Dovetail Games has 250,000 people playing its games every month.
That might not sound like a lot by games industry standards. After all, we're using to hearing player numbers in the tens or hundreds of millions. But Dovetail doesn't make casual free-to-play games, or AAA big budget multiplayer shooters. This is a company that makes titles about trains and fishing, and 250,000 is a significant number on which to build a rapidly growing development studio that is now in excess of 200 employees.
"If we were a mobile games company with a quarter of a million monthly active users, you'd go, 'Well, that's not very much.' But given what we do and the hobby nature of our games, and the fact that we have a lot of people who invest a lot of time, energy and resource into this, we're delighted with that number," says CEO Jon Rissik.
"And actually, that number doesn't count things like Game Pass. These are just people who have actually come in and invested."
There's this notion around simulation or 'hobby' games that the players of these titles don't necessarily play any other video game. That users of Dovetail's Train Sim World, or Giants Software's Farming Simulator do so because of their love of trains and farming, rather than a passion for gaming. Rissik acknowledges that although its Trains audience might play other simulation products, they're not what you might expect from 'traditional' gamers.
Things are a little different when it comes to Dovetail's fishing titles. Although the players of these games are typically anglers in real life, Rissik tells us that many of them are also gamers, the ones who are also playing the likes of Call of Duty and FIFA. As a result, Dovetail felt able to step out of its comfort zone with Bassmaster Fishing 2022, which is more akin to traditional sports games like F1 and Madden.
"Bass fishing is the de facto way to fish in North America," explains Rissik.
"Whereas in Europe, you'd probably do coarse fishing -- which is carp fishing. The difference being, and I'm going to exaggerate a little bit, if you're going to carp fish, carp could be 30, 40lb fish. They're enormous fish. What you would, if you're a proper carp fisherman, is go down to a lake for a weekend, you'd take a tent, you'd sleep by the lake, you'd probably spend half your day putting bait out... you'd put your rods out, three or four rods, and you'd just leave them. Then you'd sit and have your tea. And if you catch a fish across a weekend, you've probably done quite well, because that experience is all about hunting something that is very difficult to catch.
"Bass fishing is totally different. Bass fishing is a little more like a video game. Bass fishing is: 'There are lots of bass in the water. I've got to target the bass with my rod, reel and lure to get the action as close to the fish as I possibly can, and I'll probably be catching eight to ten fish a day, maybe more.' I've been out bass fishing and caught lots of fish. I've never caught a carp.
"You can't actually bass fish in the UK because there are issues around letting bass into UK waters. So, bass fishing is really a US sport. It's a big money sport. The people who are good at it are making millions a year, and there is a circuit. It runs a bit like Formula 1. So, there is a tour that goes around, and it goes to a range of lakes across America. The guys who are the elite anglers are all liveried up, they're all branded up with lots of different logos, and they're catching for money. And there is an overall standing."
At the end of each season, Rissik goes on to explain, there is the Bassmaster Classic, which he says is 'the Superbowl of bass fishing.' 200,000 people attend and it goes out live on Fox Sport, along with all the other Bassmaster events.
"It's a massive thing, in the same way that NASCAR is a massive thing in North America. I think there's quite a lot of similarity between Bassmaster and sports like NASCAR. It's not Madden, it's not NHL, it's not NBA. It's not the premium tier that everyone knows, but these are massively popular sports with millions of fans."
Bassmaster Fishing 2022 is a different game to Dovetail's other fishing titles, like Fishing Sim World and The Catch: Carp & Coarse. And the firm has followed other sports titles by not just licensing the Bassmaster brand, but also several famous anglers and real-world locations.
"The challenge that we gave our team was, 'I want to make FIFA on the water.' I've worked on FIFA, I was at EA for many years and I know what FIFA is. The FIFA we see today took many years to get to where it is, and it's taken many, many people and extraordinary marketing budgets. I think we've taken a massive step towards that lofty goal. We have to have lofty goals for production values and online play and just the drama and thrill of playing a game like FIFA, which has been honed and perfected over so many decades. How do we have a path that gets us to that level? And I'm really proud of where we've got to."
