Return of the King

PopTop Software makes its bid for the Tycoon crown with Railroad Tycoon 3

Developer PopTop Software, Inc.
Publisher Gathering
Release Fall 2003

Benjamin E. Sones

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This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150

Phil Steinmeyer wants to set the record straight. “Rollercoaster Tycoon gets the credit now for being the genesis of the modern era of ‘Tycoon’ games,” he says. “But Railroad Tycoon II actually came out six months before it.” Sitting in his office at PopTop Software, the company that he founded, Steinmeyer tries his best to look offended over the success of a game that he obviously likes, then gives up and laughs. If he doesn’t seem intimidated by the competition, it’s because he probably isn’t. His sequel to the great-granddaddy of all Tycoon games was a solid success in its own right. “We haven’t sold as many copies as Rollercoaster Tycoon, but we’ve sold about a million and half copies, and we’re still selling pretty well today. So we have our pride—we want to reclaim our crown.”
This is more than idle talk. Up and running on the monitor behind him is the current build of Railroad Tycoon 3, looking far more playable than any game that is nearly a year from release has any right to look. PopTop has been working on the core game for a year and a half now, and it had a programmer working on the new game engine a year and a half before that. It shows. Steinmeyer whips the camera from a satellite view of the entire country of Spain to a “standing on the platform” view of the train station outside of Madrid with a flick of the mouse wheel. Then he sends the camera zooming over the mountains, stopping to take in the scenery near Valladolid. Visible in the distance is another train station, a logging camp, and 19,237 trees. A readout in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, next to the frame rate counter (currently hovering around 50), updates the total in real time. The sky here is clouding over, and rain is starting to fall. “If we’re lucky, we’ll get some lightning,” says Steinmeyer. “You only get it when the storms get really bad, though. It’s a cool effect, but I can’t force it.”
Sure enough, thunder starts to rumble in the distance, but the sound is soon eclipsed by the roar of an American 4-4-0 steam locomotive with a three-car consist streaming into town from the north. It rolls through town and over a bridge where two lines of track cross paths. It slows down and stops to take on water at a service tower; after a few seconds the stream of water sluicing down from the tower stops and the train starts moving again, into a tunnel in the base of the mountains, heading south towards Madrid. A flock of geese flies by overhead. “The gameplay is a lot like Railroad Tycoon II,” says Steinmeyer, “but we also made some major changes.” No kidding.

Careful Tinkering
When you are working on a sequel in a series that is 13-years old and beloved by millions of fans, picking things to change is a tricky proposition. Visuals are an easy mark, and the game’s new 3D engine represents a dramatic departure both for the series and for PopTop. Steinmeyer believes that the new visuals are more than superficial frosting. “We realized after the fact that half the people that played Railroad Tycoon II were like, ‘Hey, what a deep strategy game,’” he says. “The other half were like ‘Cool! Trains!’”
The game has the undeniable feel of a model railroad, and it is tough to dismiss the appeal. Part of it comes from a pretty 3D engine with day and night cycles, pixel shaded water, and detailed articulated locomotives that look like they should be zipping around Styrofoam mountains on HO-gauge tracks. Another part of it comes from a fundamental shift in design philosophy, one that takes the emphasis off the interface screens and puts it into the game world.
“In Railroad Tycoon II we had the station screen, which had all the different support buildings on that screen,” says Steinmeyer. “But they weren’t visible in the game world, so you saw your station building in the game world, but nothing else.” For Railroad Tycoon 3, Steinmeyer has whittled the number of station enhancements down significantly—you will be able to build service towers and maintenance facilities, and four or five other minor buildings such as hotels. Instead of jumping to a secondary screen, all of these structures will be objects in the game world, and you can place them wherever you like. “You can put them near a station if you choose, but you don’t have to. If it makes more sense to put a maintenance facility in the middle of your track, then so be it.”

