Interview with Chris
In this interview, Red Phoenix interviews
Chris Sawyer, developer of RollerCoaster Tycoon.
How did you first get into programming games?
Chris Sawyer: I started programming
games first in BASIC and then in Z80 assembler in the early 1980s
on some of the home computers available in the UK at that time. That's
while I was still at school, and I carried on writing simple games
throughout the 4 years I spent at university, while studying "computer
science & microprocessor systems". I never thought at that
time that this would lead to a career in computer games - It was purely
What was the first game or program that you made?
Chris Sawyer: I honestly can't
remember. I wrote so many little programs and games in the early
days that I can't be sure what came first. Perhaps it was a simple
'3d' maze game on the school's Commodore Pet computer in around
Every developer has his/her own favorite tools for programming.
What do you typically use?
Chris Sawyer: I use MS Macro
Assembler V6.11c with a DOS-based text editor, along with MS Visual
Studio 6 for final linking and any Windows related stuff. I have
a few other custom-written tools I use as well, plus a large selection
of paint packages, my favourite being the elderly Deluxe Paint package.
There are many young people interested in getting a job with a game
developer as programmers. Do you have any words of wisdom for these
Chris Sawyer: As most games
nowadays are developed by large teams, I would suggest to potential
newcomers that they need to specialize in a particular area of programming,
perhaps in view rendering, or 3D object manipulation, or AI, or
interface design or whatever really interests them. And don't be
afraid of doing things differently - Just because everyone says
you should use a particular algorithm or programming style doesn't
mean that there isn't a better way. If you only follow what other
programmers do, you are unlikely to produce anything better than
them, but if you try things your own way, you might create something
even better or completely unique, and you could become a highly
valued part of a development team.
When you were developing Rollercoaster Tycoon, what did you think
the game would do, in terms of popularity and sales figures?
Chris Sawyer: I always hoped
it would sell well, but I didn't expect it to, especially as the
few 'games industry' people who saw the game during development
were convinced I should have created the game completely differently
or not at all, and that nobody would be interested in a non-violent
and non-multiplayer game with no 3D polygon graphics.
After Rollercoaster Tycoon hit the shelves in the UK and the US,
and the sales figures came in for the first few months, what did
Chris Sawyer: I think initially
it was just a great relief that people were interested in and enjoying
the game, despite all the warnings from the 'experts' during development.
Although RCT came out a long time ago, I don't think there were
too many bugs when it came out, with the exception of that GSK Exception
Trapper thing that didn't seem to like older PCs. Many of today's
games seem to be released without going through a thorough bug test
(Quality Assurance). What is your take on this?
Chris Sawyer: I'm sure all games
nowadays undergo very thorough and lengthy bug testing, but it's
a measure of how complex modern games are that bugs still slip through.
Games which are very 'open ended' or freeform like RollerCoaster
Tycoon are particularly difficult to test properly, as there are
so many different permutations and ways of playing the game that
it is impossible to logically test every permutation. It's almost
pot luck whether the testers happen to stumble upon the bugs, however
systematic their testing process is.
After RCT was out for a few months, and sales figures continued
to come in, showing that RCT was one of the best PC sellers out
there, how well did you think an Expansion Pack would sell?
Chris Sawyer: I think Hasbro
Interactive did a sales forecast based on something like 15% of
all RollerCoaster Tycoon owners buying the expansion pack, and we
worked out that based on that an expansion pack would just about
In the first expansion pack, why did you choose to give it two names?
The UK version was 'Added Attractions' and the US version was 'Corkscrew
Chris Sawyer: We actually had
some much better names in the shortlist for the expansion pack,
but most were discarded because of difficulties getting legal clearance.
'Added Attractions' was my choice from the remaining names and Hasbro
Interactive agreed the name, but then a few weeks later decided
a different name would be more attractive to the US consumers. I
could have insisted the same name be used world wide, but deferred
to Hasbro as they had more experience in the US market.
Was it the fans opinions/requests OR the sales figures that convinced
you to make Loopy Landscapes?
Chris Sawyer: It was very much
a snap decision due to problems I was having with another project
at the time. I had several early discussions with Hasbro Interactive
about doing a second expansion pack, but we decided that it would
be unlikely to make a profit, and I was also reluctant to abandon
my work on another project. However, a month or two later I was
getting nowhere with the new project and decided to take another
look at RollerCoaster Tycoon. I think within about 24 hours of that
Hasbro Interactive had accepted my proposal for Loopy Landscapes
and agreed terms, and I put my other work on hold for about 4 months
to work intensively on the new expansion pack.
