfil using one of these mechanics, which is an Education Board–you can place them close to a habitat and then select which animal you would like to display some information about. As you care for and learn about each animal, more information will appear on the Education Boards.
Without question, Planet Zoo is going to be a force to reckon with in the simulator genre. The amount of time and care that the development team has put into each animal is something that I have never quite seen before, and it is something that should be applauded. And the emphasis on providing an in-depth learning experience is one that players of all ages can get behind. There’s so much content packed into this game, I can’t wait to see what new discoveries I’ll uncover next!
Planet Zoo will launch on November 5th, 2019 for Windows PC and is currently available to pre-order on Steam. The Planet Zoo: Deluxe Edition is also available to pre-order and includes: Pre-launch beta access; three exclusive animals (Komodo Dragon, Pygmy Hippopotamus, and Thomson’s Gazelle); high-quality wallpapers; and an original soundtrack by Jim Guthrie and JJ Ipsen.
You can locate the wild Chris on Twitter at @ChrisZaiser, where he interacts with other members of the gaming populace about a wide range of games in various genres.