Developer Springboard recently released the cute and deceptively diabolical zoo simulator Let’s Build a Zoo, allowing players create fantasies ranging from eco-conscious paradises to dastardly zoos. With features ranging from DNA splicing to planning out bus routes and gift store inventories, the indie game is much deeper than its cutesy pixel graphics may initially suggest.
Game Rant spoke to James Barnard, founder of Springboard and lead developer of Let’s Build a Zoo, about finding inspiration in unusual headlines, his prior experience with AAA game development, the ethics of animal captivity, and what makes his zoo-sim tick. Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Please introduce yourself and tell us what is your favorite exhibit to visit at the zoo.
A: What a great question! I’m James. I’m the founder of the studio, and one of our three programmers on the team. My favorite exhibit at the zoo… I come from AAA. I did the music design, and some of the code for the game, and we have another couple of artists on the team. So that’s the team layout. But back to the zoo, that’s the important part.
It’s difficult. The monkeys are chaos. They can be a bit dull, but they might do something really funny, usually involving bothering each other or bothering people looking at them. I also like the really cute ones. The capybaras and pigs. At the Singapore zoo, we have little boars, and tapirs, which are similar to boars in size and cuteness.
I really love pigs. It’s a dream of mine to have a pet pig. I love to play with pigs. The last thing I did before leaving the UK for Singapore was going to a pig sanctuary, where you can play with rabbits and pigs. It was great! Lots of people were there for the rabbits, but I didn’t really care about the rabbits—they aren’t very exciting—but there were these really big pigs. Like the size of motorbikes, and they weigh like a thousand pounds. And everyone was really scared to go close to them. I’m like, “Aw! You look so lonely! You want someone to come play with you?” I just went straight up to them and started petting them.
I couldn’t have one in the UK, because you have to live a certain distance away from another dwelling to keep pigs. In Singapore, it’s just not legal. So, one day, the dream is to have a little tiny farm with pigs as friends. That’d be lovely.
Q: How would you describe Let’s Build a Zoo to players who haven’t heard about it yet?
A: It’s a deceptively simple-looking, fun zoo builder, with intricate layers of corruption, evil, and cuteness.
Q: Let’s Build a Zoo launched on November 5. What are you hearing from players, and are you pleased with the reception you’ve received so far?
A: I think that after spending so long on the game, we’re really, really happy to finally have it released. But I think in our minds, it’s not really finished. I don’t think game any game is ever finished. But eventually you have to get it out into gamers’ hands. People were starting to get very sad that they couldn’t play it yet, and were saying, “It’s finished! When I played the beta it already felt like a finished game!”
As a product, it’s finished and cohesive. But there are a billion things we want to put into it, and it’s really hard to know when to stop and to stop adding those things. Because literally every day, we would have an idea and want to put something new in. We released a patch on November 10, that added like… sixty or seventy things? We did that in a week, which was pretty crazy.
But in general, people seem to like it, and that makes us really happy, and we’re really proud of the game. A lot of the complaints are things that we’re listening to and trying to fix. Some of them are easy to fix, and some of them are actually already fixed in the patch we just made. Some of the larger ones, like controller support are gonna take us a little while. But we hope to have the main points of feedback addressed by the end of the year.
We have a channel on the discord where people can share their zoos. Scrolling through that, I see things that just make me so happy. People have been making things that are so pretty. And the artists on the team are blown away as well, seeing their art used in ways they didn’t imagine. There’s somebody who is making the whole map of Mordor from Lord of the Rings. And then I think “oh! This could be even prettier if I just added this piece,” but I don’t think the people who are creating this content realize how much it inspires us.
I don’t know. Maybe every creator feels that way. Like, after Notch made Minecraft, when he sees what people have created, does that make him just want to go back and put more in the game? Not that I’m comparing our game to Minecraft! That would be very presumptuous of me.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your team?
A: There are five of us. I’m like the really old man. I’ve been making games for over 20 years. I worked as a lead designer at Lucasarts and before that I did production and design for projects for EA, NAMCO, and people like that. So I’ve done loads of stuff. I just got really fed up with AAA, and its suppression of ideas. It’s designed by committee. It’s designed by marketing. Even as a lead designer I couldn’t really express myself, so I quit, and I started this kind of…Well, it wasn’t a company. I just started making games in my bedroom. I was worried I would need to get another job in minutes, and I didn’t. So that was cool! I somehow survived, and here I am, eight years later.
