Developer interview & impressions: Planet Zoo – Conservation Pack

We’ve been enjoying Planet Zoo and sharing our thoughts on it ever since its initial release in 2019, so we’re thrilled to be able to share a very special early look at its latest expansion with you. Join us as we explore the conversation pack and have a chat with two of the developers behind the game – game designer Kilian Schmitt art director Marc Cox.

After a series of expansion packs that focused on geographical areas of the world, the Conservation Pack focuses our attention on another role that zoos have in the animal kingdom: caring for species that are in very fragile state, sometimes even on the brink of disappearing forever. A challenge that spans all corners of the globe, it’s a pack that brings together the Przewalski’s horse, the amur leopard, the scimitar-horned oryx, the siamang, and the axolotl.

What we’ve enjoyed about playing with these animals isn’t just that their rarity makes them real crowd-pleasers, but also that you can use the included scenery elements to also add touches of sustainability to other parts of your (existing or new) zoo, sending a message through the use of eco-friendly materials and crops. These elements are at the forefront of a new scenario-driven campaign as well – one which puts you in charge of a wildlife orphanage where conservation and running a sustainable zoo is your key to success, as well as an insightful journey in and of itself.

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We wondered how the developers approached these topics during the making of the new expansion too, so we had Kilian Schmitt (Game Designer) Marc Cox (Art Director) fill us in on their perspective – which we’re sharing with you below.

Planet Zoo’s previous expansions mostly focused on geographical regions in the world. How did the idea to focus on conservation come about?

Kilian: Conservation is an important element of Planet Zoo, and with this pack we wanted to further highlight the important work zoos do for species survival. We always choose animals with their populations in zoos, conservation status, popularity and unique behaviours and animations in mind. Out of the pool of eligible animals for the Conservation pack we explored, these five animals were the perfect fit for our criteria: these species are all either at the brink of extinction or considered extinct in the wild, and are managing a comeback thanks to the work of zoo breeding programmes.

What can you tell us about the process of digitizing animals for Planet Zoo?

Kilian: It’s really important to us that we’re representing each animal in a way that feels authentic to their real-world counterparts. The process of designing an animal from conception to release goes through pretty much all departments of the team. We start by making a selection of animals from a wider pool that fits the theme, which are then researched with the help of external researchers and zoos. The model is then created by the character team, rigged by our riggers, and then the animation team works on getting all of its animations and interactions set up. Unique behaviours are scoped into a system that can be supported by the game, which is then coded by the code team. Towards the end of the process, when all animations and behaviours are ready, the sound designers apply and tailor their researched and prepared assets to the animal. Throughout this entire process, we do reviews of model and animations to ensure they’re ready for launch. Some animals or behaviours are certainly trickier than others, which is always a great opportunity to push our systems and bring something exciting to the game. In the Conservation Pack, the Siamang was an interesting animal to work on, with a unique locomotion set, its inflating throat sack, and our new brachiation and animal chorus features.

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With such a diverse roster of animals now available for Planet Zoo, which have become some of the favourites among the development team?

Kilian: There are several favourites in the development team – Berni, our scenery lead enjoys flamingos (because they’re pink), Kai, one of our animators, loves all things seals as their body shape is so unique and expressive to animate. And of course, we are all fascinated by the new Conservation Pack animals!

What kind of outside expertise goes into the creation of a pack like this?

Kilian: We often collaborate with zoos and external researchers to ensure our information is as accurate as possible, and will even visit zoos to get some of our own capture to use as animation and sound references so that the animals feel realistic for the player. For example, we visited Shepreth Wildlife Park in Cambridge to record the Capybara for our previous DLC, the Wetlands Animal Pack.

Conservation programs usually transcend a single zoo – how is this reflected in the game?

Kilian: In Planet Zoo’s franchise game mode, players are globally connected to the same animal market, where they can list and obtain animals from other players using the game’s ‘conservation credits’ currency, which is gained by releasing animals to the wild or raising the park’s conservation rating. This simulates the global network of breeding programmes zoos have where they exchange and manage animals and populations.

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Seeing endangered and rare animals in a zoo often results in a different visitor experience. How can you recreate this as a player?

Kilian: In order to make sure that their zoos are successful and attractive to guests, players should definitely ensure guests are happy and educated about the animals they are seeing. In update 1.10, launching alongside the Conservation Pack, we are adding new education stations, which adds a new way for guests to learn about animals and nature. The rarity of the animals will also lead higher guest numbers to visit a zoo, which can also challenge the existing infrastructure of the park.

Content packs for Planet Zoo usually come with a range of scenery pieces. How was the process to select and create these different this time?

Marc: Our focus for this pack was very much geared around the importance of not only animals but their environments, since conservation and sustainability go hand-in-hand. In contrast to previous packs, which have focused on specific regions and habitats, these are very much global issues, and so we wanted to include items which could work within a range of settings.

Including sustainable food production props, for example, felt like a natural choice. Players can add tomatoes, carrots and potatoes to their zoo designs, alongside gardening tool props, which allows them to create the look of a self-sufficient zoo. Meadow flowers also carry a powerful message about pollination, biodiversity, and fighting habitat loss, all of which are integral to conservation. Another great example of the poignant message of the DLC is the gutter and water collection set which again remind us of the importance of water conservation while providing a hugely useful set of scenery pieces that add a real ‘behind the scenes’ look to players’ zoos.

What are some of the other exciting new features players can look forward to?

Kilian: As with every release, we have a number of features and improvements lined up for this update, including: education stations for new ways to raise guests’ education and happiness; a new animal chorus behaviour that prompts animals of eligible species to perform calls together including the Siamang, Timber Wolf and Arctic Wolf; animal sniffing behaviour, allowing them to react to changes in their environment; and more! There are several additional quality of life improvements to discover, such as smaller habitat gates and improved guest group behaviour.

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