Tropico 6, the city/nation-builder which launched on PC back in March, is encroaching on consoles with an Xbox Game Preview version available now. Three months into the new game’s lifespan, developers are comfortable that the changes they’ve introduced are stable and play well with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One this fall.
Tropico 6 gathered mostly positive reviews even if it’s largely seen as a safely played follow-up, either refining or resurrecting elements that worked in the past. That obscures some of the new under-the-hood systems actually at work in the game — most notably the “fully simulated” lives of the populace, which took an extra two months of development to get right.
In that light, the big success of Tropico 6 may be that the risks of changing the day-to-day routines and mundane behaviors of individual Tropicans paid off by not breaking the larger game.
“At this point, I think it has been proven to be a pleasant experience for long-term Tropico fans, but as well for people who are new to the genre,” Limbic Entertainment’s Mark Mussler, the game’s lead level designer, told me in a state-of-the-union recap from Los Angeles. “We’ve seen positive reactions from both kinds of player groups.”
What some fans seem to be scratching their heads over, however, is the archipelago — a primary distinction of Tropico 6 and a major departure from how past games handled the starting map. Players now carry out narrative missions or play in a sandbox of multiple islands, instead of just one, which is topologically more befitting a Caribbean or South Pacific nation. In the past, players worked with a single landmass.
Players seem to dig the concept, Mussler said, but it does make land use and expansion a little more challenging — particularly for industries that require a lot of space.
“People like to spend a lot of time and build a city that is not scattered, but is more like a metropolis,” Mussler said. “In Tropico 6, all of the mission maps are available as sandbox maps. But a lot of players jump into the sandbox mode directly, and if they go to one of the mission maps, they’re commonly running into situations where it feels rather cramped.”
Mussler said that analysis of Tropico 6’s telemetry shows the game’s most dedicated players preferring randomly generated maps where they set as large a main landmass as possible. With that in hand, Limbic is working on Tropico 6’s planned DLC with an eye toward starting players in bigger spaces with plenty of room to grow.
“We’ll stick to the archipelago approach, but we’ve put a bit more emphasis on providing islands with more building space,” Mussler said.
Overall, Tropico 6 published its fifth title update just yesterday, and Limbic will start discussing its premium DLC plans soon, with an eye to delivering the first new modules later this summer. The previous Tropico had a dozen premium expansions after release, offering new buildings, mission scenarios, maps, and assorted oddities. Mussler said that the game has been designed from day one with an eye to how the user interface and other features would have to work on a console. A keyboard and mouse is still a more efficient way to play a city-builder, but Mussler says they haven’t introduced things in Tropico 6 that lose their appeal when handled with a gamepad.
In my time with Tropico (coming to the game with Tropico 5, realizing that hardcore fans have favorite editions that aren’t usually the current one) I’ve found the “dictator simulator” term to be a fun conversation starter but a little reductive. It’s more a lesson in watching a simple vision get more bent out of shape by different constituencies, the more successful you are.
Some of the worst missteps I make are when I bring down the iron fist out of frustration, or even spite. With Tropico 6’s inhabitants, you can make enemies that last generations, impervious to all kinds of apologies and favor-doings later. And, of course, the biggest threat remains my own restive military tossing me out on my keister.
Tropico 6 is also just a good pastime game, and if you’re a people watcher, it’s better than ever. The full simulation of Tropicans’ lives could have really gone wrong — and indeed, Limbic Entertainment delayed the game’s launch to tighten down their pathing and behavior. But it works. I like clicking on one of my subjects, happy or un, following them through their workday, tailing them if they hang out with agitators, trying to build a picture of what they want and if not getting it will cause me trouble. Mussler agreed; it was nice to feel like I was playing his game the right way.
“What’s really interesting to show other people, by selecting an individual agent, that they have certain needs and happiness values that they want to fulfill,” Mussler mused. “Then going step by step with them, going to a restaurant to see him having a beer; then once he leaves the bar, his happiness jumps up. Observing that is a lot of fun. It makes it all really interesting and believable.”