There's a few things that make game developer SCS Software
a tiny bit different: firstly, the company's based in the Czech Republic, making it one of a relatively small band developing out of that country.
But more unlikely still, there's the focus on trucking games - an odd niche genre, to be sure, but one that's proved pretty surprisingly lucrative for SCS.
The company formed back in 1997, and released Rocky Mountain Trophy Hunter III
in 2000. For years before that, though – before SCS was officially formed, even – the group worked on an engine: Prism3D. 2002 saw the release of Hard Truck: 18 Wheels of Steel
, the first of five Wheels of Steel
games from SCS.
The company's latest title, Bus Driver
was released late last year. It's fairly self explanatory kind of game, described amusingly
by The Escapist as “the bus driving simulator that lets you drive a bus” - here's a demo video
from YouTube, surprisingly reminiscent of Japanese regulation-heavy titles like Densha De Go
So sure, there's a bit more to it than, say, Desert Bus
, and while it's received criticism from some that it's watered down the, uhh, 'level of simulation' expected from SCS, reviews have generally been positive.
More recently, the game was picked up by publisher Meridian4 for retail release in the US and Australia in May, and that's how we got to speak to SCS Software CEO Pavel Sebor about the company, its history, and about the unlikely success of Bus Driver
Was there a clear idea of the kinds of games the company wanted to make when it was formed? Were you always aiming to get into the... bus driving game niche?
Pavel Sebor: Back in 1997, when the original group of programmers officially formed the SCS Software partnership, our business model was supposed to be 3D engine development and licensing, with focus on FPS genre games. With the various challenges, obstacles and hard-to-refuse opportunities along the way since then, the company has evolved and changed quite a bit.
Is there a local market for your games, or are you generally aiming for an international audience?
PS: The local market is too small. All the studios in the country are concentrating on games to be published internationally to recoup the development costs.
Is piracy an issue in the Czech Republic, even for the kind of games you make?
PS: Before and just after the fall of the so called Iron Curtain, the piracy was pretty much 100%. The situation has changed dramatically since then, and it is approaching the rates of Western Europe. Which is still far, far from ideal, especially for PC games. For a small studio like us, piracy hurts us a lot.
Judging by our server logs and the amount of traffic on our websites, we know that our truck games are played by an order of magnitude more people than there are paying customers. This of course vastly affects our ability to re-invest what we make into new game projects. Sales of our games are the only source of financing of new projects for us.
How big is the market for truck/bus simulators? Were you surprised by this?
PS: It is a niche market for sure. For a few years, this market looked pretty stable, large enough to sustain a small developer like us year after year, but the situation is changing now.
With the PC games retail market in the US shrinking fast, there is less and less shelf-room for non-triple-A games available, and there may come a point when the retailers will simply refuse to stock our games.
We need to alter our business model, and just as everybody else these days, we are experimenting with digital distribution as an alternative. It complements boxed games sales nicely, but it will take more effort to make it sustainable on its own.
What has the reaction to Bus Driver been like in the year since its initial release?
PS: Much to our own surprise, Bus Driver
has been picking up pace over time. When we created it, we thought that the audience for a game about buses would be only a small fraction of the established pool of trucking sim fans. We knew the potential was there, but we doubted that a hardcore bus sim could sell in decent volume.
So the decision was made to make it more kid friendly, to hopefully expand the audience, even if we upset the hardcore sim purists a bit. So far, this bet has proved right.
What do you feel its target audience is, then?
PS: First and foremost it is anybody taking interest in buses, regardless of age. Feedback that we have received from the customers so far suggests that we have addressed this audience perfectly when it comes to 8-12 years age group, but our older customers would prefer the game to include more simulation features.
Do you think its sale on American store shelves in the coming months will greatly affect its number of sales?
We certainly hope so! From a promising start in digital distribution, we have picked European countries retail distribution one by one, and almost everywhere, sales were above expectations. The game has just been released in Spain, and France is going to follow shortly. This will pretty much cover all major European markets. Now with Northern America and Australia covered, too, we hope to repeat the same formula.
How challenging was it to develop a title based purely on rigid, regulation and schedule-based bus driving and still keep it an enjoyable experience? I notice even Meridian4 marketing director Steve Milburn admitted – in a press release, no less - he was dubious about the game prior to trying it.
PS: It certainly wasn't an easy process coming up with the gameplay that we have now. When we started working on the game, we were not sure whether to make it a game for what we assumed was a smaller but hardcore and very vocal simulation fans group, or whether to try to make the game appealing to a broader, younger audience. We thought that we could do both at the same time, but eventually we had to pick just one angle.
Here's the burning question in the world of bus sims - how do you feel about the criticism that the game should have included an "in-bus" view?
PS: We are probably losing some sales because of it. In-cabin view is a repeatedly requested feature, we have been getting several e-mails asking for it every day since the game was released. The game's ambition was never to be a really deep simulation, but many people expect it to be.
Are there plans for expansions or sequels to Bus Driver?
PS: I am not making any promises, but we may revisit the theme again. When it comes to it, we owe it to our sim-oriented fans.