Tycoon games or management sims are a lot of fun. They are a genre that my wife will happily play with me whereas anything football related, anything that involves shooting people in the face, and anything with a focus on driving at high speed tends to bore her. We’ve played so many over the years that I thought I’d write an article on my top ten tycoon games.
Unfortunately it is a genre full of really awful, badly designed and quickly churned out titles. In fact I struggled to find ten that I would actually recommend. I even included a section at the end highlighting the ones to avoid. The balance between fun and work in a tycoon game is tough to achieve, it needs to be a challenge but if you get the mix even slightly wrong it can quickly become impossible.
The sandbox nature of these games is initially a big draw and there is always a drive to develop and build new buildings but once you have tried out all the content the lack of a focus can become a big problem. Sim City is a great example, in fact Will Wright struggled to get it made because it had no end point, no actual aim. I have to admit I always got bored towards the end of a game of Sim City, once the shining metropolis reached it’s peak there was usually an immediate realisation that I’d just wasted hours and now all there was to do was to wreck the city I’d so carefully built up.
For most tycoon games they include a progression of some kind, a series of aims to achieve and if they get the balance right on these it can be a great deal of fun. However few titles are big or interesting enough to tempt me to play their sandbox mode, without an aim it just becomes boring immediately. A great example is Casino Empire which is a simple tycoon sim challenging you to build a Vegas casino. There isn’t a great deal of content or depth but the single player progression is really well balanced so you can spend a few hours on it without having to replay a difficult level. There isn’t enough to the game to encourage sandbox play but the single player challenge is satisfying, the trick is to have you complete the level just before you run out of time, maximum satisfaction seems to come from doing it by the skin of your teeth.
Another problem with most management sims is the standard of the AI. You hire all these staff and they refuse to see the pile of litter at your front entrance and instead clean the same spot over and over. I remember playing Theme Park and regularly finding all my janitors in the same top corner of the park. The sound of thousands of visitors constantly puking was also pretty grating. Sometimes you reach a point of momentum in games like Theme Park where you simply don’t have the resources to pull things back and the downward spiral is inevitable and unstoppable. It can be a seriously annoying feeling in tycoon games when you realise a restart is your only viable option.
My favourite game that fits this genre from recent years is Lionhead’s The Movies. It worked as a beautifully well made management sim but it also allowed you to craft your own movies with a reasonable level of depth. It managed to create the feeling of a single player progression with the passage of time and periodic awards ceremonies but it also gave you a sandbox feeling because each time you played key details would inevitably turn out differently.
A number of tycoon games that make it on to the shop shelves are actually hopelessly broken. They have a level which defies logic or an economic imbalance which makes the progress too slow to be engaging or too fast to keep up with. Getting the design right is definitely a tricky prospect.
Given that the demographic for tycoon games is much more mixed than most genres, they attract old and young, male and female gamers, it is something of a surprise that there aren’t more big releases. Sadly The Movies was considered a commercial failure. They now seem to have become the preserve of small developers who often lack the resources to make them properly and the result is sub standard clones of better games.
They are also scraping the bottom of the barrel for subjects, in the last couple of years there has been Beer Tycoon, Fish Tycoon and worst of all Game Tycoon. Yeah that’s right a game about making games except they obviously don’t know how to make games because Game Tycoon is a big pile of embarassing awfulness.