Train Simulator has a lot of DLC. If you went to buy all 300+ pieces of DLC on Steam at once, it would cost you over £4000. Some of the individual bits are fairly cheap, such as the £2.99 coach packs, and some are expensive, like the West Highlind Line (South) Route, coming in at a whopping £24.99.
This perceived onslaught of DLC is something plenty of people in gaming love to pick at. The Steam reviews are inundated with people who’ve played a couple of hours giving negative reviews because they’d need to spend a lot to “own the full game”. Meanwhile, various gaming websites publish running totals of how much everything costs, coming back to it every few years to let us all know a game is expensive. Except these complaints aren’t all that valid, and highlight the huge gap between simulation enthusiasts and more “traditional” game players.
“Traditional” game players, i.e. the ones more often than not leaving negative reviews and gazing in horror at the price of Train Simulator DLC, may often see extra content as essential. In a lot of games it is – season passes promising a long tail of support, major expansions adding hours of new stuff to do, microtransactions we plough through hundreds of randomised loot boxes to get. We’re obsessed with having a ‘complete’ package, even if the extra stuff isn’t all that crucial. It’s a fair conclusion to come to, especially when we’re regularly subjected to half-baked content cut from games for the sake of being sold to us at a later date as DLC.
But Train Simulator, and simulation games like it, don’t work that way. They’re platforms on which people build a hobby almost totally separate from gaming, something that just conveniently uses the same technology. Nobody but richest and most hardcore of model train fanatics would walk into Hobbycraft, look at the shelf of Hornby model train products, and expect that they’d need to buy every single bit to get the ‘full experience’. Instead, they find the trains and scenery pieces they like, collecting them to build up their own dream tracks. Train Simulator is the exact same, just digital.
I bet there isn’t a train enthusiast in the world who’d be able to list every single train available in-game. Instead, people have favourites. Just like a plane enthusiast might have a fondness for the Boeing 747 or a Spitfire, train enthusiasts may love the idea of simulating 1970s German BR151 freight locomotive, and so they pick up the add-on that adds just that to the game. They might also pick up the Munich – Garmisch-Partenkirchen Route add-on to, just to go even further into their German train-driving journey. That same player may have no interest in the Exeter-Paignton Riviera line, and so wouldn’t buy it. Just like they wouldn’t buy any British-looking scenery for an actual, physical German model train set.
Games like Fallout 4 may frame their DLC as essential addons to make the experience more complete, but that’s not what Train Simulator does. It uses the Steam DLC as a catalogue, something for enthusiasts to flick through and find the specific things they want for their own simulation. They might branch out to other routes later, but very few would ever consider buying every single piece available – what’s the point when you just want to go to Dusseldorf?
The second misconception is that developer Dovetail Games is responsible for every piece of DLC. People seem to think that, instead of working on new games or updates, Dovetail are just constantly churning out trains and scenery and nothing else. Except, even if Dovetail has been criticised for their handling of the game by simulation fans, a lot of the DLC is made by third parties. There’s DP Simulation, Railtraction, Just Trains, Armstrong Powerhouse, and Virtual New Haven Railroad, among countless others, all producing content for the game and selling it through both their own sites and Steam as DLC, in partnership with Dovetail. This multi-party model goes a way to explaining why the price is higher for some pieces than others, and also explains why the quality of content packs seems to wildly vary. For example, Rail Magic’s Black Forest route is panned by enthusiasts, while Thomson Interactive’s content fares much better.
In this way, Train Simulator more closely relates to Second Life than traditional games. Community members have built their own cottage industry, complete with websites and storefronts of their own, to sell content for the game, and it’s something that’s supported and encouraged by Dovetail itself. It’s also not the complete story, as plenty of addons, both free and paid, don’t make their way to Steam. Again, it turns Steam DLC into a catalogue, not a list of essentials; these are things you might like, not things you have to buy.
Finally, as a minor note, some of that £4000 of DLC is standalone. Some of them are more jokey pieces, like the Count of Monster Disco, but there are also things like South London Network Route that don’t require ownership of the base game to play. This doesn’t say anything about either the Train Simulator or wider games communities, but it feels disingenuous to me to include standalone DLC in that £4000 total.
Simulation games are a really interesting intersection of hobbies. They’re games, and they’re widely featured on gaming platforms like Steam and Twitch (if you’ve never watched a flight simulator stream, they are the chillest things ever), but they also diverge so wildly away from wider understanding of ‘gaming’ that they often get dragged down by the larger gaming community.
Sure, there are people who play simulators and other games (I love Farming Simulator), but there are plenty of huge simulation fans that don’t play any other games, and maybe don’t even consider what they’re doing ‘gaming’. Dovetail doesn’t deserve all of the credit for this by any stretch of the imagination, as a lot of the exciting things in simulator games come from the community, not the developer. You don’t build an accurate recreation of a Boeing 747 cockpit in your house to then go and play League of Legends on it, and you don’t build your own personal train cabin complete with floor-mounted transducers to recreate the motion of a train to then use it as a personal cinema. It’s a hobby completely to itself, not just a facet of gaming, and I personally find it a massive shame that the point where it and gaming meets is often met with derision and criticism, when it could just as easily be a springboard to introduce people to a really creative, if a bit nerdy, hobby.
Now, if you excuse me, this proud anorak’s got a KUHN Discolander XM H2 Cultivator to play with in Farming Simulator 17.