Twenty years ago, SCS software was a small company just starting out, founded by three friends with programming backgrounds. At the start, the company took small contracts designing games for other publishers, often under a tight schedule and limited budget. In those days, one of the founders admits, the company was more or less invisible, with IPs going to the client. That is not the case anymore.
SCS Software struck gold in an underappreciated genre – simulation games – in particular – truck simulators. Its first title was Hard Truck – 18 Wheels of Steel; its flagship today, which has done incredibly well, is Euro Truck Simulator 2 selling more than 4 million copies worldwide.
If you’ve ever dreamed of getting behind the wheel of a powerful 18-wheeler, starting the engine and heading out on the highway, this is the company for you.
How did SCS achieve such a success? The key factor is that they were at the right place at the right time, getting a contract for their first sim and gradually realizing that truck simulations were a niche where they could grow and become a leading brand name. They went from a handful of people at inception to around 100 today.
Another factor was innovation in management, not only hiring the right talent but also giving staff the freedom to excel.
When SCS moved recently into a new state-of-the-art office in Prague’s Kačerov seven weeks ago, it was after first hiring an architectural studio to design work spaces that reward both work and play.
SCS co-founder and CEO Pavel Šebor explains.
“We realised that ‘water cooler talk’ is actually what moves the company forward. We tried to make the space friendly to discussions in which people organically shared ideas and inspiration. We didn’t want to lock ourselves up in some isolated bubbles, where small teams worked very well internally but had no idea what other departments are doing unless they are ‘informed’ first in some formal meeting by ‘higher-ups’.
“The company’s structure is very flat: we don’t have layers of management but great craftsmen and great artists.”
“Consequently, the company’s structure is very flat: we don’t have several layers of management. We have great craftsmen here, great programmers, great artists and designers… and we still work pretty much all work on the same concept.
“We want to influence each other, to inspire each other. Random meetings can grow from a couple people discussing a problem or idea around a computer and within a few minutes it grows to 15 people who get involved. They talk it through, put it up on the big screen nearby and so on. Ten minutes later they’ll be back at their own stuff at their desk.”
JV: You’re not worried that people are wasting time – this is something you recognise as positive after 20 years’ experience…
“It’s all a part of the creative process. And ultimately, if you are sitting alone at your computer looking at facebook it is not going to move the company forward.”
Working towards a common goal, in which everyone has a part and can take pride in, is the point.
As for the genre, the choice for SCS wasn't always clear cut.
In a world where first-person shooters or other state-of-the-art games have dominated, a trucking simulation might not seem like the key to success. But it is. You’ll understand if you’ve ever played for a few minutes.
I was able to get a look at a special rig at SCS, complete with steering wheel, stick shift, and three screens on which the game is run. When you get into the driver’s seat at their headquarters, you have the added bonus of a hydraulic system which simulates the full effect of G-forces. This is what it’s like to drive a massively powerful truck.
If you are playing on a PC or Mac at home, you won’t have the G-forces, but the graphics and overall immersion are nevertheless sublime.
Pavel Šebor told me more as he "drove" an 18-wheeler near Reims:
“The game is inspired by real places but we have to take just a little snippet of the actual world. The scale of our world is about 1:20 of reality. We don’t have all of Prague or all of Berlin or all of Las Vegas in the game but a few places - a landmark, a well-known building, a famous hotel - reminding players where they are.
“We want the player to feel like they are there, so typically, in the European version, there will be a cathedral on the horizon which gives you the feeling that you have been there. It’s kind of a trick on the player: people who know the place will recognise it, and those who haven’t may still recognise a famous site.
“In our game, when you travel from Prague to Mladá Boleslav, one landmark players relate to is a famous restaurant along the highway made from an old plane. Researching and introducing these kinds of landmarks is crucial but takes a lot of work because we have to distil the experience. In this case, a 50 kilometre stretch of road becomes two kilometres and you complete the drive in five minutes.
“The game is inspired by real places but we take just a snippet of the actual world.”
