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Eurogamer Investigates The Mighty Simulator

The story behind Tow Truck Simulator, Gardening Simulator and many, many more.

Throw Call of Duty in the bin! Move aside, Diablo 3, budge it, Battlefield and make way for The Simulator.

Crane Simulator, Digger Simulator, Forklift Truck Simulator, Driving Simulator, Farming Simulator, Truck Simulator, Bus Simulator, Tow Truck Simulator, Demolition Simulator, Space Shuttle & Apollo Simulator, Police Simulator, Gardening Simulator, Tanker Truck Simulator, Road Construction Simulator, Surgery (not Sugary) Simulator, Garbage Truck Simulator, Street Cleaning Simulator, Port Simulator, Bus & Cable Car Simulator, London Underground Simulator, Delivery Truck Simulator, Ski Region Simulator, Oil Platform Simulator, Underground Mining Simulator, Airport Firefighter Simulator, Fishing Simulator, Emergency Ambulance Simulator, Utility Vehicle Simulator, Stone Quarry Simulator, Construction Simulator.

There are so many! And that's not all of them. They're even on 3DS, and there are plans for other platforms like iOS this year. Evidently someone's buying them. But who? And why? And who makes them? And why?

Meet Robert Stallibrass, founder of Contact Sales. His Excalibur and First Class Simulation labels commission and publish these bizarre and curious Simulator games.

He began by making add-ons for Microsoft Flight and Train Simulator a decade ago, but in the last few years he branched out, largely because of FarmVille.

Real truckers play Truck Simulator. And they love it.

"It'd be lovely to say it was all my idea, aren't I absolutely bloody brilliant!" chirps Stallibrass. "But that would be a complete lie." Developers were pitching him ideas for truck simulators and construction simulators and farming simulators, and "in the background", FarmVille had tens of millions of players. It was his proof of concept. "That's a great way of putting it," he agrees. "Yes, absolutely right."

"[Our customers have] had that period of their life between 15 and 30, where they go out and get pissed and have girlfriends and do all sorts of interesting things, and now they're married and the pace of life is slightly slower."

Robert Stallibrass

But aren't Facebook simulation games the cartoons to Stallibrass' documentaries, I ask - aren't they played by different people? Two types of people predominantly play Simulator games, he answers. 15 per cent are aged between seven and 12-years-old, and 60 per cent are aged 35 or over.

"We've certainly got people who play it who are over 70-75," Stallibrass lets me know. "Because, you see, the point about it is, people of that age, they don't want to go and shoot people. They're not interested in driving a car fast. They had that period of their life between 15 and 30, where they go out and get pissed and have girlfriends and do all sorts of interesting things, and now they're married and the pace of life is slightly slower.

"They're not so interested. People's tastes change. They used to play action, they used to play first-person shooter games, they now want something a little bit slower, and this is why these simulations appeal to them."

I laugh, I can't help it. How does he know all this - is it anecdotal? Or do people write in? Confessions of a Simulator lover, I imagine.

"You laugh," he says, "but we've just released Airport Firefighter Simulator, and this bloke who drives these trucks around for an airport, he says, 'This is fantastic! This is just what I want to do all day long.' And he does it at home.

"We have truck drivers who write in saying, 'God, you know, UK Truck Driving Simulator - it is the most realistic thing. I recognise the gantry as I go up the M1 now.' You think, bloody hell!"

Worldwide sales of the Farming Simulator series (FS 2009, 2010, 2011) are 1.8 million units. Huge and expensive and celebrated PC role-playing game The Witcher 2 has only managed 1.7 million sales, including Xbox 360 numbers. It's different, of course, but it offers perspective.

"The big thing that we had at the beginning when we launched Farming Simulator and some of the other simulation products, was that nobody believed us," Stallibrass remembers. "Except for GAME. They believed us. They said, 'Yeah, we think this will work.' And it took off like a rocket. And now, if you go into GAME and other places like PC World, you will see the shelves with eight to 10 of our type of product. Because it sells, because there are people out there who want to buy this product.

The smug satisfaction that farming offers.

"But Robert," Stallibrass reminds me, bringing me back down to earth, "[Farming Simulator] is the best of our products. We have other products like Street Cleaning Simulator, for example..."

The Simulators are made by six or seven different developers. The biggest teams are 15 people, and budgets are modest. "Some people like to flash budgets around like telephone numbers," Stallibrass says. "We just say that unfortunately, for better or worse, we do make games that make a profit. Some people don't understand that the whole objective of running a business, or publishing, is to make money. And there are a lot of publishers out there who don't make any money and lose large amounts of that. So I just preamble that by saying what we do is profitable."

"Now, I'm not saying that Tow Truck Simulator is a good or a bad game, but I do feel that sometimes people in the press say things for effect."

Robert Stallibrass

The main Simulator teams are Swiss team Giant (Farming Simulator), German team TML (Bus Simulator, Street Cleaning Simulator) and Czech team SCS (Truck Simulator). In-house development has also now begun, with two juicy new games planned for this year. Announcing Circus World and Zoo Park Simulator! Sound the E3 horn! Alert the presses! Circus World takes inspiration from Theme Park and will be out at the beginning of July, and Zoo Park Simulator will be out in September. "Then we have more," he teases, "which I can't tell you about yet."

