In 1999, Scottish video game developer, Chris Sawyer, chased a pipe dream. He was fascinated by amusement parks, and he wanted to create a game that captured the joy of being in one. Despite the fact that there wasn’t clear market demand for it, he went on to create RollerCoaster Tycoon, coding it by hand in the arcane language of x86 assembly.

Success was massive and immediate – over 700,000 copies sold in 1999 alone, making it third-highest-grossing video game of the year. It pulled in $19.6 million. Not bad for a one-man dev team that made a game where you handle the complex day-to-day business operations of operating a theme park!

How did this game do so well on such a shoestring budget? How did it build a lasting legacy that has shaped people’s real-life careers and led developers to create modded versions of the game so that it could be played two decades later?

It’s clear with the benefit of hindsight that RollerCoaster Tycoon tapped into market demand that no one knew existed. Exploring why this is the case leads us to a fascinating study of consumer behavior in gamers.

(Plus, frankly, it is a chance to talk about a game I really loved as a child.)

What is RollerCoaster Tycoon?

In RollerCoaster Tycoon, you take on the role of an amusement park operator. Your goal is to construct a theme park from scratch. That entails everything from building rides to placing trash cans, terraforming the land to balancing the books, creating beautiful scenery to hiring someone to clean up vomit. The game requires your analytical skills to keep a complex enterprise running but also lets your creativity run wild, allowing you to create fantastic rollercoasters of which you could only dream.

Once you have your research team do the initial work, you can place rollercoasters of myriad types from wood to steel, log flumes, carousels, go-karts, Ferris wheels, haunted houses, mazes, cinemas, and thrill rides of various origins. Your park needs mechanics to fix rides, handymen to clean up messes, security guards to stave off vandalism, and entertainers to dance in silly costumes and entertain people in long queues.

Yet you must also determine how much debt to take on to finance your park. You must choose between charging for admission or charging for rides, and set each price appropriately. Even bathrooms must be carefully placed throughout the park to keep guests happy and ensure a good customer experience.

The original RollerCoaster Tycoon allows you to play up to 21 different scenarios with different objectives based on financial success, park ratings, and so on. The expansions add many more scenarios as well.

This mix of the fantastic and the practical gives RollerCoaster Tycoon much of its unique appeal, with both the original and its immediate sequel achieving broad critical acclaim. Gamers and critics alike adored the game.

But, of course, many games are great and still flounder on the market. Making a quality game is an essential part of achieving product-market fit in the video game industry, but it’s not the only part.

Aside from its high quality, I can think of five additional reasons that RollerCoaster Tycoon did well. These are the reasons why RollerCoaster Tycoon managed to sell so many copies and make so much money off of what was essentially word of mouth.

1. RollerCoaster Tycoon was a technical marvel.

At the time that RollerCoaster Tycoon came out, video games were still struggling to transition into 3-D. You have to keep in mind that in 1998, only 42% of American households had a computer. While technology in 1999 was by no means crude, it was not nearly as well-developed, polished, or omnipresent as it is today (95.2% of US households have at least one computer today).

RollerCoaster Tycoon may not look impressive to modern eyes, but you have to consider how complex the game was compared to its peers. Thousands of amusement park goers could be in the park, at the same time, going in their own directions, thinking their own thoughts. Multiple rides could be going along bespoke tracks all at the same time. Different music tracks and sound effects could play overlapping with one another as you go through the park, creating a general atmospheric din that really immersed gamers in the environment.

The only way this was possible was to write it in x86 assembly code, which is a notoriously complicated programming language. Where languages like C++ and Java allow you to create variables that store different data values, x86 assembly requires the programmer to manually assign data to actual physical memory locations in a hard drive. To write in x86 assembly code is to write a program exponentially larger than what you’d find in another language.

A YouTube commenter by the name Ben Covington said it best:

As a software developer, a good analogy is that high level programming languages are like building with duplo legos, and low level assembly is like plastic-injection-moudling your own toys. One will be full of air pockets because you’re building with bricks (the higher level the language, the more air holes, c++ is probably more like regular legos, java is probably more like those massive “bigger than duplo” generic blocks), the other will be perfectly suited to exactly what you need… IF you can do it.

