The art of making simulation games

The art of making simulation games
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 13th 2014 at 12:00PM

The popularity of simulation games has grown dramatically during the past few years, but how can developers adapt to this opportunity?

You name it, someone’s probably made a Simulator out of it – and we’re not just talking about the usual trinity of planes, trains and automobiles.

Simulation games are abundant in today’s market, covering a multitude of occupations and transportation including (but not even remotely limited to) farming, fishing, surgery, truck driving and shipping, air traffic control, , the emergency services and, yes, goats.

Such titles used to be dedicated solely to flight and found only on PC, but now they have spread to all platforms. So what has driven this rising popularity?

“Simulators fulfill hobbyists’ dreams,” Dovetail Games’ vice president and executive producer Rob O’Farrell explains. “They give people the ability to live out something that they’re passionate about but might not be able to do in everyday life. Whether it’s becoming a train driver, learning to fly a plane, or powering a huge truck, what makes this genre great is that it puts people in control of a real-life situation.”

SENSIBLE SIMULATION

Well, that makes sense for the majority of titles out there, but the notable exceptions of Surgeon Simulator, Goat Simulator and the recently announced Rock Simulator (no, really) have garnered cult followings of their own.



“Something different or unexpected will always grab the headlines,” says O’Farrell. “Every successful genre in any medium enjoys satirical versions of existing best-sellers. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it helps keep things fresh. And if it also helps to draw more attention to the diverse range of products within the genre – then that’s great for everyone.”

Goat and Rock Simulator in particular are responses to how diverse the – for want of a better word – ‘serious’ simulation market has become but in satirising the genre, do they not also openly mock it, and by extension the dedicated and enthusiastic fans that pour hundreds of hours into their favourite titles?

“I daresay there are some purists out there that wouldn’t give these types of simulations the time of day, and perhaps there are some people that feel they poke fun at the genre,” agrees O’Farrell. “In my opinion, it’s all about variety and choice. As long as people can find the kind of product they want to enjoy, be it serious or light-hearted, then I can’t see why anyone needs to feel aggravated.”

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

However, while these kind of simulators have come seemingly out of nowhere, simulation is not a genre that can be entered into lightly. It presents a unique set of development challenges, perhaps more than any other genre, as not only does the final experience have to be enjoyable and accessible, it also has to be as realistic as possible.

While the handling of Destiny’s speeders can be explained away as true to a fictional craft, the slightest discrepancy in a simulator’s mechanics can provoke the wrath of many hardcore enthusiasts.

Fortunately, advances in engine and middleware technology don’t just enable devs to create fancier fantasy worlds; they also give Dovetail and similar studios the tools to refine their simulations to bring them even closer to reality.

“Working with the very latest and most cutting edge technology is a big part of our focus,” explains O’Farrell. “It allows us to achieve unparalleled audiovisual fidelity and physical simulation.

“In Dovetail Games Fishing, for example, Unreal Engine 4 has been fantastic for helping us to get the casting mechanism just right, and this is very much a fundamental part of the game.”

And now Dovetail has the chance to revitalise the title that arguably started it all: Microsoft Flight Simulator. Under a new deal with Microsoft, the UK firm will now have access to the technology that powered this pioneering series, enabling them to not only redistribute the last release, Microsoft Flight Simulator X, but also to develop brand new games based on the same tech.

“Starting to create any game from scratch brings so many challenges for developers,” he says. “Our new licensing deal with Microsoft has enabled us to bypass some of these challenges. Not only has it allowed us to get straight into the flight sim business, it’s provided us with some superb technology to build from, and importantly, it’s given us the opportunity to connect with an established, enthusiastic and thriving community.”

Given the size and scope of the simulation market now, it’s safe to say there’s no danger of it diminishing. The ‘serious’ simulators may remain the closely-guarded domain of dedicated enthusiasts, but the wackier, more humourous entries can help broaden the genre. Whether the next hit is a flight, farming or focaccia bread simulator, O’Farrell believes there will always be an audience waiting to try something new in the ever-growing simulation market.