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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Adorable, Against-All-Odds Charm of 'Zoo Tycoon'

Simulation games have always been popular, from well-known titles like The Sims and Planet Coaster to recent indie releases such as Esport Manager. It’s a unique genre that pulls several real-world skills like strategy, planning, and analysis into a wide variety of games that cover everything from controlling and operating a plane to constructing vast cities. Simulation games run the gamut across several subgenres, including the business simulation game Zoo Tycoon.

Initially released in 2001, Zoo Tycoon allows players to completely create and manage a zoo with the intention of it becoming a success. Success in Zoo Tycoon can mean creating a zoo that features all species or turns a massive profit, or, in Zoo Tycoon 2, achieves a coveted 5-star zoo rating. Scenario modes offer various objectives for the player/zoo manager to meet, ranging from displaying a set amount of animals to registering a certain amount of guest happiness. Freeform mode lets players go completely wild, with unlimited money or their choice of the map that they’d like to start on. Zoo Tycoon has all kinds of possibilities for players.

The first two titles in the series, Zoo Tycoon (2001) and Zoo Tycoon 2 (2004), both had a few expansions that added additional options like marine wildlife, dinosaurs, and endangered species. The games have some basis in reality (minus things like dinosaurs, seeing a witch fly over your zoo on Halloween, and even a killer penguin in the extinct animals expansion), with lots of research put into the development for each title, as game developer Blue Fang art director Fred Galpern commented in an interview with Polygon. He explained that teams were sent out to visit zoos and research the animals they planned to add into the games. Though Blue Fang shut down in 2011, the series it created has long kept fans invested.


The game offers a lot of freedom in the way you can play, whether you’d like to work your way through preset campaign modes or create an entirely chaotic zoo. Zoo Tycoon has also had resilience in regard to its fans. The game has an active community on Reddit, where modders and players gather to talk. Fans also share their zoos via YouTube. In short, the fans of Zoo Tycoon have had a big part in keeping love for the series alive since the early 2000s. While other titles were released under different developers, the first two games in the series seem to have the most permanent and overall active communities.

Players of the games cite a number of reasons why people have kept on playing the series almost 20 years after its creation. Snezhina Piskova, a tech and gadget reviewer, was originally fascinated by the building aspect of the game, and said she “could spend countless hours building my zoo from scratch and planning carefully where to put what.” But after recently starting to play again after several years, she notes that “the element of nostalgia, as well as my personal love for animals,” is one reason why Zoo Tycoon still greatly resonates with her.

For Apodemus Erectus, a web developer and graphic designer, Zoo Tycoon has been a favorite since 2005. In the years since they started playing, they have contributed to the Zoo Tycoon Wiki and have recently started streaming Zoo Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon 2 on their Twitch channel. Though they initially weren’t super involved in the Zoo Tycoon community, they have found streaming to be a way to share their love of a game online. When I asked what made streaming Zoo Tycoon so interesting, they said, “I think everyone has their own Zoo Tycoon play style. As I mentioned before, I wasn't really active in the Zoo Tycoon community, and streaming Zoo Tycoon is sort of this exchange of ideas and views that I have been missing for all these years.”

This sharing of ideas has undoubtedly been a massive part of why players still enjoy Zoo Tycoon to this day. With the freedom that players have in the game to essentially create any kind of zoo they want (possibly even the worst zoo ever), it’s unsurprising that players have found new and interesting ways to play and keep the game engaging after its developers stopped updating it.

Erectus also commented on a unique collaboration they organized in which “various Zoo Tycoon players, including other streamers and a Zoo Tycoon 2 modder, share a zoo and we pass the save file to each other and take turns adding things to the zoo.” This has allowed all the players involved to have a unique view on how each individual player approaches the game, and makes for a synergetic way to play a typically single-player game.

The Zoo Tycoon community grew in the game’s early years, and the enthusiasm has carried on into 2020. This longevity really speaks to the power that it has as a comfort game to players. Zoo Tycoon plays host to memories and inspires passion in the community that remains around it, even when there are a plethora of other titles out there.

Zoo Tycoon has continued to engage players to this day, sharing the game, their ideas, and their own zoos online. Erectus commented on the fact that their return to the community “was very welcoming,” and that the Zoo Tycoon 2 modding community “is one of the most loyal fanbases I know of.” It goes to show that the community around these games is welcoming to new and returning fans while also steadily creating their own content years afterward.

Players have stayed with and returned to Zoo Tycoon over the years for a number of reasons: nostalgia, a love for animals, and a community that keeps love for the game going. With zoos streamed on Twitch pretty regularly, players doing complete playthroughs of almost 60 episodes, and an active modding community that can be found on forums across the world, it’s safe to say that the Zoo Tycoon community has staying power for years to come.

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