How Planet Zoo Works: Can a video game really compare to a real zoo?

Hello, I’m Kinglink and today we’re going to talk about How Planet Zoo Works.

Planet Zoo is another game from Frontier Developments, the same company that previously released Planet Coaster and Jurassic World Evolution. In Planet Zoo you own and operate zoos and try to achieve certain goals. There’s a variety of modes including a storyline following a couple of characters, a franchise mode that allows you to go online with your zoo and more.

Of course, I’m publishing this video on April Fools Day, I’m going to be upfront about this. I am not a fan of this day, mostly because there’s a huge difference between a great prank and what normally is done on April First. This is a special video for this day, but not intended as a prank.

In this series I tend to compare and contrast two or more games as best I can. Let’s try something different. I chose Planet Zoo because I am a Zoo aficionado, so it seems only right, to compare it to my local Zoo. I have some bad news for Planet Zoo, my local zoo is the world-famous San Diego Zoo and Safari Park and that’s going to be rough, and I’ve personally been a member of this zoo since 2013 and I’m very proud of supporting them.

If you don’t know, the San Diego Zoo is incredible, it’s often one of the top-rated zoos in the world, they have a massive amount of conservation programs and efforts across the globe and an amazing collection.

So yes, for April Fools Day, we’ll give an honest and fair comparison of Planet Zoo … against a real zoo. This sounds ludicrous, it is but we’re going to have fun with it and maybe we’ll learn something too. I will be taking a little step back from game design, and look more at how they’ve adapted the idea of running a zoo into the game.

Just a note, the footage of the San Diego Zoo is a little rough. I shot all of it and I will be honest, I’ve never really practiced being a filmographer which should be obvious from the footage. I had planned on going to the zoo multiple times over March, sadly San Diego Zoo was shut down on March 16th, I rushed and tried to get all the footage I would have needed for this video on that last weekend. It’s a bit rough, but we do what we can with what we have. Damn you Coronavirus.

I also might show unrelated animals at some point, such as a croc instead of a hippo. I know what animal I’m talking about but I have enough interesting footage that I’m going to share as much as I can.

So let’s get started, in Planet Zoo you’re able to build a zoo as you wish and can choose from 80 species of animals to purchase, exhibit, and potentially breed. You’re able to do this off an animal market that is available in the game and lets you purchase animals as you look at their genetics.

I want to talk about how factual many of these features are. The first thing I want to call out is that the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park trumps that number of eighty species with over 650 species on display, not to mention the amazing botanical garden that it hasas well.

But as for the animal market, this is somewhat similar to real life. Zoos work with other zoos to maintain the species using what’s known as Species Survival Plans, as well as other plans. And they have a list of animals in what’s known as a Studbook, and yes that is the actual name of these books. These books create a genealogy list and the organizations that run the Species Survival Plans will at times shuffle and move animals between zoos.

I was able to get my hands on a European Studbook, as well as an American Species Survival Plan with both of these being for the river hippopotamus. I’ll be putting them on the screen but it seems that at least the American studbooks are harder to find, sadly, but I just wanted to show that there is some validity to this.

Are these animals bought and sold with money? I’m pretty sure that the answer is absolutely not, at least not as a direct purchase I’m sure some zoo at some point has bought an animal before, but the point is with Species Survival Plans the idea is to bring genetic diversity to the species through interconnected work with many zoos. You can consider it a listing service that zoos essentially have and a way to get new animals, making it a market in Planet Zoo is probably fine for the game.

Speaking of which, that’s the beginning of a life cycle. What about the other side when your zoo has entirely too many animals, that causes a lot of problems in Planet Zoo. What’s a player to do? You can release animals back to the wild and earn conservation points for it. That’s just fiction, right?

Actually, Planet Zoo has some basis in reality in this area too. About 40 programs that the San Diego Zoo participated in have worked to remove animals from the endangered list. That includes the Californian Condor which is one of their major success stories and kudos to them. They also were participating in the Giant Pandas survival program, and Giants Pandas have been removed from the endangered list in 2016. Unfortunately, I don’t have footage of those Pandas because San Diego Zoo’s Giant Pandas have been returned to China last year in 2019, but it does show that some animals will be released to the public.

Now, are random animals just returned to the wild? No, not exactly, there’s a lot that goes into releasing even one animal, but we’ll have to remember that Planet Zoo is a game, not necessarily perfectly accurate to real life.

So Planet Zoo is doing well, but let’s get to something that Planet Zoo doesn’t do well, mating. So the fact is, I’m just going to say it. I like watching animals have sex. That sounds crass, but honestly, it’s fascinating to watch and what you’re seeing on screen is… perhaps mating. I’m just going to say that’s not like any mating I’ve seen, and I’ve been blessed with being able to see several animals …going at it.

