Following a recent visit to Planet Coaster [official site], RPS funsters Adam, Alice and Pip sat down in a seaside cafe, exchanged bawdy postcards, and then got down to the business of discussing Frontier's theme park management game. From the infuriating lack of a tutorial, and the depth of the simulation and creation tools, to Banksy and the fear of animatronics, their findings are all here.
Pip: HELLO. I have convened this meeting of the RPS Treehouse Society because I wanted to talk about Planet Coaster. More specifically, how Planet Coaster doesn't have a proper tutorial of any sort and that is a) a real shame and b) a terrible decision.
I would begin this meeting by reading the previous meeting's minutes for approval but I don't think we wrote them down because the meeting was actually just Adam explaining Warhammer 40K to me over Skype while his dog competed for his attention AND WON.
Adam: He is such a good boy. Except when he’s being naughty while I’m on Skype and I end up shouting things like “don’t eat the rubbish out of the bag, Charlie. DON’T EAT IT WHY ARE YOU EATING IT WHY HAVE YOU EATEN IT”.
If Charlie visited my current Planet Coaster theme park, he would hang out near the pirate themed rollercoaster Walk the Plank because there is so much vomit near the exit, and he would probably want to eat it all. I should hire him as a janitor.
Pip: But how would he learn the ropes, Adam? There is no meaningful tutorial!
Adam: Before I say anything else, I want to make two things clear: 1) I’m enjoying Planet Coaster quite a lot and 2) I have a habit of skimming past poor tutorials, which is either because I’m stubborn enough to learn as I go, or because I’m so used to playing things like this (ADD LINK) that even the crappiest tutorial is like having my hand held by a guardian angel.
It might be surprising to find that Planet Coaster pissed me off no end. From the very first view of the menu screen to the point I’m at now, where I’m working on a fourth coaster for my successful park (which I built in couch co-op with my girlfriend who won’t stop playing the game EVER), the game has done absolutely nothing to make me feel welcome. I’m using memories of Rollercoaster Tycoon to figure out how things work and when I was choosing which mode to play in at the beginning of the game, I didn’t even know what the difference between the three main modes was, so I ended up with an already established park the first time I started a new game, and had to quit to get the blank slate I wanted.
The game, as many people have noted, is extremely easy, in the sense that money just rolls in once you establish the basics of a park, and I feel like that’s a concession the developers made because parks would close down before their managers had figured out how to build a queue otherwise.
Pip: You mean maybe Frontier wanted people to be able to tinker and play and figure this stuff out without the park getting closed down or dying or whatever happens when a theme park is deemed no longer fit for purpose?
Adam: Or that they realised people would have to because they forgot to include a tutorial, or even basic instructions for some things, so they made the cashflow much kinder. And for the record, owners of failed theme parks are eaten by animatronic pirates!
We were talking to Graham about this, and he and I both went back to Cities: Skylines after we’d installed Planet Coaster to see how it compared. Skylines is much friendlier and I think one of the reasons is that even the smallest city has a lot of automation built in. You lay down zones and things start to happen. With Planet Coaster, there’s nothing like that - you have to put quite a few moving parts down, properly connected, before things will start to tick over. If you think of the things you’re building as machines, Skylines’ start to produce results without the need for intervention quite quickly, but the theme park just sort of sits there until you’ve connected all the cogs.
It doesn’t need a tutorial, in the sense that I and presumably lots of the other people who are buying it have managed to run through the hurdles and get somewhere, but it’s incredibly unwelcoming. I can’t figure out how much that is because it’s the work of a team that has lots of management sim (and theme parks in particular) on board who can’t escape their own assumed knowledge when thinking about what people need to know, and how much is maybe a hangover from Early Access: you have a large audience already playing the game and figuring things out, so there’s this self-sustaining community providing feedback, tips and tutorials for each other. Either way, it’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it?
Pip: It's so rubbish I'm surprised Charlie hasn't stuck his snuffly little face right in it!
I think the thing which bothers me is how lazy it seems. Tutorials are so hard to get right and they're rarely perfect so I'm not expecting miracles or anything, but what I was surprised by is that there's so little effort to guide you. I mean there are some hints which pop up as a kind of contextual basic help, but it was stuff like the controls and the hotkeys for various things. There didn't seem to be anything that would fill in the gaps or tell me how to interpret or prioritise any of the information I was being shown at a moment.
That's something which manifested from pretty much the second I booted the game up, too. You do some avatar creation and stuff, but then you pick between Career, Sandbox and Challenge modes. Career mode sort of implied that might be the tutorial until I actually accessed it because it said it was about completing varied and increasingly difficult challenges so I rather thought it would start with "build a simple thing" and increase in scope from there but that's REALLY not what it is at all.
In the end I watched the tutorial videos but still felt like I was missing so much information. I tried to go back into one of the scenarios because a totally blank canvas was daunting. I figured maybe I could try to apply some of my learnings from the videos but the reality felt so far away from the video info that I saw my evening of rollercoasters and joyous pottering disappearing into a miasma of alt+tabbing and searching forums and gave up. I was on HOLIDAY! I was looking for relaxation not work!