After a year and a half, I hired an artist: Cindy. And Cindy is the backbone of all the visual things you see in our games. She’s incredible. And we later added Yvonne, our other artist. Christine and Jim help me with the code. Having worked with these people so long, we all understand how each of us works, how each of us thinks. It’s just a wonderful thing. Our development is really, really smooth. And we all bring different things to the table in terms of our own sense of humor, and our sense of what makes games fun. So, I’m definitely from the darker side of game design. I think that minor tension between people making the games makes the things you see on screen more interesting.
I’m really happy with the team we’ve got now. It’s so much fun. Working every day is a joy.
Q: Let’s Build a Zoo features a sort of moral choice system. What inspired that design choice, and can you tell us what operating a black market zoo entails?
A: The design choice comes from what I just talked about. Upon making a zoo game, I instantly started to think of all the horrific things that happen in zoos. I’m not really into immoral things happening to animals, as you can probably tell from my love of pigs.
I’m mostly against zoos? But making a game, I learned more positives about zoos, so that was good, and really cool. But obviously the simplest approach to dealing with animals would be “they should all be free, and live in the wild, and do what they want!” Obviously that isn’t really practical in the world because of humanity. Taking that dark side of the subject, like actual animal oppression, led me down the road of, “What would the worst, most horrific zoo be?” It’s already possibly not a nice place for some of the animals, so I took that to the darkest place I could.
At the beginning of the game, you get a dog. Somebody loses their dog. And you have the option of returning it to the person who lost it, since the collar has their number on it. Or, you can put a little costume on it, dress it like a lion, and put it in your zoo. That was inspired by a zoo in China that had a Labrador in cage, with the sign “Lion” on it. There’s loads of stuff like that in real zoos. I just liked how deliciously unpleasant that stuff is, and wanted to put it in the game. But how do you marry that to people who don’t want to do those things? I can see people not wanting to dress a dog as a lion.
So to me, it just instantly comes to mind to have a morality system. Once we started thinking about that, a billion ideas explode. Sometimes you come up with a game design idea and it’s just good in isolation, but then you think about it more and realize there’s more you can do with it. As soon as you put morality into it, it’s just such a rich vein. We don’t know of another city builder that has done it in the same way we have. So it was exciting to do something where your options could impact the way your zoo looks.
I talked about Knights of the Old Republic quite a bit when we were building it, and how its kind of arbitrary. You sort of pick to go dark, or pick to go good, and you can’t really flip? In our game we tried to make it very easy for players to switch from bad to good. It’s not super easy, but there’s no reason you can’t go from one side to the other.
Obviously, we’re kind of coming from the inspiration of Bullfrog games. Those always have a really off-the-wall kind of humor, that’s a bit dark. Having grown up with that kind of game, I missed that, and in AAA any kind of stupid humor you have isn’t allowed in the product. That makes me want to put in silly things even more. So the morality system plays really well into that, because you can just put stupidly insane stuff in. Things that make people go “ohhh!” but then they don’t have to do it. For a lot of people it’s just a chance to see a hilarious joke and not act upon it. Like turning your rabbits into burgers or whatever.
Q: What kind of customization and zoo-building options do players have access to, apart from which animals they can showcase?
A: They can obviously paint floors and the shape of floors and their edge types to draw pixel art on the floor. You know, I should have the answer, “There are 1,000 items that players can use,” but I don’t have the answer! There’s a load of things you can build. There’s a research grid that gives access to hundreds of decorations, and shops, and foliage. Some buildings have multiple skins to them so you can change the way they look. There’s loads and loads of content.
Subways are the game’s form of fast travel. We have a system where the day starts and people come into the zoo, and the day ends eleven hours later. But if people were to walk from one end of the zoo to the other, it would take them the full eleven hours. So the subways teleport them around the zoo. And there are nine or ten different types of subways.
One approach, when people think about builders, is that some things are worth more points than others. Like, you can put this tree down for $100 dollars and you get 200 deco-points, but if you buy a $300 tree instead, you get 500 deco-points. I really hate that approach in design, because it takes away from creativity.
What we did was, every time you unlock a new tree, the “power” of all trees go up. But there is no ultimate tree. I thought that was a really interesting system, and a really good way to combat what happens in some building games where somebody just wants to build the best object a thousand times. I always thought that was disappointing. Like, you need to upgrade your fire station in SimCity – I’m just using Sim ity as an example. SimCity probably doesn’t actually work like this. But if you upgrade your fire station, you replace the little fire station graphic with the big fire station graphic, and then the little fire station graphic disappears from your city. I think that’s kind of sad.