"This isn't dusty old men in waders out on the lake on a Sunday morning in khaki. These are people who look they've just stepped out of a NASCAR race"
The game even features a 60-player royale mode, alongside a create-a-character option so players can live the dream of being a Bassmaster champion.
"This is sport fishing," Rissik explains. "This isn't dusty old men in waders out on the lake on a Sunday morning in khaki. This is people who are dressed up in lurid colours, with baseball caps and visor glasses. They look they've just stepped out of a NASCAR race or something. And we want to capture all of that. You may or may not argue that fishing is high-octane, but for fishing, it's high-octane."
Rissik says he first realised the potential for a bass fishing game when he went out on a speed boat with fishing star Scott Martin (who also happens to be on the cover of the game). Rissik witnessed Martin trying to flick the lure into the mouth of the fish as it opened its mouth to breathe.
"That's twitch gaming. That's not sleepy and boring and dry. That's a video game mechanic right there," he says.
Now we're suitably convinced that Dovetail really isn't entering the sports arena, we had to ask: when do we get the official esports league?
"You're not the first person to ask me that. Look, I think that there is absolutely a future where I can see this turning into an esport. Again, this is stages, right? So, let's get this thing up and running with a really great multiplayer mode, a really good single-player mode, and then we can look to tweak the design for an esport.
"I know enough about esports to know that you can't just broadcast it and hope it's an esport. It's got to be designed in a certain way that it makes for great viewing. It needs some tweaks, but I can see in two or three years, yeah, we'd absolutely want to have a proper esports version of something like this."
Although the game is quite the departure for Dovetail, Rissik said it didn't require any major changes to the studio. The fishing team were already clamouring to make a bass fishing game, so there was no need to go out and find a new group of developers to make it. However, there have been some challenges.
"We're trying to make an American-themed sports product when we can't go to America [due to COVID-19]," Rissik points out. "Not everyone on the team has been out bass fishing, and now they can't. I had the experience before lockdown, but not everyone has had the chance to do that.
"We wanted to go to events. We sponsored events on the real-world tour, which has been great, but we've not been able to go to the events that we sponsored, so we can't really build the relationships that we wanted to build. It's been more that challenge, really."
Earlier in the interview you may have caught Rissik mentioning Xbox Game Pass. Dovetail has been releasing its legacy titles into the subscription service for some time, and Bassmaster Fishing 2022 is the first time the company has put a game into the service on day one.
"Given that we have a range of DLC for them to buy, Game Pass works really well for us"
"We've found Game Pass has been brilliant at bringing new people into our franchises," Rissik explains. "And given that we have a range of DLC for them to buy... the core thing you buy from us is only the start point, so it works really well. If I was just making a AAA game that just sat there, I might feel differently. But for us, it works. And Microsoft have supported us brilliantly."
He continues: "It's always been one of our philosophies to try to embrace new ideas from platform owners. When we started the business, we were only on Steam. These were obviously slightly earlier days for Steam, and they were experimenting in a lot of places with a lot of projects. And by and large, we stuck our hand up and said, 'Yes, we'll be the poster child for that. Yes, we'll try that. If you're promoting it, we'll have a go at it.' And I think we've tried to keep that spirit.
"We're mid-sized, but we don't have the marketing clout to be able to compete with other businesses out there, so we need our publishing and platform partners to help us. So, how do they help us? Well, maybe we have to help them a little bit. So, we're happy to be part of these things, and see where it takes us."
Dovetail is a mid-sized company, but it's growing rapidly. Rissik estimates they've added 80 employees since the start of COVID-19, and it's still expanding. It's not the only simulation specialist that's expanding, either. The sector appears to be maturing, and Rissik expects the space to follow the rest of the industry in terms of consolidation.
"[This sector has] always been misunderstood," Rissik concludes. "And there has been a lot of content out there that's not been as good as it could have. Now, there are four or five companies who are doing fabulous stuff in this space, and I think that's going to consolidate further. We are an incredibly ambitious business, and we've got an even bigger role to play in simulation than we're playing today. So watch this space."