In the second of a new series of articles profiling, celebrating and analysing some of the best and biggest British-made IPs, we examine RollerCoaster Tycoon and chart its history from a one-man development team to big business - and back again…
ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON - THE STATS
Number of iterations: Three games, six expansion packs and six re-releases/compilations
Estimated total unit sales: Nine million+
1994: Transport Tycoon
1995: Transport Tycoon Deluxe
1999: RollerCoaster Tycoon
2002: RollerCoaster Tycoon 2
2004: RollerCoaster Tycoon 3
1999: RollerCoaster Tycoon released by Hasbro Interactive who had taken on the publishing rights originally signed by Chris Sawyer to MicroProse.
2001: RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 publishing rights transferred to Infogrames following its acquisition of Hasbro Interactive. These rights were subsequently transferred to Atari Inc, a majority-owned US-based subsidiary of Infogrames.
2004: RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 published by Atari, having been developed by Frontier Developments
2005: Chris Sawyer initiates legal action against Atari, claiming $4.8m in unpaid royalties. Atari files counterclaim in 2006 alleging royalty overpayment and inducement to breach of contract. The parties settle out of court in 2008.
Creator: Chris Sawyer
GAME INCEPTION AND GROWTH
Games programmer and designer Chris Sawyer had been operating in the games industry working on numerous games projects for other designers and development companies for 11 years before releasing his first title. That game, Transport Tycoon, placed players in the position of the owner of a newly-incorporated transport company, and was clearly inspired by US designer Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon (published by the same publisher, Microprose, in 1990 but otherwise unrelated) which itself shared many gameplay similarities with SimCity, released in 1989.
Like many games of the time, Transport Tycoon was the creation of a lone developer, Chris Sawyer. Its commercial success, combined with a new-found passion for rollercoasters, lead Sawyer to focus his next title: originally intended as the sequel to Transport Tycoon, it became a business simulation of rollercoaster theme parks, and thus RollerCoaster Tycoon was born.
RollerCoaster Tycoon hit shelves in 1999 and, uniquely for its time, was developed almost entirely by Sawyer with the assistance of a single artist and composer. It was also unique in being written in low-level assembly language rather than C, a development practice long-since considered obsolete at the time. As a result,
the game was reported to have taken over four years to create.
The RollerCoaster Tycoon games give players the role of creating and managing a theme park based around rollercoasters. Players not only design the coasters but also many other features of the theme park, all of which impacts the ongoing popularity of the park and the revenue it generates. This, in turn, influences the flow of capital available for the player to invest in maintaining, improving and expanding the park.
RollerCoaster Tycoon, like many of the preceding economic simulation games, adopted a sales curve that was unlike traditional computer and video games: featuring a long tail sales profile, the vast majority of the game’s sales took place after the first three months on the shelves, and a significant proportion of the title’s sales were achieved at or around a budget price point.
COMPANY INCEPTION AND GROWTH
Unlike the other lone designer-developers in the UK who had created games in the 1980s and early 1990s, Chris Sawyer never saw the need to incorporate his efforts into a specific company. The IP rights to all the games he has designed, including RollerCoaster Tycoon, reside exclusively with him as an individual to this day.
The publishing rights to the RollerCoaster Tycoon series, on the other hand, have followed a less clear-cut path. Sawyer originally signed the publishing rights to the first title in the RollerCoaster Tycoon series to MicroProse, a UK-based publisher who had handled his Transport Tycoon series. It appears that he assigned the publishing right of first refusal (or some other similar sequel rights) to MicroProse as the publishing responsibilities for the three RollerCoaster Tycoon titles and their six expansion packs ended up in the hands of four different publishing companies.
In 1998, a year prior to the first RollerCoaster Tycoon’s release, MicroProse was acquired by Hasbro Interactive. Hasbro was itself then acquired by French publisher Infogrames in 2001 and was subsequently rolled into its US division. Infogrames then spun-out and renamed Atari (in which Infogrames continues to retain a majority holding). Atari published both sequels to the original RollerCoaster Tycoon title.
The relationship between Atari and Chris Sawyer seems to have soured some time after the release of RollerCoaster Tycoon 2. His involvement in the third game was restricted to design consultant, although he had clearly had a hand in choosing its developer, long-time collaborator David Braben’s Frontier Developments.
In 2005, details came to light about litigation initiated by Chris Sawyer in the UK against Atari following an independent audit in 2003 of sales and royalties generated by the RollerCoaster Tycoon titles. The court statements revealed that the series had achieved over nine million unit sales and grossed over $180 million. Chris Sawyer had, at that point, received some $30 million in royalties but believed that he was still due $4.8 million in unpaid royalties.
Atari filed a counterclaim in 2006 alleging that it had actually overpaid Chris Sawyer $1.6 million in royalties (dismissed in 2007) and that he had also induced a breach of contract in his dealings with Frontier Developments. The dispute raged for nearly three years before being finally settled, out of court, in January 2008 – the details of which have yet to be made public.
RollerCoaster Tycoon is arguably the most improbable success story involving UK games IP in that it defied both established development and publishing practices but also the perceived industry wisdom at the time about how AAA titles are created. As a one-man development project, the original title took an inordinately long time to reach the market, featured extremely simplistic graphics at a time when high quality graphics were considered a necessity for PC sales success, and was based around a subject that had never been explored as the sole gameplay focus of any previous game. It would probably have been seen as being a marketing department’s nightmare prior to its release.
However, the upside was that this approach also allowed the game to be created for a fraction of the cost of most other AAA PC titles and allowed the title to cater for a PC specification significantly below that of other PC titles, enabling the broadest addressable market.
Although it did not originate the “Tycoon” entrepreneurial simulation genre, RollerCoaster Tycoon established a formula to take it out of a niche market and apply it to a mass market audience. Its success has since spawned over a dozen derivative titles, all applying the same type of gameplay to different scenarios in an attempt to access the same consumer base that Sawyer unearthed. Ironically, although almost all of them were created by sizeable development teams, only a few (such as Microsoft’s Zoo Tycoon series) have gone on to achieve any notable success.
If the court documents filed by Chris Sawyer are correct, the franchise’s success has been phenomenal and, given its background, should be considered a unique achievement. Interestingly, the two RollerCoaster Tycoon titles which Chris Sawyer directly worked on achieved the vast majority of the total sales generated to date, a reported seven million of the nine million sold by mid 2005. The third title was produced with considerably higher production values but with little or no input from Sawyer, and it appears to have achieved a much more limited commercial success.
RollerCoaster Tycoon demonstrated the disproportionately large impact one inspired and creative game maker can have on an industry. It also exemplifies, however rarely, the power of strong independently-owned IP to emerge intact from an industry mired in multi-million pound development budgets, hundred-strong development teams and the hype of the latest technology. We believe that, most importantly, its defiance of accepted industry logic demonstrates the potential rewards for developers that challenge development and publishing norms and innovate.
– The game had mass appeal due to its subject matter, gameplay and family-friendly content.
– The intuitive interface and easy learning curve attracted non games players.
– The patient commitment of its original publisher (Hasbro Interactive) aided the development of the first title’s long tail
– The budget/mid-market pricing (average of $20 per unit sold over lifetime of series) kept the game accessible to a wider market.
– The availability at, and promotion within, mass-market retail stores such as Wal Mart and Best Buy helped deliver protracted, strong sales.