Adam: This is really interesting to me because as I mentioned, I’ve been playing with my girlfriend, Claire, and it’s probably her favourite game of the year. I told her we were going to be having this discussion and she seemed totally baffled by the idea of needing tutorials, which totally baffled ME because she hardly ever plays games so in my mind she is rubbish at them. What I realised is that she sees the alt-tabbing and reading forums and, most important of all, watching people create things on YouTube, as a much more enjoyable way to learn about the game than tutorials would ever be.
She’s into the whole idea of it as a thing that is almost multiplayer in the sense that she’s learning from actual people, seeing how they figure things out and all the rest of it, and then downloading their creations to play with.
To me, that’s not fun at all. If I have to alt-tab out of a game to learn something WITHIN the game, I’m probably going to be annoyed. But talking to Claire about it, I can sort of get the appeal of learning that way. In my mind - and this is why I’m the critic of the couple because I criticise everything - that’d need to be an accompaniment to a tutorial, or an alternative, but it totally works for her. I think she’s also not really used to tutorials in-game because she hasn’t been into game since the early nineties when you’d be flicking through a manual to figure out how to rotate your view and then realise that views didn’t rotate back then.
Pip: Maybe she'd have enjoyed Dota back before Icefrog went and made it easy… ;)
Adam: She fears competition! Especially against the internet (which is everyone we don’t know in real life)
Pip: Alice, you picked it up didn't you? How was your experience?.
Alice: I did! I had grand visions of sculpting a dramatic park, sweeping my hand across the landscape then growing a theme park out of this wilderness. I soon refunded it. Planet Coasters isn't that. Planet Coaster doesn't do that well. Planet Coaster wants specificity and precision and planning and other such things I consider unnatural at best (proof of being a satan at worst).
I was bogged down in tools which I'm sure are very good at what they do, but what they do is not what I want. I also found it confusing and poorly-explained but mostly I was appalled that I couldn't casually sweep mountains, hills, and valleys into existence and work from there.
I applied for a refund from Steam after twenty minutes of tediously dragging the largest landscaping tool around, raising the ground one bump at a time. I'm a dreamer, maaan.
Adam: I actually like the landscaping tools, though I want to be a gardener rather than a god. I appreciate being able to rough things up without doing every bump and divot manually. I did build an actual mountain - large hill with rocks all over it - so that I could stick a rollercoaster right through the middle of it but the result was so terrifying, this train going dropping into a tiny tunnel and then bursting out the other side and whipping around to plunge back in again, that only about four people have ever dared ride it. And they probably tried to sue me. They definitely vomited everywhere and left the park immediately, which isn’t very good at all because they hadn’t even bought hats yet.
Pip: I think they kick you out of the amusement park guild if you stop being able to sell merch.
Alice – I am now curious, though. How would you divide up the reasoning for your refund? Like, if you had to split the reasons as a percentage it sounds like there's some "this just isn't my kind of game", some "the tools were really not explained well" and some "I am upset that no-one has made me a god of something yet".
Alice: I'm always upset about that.
In theory, Planet Coaster might be good for me. I played a load of Theme Park and have tinkered with other coast 'em ups since. I like running theme parks. But I didn't enjoy the creation, feeling taunted knowing wonderful things are possible but not in a way I enjoy, and then the confusion of simply parks work… if it had been better-explained or more intuitive, it's likely I'd have stuck around despite disliking its creation. But I can't be faffed with it right now and I'd rather play the many many games I can slip right into (which isn't to say 'easy' - I'm bouncing around The Binding of Isaac again). I knew I wouldn't play it.
Pip: Mine was a press copy so the only thing I was standing to lose was time, but there are so many games out there in my general MOBA/esports niche which expect you to do a lot of the learning yourself or which come alive through that sort of community-generated advice which leads to wikis and YouTube series and subreddits and the like. I'm generally at capacity on that front so when it happens in other games I can't get that same enthusiasm Claire has unless it's a real rare gem.
I think my mood when I booted the game up and felt so at sea (it's been about a decade since I last played a game in this genre) was essentially "If you can't be bothered to teach me, why should I struggle?"
Adam: As much as I am now enjoying it, I think i’ll burn out quite quickly because once you’re past that initial struggle, of learning how the tools work, the simulation itself doesn’t actually offer many meaningful choices. You have to care about the park from an aesthetic point of view because as an actual strategic management game, it seems quite lacking. The challenge is in actually building things rather than in making decisions - so whether you build an extreme ride or a gentle transport system is really up to you, based on how you want things to look and the shape you want your park to take, rather than any visitor appeal or financial pressure. It’s pretty much always a creative sandbox rather than a career of any sort.
