RollerCoaster Tycoon - Chris Saywer Interviews

It has been 20 years since software developer Chris Sawyer released the first RollerCoaster Tycoon computer game to the world. Depending on who you ask, that game is arguably one of the greatest of all time, and definitely a winner in specific categories like management sim and theme park games. CoasterBuzz's older cousin, PointBuzz, a Cedar Point fan site (then called Guide to The Point) posted two interviews with the creator, and we're republishing them here after two decades.

Part 1: Originally posted April 17, 1999

In this exclusive interview with Guide to The Point, game developer Chris Sawyer talks about the process of creating a PC game, and the special considerations for creating Roller Coaster Tycoon.


The Guide: What made you decide to do a coaster game?

Sawyer: After spending over two years working on Transport Tycoon and it's sequels, I wanted to do something a bit more light-hearted, something which would be fun to research. Roller coasters seemed like the ideal candidate - I've always been interested in them from an engineering and design point of view, and I was also beginning to enjoy riding them.

The Guide: Has the enormous success of Roller Coaster Tycoon caught you off guard?

Sawyer: I always 'believed' in the game myself, so I think it's probably everyone else who has been caught off guard by it's success. From the average person's point of view, it's not a game you would expect to be successful - It doesn't have first-person 3D, it isn't a fighting game, it isn't a driving game, and it isn't a serious strategy game, so it doesn't follow the current trends of successful games.

The Guide: I remember reading that at first you were not exactly a hard-core coaster enthusiast. In researching the game, did you find that people were more passionate about the rides than you expected? Were you surprised?

Sawyer: I didn't have much contact with coaster enthusiasts or clubs during development of the game - I've only recently got to know the clubs and the enthusiasts. But I'm not surprised at how passionate they are about roller coasters - Even before I enjoyed riding them, I was fascinated by just the 'look', and the design and engineering behind roller coasters, so even then I could see some of the attraction in them.

The Guide: The physics of Roller Coaster Tycoon are incredibly realistic. Was it difficult to translate real equations involving weight, friction, etc. into moving objects on screen? How different are the physics models for each of the coaster types?

Sawyer: The physics for the motion dynamics are actually very straightforward, but getting them to work is another matter! Everything is done from first principles, using mass, velocity, forces, and things like friction. Once the basics of the motion dynamics were working, it was just a case of tweaking the figures for mass and friction for different rides and trains.

The Guide: Some developers often feel that a game can never really be "done." Is there anything that you would change in the game, or perhaps offer as an expansion pack or download?


Sawyer: There are always things which don't make it into a published game. A lot of work went into rides and features which just wouldn't work well enough within the constraints of the game - One of these was crazy-golf (a miniature golf course which could be completely customised, and the guests would actually go through the course taking shots).

The Guide: Many of our readers have not had the opportunity to travel to Europe. What would you tell them about a ride like Oblivion and how it differs from other coasters?

Sawyer: I haven't been on a vast number of different coasters, but for me Oblivion was a very unique experience. You're effectively falling face-down into a mist-covered hole in the ground, straight down about 150ft. It's a very different feeling to a 'normal' roller coaster, and great fun even though it's a very short ride.

The Guide: Also along those lines, is the competition between parks as heated as it is in the States (i.e., Alton Towers and Blackpool)?

Sawyer: Yes, there is a lot of competition between the parks here. Some parks are trying to develop their own unique 'identity' to differentiate them from other parks - Alton Towers is developing it's themeing and it's landscapes, and Blackpool trades on it's seaside town atmosphere and traditional/historical rides packed into a small area.

The Guide: The PC gaming community seems obsessed with first-person shooters and 3D games with high frame rates. Was it difficult to sell the idea of a roller coaster game like yours?


Sawyer: Right from the beginning I knew it would be an impossible concept to sell, so I developed the game virtually to completion before even approaching publishers. Trying to 'sell' a concept to a publisher is much easier if you can sit them down in front of a 90% complete game, and get them playing and enjoying it.

The Guide: The credits for Roller Coaster Tycoon make a very short list. Is it rare for one programmer to be accountable for so much of a game in development? What are the advantages/

Sawyer: It's very rare to have so few people work on a project like this. Fewer people means fewer problems with management and communication, but of course more work per person. Because I'm responsible for all the programming, design, and management of the project, I always know exactly what's happening, and I can keep very tight control of how the project forms and evolves. The downside is that it takes a very high level of personal commitment to see the project through to the finish - There's nobody to fall back on or blame if things aren't going well, and it's totally up to you to sort things out and get on with things.

The Guide: Finally, for all of the aspiring game developers out there, how did you get to this point and what would you suggest to others who want to enter your line of work?

Sawyer: I worked my way up to where I am from doing PC conversions of Amiga games in the late '80s / early '90s. Reputation and experience are the two key things in the computer games industry, and unless you are very lucky, you will need to establish both of these before you can become a successful independent games developer. Reputation comes from working with different publishers over a number of years, showing them that you can complete tasks on time, with the minimum of problems, and maximum responsibility. Experience comes from just 'being there' and 'doing it' in the industry - You need to know how the industry works, what's involved in actually finishing a project (rather than just starting something), and how to be organised.

Part 2: Originally posted November 2, 1999

In his second exclusive interview with Guide to The Point, game developer Chris Sawyer talks to us about the expansion pack for Roller Coaster Tycoon, Corkscrew Follies, as well as Cedar Point, B&M and the success of the game.

The Guide: When last we met, you mentioned there were several features you didn't include in the original game, among them the mini-golf course. Including the golf, what other features were resurrected and what challenges did you have to overcome to include them?