Popular, perhaps, but are these Simulator games actually any good? Not if you take Eurogamer's brutal 1/10 review of Tow Truck Simulator as evidence. I read aloud the conclusion to Stallibrass. Throat cleared, I repeat, "I've never given a 1 before, so I guess I'm just keen to let you know it's not because of the subject matter. It's because Tow Truck Simulator is unwashed offal hacked from the belly of the ugliest of digital cows. It's not hard to imagine a game that's worse than this, but it is hard to imagine that game getting published. So, sod it."

An uncomfortable pause.

"I would say that sometimes, and I'm not casting any aspersions on your profession, but some of the people in the press think it's very funny to write things like that," Stallibrass remarks. "Now, I'm not saying that Tow Truck Simulator is a good or a bad game, but I do feel that sometimes people in the press say things for effect. That would be my comment to that.

"On reflection," he plods on, "a product like Tow Truck has not sold very well, and therefore, your reviewer, whoever it was, is probably correct. But I can say that about thousands upon thousands of other products that have also come into the market that have also been disappointing. What I would say, again, is that I can't remember Eurogamer covering some of our better products."

My idea of Circus World. Apparently the ratings people wouldn't approve.

It's true, we haven't.

"We embrace the press, because it's our way of communicating with the public," Stallibrass says. "Unfortunately, the press don't necessarily embrace us.

"They are much more interested in covering Modern Warfare 3, which has a large budget, which has lots of activity. And Modern Warfare 3 has sold lots of millions worldwide, and I understand that the press have to cover the top products.

"The weirdest we've had is Hairdressing Simulator. And somebody came to us with Ice-cream Simulator. And we just thought, 'Ah, err, not sure on either.'"

Robert Stallibrass

"But that doesn't bother us, necessarily. Because there are still tens of twenties of hundreds of thousands of people out there who do buy us, who want to buy our product, and who aren't interested in Modern Warfare 3. "

Fearing the conversation has taken a turn for the serious, or that I'll have to say something intelligent, I ask about the pitching process. Stallibrass tells me that it's "a two-way conversation" - sometimes his company asks a developer to flesh out an idea, other times developers pitch him. Intrigued, I wonder if any ideas are too banal, too bizarre?

"The weirdest we've had is Hairdressing Simulator," he recalls. "And somebody came to us with Ice-cream Simulator. And we just thought, 'Ah, err, not sure on either.'

"More Ice-cream Van Simulator," he explains. "So it goes a bit like this: you drive your ice-cream van around, and you find a nice pitch and you sell them and you make money. And then you get another ice-cream van, so you drive two ice-cream vans - it's sort of like an Ice-cream Van Tycoon type thing."

Ice-cream Van Simulator is a great idea, I insist, and flesh out the pitch, talking streamlined school and park routes, van jingles, ice-cream trends and on and on. "Robert, do you want a job?! Do you want a job? Do you want to come and work here?" he badgers me.

No. But I'm encouraged now. I dig out my 'just in case' list of Simulator pitches. I hit him with Rainforest Clearing Simulator. Stallibrass giggles. "Haven't had that one before," he tells me.

Victorian Chimney Sweep Simulator. He likes it, he really likes my idea!

Milk Float Simulator? "Well, actually, we have had that one thrown at us!" he reveals. "When was it? It was some while ago. The problem is with this isthat more often than not, it's a question of which is more interesting than another. It's not a case of we don't like it - maybe at the time there was something we felt was better. So Milk Float Simulator - yep, quite like that one."

"So, we have to be a bit careful on blood and guts."

Robert Stallibrass

Jellystone National Park Simulator? "No, haven't heard that one!" He snorts.

Mobile Library Simulator? "Well, I suppose in light of the government closing all the libraries, it's probably a damn good idea!" he agrees. "Would you get the opportunity to fine people if they bring their stuff back late?" he asks. Yes, you could drive to their house. "Could we do that? We definitely could! Quite like that one," he affirms.

Motorway Service Station Simulator? "Again," he answers, "that's not a bad idea. Quite like that one." I'm amazed no one has pitched it before, but apparently that's the case.

How about Port-a-loo Maintenance Simulator? "Is this the serious end of the ideas still?" he laughs.

Pest Control Simulator? "Yeah, OK," he nods, "I could probably live with that one, as they say."

Time to shock him. Morgue Simulator? But he's unabashed! "Well, we've got Surgery Simulator, which isn't quite Morgue, but there is a health warning on the front that says, 'This mustn't be used on real people.'" he reveals. "Because we'll get some idiot who'll try and practice it on his wife and we'll get sued because we didn't say it."

The ratings people can make life "a little bit difficult sometimes", Stallibrass tells me. The game could end up in the hands of a four-year-old, these people argue, so if a lion were to escape its cage in upcoming hit Circus World "and eat one of the audience", he notes, completing my train of thought - "I mean, it's a pretty poor show, and not quite the thing you should show to a four-year-old.

"So, we have to be a bit careful on blood and guts."

I save my best until last: Victorian Chimney Sweep Simulator. Stallibrass is blown away! He laughs and says, "I tell you what, I'm going to give you 10 per cent royalty for that. I like that one in particular!"

But as his Simulators inevitably get more and more bizarre, will there come a time when Robert Stallibrass has to put an end to it all - declare that enough is enough?

He guffaws.

"Robert," he says, "we're here for eternity - how about that? Exclamation mark, question mark."

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