Farming Simulator is a true indie success story.
The first game, which launched ten years ago, was created almost entirely by Christian Ammann and Stefan Geiger. Together they handled the programming, the engine, the script, the graphics, level design and even the sound.
"It was the only way for us to achieve it, because we didn't have a company back then," says Ammann. "We just had time, ideas and passion to do it."
The duo's desire to make the game as an independent outfit was because they wanted to remain in the video games industry, but also not leave their native Switzerland.
"It sounds trivial, but the Swiss gaming industry is sort-of non-existent," Ammann says.
Geiger continues: "Farming was almost a random choice. A friend of mine came to me with the idea. He knew a lot more about farming than we did, but he was able to convince me that there was a market for it. So we started and we built up the forum... for us, the success of the forum was the key point that made us believe in the project."
This was the key moment in the history of Farming Simulator. The game's name has, for almost ten years, raised a smile from anyone that hears it. A simulator about driving tractors? An international success story? It seems unbelievable, and indeed, that is how the industry felt back in 2007 when Geiger and Ammann (operating under the name of GIANTS Software) tried to find people to work with.
What helped them break down barriers was this forum.
"When we talked to partners and developers, they all said nobody is interested in farming and simulators," Geiger says. "So we really had a hard time convincing the industry that it might interest a lot of people."
Ammann continues: "Then we opened up a forum before the game was released and people started signing up. We were talking to them about the game that wasn't even out yet - we had only shown a short trailer that didn't even have any gameplay. But they were so passionate, and we had something like between 5,000 to 10,000 people on this forum.
"You can convince a lot of people with numbers like that, just like we can today with our sales figures. But, of course, farming is not the sexiest topic on earth. So that is something we had to live with."
Because the firm had these forum fans, Ammann and Geiger spent far longer than originally intended on creating the prototype, to make sure they got it right. This impressed a distributor, who released the game to much success (at least in Germany).
Yet there was still some scepticism around the project. Even their distribution partner thought the game was only being bought by simulation enthusiasts. The belief was that such a project could never appeal to a mainstream audience. But with the second game, the team found out it was appealing much more broadly than expected.
"After Farming Simulator 2009 we had to open customer support," explains Ammann. "It was an email where people could send us enquiries. That is when we saw who our real customers are. At the time, our physical distribution partners, especially in Germany, were saying that all our customers were hardcore simulation players. But through the support system, we saw a lot of parents asking questions on behalf of their kids.
"Those fans are hidden, because you don't see them on the forum. The forum is for the more hardcore people who want to give us their opinions. So the response to the customer support helped a lot in terms of who was playing."
Indeed, the younger fan base kept growing. The company now receives drawings from children requesting new vehicles in the game, and the firm now sends out a fan pack to those who write in.
After the second game, the series continued to improve, the team was expanding and its popularity was expanding outside of Germany. Slowly the games industry started to take Farming Simulator more seriously.
"The big moment for me came in 2011 when I took a call from Ubisoft, who said they wanted to sign the next iteration," Ammann recalls. "They liked our numbers, the game and the quality, and they wanted us to sign with them. They made a good offer, but we didn't end up going with them. But it was still really impressive that such a big publisher was willing to work with us."
"The interest from Ubisoft was definitely one of the biggest moments that we have seen."
Stefan Geiger, GIANTS
Geiger adds: "It was quite a gradual thing. We saw progress over the years, but the interest from Ubi was definitely one of the biggest steps that we have seen."
The game was getting better, too. Each title would feature three major areas of improvement - such as multiplayer in Farming Simulator 2011, or the physics in Farming Simulator 2015, or the rendering in Farming Simulator 2017. And those were joined by 100 smaller changes with each release.
"There is no one point where we made super major changes to the game," Geiger explains. "There's a major change for every version we do."
Yet one significant moment for the series came with Farming Simulator 2013, which saw the franchise arrive on consoles.
"The Xbox 360 and PS3 version was a big breakthrough," says Ammann. "That's when people saw it as not just a simulation game, or a PC/Mac game."
