1998 Management/Train Simulator, Developed by PopTop Software
This week I am going to continue down memory lane with another game from the nineties.
I love games from the nineties. There is a certain atmosphere to most of them, a grunginess in the sprite art. There has been something of a renaissance of this style in recent years, so clearly I am not the only one who is nostalgic for the visual styling of games like the Marathon Trilogy (in fact anything put out by Bungie in the 90s), Age of Empires and (the subject of this article) Railroad Tycoon 2.
I must admit, however, that I did not actually play Railroad Tycoon 2 (Henceforth RT2) in the nineties. I was too young to really understand it. In those days what “strategy” meant to me was Command and Conquer. Lacking massive tanks and lighting throwing turrets, RT2 failed to really catch my interest. Instead I came across it in the early two thousands when a friend gave me a random selection of game CDs. In this collection was a beaten up copy of RT2. I installed it on a whim one day, casting around for something new to play. The CD was somewhat buggered. I think it may have been a pirate copy, as the cut scenes never played and there was no music. What I was treated to was a somewhat eerie and under-explained game. I garnered what I could of how to play it from the in-game tips. Lacking a manual however, there was little I could usefully glean about the game without playing it. I looked on game FAQs, but there were only a couple of guides—mostly catering to people who knew what they were doing in the first place.
So I played around with the game for a bit trying to work out what the hell was going on. I discovered that trains (surprisingly) ran on tracks, that one had to build stations before one could purchase trains and that passengers really don’t want to be shipped to the middle of nowhere for no good reason.
As I peeled this strange onion I uncovered layers of depth and interest. I came to understand that RT2 was a game which had to played on a number of levels. The trains were important, and one—of course—wanted one’s company to do well. However I also discovered that in RT2, one’s railroad company is not identical with its director. The player is not represented as some ephemeral life-force of the company they control, but as a private individual who owns said company. Companies can be bought and sold, and one’s own fortune is not necessarily improved by being the head of the most successful company. In fact it is possible to be the director of the most profitable line on the board, but still snowed under completely with private debt. At this point one should note that RT2 can be played multiplayer, but that I have never actually played it this way. I never knew anyone who cared enough about trains to try. I can’t imagine that it would be an entirely pleasant experience. The game is cutthroat enough against the AI, let alone against human beings. The computer is always looking for an opportunity to short the player’s stocks in order to take their pride and joy, their rail line, away from them via a hostile takeover.
What makes RT2 fascinating to me, is the way in it infuses the traditionally somewhat sedate world of the economic management sim with a sense of menace and danger. This is the case even down to the UI. Strange, abstract and ironclad, the interface that mediates play gives a certain otherworldliness to proceedings on the map. It is bedecked with a thousand little details, disconnected pieces of machinery bracket every window, the effect is almost dieselpunk in aesthetic. It is also an interface which really makes one feel like one is manipulating some otherworldly machine. Every button makes the most deliciously mechanical noise when clicked upon, clunking home one’s commands. Building railways in the overworld map, this interface makes one feel like some strange mad god dedicated to binding the earth in steel chains.
The impersonal, somewhat menacing, mechanical UI gives way, however, in the screens which deal with one’s personal and company finances. These feature a more naturalistic style. The finance screens are designed to look like books in a board room. Information is displayed on a page, with borders left so that one can see what is presumably the player’s desk in the background, festooned with pens, trinkets and tools of the clerk’s trade. The contrast between these presentations creates a sense of alienation from the action on the game map, while grounding the player in the board room screens.
Alienation, by which I mean a sense of separation from the action going on on-screen, has its place in games. By placing the player at a distance from the action the designer creates a separation between the game world and reality. This is unusual in a game like RT2, which has the beating heart of a simulation; its trains are beautifully and accurately drawn, as well as having detailed vital statistics which decide their performance with different loads and on different grades of track. Generally speaking simulators try and obliterate the separation between the real world and the game world, in order to achieve a greater immersion. Consider, for instance, the way in which IL2 Sturmovik does not even flash up a notification when one’s virtual pilot catches a fatal bullet, choosing instead simply to have the screen go black. However, in RT2, because of the nature of the simulation there will always have to be abstractions from the subject matter. In order to achieve a sensible play time for any given scenario, which might stretch decades, the time must be compressed. However in order to show the movement and performance of trains across the rails, their movement must remain mostly uncompressed and to some degree naturalistic. Thus trains in RT2 can take years to reach their destination, or months to pass a series of bends. The only sensible way to present the game is through a layer of unreality, which serves to let the player enjoy the immersive and simulationist aspect of its trains without balking too much at the absurdity of their timetables.
All of this is ditched however, for the area of the simulation in which there can be some veracity—the board room. The financial game that runs parallel to RT2’s train set is formidable, and is presented in precisely the opposite way from the world of trains which underpins and powers its monetary machinations. The way in which the UI seeks to emulate the look and feel of ledgers is immersive in a way which the highly abstract interface of the over world is not. It seeks to draw the player into the fiction of the game, locating the player as a powerful and wealthy individual.
There is a level of detail in this design which, although I show my age by saying so, I’m not sure exists in these kinds of games anymore. No doubt Railroad Tycoon 2’s interface was heavily tested when the game was being created. It does not, however, feel like the product of any focus testing, or as though designed to achieve a specific flow of play. Indeed it is often clunky and un-intuitive, hiding information away in shady corners which must be accessed through a specific succession of clicks. There are aspects to it which are almost hidden if one does not have the manual in hand. For instance, I never realised when I was younger that there is a lever on the train interface which allows one to crank up a train’s speed to dangerous levels if desired. That is awesome, but it is also almost indistinguishable from the background.
