For years, I’ve curiously eyed Farming Simulator as an intriguing oddity. Unlike more whimsical takes on farming like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley, this series presents the profession in a realistic light. I used to wonder “Who wants spend hours cutting grass and driving a slow tractor in a boring, real world?” I doubt I’m alone in that thinking, and while outsiders may laugh at Farming Simulator, the series boasts a strong and dedicated following of players more than happy to sow and reap the digital fruits of their labor. What about these games appeals to the fanbase?
I had an opportunity to unleash some of my long-burning questions to Martin Ravo, PR representative at developer Giants Software. In turn, I gained some insight about the staff’s cultivating background and the franchise’s unique fansbase of actual farmers. We also touched on how real-world agricultural advances could affect the series’ future.
So I've always wondered. How do you guys go about choosing what new crops to add? What separates one crop from another in terms of which is more interesting to grow? Is it the type of location where it needs to be grown or the method that goes into growing it?
Martin Ravo: There are various factors, actually. Of course, we get feedback from our community. We also see where people are playing. We usually add new maps to the game with expansions over the new game, and then it might make sense to have the crops in there that fit with the new environment.
Of course, it's also the amount of time we need to implement it. Because let's say you put a completely different new crop in there, and we don't have the equipment for it. Then you also need to add the equipment, which makes things a bit more complicated. So let's say for the sunflowers. We put them in and you use similar equipment for what we already had, but you have different headers for the harvesters, so we had to add these too. So it's not just the crops. It's other things that are coming with the crops, so we have to consider this.
On the other hand, if you wanted to include new equipment, [then] that could also be one of the factors. Like, "hey, this thing looks cool, let's put it in the game," but then let's say it's a harvester for some other crop that we don't have in the game yet - then we would need to add the crop. So it kind of goes hand in hand. It's location [and] community. We could think that maybe we want to focus on a different community for a different area because the game is, by now, like a worldwide phenomenon. So we have Eastern Europe and Scandinavia [with] Europe our strongest market. United States, South America, Australia; people are playing it everywhere. Also Asia, we're also there. Eventually, we would like to get something in the game for everyone. But one step after another.
And speaking about that phenomenon. What do you think it is about Farming Simulator that grabs people? Because I always feel like from the outside looking in you kind of look at it and you're like "Well why would I want to do that?" But I hear so many people say that when you pick it up and you start playing, there's something about it that just grabs you. What do you think that is about the series?
Ravo: Again, I think there are various things. You feel rewarded very quickly. You start playing it and then [maybe] you realize how you have to do something, then instantly you're like "oh cool, now I know how to do it so now I'm going to go on and maybe do the whole field." And then you sell your crops; you get money; and then you go, "what am I going to do with this money now?" You spend it or you think about how to spend it. It's kind of a constant flow, and you also don't have a lot of negative emotions. It's not like as in some other games where you feel frustrated because you lost or something like that.
There's kind of almost a relaxation factor to a degree of like "Oh, I just got my farm. I can just plant these things..."
Ravo: You're going with the flow.
Yeah. It’s rewarding but you can just kind of chill out.
Ravo: Yeah. There's actually one example that I had here at E3 where some guy said he wouldn't ever really consider himself as a gamer that much. He's here at E3, but still. He said "you know, I don't play that much. I'm not really like the typical gamer." Then he told me he played the game [for] 400 hours. So you don't consider yourself a gamer? And I think there's kind of a group that are not really seen as gamers by other companies or maybe by the media, but they do like to play video games now. It's [a different kind of] video games. Not the games that have been known for years, but they also like to play games. And they enjoy [Farming Simulator]. They don't want to mess with other players, play online, and get defeated or beaten by the computer.
Ravo: Yeah. They do enjoy video games, but a different style of game. And of course the third group [that loves Farming Simulator] are the farmers. We have a lot of farmers who play, people who grew up on a farm, and they love the tractors and all the other machines. That's also why we work closely with all the manufacturers [of farming equipment]. We have over 80 brands licensed so far, and we try to recreate them as authentically as possible with good graphics and parts that are moving so that everyone who knows these tractors can be proud of them. "oh, this is a tractor I always wanted on my farm and I can now play it in game, I really don't have the money for it," it's like in the racing games when you buy a big sports car, and then you go on the racetrack. You couldn't do that in real life. But here in Farming Simulator, as a farmer, you can also try out different tractors and kind of find your favorite tractor.
Are the manufacturers of the equipment super involved? Do you have to always go back to them to make sure the tractor feels the way its supposed to and they go, "okay, that's right," or, "you need to fix this, this isn't quite right?”
Ravo: It's more about the visuals. I’m not so much involved with it... but when it comes to how they look like, we're really in a constant dialogue with them. For example, I work for PR marketing, so when we do screenshots in early versions and suddenly someone notices that there's a sticker or a logo missing where it should be on the machine or there's one part that is sticking out a bit or maybe even they've changed the machine. That also happened. We put the machine in the game, and then the manufacturer changed the machine afterwards and we're like, "oh we can't release it like that because it doesn't look like that anymore." So we got feedback from them and then we removed that part and changed it so it looks like the machine when it actually came out. So it's more about the visuals. When it comes to the handling, I would say the only way they could give feedback is when playing the game.
Do they ever come in to playtest and see how it feels?
Ravo: Yeah because to be honest, we're kind of tuning the machines up to the launch because it's a long process. So if you would play them [a] month before the game comes out, they would feel sluggish anyways. So it's like just right before launch basically when the machines get tuned and we fix them. But in general, I think they are quite happy with how the machines feel in the game. It's more about the visual aspect and we really need to work closely with them.
