Fri, Sep 27, 2013 | 14:23 BST
Train Simulator 2014 is bigger than you think
Train Simulator 2014 is more than dubstep videos and parodies. VG247′s Dave Cook dons his driver’s cap and speaks with the devs to see just how big the franchise is.
Back in 1995, New Jersey developer Imagineering was set to release a game called Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors on Sega-CD. Fully endorsed by the infamous magician duo, the title was a compilation of small experiences that included the notorious Desert Bus (seen above), a driving simulator that threw players into a real-time drive from Tuscon, Arizona to Las Vegas. It has garnered a cult following since it was brought to the internet in a playable state.
It tasks players to drive along a straight road for eight hours solid. People regularly play it in one sitting for charity, which is impressive seeing as it can’t be paused. To make matter worse the bus continually veers to the right and edging off the road even by an inch nets you a game over. A tow truck then pulls you back to the start in real-time to attempt the journey again from scratch. Desert Bus is an endurance test, and Penn Jillette has since stated that it was a response to fears over violent video games at the time, but many view it as one of the greatest gaming trolls the industry has known.
My first hands-on with Train Simulator 2014′s final code reminded me of Desert Bus. I’m in no way putting it down when I make that comparison. Far from it. I chalk it up for being an endurance test in its own special way, comparable to – dare I say it – Dark Souls. Now, calm down, stop screaming at me through you monitor and I’ll explain. The game is all about driving along what is essentially a straight line, switching at points, raising and lowering the throttle to meet speed limits and stopping efficiently to offload cargo or passengers. It requires great discipline to play well. It’s not easy on expert setting.
”There are some amazing, action-packed triple-A titles out there, but not everybody wants that experience all the time. Simulation as a genre seems to be more popular than ever before, and I think part of that is to do with videogames reaching new and different kinds of players thanks to download retailers like Steam.”
After tackling the tutorial I chose one of the game’s career challenges ,which was a 25-minute journey between two stations outside of London. It was essentially a straight beginner track with no junctions and only a few stops. I sat there, keeping just under the 60MPH limit, watching the everyday scenery roll by, and then my attention started to wane. I checked my email’s inbox. I sent a few texts. I then returned to find I had entered a 40MPH zone and I was speeding, sending flashing warning’s off all over the dashboard.
You really need patience and unwavering concentration to play this game. If you take your eye off the ball during a journey – some of them are over 120 minutes in total, I might add – then you risk being penalised or worse still, missing a station entirely. It’s Desert Bus for the modern generation and to its credit, how I imagine real-life train driving to be. I think all too many of us forget that these games are made for train enthusiasts, and people who want to – unsurprisingly – simulate driving a train.
That’s more than I can say for Farming Simulator on Xbox 360. It’s a game about driving slowly around rectangles repeatedly and – as this review rightly pointed out – simulates very little of the farming experience. By comparison, Train Simulator 2014′s developer RailSimulator.com has tried to accurately simulate every square inch of what you see on screen. Train interiors and cockpits are as they should be, and environments are mapped with intense scrutiny. Brand manager Simon Sauntson recently told me that each rail line takes the studio years to model. Not days. Not months. Years.
So while some of us might scoff at the idea of train simulation, I’m starting to understand the amount of work that goes into this brand so that the true hobbyists can get inches closer to the real thing. I feel humbled by my utter fail of a first journey, and it led me to discuss Train Simulator’s creation and popularity with Sauntson some more.
“There are some amazing, action-packed triple-A titles out there, but not everybody wants that experience all the time,” he told me over email. “Simulation as a genre seems to be more popular than ever before, and I think part of that is to do with videogames reaching new and different kinds of players thanks to download retailers like Steam.”
He added, “Producing a single locomotive takes months of work, from photographic and sound surveys, through painstaking 3D modeling and getting the physics right, before subjecting it to hours on the test bench. Our players are exacting, too: if the direction lever beeps when you select forward, that beep needs to be correct. We have even had players question the number of rivets on a loco – we have a knowledgeable community and they set the standard. To build a route takes a couple of man-years in total, and we use absolutely all means available, from site visits and cab ride DVDs to Google Earth. And it pays off, as player feedback on our products becomes increasingly positive and, of course, more demanding.”
That’s the potential issue when dealing with enthusiasts; they really know their stuff. But what about the layman gamer, with their dub-step video parodies (see above) and jokes of how shit the series is without having every experienced it? “Some of the videos out there are amazing,” Sauntson continued, “and I’d agree that more and more bloggers and YouTube channels have come back for a closer look, and found that there is much more to Train Simulator than they at first realised.
“Again, it comes down to the fact that not everybody wants the same gaming experience all the time, and we know that Train Simulator has found a place with many gamers who might not describe themselves foremost as simulation players. Many people enjoy a change of pace from time to time, and if they decide to make videos about Train Simulator, great!”
The series certainly has gone viral in some corners. In fact, I still vividly recall dragging my tired heels through the Koelnmesse centre during gamescom 2011 to find a Train Simulator stand being swarmed by shouting fans in what could only be described as an omni-gaggle. On the stage in front of them stood a man wearing shades, bleating through a megaphone in German and hurling free t-shirts out into the morass of bodies. I think that’s the moment when I stopped and realised just how much I’d been assuming about the series, and when I first appreciated how wrong I was.
It’s a big game. With many real trains, actual routes, a high attention to detail and the ability to create your own routes and environments. I think it’s easy to forget in this slick, triple-a era that gamers come from all backgrounds and have wildly varying tastes. Many of them would rather reach a train station on time than no scope five dudes in a row in CoD. Who are we to argue with that?
Plus, I would have loved this game back when I was five, when my obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine convinced me that I was going to grow up and be a train driver no matter what.
Guess we all know how that turned out eh?
Train Simulator 2014 is out now on Steam.
Disclosure: To assist with this article, RailSimulator.com sent Dave a Steam code for Train Simulator 2014. He has since given up on his dream to be a ScotRail driver.