Planes, trains and automobiles: why do we have such an obsession with simulation games?

I talk to the kings of the train sim, Dovetail Games, to find out why simulators have become so popular of late

Train Sim World 4 - The Flying Scotsman
(Image credit: Dovetail Games)

I have always been fascinated by simulation games on PC and, more recently, console. Football Manager (and Championship Manager beforehand) has always been my main go-to, even as it has become more complicated over time and more like work than play.

I've also been particularly partial to games like Sim City and Flight Simulator. So far, so standard.

However, over the last few years I've found myself just as likely to jump into the cab of a tractor, delve into the bowels of a classic car engine, and even while away hours cleaning muck off a shed using a power wash. And all virtually.

I'm not the only one, neither. Check out the top sellers on Steam and you'll find plenty of realistic simulation games in the top 50 – often setting tasks for players like driving a truck up the Autobahn or stepping into the shoes of a car salesman.

But, there's one genre that is perhaps the most endearing – one that has always found a dedicated, often obsessed audience no matter the current trend in video gaming – trains. And there are few studios that have conquered that area quite so successfully as Dovetail Games with its Train Sim World series.

I met up with the studio's senior technical producer, Lukas Klymzcik, and community manager, Jan Klama, during the recent Gamescom show in Germany to talk about its latest outing – Train Sim World 4 – and the rise in popularity of simulation games in general. We also discussed the importance of continued development for older machines, and even the possibility of seeing the HS2 rendered in video game form in the future.

Just don't hold your breath for the latter.

Klymzcik answered my questions while Klama demoed the game.

Simulation games seem to have become more popular in recent years, to the extent there's one for everything – even cleaning the garden using a power wash – do you think they are now more accepted as a valid game genre?

Definitely. 10 years ago when I said I worked in simulators, other people would have laughed at me sometimes. That doesn't happen anymore. It's a grown-up part of gaming now. That's nice.

To be honest, there's a lot in there that's very typical to a normal game. So, a simulator doesn't need to be this speciality thing.

Is it strange though, that there is an increasing number of people who, when they finish work for the day, they want to unwind by doing somebody else's job?

Well, in terms of a train simulator, it's a thing that has always been in the public eye.  There are a lot of people who always wanted to be a train driver.

When we ask customers, most of them say that they wanted to be a train driver when they were children.

But there are also people who just want to play something relaxing, and sometimes when driving a train you can have a really relaxing feeling. There's a reason why some TV programmes at night show train journeys.

So would Dovetail consider transferring its expertise into other simulation genres?

For a while, Dovetail did fishing games which were very popular in their niche. But, obviously there are other things that could be done.

For example, if you really look at it, Minecraft is a building simulation game. So, I'm pretty sure you could do a city building game and make it more sim and less gamified.

How about a train management sim?

It was an idea, but these management simulators are very complex to make, both in software development and game design. I can see us combining it with Train Sim World.

It's definitely something we looked at, but there's nothing to share.

In terms of Train Sim World itself, the series is already accurate, so what other updates can you offer year-on-year to make the next version worthwhile?

We try to mix it up. Last year we did an overhaul of the lighting and this year we add volumetric fog. Mainly though, this year there was more focus on new gameplay features.

Are you also releasing it on last-generation consoles?

Yeah, this one will be available on PS4 and Xbox One, and I'm pretty sure the next one will be too.

At some point we'll drop them, but the market share is still high.

Back to realism in your games, do you have the ability to cause delays – leaves on the track, that sort of thing?

We currently do not cause delays. We did think about putting in random strategy, etc, but the problem we have is that we have a lot of big licences, and they don't like to see that.

You can stop the train and cause a delay with the timetable yourself, and the information on the platform will show that delay, but in regards with random events, we don't want to implement them as we don't want to lose our licences.

Speaking of delays, what about the HS2 in the UK? Any plans to include it?

We included the HS1, but we'll probably not add the HS2 until it's finished. Obviously, the demand for it will be so high that there will probably be no choice when it is.

When is it slated to finish?

Who knows? Who knows?

Maybe in Train Sim World 10 [laughs].

Train Sim World 4 will be available on PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S and Xbox One from 26 September 2023.

Rik Henderson
News Editor

Rik is T3’s news editor, which means he looks after the news team and the up-to-the-minute coverage of all the hottest gadgets and products you’ll definitely want to read about. And, with more than 35 years of experience in tech and entertainment journalism, including editing and writing for numerous websites, magazines, and newspapers, he’s always got an eye on the next big thing.

Rik also has extensive knowledge of AV, TV streaming and smart home kit, plus just about everything to do with games since the late 80s. Prior to T3, he spent 13 years at Pocket-lint heading up its news team, and was a TV producer and presenter on such shows as Channel 4's GamesMaster, plus Sky's Games World, Game Over, and Virtual World of Sport.