The only reason for not choosing two names for the second expansion
pack that I could come up with is the possibility of people getting
confused between all of the titles. Is this the reason you only
stuck with one title?
Chris Sawyer: Yes, and ideally
we should have had only one name for the first expansion pack.
As a webmaster of an RCT fan site, I get a ton of questions about
the game. Probably the most popular one is how to change the gate
fee in Loopy Landscapes. Was it because it was too easy to make
money, or what?
Chris Sawyer: I disabled the
gate fee option in the new Loopy Landscapes parks so that the design
and themeing of the individual rides became more important and crucial
to the success of the park. If an entrance fee is charged it doesn't
tend to matter too much if the guests don't enjoy all the rides
in the park, so there is little incentive for the player to really
think about the design of every single ride. Without an entrance
fee though, every ride becomes important, and a poorly designed
ride is of no benefit to the park's finances. Although initially
it seems more difficult to make money this way, it's actually possible
to make more money, as you can charge very high prices for your
really big rides, especially when they are new.
The question in everyone's mind is will there be anything in RCT's
future. What do you see in the future of RCT?
Chris Sawyer: I've several times
looked at the feasability of doing another expansion pack, but the
game is already stretched to it's maximum and it's just not possible
to add the kind of features I want to while keeping everything compatible
with existing saved games. So it's very unlikely there will be further
expansion packs, but I am sure that sometime in the future there
will be a completely new version. Re-writing the entire game will
be a major project though and is unlikely to take place for a while
In an interview (I forget the site), you said that you weren't happy
with the status of the Official
Rollercoaster Tycoon site. What is the status of it now? ChrisSawyer.com
seems to be getting updated more often.
Chris Sawyer: When the game
was launched, Hasbro had great ambitions for the official RollerCoaster
Tycoon web site, and to a certain extent they did a good job with
it over the first year. However, the person responsible for running
the web site in the UK then left the company, and since then the
web site has been managed from various locations in the US, being
passed around between departments of Hasbro Interactive, and never
remained the responsibility of one department for long enough for
new content to be created and managed. Perhaps with Infogrames now
in charge more resources will be focused on the official web site.
Has the purchasing of Hasbro by Infogrames made any changes into
the future of the series of RCT? Have they approached you about
doing another game?
Chris Sawyer: It hasn't really
changed anything from my point of view, as I tend to work independently
of publishers. Infogrames (along with many other publishers) have
expressed interest in future games from me, but I'm just one person
and I can only do one project at a time.
If the Rollercoaster Tycoon series were to continue, would you go
to the fan sites to see what everyone wants, or will you go strictly
on what you think the game needs?
Chris Sawyer: I have very clear
ideas about how to take the game forward, both in terms of what
I want the game to do, and in terms of what players want. What's
more important for me though is that a new version of the game should
not lose the features which make RollerCoaster Tycoon the game it
is, like the crispness of detail, the variety and depth of the rides,
the amount you can see on screen at one time, and the open-ended
nature of the gameplay.
Probably the biggest request I've seen is for the ability to ride
your own rides. Would you ever put that feature into the game?
Chris Sawyer: I would love to
do this, but it has to be done properly to be effective. One of
the things I tried to keep consistent in RollerCoaster Tycoon was
the look and feel of everything in the game, so that everywhere
that you saw an object it always looked the same, with the same
amount of detail. So for example, when you select a new ride to
build, you aren't presented with a series of photographs or high-definition
renderings of ride types to choose from, you are presented with
little 'screenshots' from the actual game. Applying this consistency
to a projected 3D view from the coaster would be very difficult,
as with current technology it would not be possible to project the
same amount of detail as shown in the isometric view. You also have
additional consistency problems because the view could show things
much closer than the isometric view, meaning that objects would
have to be much more detailed than they currently are, with even
more complex programming required to handle them. While all this
would be great and would add that final 10% to the game, I would
only do it if I could be sure that the rest of the game would not
be compromised. To quote a magazine review of another coaster-related
game recently, "Riding roller coasters is fun the first few
times, but if you ride them all day it soon makes you sick".