Last year, Street Cleaning Simulator was a huge hit with the GameSpot community. While we rated it 1.5 and called it "abysmal," users flocked to submit user reviews, taking it to a 9.1 average user score from more than 2,400 votes--making it more popular and higher rated than games such as Dark Souls. While many of these scores were clearly mocking the absurd nature of the game, Excalibur itself has become one of the busiest games publishers around, releasing two to three titles per month, including both Utility Vehicle Simulator and Airport Firefighter Simulator recently. We approached the company's managing director to find out more about the company, its games, and the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Simulator series.
GameSpot UK: Tell us a bit about Excalibur--the games, the company, the history.
Robert Stallibrass: Well, most of the people here, or certainly myself and my co-director, have been in the games industry for about 25 years. Contact Sales, which is the company that holds Excalibur Publishing, is 15 years old on the 24th March, so individuals have been around a long time. We started our life publishing simulation add-ons for Microsoft Flight Simulator and Microsoft Train Simulator under a brand called First Class Simulations and that proved to be very, very popular. Fly a 787, fly an A380, fly from [London] to New York, London airports, etc. Drive a train from London to Brighton, and that sort of thing. Very popular, very successful.
Three years ago, Microsoft pulled the plug on Flight Simulator, and we looked around and said, "we have a formula here where people like simulations." We were lucky, and we happened to be talking to the developers of Farming Simulator. And that is really where our life started under the Excalibur brand, by publishing Farming Simulator. Worldwide, it sold, and you'll laugh, about 1.8 million copies, so that in a way became a formula. We got involved with products like Euro Truck Simulator, which again has sold about half a million copies worldwide, UK Truck Simulator which has sold somewhere in the region of 75,000 copies in the UK alone. So this is not your Modern Warfare, where on day one they sell 5 million copies worldwide--this is a slow, long-term burn of products, and we're still selling Euro Truck, UK Truck and Farming Simulator and some of these have been out for three or four years.
A lot of that's down to reviews--to use Street Cleaning Simulator as an example, a lot of people laughed at that, but actually it's a hell of a good product, and I think slowly people are coming round to the fact that not everything in life is "drive a car fast, kill everybody, or roll a tank through London and shoot the daylights out of buildings." There is a whole market of people who actually want to do something a bit more casual, and that's really where our market is.
GSUK: Presumably physical retail is important to Excalibur?
RS: Physical retail is absolutely essential. We get fantastic support from people like Game and PC World, and a number of specialist independent retailers across the country. We also have great support in Europe from key retailers like GameStop and MediaMart, in Germany, Scandinavia and Italy. And also, we do great business in South Africa, Australia, even the Middle East, so without retail we wouldn't have a business.
GSUK: So does what's happening to Game worry you a little bit?
RS: I tell you what worries me--a business that is turning over £900m and made a paltry loss of £18m is being absolutely taken to the cleaners. You look at other industries and there are people out there losing hundreds of millions of pounds. You look at the banks--look at the money the banks have lost! People shore them up. I'm not saying Game should be shored up, but look at it--£18m loss on £900m turnover--they probably spent that on paperclips and pens! I think the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, and I also think that some of the publishers should be shot who are not supporting Game. They have made a fortune out of Game over the years, and the tables have turned and they've gone, "Ooh, I'm not going to support you now!" I think it's pathetic.
GSUK: How many people do you employ, and how many teams are working on games at any given time?
RS: We've got a very small in-house development team. In total we are getting products from something like eight developers across the world.
GSUK: Based on the number and frequency of releases, you're one of the most prolific publishers around at the moment. Do you think other publishers could learn from that?
RS: The market for simulations is as wide as your imagination. We get people saying, "Have you done Hairdressing Simulator, have you done Ice Cream Van Man Simulator?" Some of these are extreme, but yeah, we are putting out two, maybe three products a month, but equally we are being very weary about quality. I think one of your colleagues may say, "Well, yes Robert--we've reviewed one or two of your products which aren't very good." Well, yes, that happens from time to time, but that's just the way we are.
