Utility Vehicle Simulator. Chemical Spillage Simulation. Street Cleaning Simulator.
These are real games. Games that put you into the shoes not of a warrior or a solider or a superhero, but a forklift truck driver or a construction worker.
It’s an industry niche that elicits sniggers from us all, and at times, condescending articles from bemused journalists. Even we at MCV ironically jumped for joy when we received a copy of Camping Simulator.
And yet, these games are selling. So much so that only a few weeks ago Farming Simulator 2013 was released on consoles for the first time and immediately entered the Top Ten.
Who is actually buying these ridiculous games?
That’s a question I asked as I explained these games to my friends last week. And amongst the laughter and the ‘Is there really an Airport Ground Crew Simulation?’ I heard: ‘I play them.’
Those words came from my friend Mark. He’s been playing simulation games for years. His favourite is Euro Truck Simulator 2.
“When I was a young lad pushing trucks around the floor I always vowed that one day I would be driving them for real,” he said later.
“These games enable me to fulfill that childhood dream at a much cheaper cost. Now I can deliver goods across Europe, race against the clock to get deliveries done on time, build up my own business and drive all sorts of different vehicles, all in the comfort of my own home.”
“His name is Michael – his mates call him
Mike – He’s aged somewhere between 29
and 69 and lives near Hereford, or Stirling,
or possibly Newport. He is married with one
daughter and drives a Passat. He has a high-
end gaming PC. He has a tablet that he mostly
uses for work and his wife plays Candy Crush
on her iPhone. He goes to at least one air
show in the summer and to one car race
in the autumn. He doesn’t possess a pair
of binoculars and last wore a duffle coat
when we was nine.”
Dermot Stapleton – Operations Director, Just Flight
Suddenly the success of these nonsense simulation games has become tangible to me. The buyers of these titles are not just numbers on a Chart-Track spreadsheet. These are people I actually know.
“Our titles are played by a wide range of people, from children to pensioners,” says Excalibur Games product manager Edward Grabowski.
“They tend to have one thing in common: a passion for the subject. We find many farmers love Farming Simulator, we find many truck drivers love Euro Truck Simulator.”
Dermot Stapleton, operations director of Just Flight and Just Trains owner Mastertronic, has a far more specific idea of who a sim gamer is: “His name is Michael – his mates call him Mike – He’s aged somewhere between 29 and 69 and lives near Hereford, or Stirling, or possibly Newport. He is married with one daughter and drives a Passat. He has a high-end gaming PC. He has a tablet that he mostly uses for work and his wife plays Candy Crush on her iPhone. He goes to at least one air show in the summer and to one car race in the autumn. He doesn’t possess a pair of binoculars and last wore a duffle coat when we was nine.”
A lot of these players are not traditional gamers. A European Bus Driving Simulator fan may have no desire to play Call of Duty.
“Sims occupy a unique niche alongside mainstream gaming and can appeal to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as gamers,” says Stapleton.
And it’s these players that can prove to be the most lucrative. Because they’re not buying a new title every other week, they have – in theory – more money to spend on DLC. Which is where sim developers make most of their money.
“Train Simulator is more than just a game – it’s their hobby,” says RailSimulator’s brand and acquisition VP Jon Rissik.
“As a result they are prepared to spend money to extend their hobby experience. Although we have well over 100 pieces of DLC content – which if you added up the retail cost would be considerable – we don’t expect players to buy it all. Far from it. We simply give them the opportunity to customise their collection in a way that suits their interest.”
The PC simulation sector is nothing new. The likes of Microsoft Flight have been around for over two decades. But with the increase in attention these titles are receiving, is there room to rise above the niche? Farming Simulator launched on Xbox 360 and PS3 this month, could it be the first of many?
“Over the past few years we have seen a number of traditional PC experiences move over to the living room console experience quite successfully,” comments Rissik.
“The Sims is one example, Minecraft, World of Tanks. It may be that the PC remains the most natural home for simulation given the accuracy of the control input, but given that the core requirement of our players is the accurate recreation of the real world, I see no reason why the incoming range of consoles wouldn’t be able to deliver an incredible experience.
“Train Simulator can already be played very effectively using the existing Xbox 360 control pad. I remember a time when people questioned whether the first person shooter had a place away from the PC. Then games like Goldeneye, Medal of Honor and Halo came along and the rest is history.”
However, Excalibur is not so sure the move to console will work for all titles. “For me the problem is the input controller – 360 and PS3 pads just don't cut it,” says Grabowski
“Holding a Wii controller for long periods is too tiring. Tablets are great and DS would work – although they are a little under powered.”
“Somewhere along the line they need
to acknowledge that the cerebral challenge
of flying a 737 from London to Paris or
successfully loading and driving a truck
across Europe is no more absurd than
repelling an invading alien army or scoring
a winning goal from the comfort of your sofa.”
Dermot Stapleton – Operations Director, Just Flight
A larger battle for these titles is how they are viewed outside of its niche. These games are ridiculed for their mundane titles or obscure subject matter, and non-fans are quick to criticse. Yet Excalibur’s community manager Chris Cleveland says perceptions are changing.
“We have some people who are pushing the boundaries of simulation, I even love what Bossa studios did with Surgeon Simulator,” he says.
“When you try to do something different, you’re often met with some resistance. A lot of people laugh at some of our games. But while we don’t make games everyone enjoys, we do make games some people will enjoy.”
People do laugh at these titles, and as their notoriety increase, as has the comedy. Actor and comedian Jack Whitehall tweeted about queuing up to buy Farming Simulator 2013 on the launch day of GTA V. And last week the game was even mentioned on Mock The Week.
This is to be expected. It's hard to take a game called Street Cleaning Simulator too seriously. But is it about time the games media starts understanding these titles and their audiences a bit more? Surely there are only so many times journalists can belittle these games in articles.
“It’s often the case that mainstream games media writes about simulation games with a similar level of incredulity and accuracy to tabloid press reports on games in general,” says Stapleton. “Somewhere along the line they need to acknowledge that the cerebral challenge of flying a 737 from London to Paris or successfully loading and driving a truck across Europe is no more absurd than repelling an invading alien army or scoring a winning goal from the comfort of your sofa.”
That's just it. This week I’ve been playing GTA V. I’ve entered the shoes of deranged criminals, smashing up cars and killing people. Mark, on the other hand, has been growing his haulage business and delivering vital cargo to Switzerland in his truck.
To Mark, I am the one that is being ridiculous.