So our approach would be, you unlock the secondary fire station, and the first fire station you unlocked also gets better. We want to put a focus on the creativity of the player. We don’t want to penalize people for drawing whatever they want, or building whatever kind of zoo they want to make.
Q: Can you tell us more about the game’s DNA splicing system? How do the spliced animals change gameplay?
A: The spliced animals are actually quite hard to make. It takes a while to collect all the genomes. Every time you get a new variant of animal – say a polar bear – you get closer to mapping its genome. Once you’ve mapped enough of its genome, you can start splicing it with other animals.
The freakish, crazy breasts that come from your splicing adventures attract lots of people to the park. They’re very exciting, obviously. People will pick those pens over others, and the customers will have bonuses based on how much fun they’re having, which is based on how good a pen is, and pens with those creatures get very high scores.
They also contribute to a collection that gets bigger and bigger. People are just blown away and surprised by the permutations. Each animal has 10 distinctive styles, with completely unique sprites. And when you mix one with another, you don’t know if the head will go on the body, or it will be the other way around.
Q: Are there any unusual combinations you’ve stumbled across which you would recommend to fellow zoo builders?
A: Some of the stuff is really, really funny. Like when you get a chicken, any time the head of a chicken goes on something else, it’s hysterical.
Q: Do you have any tips for players who are just starting out in Let’s Build a Zoo?
A: Many. The first one is, people don’t focus enough on the busses. People think busses are just cool, but if you want money, make sure you get a lot of busses. Still, you have to keep an eye on your traffic. If you have too many busses on one route, it gets congested. It’s very important that you upgrade busses and keep them moving, and if you put too many busses on one route, you will collect all the potential customers for that route too early in the day, and those other busses will just be empty. So you have to manage that. That’s the core of it, because people are money, right?
Or you can ignore all that and focus on farming, or make factories and make money that way. I don’t really know the end game. We’ve explored it. But our players have already done things that we have not thought of. Like, I’m watching a guy on stream thinking, “Oh god, don’t do that. I’ve never thought of anybody doing that! It’s gonna crash. It’s gonna crash, isn’t it?” Then it works and I’m super relieved. We find all kinds of weird stuff in the game.
We just rebalanced some of the game. Because some of the traits were taking way too long. We super-know how to play the game, so we go into the nurseries and use targeted breeding, and the nurseries are very important. If I was going for the ultimate strategy, I would use nurseries and play “good” at the beginning, and research the upgrade to turn off pregnancy time, so I could get all the animals quickly. But a lot of people don’t know these things, so the game was moving kind of slow for them. So we sped things up, made it a little bit easier.
So yeah, focus on breeding animals, and focus on busses.
Q: What other media—games or otherwise—inspired Let’s Build a Zoo?
A: That’s a tough one. Music is always a big part of everything we do. I used to be a musician, so I make all the music for our games. Weirdly, when we’re first pitching a game or developing a game, the first thing we do is music, and people ask, “Why did you worry about the music? You do music at the end!” But the music helps form the mood of the game. Zoo was a really hard game to score. It’s peaceful but fun and joyful. I looked at a lot of other city builders, and there’s a lot of tension in the soundtracks. Like “You’re doing something! You’re being industrious!” like Cities’ soundtrack. Great soundtrack! But I just wanted to make something that sounded happy, and made you happy to be in a place.
Beyond that? I think the art team are the people to answer the question. But mostly, we were influenced by classic games that we love, and cute things that we love. Like, cute pixel art. We’re all really into pixel art in the company, so we look at pixel art all the time. Like, on Twitter. Not just pixel art games, but cute pixel art. Obviously, we went to the zoo, and that was inspiring. I don’t think any movies really inspired us. We’re all too much about games to have time for movies.
Although a lot of the critical choices are inspired by trolling YouTube for trivia. That’s my life really. Because I’m always coding, so I don’t have time to watch a movie, or anything. So I usually have one of those “Did You Know?” documentaries going. Like Pringles are not potato chips as they can get into a different tax bracket if they are sold as biscuits. So things like that make their way into the game.
Q: You mentioned the narrative scenario with the lion dog early. Can you tell us more about the game’s narrative?