I was lucky enough to catch this video. I’m pretty sure this is a form of sex for penguins. I then proceeded to see way too much about that while researching this. So yes, Planet Zoo was never going to have sex, and I’ll be honest, I’m a little sad because it’s both a natural and important part of reproduction. In Planet Zoo, the gestation period of many of these animals feels fast mostly due to days only lasting seconds. However looking deeper, I believe they are accurate. A lot of animals will drop quickly and in large numbers. It appears the game is true to litter sizes and gestation periods.

On the other hand, in real life just because 10 babies are born, not all will reach maturity, that’s just a sad fact of nature, even in the best of times and the best zoo. There’s a reason animals have evolved to have large litters because some might not make it. That’s not part of Planet Zoo, so often your animals will quickly be born and players will run out of space. Again I can appreciate making this a game, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I would have prefered something a little more PG-13. Full-on sex might be too much, but we’ve seen Woohoos in Sims and Dance Mating in Viva Pinata before.

What about the animals in the game? Most animals in Planet Zoo are well animated and look decent. Decent being the keyword. While watching one or two animals works well, watching multiple breaks the illusion for me, and the animals don’t exactly move realistically.

Part of this problem is likely because I go to the zoo a lot. I can tell you how a giraffe moves, or an elephant and how they act. For instance the Simians, which are the apes, the orangutans, and even the mandrills are freaking intelligent. They have significant head movement when they move around, eat and think. They aren’t idle, and when they are sitting around you still see some thought pattern as they focus on a topic.

This is an inherent problem with video games, it’s hard to make humans look good and interesting as something to look at. The more people and animals you have to render in one scene, the less time you can spend on each character to get something new and unique.

The simple math of game development is to take every object in the game, animate it and keep that time limit under 16 milliseconds or 33 milliseconds for 60 fps or 30 fps. That’s a very fast version of this idea and far too simplistic but should make sense. This is why Kinectimals on the Xbox 360 still looks better than Planet Zoo, they can devote the entire game to rendering a couple of animals, where Planet Zoo needs to work with 10, 20, even 100 animals in a single scene.

What about animals, do they interact with each other well? In Planet Zoo if the zoo is overcrowded eventually some of these animals do get a little aggressive with each other looking for dominance of the pack and animals can get injured. Dominance struggles happen, two animals fight, and fans get unhappy. Is that real?

The fact is yes, and no. Dominance structures in Planet Zoos are played up, and in real life, it doesn’t happen that often in zoos because they heavily plan to avoid it. But that doesn’t mean there’s not aggression in some animals and some play fighting will happen.

Let’s stick with lions and look at a couple of facts that Planet Zoo doesn’t get right. Prides of lions are mostly female dominated, most prides of lions have all the females be related, and don’t accept outsiders that easily. At the San Diego Safari Park right now there is Izu and his sister Etosha. Etosha used to be with M’bari, who has recently passed, but now is with her Brother. However, Etosha isn’t exactly accepted by Izu’s pride of Oshana and Mina, because she’s not related to them or that she is related to Izu.

Also, Izu has helped produce a LOT of lion cubs over the years. So many so that his son Ernest and an unrelated lion Miss Ellen will not be having children because apparently, Izu’s seed has spread so far they don’t want to add more genetic diversity from Ernest. That should be Ernest and Miss Ellen having a little spat there on the screen.

Did I bring this up just so I can go into the Soap Opera lifestyles of the San Diego Lions? …. Yes. Yes, I did.

But also prides of lions can have more than one adult male in it, and Planet Zoo tends to miss out on that, as well as missing out on the fact the females should be related and potentially in charge.

Let’s turn our eyes back to Planet Zoo. We can nitpick many things about the graphics, especially when animal models clip into each other and the lifestyle of the animals, but what about the gameplay?

A big piece of the gameplay in Planet Zoo is caring for the welfare of the animals, this can be done through working on the size of habitats, the socializing of animals with their kind, the food they eat and the toys they use for enrichment. This is ludicrous though, toys?

Again, Planet Zoo isn’t that far off, a big part of caring for animals and keeping them active in habitats is enrichment toys. Just like you give your dog a couple treats in a ball that he has to shake out, animals get these too as these monkeys are clearly showing. They have to take the food and shake it out.

This is a way to engage the animals and force them to figure out the toys to get treats. Just giving them food isn’t enough but making them work for the food will produce better results for the animals, and this may include anything from a toy you might find at the pet store to slow feeders or even handcrafted items.