Because the game was written in x86 assembly, the program didn’t have to be translated from something human-readable to something machine-readable. That means it used every conceivable scrap of computing power to run the game with scalpel-like precision. Hence even computers on the lousier end of what was available in 1999 could run this super complex game without lag.

Is it the only game to ever be written in x86 assembly? Absolutely not – that was actually the most common way to do it prior to the mid-1990s. Was it the only game to be written in x86 assembly by a single developer? No, even that was still done from time to time. Was it the only game of this level of complexity to be written in x86 assembly by a single dev? The answer, quite possibly, is yes.

Now all of this said, the fact that RollerCoaster Tycoon was written in x86 assembly code is not a selling point alone. Nobody really cares about that when they’re playing the game, save for a few computer science nerds. But they did care about the fact that RollerCoaster Tycoon could do things that games made in C++ or Java couldn’t, even if they didn’t know why.

In short, using assembly code allowed RollerCoaster Tycoon to make a game that was stunningly immersive and complex for its time. And it did so with very little lag. Even modern games can seldom boast of that when they’re played on regular home desktop PCs. But RollerCoaster Tycoon would run just fine on a machine made for Microsoft Office and Netscape, making it very accessible as well.

2. RollerCoaster Tycoon tapped into latent demand for sandbox games.

Sandbox games are video games where players are given a lot of creativity and the power to do what they want. There may or may not be objectives in a sandbox game. RollerCoaster Tycoon technically has objectives, but you can mostly ignore them and have fun.

Sandbox games had existed for a while before RollerCoaster Tycoon. After all, SimCity came out all the way back in 1989. But it wasn’t until the 21st century that sandbox games as we knew them would come out. RollerCoaster Tycoon, arguably, started that transition.

RollerCoaster Tycoon predates most popular sandbox games. The Sims didn’t come out until 2000. Grand Theft Auto III came out later, then Roblox, and Minecraft. These days, we take it for granted that sandbox games are popular, but even 20 short years ago, they were a niche. Games made you go through predefined levels. Being able to forge you own path was a wild and thrilling concept.

Because players has the ability to make their parks as they saw fit, and even develop their own rides, people felt like they could connect emotionally with their parks. They wanted to share them with their friends more than a decade before your annoying kid brother (or marketing consultant) insisted on showing you their Minecraft world.

As was evidenced by the explosion of sandbox games after RollerCoaster Tycoon, the developer stumbled across latent demand that no one knew existed. He was, in that regard, quite lucky. Typically, companies will make sure there is demand before creating a product. In this case, the product was made and then demand just happened to be there.

3. RollerCoaster Tycoon was really challenging, but also approachable and joyful.

RollerCoaster Tycoon had this really weird ability to juggle different audiences. I played it as a 7- or 8-year-old kid and loved that I could create roller coasters and make my own parks. I didn’t understand all the complex economics in the game – I just knew I could create and have fun.

However, playing it again as an older gamer, and having seen people play it online, RollerCoaster Tycoon is actually a really crunchy and complicated business simulator. With my business knowledge now, I was able to create parks that could turn an ROI really quickly. I could make coasters with a minimum of materials and charge a maximum of admissions. I learned to hire the optimal amount of handymen to keep the park clean and the optimal amount of mechanics to keep rides operational. More dedicated players even give their staff predefined paths to walk so that effort is not duplicated among their staff.

It’s really rare to find a game that accommodates kids and hardcore gamers alike. Even SimCity, whose third and fourth iterations I enjoyed as a child, were quite off-putting at times because it was just so hard to manage a city. I never had that problem with RollerCoaster Tycoon, though I did often fail. It just didn’t feel like a failure. How could it feel like a failure when I was making awesome rides and hearing people laugh with joy?

4. The creator truly loved the subject.

To call love the secret ingredient in a business’s success is to use a cliche that has often been derided for being lazy analysis. But underneath many cliches, there is an essential truth, and RollerCoaster Tycoon is a great example of how loving what you do can lead to financial success.

RollerCoaster Tycoon is successful in large part because of its joyful atmosphere and commitment to dropping players in a world that feels busy and lived-in. This is because the developer himself really loved amusement parks. It’s said that Chris Sawyer had ridden on over 700 coasters prior to the development of the game, and undoubtedly must have visited dozens if not hundreds of amusement parks in order for this to be true.

