• So I hear you’re bored.

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OpenTTD: I have opened a Pandora’s box

As you may have already guessed my Faceplant faithfuls, rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. Instead of making new subterranean friends, or rather extracosmic friends, I’ve been locked away in a dark closet comforted only by the hum of an overzealous 60mm fan in an effort to bring you my humble opinion of a retro game I have recently discovered. As with many of my latest discoveries, this one came from r/minecraft on reddit. Someone was lamenting being away from their gaming machine for the holidays and said they found a nice alternative in Open Transportation Tycoon Deluxe. In the days when Chris Sawyer was brandishing his capitalistic prowess I was deeply entrenched in the Maxis camp. My general sentiment was why run the transportation system when I can run the whole city? I spent most of my time typing in imacheat and focusing on massive infrastructure projects. What 12 year old needs budgetary concerns? It wasn’t until I spent a few years as a political affairs reporter that I returned to the game and began to take an interest in the budget. After all, I’ve seen enough annual reports since graduating college it ought to be a breeze. Sure enough I built a large city with a balanced budget. Then I found OTTD. A whole new budget system and technology progression.

It turns out this isn’t actually a free version of Chris Sawyer’s original creation. Technically it’s an open source rewrite  built from the ground up. This is good for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the game is in fact free. A quick trip here will get you the latest English version but another perk of open source software is there is an extremely high chance there is a version available in your native tongue should English not be your first language, again for free.

Because it’s open source this general means most bugs will eventually be patched over time. In fact, unstable updates are released nightly. Open source is such a strange concept and it seems ironic in the context of a game whose main premise is firmly rooted in capitalism. A bunch of programmers spread out across the globe band together to code a piece of software that in all likelihood will never net them a dime. In theory it seems brilliant. Their philanthropic efforts give a larger audience exposure to their work. But while many people find different aspects of development interesting there are certain portions that remain boring no matter what. Chief among these seem to be tutorials and customer support. Everything I could find seemed to be written for an audience with previous TTD experience. The manual gives an introduction to the game and basic concepts which allow you to do little more than establish a few trade routes which may or may not prove to be profitable. No explanation is offered for the complex relationship between industries or transportation lines. For example, most of my attempts to ship goods produced by factories I have supplied with raw materials end in significant losses.

But the greatest short coming in the manual is in its explanation of railway signals. Each signal’s basic function is described but no practical uses are offered. It wasn’t until I watched a “Let’s Play” video on YouTube that I found I had made countless grievous errors in my setup. I still frequently find significant and recurring flaws I’m still trying to work out. It seems to me that a system which has been established for 150 years ought to be easily explained. It’s just one more problem in a long list of issues which point to my dramatic short comings as a programmer. Like redstone wiring. Still, when I succeed in building a working, and profitable, multi-train rail system it is very rewarding. Especially when I progress deep enough into the 21st century to build 400 mph magnetized levitating trains. Those can pull in a million a year all by themselves.

Finally, open source means new and exciting content. Apparently the original game had a very modest progression in technology as you built your empire over the course of 100 years. You could upgrade your vehicles and ships once, and the trains and planes a few times. But it was pretty obvious which vehicles were optimal. So the modding community developed quite the variety of new vehicles which are installed as GRFs. Which probably stands for something nerdy and, I’m going to assume, boring. The sets include a very comprehensive history of British Rail and American locomotives and everything from Swedish to Australian rail cars. In fact, you can download customized maps of real places such as Sweden and various parts of England. Of course you could always simply use the terrain generator with a list of American towns.

That little steamer cost me a fortune but she's made it back in spades every year. Alternatively, the steam powered road vehicles are worthless.

After playing a few games with some of the default GRFs or a small variation thereof I quickly became bored with the limited progression of vehicles, particularly ships. So to tubes I went. There I found vehicle GRFs which start all the way back in the 1820’s with ships, 1850’s with horse-drawn carriages, 1870’s with the first American locomotives, and the 1920’s with a large array of planes. Not only that, but instead of developing just a handful of futuristic planes each GRF develops exciting new vehicles through the 2090’s. A game stretching from the 1870’s to the 2090’s has taken me quite some time but I’m looking forward to making it there. I decided to start at the dawn of the steam age because without railroads the game can be a bit tedious.

Yet another benefit to the open source game is its multiplayer capabilities. I dragged Tophat into the game with me, strictly for testing purposes of course, and after he declared having competing rail lines crisscrossing the countryside was hurting his OCD too much we went co-op. In co-op mode we have had a grand time building an empire worth several million dollars by the mid-1990’s. I’m especially looking forward to starting a game with him with the new GRFs. The outdated system requirements for the game make hosting a local server a much smoother affair than it is in Minecraft. Neither one of us have had any lag issues despite our Podunk internet speeds. The great flaw in the multiplayer game is the chat system. It bares much resemblance to a chat system found in Startcraft II, Minecraft, or any other modern game except there is no chat history. A typed message is displayed for about a minute before it is lost forever. If you’re deeply contemplating the profitability of a logging operation shipping wood by truck, rail and ship half way across the map it is quite possible you’ll never see your chat messages. I suppose we  should consider a third-party voice chat given the games limited strain on our systems, but we haven’t gotten around to it yet. Plus Tophat really hates the sound of my voice.

Alaskan towns have such quaint names. Don't you just want to move to Deadhorse today?

One particular portion of the game seems largely ignored by modders and I admit I myself haven’t bothered with it at all. That is the candy land terrain and GRF. The basic environs are temperate, snowy, and dessert which each come with their own unique industries and transportation issues. Then there’s candy land. Whimsical as it may be I have no idea what it’s really like and I don’t really care to know. Though based on the descriptions it seems fairly similar to the rest of the game just with a different graphics and names for things. Speaking of differences I was very disappointed to learn that in a snow map I cannot establish myself as a Mr. Plow.

Oddly enough the game has several shortcomings in comparison my old standby SimCity 2000. For a game so focused on transportation the inability to build subways seems a bit short-sighted. It is technically possible but tunnels cannot curve and all the stations must be above ground. Also missing are highways. Shipping large quantities of freight along two lane roads seems so mid-last century. Of course once the mag lev trains arrive I really won’t care that the majority of my shipping is done by rail. The weight public opinion of your company plays can be frustrating at times too. If you do too much landscaping around their town or knock down one too many houses to extend your road they can get really pissed and shut down any new infrastructure investments in your town. This is only an issue if you’re deep in debt and don’t have a lot of dough coming in.

All in all I found the game hopelessly addicting and tons of fun. Even if Tophat did name our company Dick & Balls Transport. I won’t even mention the CEO’s name.


2 Responses


  2. […] fighting Nazis on the Eastern Front. I never actually made it that far before I got distracted by OTTD and with the imminent arrival of my firstborn it seems unlikely I will have time for anything but […]

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