Yet, there is one thing wrong with Planet Zoo’s enrichment. Enrichment isn’t just giving them a toy but challenging them. If I gave you a Rubik cube and made you solve it once a day for a treat, you’ll eventually get pretty good at solving Rubik’s Cubes to the point it becomes a habit. But in wildlife, animals that become specialized at one thing is a rarity, though there are cases, for instance, bears who can open food chests or raccoons that can open dumpsters. In both cases, this is a negative for both animals and humans.

So while enrichment items are used, there is a lot of planned variety in their use to the point that they can change daily. Animals might be given boxes to shake food out of, and then the next day food is hidden in a hole. The keepers often will hide food in different places, in the trunk of a tree for polar bears, putting a watermelon on a floating raft, or hanging meat from a high hook. This is all considered enrichment. Scents are used to engage different parts of an animal and more.

But Planet Zoo doesn’t get this fully right because in Planet Zoo as long as the items are refreshed frequently that’s good enough. There’s no required variety for the animals and ultimately it’s just a feature as part of the habitat. In actual conservation programs, the idea is to get the animal to have variety in their schedule. Still, many of the enrichment items in Planet Zoo are used by zoos, so it is true, but it’s also a much bigger production than Planet Zoo makes it.

I feel like I have to say Planet Zoo kind of misses the mark in this.

Speaking of enrichment, let’s talk about a big issue with Planet Zoo, what’s one thing a keeper should never do but you are seeing on the screen right now? The answer: walk directly into a cage with a dangerous animal, and while some people will immediately think of lions or tigers, almost any animal can be dangerous.

I discussed this with a keeper and she said the rule was not to be in the cage with any animal with sharp teeth, she would never be in the cage with the fossa that I’m showing you. If you’ve never seen a fossa, it’s there in the background, it’s like a weasel or a cat. She is over twenty times the size of the fossa, but she’s not going in there. So don’t pretend you’re Joe Exotic.

You can also see here, that the zoo is doing some work on the elephant area, and if you look in the background, you can see the elephants, in another paddock. These are simple rules to keep the animals and keepers both safe.

Sometimes keepers will enter specific enclosures to feed animals. Sometimes keepers can hand-feed animals such as the Galapagos tortoises. But this is specific to the animal, the animals may also show signs which will have the keeper immediately leave the area (such as being in heat or more likely the male version of heat called rut), though this is quite rare and they try to avoid entering during this time.

Some certain animals in specific exhibits can even be fed by guests of the zoos, or people can get close encounters with. Here is a giraffe being fed as part of a tour and it’s a rather cool experience, but still precautions are being made to limit the danger to both the animals and people involved in this.

In Planet Zoo, seeing a keeper just walk into an enclosure with an elephant, a tiger, a bear, or so on, just makes me cringe. Heck just having a single door to get into an enclosure is not enough. Speaking of, the veterinarians usually examine the animals through cages and most animals will be trained to make this easier. In rare cases, the vet will anesthetize an animal for surgery, which also happens here, but this is again a very rare exception.

Oh, and being in the cage with a Hippo. Hell no.

But oh hippos, how I love thee. So my favorite animal is any animal at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, but if I had to choose one. It’s going to be my friend the hippo, and… ok, we’re going to dive into a few more potentially nit-picky things here.

First, Hippos tend not to move a lot, and in fact will spend most of their day and eventually live in water, like 16 hours or so. They are very sedentary.

They also tend to require large amounts of land, and most zoos keep only a breeding pair, not a large pack that Planet Zoo requires for social reasons. Oh and there’s a baby… well, that’s one thing Planet Zoo has on San Diego Zoo, hippo babies.

Come on guys, of course not. The San Diego Zoo’s current pair of Hippos, Otis and Funami, have had 9 babies at the San Diego Zoo, and yes I’m on a first-name basis with the hippos as well as so many other animals. Funami has had 13 babies in total. She just had a new one, its name is… I’ll try this, Amahle. I’ll be honest, I’m not 100 percent sure even with that pronunciation guide. Though I will say that Planet Zoo does tend to name these babies ethnically depending on where the animals originated from on the planet, which I heavily approve of so great job there, Planet Zoo.

And while I know Fiona from the Cincinnati Zoo was the internet’s darling for a long time, she had nothing on Tony, Funami’s last baby and a real cutie as well.

The fact is I’ve seen three baby hippos at the San Diego Zoo and they’re all adorable, which brings me to the next point. Babies in Planet Zoo are not handled well. No sex, no birth, ok. I don’t know how you’d get a hippo onto an Ob/Gyn’s table in the first place, but even ignoring that, the baby and mom don’t spend much time next to each other in Planet Zoo.

