The Train Man: Rail Simulator’s Paul Jackson

Paul Jackson is a known name in the UK video games industry.

He set up the British office of EA. He helped launch FIFA and The Sims into the word. He worked at industry trade body ELSPA for 12 years. He has an OBE for his services to the games market.

And he loves trains.

Jackson has been involved in the Train Simulator franchise for years, but he fully acquired the rights to the IP in 2009. And built an entire company around it –

The Train Simulation series has been a lucrative little business. Selling small DLC packs for a few quid, building an avid community that will are happy to give money for the latest trains and tracks, year-in, year-out.

But now, four years into the business and having fully established his company, Jackson wants to go broader. He’s eyeing new platforms, hiring more staff, and as of next month (September 26th) is about to launch the 2014 edition of Train Simulator. A PC game he calls the company’s most ambitious yet.

We sat down with him to find out more.

You launched this business four years ago, what’s changed?
We’ve done a number of things to grow and enhance our business since we launched in February 2009.
Firstly, we have been able to acquire a number of talented individuals from across the gaming industry and the hobbyist space, which has helped us to strengthen the level of expertise within the company and has driven us all to raise our game.

We have refined our content delivery system to the point where we are able to release multiple pieces of content every month, which feeds the appetite of our extremely loyal fan base.

Most importantly, we have conducted a lot of research over the past couple of years in order to better understand our core customers, and what they look for in the series, but also to develop insights into what might draw potential players into our universe, and make this product appealing to a wider audience.

We always look to improve the product in terms of graphics year on year, but we’ve also learnt that incorporating some stronger gameplay elements is key, and so Train Simulator 2014 will give players more opportunities to meet gameplay objectives and earn points and rewards as they play.

The success we have had since the company started has meant that we are now in a position to start exploring opportunities that go beyond our core business. We have a strong vision that unites us as a business, and we are very firmly focused on our continued growth.

You added industry veteran John Rissik to your team last year. What has he brought to the table?
I worked with Jon at EA a number of years ago and I’m delighted to be working with him again today. He has a wealth of marketing expertise as well as more than twelve years of gaming industry experience.

Jon is a consumer-focused marketer, with exceptional knowledge of what makes a hit game. He’s well versed in how to launch and grow premium brands and he also has a strong network of connections across the industry, which has helped drive talent to our business.

How has does your DLC strategy work?
The DLC content lies at the heart of this hobby. Rail enthusiasts are passionate about building collections that are reflective of their own personal interests. Although all of our players are experiencing the same core tech, the variety and volume of DLC on offer allows them to customise their experience to suit their passion.
Train fans tend to be very particular about what they like. Some want to drive electric trains travelling at upwards of 300 km/h, while others would rather drive steam trains on heritage lines. Some of our players are fanatical about German or US rail, while others don’t want to drive routes outside the UK. We currently make more than 120 pieces of content available to players and we have a lot more in the pipeline. We hope there is something in our portfolio of content to suit every taste.

Why bother releasing a full game every year at all then? Why not just update your games via DLC and patches?
Releasing a new game is an opportunity to bring new players into our offering. Rather than just issuing an upgrade, it also gives us a focal point for our marketing and sales efforts and allows us to communicate with potential players at all the various points in the marketing journey, right up to point of purchase.

Is physical retail just not interesting to you at all?
The majority of our revenue is generated digitally, and I don’t think that is about to change. Steam in particular is an incredible partner, who has built a world-class digital sales platform and PC playing community. Having said that, we have no intention of ignoring the boxed business, and we are working hard to drive growth in this area. We know that there are a number of customers who feel more comfortable buying software in a more traditional way and we want to make sure that we are inclusive towards this audience.

This is particularly relevant for us as we often reach out beyond the PC playing core; Train Simulator is the first interactive entertainment product that many of our new consumers will have bought.

We do see the continued range rationalisation of PC titles at retail, however we very much want to be part of that list of successful titles which drive players into store.

Why do you think you’ve managed to maintain this dedicated following?
We have worked very hard to harness the power of social media and as a result we have built a very close relationship with our core community. We understand and share the passion of our players. We recognise that what we offer is much more than a game; it’s a digital hobby, and appreciating that means that we are able to take a long-term view to our relationship with our customers.

We’re also proud of the fact that we have managed to build and maintain one community via our strategy of offering free technology upgrades to anyone who has bought the base game over the past four years. That poses a number of technical challenges for us every year, but we firmly believe that a fragmented player base would be detrimental to the experience of our customers. It’s hard to talk about your experience in a meaningful way with friends if everyone is playing a different version of the software.

How can Train Simulator go beyond what it’s achieving currently? It’s a niche, how do you go broader?
With respect to new technology, that’s something that we frequently review. We evolve and update our own software every year, so we are never standing still and that helps to smooth over leaps in technology. There are obviously considerations for us to take in terms of other possible platforms to develop for and that’s something we also keep in mind when we think longer term. One thing that will stay constant is our push towards delivering photo-realistic worlds for our customers to enjoy.

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