Jurassic World Evolution
A blend of top-class management sim tinkering And dino-rampaging Action, Jurassic World Evolution finds A way
Frontier takes us behind the scenes of its latest sim.
It’s the ultimate fantasy about the ultimate fantasy – a park simulation videogame, actually done well, based on the world created by late author Michael Crichton. Jurassic World Evolution – named for the recent Pratt turn in the franchise, but owing more than its fair share to the original Park and its sequels – feels like such a perfect marriage, it’s difficult to imagine what could really go wrong with it. Maybe it will have been rushed in order to release at the same time as the upcoming movie, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Maybe it will rely too much on its celebrity appearances, like the glorious Jeff Goldblum reprising his role as Dr Ian Malcolm. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But from some time with Jurassic World Evolution, plenty more with Frontier’s previous park management title Planet Coaster, and with the knowledge of just how many games the studio has made over the past couple of decades featuring parks, animals, or a mix of the two, it’s difficult to see the ‘maybes’ having any real legs. Of course, this might all be a result of the intoxication that washes over a person when they are smack bang in the middle of the ultimate fantasy about the ultimate fantasy. Time will tell. For now, it’s all about what Evolution might bring us, what we’ve seen of it so far, and how much Evolution manages to be its own thing in the face of the accusations that will do the rounds this is merely a Planet Coaster re-skin. Michael Brookes, game director on Jurassic World Evolution, acknowledges Frontier’s last game had a big impact on the new one with the terrible lizards: “Obviously [Universal] said they’d seen what we’d done with Planet Coaster and various other things, so they knew that we could do a management style game,” he says, “However, we very much wanted to not do a re-skin of Planet Coaster. We think with Jurassic World there’s an opportunity there to go deeper with the management. You’ve got [to think about] much more with the dinosaurs, the effects of dinosaurs, things like that, so they had to be stars of the show, not the creative tool. Even though Planet Coaster is a management game, it’s also this really amazing creative tool, so we wanted to kind of not divorce the two and make sure that with Jurassic World we focused on actually looking after your dinosaurs and the impact of what looking after the dinosaurs means.” From the outset it’s clear the dinosaurs do matter a good deal more than you might possibly expect. Starting out on the relatively calm island of Matanceros – first mentioned in the Lost World novel – players get used to the systems being thrown their way in a relatively calm, straightforward fashion. Place an enclosure, attach a complex in which you can breed new once-dead creatures, don’t forget to power it all up, build your other required facilities (ranger stations, research labs etc) from there – and all that before you’ve even thought about the requirements of your guests. After all, this is a game about running a park, not a private, closed-off research station, so at times you will have to think about things like hamburger shops and selling merchandise with as much of a mark-up as you can without upsetting folks.
“We very much Wanted to do a re-skin of Planet coaster”
Do you see what’s happened? You’ve forgotten about the dinosaurs, because there’s so much else to focus on should you let your mind wander. We bring this up not to criticise, as Evolution does a good job of introducing things piece by piece, but because while we were busy faffing about trying to perfectly place a t-shirt shop, one of our herbivores broke through a non-electrified fence and went to work terrorising the humans loitering about outside. Looking after dinosaurs matters more than anything else, despite what some voices in your ear might shout as they’re demanding you up security levels or squeeze more profit from the attending public. And we hadn’t been paying attention to our lone Edmontosaurus. It wasn’t surprising she became unhappy, lacking in any social contact as she was – what with being the only one of her kind to exist in the last 66 million years. That’s a level of loneliness sure to make anyone mad. It sounds like micromanagement, but it really isn’t – hover over your attractions, and you’ll see meters measuring hunger, thirst, social happiness and other such elements. Keep an eye on it, and you’ll always – well, usually – be able to nip things in the prehistoric, giant bud before they get out of hand. But you do have to remember all the time that these are animals with their own wants and needs, their own individual personalities – to an extent – and there’s no one-size approach to the different species. “To progress through the game you need to be fairly sensible with what you do,” Brookes says, “Because if you went and opened the gates in your paddocks then the dinosaurs would walk out. They are dangerous to humans. Even the herbivores are a threat to humans – they will trample people into the ground.” Keeping gigantic lizard/birds happy could