By the time I came away from my interview with developer Frontier, it was clear to me that everyone involved wants their upcoming wildlife park management sim Planet Zoo to be more than just another Zoo Tycoon game – they want to use it to make a genuinely positive change in the world.
I spoke at length with Planet Zoo’s Senior Artist Liesa Bauwens, whose passion and love for each of the animals she showed me in the two short demo reels was infectious – and massively endearing. From the black wildebeest to the giraffes, she would excitedly proclaim that every animal that showed up on screen was her favourite, before sharing with me a few interesting facts about each.
“I mean, I’ve always liked animals”, Liesa told me as the demo took us through a cheetah enclosure. “But I’ve definitely developed a deeper love of animals since working on this game.”
She explained that a ton of work and research has gone into the development of Planet Zoo (the team have visited multiple zoos and conservation centres to get a feel for how it all works), and that when you spend every day researching and immersing yourself in the needs of so many different species, it’s kind of hard not to want to learn more about them.
“Look at them, look at them being cute!” She exclaimed as a pack of wild dogs bounded towards the zoo keeper they’d spotted approaching with a bucket of food. “You want to learn more about them, you want to make sure they’re happy, and I think a part of that is because they look so good.”
She’s not wrong. There are, according to Frontier, well over 50 species of animal in Planet Zoo, and each of the dozen or so I saw during the demo looked absolutely breathtaking. The textures on each animal is a sight to behold, from the individual hairs on the wild dogs, to the scales on the crocodiles.
Planet Zoo has been in development for a little over two years now, and Liesa tells me that she’s constantly impressed by the lengths the team go to to render the animals in the most realistic ways possible.
“Our animation team is one of the best in the industry”, she told me as a cheetah lazily cleaned its ear. “And they put so much love and time into their work. We have these milestone presentations where they show off what they’ve done and I’m always in awe.”
Given the amount of time and effort that’s been put into researching, rendering, and animating the animals, it’s perhaps not that surprising that Liesa has developed something of a bond with her digital charges. They’re truly gorgeous, and Liesa was full of affectionate stories for all the animals – something she hopes we’ll all take away from Planet Zoo.
I had a little moment when I was going through the demo before E3, and one of the baby chimps turned to look at the camera, and just by chance I saw the light hit his little eye… and I almost felt like I was in a real zoo. To me, that was just mindblowing. I think everyone on the project has definitely gotten more passionate about animals as we’ve learned more about them. The welfare is so central to the game, so you have to learn about it.
It’s the focus on education and conservation that I wanted to really touch on during my time with Liesa and Frontier, as this was clearly the driving force behind the development of Planet Zoo. More than any other animal management sim I’ve ever seen, Planet Zoo is all about the creatures themselves in a big way.
We believe now these days in a modern zoo you don’t just go to look at the animals, most guests really want to learn about what’s happening. Zoos are really important for conservation as well, so earlier in the demo we showed the Black Wildebeest, that wouldn’t be… not endangered anymore if wasn’t for zoos. These are the things we really want to talk about, you know, conservation. This particular scenario is one where you’ll be maintaining a population before releasing them into the wild, so for us it’s really important that we show some of those educational things.
With this commitment to education must also come a level of attention to detail that extends beyond the way the animals look. You have to pay special attention to each animal’s environment, for example. Certain critters, such as a giraffe or a zebra will happily share a habitat with certain other species, whereas a lion or crocodile would much prefer to be housed with its own kind.
You’ll have to research each animal to discover the best way to prepare and deliver food for them. You can also provide “enrichment” items to keep them happy such as scratching posts for cheetahs or climbing frames for monkeys – which you can free-build yourself from scratch, by the way. “That was very hard, but we let the coders deal with that”, Liesa joked.
Weather conditions, such as rain, will of course factor into whether or not your animals fancy coming out to play or would prefer to stay inside. You’ll have to think about keeping your guests happy by finding ways to maintain visibility of your animals, even on rainy days – be that via one-sided glass peering into their enclosures, or something more creative.
A focus on conservation also means you’ll need to pay close attention to breeding a healthy stock of animals. Every creature in Planet Zoo will be born, grow old, and die. It’s up to you as the player to keep an eye on an animals genetic traits, as this will factor into things like immunity to disease, and fertility for breeding the next generation.
You can even display information about each animal for guests to view, and you can choose to do more research on each animal, which will then provide richer information for your guests – and for you. Just like hunger, thirst, and entertainment, education is a need of the guests in Planet Zoo.
The game’s campaign mode particularly, will push the game’s message of conservation and education, and Liesa sees this as a good way for players to see a lot of the game’s features and learn through the narrative.
When I asked Liesa if she hoped Planet Zoo would encourage the next generation to take a more active role in animal welfare and conservation, she seemed hopeful. “We really put the animal welfare at the forefront of the game. I hope that people will see that, and possibly when they go to an actual zoo, they’ll think about what goes on behind the scenes.”
“It’s a great way for kids to learn”, she continued. “It’s a game, so it’s interactive and will be extra interesting, and it allows you to get more up close than you could in a traditional zoo.” At this point, Frontier’s Lead Community Manager Bo Marit added her own feelings on the importance of what Planet Zoo is attempting to do. Like Liesa, she has an obvious passion for what the team is building.
Video games are so important nowadays. How many people play games? How many kids grow up playing games? We almost have a responsibility to make a game like this.
“Responsibility” is something I might have considered a fairly lofty word to use when discussing an animal management sim a few years ago, but Bo made an incredible point. Video games are a uniquely immersive experience that have a habit of reaching people -particularly kids – in a way that other forms of media just can’t. Why shouldn’t developers start using the medium as a tool for education more often?
With that in mind, maybe it’s about time we had a game like Planet Zoo. We’re clearly at a stage where we as a species have to start doing more to look after the creatures we share our planet with – this isn’t a political stance, or an opinion, it’s a fact.
If a video game can be just as fun and engaging as the classic Zoo Tycoon (and it absolutely looks like a ton of fun), then why can’t it also inspire us to be better? To do better by the planet?
“It’s our world, we’re not just in it ourselves”, Liesa told me, as I asked her why she believes conservation is so important. “All these animals live in it. Now it’s mainly our world, we have to make sure it’s still comfortable, and that these animals still have a place.”
“A zoo is a place where we can make sure that people can learn about them, and see them”, she continued. “And that’s a great opportunity to show people these are the other creatures that are sharing our space, and they deserve love and attention and comfort.”
I went to meet Frontier that day expecting to see a fun spiritual successor to Zoo Tycoon. I came away absolutely blown away by the scope, scale, ambition, and passion involved in the project. My final question to Liesa was a pretty simple one. I asked what she personally wanted people to get out of their time with Planet Zoo.
She told me:
I want them to take away love for the animals that they’re seeing. A better understanding of the animals that they’re trying to keep happy, and I hope they get more interested and involved with what’s going on in nature, and that they get educated in a fun way, and just have a blast with this game.I hope they have fun and learn something at the same time. That would be my ideal takeaway.
Planet Zoo seems to me to be that rarest of entertainment products – something made entirely by passionate staff, with the purest of motives. Frontier wants to educate without preaching, and entertain as many people as possible in the process.
We’ve still got a few months to go until its November release, but I genuinely think Frontier might just succeed in making the world a better place with this one – even if it’s just by a little.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.