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The enduring appeal of simulation games

Simulation games find their audience among maturing gamers and wild-eyed influencers alike

Simulation games have come a long way since the early days of titles like Flight Simulator in 1977. That can be said for all genres really, but the march of time has arguably been more generous to simulation games, where realism and accuracy are top of the agenda.

For people who play shooters or more action-heavy titles, simulation titles might seem like a bizarre curiosity. Why play something that tries to perfectly replicate reality when you could be powersliding through hordes of goons with your machine gun arms?

But the simulation genre is undeniably a successful one. Social media lit up following Microsoft's reveal of Flight Simulator 2020 earlier this month, a franchise with almost legendary cult status.

In recent years, the industry has seen all sorts of simulation games find vast followings. Driven by the rise of influencer culture, with even the most wild-eyed and irreverent YouTubers taking to the genre, simulation games have enjoyed a strange renaissance, finding a whole new audience of people who didn't realise quite how much they enjoyed the peaceful farming life over stress-enducing demon murder.

"Simulation has always been sort of seen as the reserve of old people... [But] I don't think that is at all true"

"Simulation has always been sort of seen as the reserve of old people," says Robert Stallibrass, managing director of Contact Sales. "You know, drink tea, go fishing, and play simulation games. [But] I don't think that is at all true."

Stallibrass has been working in the industry for 35 years, and his company also operates simulation publisher Excalibur Games, which is responsible for franchises like Euro Truck Simulator and Train Simulator, among countless others in the genre.

The rising success of simulation games may seem like an oddity to some, but Stallibrass suggests it's the natural outcome of a maturing industry.

"Lots of people that play violent games, it's like a passing phase in your life," he says. "When you're young you have a fast car, when you get older you have a family and a saloon and something to put the baby buggy in, and I think this is the way that the market moves.

"So ten years ago, the people that were playing first-person shooters and driving games have gotten a little bit older, and matured into simulation and management games. And I think it's just a way that the market is moving."

The enduring appeal of simulation games comes down to more than just people slowing down with age, however. Simulation games are about realism and, as anyone who has played a modern simulation game can testify, the attention to detail in these games can be staggering. Stallibrass even recounts tales of how Excalabur would receive complaints if the number of rivets on the side of a plane was wrong. While these games are not glamorous, the experience veers as close to real life as possible, meaning experiences like flying a Concorde or trucking across America are not so unattainable.

"People that were playing first-person shooters and driving games have gotten a little bit older, and matured into simulation and management games"

"If you looked a product like Flight Simulator 20 years ago on a Commodore 64 or a Spectrum, it was nothing like simulation... [now] it is so realistic, so fantastic... A lot of it has to be down to the realism of products like Train Simulator, Eurotruck 2, Farming Simulator, and Flight Simulator X. They are so incredibly realistic that, in a way, they have helped create the market."

There is also -- surprisingly, Stallibrass concedes -- an audience of pilots and truck drivers who enjoy simulation games that replicate their day job. That segment of the audience has been there since the early days, says Stallibrass; but in more recent years, it's increasingly difficult to pin down a core audience.

"If you asked me five years ago, maybe ten years ago, I would have been able to tell you pretty categorically that our simulation age group is 45 up to 90," he adds. "However, with the popularity and the number of simulation games going to console, that has moved. If you look at statistics about a typical console owner, they are aged anywhere between eight and maybe 30, and therefore I think maybe the demographic of the simulation owner has moved down a lot."

Partly responsible for that audience shift is the advent of influencers. While there are lots in the space who serve the core audience of serious, rivet-counting simulator enthusiasts, the rise of meme culture has also helped draw attention to the genre. Simulators are ultimately sandboxes: you have a set of tools to play with, and everything has been designed to interact with everything else, leaving the door wide up for wanton silliness, if your heart so desires. This, of course, is fertile ground for influencers. But it also paints these games in a different light, showing them as more than the joyless replications of real life they are often perceived to be.

There are plenty of YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of views, where people tune in to watch disasters unfold. There is a catharsis, it seems, in watching someone woefully under-qualified to pilot a cruise ship become lost to the ocean's cruel waves.

With tech only getting better, and influencers becoming increasingly involved with game publishers, it seems the genre has a healthy future ahead of it.

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