There's three elements. Hard work, luck, and common sense. I think that's all we do--I don't think there's any great formula to it. I think some publishers lack one or all three of those elements. We just get on with it.
GSUK: It seems as though there's some similarity between your games and some social games out there--are you focussed on continuing to charge for your games in future?
RS: Yes, we definitely are, and yet you're quite right--there is a crossover. You look at something like Farmville, for example, which I think at the last count had 65 million players at any one time, and Farming Simulator has to some extent ridden on the back of that success as well.
GSUK: How important is the media to Excalibur? How important are both critic reviews and user reviews?
RS: I think the problem is, some of our games are a bit odd and they get into the hands of people who don't necessarily want to play simulation games. We do get a slating from time to time, both in the media and from users, and we have people complain about the products. On the other side, we have people who buy from us regularly who say, "Actually, your products are great for that type of market." The media is very, very important for us, because we do not have the advertising budget of the larger publishers out there, or the marketing budget. A lot of our sales are driven by good reviews, and at the end of the day, it's the consumers that really decide if our products are good or bad. We do watch quite closely what they're saying about our products, and where they we try not to make that error again. Feedback for us is very important too.
GSUK: We gave Street Cleaning Simulator a very bad review, and when that happens, it sometimes results in an angry phone call from the publisher. It didn't in the case of Excalibur.
RS: [Laughs] We're a bit more laid back--we put our products out, and if people don't like it, they don't like it. As long as people have valid criticism for our products, that's absolutely fine. In fact, Street Cleaning Simulator went viral, and we had over 80,000 hits on our site about it in the first week.
GSUK: Would you say that there's any real competition in your market?
RS: Yep, we have one or two people who do stand alone simulations--the Mastertronic Group under their Just Sims label do one or two budget simulations, there's one or two other people out there as well who do simulations. Some of the competition is very good, and it's great to see competition because it grows the market. It keeps us on our toes, and we wish them all success. We want the simulations market to grow.
GSUK: What's your most popular franchise?
RS: Farming Simulator is by far and away our most popular, and we've been very much labelled as a one-product company. But we also have Euro Truck Simulator, Bus Simulator 2...
GSUK: Street Cleaning Simulator must have done well?
RS: Street Cleaning simulator just did OK. Because it was a bit of a quirky one, I don't think anybody quite took it too seriously until some of the reviews. We've got a number of other products that did a lot better.
GSUK: Is there one country or region where Excalibur's games do particularly well?
RS: I always laugh about this, but our partner in Italy buys more than anybody else. And I don't know if they use them as doorstops, whether they eat them, put them in their pita bread, or mix them in with their pasta, but the Italians absolutely love our products. I mean, an astronomical amount of business compared to the UK. Germany's very strong as well.
GSUK: What's next for Excalibur--what's the plan for 2012 and beyond?
RS: Our next key product is a title called Circus World, which is coming out in July, which is our first title that we've developed in-house. It's very much simulation and management--you run a circus and grow it, and you have to make sure the acts do well, and you sell hot dogs, and you make money, and that's been in development for three years.
GSUK: When you say it's in-house, where is it physically being developed?
RS: We took a decision some years ago that we wanted to have our own small development team, and when I say small, I mean four or five people. It's a team that we fund, that we look after, that we advise, that we work with to develop products for us, so it's as good as our team. It's based in the UK, but it's spread about. We have a central person who looks after it all and we outsource some of the functions like the music and the graphics.
GSUK: That's quite a common independent development model. Would you say you have an indie approach to making games?
RS: I really hope so, because I think there's a lot of creativity in independents, and I also think that the tried and tested franchise model--versions four, five, six and seven, are great, and I understand why some of the big publishers do it, but actually it's a bit boring.
We have another title that's due out later this year called Zoo Park Simulator, and we have two other key products coming from outside--Euro Truck Simulator 2, which has been a highly anticipated product, and gosh, should I be telling you this? Yeah, I'll tell you this. You're the only person that knows this. There will be another version of Farming Simulator coming out September/October, which will be a completely new version, a complete rewrite of the code, so it won't just be a rehash. We've planned for console versions, but they probably won't happen till next year.