In fact, in this short interview, you can hear his passion in his voice and you can see it in his body language. This is not something that can be easily faked.

Sawyer’s earnest love of amusement parks allowed him to understand them well enough to recreate the atmosphere in the game. You can see it in the little touches that feel so authentic.

Authenticity is in the joyful cacophony of coasters, laughter, and carnival music that blend with one another. You can see the research in the endless options available for decorating the park, all of which have been drawn from real inspiration. The guidebook is well over 60 pages and regularly references real-life amusement parks. His love of amusement parks is even in the parkgoers who complain that food is super expensive or that they need to go to the bathroom, both of which are very real problems to have in an amusement park.

Had he not had such a love of amusement parks, the economic simulation and coaster design would have still made for a very innovative game. But the immersion wouldn’t be there, and the game would not have quite inspired so many people to spread the good word about the wonderful game. Sales would have no doubt suffered if he simply phoned it in.

5. It was 1999, and word of mouth was increasingly being supercharged by nascent internet technology.

In 1999, roughly one-quarter of American households had access to the internet. This number continued to rise quickly as the years went on, but the point is that internet use was starting to reach a critical mass. People had the ability to use email, AIM, and forums to share their RollerCoaster Tycoon builds. A community started to build online in a way that wasn’t even practical two or three years prior.

RollerCoaster Tycoon, in that sense, got lucky again. It was a great game and a technical marvel with broad appeal. But the effectiveness with which it tapped into latent demand and the rapidly changing media environment that allowed people to share their park builds was pure luck. This pure luck allowed a great game that could have otherwise languished in obscurity to build a cult following at a speed that was rarely seen before.

How RollerCoaster Tycoon changed video games and built an enduring legacy

The modern video game landscape is still to this day influenced by RollerCoaster Tycoon. We could primarily see this happen in the intense surge of “tycoon games” that followed. Zoo Tycoon. Mall Tycoon. Everything you could imagine became a tycoon game. This, in turn, eventually turned into a love of sandbox games, many of which are now the most popular video games of all time.

The game itself saw two sequels – the absolutely beloved RollerCoaster Tycoon 2, also created by Chris Sawyer. RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 was created by Atari with Sawyer in a consulting role. Both are great games and both were loved at the time. RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 is generally considered the better of the two because it seldom has bugs or issues, whereas RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 – notably not built by Sawyer in x86 assembly – had lots of issues (but also tons of charm).

The franchise lay dormant for several years before getting milled out by studios for crappy mobile versions of the game. Fans tend to pretend these don’t exist, and I honestly can’t blame them – they’re crass cash grabs with micro-transactions, long wait timers, and minimal features.

The original two games still have a pretty sizable fanbase, although they have understandably tapered off in popularity due to, well, the inexorable passage of time.

But not as much as you would think. Case in point, you can still see the Steam downloads getting positive reviews to this day. Is this game series a big hit on Twitch? Not really, but people still love it and play it.

Perhaps most extraordinary is that an open-source fan version of the game known as OpenRCT2 was made by lovers of the original two games. Written in C language, developers got together to fix bugs and issues present in the original games (not that there were not many). They also added some nice features such as multiplayer support, cheat codes, the ability to remove height clearance restrictions, high-definition support, and a true sandbox mode.

Video games from the 1990s generally aged like milk. Only the truly standout ones like Super Mario 64 even get any attention these days anyway (and in Mario’s case, that’s because of glitches, speed runs, and conspiracy theories). That people loved the original RollerCoaster Tycoon games enough to rebuild the code and fix longstanding problems is a testament to just how deeply these games impacted many gamers.

When it comes to small indie projects, what better measure of cultural success is there than that?

Final Thoughts

RollerCoaster Tycoon is a lovely game that succeeded because it was a wonderful work of craftsmanship published at the right time to meet unmet demand. Partly on purpose and partly on accident, it happened to have a great product-market fit for gamers who didn’t even know they wanted a sandbox game.

While I would advise you to do market research before embarking on a big project, I still think there’s a lot to learn from Chris Sawyer and this game. Prototype until you make something people love. Take pride in your work and do it well for its own sake. Breathe a little bit of individuality into it.

And then, perhaps, people will talk about your work 23 years later too.