be an exercise in futility – and Evolution does cater to those wanting to just mess things up and relive the movies on their own terms, though more on that later – and it will take some learning to get things running smoothly: “You could have all kinds of causes,” Brookes explains, “If you’re not feeding them; if they become sick; if there aren’t enough others of their kind – many of the dinosaurs are quite social. They expect to see others of their kind. Others worry if there are too many other dinosaurs close to them, so if you get overcrowded that can be a problem. And then they can just try and escape!” Of course, what would a Jurassic World – or Park – game be without the presence of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the ‘should-be-deinonychus’ Velociraptors, or any of your other meat-feasting bipedal bastards? Nothing, and of course you can clone yourself any number of carnivorous dinos to populate the park. In fact, you’ll find yourself wanting to do so, as they’re more exciting for visitors to see, and so bring in more money. They also bring in more danger. “The more dangerous dinosaurs will actively seek to try and escape their enclosures if they’re not happy,” Brookes laughs. The basic point being made is that Jurassic World Evolution has a lot of layers to it, and a lot of ways in which it can appeal to players. There’s those who might just want to breed and maintain dinosaur populations, as Frontier knows: “That’s something we really wanted to be aware of, is because, yes, it’s good to have a challenge to the game, but you don’t want to make it frustrating,” Brookes says, “I mean, there are a lot of players who, to an extent, they prefer just to have a sandbox game just to see that they can manage a large number of dinosaurs. So for that, they can stick with Matanceros. They can explore the other islands and start getting the other unlocks, but they can keep coming back and building on Matanceros, to do what it is they want.” But this is a game in the Jurassic Park universe – there’s a story behind everything, and without the intrigue, the push-and-pull between scientific breakthroughs and ethical dilemmas, the unmitigated greed of a wide-eyed investor with dollar signs on the horizon, it wouldn’t really be fit for purpose. John Zuur Platten is the lead writer on Jurassic World Evolution, and has credits on the likes of Fear Effect and The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. His job was to integrate a fitting, gripping, dip in-and-out-able storyline to
“there Was this big element of trust that We’re Working With something very valuable to them”
Evolution in a way that fits the series’ ethos while at the same time not overwhelming things. “What I look at my job as being,” he explains, “is sort of setting the table, providing context for the player, for what they’re about to experience, but the individual story-beats, they create those. Every game that I write, I always imagine that I’m collaborating with the player, because the player is revealing that story the way they’re playing the game. Many games of Evolution, you’re creating your own story, so it’s a balancing act – but, there are also linear narrative story beats that happen through branches you can explore.” Those branches – science, entertainment and security – offer up mini-missions for the player that focus on the different elements and provide boosts to technology and discoveries associated with them. Focus on security, for example, and you’ll end up with far fewer Edmontosaurus rampages under your belt – but the park will feel more like a dino-prison than somewhere visitors actually want to spend any time. Each branch brings its own philosophies to the table, and it’s a balancing act to keep every faction as happy as it can be in order for everything to be running smoothly as you go. It’s almost as if someone’s watched the original movie and noticed one Dennis Nedry was a sort-of faction within the story who wasn’t kept happy, and so who moved against his employer to sabotage the operation. And it’s almost as if that kind of thing might happen in Evolution too, given enough neglect towards one or two factions. Oh, and remember not to forget about the dinosaurs. This kind of complexity requires a baby steps approach to things, and Frontier is embracing the fact that, even with the robust storyline pushing players through everything, there is the chance to methodically work through things, to return to previous parks and upgrade them, to concentrate on the distinctly gamey aspects of Evolution. “The main approach taken was that we have the progression through the islands, as you progress then you unlock new gameplay, but you also unlock new challenges,” Brookes says, “So you’re slowly building up this library of tools that you can use to respond to emergencies, or preemptively plan ahead for them… Then we encourage you to go back through the islands to try and complete them fully, using all the new things that you’ve learned, and to try unlock everything.” As you work your way through the islands, the challenge builds in numerous ways – one obvious way being the weather, which becomes far harsher on other islands and necessitates storm warning centres and preparation for weather events.
