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The Flare Path: Talks To The Bogeymen

Simulation & wargame blather

Flare Path would like to apologise for the late running of Friday's column. The 50-hour delay was caused by signalling problems, leaves on the line, partisan sabotage, and a Lambton Worm-linked tunnel collapse. Anyone seriously inconvenienced should write to The Flare Path Customer Services Dept. c/o Captain Harry 'Dapper' Danvers, The Green Lion, Badger Cull Lane, Little Coddling, Wiltshire, requesting a compensation form request form request form.

By the time compensation seekers get their compensation form request form request form request acknowledgement slips Train Simulator 2013 will probably be Train Simulator 2014. The PC's prettiest, palliest and most prominent ironhorsemanship game undergoes its annual free transformation next Thursday. Rather impressed by last year's gratis metamorphosis, but a tad disappointed by RailSimulator.com's continued unwillingness to explore the globe and embrace multiplayer, I thought I'd prepare for TS2014 by plying Jon Rissik (VP of Brand & Acquisition in Chatham) with tricky questions.

RPS: Whacking a new cover and number on the end of TS every year, implies significant changes. What's bold and new about TS2014?

Jon: This is the first year that we have really gone out to our current players and asked them what they like about the experience today, and what they want to see in future iterations. At the same time we also spoke to a number of people who said that they would be interested in playing the game, but for whatever reason weren’t doing so today. TS2014 is, in many ways, our response to that.

Essentially our core fans are telling us that they are happy with the experience, but would like a greater range of ways to create and share content. So we have expanded what players can build and share via Steam Workshop considerably as a result of that. For those players who have a few reservations about getting into train simulation, we have really looked to address their concerns by making the first 30-60 minutes of play more engaging and by introducing our new career system. It allows players to complete scenarios and receive a score depending on how they perform against those set objectives. We then offer players a ‘career’ of levels and ratings which can be shared with friends. On top of that we have a number of technical improvements that will make for a more authentic experience, such as an intuitive new consist builder. And remember, everything I have mentioned comes as a free upgrade from the day of the TS2014 launch for existing players. All they need to do is boot up the game and they will be playing the very latest version.

RPS: Tiny outfits like Run 8 and the Open Rails team have managed to produce working train sim multiplayer modes. Why hasn't RSC?

Jon: We have spent a lot of time discussing the multiplayer question, both internally and most importantly, with our customers. There are some players who see it as an important feature, but many more have told us that they want to enjoy their experience on their own, in an environment where they have complete control over it. While the idea of creating and running a rail network with friends sounds fun, it relies on everyone playing together in a certain way, essentially bringing structure to what is an unstructured experience. Our players are telling us they are happy for other people to see what they are doing, as long as they can’t interfere directly with their content. This is another reason why we have spent time implementing the career system and delivering a simple and intuitive way for players to check out their friends progress. We are certainly not turning our back on multiplayer, we just want to make sure that when we do introduce it, it will be welcomed by the majority of players as a fun and engaging feature in its own right, rather than simply a tag-line that fits neatly onto the back of the box.

RPS: Why were Donner Pass, London-Faversham, and Hamburg-Hanover chosen as new default routes, and which routes have been dropped to make room for them?

Jon: Donner Pass, London-Faversham and Hamburg-Hanover are three of the most popular stand-alone routes available for the game. They cover our three largest markets (US, UK and Germany), and we think they offer a great entry point for newcomers to the franchise. Existing owners of these routes will automatically have their content upgraded with the TS2014 feature set. So for example we have done a lot of work to improve our mountain texturing, particularly when viewed from a distance. Any current owner of the Donner Pass route who fires it up after the release of TS2014 will automatically receive that upgrade. As for routes that we had to drop to create these, we spend a lot of time thinking about routes that our customers will want. The key questions we ask ourselves are; ‘is it a popular/known route?’’, ‘are the locos that run on the route interesting?’ and, ‘is there a good variety of engaging gameplay to be derived from the route?’ If the answer is yes to all three, we add the route to the list of ‘potentials’. We are really pleased with routes we are including in TS2014, but we could have gone in other directions. We’re not short of ideas!

RPS: RSC seems to play it fairly safe when it comes to add-on themes. Four years after Paul Jackson stated “I have high hopes for India, Russia, and Japan as potential markets”, there's still no official add-ons set in those countries. Why?

Jon: Over the past few years we have been focused on growing our customer base in the key established western markets. For a relatively small company like ours, that’s been the right decision, as it has allowed us to focus. However it’s fair to say that we are still excited about opportunities in the markets you mention. They are challenging places for western publishers to be successful, but we certainly believe that the core ingredient is there - an enthusiasm for rail and everything associated with it.

RPS: I suspect part of the reason I now spend more time bus and truck simming than train simming is that games like ETS2 and OMSI offer random traffic flows and traffic lights. Do you plan to add more unpredictability to TS scenarios?

Jon: Our Quick Drive feature, introduced in TS2013, brought the ability for players to quickly and easily choose any journey on a route that they wish.  While you drive you will see random (but appropriate) wagons placed in yards and meet random trains coming in the other direction.  For example, when starting a quick drive scenario in a Class 395 in Faversham station, as I pull out I see a Class 395 coming in, another time it might be a Class 375 and another time there might be nothing at all. Random signalling is far trickier to manage; unlike the roads you're operating in a strictly managed environment on the rails.  However, with Steam Workshop support for scenarios, you can of course choose from a huge selection of over 2,000 scenarios to download and drive, so if you want a new challenge you can find it quickly and easily and you'll never know quite what's coming each time.

RPS: Has RSC ever considered branching out into other sim areas or blending traditional train simming with tycoon elements a la Euro Truck Simulator or Farming Simulator?  It strikes me a 'run your own heritage railway' game could be rather fun - buying and selling stock, investing in facilities, extending lines etc.

Jon: I think when you start introducing elements of management, or ‘tycoon’ style play then you enter firmly into the category of ‘game’, rather than ‘simulation’. We make simulation ‘hobby’ experiences and we work hard not to dictate the way that the game should be played. We are introducing a richer player career system in TS2014, but we know that some of our players will still prefer to run locos at their own pace, without the pressure or challenge of scenarios. We have some players who prefer not to drive the loco at all and simply enjoy accessing the passenger view and watching the world go by. Others spend the majority of their time in the editor, customising content and creating their own, unique experience. All of that is okay. We like to think that we provide a ‘kit’ of routes and locomotives - how you enjoy them is up to you.

RPS: Is the update likely to cause problems for any existing add-ons or scenarios?

Jon: We go to great efforts to ensure that everything we do is backwards compatible, which is a challenging job when you have more than 100 pieces of DLC to look after.

RPS: Is it going to have any effect on framerates?

Jon: There will be no negative effect.

RPS: Thank you for your time


The Flare Path Foxer

… is sunning itself on a litter-strewn railway embankment near Clapham today. Sorry. Back next week.

Morbid duo SuicideKing and Osdeath share last Friday's prize.

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Tim Stone