Not a lot can be said without spoiling the fun of playing Srdjan Susnic's entry into our Casual Gameplay Design Competition #8. What you should know is that ZOO Director is a truly traditional sandbox gameplay experience. Your aim is to rise above the rank of humble Zoo Novice to claim the glorious title of Zoo Director by creating and maintaining your very own zoo. Sounds simple, but this quirky little game quickly reveals its challenges.
You are responsible for figuring out which terrain and which food source suits each animal, and in some cases how the animals feed. You'll also need to work on cage size to suit each of Susnic's critters, and that's where the true sandbox experience comes into play; be prepared to create, play and experiment as you build your zoo.
Upon hitting the in-game play button you'll be faced with a screen that looks somewhat pixelated. No, not a graphics card problem, this is your piece of land with all its various terrains for you to transform. Use your mouse to select the terrains, cage walls, animals and food. You'll also need to create a path for visitors to meander through and scrutinise your zoo. The popularity of your zoo is based on their opinions, and they're a tough crowd to please. Create your cages, make sure your animals have room to move, food and good company. You can monitor each creature's condition by keeping an eye on their levels of senility, hunger and solitude. There is a save feature, which is accomplished by giving you some code to copy and paste into a text editor. And yes, you can switch the melodious-but-only-for-so-long-midi-style music off.
Susnic has created a really quite unique game, aiming for a traditional sandbox experience. How you create your zoo is entirely up to you, you have the freedom to select cage-sizes and which animals you'd like to care for. The challenge here lies in matching terrains and food sources to your animals, and endeavouring to keep them and the zoo visitors as content as possible. Transforming the terrain one square at a time can be tedious so a click 'n' drag function might have been helpful for those less patient gamers, but I did experience some level of satisfaction upon completing each cage. There is a tutorial accessible from the main menu, which can be really helpful, especially after an initial dive-in-head-first approach to the game.
Analysis: Unfortunately, Susnic's critters are a little fragile; the animals expire rather quickly from senility if their cages are too small. However, too large a cage can leave its occupants lost and wandering and unable to find their mates, resulting in death by solitude. Like any Zoo Director, you learn the needs of each animal and how to balance them. An inelegant "raspberry" sound notifies you when an animal dies, which can be comical during a spate of expirations, but frustrating when you need to locate the demised for burial. A dead animal will have literally turned its toes up, but a simple colour change indicating when an animal has passed would have made it easier to locate. It would also be nice to have the option to replace an animal when it is in serious decline, so as to prevent the zoo visitors experiencing trauma at having to witness such deaths and thereby lowering the popularity of your zoo.
Experimenting and creating your zoo-scape would have to be the most fun part of playing. Once you've used up all the land space, you may need to make modifications to improve your zoo and keep the crowds happy. Then it's a matter of maintaining your zoo and watching as its popularity rises and falls. Frankly, the rank of Zoo Director seems painfully difficult to attain. There's no budget limit to creating your zoo, so the existence of a dollar figure for how much you've invested in your zoo seems a little pointless.
However, watching the animals interact with their environments, listening to the roars of approval from the visiting crowds, and generally just getting in there and trying absolutely everything out is what really makes this game. There are oddly satisfying moments when you successfully integrate an animal with its suitable terrain and food source, and especially when you see a leap in your zoo's popularity. Cute sound effects, charming little graphics and possibly the closest thing to experiencing zoo management from your ergonomically-sound computer chair are definitely worth checking out. You never know, you might be exploring, playing, experimenting and creating in your zoo longer than you think...
Note: For those who have already played ZOO Director, Srdjan Susnic has uploaded an updated version of the game minus the bugs, and, in response to the feedback he received during CGDC8, he has graciously adapted the game to be more intuitive in terms of feeding and terrain elements. Enjoy :)