Sawyer: The mini-golf never made it into the original game because of the amount of work involved to get it working. The construction, animation, and operation of the ride all created their own problems, so it didn't get beyond some initial graphical tests in the original game. By the time I created Corkscrew Follies though, I'd had time to work out simpler ways of making the ride work, so it seemed like a good addition to the other rides in the pack. Most other new rides and features were completely new and weren't even considered for the original game.

The Guide: All of the screen shots we've seen include new coaster models based on the real thing, namely the various incarnations of B&M rides. How different are the B&M rides (in the game) compared to the other models?

Sawyer: I wanted the Steel Twister Roller Coaster (a.k.a. B&M coaster) to give the same impression of speed, smoothness, and graceful movement of the real thing. Because the trains are wider, they look very graceful as they travel through a twisted track as well as providing a much higher passenger capacity, and the giant loops and barrel rolls allow unique track designs to be built.

The Guide: You've also included some historic rides in the game. How did you research these old rides, and why did you include them?

Sawyer: I wanted Corkscrew Follies to be well-rounded, expanding the game in as many ways as possible, so I added a variety of historical rides. They aren't just "normal" roller coasters dressed up in different graphics though, they all have their own unique features and problems to justify their existence. The Side-Friction Coaster is quite a challenge to build safely, the Virginia Reel coaster allows creation of some very compact (and nauseous!) rides, and the Reverser Coaster is just so plain strange it's fascinating. All the rides are based on real rides, most of which have long since gone - I would love to have seen and ridden a real Reverser Coaster (a.k.a. Hooper Reverser), but they only existed in the 1920s.

The Guide: There are tons of theme items this time around. Why is theme so important to this game?

Sawyer: There's only so much you can do with the track layout and design of coasters to make them fun, but you can always improve them by the use of scenery, landscape, tunnels, water, and so on. Even the music adds more to the ride - I've personally spent hours re-building and re-themeing a roller coaster after changing it's music from one style to another, just so the whole ride was themed to match the music!

The Guide: The original game still rests comfortably in the top 5 here in the US, and it has been there almost since the day it was released. What do you attribute this success to across so many demographics?

Sawyer: My (rather boring) theory is that the game appeals to two of our most basic human instincts. As humans we like to create things, and nurture (i.e. look after) things, and that's exactly what this game is all about. You spend hours building and creating the park exactly the way you want it, and then you spend hours keeping it running smoothly and making sure the people are happy. Of course the subject matter also makes the game so much fun - After all, it's much more fun creating and running an amusement park full of people having fun than say, a shopping mall or a hospital full of unhappy people and endless problems.

The Guide: Now on to other things... I understand you toured US parks this year. What did you think about Cedar Point?

Sawyer: Very big, loads of rides, great variety of roller coasters, sore feet with all the walking and standing in line. Slightly disappointed by Mean Streak (slow and rough), Magnum (great 3rd drop, but unforgiving lap bars make final bunny hops painful in the back seats), and Gemini (harsh ride over the joints between track sections). Surprised by Raptor (great pacing, and the most fun I've ever had on an inverter), and Wildcat (but then I'm a great fan of anything Schwarzkopf).

The Guide: Raptor vs. Nemesis (a B&M inverted coaster at Alton Towers in the UK)... compare.

Sawyer: These are two very different rides and I wouldn't like to say which one is best. Nemesis is probably one of the most cleverly packaged and designed rides ever, using it's compact size and half-buried position to make up for it's lack of height and length. Raptor on the other hand depends on it's size, it's track layout, and spot-on pacing to deliver it's thrills, and in my view it's got everything spot on. Both rides are great fun to ride - Raptor's pacing allows you to enjoy the inversions and the "flying" experience to the full, and Nemesis thrills you with it's powerful helixes and twists with your feet perilously close the nearby rock faces.

The Guide: What do you think makes B&M coasters so special to so many people?

Sawyer: I think there are two unique features which make B&M coasters so special. First, their track designs are very "fluid" in look and feel, unlike some other coasters which look (and feel) like they are built a bit like a roller coaster in RollerCoaster Tycoon (i.e. a straight section, then a curve, then a straight, then a standard loop, etc.) Schwarzkopf coasters also have the same fluidity, which is remarkable considering their age, but B&M have got it down to a fine art. The second feature which makes B&M coasters so rideable is the design of their trains - As far as I know they are the only company whose trains are firmly clamped to the track using flexible suspension. This means that unlike most other coaster trains which are designed to allow vertical and lateral movement on the track before the upstop or guide wheels hit the rails, B&M trains are forced to follow the track much more precisely. This means much less of the rattling and banging you get on a steel coaster, and also that the riders experience exactly what the designers intend, rather than a compromise caused by the looseness of the trains on the track. These two "unique" B&M features make their rides so much more fun, and fun to ride again and again, compared to some other steel coasters.

The Guide: What do you think about this 310-foot Intamin coaster, Millennium Force? Will you visit next year to ride it?

Sawyer: I'm always interested in new coasters, and if I get a chance I will be fascinated to ride this new coaster. If Intamin get the train design right, it should be a really fun ride - I hope the train doesn't "cocoon" the riders so much that the height and speed can't be properly experienced.

The Guide: Is coaster obsession as universal as music, crossing cultural boundaries (i.e., in the US vs. the UK)?

Sawyer: I can't speak for other European countries, but there's certainly just as much interest here in the UK as there is in the US. Considering the small size of our country, we have quite an assortment of coasters here, and quite a few new ones under construction, though we tend to be hindered by planning restrictions.

Republished here April 2, 2019