Dabe Alan

Secret successes: Why gamers buy, and love, Farming Simulator

Secret successes: Why gamers buy, and love, Farming Simulator

Farming Simulator is often held up as something of a joke whenever people notice its listing on the sales charts. The game seems ridiculous, and out of place in the modern industry.

It’s also something of a large hit worldwide.

The Farming Simulator franchise has sold over three million copies worldwide, and Farming Simulator 2013 sold 400,000 units at launch. Millions of people are downloading mods that add more content to the game, including new environments, vehicles, and equipment. What the living hell is going on?

Feel the soil, plant things in it, make phat lewt

I spoke to Thomas Frey, the art director at Giants Studio, the creator of Farming Simulator. I had to ask: What the heck is the appeal?

“Try to imagine a giant sandbox where you have access to a wide range of vehicles and tractors to expand your farm. The game play mechanics and controls are easy and fast to master. There's no pressure,” he explained. “Farming Simulator is the kind of game that offers a good challenge, but it's also very relaxing.”

The vehicles are licensed, they offer different stats, and you have to understand and “respect the natural farming process” to create a thriving farm. The more money you make, the more you can invest in your farm by buying things like new fields and more cows. 

Robert Rath wrote an article about this sort of banal gaming for the Escapist in 2012, and he was surprised to find himself so captivated by the game. “Gamers love to perform work in a fantasy environment,” he wrote.

“It's telling that people scoff at Farming Simulator yet look forward to the mechanically similar Harvest Moon. When we strip away what we think we like about games, sometimes we're surprised by what actually engages us,” Rath continued. “We like to build, explore, and reap. We like to see the physical changes our labor creates, especially in an economy where many jobs have less concrete signs of accomplishment. Even collecting garbage is more tactile and outwardly useful than drafting memos or fixing code.”

Frey agreed with that assessment, bringing up the game’s appeal to hardcore gamers. “There are also a lot of classic gamers that enjoy the game. What they find is a completely different game from their usual games,” he said. “Farming Simulator provides real immersion in a completely different environment. They will catch themselves enjoying the development of their farm as much as they enjoy developing their character in an RPG. That's one of the reasons why the game always shows up in the most-played rankings on Steam and has since release.”

In fact, Farming Simulator 2013 is #44 on the most played games on Steam list as of this writing, right below Just Cause 2 and above Dungeon Defenders. The game is skulking around the Steam listings, not enough to be flashy, but enough to show how steady and perpetual the sales and engagement has been.

Frey pointed to the steady release of mods and new content from the community as one of the reasons the game keeps its audience so tightly locked in the act of creating farms. There is also the fact that there is no violence to turn off anyone in the audience. The theme is a farm. Some players like the simulation aspect of the game, children like playing with the giant machinery, and yes, farmers like playing the game to talk about farming strategy. A farm is attractive to any number of demographics, and the game's appeal cuts across age lines as well.

“That makes our player base super large and is why we sold so many copies of the game,” Frey told the Report. “We have players of all ages on Farming Simulator and though they have different goals, they all have a lot of fun… We have a large percentage of users on our forums that are farmers or have some kind of relationship to farming, and they like to do in-game what they did during the day in a much more fun and playful way. They also bring their knowledge and experience to the community and we work with them in a very close and dynamic relationship.”

Developers, take note. The road to success is paved by your relationship to farmers.

The game is deceptively compelling, as some readers recently told me. “Upgrading to bigger and better farm gear touches that boyhood fascination with big loud trucks,” one told me.

Farming Simulator is one of the best examples of emergent game play,” another said. “Plenty of dumb fun to be had by breaking the game.”

We've heard people like Chris Roberts talk about the new economy of finding ways to sell fewer games and make a good living, and Farming Simulator is taking advantage of a niche that's decidedly unsexy and selling a comparative large number of games to happy fans. You can joke about it all you want, and we'll likely continue to, but the game is doing well. There are a lot of bigger publishers who would wish for this level of return on investment.

Frey doesn't worry about that, though, as he points out the other reason people love the game: It's refreshing.

Farming Simulator follows the current trend of 'let's go back to what's natural.' You have lots of TV shows and other media fighting against junk food and promoting organic food and such,” he said. “Our game provides educational value and is a nonviolent game covering an interesting topic, which pleases parents and children more than just another sim game or just another video game. Farming Simulator needs to be clever, relaxing, and entertaining.”

I knew there was a story here, but I didn't expect such a strong pitch for the game itself. I returned to Steam after talking to Frey, and pulled up the page for Farming Simulator 2013. My finger hovered over the purchase button.

We could all use something that's clever, relaxing, and entertaining.