The Making of a Despot: Developer Shares Some State-Building Secrets

Most people have trouble managing their own lives, though a rare few are “blessed” with the opportunity to police others. Such would be the case for those who acquire “Tropico,” an honest-to-God Third World dictatorship simulation from Gathering of Developers and PopTop Software. Phil Steinmeyer, “El Presidente” of PopTop, reports on the state of the nation.

Q: Why do people love to play characters they hate in real life?

In the case of “Tropico,” I think everybody has a secret dream of having ultimate power, and even being a bit ruthless with it, if necessary. It’s a lot more exciting to be the Maximum Leader of Cuba than to be a mailman in California.

Q: Are you worried the game will be banned throughout South America?


Only by the countries with no liberty. We actually poke fun at the dictator stereotype. When you design your dictator, you have to choose at least two character flaws from a list including being an alcoholic, a moron, a womanizer, a kleptomaniac or flatulent.

Q: Which countries served as inspiration?

Cuba, first and foremost. Castro is a larger-than-life character on the world stage, and has been for decades. Castro is basically a self-caricature--the last of the great Communist revolutionaries. Plus the island of Cuba is very interesting. The architecture there is beautiful in a run-down Caribbean way. We have one building in Tropico, the cathedral, that is based very closely on the main cathedral in Havana, which is gorgeous.

Q: How was the background research conducted?


I wish we could have taken back-door trips to Cuba, but it was actually much more basic--lots of picture books mostly, combined with the personal experiences many of us on the team have had visiting the Caribbean (not Cuba, sadly). I also lived in Brazil for a couple of years as a kid--kind of a Third World-First World hybrid experience.

Q: What lengths did you go to in creating an authentic dictatorial experience?

Fidel Castro served as a consultant, especially on ways of stifling potential troublemakers. Just kidding. Again, we basically just read a lot of books. Ultimately, we’re not shooting for perfect realism in “Tropico.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek game above all. It happens to be pretty realistic too, but wherever we had to make a choice between being fun and being realistic, we chose fun.

Q: Any reason you stuck with 2-D over 3-D?

Three reasons: One, we were able to get incredible detail on the characters and buildings--much more so than if we had been restricted by today’s middle-of-the-road 3-D hardware. Two, we were able to have about 500 characters, plus dozens of buildings and thousands of trees, all on the screen at once. In a 3-D game, you’d only be able to have a couple dozen characters and a handful of buildings. Three, “Tropico” will run on a pretty modest system--a 2- or even 3-year-old computer should run “Tropico” well, whereas a lot of the high-end 3-D games will barely run on a machine that’s a year old.

Q: What measuring stick is used to determine how complex this sort of sim should be?

There’s a very sophisticated system we use around here called the Leslie system. Basically, if my wife, Leslie, (who only likes “Tetris”) can play and understand it, then we’ve made it clear and straightforward enough. It’s actually quite a challenge. We want the game to be accessible to newcomers, and I think it is, but we also want a lot of depth there for experienced strategy gamers. The key is to have a lot of information available to the player, but not to force the player to digest or use it all.

Q: What trick did you use to build in a maximum number of hours of play time?


A lot of flexibility in your starting conditions: what kind of dictator you are, what kind of island you have, does your island have great conditions for growing bananas, or nice, sandy beaches for attracting tourists? Even if you master one strategy, there are a lot of other possibilities to try.

Q: How can one game simulate so many complex concepts, such as economic development, political conflict and social upheaval?

Two years of 60-hour workweeks by the development team. Really, the key element that we’ve worked very hard on in “Tropico” that sets up everything else is the people. In “Tropico,” you’ll typically have about 500 citizens moving around the island. Each one is very much an individual, with their own needs, abilities, attitudes, families, homes and jobs. I think the people in “Tropico” are the most realistically modeled people in any large-scale computer game to date. With realistic people and realistic personal opinions, it became easy to build the overall island politics, economy and social environment on top of that.

Q: Ever had an underling shot for missing a deadline?

Please, please, shooting is such a violent word. Perhaps once or twice somebody might have been a victim of airborne lead poisoning.


Scott Steinberg is a freelance writer specializing in video games.