Geiger cuts in: "The consoles really helped us reach the US. And also to show the industry that it is a bigger thing than just a German PC game."
Back to Ammann: "The US was really hard to crack, especially before we had the console version. But now the success in the US is visible." The console version remains a big focus for GIANTS Software. Indeed, it's one of the only companies - outside of Bethesda - to feature modding on console - a feat the firm is particularly proud of. And that's because the modding community is core to the growth and progress of the franchise.
"Even before this first game was release, the fans already imagined that they could mod the game and add their beloved brands, or change things," Ammann said. "As we kept the game very open for modding, this completely took off. It is crazy. Nowadays we have between 20 and 50 mods every single day."
The modding world has been crucial in the growth of the studio, too. Today, around 100 people work on Farming Simulator between the studio and its various partners. GIANTS itself is 45-people strong, and many of those came from the modding scene.
"About a third of our employees come from the modding community. For some, it is really there dream coming true."
Christian Ammann, GIANTS
"About a third of our employees come from the modding community," says Ammann. "For some, it is really there dream coming true. We have roughly one third of the team as gaming veterans - developers from other games companies. Then one third of really fresh people, usually out of university. And one third who come from the community. This is a really good mix and balance, to ensure we have a good culture and a good mix of opinions."
Geiger continues: "Generally, the issue with the people that come from the community is that they don't think on a broader scale. They want some specific features that they like personally, but in the end you need to create a game that a lot of people will like. So it is about finding the balance. The mix is really important. It wouldn't work to have all of our employees come from the community. Even half would be a problem."
The size of the team is important as Farming Simulator continues to evolve away from its niche. Creating new vehicles in the game can take "several man months" and there are over 140 vehicles in each version.
"And that's just vehicles," Ammann says. "In terms of items, there's something like 350 in the game. One tractor has up to 200 moving parts that we have to animate, with hydraulics, suspension... and even in the cabin there are a lot of moving things that need to be animated."
What has made this process a little easier to manage is the relationship with the farming industry. Although it took the games industry a little longer to get on-board, the farming world was far more embracing. GIANTS attends each Agritechnica, a major farming technology show, and creates a tractor installation. It's been doing that since 2012. And today, there are some 100 farming brands in Farming Simulator.
"Among them are the biggest companies in the farming world," says Ammann. "It is also important for us to get feedback from the pros who build the real machines, and that we can also get access to the machines and record the original sounds. That's all important for us. So the partnership with the industry is really big. We have one guy here dedicated as a key account guy to work with all of these companies."
Whereas initially, Geiger and Ammann had to build tractors based on videos or images, today they are provided with construction data from the manufacturers, so they can recreate things precisely.
However, they need to be careful when it comes to working with so many competitors.
"We try to not build up competition between partners," says Ammann. "We always talk to them and find out what their key areas or developments are, and we try not to have two partners with a similar machine type or size."
Geiger: "Especially because of the price issue. They may look like identical machines, but the prices could be quite different because of the details. Like how expensive it is going to be to repair and things like that. That's something we can't model in the game. So if we have exactly the same machine, but looking a bit different with different prices... that would be bad from a gameplay perspective. So we try to have different machines from different manufacturers."
All of this accuracy makes the game sound like a super hardcore simulation project, but GIANTS is about embracing both halves of its community. Farming Simulator is a mainstream game. It was, after all, the only game that Angela Merkel - the german chancellor - played upon her visit to Gamescom last year.
"Nobody was allowed to capture the screen while she was playing, and the only thing she managed to do was drive right into a tree," laughs Ammann.
Ten years in, and GIANTS says its next aim is to make the project look more AAA. The upcoming game will feature a visual overhaul as one of its big changes, but that's just the start of the journey, Ammann says.
"AAA graphics are very expensive and labour intensive. But that is one of our current goals," he says. "We will not achieve it with our next iteration, but maybe the one after."
Geiger concludes: "We want to expand in every direction. Both into the hardcore simulation area, but also into the mainstream part as well. It still lacks in a lot of areas. The introduction is quite challenging for casual players. It can be quite hard to get into the game.
"So there's still lots to be getting on with."