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Interview with Chris Sawyer

In this interview, Red Phoenix interviews Chris Sawyer, developer of RollerCoaster Tycoon.

Red Phoenix: 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 for fun.

Red Phoenix: 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 1981.

Red Phoenix: 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.

Red Phoenix: 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 people?

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.

Red Phoenix: 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.

Red Phoenix: 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 you think?

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.

Red Phoenix: 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.

Red Phoenix: 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 break even.

Red Phoenix: 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 Follies'.

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.

Red Phoenix: 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.

Red Phoenix: 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.

Red Phoenix: 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.

Red Phoenix: 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 yet.

Red Phoenix: 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.

Red Phoenix: 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.

Red Phoenix: 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.

Red Phoenix: 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".

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Chris Sawyer Software Development

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