JV: I have to say the game, with the constant sound of the road, the engine, checking the truck’s mirrors, it’s very relaxing. I can imagine getting caught up, delivering a lot of cargo.
“The nice thing, from the player’s perspective is that you don’t have to commit, at least initially, to super long sessions. You can make one or two deliveries over the course of fifteen minutes or half an hour. But the game also rewards you for successful deliveries, and you also end up thinking that you’d like to drive from Bohemia to France, to experience the countryside. So gradually you may have longer sessions and you can build up your vehicle. People have a reason to come back, to experience more, and we like it that way.”
Back when SCS Software began with its first truck simulator Šebor as well as his original team actually knew precious little about trucks. It has been a learning process ever since. The CEO credits the player and fan-base for their feedback. Players who know trucks, sometimes truckers themselves, demand a high attention to proper detail and authenticity.
“If you don’t know anything about trucks anything is good enough. But if you do, you can recognize the difference between the sound of a V8 Volvo versus a V8 Scania. And many of our customers are very picky.
“We have to uphold a very high standard because it is ‘never good enough’. There is always someone trying to figure out how to make it even more precise, how to make it even more particular to the different vehicles.”
JV: How well did you know trucks before, years later, this became your company’s focus and bestselling genre?
“We knew zero at the start. We weren’t even fans of racing games. We had to learn on the go and even after the first few years we didn’t know that much. I really developed an appreciation, I have to say, when my kids were born.
“My sons really wanted to play the game, and I realized that the desire to drive a really big truck goes back to when you are little. What boy at some point doesn’t want that?!
“So that deepened my appreciation and as we got better and better it became clear that it made sense to not only continue but to make it centre of our focus. It took me a few years to realize that it was this genre we should stick with but it made sense economically, because we are good at it, we had the know-how, it is exciting and worth pushing as hard as we can in this direction.”
So who are SCS’s customers when it comes to trucking? What do they look for, what do they expect in a truck simulator game? Different aspects come to the fore for different players, the CEO explains.
“People have told us that driving a truck in the game is a ‘zen experience’. There is no race.”
“When we designed the first truck games, and it has been a process of more than a decade, we realized that different people look for different things in the simulation. Some people obsess over the driving part and the fidelity of the experience.
“Others enjoy the aspect of building a company from nothing: the rags-to-riches story. Eventually you buy more trucks and hire AI drivers to drive for you.
“Some people really enjoy exploring the environment - they have a compulsion to explore every nook, every little road.
“Others love tuning the vehicles and put chrome parts on the truck and buy a better engine. There’s an element of role-playing but instead of building up your character with a sword or axe, you are adding more chrome and better parts.
“So there are multiple aspects of the game that people find attractive. And ultimately it pulls people in.”
And although truckers themselves are big fans and form a backbone to the player community, not everyone has to be a trucking fan. At least at first: they got drawn in by something many people don’t often look for in games, until they’ve experienced it.
“A lot of people who picked up our games weren’t even really into trucks. Many people just like the environment and exploration. And a lot of the feedback was about the ‘zen experience’ of driving. This is no race.
Born in 1971
Studied programming at Charles University before leaving to pursue a career in the gaming industry
A fan of strategic games
A father of three who most enjoys time spent with his family as well as sports and staying fit
“Trucks are supposed to go slower and you enjoy the road. Many people don’t necessarily play games to have their adrenaline going but to zone out, to relax, to have a good time. And we hit a pool of these players from different corners of the world.
“Europeans may prefer European trucks, US players American designs and then there are those who cross-over and enjoy both. We have players from all over: from Indonesia, Turkey, China. We have 100,000 players in China alone and they enjoy exploring different continents through the medium.
JV: Do you have actual truckers playing, many who actually spend most of their real life on the road…
“They are our most passionate and vocal group. And we have stories about truckers returning home after a long journey. Soon after they get home, they load a new game and that can drives some spouses crazy!! A lot of truckers provide effective feedback which helps us develop and pushes us in new directions.”
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