Trains! What are trains if not big wingless aircraft that travel on the ground? Yes, the banner at the top of this page might say ‘FlightSimN’ but we like to think we’re an all-sim-encompassing venue here. (Especially as I’ve recently become hooked on European Truck Simulator 2 and want a place to write about it.)
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the latest high profile entry to the non-winged sim market, the London to Faversham High Speed route pack for Train Simulator 2013.
You may remember a little thing we had in the UK recently called the Olympics? Part of the pre-event hoo-hah surrounded the country’s ageing transport infrastructure and how there was no way it could possibly cope with half a million people heading to Stratford to watch the pre-elimination Judo qualifying heats. Well, the Class 395 locomotive was the answer to all of that, operating on the High Speed 1 (HS1) route most popularly known as the Eurostar line (the one Tom Cruise tried to blow up in the first Mission: Impossible film).
Based on the Japanese ‘Shinkansen’ (or Bullet Trains) and manufactured by Hitachi, the 395 ‘Javelin’ has been faithfully modelled by the team at Railsimulator.com, as has just about every building and piece of scenery on the entire HS1 route. We caught up with Railsim’s Jon Rissik and Simon Sauntson to talk about the rising popularity of the simulation genre and how the project has fared so far…
Why the HS1 route? Topicality due to the Olympics?
Saunston: Well, we’d been asked by our community for something based on HS1 for quite a while, either Eurostar or the Kent high-speed line. Part of it is to do with the appeal of the Hitachi Class 395 itself, the new sleek, fast train for the UK. It’s a lovely looking thing and we were able to crawl all over one in order to get the looks, the sounds, the colours and everything correct.
What type of experience will drivers get with the HS1 route?
Saunston: There are two distinct parts to the pack. There’s the high-speed line that goes from St. Pancras to Ebbsfleet – the Eurostar route, the full-bore, 140mph experience. It’s got French in-cab signalling systems, it’s all super-modern – not like driving a British train. But then you move across through Gravesend and the Medway towns – where our studio is – and there you’re on a classic British ‘third rail’ line, a line probably laid in about 1885. It’s a complete change of scene. You’ve got two very different paces within the same hour of gameplay.
Be honest, was the fact it goes past your studio one of the main reasons for basing it in that area?
Saunston: Heh, well it’s slightly vain I guess you might say, but it’s always pleasing to put your home town, your HQ, in a product. Our CEO, Paul Jackson, is a Medway man himself and was more than happy to recreate that route.
Rissik: He’d like to chip in and tell us if a building wasn’t quite tall enough and the like, or if things weren’t quite right. So I think we modelled it pretty accurately as a result of that.
It is a remarkably detailed route in-game. I’m almost tempted to take a trip on the real thing just to compare. How much time did you spend modelling it all?
Saunston: Oh months. Some of the train sims have a lot of generic scenery, like old cowboy films where you see the same rocks whizzing past the riders all the time. We don’t take that approach, we set out to recreate the world using all the tools at our disposal, from site visits to journeys on the actual trains – cab rides if we can get them – rail enthusiast cameras and DVDs, satellite imagery, terrain maps. Anything we can do to recreate each route in its entirety. All the landmarks have to go in, even right down to where there’s a hedge or a picket fence. There’s no substitute for that level of manpower.
Were you able to get any cab rides for this one? I would have thought with it being so new a train there’d be all manner of red tape and security hoops to jump through?
Saunston: We’ve been fortunate enough to have developed a really strong relationship with Hitachi starting from a few years ago when we included a model of a concept high speed train they were working on in our Train Sim 2012 packs. Since then, we’ve built that to the stage where they very kindly allow us access to trains in their maintenance depots. Our guys get right in there and I think we’re talking about something like 500 images taken of the locomotive. But actual cab rides on the route? Not this time due to many, many safety reasons and the number of stakeholders involved – South Eastern Trains who operate the service, Network Rail who maintain the network and, of course, the driver in the cab with a very, very serious job to do.
You mentioned 140mph earlier. Is that the top speed this thing can go?
Saunston: It’s the top operating speed. The Class 395 is based on Japanese ‘Shinkansen’ technology, and the idea is that it mixes the best elements of a metro train and a high-speed train. It has a very high top speed but it starts and stops very quickly.
One thing the Shinkansen does is put very noticeable amounts of g-force on the passengers – I once tried standing up on one when it was reaching top speed and you literally feel yourself being pushed back. How does a product like this emulate those kind of sensations for the player?
