Jthere is no escape for me this time. The rear axle of my pickup truck is stuck on a rock sticking out of the mud in the middle of a deserted road in Michigan. I tried attaching a winch to a nearby tree to pull myself up, but it didn’t work. I’ll have to ditch the vehicle, equip another one and try again. This wood load is not going to deliver.
I’m playing Snowrunner, the latest in a series of painstakingly authentic off-road delivery simulation games in which players must haul goods across a variety of unforgiving landscapes at speeds that would put a garden snail to shame. Before every trip, you need to select exactly the right vehicle for the job, fit the right tires and calculate your likely fuel consumption down to the millilitre. On the frozen roads of northern Alaska, there is no room for poor planning.
Over the past five years, there has been a renaissance in serious work simulation games. Titles such as Euro Truck Simulator, Bus Simulator and Train Sim World have garnered huge fans and rave reviews, each replicating their craft with relentless attention to detail. In an entertainment industry where ridiculous power fantasies rule, where players become space marines, former warrior princesses and soccer superstars, it seems antithetical that 25 million people have bought Farming Simulator, a game in which your main challenge is to harvest a successful wheat crop.
But it’s the sheer precision of these games that has attracted such a devoted following. “Throughout development, we get a lot of questions,” says Julian Mautner of Stillalive Studios, the team behind the Bus Simulator games. “When you turn the ignition key once, what functions on the bus actually work and what icons light up on the dash? What happens next when you turn it into second position? These are the details that our players really care.
According to Mautner, the studio has a partnership with its local transport company, IVB (Innsbrucker Verkehrsbetriebe), which they visit regularly to inspect real buses and take hundreds of photos. “We also talk to the bus drivers about their daily challenges, particular situations or tricky maneuvers they’ve had to perform,” he says. “It gives us extremely valuable insights into how a transport business operates.”
Meanwhile, the encoders accurately simulate every aspect of engine performance – shifting, torque, acceleration – using manufacturers’ information. The audio team makes over 1,000 recordings of sounds from different buses. The artists recreate identical interiors. As Mautner explains, “Today we aim to get real 3D data for cockpits, because reproducing details from images and blueprints has often led to small inaccuracies that the community has noted.”
Landscapes are also of vital importance. With the truck and train driving simulators, a big part of the appeal is the passing scenery as you haul goods from Berlin to Bonne, or drive a Great Western train to Cornwall. “Real-world benchmarks are key to creating the world,” says Ondrej Dufek, project manager at SCS Software, creators of Euro Truck Simulator and American Truck Simulator. “Google Earth, Maps and Street View are essential tools and sources of photographic references. On YouTube, there are also videos of truckers driving through different states and countries, commenting on their surroundings and pointing out interesting things. Information about elevation, economy, industries, markets, traffic density, freight routes, weather, even demographics – it’s all important and helps us decide which roads and cities to put in our world .
“Sometimes we shoot directly against a wall so our artists can see what kind of brick is being used,” says Matt Peddlestone, senior producer at Dovetail Games, which makes Train Sim World. “As you take a route, the supplier of the brick changes because the bricks are made locally and the colors of the building will change. We want to capture that.
It’s easy to think of hardcore sim fans as picky obsessives, but there’s a quiet joy to interacting with these lovingly reproduced systems of lights, switches and signals. In an unpredictable world, it is soothing to open the doors of a bus at the right time, to give the correct change, to regulate the heating system correctly, to respect the road signs. It’s gratifying to see a button, press it, and know something is about to happen.
“I play simulators because, by their nature, they’re internally consistent,” says fan Melissa Harper. “If you’re playing a game and you’re in a cockpit, and you can’t press all the buttons, that absolutely kills the experience for me. But in Microsoft Flight Simulator, you can press all the buttons, and they all do something. It’s so satisfying, and then you can learn what they all do.
Her favorite example is the ultra hardcore Stormworks: Build and Rescue, where you run your own sea rescue service. “It’s the most brutal game I’ve ever played,” she enthuses. “You have to make the whole plane yourself – and all those hundreds of buttons? You have to place them by hand! The developers just throw you into a ridiculously complicated editor and say, “Hey, that’s just aircraft propulsion and electrical engineering, how hard could that be?” Kiss my ass.’ It’s my favorite game.”
Every simulation developer I’ve spoken to knows that some of their players are professionals in the simulated field. The creators of Train Sim World are quickly notified when a siding has been placed in a slightly incorrect position, or if a certain signal outside Stratford never shows a green light, only yellow because it’s as it was wired. “The drivers tip us,” Dufek explains. “What unique truck stops and landmarks we should include, what parts of the roads are infamous for their difficulty (steep climbs, mountain passes).”
Beyond all that, simulators have emotional and nostalgic value. Train Sim World lets players drive historic trains and journeys, allowing retired drivers to rediscover the routes they once traveled every day. Fishing: Barents Sea Simulator was inspired by the life of co-creator Goran Myrland’s grandfather, a fisherman in 1950s Norway. “He had a classic boat just like the Follabuen, which is in our game,” says Yasemin Hamurcu, COO at Misc Games. “He spent months with his crew on rough seas to find the best catches, earn money and support his family. His wife was still worried about him, hoping he would come home safe and sound.
I have friends who drive for hours in Euro Truck Simulator, using the game’s real radio app to pick up local stations. For me, Snowrunner was almost hypnotic – it gave me more time to take in the scenery, to feel rural North America. Many gamers aren’t in it for the authenticity of simulation minutiae gear; they are there to discover a landscape in their own way, at their own pace. A slow and steady escape.