A few episodes back on the podcast, we mentioned UK Truck Simulator was seeing release, which piqued our curiosity somewhat in exactly how a title such as this might play, and what kind of person might actively seek it out. What better person to talk to regarding the title than one of the leading minds behind it? Read on then for a rare interview from an extremely niche development company, SCS Software.
Xero: Lets get things rolling with the formalities, who are you and what do you do?
Pavel: My name is Pavel Sebor, I am a husband, a father of two pre-school boys and I also happen to be a co-owner in SCS Software, where my role could be described as Managing Director – I do everything from business, to legal and finance, also hiring of people, kick-starting projects, sometimes even tech support and testing. I do most of the boring stuff in the company so that the rest of the guys aren’t bothered by it and can be creative. Well, when a little time is left, I also try to influence game design. I used to be an engine programmer in the mid nineties when SCS Software started as three guys who enjoyed programming 3D graphics, but now I could hardly program a ‘Hello World’ application.
X: Next our customary interview question here at Midlife Gamer, what is your favourite beverage and biscuit?
PS: I used to be a Coke addict ten years ago, must have been something with the programming habits, but got rid of the vice save for an occasional glass here and there. Now I mostly alternate between pure water and orange juice through the day. For somebody coming from a country that prides itself in some of the finest beer in the world, I only drink a few beers a year. I eat tons of chocolate. When it feels like I had too much, I switch to salt sticks for a few days before giving in again.
X: SCS Software’s latest release is of course UK Truck Simulator, can you tell us a bit about this unique title?
PS: Through a series of coincidences several years ago, our company landed a truck sim project when we were looking for a contracting job, and were left out of choices. Fast forward to today, and we are still faithful to the genre, producing trucking games year after year. It is not that great a business, but over the years, we have accumulated fans and business contacts that make it possible for a small team to survive doing such niche genre games. After a long series of trucking games that we developed for the US market primarily, we tried to bet on the European customers with Euro Truck Simulator some two years ago. The game was a success in the UK – it even briefly appeared in the Chart Track Top 20 PC games list. To put this into perspective, for a game close to the bottom of the list, a couple of hundred units per week is all that’s needed to make it there. For the big publishers with their AAA titles, it would be a disaster, but for us, it’s still viable business. So we sat down with our UK publishers Excalibur Publishing, and decided to try to service UK fans even better – with a game that would be placed there, where people would drive on the proper side of the road, and with the steering wheel on the right side. We thought that perhaps people would appreciate that we put the effort into these specifics, that it would make a difference from the big games that inevitably have to be designed so that they appeal to the lowest common denominator of the global audience.
X: The game looks really quite impressive graphically, the engine does a really great job of creating a realistic simulation environment. Is visual accuracy something you strive for?
PS: We definitely need to strive for visual accuracy. Fans are always asking for more – the ultimate that they would like to see is life-like simulated reality. But we need to stay not too far behind the leading edge also because of retail – the screenshots on the box must not look too dated for us to be able to muscle our games on the store shelves. The internal graphics engine that we are using has been in development for over 15 years. There just never seems to be enough time during the development cycle of a game to push enough features into the engine, especially with our fast release cycle.
X: How big is the team behind your titles and what kind of budget does a game like UKTS take to get made?
PS: Pretty much all of the 15+ games that we have developed so far have had core teams of about 4-5 people, and our usual schedule calls for 8-10 months of development time. Sometimes we have to use additional contractors, sometimes just 3 full-timers are enough. UK Truck Sim was one such example – as it was a ‘twin-brother’ title developed in parallel with German Truck Simulator, the core team was very small. The budget was in the low tens of thousands of Pounds. The game was launched in February, now we have our fingers crossed that we break even, hopefully at some point in the Autumn.
X: For most average gamers, very few of them will have come into contact with the title, yet you’ve evidently done very well out of them. How well do these games do in comparison to more ‘mainstream’ titles?
PS: As I explained above, this is a really niche genre. Where the big publishers will not green light projects with sales potential below half a million copies, and lately even a prospect of a million copies sold may not be enough (as could be witnessed when Microsoft axed the Flight Simulator team), for our games the order of magnitude of tens of thousand of copies world-wide for the lifetime of a game is a solid result. Our trick is being efficient about production, and not having to generate profit to investors from the outside. All three co-owners in SCS Software also work in key roles in the company, and we are quite nimble when it comes to burn rate.
X: What kind of community is there surrounding this genre and are they particularly vocal? In addition, are there specific types of player that these titles appeal to? Do the games do particularly well in certain areas of Europe over others?
