I’m a big zoo guy. I know every animal in my local zoo, and whenever I visit a new city, the zoo is usually on the itinerary. So, of course, I’ve played a lot of zoo sims in my day, although most have left me slightly wanting. Don’t get me wrong, games like Zoo Tycoon are fun enough, but they never quite capture the zoogoing experience, or the animals themselves, as well as I’d like. Well, it seems Frontier Developments’ upcoming Planet Zoo may be the game I’ve been waiting for.
At E3 2019, I was given a live guided tour of Planet Zoo, which included up-close looks at the game’s lions, crocodiles, chimpanzees, and more, as well as a peek at enclosure creation and the game’s behind-the-scenes management mechanics. First off, the animals look fantastic, with new fur and skin rendering tech making them look almost startlingly realistic at times. Ultimately though, it’s the animation that really brings the critters to life. Chimps and wildebeest move together in believable groups and herds, and every animal has countless little idle animations – a furtive scratch here, a lazy flap of the ears there. These animations aren’t just random either, as every species and individual animal is guided by their own complex AI and pathing systems.
Planet Zoo reflects the best of modern zoo design, and so you’ll really need to attend to your animals’ needs when creating enclosures. Is there enough water? Enough shade? The right kind of plants? Are there things to keep them busy? During the demo, changing some things, like the kind of ground cover in an enclosure, was done with a simple painting tool. That said, some things will be more complicated – the climbing structures for the chimpanzees can be built piece-by-piece if you choose.
In the end, what impressed me most were the little touches only hardcore zoo people would appreciate. For instance, you can create backstage areas and pathways exclusively for your zookeepers, which are blocked off by the “Staff Only” signs any regular zoogoer will be very familiar with. You can also go right into the zoo kitchen and watch staff prepare meals. Education is also a big part of the game, so you’re encouraged to place information boards around your zoo, which you can unlock additional facts for. Again, not a big back-of-the-box bullet point, but all true zoo fans read the information boards, and the fact that Frontier is putting so much effort into them shows Planet Zoo comes from a place of love.
After my little Planet Zoo virtual tour, I got a chance chat with senior artist Liesa Bauwens and gameplay director Piers Jackson about creating the game’s incredibly lifelike animals, player freedom, the possibility of partnering with real zoos in the future, chimpanzee nose picking, and a whole lot more…
Planet Zoo’s animals look fantastic. Can you describe some of the research that went into creating them?
Liesa Bauwens: Thank you! Frontier has a long and storied history working with creature animation, which is kind of unusual in videogames. We made A Dog’s Life back in the PS2 era, Kinectimals, Zoo Tycoon 3, Jurassic World Evolution, and now Planet Zoo, so there’s a lot of expertise there. Rigging and animating an animal is a very different process to working with humans, and we couldn’t make Planet Zoo without all the games we’ve made before.
Of course, for Planet Zoo, we’ve had to do lots of research into animals. We have hundreds of hours of footage from lots of different sources - we’ve shot lots of our own photography and video at zoos, and we’re working with references from wildlife documentaries. We’re also working very closely with a zoologist from Cambridge University.
Every animal in Planet Zoo has a giant Word document filled with carefully-sourced and referenced facts about everything from their lifespan to what temperature range they prefer. We want to make Planet Zoo’s animals the most authentic animals you’ve ever met in a videogame, so we spend a lot of time on pre-production and production of each animal.
You showed off some impressive new fur rendering tech at E3. Any other new visual techniques being put to work?
LB: One of my personal favourite things that really makes me feel connected to the animals is the work that has gone into the eye shader. It’s not as clear and in-your-face as the fur is, but when you are watching chimpanzees in their habitat and one of them pauses to look at you in just the right way, the light hitting the eye really makes you think about how much like living, breathing animals these creatures feel in game.
At E3 we spent a lot of time up-close with the animals to show the detail on the fur and the eyes but of course that’s not how most people play management games. You usually play high in the sky, and we expect many players will play that way, but we want to encourage you to get up-close with your animals and have fun watching them, so we’ve invested in technology - the eyes, the fur, the AI and the unbelievably detailed animation rigs - to really bring them to life!
What are some of the little animations or bits of animal behavior players might not immediately notice, but you’re really proud of?
LB: I think the most amazing thing is how Planet Zoo’s animals can be doing nothing, but still be so alive. We have procedural systems in place that mean they’re always thinking, even when they’re in an idle state. They’ll look around themselves and watch other animals or zoo visitors, they’ll sniff the air or ruffle their ears, they’ll swish their tails or take a big sigh. We’ve invested lots of love into these little bespoke animations - chimpanzees grooming or lion cubs play-fighting, for example - but a player might drop in on one of their animals at any time, so they have to always be expressive and full of life.
