Evil Genius 2 and Spacebase Startopia devs on the daunting task of reviving classic management sims
"It's responsibility both to fans of the previous game, and responsibility to make it accessible to people who are newer to the genre"
Over the next few days, both Spacebase Startopia and Evil Genius 2: World Domination arrive. The first is a spiritual successor to Startopia, the 2001 management sim about looking after space stations for alien travellers. The second is a sequel to 2004's Evil Genius, another management sim where you get to play a Bond-esque villain taking over the world. It's a brilliant coincidence these games have bagged themselves release dates within a week of each other, and speaks to the resurgence of management games over the last couple of years.
To find out a little more about this trend, I wrangled the developers from both Rebellion and Realmforge Studios into a big voice call to ask them, and find out what it's like to revive a popular sim from the noughties.
For starters, it's worth noting that these aren't the devs of the original games. Startopia was created by Mucky Foot Productions, while Spacebase Startopia is made by Realmforge Studios (the folks who made the Dungeons series). Evil Genius was developed by Elixir Studios, but Rebellion bought the rights back in 2006. A few years back they made a free-to-play Facebook game that didn't really work, but now they're making a proper sequel - one that Alice Bee had a lovely time with in her Evil Genius 2 preview.
While it is a coincidence that these releases are back-to-back, it's part of a trend that's been happening over the last couple of years - from spiritual successors such as Two Point Hospital, to entirely new games like Factorio. I asked Rebellion if this resurgence was part of the reason they wanted to release the Evil Genius sequel now, but it actually seems as though that was a bit of a coincidence too.
"The decision to bring back Evil Genius was really before the resurgence got into the full swing," producer Ash Tregay tells me. "We've had the pleasure of developing our game alongside the releases of Two Point Hospital, Jurassic World Evolution and Surviving Mars. All of those big hitters have come out and really enforced to us that we were doing the right thing at the right time."
Spacebase Startopia art director Anika Linke tells me she recognised how prominent management games currently were after they'd already started developing their game too. Realmforge previously made Dungeons, a series inspired by 1997's Dungeon Keeper, which creative director Christian Wolfertstetter tells me was part of their reason for picking up another oldie in Startopia.
"For us, it was always something worthy of a spiritual sequel, and since both Dungeons 3 and Spacebase Startopia are hybrid strategy-management games, we knew that we already had a good foundation to work from," he says. "And our team are huge sci-fi fans, so that pretty much sealed the deal."
But what's it like getting to work on a series that's so old and beloved? Incredibly daunting, says Evil Genius 2's lead designer Rich Edwards.
"This is a sequel to a game that - well, 'informed who I am as a person' makes me sound far more sinister than I am [laughs] - but this game was instrumental in my experience with the genre," he tells me. "You feel the weight of that initial game, and you feel all of those original fans waiting for this thing to happen."
"I think responsibility is a key word here," Tregay adds. It's responsibility both to fans of the previous game, and responsibility to make it accessible to people who are newer to the genre or who have never played Evil Genius."
It's all a bit of a balancing act, making sure the new game lives up to the idea existing fans already have, while trying to modernise it enough for the new crowd. One example the EG2 devs give me are their Doomsday devices. In the old game, they were pretty much your end goal, whereas Evil Genius 2 will let you play with and iterate on a prototype of your Doomsday device from the early game. It will still end up being a great finale (if you succeed in your dastardly plans), but you also get to have this massive cool thing in your lair for a bit longer.
This balancing act is an experience Wolfertstetter and the Realmforge team talk a little about in relation to their Dungeons series. Fans of the old stuff have a really solid idea in their heads of how things should be, but they can't let that override the importance of adding in new stuff to pull the attention of new players. Part of that process for both teams has involved taking influence from more recent management games.
"People come to our game having played these newer titles, and they've set expectations for them. So if things don't work as they might expect, or if they work counter to that, we tend to see people having a worse time with our game," Edwards says. "At the very least, we need to be aware that people have cut their teeth on an entirely new set of games in the intervening years".
"20 years is like 20 centuries when it comes to the evolution of video games," Wolfertstetter adds. "We’ve definitely been inspired by games like Planet Coaster and Two Point Hospital but we’ve made sure to use these as early stage building blocks and evolve the game into something that feels our own."
Fortunately, this is a video call full of people with more enthusiasm for management games than I've ever seen. The proof of that was evident from Rebellion's Edwards donning a snazzy Evil Genius beanie hat, and Realmforge's Wolfertstetter using a big donut-shaped space station as his video background. They were fans of the old games before they started on the new ones, giving them an excellent opportunity to make the successors they want to play.
"I think if they can get that sense of wonder and maniacal glee as they attempt to take over the world that I had on that first game, I will be a happy, happy man," says Edwards.
I was curious though, seeing how many management games have come out over the last few years, how you make a follow-up to an oldie stand out amongst the crowd. They tell me that, first and foremost, it's about having a weird and wonderful theme to draw the newbies in.
"We're certainly conscious with EG2 that - as long as it's guilt-free - everyone wants to be the bad guy! You can come in, play the Bond villain, and while you're here explore all of our new and complex systems," says Tregay.
On a completely different note, Spacebase Startopia stands out as a colourful and silly sim about aliens passing through your space station. Linke says it's this variation of themes that makes these games so successful, and there are tons of different worlds to choose from to control and create.
"From smaller teams and bigger teams, based on an old IP or something super new, from dark gritty survival to cartoony - you have such a wide selection of genres and types to pick from," she tells me.
"I think that's one of the really cool things about the genre, it's so scalable," Tregay adds. "You've got some really solid, interesting games out there made by a handful of people, right up to massive AAA games made by hundreds of people. And they're all interesting, they're all really fun to play, and they all have something unique to offer."
"It's been a tough few years. You can't control the world outside your window, but you can control the world inside this screen."
But why are we seeing so much interest in management games now? The overriding response seems to be escapism. Particularly over the last year or so, games have given people somewhere to go to get away from the stress of the outside world. The devs reckon management sims have been especially helpful, however, because they give a sense of productivity and control that you might not get elsewhere.
"You have the tools to build your own world to your liking, and you can decide how dark or hard you want that experience. You can play Frostpunk and, um, suffer [laughs], or you play Parkasaurus and put little hats on your dinosaurs - there's so much range," Linke says. "And you see results of what you do quickly and clearly too, it's like a constant flow of little achievements that make it so rewarding."
"That's spot on really, it's been a tough few years," says Tregray. "You can't control the world outside your window, but you can control the world inside this screen, and we give you a bunch of interesting toys to help you do that. And you know what? You wanna take your time doing it, that's totally fine, you've maybe had a rough day. Just build a few things, watch life happen in that little world, and carry on next time.
"But if you want to make more progress, that's there too. It's entirely within your control, and I think that's quite helpful for people in the turbulent times we live in, where perhaps you don't get to go outside very much [laughs]."
Spacebase Startopia is out today on Steam and the Epic Games Store, as well as PS4, Xbone and Nintendo Switch. Evil Genius 2 arrives next week, on March 30th, and will also be available on Steam.