Railroad Tycoon 3 Q&A

PopTop Software president Phil Steinmeyer briefs us on the studio's next Railroad Tycoon game.

Since the series began in 1990, with the original Railroad Tycoon (published by the now-defunct company MicroProse), the Railroad Tycoon series has quietly garnered a loyal following of fans who have enjoyed the games' combination of railroad building and economic strategy. Railroad Tycoon II received great critical acclaim when it was released in 1998, and the next game in the series will finally be released this year. With Railroad Tycoon 3, developer PopTop Software will add all-new trains, scenarios, a new victory condition, and a brand-new 3D graphics engine that will let players design their own train courses, lay tracks, and even change entire landscapes in 3D. We caught up with PopTop president and founder Phil Steinmeyer (who is also serving as the lead designer, producer, and programmer) for more information on this promising game.

GameSpot: When we last checked in, we saw that the game's 3D terrain engine and editors were already in place. What aspects of the game is the team working on at this point?

Railroad Tycoon 3 is almost done.

PS: We're very close to the finish line, so all we're doing right now is testing and [making] final balance tweaks. Railroad Tycoon 3 has a lot of scenarios and game content (28 scenarios--about 60 plus hours of gameplay), and so it takes a lot of time and effort to ensure that they're perfect.

GS: Other than simply introducing 3D graphics to the game, what would you say has been the most challenging aspect of developing Railroad Tycoon 3?

PS: We knew at the start that we had to make Railroad Tycoon 3 [with a fully 3D engine] just to compete in the modern gaming marketplace and to enable some key features, like tunnels and overpasses. But I don't think we initially realized how much of a difference a fully realized 3D world would have on the gameplay. It's very immersive. [Many people who play the game for the first time] comment that it's easy to get distracted from the core economic' game just because it's so cool to watch the trains steaming through the mountains--pistons and gears moving--up and down hills and valleys.

We also spent a lot of time making the engine very smooth and very scaleable, so you can instantly zoom in and out, even on older 3D cards (the game looks surprisingly good even on a TNT2). But there's also a lot of high-end detail that will only be seen by gamers with modern video cards. We can fully max out a Radeon 9800 with all details [turned up].

GS: Now that the game is pretty far along in its development cycle, what part of it would you say works particularly well? Is there a specific aspect of the game you're most proud of?

PS: One aspect that I'm really proud of is the economy. Railroad Tycoon II, like most games of this type, had a very abstract economy, where each city simply demanded or supplied some cargo, and everybody relied only on you--the railroad--to do all transportation. In Railroad Tycoon 3, the economy is managed as a vast network. On a typical map, there are about 15,000 economy nodes spaced evenly across the map--not just in cities. Each one may have some inventory of each type of cargo and may have an independent price for that cargo (albeit closely tied to the prices of its neighbors). Cargo can move around this network on its own, in the same way that it did in real life, and cargo can move relatively easily up and down rivers and coastlines. So prices tend to be relatively flat along these waterways.

But, before the railroads, it was difficult and expensive to move cargo inland--especially if there were mountains in the way. So a key strategy for your railroad is to try to connect interior areas to coastlines and river towns. The player doesn't have to understand the first thing about economy nodes or how we constructed this model technically, but it will come across as a much more realistic economy that can't easily be 'gamed' using the kinds of goofy cheats/strategies that often work in these games. It's sort of a subtle thing. There's a lot of subtle stuff happening under the hood in Railroad Tycoon 3, but I think overall it'll make the game feel much more 'real' than any other strategy/tycoon game to date.

All Aboard!

GS: We know that one of the reasons PopTop decided to include a 3D engine in the game is to make it more appealing and more accessible to a wider audience. What other features is the team adding to the game to make it easier to pick up and play?

PS: First, we spent a lot of time on camera controls and interface. A lot of the early attempts to take 2D strategy games to 3D failed in this area, in my opinion. What good is a pretty engine if you can't control it? I think with Railroad Tycoon 3, we may be the first 3D strategy game that controls not just as good as, but better than, a well-made 2D strategy game.

The game has an enhanced interface to go with its all-new 3D graphics.

We also streamlined the interface. Railroad Tycoon II had six different full-screen interfaces that you had to toggle between for the main game. Railroad Tycoon 3 has only one, with a dynamic interface panel along the bottom of the screen that changes and/or expands as needed, depending on what you're doing. Railroad Tycoon II required you to spend a lot of time in those interface screens, managing a lot of details of your train's cargoes and whatnot. In Railroad Tycoon 3, many of the micromanagement tasks can be automated. You can let the game automatically load the most profitable cargo at every stop for your trains, or you can step in, in certain cases, and hand-select cargoes to be hauled.

Overall, the game plays faster than Railroad Tycoon II. Even though the maps are bigger, and you'll typically have more track and more trains per map than Railroad Tycoon II, you can still play a typical map in about a third less time than in Railroad Tycoon II.

Finally, we combined a great manual, a solid tutorial, and a couple of very nice reference charts of industries and trains to make the learning curve for Railroad Tycoon 3 very short for a game as deep as it is.

GS: We also know that most fans of Railroad Tycoon enjoy the series' combination of economic strategy and train building. What features can experienced railroad tycoons look forward to playing with in the new game?

PS: I think experienced players will appreciate all the elements that novice players will--the great graphics, streamlined interface, deep and realistic economy, and so on.

One thing that really caught fire with Railroad Tycoon II was making maps. We had over 1,500 user maps posted for Railroad Tycoon II. That's fun for the mapmakers and also fun for those who just like playing a lot of cool maps made by others. It's one reason why Railroad Tycoon II is still selling, even five years after release. So we took that further and made [it] easier to make great-looking and playing maps. We've included a heightmap exporter, which is preloaded with government height map data for the entire world, at high-resolution. If you want to make a map of the southern tip of Chile, with realistic coastal contours and mountain heights, it's a very easy thing to export from the height map tool and then import into the game. Inside the game, it's easy to paint these maps up, add trees, rivers and cities, and create a great-looking and great-playing map. We expect [to see players make] even more maps than [they did for] Railroad Tycoon II, covering every possible part of the world as well as some fictitious areas too.

GS: Describe the game's multiplayer modes. We know that passenger appeal will add a new victory condition to the game, so will we see competitions between players who are building the speediest freight trains and players who build the most upscale passenger cars? What will Railroad Tycoon 3's multiplayer features offer beginners and veterans?

PS: First, we've got a nice integrated matchmaking tool, so it should be easy to find games to join. Second, because the interface is streamlined and the games play quicker, we think multiplayer in Railroad Tycoon 3 will just be a more fun-all-around experience. Third, with all the varied gameplay features, including differing levels of passenger appeal of locomotives, different ways to play the economy, and the deep stock market, I think there will be a lot of variety and a lot of different tactics to multiplayer games.

GS: Is there anything else you'd like to add about Railroad Tycoon 3?

PS: I'm really proud of this game. It's been our longest and most expensive development cycle ever, but I think the game really shines, and I think it will set a new standard for the tycoon/sim strategy market, just as Railroad Tycoon II did five years ago.

GS: Thanks, Phil.

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