In the build up to Train Simulator World’s release I was able to speak with Matt Peddlesden - the senior producer at Dovetail Games - and find out a little more about the game and what it’s like to work in the Dovetail offices on something so many people are passionate about.
What led you to make Train Simulator an ongoing service, instead of a yearly release?
So the yearly releases worked really well to a point, but I think what we wanted to do was to be able to make smaller updates and do them more regularly. People want to see the game changing more often and I think sometimes the bigger updates can be more - there’s more to get used to. Whereas more frequent, smaller updates will fit well with people, so they’ll actually see the game changing more frequently.
Will there be multiplayer?
Definitely, we mentioned it when we first announced the game, and it’s in the planning and design phase at the moment. I say that - we’ve kinda designed it, it’s really just working out when we’re getting it in now. We sorta focused the first release to getting a solid foundations there, and we’re getting to a good place with that now.
Other games that have tried this recently - Bungie’s Destiny comes to mind - haven't had much success with the formula: what do you intend to do differently?
I’ll be honest, I’ve never played Destiny so I can’t really give myself a fair comparison. What I will say, in the last two releases of Train Simulator, we’ve actually done incremental updates even on that. By the time the annual release came out all the code updates had already been done and they were already out with people. And this is the same sort of idea, if you think about them almost as patches - it’s a bit more than that - but, if you think of them like updates to the game that go out and then the game changes. So yeah, I don’t know what challenges that Destiny has been facing with it, but we see this as an evolution of what we’ve already been doing rather than doing anything radically new.
Outside of Train Simulator World, what has been the popular game in the Dovetail offices?
All kinds of games: everyone here really just loves playing games, everyone here is a gamer. So, I see a lot of people playing League of Legends, there’s a number of other simulators being played. I’m going to embarrass myself here: there’s a card game that everyone plays from Battle.net, I can’t remember the name of it?
That’s the one, I keep thinking it’s Magic: The Gathering, but no it’s not Magic: The Gathering. So, there’s several of the people play that one, in fact I think there’s a group of them play it. Pokémon Go gets regular - there’s teams of people go out and play Pokémon Go. But we also have board games as well in the office, so people play good old fashioned board games, and once a week there’s quite a fair number of people actually go out to a company in Rochester, Playopolis I think it’s called and sit and play board games there. So, game playing is ingrained into what people do, and it’s good because you can learn from what other games do. The other one that is certainly popular with my two co-producers here is the DiRT Rally series, they play all of those all the time.
Do you have favourite trains, or routes you like to drive?
I was thinking about that, and I’ve picked three really. My favourite one is the class 395 - the javelin - on the London-Faversham route because it’s such a varied drive. You’ve got the slow lines where it drives more like a British train, and then you swing on to the fast lines after Ebbsfleet and then you’re running at 140KM/H and you’re running with the French high speed signalling system so the experience dramatically changes. It’s also quite a fun train to drive, you’ve got the power switch over and so forth, so it feels like you’re doing a lot to run the service. Another one I really like - it just came out actually - is the G2, the SuperD, running on the Weardale line. It’s such a challenge to drive that engine, it’s really good fun - especially the way some of the controls are reversed, that just makes life extra fun.
Another one that just came out is the Goblin line; I lived and walked in the Leytonstone area, and I had to walk over to Forest Gate station so I would quite frequently use the Goblin line to get to places. In fact, my old house is actually in the game, which is really amusing - I had nothing to do with that at all. So the street I was on, and all the houses are there, even though it’s quite a way from the railway line, which was amazing. I was able to drive around that area and pick out all the sights that I knew and it was just amazing how much I could pick out and recognise. The general theme there is I like commuter trains, I’m less about the fast and more about the start and stop and I feel like I’m actually driving them.
There is a lot of research put into your levels, do you have some avid trainspotters in the Dovetail team?