Compare this to the kind of UI design that one gets in a game like Endless Legend or Endless Space. Every menu item is so slick, with a plethora of explanatory detail available in tool tip. These are at the pinnacle of UI design for strategy games. They make playing those games, navigating their mechanical labyrinths a breeze. Every button press follows easily from another, with the game prompting one about anything left forgotten or un-done on one’s turn. These are not the UIs I grew up with, these are a million miles away from the alienating UI of Railroad Tycoon 2.
The UI highlights two key themes in RT2 which I would like to briefly discuss. The first is industrial progress and the necessity of change in the face of new technology and industrial methods. The face of the games is constantly changing with the times. Trains get faster, but more expensive, and as towns grow into cities their demands change as well. The second is the cut-throat nature of capitalism and the way in which its rewards accrue to those who are most willing to destroy their opponents and monopolise opportunities. It is always worthwhile knocking an opponent out of the ring, as it always brings greater riches to the player.
As time moves on the pace of the world increases. As trains get faster and more efficient profits skyrocket, but so do costs. One constantly has to be on the lookout for ways to change one’s company and routes in order to make the most of what one has. The thing that I love the most about RT2’s economic simulation is that as one supplies a city with the goods that it desires, that city grows. New industries spring up where there were none before. One has to be constantly on the lookout for new opportunities, or one’s competitors will make use of them.
The turn of the century, where most of the game’s scenarios take place, was a time of experimentation in just this way. The old certainties of Europe were falling apart and America’s star was rising. As the old giants went to sleep, there were unheard of opportunities for men with money to go and make a fortune by putting their money behind railroads and new industries. The North American railroad system grew, both murderous and life giving, across the entire continent. Never before was life so fast, or goods so easily available. It was as if all restraints had been shrugged off, a man with money could do anything at all. Of course, opportunity brings danger. Recession hit the over-leveraged and ambitious hard, ending careers and, sometimes, lives. The same thing happens in RT2. There is a Ritzy sense of boom time logic to all of it. All that really matters in the end is the money that one makes. Does anyone make money out of selling nuclear waste? You can try, why not? There is a killing to be made. There is also experimentation to be found in the financial side of things. One can try out new strategies, like creating a string of profitable companies and selling them all off for shedloads of dosh. Or one can buy the majority of shares in a crap opposing company, pumping up the price, and then approve a merger between your company and the tiny, bloated, company. Thus basically transposing all of the money from your company into your own wallet. Capitalism!
RT2 does not just tell stories about the meteoric rise of clever tycoons however. Beneath it all still lies the menace that the map UI hints at. The very machinery which one uses to build one’s empire, can also crush it. No project is without risk, and almost every expansion in RT2 carries with it the possibility of being a fatal failure. It costs money to maintain track, stations and trains, it also costs money to demolish unwanted track and stations. As time ticks on and tracks become electrified and non-electric fuel sources change from coal to diesel, these expansions become even more risky; with a higher outlay and a better chance of dragging the company’s stock value down. There is a constant balance of risk to be maintained between the need to expand and the making sure that any expansion will actually bring in real profit.
Risk is personal as well as tied to companies. There have been times where I have been… imprudent, with my finances. At one point I was some twenty million dollars in debt. I was still the richest man on the planet, so long as my company’s share price stayed over the one hundred dollar mark. This was easy enough to manage as year on year the company was growing, raking in over ten million a year. Not too shabby. Then the Recession hit.
I got a letter from my accountant, apparently there was something of a shortfall in my account. Nothing to worry about, he just wanted to make sure that I put it right by the end of the month, or otherwise he would have to sell some shares for me. No big problem. Well, actually I was a couple of million in the hole, and the more shares in my own company I sold the poorer I got. At the end of the month I get another letter from the accountant saying that he has sold off two hundred and fifty thousand of the shares I had in my own company. That would be all the shares. So I was left entirely destitute, without a penny to my name. My company was ticking over nicely, but with so many shares left lying around for other investors, it was just waiting for someone else to take it over.
Playing a long game (scenarios can be played from the 1850s all the way up to the 1990s) can feel relentless at times, there is so much to do. Track to lay, trains to replace, stations to build and already existing routes to adjust. It really feels like being in charge of a large scale organisation. I have never played another game that has made me feel more like a captain of industry. That experience, the freedom, the power and the possibility of fucking it all up in a profound way on some hubristic and harebrained scheme, is terrifying in a way. RT2 is less instructive about trains than it is about the nature of big business and entrepreneurship. The story that it tells about Capitalism points two directions. On the one hand Capitalism can bind a country together, making it stronger by making sure that supply meets demand.
On the other hand RT2 suggests that, to a certain extent, what goes on in the real world does not matter overmuch to what goes on in the stock market. That meeting demand with supply is not enough, that in order to survive in the city, one must be a vicious and somewhat callous bastard.
In this way, RT2 is an example of the less-than-optimistic outlook of many games from the 90s. It is grungy in a way that is hard to quantify, a quality which is dismissed from its successors. As game designers reach for more and more intuitive systems of play which draw the player closer and closer into the world of the game, I worry that the opportunities which alienation brings can be overlooked. UI design allows designers a way to make players feel uncomfortable which can highlight certain areas of play experience.
Either that or I am just getting old and prefer things to be done the way they were back when I was young; all muddy sprites, big ideas and terrible interfaces.