"We were actually lucky to be neglected"
SCS Software never set out to make niche driving sims, but the American Truck Simulator dev found success there and is now in it for the long haul
SCS Software is the first name in truck driving simulation games. Granted, there may not be many names at all in truck driving simulation games, but SCS is still the one to know. Earlier this month, the Czech developer launched American Truck Simulator (the #1 trending game on SteamSpy as of this writing, trailed by XCOM 2 and Firewatch) to a outpouring of critical appreciation and commercial success that surprised even SCS CEO Pavel Sebor.
"It's way above expectations," Sebor told GamesIndustry.biz. "We thought we were creating a niche game that sometimes happens to sell well also during Steam sales and special occasions, but getting this kind of acceptance in sales and so many positive reviews, not just random YouTubers but also on serious game industry publications, it's something to be proud of."
"[O]ne of those projects nobody wanted to touch was a truck driving game that would combine tycoon elements with driving elements. We didn't even know there were such games in the genre before."
American Truck Simulator is just the latest in a long line of truck sims from the studio, dating back to the early 2000's and the 18 Wheels of Steel series of PC games it developed for THQ's budget label ValuSoft. It has since developed more than a dozen different sims, including Euro Truck Simulator, Trucks & Trailers, and Scania Truck Driving Simulator. It's even dabbled in spin-offs like the self-explanatory Bus Driver and TruckSaver, a truck-themed 3D screensaver. Clearly, this company was created by trucking fanatics who had always dreamed of exploring every facet interactive entertainment through the prism of trucks. Or maybe not.
"It was a total fluke," Sebor said. "Well over a decade ago we used to be a tiny company contracting for publishers in the US, and we took any little project that came our way. We did hunting games that honestly we were not so proud of, but it paid the bills. And one of those projects nobody wanted to touch was a truck driving game that would combine tycoon elements with driving elements. We didn't even know there were such games in the genre before. We just got the paragraph of text of an assignment and a tiny budget, and we had to run with it."
Nine months of development time later, SCS had finished its first 18 Wheels of Steel game. The budget title did well enough to deserve a budget sequel, which itself justified a follow-up, and so on for the next seven or eight years.
"For them, it did good enough to want another sequel the next year, but never good enough to realize there was potential in it," Sebor said. "They were never willing to invest enough into development of the next sequel for it to make a difference, so we were always working on a shoestring budget just to build something that would be different enough from last year... From my point of view, we were actually lucky to be neglected."
"Community for us turned out to be a critical factor, but it's been a lot of work... It takes time and not just empty marketing language, but really caring and showing things under the hood."
While Sebor characterized that era of working with ValuSoft as a sort of school of hard knocks that taught SCS how to survive, it also prepared them for the road ahead. The development team didn't really know much about trucking for the first few years they were developing the games, but they've gone from never having been in a truck to renting specific rigs to record engine noises of the highest authenticity. Along the way, they even developed an appreciation for the subject matter.
"It was an acquired taste," Sebor said. "Initially it was something most of us were doing as a solution for the survival of the company. But as we kept building, we also hired people who are really into it, who are into vehicles, simulation and driving games, who really understand the serious side of the transportation industry."
It wasn't just trucks the developers were learning about. In the early years, Sebor said the company was essentially riding on the strength of a passionate community of trucking enthusiasts. The diehards who played the earlier, rougher games SCS put out helped support them long enough for the studio to hone its craft, and in recent years, they've been the ones who helped spread the Truck Simulator word out to the masses.
"Community for us turned out to be a critical factor, but it's been a lot of work," Sebor said. "It's been 10 years communicating initially with thousands. It's years of blogging, of updating Facebook and now multiple channels. It takes time and not just empty marketing language, but really caring and showing things under the hood. It takes admitting mistakes and fixing them... We've been learning how to communicate; we didn't have any channel of communication [with the audience] five years ago. Now we have an active blog with 1.3 million page views last month and tens of thousands of people who refresh the page a couple of times a day."
"We were always thinking about what kind of ambitious game we can do next, but before we knew it, we had realized that this is a very stable place to be."
Of course, it takes more than blog posts to keep the community engaged, so SCS puts an emphasis on continued support for its games. Its most successful title to date, Euro Truck Simulator 2, came out three years ago, but Sebor said sales picked up in the third year and are gaining pace even now in its fourth year thanks to the regular stream of updates, freebies, new features, and DLC the company has been working on. Genres like truck driving sims aren't hit-driven, Sebor said, and developers may be better off focused on building an evergreen product with updates to keep the game relevant even four or five years after launch.
The company has been getting better at building both games and community over the years, to the point that what started as a stopgap for SCS has unquestionably became its specialty.
"We didn't initially recognize it," Sebor said. "We were always thinking, 'Let's do the next AAA shooter!' like everybody who enters this maybe dreams about when they're young. We were always thinking about what kind of ambitious game we can do next, but before we knew it, we had realized that this is a very stable place to be. This is something we know, and something people like us--love us--for.
"For me the breaking point was when my own kids when they were young started experimenting with games. I had my son sitting on my laptop and he couldn't drive, but he was happy just hitting the spacebar and doing something stupid in the game that felt interesting for him. And I finally realized for myself that people are happy playing our games. Why would I think about changing the genre or chasing an ambitious to do something else? This is just as good a game as any elves versus orcs game can be."
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