[Update: After publishing, members of the TSR community and the original interviewees reached out to clarify the origins of the radio station. The article has been updated to reflect those changes.]
For many, Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a stubborn rhetorical question. Why play a game that simulates work, the slow transport of goods across long stretches of pseudo-European highways? Players have to manage everything an actual trucker would: delivery schedules, fuel costs, road tolls, bank loans, and their careers in the cutthroat online trucking industry. Hauling 30 tons for hours at a time, avoiding accidents and obeying local traffic laws all the while can be lonely, stressful labor.
And yet, when you’re playing with others, the open road inspires a calm camaraderie. Two of Euro Trucking Simulator 2’s most dedicated players know it best. Mark Watson (Mini in the online trucking world) joined a community effort to start TruckSimRadio (formerly EuroTruckRadio), an internet radio station made specifically for the trucking sim community (and the terrestrial counterpart to EVE-Radio). Later on, Ben Kingdon (Crumbs) came on to provide graphics for the official website and took up the reigns as head of the TruckSimRadio (TSR) virtual trucking company (VTC). With the help of the TSR community, they built something that could only happen on the PC: an amateur internet radio station dedicated to an unofficial multiplayer mod in a niche, monotonous simulation game.
Mini and Crumbs sat down over Skype to tell me how it all came about.
Drivers in Euro Truck Simulator 2 and American Truck Simulator can ‘tune’ their radio any available internet radio station, but Mini felt there was something missing from the simulation. Calling into stations to request songs or send shoutouts to friends is like shouting into the abyss—there’s no guarantee friends are listening, and calling stations often means dialing another country. The station was created by a group of players active on the ETS2MP.com forums (no longer active) who quickly became passionate about the idea. Rick, the forum-goer with the initial idea, quickly recruited Mini, along with ETS2MP members Clare, Alex, and Mark. He describes the station's origins: "I saw a niche, setup a simple site and radio, and posted it on the forums for some feedback. On the first night we had over 50 listeners. By the end of the month we had well over 100."
Things blew up quickly for Rick. "I got a small team together to help me with the administration side of things. We had techs, people to deal with DJ applications, PR. We had over 40 DJ's to cover 24 hours. Before I knew it, we had 400 to 500 listeners." Unfortunately, life got in the way and Rick had to leave after 18 months as he just couldn't find the time for such a big project.
As much as it sounds like a hobbyist’s decision, Mini and friends weren’t making the decision lightly—setting up a legitimate internet radio station isn’t like setting up a Tumblr. Besides the costs of setting up the server, license fees for station operation landed somewhere between £400 and £500. And without Rick, it was a tough ship to steer, so even Mini parted ways with the station, leaving behind the trucking scene as a whole. But the call of the open road let to his inevitable return, in which he took over TSR and lead the station to where it is today.
As a place for people looking to roleplay, amateur or not, trucking sims already attract a curious type, which makes them a great low risk place to stretch one’s disk-jockeying skills—Mini and Crumbs knew they’d get applicants without any formal experience, but that’s part of why they do it.
“We like taking on people as if it's their first DJing role.” says Crumbs. “They’re not the best to start off with, but our most recent DJ, when he started off, he didn’t even know how to use the software, and he’s doing three to four hours in the morning every day now and obviously he loves it. Actually he’s part of the radio station management now. He started from the bottom.” Now, TruckSimRadio has a regular stream of DJ personalities taking requests and shoutouts. Some show up every day during the same hour, a few come and go as they can, but the schedule is almost always filled with 10 or more hours of scheduled, hosted programming. They’ll play music, hold contests, chat about the state of the game, or what they ate for lunch that day. It’s an eclectic mix of amateurs and the experienced donating hours of their daily lives just to keep drivers company on the road.
The radio station was, and continues to be a hit. Mini claims they’re getting about 200 or more listeners a day, and Crumbs talks up the growth of their Facebook group each week. Euro Truck Simulator 2 has around 13,000 active players at a time, an untold percentage of which use the multiplayer mod, which makes that audience pretty impressive. Because Mini and Crumbs found such a successful mouthpiece, they took the community evolution to its next logical step: public convoys.
We got a mighty (slow) convoy
In most European countries, the highway code dictates that a convoy—a group of vehicles moving in unison—is to be treated as a single vehicle. That means other drivers aren’t allowed to split the procession at any point, be it on the highway or moving through an intersection. In Euro Truck Simulator 2, convoys aren't exactly sanctioned, but they’re not traditional convoys either. They’re, as Crumb puts, “controlled chaos”—massive online gatherings where dozens and dozens of truckers meet up to make the same drive. Drivers inch along, snaking their way across low-res Europe, proudly bearing their VTC colors, and chatting all the while. The most popular convoys are scheduled on ETS2C.com, and happen on Wednesday and Sunday, bringing in 80 to 150 drivers regularly. But when Crumbs talks about convoys, his voice strains for enthusiasm.
