In our preview of the game last week, we described Tropico as looking set to be "one of the most innovative and downright fun titles of the year". But who are the brains behind this game? We spoke to Franz J Felsl of developers PopTop to find out more...
PopTop has always been a small company, but I hadn't realised quite how small until Franz told me that "PopTop existed as a one-man company, solely owned and operated by Phil Steinmeyer, back around 1990".
It was only with the arrival of "Railroad Tycoon II" that "PopTop became a multi employee company, with a total of six people by its completion in the fall of 1998. Two of those six began work eight months before completion."
Franz himself was one of those late arrivals, and this made him all the more excited about the project. "I saw most of the engine already in place and was a big Railroad Tycoon fan already, so when I saw what was already there when I got on board, I was very excited".
Meanwhile PopTop had been in discussion with Mike Wilson about the Gathering of Developers, and in the end "Phil signed up with the Gathering during GOD's initial creation". As well as being present as GOD created the heavens and the Earth (probably), PopTop's Railroad Tycoon II turned out to be GOD's first release, as well as their first big hit.
"I think it was a major surprise for GOD", Franz told us, modestly describing the game's success, which resulted in over half a million copies of the game being sold worldwide. "Actually, I was surprised how well it sold in Europe. It did better in Europe than it did in the US, which is not the way things usually end up. A pleasant outcome without a doubt."
With all those hundreds of thousands of copies of the game sold, you might have expected fame and fortune to have got to PopTop's heads. Not so. Working at PopTop is apparently "mostly quiet".
"It's not a 'hip' group of people, all driving fast cars and 'doing' lunch", Franz assured us. "There are 10 of us now, half of us married and 30 years old or more, so we're a fairly mellow bunch."
"We're Midwesterners, and oddly enough we probably fit the stereotype pretty well, except that we are all partially nocturnal and can play games for 12+ hours at a shot if given the chance. Our office is spacious enough to allow additional people to join us, but not palatial like Ion Storm. We don't rent out movie theaters or sponsor big parties, we're from Missouri!"
They're not quite as harmless as they may at first sound though... "There was a Christian ministry in the office next to us once, and now they're gone", he admitted. "We like to think that our cursing and foul language during late night Half-Life and Quake games drove them away."
"I picture myself driving off in a leather Hell's Angels jacket, a pair of khaki shorts and a half pack of candy cigarettes stuffed in the pocket of my Microsoft T-shirt."
Game development - truly the new rock 'n' roll...
Between all-night Quake sessions and scaring off the local priesthood, PopTop have quietly been working on a new game called Tropico for the last year.
"Serious work on Tropico didn't start until about May of 1999 - we were still finishing up with Railroad Tycoon II : The Second Century [a mission pack for their hit game] and a variety of loose ends. Additionally, we started to hire new people then, and lost one person during the start."
Franz describes Tropico as being "a building game of economic, social and political manipulation, where the player takes the role of Dictator over a small Caribbean island perpetually caught in the Cold War era". The game is very much "Phil Steinmeyers baby", but according to Franz "it was influenced by damned near every strategy game ever made".
"It's really hard to choose only one, or just a few", Franz told us, when we asked him to name some of the games which had inspired Tropico. "The list would be something like - Junta (board game), Hidden Agenda, Sim City, The Sims, Masters of Magic, The Settlers, Railroad Tycoon II and Roller Coaster Tycoon. Naturally, none of these is exactly the same as Tropico though."
As with any great strategy game, the idea behind Tropico was very simple even if the influences were complex and numerous. "Phil's basic premise was, "You're Castro!", and the rest is a product of evolution .. but not natural selection."
The engine which powers the game is itself a product of evolution - a heavily updated version of the engine that powered Railroad Tycoon II. And when we say heavily, we mean it.
The new engine is looking stunning already, and can handle resolutions of up to 1600x1200. Franz gave us a quick run-down of some of the many new features which have been added to the engine for Tropico, including "full 3D support; real 3D planes, taxis, buses and trucks; 3D lighting and weather effects; 3D birds and fish..."
But although the game supports 3D hardware, PopTop have resisted the gaming industry's current stampede towards 3D, and at least some of the game is still two dimensional.
"We've still decided to use sprites for buildings and people", Franz explained. "The resolution can't be matched in 3D, and we wanted it to be very detailed and 'personal', and sprites give the level of detail necessary to suspend one's disbelief."
Tremor are producing a fully 3D version of PopTop's Railroad Tycoon II for the Dreamcast at the moment, but Franz isn't convinced that 3D is right for every game just yet.
"The level of detail is not as crisp and convincing in 3D", he told us. "But that's getting better all the time. Hopefully, 3D will be even better in the near future."
Of course, being on a tiny island in the Caribbean means that, unlike in many city-building and strategy games, "real estate is a major issue" in Tropico.
"Where do you put everything, and how does it interact with the population? In large continent size nations, the land use issue is rarely a problem at the outset. However, on an island it's always an issue. That's part of the strategy element to the game - a little urban planning for our friends in computerland."
One of the other elements is trying to maintain some kind of control over your subjects, who often seem to have a mind of their own... "Tropicans always get on with their own lives", Franz told us. "You just meddle with their existence, like dictators do."
"I can try to pass laws if I've the right support - for example, martial law requires good cooperation from the military. I can influence the availability of housing, jobs and recreation, and all the aspects contained therein. I can build a TV station, and insist on having them perpetually play re-runs of "I Love Lucy" in the original uncut Spanish, as we all know they were done because my radio station keeps reminding us!"
Ironically, given that the game is about taking on the role of a dictator, freedom is very important to it. In fact, Franz says that the freedom that the game gives players in how they approach Tropico "IS the game".
"It's a simulation of being a dictator", he explains. "And if the player can't dictate, then there is no game. We just want to set up the environment in which they get to rule, then how to rule is up to the player to figure out."
One example of this freedom is the way in which you create your own dictator at the beginning of each game, choosing from a range of backgrounds, flaws and qualities.
"The choices are the guide and spice of the player's experience while playing Tropico. You can't play a dictator without the stereotypic trappings of this topic, it's just not the same. Thus the character design sequence will determine much of what happens to you during the game."
"It's important to remember that you can't be everything to everyone in Tropico, just as it is in real life. So, choosing a religious bent will make you popular with those on your island who are more religious and less popular with others, and this flavor will stick with you throughout the game."
There was one last question which we just had to ask... What is Franz's own favourite setup for his dictator?
"These choices are likely to change in the final game, as we haven't begun play testing properly as yet", Franz warned us. "Additionally, this is the one area I did any major initial design, so I like everything!"
Name: Pepe Gomez Background: Farmer Rise to Power: Born Leader - established office during anarchy Qualities: Hardworking and Entrepreneurial Flaws: Suffers from Tourette's Syndrome and a Pervert
"This just appeals to me as a common man type of thing", Franz explained. "I think I'd also like to play as a religious zealot though."
Of course, then he would have to cut down on the late night Quake sessions, foul language, and candy cigarettes...