I’m hoping that our players get to see all the little details we’ve added. In one of our E3 demos, one of the chimps picked his nose and ate it. That happened only once in all the demos that we ran and gave us a great sense of wonder. I hope players will get to experience the same thing!
So, as you just alluded to, the game won’t shy away from some the less polite aspects of running a zoo (seems like the animals are really getting their fibre). Is there anything just to rude too show? Or are we taking a “nature is nature” approach?
LB: We keep mating and birth off-camera. We respect their privacy, and we want people to be able to enjoy Planet Zoo with their families! We thought a lot about this and found that even in most wildlife documentaries, those topics are handled with great care.
Frontier has said, animal welfare is an important part of Planet Zoo. How exactly does this play out when you’re designing your zoos and enclosures?
Piers Jackson: Every animal in Planet Zoo has a very sophisticated brain. They think and make decisions based on the world you build around them. Planet Zoo’s animals are always thinking about the space they need, the type of terrain they like, the kinds of food they want, the amount of food they want, the level of privacy they like, their need to socialise with their own species and even animals of other species, and much, much more. Every animal in Planet Zoo is an individual with desires and needs and if those needs aren’t being met you’ll find your animal welfare and zoo rating plummeting.
Of course, player freedom is also a big part of Tycoon games, so how is that handled? What if I want to be terrible and put a gorilla in a tiny cage? Is that allowed? Can you succeed that way?
PJ: You can build any zoo you please, but Planet Zoo will never reward you for harming your animals or jeopardising their wellbeing. Visitors don’t want to visit a zoo where animals are unhappy, and I think most players won’t want to see their animals be unhappy too. The animals in Planet Zoo are so authentic and so lifelike, you just can’t help but want to take care of them and help them thrive.
How bad can things go? Things could get pretty hairy in Jurassic World Evolution – can we have full-scale animal breakouts and run-ins with guests in Planet Zoo?
PJ: Of course, Planet Zoo’s animals are thinking individuals with a need to roam and explore their surroundings. If their habitat is inappropriate or if they’re given a way out, they may choose to roam around the whole zoo. Your zoo visitors will run away, and carnivorous or aggressive animals may even hurt or kill other animals in the zoo. It’s important to maintain your animals’ habitats, and to have staff on hand who can care for animals. It’s another aspect of zoo management you need to worry about.
Conservation is an ever-more-important part of most zoos' mandate, and you've said it will be a big part of the game. Can you describe how the process of reintroducing animals to the wild will work?
PJ: We’re not going into too much detail about that right now, because it’s something we’re working on and balancing. I can say it’s something we want to have a major impact on how you’ll play.
Around how many animals will there be in the game? Any rare or unexpected ones?
LB: We’ve been saying “many more than 50” animals, and it’s definitely “many” more. We don’t want to give away the final number or any particular rare animals just yet, but we’re revealing animals all the time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Some of the animals we’ve already revealed are among the rarest in the wild. If you go by IUCN rating, chimps and lions are in a really bad way.
Are there any animals you gained a greater appreciation for when making the game?
LB: I gained a greater appreciation of Saltwater Crocodiles just by demoing the game all week at E3! Every time we visited the Saltwater Crocodile habitat we would find them doing something different. Sam (our demo driver) and I really got to know each individual crocodile by name and the different ways they would usually behave. We started guessing which crocodiles would be in the water and which ones would be lounging (usually Vikal, our male crocodile, would be swimming around while his female companion Melati would be lounging in the sun. Of course, you can name them how you choose!) and we would recognise which one was which by their size. They had really come alive for us.
There are a lot of big zoo heads out there. Have you considered, say, partnering with iconic zoos like San Diego? Putting a recreation of the actual zoo in the game and letting people manage it?
PJ: Planet Zoo is about representing the best of all the world’s zoos - zoos concerned with conservation, animal welfare, research and education, so right now we haven’t anything to announce regarding partnerships. We just want to celebrate the values of a truly modern zoo, and they know who they are!
Right now, Planet Zoo has only been announced for PC. Any plans for a console release?
Nothing to announce right now. Planet Zoo will be exclusive to PC when it launches in November.
Will you be supporting a wide spectrum of PC storefronts? Steam? Epic Games Store? Is a Google Stadia release something that might be considered?
We can confirm we’re launching on Steam and the Frontier Store, but beyond that we have nothing to announce regarding other platforms.
Thanks for your time. This zoo lover is looking forward to the game!
Planet Zoo scampers onto PC on November 5.