That’s what a lot of people want, but I’m so bad at creating the things that I imagine that I need an actual long-term strategic challenge rather than a toybox to play with. Give me Lego and I’m going to make really crap cars and elephants, not recreate Gondor or Hogwarts or a to-scale model of Sean Bean. Give me Planet Coaster and I’m going to build an ugly rollercoaster that makes everyone cry and vomit.
Pip: I was thinking they could have put in a career mode based on my local amusement park growing up. It was called Dreamland which… well. Hmm. We used to go there when I was a teenager but then it closed down. I can't remember why. Also the Scenic Railway was actually a listed building (which didn't stop someone later setting fire to it). Anyway, I think it's been reopened now and is sort of this retirement home for other vintage rides? Something like that. Oh! I'm looking at the Wikipedia page for it now and apparently there's a Roller Disco and an Ice Cream Parlour. That'll get some good vomiting going, for sure.
Adam: Suddenly I realise what my purpose is: to download people’s Planet Coaster parks, load ‘em up and make the ‘fifty years after closure’ versions. All overgrown and decaying and creepy as fuck. I’ll get on that right now.
Pip: You'll have those derelicte-loving photographers swarming hither and yon before you know it.
Oh wow! According to Wikipedia Dreamland has something called a "Counter Culture Caterpillar" which is apparently a children's rollercoaster. I'm envisioning the smoking caterpillar from Alice's Adventures In Wonderland.
Alice: He's wearing a "The Pope Smokes Dope" t-shirt. Banksy strikes again.
Adam: I want to go on the Dream Cars, which are “for our smaller funsters”. I’d love to be a funster, of any size at all.
Pip: OH MY GOD THIS IS THE CATERPILLAR
Alice: I'd say more anti-culture than counter-culture. He wants to see it all destroyed.
Pip: So do you think Frontier have any incentive to add better tutorial stuff? I mean, I just went through a bunch of Steam reviews and it wasn't something which seemed to be getting mentioned. I filtered for negative verdicts and generally people were more concerned about the game being a bit shallow or that the management side was lacking in comparison with the creative bits – so, similar to what you said, Adam. I've also not seen it mentioned on reviews on other sites, nor on our own. Is it just not that big a deal? That would surprise me because it's the sole reason I didn't stick with the game.
Adam: I’d hope they’ll look at it. Like I said earlier, I don’t like the assumption of knowledge in design but I tend to put up with it, maybe more than I should. Sometimes I’m one of those idiots who complains about hand-holding instead of just skipping through a forced tutorial as quickly as possible and then getting to the stuff I enjoy. I’ve been playing The Last Guardian and it’s doing the really annoying thing of telling me how to jump a few hours into the game where I absolutely definitely couldn’t BE if I didn’t know how to jump. But early game tutorials are a GOOD thing. And Planet Coaster would definitely benefit from even a single tutorial-like scenario built in.
Pip: Here's hoping it's on their list of things to add in coming updates.
Do we have any Other Business for the meeting?
Alice: I think I've realised what I want is a theme park game about running a teensy little local one. Maybe a seaside funfair, maybe a travelling one. Loads of rides crammed into a field with bad burgers served from a white van and overpriced games with delightful prizes.
I want to design a ghost train. The most terrifying thing I've seen in a theme park/funfair was in a travelling one that stopped by London Fields. After rattling around five minutes of dangling string (not even silly string - string) and monsters playing crackling records, we reach the top of the ghost house and the final sight before the 'big' drop back to the bottom is a tombstone which reads "RIP DRACULA".
And you have to wonder, what manner of monster could kill Dracula, and is it still on the loose?
Pip: That's concerning. Also, fun fact: Paloma Faith used to work on a ghost train.
Alice: Are you bullying me again, Pip?
Adam: OH OH! I’m terrified of animatronics. Like, properly terrified. Mannequins as well. I find some museums difficult because fuck them for putting life-size fake people in costume around the place. Not cool.
So you can imagine that ghost trains are not my friends. A few years ago - so I am a fully grown adult man in this situation - I went to Blackpool with some friends. They forced me to go on the ghost train so I’m there, in the queue, surrounded by kids and their parents, all excited, and I’m not happy at all. Deeply concerned about what is happening to me.
And we get on and it rattles along and there’s maybe a dracula and a werewolf and a skeleton and I’m thinking this is fine, I can cope with this, this is fine. And then, right near the end, there’s a fucking set that we drive through and it looks like a bedroom in a suburban house, just perfectly normal and so out of place without the cobwebs or the bats or the gravestones. And there’s a little girl on the bed, with her back to us. She’s singing, like the soundtrack to Rosemary’s Baby. Then her head spins round, the lights drop out and there’s a scream and it’s the goddamn Exorcist.
The kids loved it. They didn’t know what it was, but they were laughing and yelling, and I was so angry with the friends who made me go on that fucking thing that I sulked and went and drank beer for the rest of the day.
FUCK THEME PARKS.
Pip: I feel like maybe this concludes the meeting. Also we should check Itch.io for some kind of plastic duck hooking management scheme for Alice.