A: There is a kind of overarching story. There is a main character. She lends you the money to open your zoo. She kind of seems nice? But I’ve seen other friends get invested into, and it’s always kind of sh*t, you know? Like you know, pushing for revenue. Or, sometimes they just invest to claim that they have an office in another country, and then they close down the company.
It’s also really sad to see people put their lives into something, and get a payoff from some investor—and usually it’s not even a cash payout, it’s like stock or something and they say “It’s a million dollars!” but it’s not a million dollars—and then those people lose the thing that they love. So yeah. I don’t have a lot of love for investors, and the narrative reflects that. So yeah, this character is not the nicest person.
Obviously, there’s a lot of rhetoric right now about people with too much money, and I don’t think anyone would disagree that there are some people with way too much money. It kind of goes into that. What’s the point in getting more money? There’s a point where it’s not really beneficial to you anymore. She’s like that person, that’s her version of winning at the world.
Q: Do you consider Let’s Build a Zoo to have a message, or an overarching theme?
A: On a slightly serious level, there are actual questions that come up in play. Like for example, eating rabbits is fine in the UK, right? But it’s not okay in Singapore. People are really repulsed by it. I think a lot of the jokes are based in things that really happen. The whole idea of turning animals into meat and products, that’s what is really happening. It’s just not paired with the zoo.
I always think about this thing: I went to Vietnam, and they are selling dog on the side of the road. And I was thinking, I should eat dog. Even though I’m 90 percent vegetarian—I rarely eat meat—I had to try it. Because I love the idea that if I had been raised in Vietnam, I wouldn’t be offended by that. It’s a product of my upbringing that I am offended by it. The situation of a zoo, and the situation of eating meat are so separated. It is clinically separated by the food industry. I think it is interesting to bring those things together, because they are together. It’s the rearing of animals and turning those animals into products. Whether you are going to eat the animals, or look at the animals, or buy the animals as pets, these are all kinds of products. I think it’s interesting to break down those barriers.
I’m not suggesting it’s like super deep or anything, I’m not trying to put my opinion in people’s faces. It’s not like, “This is how I think, and you should think the same too, and when you get to the end of this game, you will think like me too, and become a vegetarian!” They are just my observations on the world.
Q: Coming up with an art-style where both the base and spliced animal sprites are visually distinct must have been a major challenge. Can you talk about how you approached that process?
A: I personally haven’t seen all the variants, but the art team had to go through all 500,000 variants and manually realign them, which is just crazy. I wrote this code to align them so it was automatic. And it kind of looked okay, you know? But then the artists, who are perfectionists, said, “No, it’s not good enough! We want to go in and change it.” It took them like two months. The awful thing is, obviously we’re going to add some more animals at some point, right? Every time you add one, the total doesn’t go up by like fifty. It goes up by another… five hundred thousand or something. But the good news is, after a few updates we can advertise “five million combinations!” No one will ever see everything though.
I wanted to do an online thing, which would show you who got each variant. But I haven’t done it yet, because I was worried that people would hack it. Then I had the even crazier idea of giving away NFTs if you got an animal for the first time. But then I realized, “I don’t like NFTs in the first place because they are bad for the planet,” so it was a really short-lived idea.
But I really wanted to make more of you being the first person in the world to find something. I think that’s really fascinating, so at some point…. God, I shouldn’t be talking about things I want to do and crazy ideas I haven’t done yet. It’d be sort of like, do you know Peter Molyneaux’s Curiosity? That really terrible box thing, remember that? He made like a box with a million cubes, and when you got to the middle you’d get an amazing prize, and you got to be in Goddess. That was really funny, because it was all talk. Didn’t work out at all.
Anyway! I would love to host a server that shows how many variants have been found. “Like we have found 24 percent of all possible animals,” and you could browse what’s been found. Oh,can’t talk like we’re gonna do that. Let’s not too excited. Though I would love to. Probably. Maybe. Sorry, I’m getting off topic about features I’m never gonna make – Just like Peter Molyneux.
Q: What part of the game did you start developing first? The management aspects, the pixel art, or something else?
A: Zoo originally started as a very casual game. We started making it as a mobile game, and we stopped, thankfully. We were making mobile games because it seemed like it was easier to make them when I first started. Now I think the opposite. I think making a good mobile game is really challenging, but they aren’t even games to me. I felt really sick making mobile games.
