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Red's Read: Planet Zoo... With[out] Kids!

Red's Take On The Iconic Zoo Sim

Red Thomas Posted:
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I’ve got an army of nieces and nephews and I’m always looking for something fun to play with them.  These theme park and tycoon games aren’t far off my preferred genre of games, but I’ve just never really looked that hard at them for whatever reason.  I reconsidered that after my second niece asked for and then played the crap out of Planet Zoo.

Seeing that it was clearly getting some attention from the young ladies in the family and always being on the lookout for good games to share with the kids.  I especially stay on the lookout for games to share with my nieces as there are so few good ones that appeal to them, I decided to look into the game a bit more.  It was obvious why Planet Zoo with its cute critters would appeal to the girls, and I liked what I was seeing on the educational side of it, as well.

When I saw that it had an online component and avatars would visit each other’s zoos, this game was an easy buy for me.  I immediately snagged an extra copy of Planet Zoo with the excited anticipation of having another game to enjoy with some of the kids.  It didn’t hurt that an Air Force buddy who’s currently deployed OCONUS was digging the game and kept recommending it to me.  There are some reasons why I do and don’t regret that decision, and we’re going to dig through those a bit right now.

Great for Kids

Right up front and minus some caveats that I’ll get into shortly, I’ll say this is a great game for kids.  There’s a whole lot I like about it and quite a lot that the kids will like about it, as well.  The easy win is the tangential learning opportunities, which I think is hands-down, the best way to educate kids.

If you make education fun and provide a reason beyond “learn it to pass that test,” I think kids learn more things, learn them more rapidly, and retain the information infinitely longer.  That’s why things like zoos and aquariums can be so incredibly educational in real life.

Planet Zoo offers much of that same learning potential, and I’d even go so far as to say the potential learning in the game is even greater.  The educational plaques at the zoo are interesting but learning about the animals in Planet Zoo is important for running a successful zoo.  That means kids are quickly learning what sorts of animals like to cohabitate with each other and what plants exist in their natural habitats.  This natural grasp of disparate biomes and ecologies is probably far beyond the curriculum you’d find even in most high schools.

I love it, and the conversations with the kids about how they created their own habitats tells me that this isn’t just superficial rote knowledge, but actual understanding with depth.  Even more interesting is that one of my nieces has actually gone online to watch biological videos on occasion to get better ideas for how to sculpt her habitats.

Solid voice-acting and well-executed visuals make for a very good game.  The scenarios are particularly fun to play.

Planet Zoo also introduces players to economic principles and logistics, even personnel management to an extent.  All these are complicated subjects that the kids don’t really realize that they’ve just learned a bit about, but the knowledge is there.  It’s also knowledge that they’ll find very useful later in life.  Understanding the general ideas behind the economics of large organizations is a critical skill for understanding personal compensation and what options might be available for negotiation.  I know it’s an odd direction to take a conversation about kids, but it’s just not common for kids to get exposed to principles like this despite there being so much value in them.

This is also a super cute game that I believe a lot of kids will find relaxing.  Right now, I think a lot of kids could use something relaxing, so the timing is pretty solid, too.  Unlike most games, there’s no real competition here.  No run-and-gun of the normal FPS games, and though there are a few tense moments created through the occasional disease or socially stressed animal, the game plays rather calmly.

I even find myself often pausing the game for long periods while I layout new habitats or shape a new visitor experience.  I’ve found it incredibly relaxing to develop the most visually interesting zoological experiences possible, and find it feels much like a virtual garden.  Granted, it’s missing the smell of freshly turned earth, which is one of the most deeply satisfying smells you can imagine.  Then it’s also missing the smell of the animals, too.  I grew up on a ranch, so trust me when I say there are some smells you really should be grateful to be missing out on.

I find myself constantly fascinated by the complexity of the systems in Planet Zoo and the depth of the gameplay.  I’m excited that this hasn’t been a turn-off for the younger gamers and that they’ve been able to push through the moderately steep learning curve to enjoy the game as much as they have.  I feel like it’s training their minds to process more complex systems with greater efficiency, and that’s another one of those tangential benefits that they don’t realize they’re picking up.

What kid doesn’t love pandas, and in this game they even have baby pandas!  I could hear my niece’s gleeful delight from two States away.

Some Problems, Though

The complexity of the game is something of a concern, as well.  While the girls have seemed to really enjoy the game a great deal, I’m worried that younger kids might struggle a bit more with it.  I’m hoping to get my younger nephews to give the game a try, but it may not be a great test if he doesn’t enjoy it as much as his sister.

Part of the complexity comes from the terrain modification tools and the other zoo-design functions, which can be frustrating for even an adult.  Of course, it’s possible that this is more of a problem for adults with past experiences and expectations making this more difficult than it needs to be, and kids learning for the first time will find the system easier.  I haven’t really talked with the girls about this aspect of the game.

