The Art of Scenario Design
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The Art of Scenario Design

By Fossil

What makes a good scenario?

People have different tastes; no one scenario will please everybody. Despite this, there are some common elements that good scenarios share:

1. PLAYABILITY. First and foremost, playability. For some players, this means, "challenge me." For others, it's "I just want to have a relaxing time building a nice park."

The scenario designer should identify the target audience, build the objectives accordingly and - this is important - communicate them. Let players know in advance what kind of gaming experience is in store. The RCT2 classification system of "Easy," "Challenging" or "Expert" is a good tool. Describe the scenario objectives, and provide screen shots. This allows your audience to window shop, and gives your scenario a chance to interest them.

2. SURPRISE and delight them. With a good scenario, the landscape and theming should offer something unique and different.

3. TELL A STORY. In almost all entertainment media - books, movies, drama, etc., the storyline is the key. Computer games are no different - many either have a storyline, or build one as you play. The scenario represents a piece of real estate. It has a history. Tell its story. Amity Airfield and Ghost Town are good examples - their history is immediately evident and provides character to these scenarios. Extreme Heights is a failure in this regard - one coaster built in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason.

Perhaps your scenario represents more - if it's based on a myth, legend, or fantasy. Perhaps you are modeling a real place. If you can make the park "come to life," people will be more interested in your creation.

4. BALANCE. The initial ride/attraction selection, the game objectives, the park size, research tree, and the intended difficulty levels must balance.

With research set to the maximum, the player can research one item per month (approximately). There are eight months in a game year, so a three year scenario can research 24 - 25 items, tops.

The scenarios that come with the game do not require an astute research strategy. A more sophisticated scenario should require the player to assess the type of attractions that are most needed, and prioritize accordingly. I take a closer look at balance below.

5. CHALLENGE, don't frustrate. The scenarios that people hate are the ones that frustrate them. Rainbow Valley goes right to the top of the list. Recall this RCT1 scenario prohibited landscaping or tree removal - and was covered with trees. Most people got very frustrated and upset with this one. If you must prohibit tree removal, don't put in many trees!

6. UNIQUE GAMING. If the scenario is a unique and different gaming experience, then you may have created a great game. There are a limited number of game elements that control the "game experience," - style of peeps, game objective, various game settings and the landscape and initial rides. Even with this limited number, it's possible to brew up a unique combination that causes a player to rethink his/her approach to the game. If you can do that, HIGH FIVE.

7. MAKE IT PRETTY. One of the downsides of scenario play is that meeting scenario objectives often leaves little time or money for building attractive landscapes. As a scenario designer, if you can offer an attractive landscape, you not only have saved the player considerable effort, you have made the scenario more fun.

8. PLAY TESTING. I probably should have put this one first. If you don't play it, why should anyone else? I played my HFO scenario three times, and had two other people test it prior to releasing it on my site. It is a better scenario as a result - still wickedly difficult, though.

Interestingly, some of the scenarios that come with RCT2 look like they did not go through much play testing. I'm thinking of Bumbly Bazaar and Alpine Adventures. They both seemed unbalanced to me. Many people have commented that Crazy Castle might have been better placed in the "Challenging" scenarios section.

Achieving Balance

Degrees of Freedom

In RCT, challenges are expressed as limiting player options. I sometimes think of it as a player's "degree of freedom."

As a scenario is made more "challenging" - degrees of freedom are reduced; it also is more likely to be frustrating. This is a BIG ISSUE in designing a scenario.

Let me give some specific examples to illustrate:

1. Park size.
2. Ride selection
3. Building limitations
4. Financial limitations

Park size: Most of the RCT1 scenarios used a small park size to challenge the player. Dinky Park was the most notable example, but the majority of scenarios used this method. A large park size provides the player with much more freedom in developing her park.

In RCT2, Ghost Town is somewhat small, given the scenario objective; Dusty Greens is a tiny park, but this really has little impact as the scenario objective is completed before this becomes an issue.

Ride selection: Gravity Gardens is the poster child here - only coasters are permitted.

