What is a tycoon?
Recently, I've started reading The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. One of the lenses that caught my attention is the lense of essential experience. It got me thinking about how I approach tycoon games, what do I expect to see or find in them and what parts do I like and dislike. To define what kind of experience I want to deliver, let's start with tycoon basics. I think usually a tycoon game consists of at least two elements: the core business sim and construction or at least a placement mechanics.
A basic business sim/tycoon game is simply a progression game. The players are given starting money which they can spend on objects which will create goods or services to be sold - the sources of revenue. This forms a positive feedback loop: more money -> more sources -> even more money => etc. To stop the player from becoming too rich too quickly, sources usually come with some associated cost, or sinks. It can be as simple as an upkeep price or a bit more convoluted as a need for hiring workers or maintenance crew. A cost of materials or ingredients can also be added, which could scale with the business.
While simply buying newer/better/bigger sources to get more money can be fun, it quickly gets boring and there is not much replay value in a game like that. To make that part challenging and interesting the game needs to give the player some meaningful, strategic choices. Is it better to buy Source A or B? Is it better to upgrade existing source or add a second one? If I buy source A, how that will affect me in the short term? What about the long term? Unfortunately, I don't have a good example in mind right now. It seems that I need to sit down with a few good tycoon games and analyze them from this angle.
The construction/placement mechanics
To make things more interesting we can also define a second layer - construction and/or placement mechanics. Player decides not only what sources he want to buy, but also where to place them in the game world. It can be an actual map where you place rail tracks or a restaurant where you place tables. I think that many games fail at making this part anything more than cosmetic or downright superfluous activity. That's because the placement of sources does not affect the player's revenue or costs in any meaningful way. Placement layer in a good tycoon game should offer a challenge in and of itself, independently from the sim part, but supporting it at the same time.
Two good examples that come to mind are Railroad Empire and RollerCoaster Tycoon. In the former, the track placement affects the routes you can create and how the trains work. Failing to plan the network and junctions in the right way will cause the trains to stay in place, waiting for an empty track forever. RCT, on the other hand, comes with a great ride building mode, which is a fun activity on its own. Additionally, the customers' satisfaction depends on how good your ride design is.
In both cases, the games are still fun and interesting when the money is not an issue. On the other hand, even if you have unlimited money you can still fail to make a profitable company/theme park, because of mistakes in this layer.
When I'm playing a tycoon game, I like when it starts simple and small, with just a few things that I can buy/do and then it steadily offers me more and more possibilities. I prefer when the game hides new elements until I'm ready/good enough to unlock them, compared to showing everything from the beginning. It changes the discovery game into 'waiting till I have money' game. It's still fun to be finally able to afford something, but not that much fun. Ideally, new items unlocking should depend on my decisions, not only on the price. That way not everything might be unlocked in a given playthrough, making it more interesting to play again.
I don't like it when the items you get at the beginning feel like they are just a crappy version of something you get later. It makes the early game a bit tedious and I'm just sitting there thinking how to quickly get over the early game instead of enjoying it. It's nicer if the items you get in the mid-game extend your possibilities instead of just superseding the items you had at the beginning.
I usually prefer to focus on the construction/placement mechanics more than the business sim itself. I think that's because, often, the sim part can be pretty complex and many of the decisions don't feel meaningful to me or their results are not visible. I get that pricing my main goods/service is important, but is pricing tens or hundreds of small items seems very tedious. I get that some players might like that level of control, but I wonder if it's possible to make it a bit more automated if the player doesn't want to deal with that.
Another thing I like about tycoon games is observing what's going on in the game world. How trains deliver goods from one place to another or how people move around your theme park. It gives you something to occupy yourself why waiting for that revenue.
Wow, that was a lot of things I haven't previously thought about. Writing down my assumptions about tycoons, along with my expectations, really made me think about what kind of game I want to make. I also noticed that many of those are based on games I played a long time ago. I think it's time to revisit a few of them and look at them through the eyes of the designer, not the player. I hope I can gain further insight from playing some renowned titles like RCT or RT2. Maybe it's also worth looking at some older, simpler, games from the 90s?