Over the Christmas break, I became absolutely obsessed with Jurassic World: Evolution. The theme-park building game from the Cambridge-based developers at Frontier has a compelling gameplay loop that sucks you in and doesn’t let you go, as you figure out how to run Jurassic World without all hell breaking loose. It wasn’t long before I was recommending the game to my friends, and they ended up sinking significant chunks of their festive free time into it too.
But how does a company craft a game that is quite this engaging? Keen to talk about my obsessive dinosaur-wrangling, I reached out to Jurassic World: Evolution’s game director Rich Newbold to pick his brain about just that. The overarching gameplay loop – which sees the player completing a number of challenges on an island in order to unlock another island, and then completing challenges on that island to unlock another island, and so on – was one of the first things we talked about.
“We tend to design gameplay loops in two stages,” Newbold explained. “Firstly, we look at the mechanics and loops that work in the macro time such as a few minutes. These are then expanded over a longer period of time and combined with other gameplay to create the overarching structure of the game.”
Lots of thought and effort go into the smaller tasks in the game, even when they only take up tiny chunks of your time. For instance, if you want to make a new dinosaur, there are quite a few jobs that you need to do first: you need to send dig teams to find enough fossils, then you use your fossil center to extract viable genomes from the fossils, then you need to incubate the dinosaur in your lab, and then (if all is going well) you’ll be able to release your brand new creature – this comes with a nice bit of fanfare and triggers a sizeable endorphin rush.
These little tasks – digging, extracting, incubating, releasing – don’t take long to do on their own. And this, from a player’s perspective, makes it easy to justify continual play. You end up egging yourself on – just one more dig and then it’s time for bed, you might think to yourself, but then your dig comes back and you really want to extract the genomes… Then the genomes add up and suddenly you’re able to incubate a new dinosaur… and before you know it you’ve played for another hour.
Once these macro elements were put in place, Newbold and his team began thinking about other things to throw at players. As he puts it, “The player can have all three [digs, fossils, and incubations] in progress at any one time, yet while these are active there’s also the process of managing the progression and expansion of their park as well as the management of their dinosaur welfare – and on top of that there’s always the possibility of something going wrong, such as a dinosaur escaping!”
As well as catching and securing dinosaurs that escape, and managing your loop of macro-tasks, you’ll also have to hit your outlined targets in the main storyline (“Release two herbivores into an enclosure” or “Get a park rating of three stars”) as well as manage one-off contracts that can come in at any time (“Sell a dinosaur with a rating of 120” or “Take a marketing photo worth $10,000”). You’re trying to hit a lot of goals at once, as well as contain any crises that break out.
“Creating a world that continues to be exciting and compelling for players is always front of mind when we’re developing our games,” says Newbold, and part of that job involves making sure that players have all the skills that they need to succeed without getting too stressed out. “We work to make sure that the addition of new mechanics or items are timed so that we don’t overwhelm the player at any stage. While we found that sometimes it’s enjoyable to let the player ‘learn by doing’ with only light help and support, we’ve tried to ensure that if it’s a new skill, item, or dinosaur, the player has already had the time to learn how to manage the basics of it.”
Despite the fact that I’d never sunk this many hours into a park-building game before, I found myself picking up the skills to progress through the five main islands of the game’s campaign (and the two islands in its recent Return to Jurassic Park prequel DLC) during my playthrough. Even when things went wrong, there was always a way to fix it, which stops you from giving up. The game seems to encourage and support you, which is another element that keeps you playing beyond your pre-planned bedtime.
When it comes to encouraging players, while still challenging them, Newbold says, “It’s a balance. That feeling of euphoria you feel when you complete a challenge or achievement without help is something we try to ensure players have the opportunity to feel. We balance it by giving the player opportunities to rectify their mistakes before encountering big failures. In Challenge Mode, for example, you can have a few near misses where you get emergency cash grants for a failing park before we say you’ve run out of money. And if a dinosaur does escape and starts chomping on guests, that’s not the end. You take a financial hit but it’s still acceptable overall, even though it’s something that would likely shut down an entire theme park if it happened in real life!”
You’re able to learn from the mistakes you make along the way, taking the lessons of each area and applying them to new missions. As Newbold puts it, “Each new island comes with a new challenge, whether that’s playable area size or more frequent calamities. That said, with new challenges come new opportunities to not only access new dinosaurs or research but also to learn from the successes (and failures!) of the islands that came before it and put those learnings into building a more optimal park on the new island.”
To complete an island and unlock the next one, you normally have to achieve a three-star rating on your current island. This rating is based on the variety and wellbeing of your dinosaurs and the breadth of facilities that you offer to guests, among other things. Even if your first attempt at managing an island is a disaster, you can delete your mistakes and try again until you get that three-star rating and earn the right to move on. Die-hard fans of building games will probably hit that target quickly, but for newcomers, each three-star rating will feel like a huge accomplishment.
How do you make sure the game appeals to both newbies and hardened experts alike? Newbold admits, “It’s really tough. You don’t want to talk down to those players who instantly grasp all the mechanics and game loops, especially those with lots of management game experience. Yet you also want to make sure that those players who aren’t into deep management games are catered for. Jurassic is a franchise with such a broad appeal so we wanted to make sure that fans of as many ages and experiences could see that T-rex come out of the Hatchery for the first time and hear its iconic roar.”
It took me a while to work out how to stop that T-Rex from breaking out of its area and eating the guests. Let’s be honest, though – that’s exactly what the Jurassic Park franchise has always been about! Newbold and his team did a fine job in bringing this world, and the logistics behind it, to life. They also made an experience that’s compelling, engaging, and totally consumed my Christmas.
Jurassic World: Evolution is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.