Tropico 2: Pirate Cove Q&A

We talk with Frog City designer Bill Spieth about the sequel to one of last year's most refreshing strategy games.

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A sim game with a Tropical twist, Tropico was as refreshing as the lush Caribbean islands it depicted, especially considering how many bland "Tycoon" games are released each year. The uniquely political backdrop of governing a Cold War-era island lent a lot of character to Tropico, which GameSpot picked as one of the top strategy games of 2001. A sequel to the game is now well into development, and while it takes place in the rather different setting of a pirate-infested Caribbean, it seems very much to build on Tropico's distinct character.

With Tropico's original developer, Pop Top, now working on Railroad Tycoon III, the responsibility for Tropico 2 has fallen on Frog City, a studio based in San Francisco and best known for the Imperialism games. We've spoken with Frog City designer Bill Spieth to get the early details on the game.

GameSpot: Tropico 2's pirate setting is a big departure from the Cold War-era Caribbean setting in the first game. How did you come up with the pirate idea for the game, and how long have you been working on it?

Bill Spieth: Back in September, Pop Top asked us to submit ideas for a Tropico sequel. We were all thinking about the Caribbean. One day lead programmer Mark Palange said, "What about pirates?" Everyone on the team immediately thought it was a great idea. Then the designers took the pirate theme and worked out a design concept for a Tropico-like game set in the Caribbean in the 1600s.

A thriving ship-building industry is key to a successful island.
A thriving ship-building industry is key to a successful island.

GS: How are the two Tropico games connected?

BS: The games are similar in many respects, but there is no attempt to create an artificial "story" tying the two together. In both games the player builds and manages a Caribbean island. In both games the player tries to keep his citizens satisfied by constructing buildings, setting policies, and organizing the best layout for his town. In both games the player must acquire funding to do this. In both games the island citizens have individual needs and wants that differ according to who they are. Also, the main way to lose both games is to lose the support of your citizens.

GS: What's a typical pirate island like, apart from the calming Caribbean seas and lots of palm trees?

BS: A well-designed pirate island offers pirates a place to blow off steam and waste their money after a difficult cruise, while providing the ship- and weapon-related industries that make pirate life a success with much-needed income.

After a cruise, pirates have critical needs like wenching or feasting, and it is up to the player to construct structures near the docks for pirates to meet these needs. Of course, these sorts of buildings provide more satisfaction if rum or beer is being made on the island and carried to the bars or if the available wenches are highly skilled.

Meanwhile, the pirate ship has to be reequipped. Maybe some cannons were lost or some muskets expended. Certainly the pirates ate up a lot of supplies on the cruise. A well-developed pirate island can supply these items from its industrial output. Otherwise, the player has to purchase them from the black market at a high price.

GS: Does Tropico 2 have a political level like the first game? Do players have to keep the pirates happy to stay in power?

BS: Yes. In fact keeping the pirates satisfied is the primary requirement for staying in power. The player also has to keep his captives (nonpirate workers) in check, or they will escape or rebel.

A Pirate's Life for Me

GS: From Imperialism to Trade Empires, Frog City's previous games have taken place in serious historical settings. Would you say that Tropico 2 is a different style of game?

BS: Yes, it's very different. We are including real pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd and some real events, but we're not trying to simulate the actual situation in the Caribbean during this time. In fact we pay more attention to pirate stories than to pirate history. Tropico 2 is a much funnier game than anything we've done before.

No pirate island would be complete with a pirate-entertainment district.
No pirate island would be complete with a pirate-entertainment district.

GS: The pirates of the Caribbean have a place in popular myths and legends. What are some of the details that distinguish Tropico 2's pirate setting?

BS: Like Tropico, our game is mainly about an island. That distinguishes it from many games about pirates that focus on sea combat. When I think about our game it always reminds me of the pirate base of Tortuga from the novel Captain Blood. It's a town founded on plunder. The people there are all pirates or they work for pirates. When pirates return from a cruise they spend money in the town, and the ruler of the island charges them for their fun and the right to dock their ship. In the end most of what the pirate crews gained is spent frivolously. It ends up in the hands of the ship captains and the town ruler.

