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Who's buying all these niche simulation games, anyway? We found out Exclusive
Who's buying all these niche simulation games, anyway? We found out
March 15, 2013 | By Mike Rose

March 15, 2013 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

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?

SCS Software, 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.

truck simulator.jpg"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.

Who's buying?

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.

farming simulator.jpgOn 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.

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Simon Ludgate
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If nothing else, games like Farming Simulator should be an easy pitch to parents who are concerned about giving their boy a shooting game?

Alex Leighton
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I actually have played several of the truck simulator ones and Farming Simulator 2013, and they're really good fun. I haven't really stuck with any of them longer than a few hours, but I can definitely see their appeal. Really, I would have killed for games like these when I was 10, I used to (and still do to some extent) love anything that simulated driving, because it was something I saw every day and wanted desperately to do, but was never allowed to do.

Toni Kovacic
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I played ETS 2 and I find it lot of fun. Maybe not perfect game for those who like high speed races, but it helped me to concentrate, when i get stuck in coding i go on drive trough Europe, clear my head little and get back into work. Useful for me. Thing that i like most is that there is really lot of roads, different trucks and cargo's. Lot of content in general.

Kevin Fishburne
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Haven't played any of them but the screenshots in the article are quality. Maybe if they let you run over pedestrians with the combine harvester it would sell more? Farmageddon? Seriously though, considering the amount of crap that's pervaded the market since the Atari days these games look good and from the interview are certainly made with love.

Michael Joseph
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Farmageddon! lol

And think of how many zombies you could mow down. Maybe Day Z will add one. :)

Patrick De Palma
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I love Farming Simulator! I love simulation games. I also work in the gaming industry and have worked on a lot of big name AAA titles. When I am relaxing at home, the last thing I want to play is a game like the ones I work on. So I play simulation games like Farming Simulator to relax.

Michael Ball
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The videos aren't mocking the simulation games, not even close; they're actually mocking the similar MLG montage videos created by Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc. players.

Gavin Koh
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I had a hand reviewing ETS2 and was very impressed by it. After spending more than 10 hours in a cab driving all over Europe and crossing the English Channel more than a dozen times, I must say the game ranks up there with some of the best flight simulators ever released.

Though much more complex, flight simulators are also as niche as the handful of other simulators being released on the market. You obviously cannot compare the euphoria of being a hotshot combat military pilot when compared with what Pavel calls a "low-prestige job". But hey, there are no other games out there that truly give you the feel of being a trucker; compare it with videos of real-life truckers and you can understand that ETS2 is a game that comes as close as it gets.

Now, the other problem is the overwhelming flood of niche games that has the paying customer literally having to separate the wheat from the chaff. They of course turn to review sites who are actually happy to butcher games of lower quality. At times, impatient reviewers may just gloss over a great title like ETS2 and there you have it, a biased opinion of a wonderful game. Which is why, SCS Software (and others like them) are doing great by releasing feature-restricted full-version demos of their games.

One thing I can say, if you are designing a niche simulator game, then you just have to learn the lessons from this article.

Dave Long
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I think it's brilliant that gaming is broad enough to support this level of breadth and variety in experience. These games are the niche, small-budget movies of the gaming world. Am very much looking to trying out Farming Simulator on Vita (no, that's not sarcasm - I'm genuinely interested :)).

Maria Jayne
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I can sort of see the appeal of truck driving, train driving or bus driving for enthusiasts and perhaps kids that imagine that's what they want to do when they grow up.

But street cleaning? where in the world is that something people want to do?

They obviously have some talent for making sims, and have found a niche that keeps them successful, good luck to em. I can't help wondering though, if they took that talent and made something with more mass appeal, how much more successful they would be.

Michael Joseph
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I'm sure you can understand that some devs don't have it in their nature to write games that don't personally interest them. More power to 'em!

What i really like about this article is that it reminds us that these are good games for young kids. Young boys (and I'm sure some girls) love to play with trucks. I think the devs should really persuit this angle in North America... market a very kid friendly version of their sim to PARENTS.

I also wish big publishers would produce games like this at a loss if need be as a form of good will. But I'm also glad that some small teams are able to make a modest living doing it.

Leon Lau
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I personally got an indoor golf simulator and the damage was 25K, so these companies in no way are at loss.

James Coote
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Ah, you're just lacking imagination. Think about it. Each copy of Sim Street Cleaner costs $10,000 and is aimed exclusively at hedge fund managers and investment bankers niche. From time to time, they stare longingly out of the windows of their glass and steel tower block prisons at the wild, free street cleaners roaming ...the streets? and wonder "What if life had have treated me differently? What is it like on the other side of the divide?"

Amir Sharar
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Having worked in Oil and Gas, one thing I missed about the field job was the driving. There's something relaxing and zen about it. I find myself going on relaxing drives in games like Forza Horizon and Gran Turismo 5 (Nurburgring with day/night and weather). I can COMPLETELY understand the emotional connection people would have to jobs in the outdoors, be it farming or long range driving.

Gavin Koh said; "After spending more than 10 hours in a cab driving all over Europe and crossing the English Channel more than a dozen times..."

That right there sold me on the game, I didn't realize that the real world was mapped in that fashion. Do you have any idea how the wheel support is?

Another important aspect about these niche games that we may have glossed over here is how they are published. As always, it's risky to publish niche products. The fact that someone took a risk is nice to see. Maybe more open platforms like the iOS/Android platforms will mean more niche titles serving a small yet lucrative audience.

Ross Sharp
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I use to travel around the UK and Europe with my dad in his truck during the summer as a kid. I was usually too busy playing Tetris to look at the changing landscape unfurling around me, but when I did I remember thinking (these were the 16-bit days) 'Imagine a game where you could just drive a truck through all these landscapes'. That seemed like an impossible game at the time, but now with ETS2 I can play that game! I even get my dad involved when I'm choosing upgrades and colour schemes to pimp out my truck, then I let my 6 year old nephew drive it around.

Karstein Roesnes Ersdal
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Great article! I've always been curious about this.

Chris Moeller
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Nice article, I've also wondered why it might be a big niche market. Nice to know it's not a big niche market ;)

But I do have a little nephew that loves trucks- everything about them. He actually loves his mom spending time with him showing big trucks on YouTube :o

Jonathan Murphy
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When a genre is left for dead... get it? Example the horror genre, it's not gone. When a horror game does arrive it gets eaten up... get it? The point is. Do not confuse Niche with Genre. Simulation based games are a genre. A niche would be everyone only buying go kart games, regardless of being racing, horror, or simulation.

Anton Temba
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I'm gonna go on a limb and say the ridicule done by hardcore gamers may have actually boosted their sales. Some silly videos posted on the internet about these games can actually be inspiring with the idea to get the game yourself and mess around in them and do more silly things, so you can too post silly videos.

An unintended viral marketing effect :D

Samuel Green
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Very true. I would NEVER have played ETS2 without seeing the joke articles and the "Wow, ETS2 is ACTUALLY really good" articles.

It's a great story to tell. As a player you discover this quirky new game that would be funny to tell friends about. Apart from Dota 2, ETS2 is probably my most talked about game of 2013 amongst friend. Great natural word-of-mouth generator

Steven Christian
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These truck sims are missing the best thing about trucking in my opinion: instanced, multiplayer convoys.
Whenever other players are in the same area as you, you should see them in your game and have the option of chatting to them on the CB radio.

Of course the multiplayer would be optional as not everyone wants to have others interrupting their game, but the atmosphere would be awesome imo.

Anyone who loves trucking and has seen the movie 'Convoy' knows what I'm talking about.