As it turns out, putting on a convoy isn’t just a matter getting in line and hitting the gas—it’s a marvel that they happen at all. He’s no longer in charge of keeping convoys organized, but feels for the two drivers who took over. “I did the job they’re doing for a couple of months and it was a nightmare,” he says. And it’s true. If one driver makes a wrong turn, then it’s easy for others to follow suit, resulting in a splintered, lost, and frustrated group of 50-plus drivers.
Even so, they’re not nearly as much of a mess as they used to be. TruckSimRadio and co. developed a few tactics to keep convoys in line, literally. Before every drive, TruckSimRadio deploys a convoy control team, whose members park near particularly confusing intersections and repeatedly point out which direction to go in the chat. To make it even easier to deploy the convoy control team, they use custom save files to get on point and respond to problems instantaneously. Crumbs came up with the idea to park at every vital convoy control point on the route ahead of time and make a save file for each. By distributing these files, control members are able to spawn at the designated control points simply by loading their appointed save. The files let convoy control team members teleport between save points without affecting the multiplayer server as a whole, because the files are saved locally and only affect the player that uses them—they basically reset positional data.
Despite the ease they provide, Crumbs says the advances only turned “unorganized chaos to organized chaos,” but I’d argue small doses of human error are part of a convoy’s cryptic appeal.
Anyone can take part in a public convoy, but participating in the TruckSimRadio VTC is a more advanced process. They have a reputation to protect as one of the most popular and respected VTCs. To get in, you need to register on TruckSimRadio.com and then take a driving test as an official panel watches on. “If they don’t pass the first time we offer them a bit of training and whatever they need, and we get them to come back and do another test,” says Crumbs. “As soon as they pass that test they can drive as part of our company.” It’s the ShackTac of truck simulation, roughly.
There’s a romanticism about road-tripping with friends, driving for long stretches, watching the plains spin up into mountains and the fog give way to blue skies—but when it comes to making the cut, business comes first. There’s even a ‘dress code’, so to speak, if you make it. Crumbs explains the truck decoration code like he’s explained it a hundred times before. “We ask that they have TSR VTC (TruckSimRadio Virtual Trucking Co.) in their name, and they drive if in solo, they can drive any truck any color they want. If they drive in a convoy of two or more trucks, they have to use the orange white and black paint scheme.” It’s fancy uniform.
While the paintjob is a banner of pride for many in the community, for Mini, it functions as a conversation starter and the hard-earned assurance that his crazy ideas are amounting to some good in the world. “You can’t drive along the road in the colors of TruckSimRadio and not be noticed.” Mini’s smile widens. “They say ‘oh, great radio, we listen in all the time!’ It’s really great to get that kind of feedback and obvious we’re doing things right if people are engaging with us in game.”
Mini, Crumbs, and the TruckSimRadio VTC are still reeling at the success of convoys even if they can be a “logistical nightmare” as Crumb says, and now they’ve found ways channel the chaos into tangible good. After the horrific attacks in Paris last November, TSR organized a truck gathering in ETS2’s virtual Paris, where every truck wore the colors of the French flag and they talked about the tragedy. What seems like a passive, incredibly closed off method for showing support was actually a somber educational seminar. Because a surprising number of kids and teenagers play ETS2, Crumbs believes that it’s their community’s duty to be positive role models. “For younger people it’s quite hard for them to know how to pay their respects, how to get involved in things.” They talked with teens about a very sensitive subject in an adult way, something unheard of in most popular gaming communities.
Due to the radio’s reach and the popularity of their VTC, TruckSimRadio is making a habit of charity work and educational outreach however they can. Just last October, they put on a 100 hour convoy in an effort to raise money for the BBC Children in Need fund. By the end their long haul, they made over £1000. Shipping goods and shipping good aren’t so different for TSR.
Keep on trucking
Despite the growing community, the charity events, and popular radio station, Mini and Crumbs make no buts about how uneventful trucking can be. Crumbs described another event they host, where companies meet up in parking lots to show off their most expensive trucks and chat. “They sit in the same place for an hour, an hour and a half, and they love it, they love doing it. It’s just one of those things. It sounds extremely boring and people love doing it.”
Strip away the trucks, the simulation, and you’re left with a group of friends hanging out. Their trucks are just expressions of themselves, tuned and designed to reflect their personality. In the real trucking world, drivers only meet in passing through a quick overtake on the highway or a conversation at the rest stop. A community exists, but it’s ephemeral, coming and going as the drivers do.
In a VTC like TruckSimRadio, those artificial barriers of contact dissolve. Mini and Crumbs, with plenty of help, made one of the most unique, positive, safest places in PC gaming, and the closest we’ll ever get to a trucker’s utopia. It’s a virtual reality in which traffic laws embrace the trucker, convoys, and the spirit of open road trust. Business obligations melt away leaving only the drivers with their trucks, each a personal, powerful force sliding through a live pastoral scene, a long monotonous drive with the radio calling their name and a crowded CB as company, exactly the way it should be.