GS: Are there pirate ships? What part do ships play in the pirate island's economy?

BS: There are pirate ships. They are essential to the island's economy because a successful pirate cruise is the main source of income for the island. In Tropico the player had to make money by selling commodities to freighters that showed up. But in Tropico 2 you make money, for the most part, by stealing it.

GS: Does the player control seaborne and island activities at the same time?

BS: The game is mainly about the island. The player does not control the ships himself. However, he can designate the areas of the Caribbean where he wants the pirates to cruise, he can control which nation's ships his pirates will plunder, he can give them orders about battle strategies, and he can use pirate schools he builds to improve the crews. Once a ship departs, however, it is out of his hands.

GS: How do you get better pirates and expand your pirate population?

There's nothing quite like a pirate duel to solve all of your pirate disputes.
There's nothing quite like a pirate duel to solve all of your pirate disputes.

BS: Captains must be recruited using an edict. Better captains cost more and will often arrive with a new and better ship. Other pirates must be gained on a successful cruise. Whenever a victim is plundered, the pirates offer the surviving sailors the chance to join them. Sometimes they will. The player controls how likely this is with his plunder division policy. For example, if the player is being generous with his pirates, they will report this fact to the victimized sailors. More of the sailors will want to become pirates.

The player can use pirate schools to improve his pirate's skills. This works for captains and regular crew. Also, all pirates improve based on their successes.

Influences and Changes From Tropico

GS: What are some of the structures you can build in the game?

BS: We've already got a few examples. Industry structures include the cannon foundry and rum distillery; entertainment houses include the courtesan's house and smuggler's dive; security structures include the watchtower, fortress, and stockade; and the parrot aviary and hat shop make up just a few of the pirate accoutrements. And there are lots more.

GS: A pirate's life wasn't a peaceful one. Apart from naval battles, how does the game work in combat?

BS: On land, pirates use their blades and marksmanship skills in various special circumstances. The most important are the revolt of the captives or the coup attempts by some of the pirates. These are both ways that the player can lose the game. There is also an assassination edict. Still, it should be said that the game, like Tropico, is not really about combat.

GS: One of the main ways to directly influence an island's population in Tropico was to issue an edict. Does Tropico 2 have a similar system?

BS: Yes. In fact, using the edicts is perhaps more important than it was in Tropico. Players can issue edict orders to kidnap especially desirable workers (there is no voluntary immigration), to ransom valuable nobles or other wealthy people for a lot of money, to recruit additional pirate captains, and so on. There are lots of edicts.

Pirates need luxurious accomodations too.
Pirates need luxurious accomodations too.

GS: Do you plan to include a number of mission-based scenarios, or will the focus stay on customized open-ended games?

BS: We are departing from Tropico significantly in this area. There will be random map sandbox-style play, and there will be (as in Tropico) scenarios. However, we plan to emphasize the pirate king campaign. This is a joined series of episodes that takes the player through 100 years or so of (mostly mythical) pirate history.

GS: What are some of the ways you've tried to improve on Tropico from a technical standpoint--graphics, interface, pathfinding, and so on?

BS: One thing we changed that is both technical and design is that we've made road usage mandatory for the characters. This gives players more control over flow and pathfinding--the way the player lays out the town has a lot to do with how efficiently characters go from one place to the next. Also, the captives do most of the work on the island, and they don't need to walk around very much to satisfy their needs. So that cuts down on pathfinding issues as well. As for graphics and interface, we're going for a very similar look and feel to Tropico, just with a pirate character.

GS: How far along is the project, and when do you expect to finish the game?

BS: We started work on it in September last year. This title is due for release in early 2003.

GS: We're looking forward to it. Thanks for your time, Bill.

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