Building limitations: This takes several forms: height building restrictions, preservation orders on rides, landscaping and tree removal prohibitions. In each form, the player's freedom is reduced, and the scenario challenge is increased.

Financial limitations: The maximum loan size limits your initial building in all scenarios that use cash.

There are other limitations on players' freedom, such as terrain that is hilly, limited or excessive water, or an awkward park shape, to name a few.

There are also "pseudo-limitations." These are limitations that are psychological rather than actual. The one that's beat to death in the standard scenarios is abysmal path design. The scenario attempts to induce players to build their $10,000 rides around pre-existing $12 paths. A case of tail wagging dog, especially since the pre-existing paths will leave guests dazed and confused, and worse - lost. By now, most players have caught on to this ploy, and scenarios that use this device have a "been-there-done-that" feel.

In scenarios that don't use money, difficult terrain is a pseudo-limitation. It's very easy to flatten the land, and it doesn't cost anything. When I played Lucky Lake it soon became Lucky Landfill. Extreme Heights became Extremely Flat.

Pre-existing rides that use too much precious space are another pseudo-limitation (unless there is a preservation order). This device has been over-used in standard scenarios, so much so that many players routinely demolish all pre-existing rides.

Knowing this, I used this device in reverse in my "Bald Mountain" scenario. I built a railroad with covered cars in a manner that was as close to optimal as I could make it. The ride was a real benefit to the park, especially since it was a rainy scenario and the guests would ride it during the rain. Players tended to immediately destroy it (habits are hard to break), and thus voluntarily, and unwittingly, made the scenario harder.

The final big "pseudo-limitation" is scenery. If it is attractive, the player may choose to preserve it, and the player self-imposes a limitation.

In scenarios with time constraints, if a player is in danger of losing, any available scenery will get demolished for cash. The pressure of a ticking clock becomes more pressing than the enjoyment of that lovely entrance.

I suspect players are more likely to preserve scenery in scenarios that are not park size constrained, and do not have the time pressure of "x guests by year y." This is true for me. I preserved the "Ghost Town" in Ghost Town, since it really was the essence of the scenario, and there was no compelling reason to demolish it (I was able to shoehorn in all the coasters I needed).

If you really want scenery preserved, build it outside the park boundaries, or in a place that is granted construction rights only.

Back to the BIG ISSUE - how much should you limit a player's freedom?

I wish I had a general rule for this. I don't. Obviously, an "easy" scenario should have fewer limits than a "more challenging" one. The best advice I can give is simply to be aware of the specific challenges that you are designing into your scenario, and how they compare with the challenges of scenarios that you have enjoyed. Experience is a great teacher. Especially if you are experimenting, play testing will reveal whether the challenges taken together are fun or frustrating.

Victory conditions

A good scenario attempts to balance victory conditions with its challenges. A higher hurdle can be set for victory conditions as the challenges are reduced.

There are some overall considerations. Let's start with park size.

1. The victory condition should be achieved with a nicely built-out park, but should not require over-building.

We've all had the experience of running out of room to build. This was the primary challenge of RCT1 scenarios. It caused me, and many other people, to take extraordinary steps - I built entire coaster libraries of small coasters to meet this one specific challenge. I personally don't expect to design any scenarios where this will be the largest challenge - it's an old and tired motif. It's still important for most scenarios to keep the park size to "just adequate." A sufficently large park will lower the difficulty of almost any scenario.

On the other hand a park that is mostly empty when victory is achieved (Bumbly Bazaar, anyone?) looks dumb.

2. The victory condition should not be a test of endurance. I found that Extreme Heights tried my patience. It was not a difficult scenario, once I designed some high-intensity coasters, but getting 4500 peeps into the park just took too long. There was no money used, so I just leveled the land. That got boring fast. The end result was a park with almost no personality.

3. The victory condition should take at least a year with reasonably good play. Dusty Greens took only a few months. I slapped down a few pre-builts, and all of a sudden, "Game over." That's poor scenario design. There should be a high enough hurdle that a park is actually built along the way.

Have fun designing your next scenario. Make it a good one!