Does anyone on the team get to drive any of the real machines? For research purposes?
Ravo: Yeah, of course. And not just for research. I mean, a lot of our employees were actually farmers or they come from a farming background. Some were modders before; farmers that modded their favorite tractor into the game. Sometimes we reach out to them and [get them to] work for us. So we have several people with a farming background. Not just a handful- it's actually probably more than 50% that do know a lot about farming and they've been on a farm or their parents were farmers. So that's where we also get some feedback.
That's an interesting little scene that I don't think a lot of people aware about: gaming farmers. I don’t think many people would put those two together even though why not? Why wouldn't a farmer want to play video games? Especially now in this modern generation, younger farmers grow up with video games. That's interesting to me.
Ravo: To be honest, I think there are a lot of farmers out there, let's say all of them, generally, [that] love their job. Or I would hope that people love their job, not just farmers but everyone. They love farming, they are farmers because they love it, and that's also how we want to treat them with the game. I think when the game came out, a lot of people were kind of smiling and laughing like “what? A game about farmers?" But farmers do take their jobs seriously, and we also take the game seriously. They know that when they play the game. It's something they can be proud of because the machines are recreated in authentic way.
Also, the workflow itself: cultivating, harvesting, all these kinds of things; they treat the genre with respect. It's the same with other games too. I always say football players play football games, soldiers play combat games, soccer players play soccer games. It's their job, why would they [want to] play in the evening? Because the game [is] fun, and they know something about it. It's the same with the farming game. If you put a farmer in front of Farming Simulator, he knows what he has to do. Someone else has to kind of work his way through it first. So they just sit down and they can relax and it doesn't feel like work for them.
It's the best case of, "oh, I can actually do this work without actually having to physically go out there and bust my butt trying to get the job done." And it's cool for newcomers, people who have never been on a farm. Do you guys have a big fanbase of people saying, "hey, I don't know what that's like at all and this is my only real window into that world because I don't have a farm or I've never seen one?" Because I feel like farming’s become less and less in the public perception a little bit. And this kind of brings that to the forefront, at least in video games, for younger players.
Ravo: I think you mean there's a lot of players who learn a lot about farming who play our game. We do simulate things. Even I learned a lot about the processes and the workflow. Like how to make silage, when to make it, and get told off when I use a plow on the wrong side when I [make] a screenshot. Then I'll ask them, my co-workers, “okay, why would we use it like that?" and then I understand it better. And I think [there's] a lot of things you can learn about, and it's quite an interesting topic, actually: how the farming industry is changing at the moment.
There's a lot more technology getting into the machines. Tractors are almost robots by now, to be honest with you. I imagine this robotic alien, we place so much technology in there. But then again, it's not just about pressing a few buttons. You have to know a lot [about] how to optimize your yield or which height you actually have to harvest. Weather, for example, is also something [along with] GPS-controlled tractors. There's so much going on in the genre. It's going to be interesting for the next few years even with our game because of course we also keep track of all these things.
Is that something you keep in mind? You're always having to pay attention to the industry as it evolves to try with every new entry to have it as relevant as possible. And with things becoming more mechanized, do you think it's an issue of players not being able to hop into a tractor and drive it around anymore because eventually you just hit a button and just kind of program it to do its thing? If manual labor in general becomes less of a thing?
Ravo: It could be. I don't know, I would have to talk to the guys who know more about the industry itself, but that's kind of what I see right now. Technology [is] being used more and more in all these machines and we have to see where it goes. I mean generally, it's assisting a lot, it also increases productivity usually. But what I just saw recently, we also have like farm days where we also get to try out these tractors for example...
You go to a farm?
Ravo: Yeah. And it's not that easy. It's easy in our game to drive a tractor than it is in real life. And what I'll say is I still have a lot of respect–”still” is the wrong word–I would say I have even more respect for farmers now after playing the game and then reading up on what they actually have to know. And the thing is, to them, it's not a game. It's their life, and their income depends on what they do. If you do something wrong, you get less harvest and you get less income. So it is really vital for them to know all of these kind of things. It's just insane what you have to know as a farmer, to be honest.
So what would you say to someone that's never played Farming Simulator and has always been curious? What would you describe as the hook to get them interested?
Ravo: I would just say if you want to have a good time and relax, give it a try. Because the one thing I really like about the game is that it doesn't tell you what you have to do. You make the decisions. You decide what you want to do next. You decide the pace you want to go with. Nothing really stresses you out, and that's like something I would say like you would give it a try and then you will feel like instantly getting pulled in.
A memory that I always have is when I wanted to catch up with an old friend of mine, an ex-colleague from another company. I said, "hey, let's have a Skype chat!" and he said, "well, you work [on] Farming Simulator now, right?" and I was like, "yeah, I do. We can do Skype but we can also do Farming Simulator at the same time.” Turns out he had already played it like 80 hours and that evening his plan was to mow some grass for the cows and I could help him with that. So we ended up doing a chat on Skype and mowing grass at the same time. He mowed the grass, I picked it up, and we fed his cows and suddenly three hours were gone. So you can have a good time with friends in the evening. You can have 16-player multiplayer and you don't have to beat each other all the time. You just have fun together.
If you want to flex your green thumb and till the fields, you can pick up Farming Simulator 18 now for Nintendo 3DS, PS Vita, iOS, and Android. Farming Simulator 17 is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Mac.
This interview has been edited for clarity.