When you hear the word “tycoon”, what do you think of? If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say you might be visited by a mental image of a rather plump gentleman in a striped suit, holding a Cuban cigar and a glass of Courvoisier in each hand, brandishing his monocle and laughing over the thousands, nay, tens of thousands of dollars he earns every minute. Well, you’re (please excuse the pun) right on the money! The dictionary offers this definition:
Noun: a wealthy, powerful person in business or industry.
Now that we have the definitions of the term consolidated, we can delve into the following question. Why did we first think of the wealthy gentleman, and not the tycoon games genre? We’re gamers, right? There was a time where hearing the word “tycoon” would’ve instantly evoked thoughts of various computer games, business simulators, city management games and more. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Tycoon Games genre was all the rage, with multiple titles hitting the screen and wowing audiences, including smash hits like SimCity, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Caesar III, Zoo Tycoon, Theme Park, Railroad Tycoon, Populous: The Beginning and more. These games were talked about, widely played and highly esteemed by both casual and dedicated gamers. Since then, however, we’ve seen a dwindling of the genre’s regard, and even though business management games are still being produced, they’re nowhere near as big in scope and popularity as they used to be. What happened?
SimCity was perhaps the first game in this genre, a pioneer of its kind, coming out in 1989 and putting the name of its creator Will Wright on the map. In light of the success of the sim, his company Maxis, co-founded with Jeff Braun, was at the time even being contacted by various facilities concerning custom builds and engine-licensing that could be used in educational purposes. SimCity was favorably mentioned in publications such as Time magazine and The New York Times at a time when computer games were certainly considered a deviation from the mainstream, something reserved for social outcasts and un-aspiring adults. What was it about this game that made people take a look down from their proverbial high horse and consider with esteem the world of gaming?
A potential answer can be found in the nature of the genre itself. Tycoon games, as well as, more broadly, sim games, are a (somewhat) functioning model of reality. They have you use skills that have multiple real-world applications such as resource management, time management, planning, supervising, executing, working with scarcity, distribution of finances and much, much more. Many enthusiasts of the genre report having acquired techniques while playing these games that later thoroughly helped them in their social and professional life. An impressive feat, to be sure, and one that can be used to shut the criticizing mouths of the “video games are nothing but a waste of time” front.
Another aspect which could explain the past popularity of tycoon and sim games is their relatively low demands in technical terms; they could be played on those, in hindsight, hilariously underpowered engines that constituted the peak of technological advancement of the 1990’s. It didn’t take much to run the calculations required by these management-type games, and render simplistic graphics – the brunt of the work was done inside the brain of the gamer, and relatively unsatisfying graphics solutions could be translated into a vision of a real-life brick-and-mortar amusement park, its little, pixelated people considered actual flesh-and-blood customers.
A third factor could be their open-endedness. These games can often be considered toys when compared to games, as you’re given loose terms of winning and a plethora of options to explore, mostly limited only by your creativity and imagination. You could play, let’s say, Caesar III for hours and work towards building the perfect Roman city, never quite getting there, always encountering new problems and meeting the demands of the people. You weren’t working towards a definite goal, but rather towards exploring possibilities and chipping away at the imperfections, always being left with a slightly more optimal solution, a slightly better business model.
These factors worked together to give us an amazing decade of games such as the ones previously mentioned, where players lived and died by the functioning of their amusement parks, zoos, cities, or even game development studios (have you played Game Dev Tycoon? It’s kind of meta). Your creations were something you could brag about to your friends, invite them over (online sharing wasn’t really a thing back then) to load up that saved game and show them just how good of a governor you really are and how glorious your city looks. However, a closer look at these same exact factors could offer insight into the apparent disappearance of the genre from our screens (but not our hearts!).
The dominating narrative concerning video games is, unfortunately, that they are the scourge of the young person’s mind (this can, again unfortunately, often prove to be true, as well). When looking to educate oneself, one doesn’t look to video games, but rather tries to find useful courses and information elsewhere. So, the first factor is out the window. The second one, the low requirements of tycoon games, could again be another of the reasons behind their downfall. With the ridiculously (in relative terms) overpowered engines we have today, gamers look to bigger, better, faster games, games that make the most of the capabilities of their gaming rigs.
As for the third one, the open-endedness, this is, in my opinion, one of the saddest developments in the world of today. People, especially the young, have become so inundated with information and bite-sized bits of pleasure, that longer, more drawn-out forms have begun to fall by the wayside. Attention spans are getting shorter and constantly attacked by an endless stream of (often useless) information, click-bait titles, tweets, short flashy videos and gaming sessions. The most popular games are ones that can be finished in 20 minutes, and then started again, like Fortnite and League of Legends. Sandbox worlds, open exploration, exploring for the sake of exploring – have all but lost their desirability. Even with the success of Minecraft, for example, rarely does a person want to engage in toy-like activity, and more often than not is incentivized by quick, intense bits of action with concrete and precisely drawn-out objectives.
However, it is not the end of the world. Tycoon games are still being produced, even though their first Golden Age (a quick nod to Civ III fans) is long over. Perhaps, as we become increasingly aware of the challenges we’re facing in the 21st century, we’ll start looking back to tycoon games and find them useful in a variety of new ways; perhaps we’ll usher in a new age of simulation games, to be even used in schools as an efficient way to train children for real-life problems. Perhaps. Until then, we can all re-play our past favorites and once again awake the executive within us.