Chris Sawyer rarely gives interviews. Almost, never, in fact. The one man band developer behind classic strategy games such as RollerCoaster Tycoon was once a household name, but to say he’s been keeping a low profile for the last ten years would be putting it lightly. Since the release of his last game, 2004’s Locomotion, he’s been a digital recluse, giving the press absolutely nothing.
After a decade away from the spotlight however, Chris Sawyer is back, intentionally or not. He’s got a new game in the works, or rather an old one: his 1995 strategy PC game Transport Tycoon, which is being remade for iOS and Android devices, and due out later this year. Think of Transport Tycoon as SimCity meets Tickets To Ride, but far more compelling than it has any right to be - not that he meant to get so wrapped up in its development once again.
“For the mobile version of Transport Tycoon I hadn't intended to be involved as much as I have been. We have a great development team, Origin8, who have rewritten the game from scratch, but as time went on I got more and more involved,” he tells Red Bull UK. Sawyer originally intended to help seek funding for the remake, but he was gradually and inevitably drawn into the development side of the project, debugging and overseeing design. It was his baby, after all.
The game charges you with running a transport business, working your way from the golden age of railways in the 1930s far into the future: you’ve got to make as much money as possible from fares, all the while upgrading your infrastructure and introducing new modes of transport. It’s not necessarily an obvious choice in 2013, otherwise known as the Year Of The Candy Crush Saga, so, why Transport Tycoon and why now? Why mobile?
“It's a classic game which I think has adapted really well to modern mobile platforms,” says the Scot. “Up until this point the original game design hasn't really been adaptable to anything beyond the PC but with the emergence of powerful hi-res devices like the iPad it became possible to bring the game to a new market without compromising the gameplay.”
All of Chris Sawyer’s previous games have been made for the PC or its predecessors (Sawyer first began writing games for the Memotech MTX home computer in 1983, before switching to Lord Sugar’s Amstrad CPC series of home computers) but he says he quickly found a tablet display to be the perfect fit for Transport Tycoon, which uses a 2D isometric point of view - and has been effectively unplayable on computers since Windows 2000 was released.
“When we started I had my doubts but once we had the game up and running the first time on an iPad it was obvious that the screen size and ‘touchy feely’ nature of the interface suited the game really well. It just feels right when you move the landscape around with your finger, or when you touch one of your vehicles to bring up its information.”
Sawyer’s confident it’ll work well even on the small four-inch display of your iPhone. “Even on the smaller iPhone screen the game is still remarkably playable - it takes a few minutes to tune in to the smaller size of icons but the touch screen is so responsive that it soon becomes second nature building railway tracks and scrolling the view around, and it's great having such a large complex game running on a phone so it's always with you.”
The new Transport Tycoon is anything but a port, however. Though it uses the original artwork by Simon Foster, optimised for HD screens in 2013, as Sawyer makes clear, it’s a complete rewrite of the original game - but not one that needs to be trimmed down for a smaller screen.
“We weren't trying to change the game. It was important to keep the core gameplay and rich graphical style as it was, but we had to carefully adapt and enhance it to encompass the touchscreen interface and mobile experience,” he says.
“It's been quite a revelation to see how much power these handheld devices have now. When we started work on the mobile game we thought we'd have to cut the game design down considerably to get it to work, but we've hardly had to compromise at all and I'm very happy with the features and scope of the game...we've moved the game forward a bit in terms of interface controls and information display, and added a few nice enhancements to the game world too.”
Chris Sawyer is better known for his 1999 theme park manager hit RollerCoaster Tycoon, which has spawned a long running franchise and even a 2012 Nintendo 3DS edition (The only game in the series Sawyer has not overseen or consulted on), but Transport Tycoon still holds a place close to his heart, as the first of several original games he created almost all by himself.
“It was my first original game on the PC after many years of working on conversions of other people's games,” he says. “I'm not sure where the ideas started but I remember enjoying playing Railroad Tycoon [a top down 1990 game from Sid Meier, the brains behind Civilization] and thinking that it would be much more fun in a detailed isometric landscape and with more types of vehicles. I think I just wanted to create a cross between a model railway and a strategy game, something that I'd personally want to play.”
Purists will be relieved to know Sawyer won’t be shifting business model with the new Transport Tycoon. Though he’s yet to reveal pricing, he says the game won’t be free-to-play and crammed with in-app purchases, not least because of his dislike for the business model, which has exploded in popularity on mobile app stores in the last few years.
“I feel Transport Tycoon just doesn't work design-wise as a freemium game, at least not without changing or degrading the gameplay considerably,” says. “I also don't personally like the freemium model - I'm not comfortable with trying to extract money from players through in-game purchases, or through intrusive advertising. So yes, we're going against the flow somewhat but I think we're taking a very honest and straightforward approach. We are selling a massive game for a very reasonable price and there's nothing extra to pay once you've purchased it.”
“It's not going to be everyone's kind of game, but the kind of players who enjoyed Transport Tycoon many years ago and also new players who want to play an in-depth strategy game will hopefully see the appeal in such a complex and large game running on a tablet or mobile phone which is always with them.”
It’s still a bold bet, not least because Sawyer’s last foray into transport management, Locomotion, ended in something closer to signal failure than success. By 2004, the isometric graphics and engine he favoured were starting to look stale, and critics slated it as a cheap rehash of Transport Tycoon (“This game is the same game, but worse for the fact that it hasn't evolved into anything better in a full ten years...[and lacks a] functional interface,” IGN declared at the time).
By contrast, RollerCoaster Tycoon has always been a fan favourite, as well as Sawyer’s greatest achievement, in his own view. “I still feel [RollerCoaster Tycoon 2] is the best game I ever did even if it wasn't as technically complex as Transport Tycoon.”
There are rights issues to be cleared - the IP for Transport Tycoon reverted to Sawyer’s own 31X Ltd in 2010, whereas RCT remains up in the air as bankrupted Atari tries to auction off its assets - but we’ve got to ask, can we expect an iPad port of RollerCoaster Tycoon next?
“It's definitely crossed my mind - who knows what the future might hold,” he teases.
If Sawyer knows, as usual, he isn’t saying.