PS: There is small, but very vocal and dedicated community around this genre. There are incredible mods being created, we are often amazed how far the mod-ers can push our games and our engine, how much detail they manage to get into alternate maps, or extra trucks and trailers that they extend our games with. As they are not limited by time and budget as much as our own team that created the games, many of their creations surpass original assets from our games.
I think our games appeal to two groups of players. One group is kids who just graduated from playing Bob the Builder games, but are not yet ready for Modern Warfare. Usually it helps if somebody in the family like a father or an uncle has to do something within the transportation industry. And then there is a second group, larger and even more important – players who are well past following the current first person shooter of the week trend, and approach this genre as a sandbox, as a toy for the curious adult who wants to have fun mastering the mighty vehicles; at least on the PC if not for real. Our games get quite a lot of flak from all the players in between – the big segment of the ‘core’ market, the kind of players who brag about the number of head shots achieved in the latest mega budget FPS. I perfectly understand that for a trigger happy player looking for adrenaline experience our games are beyond comprehension, our games are honestly too boring for them. Look up any review of our games on the Internet, and the discussion below will be full of wise-guy remarks. Luckily for us, there is also this small group of players who are happy with the slower pace of our games.
Our games seem to mostly do well in the northern parts of Europe, and not so well in the south, and frankly we are not sure why. We seem to be doing really well in Germany, but for some reason our games sell much worse in its comparably sized neighbour country – France. We have lots of fans in Eastern Europe, but due to high piracy in the area, not so many customers. So in the end, after Germany, the UK turned out to be the second most important market for us in Europe.
X: In the past you’ve licensed out engine technology to other companies, most notably for 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project, though you’ve not really created titles other than hardcore sims. Are you interested in moving in this direction at all?
PS: The business plan that we started SCS Software with was actually to become a technology company licensing out the engine. Back at the start of the 3D accelerator era (that’s such a long time ago now!), we actually had quite a competitive game engine. We had a really fast software renderer, a solid games engine based on BSP trees with PVS and all the buzzwords of the era, and what we thought was a mature asset pipeline with CSG map editor was comparable in power to the then still unreleased Unreal. But we underestimated the need to prove the tech on a shipped game. In reality we lacked the experience, and we lacked the business clout to become a player on the AAA games engines licensing playing field. When we finally managed to build a well-rounded team to build complete games, all the opportunities that we could nail were hunting games, diving games, and budget driving games. Nobody was ready to sign us to produce the next Quake killer. We got role-cast as a budget game developer by the publishers, so we got to become comfortable with the idea of making small games ‘for a time’ if we wanted to survive. We love building games first and foremost, and there is no shame in building a niche genre driving game like truck sims, so long as we are having fun doing it, and so long as we can find customers willing to sustain us. We actually dropped the part of business that was supposed to handle game engine licensing, and focused fully on the games side. We concentrate on slowly and carefully growing the team with each successful game, getting ready to take on more ambitious challenges.
X: At the moment you release solely on PC, do you feel that there is a market for your type of game on console at all?
PS: I do not think that there is a market for the games that we build on the consoles. The overlap between players who have bought their console because of Halo, Grand Theft Auto or God of War and players interested in truck sims is just too small. If there was a real chance to get any kind of simulators on consoles, flight simulators and train simulators would have been there by now. Compared to planes and trains, trucks are a much smaller niche. Even these more established simulator types are struggling for survival on their home platform, the PC, not to speak about trying to get onto consoles.
X: So what’s next from SCS Software? What should gamers be looking for in the near future from you guys?
PS: After all I have revealed so far, it is not a great surprise that we are working on a new truck simulator game. As with every new game in the genre, we are once again trying to raise the bar – to improve visual fidelity, to make the gameplay deeper, to make the world richer with detail, to make simulation truer to life. We have not been fully successful in the ambition to improve in all these areas with some of our previous games, sometimes we have to take a step back before being able to make two steps forward. A looming deadline, when a game must ship, or budget overrun sometimes caused us to ship a game with more compromises in it than we would like. Our loyal fans who follow our games over the years often gripe when a new game sports three new features but removes two features that they were used to from previous titles. I hope that we have reached a stage now when our games are only going to grow and improve in ways that will make the genre’s loyal fans excited.
To download a free demo of UK Truck Simulator and for more information, visit www.uktrucksimulator.com If you liked this, you’ll probably also like our interview with Waldi of Truck sim community HardTruckSite.