Hippos and elephants are extremely close to their parents at least from my observations. Mom is always there with the baby both to nurse and protect. Even when a hippo mom eventually goes back into the water, she’ll have to lift her baby out of the water with her nose every minute or so because hippos don’t swim.

There are a few flaws with this in Planet Zoo, hippos don’t go into the water that often, they move around quite a bit, and babies aren’t heavily watched. This distance is no common for many animals who keep their babies close or even on them in the case of some simians as well as kangaroos, and in Planet Zoo… yeah, it’s not great. There appears to be a tethering but it’s far further than it would be in the wild.

That’s a lot of what I wanted to talk about with Planet Zoo, though there’s probably another hour or two I could spend on both Planet Zoo and the San Diego Zoo. There’s a huge amount of gameplay systems that are focused on just micromanaging the zoo, food, toilets, staff rooms, food prep and more.

Really I wanted to look at the realism of Planet Zoo vs a real zoo, and… I’m going to be honest, Planet Zoo does a pretty good job with understanding that it’s a game. I also wanted to show off my zoo and cute animals, which I think I have.

Although Planet Zoo does make some mistakes and after examining it I can honestly say much of this is where game design meets realism. Running a real zoo would suck. It is hard work and just having one or two in-depth exhibits would be enough for a full game. It also probably wouldn’t appeal to many people other than me.

When you develop a game you have to make decisions on what to do. A single bullet can kill a person, but doing that in a game as a player character would mean every bullet is a risk of death. On the other hand, car physics have to be somewhat realistic to at least feel right, even in over the top games like Burnout Paradise. So balancing both realism and fun is an important act and honest… Planet Zoo does a far better job then I might have expected.

Planet Zoo is a fun, entertaining, and well-designed game. There are also a lot of nitpicky issues I can call out on Planet Zoo outside of realism. The biggest one for me so far is that the UI can be weak, especially having to place animals in habitats before you can judge the animal’s welfare in that habitat. But these are minor issues, much like Planet Coaster. If you want to run a Zoo, Planet Zoo does that job and does it well. Even my daughter enjoys playing it in small bursts and she doesn’t play many games.

But let’s ask one last question, was this comparison fair? We’re talking about a 60 dollar game, and the answer is, yes I think it’s fair. A day ticket to the San Diego Zoo is about 60 dollars, and I’d highly recommend considering purchasing an Annual pass to any visitors as it’ll pay for itself for anyone who goes to the Zoo or Safari Park twice and is a great cause. But a visit to the San Diego Zoo for a single person is about the same price as Planet Zoo, and as great as Planet Zoo is, I probably use my Zoo pass more in a year.

But with Coronavirus quarantining us, I am limited to just daily feeds from the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, and I’ve been watching those, but the good news is if I need more animal goodness, I can always turn to Planet Zoo and design my own home for many of these animals.

I also should point out while researching for this, I found this placard which illustrates I’m not the only person who has tied the San Diego Zoo with Planet Zoo one of the daily feeds recently was sponsored by Planet Zoo and really that brings us to one final point. Both Planet Zoo and the San Diego Zoo have goals, and while I’m sure Planet Zoo wants to sell lots of copies and make lots of money, there’s a lot of educational content in the game, and a huge focus on using the zoo as an educational tool both as a game, but also a component of the game.

San Diego Zoo also heavily pushes these aspects with a ton of educational material all around the zoo. I’ve personally learned quite a bit at the zoo and almost always leave the zoo with either a new experience to cherish or a new piece of information. With that understanding, I hope if you’re interested in Planet Zoo you might give it a shot and consider visiting your local zoo, especially if they are heavily involved in conservation efforts and learning more about conservation programs and what you can do.

If you want to do more, there are many resources, and many groups, I’m a supporter of both the San Diego Zoo and World Wildlife Fund, but also will recommend people look for local programs or specific causes if they want to focus their donations a little more and if you just want to play an entertaining game, Planet Zoo is a good choice.

This support doesn’t have to be monetary, I’m personally considering becoming a volunteer at the San Diego Safari Park. I finally decided to make that choice as I filmed many of these videos, and while nothing has happened just yet, consider volunteering your time instead of your money if you prefer.

Truthfully, I wanted to make a fun video for April Fools Day, and I hope I have. I also hope you’ve enjoyed the footage of the San Diego Zoo. I don’t know, I just got a chance to bring my two loves together, gaming and the zoo, so I took it.

If you want to stick around, consider subscribing and ringing that bell, I talk games and game development as much as I can. I have the Humble Choice coming up this weekend, and then we’ll be talking more game design.

I’ll pop up my last video on Outer Wilds and exploration, and a very old review from me on Planet Coaster, also by Frontier Developments and worth a look.

Until then I’m Kinglink and thanks for watching.