We had made games that we thought were pretty good, before that. But they didn’t really sell. And we were about to go bankrupt. I was making two games. One was called Telomere and it was about—super bleak—it was about having no hope. And I’ve always hope. And that was the first time in my life I didn’t have any hope. I don’t know how people survive without hope, and that’s what I was facing. I didn’t think we, as a studio, would survive. And then I would have to get a job. I don’t want a job. I don’t want to go back there, it’s gonna be sh*t!
The other was a zoo game. It was a mobile game called like, Pixel Zoo, or something. After two or three weeks of it, it just started making us feel sick. So I figured, if I’m going to close the studio anyway. We might as well do something we like. So we said screw this. The first iteration was basically just people walking around on screen. We said, alright, pencils down. Let’s do something completely different. You could argue that the first version was just a collection game. There was nothing to it. It was horrible. I can’t tell you how joyful I am to have made that decision, and make something I enjoy with my life.
We built a prototype of a deeper game in ten weeks. You could build stuff, and walk around, and manage the ingredients and shop inventories. But a lot of stuff didn’t really work. We sent it out to publishers, and then they rejected it. Then it was like, “Oh no! Now what? Carry on or what?”
I literally didn’t know what to do. But we carried on, hoped to finish it, basically waiting for a miracle. We worked on it for ages. We released a physical Switch game during that time, and that made us some money to carry us through. And then we pitched it again, and pretty much every publisher we offered it to wanted to sign it. So obviously I learned a bit about the level a game needs to be before you pitch it.
When we got it signed, we were really excited. Because then we could sort of, flesh out all the smoke and mirrors stuff into the systems we really wanted to have.
Q: What is the single greatest challenge you faced in development?
A: I think one of the greatest challenges we overcame in development was the stress sim. At first, I pictured it as a sort of evolutionary simulation game, where there’s this hugely complicated engine running under the surface charting how animals could feel stressed. Stress could come from like, a million different sources, from people being too noisy, to the animals next to them bothering them, to there not being enough food. We charted the effects of these stressors on the animals. They might not breed, or might get depressed and not eat even though you start giving them food. All this really complicated stuff. I was like “Yeah, it’s gonna be so cool! It’s gonna be like real life!”
As we got further through development, we just couldn’t tell what was happening. I had this log that would spit out twenty thousand lines of code explaining why the animal made a choice. I found myself having to look at the log to understand the game. So, we took all that out, to make it a lot dumber. But as a result, because the player can actually understand what’s happening.
You have two choices in a simulation game. The first is to make a simulation of the world. Throw a brick in the ocean, and it reacts, and the world changes because of your actions. Like the butterfly flapping its wings and affecting wind currents. There’s something to be said for that. But you don’t feel in control of the world, because you don’t understand it. There are too many systems to understand.
I think that was a misstep that we made. I remember we were doing a SimCity port years ago, and my friend had the code and he told me, “You wouldn’t believe all the stuff that is happening under the hood of this game!” That sort of influenced me a little bit. Because loads of stuff that just seems random has an impact on the world. And I thought that was what world building simulations would be about. So we went about face. We went with a system where you can understand everything about the world, and the player feels empowered because you understand it.
So moving forward, we need do even more of that. We need to make more things really clear to the player. If your moral choice system affects the world in the way you expect, what’s the point of having it? I think we’ve still got a little bit of work to do on that. But I think that’s the right choice.
Q: Are there any plans for DLC? A sequel to Let’s Build a Zoo? Or just post launch tweaks?
A: Well, there’s consoles, and then there’s everything else you just said, Maybe. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say about things in the future. We are definitely going to keep supporting the game. We got a roadmap up in public on Trello. We have a section of our Discord where we take suggestions of what people want to see. So we are really aggressively supporting those areas.
One thing I will say is that the game is designed to support multiple locations, and the zoo you are playing in now is just one of those locations. What happens in those other locations is gonna be really exciting. In some ways I’m more excited about those than the core game. Yeah. Loads of stuff.
Q: Is there anything else you would like readers to know?
A: I bet some people have really good answers for this, because they think about it before the meeting. Because there’s always this question, and it’s always good to have an answer. But no. Not especially, really! I think the things I said before, about how we will be updating the game.
Let’s Build a Zoo is available now for PC.
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https://gamerant.com/lets-build-a-zoo-interview-james-barnard-zoo-ethics-inspirations/ | James Barnard Discusses the Ethics of Zoos, Anecdotal Inspirations, and More