Zoo Tycoon: The Age Problem

It’s fairly odd that one of the Xbox One’s exclusive launch titles is a new Zoo Tycoon game – but not because the Tycoon franchise isn’t popular, and the games are certainly fun. Zoo Tycoon’s biggest flaw, and what makes it questionable as a launch title, is it’s seemingly blatant disregard for a very basic and important marketing technique – the target market.

As a micro-management simulator, the game is perfectly adult. Happy animals and happy customers mean more income, more income gives you the ability to buy things to fulfil the needs of your patrons and continue generating revenue. As in most simulators, the demands don’t stop – your customers want more bathrooms, more entertainment, more food, more animals. As guest numbers increase, the game becomes progressively more frantic and the constant flurry of demands and challenges gets harder and harder to fulfil. There’s simply too much to do, but that’s actually one of the most appealing parts of simulators like Zoo Tycoon; the constant challenge is usually your reason for playing to begin with.

Other parts of the game feel entirely too childish for an adult to particularly enjoy. There are ‘sensory enrichments’ (noticeably adult phrase) which utilise the Kinect camera to allow you to feed, play with or wash the animals in a way that even teenagers would probably prefer to avoid. Playing with Chimpanzees involves pulling ridiculous faces at your Kinect (pre-determined/prompted faces), for the animal to mimic you. While this might have amused me on my first attempt, it’s not something I’d ever return to – to me, it feels like a childish waste of time. That said, it wasn’t put in the game with me, or anyone above the age of 13 in mind – it is a direct ploy to children, and yet, occasionally, part of the micro-management. Guests demand to see you play with an animal for a reward – usually money, or increase in guest numbers. The reward appeals to adults, the action appeals to children.

The menu systems are difficult to navigate at any age, with simple commands occasionally going layers deep. If you want to build a new feeding station for some giraffes you’ve just adopted, you first have to click on the exhibition they’re located in, then decide whether you’re assessing exhibit items or animals directly, then choose if you’re looking for animal care, enrichment or interactions, then pick food or baths, then pick the food most suited to the animal you specifically want, then pick which design, then choose if you’d like to upgrade it to be self-sustained or leave it at manual refills. It’s too much, and that’s just for one of the most common, basic things you need to do in the game; some menu options go several layers deeper. On top of that, there’s an excess of reading, researching (a time-based in game function, not actual research) and information that can become tedious and time consuming for an adult, but simply impossible for a child.

The biggest flaw overall in this game is an awfully confusing one – your zoo has an extremely limiting ‘cap’. Though the game runs on the ‘power of the cloud’, and the actual map boundaries appear to give you miles upon miles of room, any adult will be able to ‘fill’ their zoo in 2-3 hours. When you hit the point that the zoo decided there are simply too many exhibits, as soon as you go to purchase the next exhibit your guests have requested, a text pop-up will tell you your zoo has ‘reached capacity’ and you aren’t able to purchase anything new, regardless of not having filled even a quarter of the actual map size. It’s tiny, and as soon as you reach the cap the game is actually unplayable. Say your guests are unhappy with the animal variety – you have to purchase a new exhibit with new animals to please them. Say you can’t because you’ve reached your zoo limit, so you delete something else so that you can make the new exhibit. Oops, your guests happened to like the thing you deleted, and now they need more of those, but you can’t fit any more in, so your guest numbers fall down as they become increasingly unhappy with the lack of change.

It’s fairly likely that a child would have a lot more trouble ploughing through the micro-management side of the game and getting to the zoo cap could take much, much longer than the average adult. That might sound great for parents who’d like a $100 game to have a high replay value or consume a lot of time, but it’s not entirely great for the child who may struggle through the tutorials alone. It’s simply too hard for young children, but some aspects are obviously designed for them. It’s so easy for adults (in most cases) that it becomes unplayable eventually, but starting out a zoo and micro-managing money, various needs, breeding programs and animal happiness is hugely compelling and challenging for older age groups. It’s not as though there’s a medium, either – it doesn’t seem like the game is suited to any individual age group. It’s suited to nobody, and it’s a damn shame because it’s great for adults and young kids, just in very different and unfortunately limited ways.