I’ve Been Working Off the Railroad
Station enhancements are not the only buildings that you will be placing in the game world. Steinmeyer has opted to answer a frequent request by fans of Railroad Tycoon II and allow players to purchase and place industry buildings. Natural resources will still occur naturally, of course. “You can’t place an oil well in the middle of Illinois,” says Steinmeyer. “That would be pretty stupid.” You will be able to place industrial buildings such as steel plants and toy factories, however, in addition to purchasing any industries that pop up naturally on the map, as you could in the past.
It is all about building on the game’s theme, Steinmeyer explains, that most of the railroad tycoons in the nineteenth century were not exclusively in railroads, as this was before the days of monopoly laws. “This was before the days of monopoly laws,” he says. “So they would own the coal mine, and they’d own the track hauling it to the steel mill, and they’d own the steel mill… they’d basically own the whole package.”
You can also pay to upgrade any building in the game, and neutral buildings will upgrade on their own if their region is prosperous. The idea is to give you the feeling that your business is having an impact on the area. If you bring commerce into a town, that town will thrive and grow in a literal sense. If you pick Joplin, Missouri as your Midwest hub, then that might grow, and instead of Chicago being the biggest city in the Midwest, Joplin might be. You will be able to see the impact of your actions first-hand as the industries in Joplin upgrade and grow larger, and new homes and industries start to appear.

Streamlining Your Routes, Routing Your Streamliners
That is Steinmeyer’s new design philosophy in a nutshell: keep the player in the game world. Separate interface screens for buying and routing trains, building stations, and managing your company are gone, replaced by panels in the interface bar at the bottom of the main screen. Aside from the setup menu, everything that you can do in the game happens here. In addition to keeping novice players from getting lost in the various submenus, he hopes that the streamlined interface will make multiplayer games easier. “In multiplayer you don’t want to be jumping around to secondary screens a lot, and we wanted to push multiplayer a lot harder in this game.”
They’ve drastically revised the train interface system. In Railroad Tycoon II, you had to pick the contents for each of your trains by hand. Trains would only haul what you told them to haul, and with 20 or 30 trains on the map, it could be a lot to handle. “Most of the time, you won’t want to be that nitpicky,” says Steinmeyer. “You’ll build the rail line and tell it to haul the best available cargo. Whatever will pay you the most to ride on your rails, that’s what rides on your rails.” You can still micromanage specific cargoes whenever you want, though Steinmeyer suspects that most players will only want to do that when there is a specific reason to do so. “I think the time where you’ll really want to micromanage it—where you’ll want to tell a train to haul coal even if you’ll make more money hauling cotton—is when you own the steel mill.” In that case, while hauling cotton might bring a higher short-term gain, you know that you will make more money in the long-term by keeping your steel mill well supplied. With less time spent choosing obvious cargoes on less important lines, you will be able to spend more time managing the cargo that is critical to your company.

