I recently picked up Planet Zoo, and I’m enjoying it. It’s a great spiritual successor to the Zoo Tycoon series, and it has an incredibly in-depth level of customization that I’ve barely scratched the surface of (working through the campaign, relying heavily on the prefab stuff at present). It’s also got absolutely beautiful vistas and lovely depictions of lifelike animals, plus a good combination of animal and visitor AIs with a robust in-game economy.
Since childhood, I’ve always been fond of zoological park sims in particular. That includes Frontier Developments’ Planet Zoo and Jurassic World: Evolution, but I can trace the fascination back to Blue Tongue Entertainment’s Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis; the original Zoo Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon 2 from Blue Fang Games, including their expansion packs, which of course added dinosaurs; and the game that started it all, the 1993 Manley & Associates educational game title, DinoPark Tycoon. I’ve always loved zoos and animals, and dinosaurs in particular, so it’s no surprise that I’d continue to be drawn to these games, even though the broader genre of management sims hasn’t kept me as engaged.
Something I’ve been thinking about with Planet Zoo is how it contrasts with the themes and goals of Jurassic World: Evolution. Given that they’re both games by Frontier Developments, released just a year apart from each other, I find the contrast rather interesting, and I think it reflects conscious choices on the part of the developer to characterize both games quite distinctly.
Jurassic World: Evolution, released in 2018, has a profit-focused, exploitative character to it. You play as a nameless corporate executive brought in to run the Jurassic World parks while balancing the needs of the Science, Security, and Entertainment divisions. All of these divisions are fundamentally guided by corporate greed, and to keep them pacified you need to do things like increase the quality and availability of guest services; raise park revenues; research, modify, and release new dinosaurs; and even engage in rather ethically dubious pursuits that include pitting dinosaurs against each other to attract more guests or even to sell off dinosaurs to who-knows-what other corporations to make a little extra profit. All of the divisions have a darker side. Science is perfectly willing to exploit the animals and endanger lives in the pursuit of more knowledge. Security is interested in weaponizing the dinosaurs for other parties. And Entertainment wants more than anything else to ensure that guest satisfaction, and the resultant stream of dollars, stays high, regardless of what that means for the welfare of the dinosaurs. The Secrets of Dr. Wu DLC expands on this dark side, as you get further caught up in the twisted experimentations of the megalomaniacal Dr. Wu. Claire’s Sanctuary initially pushes back on this, as dinosaurs are saved from certain re-extinction on Isla Nublar, but the “Sanctuary” quickly becomes another money-making machine for the Hammond Foundation and Ingen, with guest revenues fueling profit quotas from the corporate backers. Only Return to Jurassic Park truly bucks the trend by returning to the immediate aftermath of Jurassic Park in an alternate timeline in which Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm commit to making the park a safe way for guests to observe real dinosaurs; their priorities are genuine guest safety and a greater understanding of these restored creatures. Even so, Hammond and his assistant are there to push you to keep making the park bigger, better, and more fabulous to drive profits.
Planet Zoo, released in 2019, can’t ditch the profit motivation essential to management sims, but that wouldn’t make sense to do away with it entirely–after all, without funds, you can’t care for the animals or retain the staff needed to keep the park running. But the emphasis is different, instead focused on conservation and education, themes emphasized as soon as the initial tutorial missions in the campaign. In this game’s narrative, you actually design a friendly avatar for yourself, and you’re introduced to a couple of warm, caring people who manage these parks because they want to help preserve Earth’s biodiversity by spearheading breeding initiatives for endangered and threatened species and by raising public awareness. Rather than selling animals, you can release animals into the wild to gain “conservation credits,” which can sometimes be used to obtain new animals for the zoo in lieu of cash. And you can’t just send off undesirable animals to benefit. The animals to be released are those born in the zoo; they must have reached maturity; and their value for release is determined by factors like their health, age, and conservation status of the species. Poor animal welfare, or allowing inbreeding of animals, results in negative consequences for your park. An inspector reviews your zoo at regular intervals, ensuring that the animals have a good quality of life, the campus is cleanly, and guests are actually being educated about the animals. Profit margins and guest accommodations don’t factor into that rating (although, of course, to keep the park going, you need happy guests to buy tickets and merch and donate extra money so that you can pay the staff to care for the animals to provide the education and conservation benefits that your zoo can offer).
At the end of the day, you’re still doing many of the same things in Planet Zoo as in Jurassic World: Evolution, plotting out exhibits and guest facilities and staff buildings, monitoring income and expense trends, and ensuring a gradually improving quality rating, but the narrative and mechanic differences are part of the reason why these two game experiences ultimately feel so very different.
Bonus cute baby animal content: