Mother Nature is up to something. In my neck-of-the-woods cuckoo pint and dog's mercury have begun appearing amongst the leaf litter. The bare treetops are abuzz with avian Morse code. If I didn't know better I'd say a Big Push was in the offing. Gaia is going to try another assault with her Elite Photosynthesizers. It's as if she doesn't remember how it ended last year. How it ends every year.
If war should come, you won't find me anywhere near bursting buds or strafing butterflies. I'll be ensconced in my Hans Christian Anderson shelter preparing pieces like this week's GIANTS interview and Microsoft Flight report.
Hills and fields love to prey upon aeroplanes, especially fog-fuddled and wounded ones; hedges exist to hide anti-tank guns, fenceposts and trees to trash rally cars. Since the dawn of simulation, the rural landscape has been out to get the simmer. It took a Swiss developer with a taste for plough-sharing, to end the antagonism.
Actually, come to think of it, GIANTS wasn't the first sim studio to bring first-person agriculture to the masses (That honour goes to Benoit Brabant, the maker of SimTractor). What it was was the first to realise operating tractors could be just as popular as operating trains or planes. Couple a decent engine with a decent game, and let users add their own custom-made equipment and venues, and you've got perfect soil conditions for growing one of the most successful sim franchises around.
Curious to know how the team behind Farming Simulator ended up crafting combines and tweaking manure stats, I sought out GIANTS co-owner Thomas Frey. Our AgriChat went something like this...
RPS: Why farming sims? Did GIANTS simply spot a gap in the market?
Thomas: Back in 2004 a small group of hobbyist game developers gathered together to develop an action RPG based on the story of Willhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller. Three of these devs (Christian Ammann, Stefan Geiger, Thomas Frey) together with Renzo Thönen went on to form GIANTS Software.
In 2007 a friend of Stefan had the idea of building a farming game in which the player could control combine harvesters, tractors etc. and farm in a virtual manner. Back then there had been a few farming games like SimTractor and John Deere Drive Green, but our goal was to have a more realistic approach with much better graphics, better physics and more innovative gameplay.
We also decided to allow mods. With every game we deploy a toolset (SDK) containing an Editor and several Exporters and other stuff. With this, anyone can design his own map or build new tractors and implements.
RPS: Was the Farming Simulator concept (open world, economic elements, low-to-medium complexity...) set down in the first design docs, or did it emerge slowly during development?
Thomas: Farming Simulator is not a typical simulator like Flight Simulator. In Flight Simulator just starting a plane and getting it into the air without crashing can be a challenge; you need to know what buttons to press, and in what order etc.
Right from the beginning it was our goal to have a new approach to complexity. The game should be simpler - today we would say more 'casual' - with easy and intuitive controls. We now know that this allowed us to reach a much bigger audience and was one of the reasons for our success. With this decision we didn’t limit our target audience to hardcore simulation fans only. We extended our market to children (<10 years) because they can play our games without reading a huge manual first.
Thomas: Open architecture and modding has been very important to us. There are dozens of new mods available every day which helps keep the game interesting and fresh. The mods allow users to fill out gaps in the game. Amazingly, the mod scene is so healthy there are people making a living by running mod websites.
RPS: Has obtaining licencing deals with companies like Deutz-Fahr and Pottinger been straightforward? Have any companies refused to play ball?
Thomas: In the first version of Farming Simulator (Farming Simulator 2008) we only had one major brand in the game. With every subsequent version we've tried to license additional brands and this has given us the opportunity to create extremely authentic machinery. Licensing brands is a two-way thing. Some companies contact us and ask if they can be a part of the game, but the majority of the collaborations have come about as a result of our approaches.
The upcoming version of Farming Simulator will feature more than 20 brands, and we are still eager to license new ones. Gran Turismo is one of our role model in this field. There have been some companies who are yet to co-operate and some we are still negotiating with, but we hope we can convince them in the future.
RPS: I suspect the keenest Farming Simmers are the Germans, the British, and the French. Is this true?
Thomas: Yes, our biggest fan bases are in Germany, UK and France, but Poland is also very keen. Facebook shows a strong following in Turkey and Scandinavia too. If you combine Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, the number of followers is roughly equal to the number from Germany.
RPS: Your franchise seems to have triggered a wave of (mostly inferior) non-military vehicle sims - digger simulators, tow-truck simulators, street-cleaning simulators etc. Do you see this as a good thing?
