Screenshot: Frontier
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Planet Zoo is the latest simulator from Frontier Developments, the creators of Roller Coaster Tycoon and the recent Planet Coaster. In this one, you’re building a zoo and making sure all the animals are well cared for, which comes with unexpected challengers for players used to making theme parks.

Modern zoos have a strong focus on conservation, the developers of Planet Zoo told me during a gameplay demo at E3 last week, and Planet Zoo will reflect that. They were showing me a habitat for giraffes while I was asking about the research that Frontier has been doing for the game.

“Their tongues are 45 centimeters long and they’re fully prehensile,” one of the representatives from Frontier said, referring to the giraffe currently feeding in the habitat. I was agog. The developers at Frontier, also the creator of 2013's Zoo Tycoon, have been visiting zoos as well as working with a researcher from Cambridge to compile their information about the animals in Planet Zoo. Along the way, they’ve picked up a bevy of fun facts. During my demo, I also learned that wildebeests used to be considered pests in the 19th century when they almost went extinct, and that Planet Zoo dedicates a lot of attention to its animals, which makes sense given that a large part of running a zoo is caring for the animals there.

“We’ve gone to zoos and talked to the keepers and said, ‘Right, what makes the animal happy? What kind of enrichment do you provide them?,” the Frontier representative said. “How do we make sure the habitat is as close to how they naturally live as possible?”

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In modern zoos, those kinds of things are the focus for keepers, and so it is in Planet Zoo. In order to keep the guests happy, the animals have to be happy as well, and all of them have different requirements to stay happy. Some, like giraffes, are pack animals, while others, like saltwater crocodiles, are more territorial. Some need a certain kind of terrain, like dirt or grass, while other need water in their enclosure so they can swim. You’ll be able to control everything, down to the temperature and humidity levels in the habitats for reptiles, to make sure your animals don’t get sick and are in a good mood.

Several times throughout the demo, the reps from Frontier assured me that the player would never be rewarded for treating animals poorly. Looking at the details in the demo, you can tell how deeply the developers at Frontier care for their virtual facsimiles of chimpanzees, crocodiles, cheetahs, and giraffes. In particular, they wanted to make sure that I saw the fur on the fuzzier creatures up close, especially on the chimpanzees. They looked soft enough to touch.

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Screenshot: Frontier

“The eye shader is also a piece of art,” one of the reps said, showing me the soulful eye of a chimp during a moment when they weren’t swinging through trees.

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The chimpanzee habitat was also a good place to see how detail-oriented Planet Zoo allows the player to be. On top of handling the minutiae of making sure your chimps are in a habitat that suits their social and environment needs, you also have the ability to build them structures to climb, piece by piece.

The chimps climbed on the tops of a narrow wooden pole, which rested atop other wooden beams that were all individual assets. They then leapt from this player-built structure into a tree, just as they would at a real zoo.

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“Fun fact about chimpanzees: they get drunk,” the Frontier rep said, snapping me out of my reverie. “They find alcohol trees—like, fermented fruit trees—and they will eat the fermented fruit and get drunk. They will remember where the alcohol is and go back to that tree.”

Planet Zoo gives you the ability to make a dream zoo, plank by plank. It is an opportunity to learn a lot about what zookeepers do, and what animals need to survive. Although you won’t be seeing drunk chimps in the game itself, keeping these real-world facts in mind while you play might give you a greater appreciation for the work that’s done in zoos. While wildebeests almost went extinct in the 19th century, it was because of zoos that the species was able to survive, the Frontier rep said.

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“They were hunted nearly to extinction,” she said, “and they’re only back because zoos took them in, bred them, and released them back into the wild.”