We’ve got a number of keen rail enthusiasts, I’m one of them, and we put a lot of input into what is done. But it’s not really just about rail enthusiasts, the team is made up of a lot of dedicated professionals who are really good at capturing part of the world and putting it in the game. Sometimes what you can find, and like I said I’m in that camp of being very much a rail enthusiast, but I find it can work against you when you’re trying to create something in the game. Because as a rail enthusiast, you wanna see every last rivet, every last blade of grass, every last brick needs to be right, otherwise it’s wrong. And that’s just not remotely practical, because even if you could do that it wouldn’t run on anyone’s computers.
Whereas, the counterbalance which is really nice, the non rail enthusiasts are really good at capturing the essence of what’s actually important about an area. And then when you take the input from the two camps, what you end up with is a balance between accuracy and practicality. You end up with it having all those little bits and pieces that make you think “That’s got the really good detail” but it runs really really well and it looks really really cool. It’s amazing watching the route building process works and the decisions that are taken and when you look at it in the end and you think “So that’s how we got to there!”. They’re a really clever bunch, they really are.
Have you spent much time in the locations you’ve set the game?
Not personally, other than living in Gillingham and near Forest Gate as I said earlier on. When a route is being built what will happen is that at least one or possibly two times there’ll be what we call a route survey. Someone will go out to the route and they’ll photograph, they’ll take tens of thousands of photographs up and down the route. All the stations, we have more pictures of brick work than you can imagine. If you see someone walking around pointing a camera at the ground it’s possibly one of our guys because that’s the kind of detail they, the level of detail in the pictures is just amazing. It’s much more useful than just wandering around with a video camera because you’re thinking about all the different bits you can take, all the stations, all the signs. Going around, if you look at a station, you say “I’m gonna recreate this station.” how many photographs will I need just for this station? And you think about all the signs, the bricks, the way the floor works, any pattern work, any joints where two patterns came together, what did that look like? What did the roof canopy look like. I think, when we did Simmering Barn, the guy who did the research trip for that was out there for four or five days just riding up and down the line taking loads and loads of photographs - it was quite interesting.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learnt about trains since starting at Dovetail?
So, I mean I’ve always been a rail enthusiast, so I guess my knowledge prior to coming here was largely the outside of the train. I knew what a class 47 was, I knew what a class 43 was, I knew the general things about why this one was different to this one. All that stuff that’s outside the train everyone knows, but once you get inside the train the knowledge becomes a little bit harder to get a hold of because there aren’t that many people other than drivers who know it. But even then, in the UK certainly the systems aren’t that complicated and it’s reasonably easy to find the information. When you start going abroad - for me the most interesting thing I’ve learned has been things like PZB in Germany, and getting to grips with that signalling system and understanding what those drivers go through on a daily basis. And when you actually play a scenario and you actually get to the end of this thing and you’ve gone through all the right PZBs and you’ve done all the right speed reductions and you get to the end it’s actually tremendously rewarding, you really feel like you’ve achieved something.
I guess second to that would be in America, speaking to a lot of engineers who actually run these trains and conductors, really understanding what it is and the stress these guys potentially are under when they’re driving these trains because you think “They’re doing 25mph, how bad can it be?”. Generally, it looks a little tedious in the game, but actually you’re trying to manage so many things in your head about which parts of the train are downhill, which parts of the train are uphill, which are going around corners, if I accelerate too much will I rip the train off the tracks. So you have to be really careful when you’re driving these trains. And then when you think that you’re going a bit too fast, I’m at 25mph and heading towards 26, I’ll make a small application on the breaks and then nothing happens at all for five minutes because it takes so long for that air to propagate down the train. And then when you release the brakes it takes even longer to pump the air back up. The engineers need to get it right first time because you only get a couple applications of the brakes before you have to leave them off to recharge. You can get yourself into a sticky situation if you’re not really, really good at your job.
So, what looks like such an easy thing of a train rolling down a track, there’s so much that goes into that, and that for me has been a really key thing that I’ve learnt about what happens in other countries. It’s really interesting understanding what’s going on with these trains, and for me it’s what the engineer is going through, what they’re having to do in their role of driving the train because that’s what players of our game are. They’re taking on that role, so it’s a case of what is the actual driver or engineer doing, and then how can we help the player feel that as well.