Who's buying all these niche simulation games, anyway? We found out
This article is being highlighted as one of Gamasutra's top stories of 2013.
German Truck Simulator
. Bus Driver
. U-Boat Simulator
. Ski Region Simulator
. London Underground Simulator
. Street Cleaning Simulator
. These are all names of real simulation video games that you can currently buy for PC, and the sorts of games that receive notable ridicule from many U.S. gamers.
And yet, despite the mockery and oodles
of mocking videos
you can find on YouTube, these seemingly niche simulation titles keep on coming. In some cases, such as with the Farming Simulator
series, there are multiple releases every single year across multiple platforms, with the year usually attached to the end of the name -- much in the same way that EA's popular FIFA Soccer
franchise goes about its business.
The question remains then: Who exactly is buying these games, and is there really so much demand that yearly releases are necessary?
, a development studio from Prague, Czech Republic, is one of the biggest studios making truck simulators right now. Its latest releases include Euro Truck Simulator 2
, Scania Truck Driving Simulator
, and German Truck Simulator
Pavel Sebor, the owner of SCS, tells me that his company has been living "pretty much hand-to-mouth" for quite a while now, and it's simply down to a hardcore community backing that the studio is able to march onwards.
"We started doing these games on a shoestring budget 10 years ago with teams of 3-4 people, and over the years we have managed to build a small but very devoted fan community, people who keep coming back and supporting us over the years," he explains.
Sebor believes he knows the reason why there aren't exactly an abundance of U.S. developers and publishers jumping at the chance to build simulation games like his.
"That fact that we are an Eastern European company paying Eastern European wages definitely has been a factor in sustainability of SCS Software in the genre," he notes. "I don't think any Western publisher would touch a game in a genre where games typically sell on the order of tens of thousands of copies with a 10 foot pole, but as we are self-financing and self-publishing the games, we can control our own destiny and keep considerable chunk of the revenue to keep us in black numbers."
SCS also builds its own technology, and continually bumps up its tech and asset library year by year, meaning that it can more easily build on top of its legacy incrementally, rather than starting from scratch each time. This helps keep the budget on each new title down.
Being careful with your budget is all well and good, but if no-one is willing to buy your games, then it doesn't matter how you juggle your cash.
Fortunately, there are very specific types of people who seem to love these sorts of simulation games, and SCS has seen its audience grow and grow over the years.
"When it comes to audience, we know we have basically two distinct groups of players, with a big hole between them," explains Sebor.
"There are kids 8-12 playing the games - players who are not yet into FPS or other core genres, but are captivated by the idea of driving these big vehicles. I guess every boy at age 7 or so wanted to drive a cement mixer or garbage truck or something similar," he adds.
And then there's the strong 35+ male audience -- "basically people who have some professional, or should I say emotional, ties to trucking or transportation industry typically," Sebor notes.
He continues, "We have very little traction in the age group in-between, everybody there is too busy fragging each other in Call of Duty
. We have more adult players than we have pre-teen and teen players really."
In fact, the truly intriguing thing about this hardcore adult audience that SCS is attracting is that these players are hugely demanding when it comes to the fidelity and depth of the simulation, which causes SCS's output to be pushed "dangerously deeper into the niche corner."
"Simulating driving a real truck with all it takes would make our game unplayable for non-truckers, so we need to remember the balance between simulation depth and accessibility," adds Sebor.
When it comes to the question of not who, but where these people are, Sebor says that Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe are the sweet spots for simulation games.
"Even though the average purchasing power is very different between say the UK and Poland, we actually sell more copies in Poland than in bigger Western Europe countries," he notes. "We also have lots of fans in developing market countries like Brazil or Turkey, and incredible number of players in China, but it's really hard to actually sell any games in those markets."
Meanwhile, the Farming Simulator
series is a very similar story. Marc Schwegler, associate producer at Giants Software
in Germany, tells me that the main audience for its annual farming series is kids, especially boys who love tractors. Oh, and farmers, of course.
On the topic of yearly releases, Schwegler says that there is definite demand for annual Farming Simulator
games, although a little bit of platform switching is essential to keep it fresh.
"We switch the release platforms every year," he says. "Basically the odd years, 2011, 2013, 2015 are PC and console Games, and the even years, 2012 and 2014 are mobile releases: iPhone, Android, 3DS and soon PS Vita."
He adds, "Since we are a very small developer we have only slowly penetrated other markets outside our homebase for lack of marketing funds. Currently Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland account for the big sales."
SCS' Sebor throws his two cents in, saying that annual versions of simulation titles appear to satisfy the simulation audience rather well, although this is becoming more and more difficult as the visuals bar is raised.
"We actually take longer and longer to produce our games over the years, because we can only sustain a relatively small team," he notes. "Our games have always been produced by teams of less than 10 people - compared to the GTA
series or Gran Turismo
dev team, we are tiny."
He adds, "Even producing 'low-hanging fruit' DLC add-ons is a lot of work for us taking considerable time, but this is one area we are now working on now that Euro Truck Simulator 2
is out on the market and still selling reasonably well for us."
Cutting through the ridicule
I was wary of addressing the jokes that are made about the sorts of simulation games that SCS produces, not wanting to offend Sebor or Schwegler's day-to-day work, but both were more than happy to discuss the topic.
"Truck simulation games are definitely very niche, and indeed historically such games have always been the target of ridicule among hardcore gamers, much more so than flight simulators or train simulators for understandable but not so simple reasons," Sebor says.
"Perhaps the fact that our games may be ridiculed in the UK but loved in Eastern Europe is down to the fact that a trucker may be considered a low-prestige job in the UK (and a target of Jeremy Clarkson [Top Gear
presenter] jokes)," he reasons.
The further East you go, he notes, "the more this job smells of adventure and distant horizons - plus it's perhaps paying better than average in those countries."
And even through the ridicule that these games receive, there's obviously somebody
buying simulation games in the UK. Data from Chart-Track shows that just last week, SCS's own Euro Truck Simulator 2
was the number one best-selling PC game at retail, outselling the likes of The Sims 3, World of Warcraft
and Dark Souls
And the company's latest game isn't just selling well at retail. Just recently Euro Truck Simulator 2
was Greenlighted on Steam, and proceeded to shoot up the Steam best-selling charts, hitting the number one spot during its first week on sale.
"It seems that we have got a bit closer to mainstream audience and recognition," adds Sebor.
As for Giants, Schwegler says that his company has managed to take advantage of the player perception surrounding Farming Simulator
by making the games more casual and "gamey" than a true simulator.
"It was the number one PC game in Germany and France in terms of retail sales in 2012," he adds. And Giants has plans to break the UK and the U.S. this year with Farming Simulator
releases for both PS3 and Xbox 360 in the second quarter.
No matter whether simulation games continue to be the butt of internet japes or not, it would appear that the genre is on the up and up. Whether it will ever manage to break the U.S. is another matter entirely.