“the development studio behind it has been making games about animals, Parks, and animals in Parks for just about two decades”
A stray lightening strike on a power substation without enough redundancies in place, and you’ve got yourself fences a great deal easier to chew through than they were mere seconds before. It’s a particularly game-y element, of course, but another way in which Frontier has managed to weave something from the world of gaming with the core concepts of the movies on which it’s based: chaos. Now, you’re not going to see a Chaos-o-meter at the top of the screen, nor is Jeff Goldblum’s job in-game to tell you when something chaotic is about to happen. It’s not that obvious. But you are looking at a series of complex systems layered on top of each other, where weak links can form. If one breaks – it might be the aforementioned substation with no redundancies – there’s always the chance this chaos will cascade, leading to more ill effects on top of more problems, sprinkled with more issues. Of course, this sounds like hell and the kind of thing that could result in many a controller thrown at a wall – but it’s entirely in keeping with the Jurassic series’ ethos, and the way in which one leads to another, and onto more bad shit. There’s also the fact that some will play for this chaos – we’ve been doing it since purposefully causing earthquakes and Godzilla rampages in the original Sim City – it’s unlikely to stop now we’re on the verge of what could be the best park building simulation the Jurassic franchise has ever seen. Sometimes you just want to see truly ancient nature clash head-on with the products of millions of years of evolution. That’s just Jurassic World, Jurassic Park, the Jurassic franchise – everything Michael Crichton and, latterly, Universal has always been about with this world. And park. Everyone working at Frontier is full of high praise for license holders Universal – “They realised what we could do with one of their huge franchises,” Brookes says, “So there was this big element of trust that we’re working with something very valuable to them.” The studio provided the team access to audio, 3D models, animations and more to make the job of creating a park-creator as accurate as it can be. But there always has to be something about a game based on such a blockbuster franchise that offers at least a vigorous nod towards its (part-)action roots. Fortunately for Jurassic World Evolution, this nod fits – and it’s fun. What it is, is direct control – say a dinosaur becomes out of control, and you need to send in a team to tranquilise the beast for its own good (and to protect profits). You can do this with a few clicks or button presses and let it be carried out by the AI. Or, you can dive right in to the action, controlling the helicopter as it makes its way to the rampaging animal and the sedation sniper as they hang out from the chopper’s side – a mini-game of target practice to calm nature’s fury, no less. There’s also the chance to control Jeep-bound rangers to administer cures to ailing dinosaurs, and likely other elements we weren’t privy to with our time on the game so far. It initially feels like an odd addition, but it does work – and you can see why it’s in there. “The direct action thing, I think, was a consequence of actually coming from Jurassic World,” Brookes says, “Where they have these hero moments, where the person actually starts running around in her high heels, and just actively doing something about it. We wanted to include that in the game. Plus it gives you a new perspective on how you’re looking at your dinosaurs, when you’re driving around in a four-by-four for one, looking at the Brachiosaur walking past, that’s quite an impressive sight. “It gets you that human scale interaction as well, but also it means that when these disasters happen, that you can actually respond to it. And if you know what you’re doing, you can respond much quicker than the AI can. You can use research to improve your response teams, but sometimes you just want to jump in, that you’d rather do it yourself.” It’s just one of those things that wouldn’t work were it a less experienced developer behind the action – that would probably result in a game focused on action, demanding interaction from the player and penalising them for not getting their hands dirty. As Frontier presents it, you can help, and it is fun, and it works well – but you absolutely do not have to if you don’t want to. Frankly, Jurassic World Evolution could well turn out to be a missed opportunity. Maybe. We can’t keep that thought off the table from just a short amount of time with the game at a well organised, showy press event. But at the same time there’s very little working against it as a project – the franchise it’s based on is strong and the game isn’t being limited just to the recent movies, with the classic original (and its two barely watchable follow-ups) featured and referenced with aplomb. The development studio behind it has been making games about animals, parks, and animals in parks for just about two decades now, and its jumping off point of Planet Coaster – while it’s keen to distance Evolution from ‘just being a re-skin’ – is a brilliant one. And it’s got Jeff Goldblum in it, muttering his sweet, staccato streams of consciousness into your ears. If it all comes together, if nature – and Frontier – finds a way, we could well end up with a truly rare sight in the gaming species: a genuinely great movie tie-in.
Your initial park is in a large area for you to expand into, but those who get bored of the starting island will be pleased to know there are plenty more – with their own challenges – to tackle.
You can keep as few or as many different species in a single enclosure as you see fit. Do you want convenience, or safer animals? It’s up to you.
As new technologies are researched, opportunities to recreate specific, massive features from the movie series make themselves known. This is begging for a systems failure…