Saunston: We’ve a number of elements that we use to attempt to recreate that. First is what we refer to as ‘cab sway’. When you’re driving and looking out of a cab window, you’ll notice that as you pull away and pick up speed, the image in your cab view starts to oscillate very gently and as the speed increases, that increases too. This is also impacted directly buy the condition of the track you’re on – the type of curve, going over points, etc. Then also, the sound is key as well. I remember talking to our audio engineer about it. He said that if you ride on a real Class 395, the thing is they don’t make any sound. All the noise is from the rails themselves and the air rushing over the carriages. So we simulate that. Also, if you’re driving with an Xbox360 controller, you get all the force feedback, the frequency and severity of which depends on what the train is doing. The other thing to bear in mind is that the scenarios in the game measure all of these factors and they all play a part in determining your final score. The smoother a ride, the better.
Speaking of scenarios, what is the process for deciding what makes a good ‘mission’ for something like this?
Saunston: First and foremost, being a simulation, we research what the real trains do on the routes we’re on. It’s a case of studying the real train timetables and finding out what the operators actually do with them – if a train terminates unexpectedly and runs back the other way, we find out why. Is it because there’s a driver change point or a servicing depot there? Is it because of a difference in the track or something? What are the operating reasons for it? We find all that out and try to incorporate all those elements into the scenarios, providing the sort of ‘back story’ for them. This way it’s all based on real operations because our experience is that’s what our users want. And, of course, if they want different experiences they have the option of using the in-game tools to create their own and putting them up for download on the Steam Workshop.
Rissik: That’s a big part of it. The scenarios that we create are really only the start. The imagination of our customers is more exciting in a way. There are now more than 1,000 scenarios for people to download and enjoy. We point them in the right direction but it’s what the community do with those scenarios that I think is the most interesting.
Have you found yourself being surprised by what that community has created along the way?
Saunston: In terms of the uptake in the number of scenarios being created, that’s been very encouraging indeed. Every time we say how many it is we’re already out of date. The imagination and innovation being shown there, especially when you consider that we’re asking them to get right into the guts of the game engine, is fantastic.
Rissik: For this Faversham High Speed package, we’ve only been out for a few days and we’re already up to something between thirty and fifty scenarios for it.
Are you tracking the download numbers as well as the amount of scenario uploads?
Rissik: Yeah, the data I’ve got is two weeks old but we’re looking at 450,000 to half a million scenario downloads. The number one guy who is creating content has about 60,000 downloads of a single route he’s put up. It’s proving incredibly popular and it’s something we’re looking to expand as we move forward, this ability for our customers to create and shape their own experiences.
The other big thing about this is that it’s a standalone product. You don’t need Train Sim to run it. Is this the first time you’ve tried that?
Saunston: We did a toe-in-the-water with this model last Halloween with a product called Trains vs. Zombies 2. That was the first time we went into this particular territory where you can install it as DLC if you’re already a Train Simulator player, but if you’re not then it comes with the necessary core software for you to install and play it. But London to Faversham High Speed is the first… I don’t know, I was going to say ‘serious’ product but that sounds detrimental to TvZ2.
I don’t think anyone will be describing Trains vs Zombies 2 as a ‘serious’ product. I think you’re on safe ground there.
Saunston: Yeah, I guess we should say this is the first full route with included trains that we’ve put out in this manner. It’s all about broadening the appeal, giving people different entry points. If someone sees London To Faversham and likes the look of it, they won’t be put off by needing to also find Train Sim 2013 first. They can just take it home and get straight into it.
Presumably then, this standalone approach is proving popular enough that this won’t be the only time you try it?
Rissik: Well we don’t have any concrete plans for it. We’re still evaluating how well it’s worked so far. But it will certainly be something we’ll consider for the right route in the future. If we think it’s the kind of route that we think will pull people in for the first time then I think we’ll try to use it. We’ll still be looking at our big annual updates where we really try to kick-start the technology and add in a host of new features. But I think it’s symptomatic of the fact that the train simming market is growing quite quickly at the moment. The market for simulations in general seems to be growing. Everyone we speak to on the retail side seems to be reporting that there is growth. It’s an exciting time to be in the sim space.
Things like the recent unexpected critical success of Euro Truck Sim 2 certainly speak to that. How much does something like that provide a knock on effect to other areas of the sim genre, such as train simming?
Rissik: It’s great. I’ve been in this industry for a long time and I’ve always thought that the more quality competition out there… yes, it’s challenging, but it causes us to look at what we do slightly differently and it has a positive effect across the entire genre. We applaud anything that has quality and hope as a result people look over at what we doing and see there’s quality here too. We’re all cousins in the same space.