Thomas: There was indeed something like a gold rush, or a 'revival' perhaps. Many sims (including the funny and strange ;-) ) came out. We think it was just a normal economic reaction. If something seems to work, many companies try to benefit from it.
Because of the flood of low quality simulators there is a risk that people lose trust in our products as well, so we do our best to increase the quality of our games to show our customers that our creations are worth buying. For a while now the market has started to consolidate. The strong titles and topics like farming, shipping, snow, bus, fire brigade/department simulation and more, survive, while the more exotic simulation titles are disappearing.
RPS: Can you give any clues as to what will be in the next version of Farming Simulator?
Thomas: We can’t disclose that much at the moment, but there will be new type of crops, new animals, brands and a completely new map.
RPS: Do you have any plans to move into new areas of simulation or cross-over into the world of training?
Thomas: We have several ideas for new simulation games but nothing we can disclose at the moment. In the past we've had several inquiries from manufacturers of agricultural machines regarding training or simulation software with a “serious” goal.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
My First 5 Hours With Microsoft Flight
I was planning to bring you some Accu-Feel impressions this week, but A2A's truth serum and my install of FSX don't seem to get along (I'm suffering from the same malady as these unfortunates) so you're going to have to make do with some early impressions of MS Flight instead.
How odd. My first sixty minutes with a new MS flight simulator are usually divided equally between joystick configuration, graphics slider fiddling, and sighing at single-figure framerates. In Flight, 90% of that introductory hour has been spent - well - in flight.
A pair of pithy tutorials have had me dodging hot-air balloons, and thumping runways with a resolutely unCessna Icon A5 amphibian. An early mission has given me the opportunity to try a water landing, nod vigorously at sensible control options (mouse flying is eminently practical) and admire a surprisingly framerate-friendly rendition of Hawaii. Oh yes, I've also been serenaded by a ukulele-playing passenger.
Mild disappointments so far. The flight instructor and the lady with the miniature guitar were invisible. Half-way through that four-minute musician chauffering job, I was asked whether I wanted to “skip to the next waypoint.”
I'm reporting Flight to the Something Something Board of Aviation Safety. In between teaching me how to interpret PAPI lights and avoid stalls, it's been busy encouraging me to fly under bridges and get extremely close to wind turbines. Hour #2 has been taken up with 'challenges' and 'aerocache hunts'. The former involve collecting hovering golden rings while a timer ticks down, the latter roaming Hawaiian airspace in search for local landmarks.
Every aerocache briefing comes with a depressingly concise text clue and a Bing button encouraging you to search the Internet button for accurate location info. It all feels a tad unimaginative to be honest. After locating the five included caches, I can't see myself logging on to GFWL every day, in order to obtain a new one. Perhaps if the ground-scouring was part of some slowly unfolding narrative, I might feel differently.
With the tutorials completed, the aerocaches located, and the ring-collecting challenges cold-shouldered as Not-Really-What-I-Look-For-In-A-Flight-Simulation, I investigate the 'Free Flight' tab. Counter-intuitively it hides missions too.
Selecting one of the island's dozen or so aerodromes, I find a job offer waiting for me. Some wealthy schmuck wants me to fly him from Hilo International to Waimea-Kohala so that he can dine at a favourite hamburger restaurant. I accept the 15 minute commission and find myself sharing my Icon with another disembodied voice. Strangely, considering his request, this fare seems petrified of flying.
With pleas for conservative manoeuvring echoing in my headset, I settle back and enjoy my first substantial Flight flight. There's opportunity to explore the clickable virtual cockpit, contemplate the FSX-reminscent vistas, and test handling (overly stable but otherwise plausible). Is the interior of Hawaii really so sparsely populated - I haven't seen a house for ages)? Do I want to skip to the next waypoint? No, and I'd really appreciate it if you'd stop asking me that.
In other news: I think I've just read the most blindingly obvious load-screen tip ever:
Hours #4 & 5
Flight desperately wants me to log onto Games For Windows Live. The thought of an alternative steed - a Stearman biplane - new missions and aerocache challenges, is tempting, but frankly, at the moment I'm having too much fun in Free Flight to fanny around with log-ins and lost password retrieval. Why is it that flight sim devs so often fail to identify the true strengths of their creations? The most fun you can have in MS Flight is patently trying to land planes in places where planes probably shouldn't land.
^8.3 times more enjoyable than aerocaching.
^13.6 times more enjoyable than collecting silly gold rings.
^11th time lucky.
^They said it couldn't be done.
The Flare Path Foxer
There are six trees in the Flare Path's private arboretum and they all have aviation connections.