The New Economy
Slick 3D graphics aside, the most significant changes are under the hood. PopTop has redesigned the economic model that drives the game from the ground up, hoping to address some of the oddities that were an artifact of the abstract economy in Railroad Tycoon II. In that game, certain regions would generate resources, while other regions generated demand. You were paid for hauling those resources; the farther you hauled them, the more you were paid. Resources could only travel by rail, however, and that created numerous opportunities for taking advantage of the system. There might be coal resources 50 miles away from Pittsburgh, for instance, but you could make more money by hauling coal all the way from the Rocky Mountains simply because the distance was greater. The closer coal would never get to Pittsburgh unless either you or one of your competitors brought it there. “The game model was very simplistic,” says Steinmeyer.
He loads a map of the US Northeast and turns on a bit of debug code that visually displays each unit of all the various resources as a tiny white square on the map. A steady stream of white squares slowly trickles out of every industry and resource building and heads in the direction of the nearest city or industry with the highest demand, even in the absence of rail lines.
“It wasn’t like the whole concept of cargo movement was invented by railroads,” Steinmeyer says. White squares representing pulpwood flow out of a group of logging camps east of the Appalachians. One line moves east, towards New York City. Another heads west, over the mountains. The squares slow down considerably when they hit the Appalachians—travel through mountainous terrain is difficult, but the demand on the other side is high enough to attract the cargo anyway. Steinmeyer then drops a lumber mill on the east side of the Appalachians, and it siphons off part of the pulpwood flow like a magnet. “Cargo will always flow along the path of least resistance,” says Steinmeyer, explaining that resistance is a factor of the terrain and the level of demand. Overland travel is expensive, and the cargo will naturally move towards the markets where it can make the highest profit. Because rail travel is comparatively fast and cheap, rail lines typically become the path of least resistance wherever they go.
The trick is to build rail lines that maximize your margins. You could haul the pulpwood east to New York, but that city can also get pulpwood through coastal shipping. You will still make money, but not as much as you would make by hauling the cargo to markets that have no alternate supply of pulpwood. “In this case, you don’t even have to haul the pulpwood very far to make a lot of money,” says Steinmeyer. “You just have to get it over the mountains. If you go back to the real-life railroads… cargo could get up and down the river networks easily, the coastal areas they could get up and down easily; what stumped them early on were the Appalachians. The very first American rail line was the B&O—the Baltimore and Ohio—and it was designed very specifically to get from Baltimore to the Ohio River. Once you could do that, the waterways could get the cargo all sorts of places and you could make lots of money.”
That means that you will have to do the things that worked in real life—hauling produce and cotton from the south to the north, or manufactured goods from the north to the south. It also means that demand for cargo in one place will reflect demand for cargo in nearby places. If New York demands produce and you can bring produce close to the city, you can still make good money, because the produce will travel the rest of the way on its own. The cost of that overland travel will eat into your margins, however, so you are better off bringing it all the way into the city.
Even though you typically haul whatever is the most profitable, that does not mean that every cargo differs only in name. Produce rots faster than iron or coal, but consumer markets that want produce will pay a higher margin for the same amount. “The price that anybody is willing to pay for 20 tons of coal is limited,” says Steinmeyer, “but 20 tons of fresh oranges in 1870 New York… that’s a gold mine.”

Uh, this is not my mail
Steinmeyer was also unhappy with the way that Railroad Tycoon II handled passengers and mail. “You could deliver peoples’ mail to anyone. If you had a big city like New York that was pumping out passengers, you could haul every single one of them to Buffalo, and they’d be happy.” Now passengers do not just want to go somewhere, they want to go somewhere specific. “They don’t just want to go wherever the railroad will take them,” he explains, “they want to go to Chicago. Or New York, or wherever.” This gives you a bigger incentive to connect to opponents’ rail networks, because increasing the number of destinations that passengers can reach over your rail lines increases the odds that they can get where they want to go.
Passenger traffic is also dynamic, and will respond to the opportunities that you provide. “If passengers consistently find that every time they leave New York, they can catch a train to Buffalo at a reasonable price, the level of passenger traffic will pick up,” says Steinmeyer. “So it’s responsive. If the service is good—frequent trains at reasonable prices—the supply of passengers will increase. Conversely, if a train only leaves for Buffalo once every four years and the price is sky high, nobody will want to go there.”
The interface for passenger supply and demand still needs some work, and Steinmeyer is not yet certain how to effectively communicate all the various places that passengers in any given city want to go. He hopes that most of this new complexity—both in passenger traffic and in the cargo economy—will be transparent to the player. The idea is to make the system behave more like a real economy. “Even if the player doesn’t understand all the algorithms behind it, it will feel like the real thing and be intuitive.”

Tycoon frenzy
Just outside Steinmeyer’s office is a big bulletin board labeled “the competition,” covered with full-page printed screenshots from a wide range of games, from Microsoft Train Simulator to WarCraft III. Aside from the obvious Rollercoaster Tycoon, the board is strangely devoid of Tycoon games.
“Most of the Tycoon games cater to the budget level,” Steinmeyer explains. “You had the original Railroad Tycoon and a few other assorted Tycoon games, then Railroad Tycoon II and Rollercoaster Tycoon launched the second wave, but you haven’t yet seen a high-end game with high production values, a deep gameplay title that’s not some sort of budget title. I think Railroad Tycoon III is the first Tycoon game that really represents the third generation.”

This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150