I will say that I’ve had some issues getting paths and barriers to layout precisely the way that I’d like.  Elevation and orientation both matter when placing objects, and the UI can be a little wonky with the sorta-snap and the predictive “help” functionalities.  You don’t really draw paths, so much as you wiggle the mouse around until it snaps where you want it to be.  This should be easy, but it ends up being occasionally frustrating as paths snap underneath plants, trees, and other objects or don’t quite form the way you want.  This is basic functionality that exists in editors from Photoshop to PowerPoint, so it’s a little frustrating to find it so difficult in Planet Zoo.

There are also occasional problems with animal welfare values that can be incredibly difficult to track down.  For instance, I had some animals become highly stressed.   They were hungry, but I couldn’t find anywhere to tell me they were hungry.  The habitat menu reported food was a problem but placing more feeding locations made no difference.  It turns out that the problem was with the keepers not being able to keep up with the demand, and feeders weren’t getting filled.

The research tree is just one example of depth in Planet Zoo.  Each animal has 8 levels of research, each unlocking more information that can be used to educate guests or improve standards for the critters.  That’s not even getting into the disease research or the facility research that can be done.

The number and depth of systems makes those sorts of problems relatively likely, and though the UI is incredibly well done, it’s also deep and critical information can be easily missed.  My nieces don’t seem to have struggled with this too much, but I can see it becoming a major issue as you get to younger kids with shorter attention spans.

The scenarios are good about walking you through everything you need, so that’s one option.  The franchise mode is the most fascinating part of the game, and also the mode in which this problem is most impactful, though.  Plus, just the fact that there are a lot of moving parts in even the most basic functions, this game is going to be problematic for some kids.  Consider the child in question before buying and just know that you may be signing up for some early handholding.

Not What I Thought

It’s not so much a problem, but Planet Zoo definitely was not exactly the game I was expecting.  I don’t think there was any intentional deception, and I see a lot of obvious clues I initially missed when I look at the game knowing what I know now.

There is an online component to this game.  You can buy, sell, and trade animals among the larger player-market, and I saw while looking into the game that other players’ avatars were visiting other zoos.  This led me to believe that I’d be able to visit my nieces’ zoos, as well as the other way around.

A game that gets kids excited about learning and one that specifically teaches skills like strategy and project management is too good to pass up.  If your kids might enjoy this game, I think it’s worth the cost for just the chance they might play it.

Now, I need to be clear that at no point is this actually suggested by the developers.  The Steam Store page shows this is a single player game, and nothing in the game’s description specifically says that this is an option.  What threw me was reading, and then seeing in some gameplay footage, that players had avatars of other players walking around their zoo and that these avatars were specifically called out in the UI as belonging to other players.

I made the obvious conclusions and it wasn’t until I actually got through the tutorials and started my own franchise that I realized this feature doesn’t work the way I thought it did.  It looks to me like there had been an intent earlier in development to allow players to visit the zoos created by other players, but the functionality either didn’t work the way they’d hoped it would or the developers just ran out of time.  I don’t see why visiting avatars would occupy valuable UI space on the main screen like it does otherwise.

That feature now feels even more like a missed opportunity, and while you can upload zoos to the Steam Workshop for other players(including friends) to enjoy, it just doesn’t feel the same and I don’t see myself using that option much.  Maybe it’ll change and the nieces will really want to exchange zoos via workshop, but since zoos change over time, the workshop version of what a zoo used to look like doesn’t really appeal to me that much.

With all that, would I recommend the game?  I think so.  I haven’t really even gotten into how fun the game is, and it is fun.  I’m enjoying it, even as a solo experience.  My disappointment over not being able to easily walk around my nieces’ zoos is easily mitigated by the great conversations we’ve had about caring for various animals and our breeding strategies for respective conservation programs.

Our conversations have been just that enjoyable and well worth the price of the game to me.  Compounded with all the fantastic things that I think the kids are learning without realizing it, this is almost a must-buy for me.  The only thing I’d raise as a caution is that some kids are not going to enjoy this sort of game and Planet Zoo will be too complex for some younger kids who might have enjoyed it otherwise.

It’s probably true of all games, but you definitely want to weigh the kid in question with Planet Zoo.  This is a game you should want your kids to like and it’s a homerun if they do.  It’s also one that a lot of kids just won’t like, though.  The economics or the management will be frustrating, and the animals won’t be interesting enough to overcome the “work” needed to play the game for some children.  Though, I’ll probably still stock up on a few extra copies just in case.  Planet Zoo is the sort of game that I’m willing to be wrong a few times, just for how fantastic it’ll be those times I’m right.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.