How Euro Truck Simulator 2 became an unlikely cult hit on PC

This article was originally published in PC Gamer 327 in January, 2019. For more great features like this sent to your door, consider subscribing to the magazine. 

As I write this, 30,000 people are playing Euro Truck Simulator 2 on Steam. That’s more than Artifact, Valve’s card game, and giants like Garry’s Mod, The Witcher 3, and Football Manager. It might seem like an anomaly, but anyone who’s spent any time in this sim’s recreation of Europe will understand completely.

Czech developer SCS Software released Euro Truck Simulator back in 2012, and the game has since developed a cult following—including several members of the PC Gamer team. But why? Well, fundamentally, because it’s good. It has satisfying driving physics, a vast, atmospheric map and a peaceful, stress-free way about it that you can easily lose an entire evening to. Fans of the game often describe it as hypnotic, and it really is.

But as the small development team added the finishing touches to its new game, it didn’t even know if it would break even. “When we first released Euro Truck Simulator 2 into the world we weren’t even sure it would be popular enough to cover the cost of development,” explains Pavel Šebor of SCS. “The scale of the game was much bigger than anything we’d ever attempted before, which made its development feel like a huge risk for us."

“We’d created a few other truck sims before, so we had a lot of passion and experience to put into it. A few weeks after launch we were surprised by its popularity—and not just among fans of hardcore driving sims. People were excited and already asking for more! And six years later we’re still supporting and developing it. It’s by far our most-played game.”

Part of what makes ETS2 so compelling is the fine balance it strikes between being a simulation and being fun and accessible. Not to mention the variety of ways to play, from simply enjoying a road trip to building an empire. “At the time of release, this combination was quite rare in simulator games. Some of our players enjoy exploring the world; some like customising and tuning their trucks; many enjoy the rags-to-riches aspect of building their trucking company up from one small garage to a huge logistics operation.”

Wide reach

Not once in my life have I ever thought about being a truck driver, or really had an interest in them as vehicles, yet I find the game utterly captivating. This was something that surprised SCS—when it realised how broad its player base was. “For a long time we thought we were making simulators for those people who love trucks. But then it dawned on us that plenty of people play Euro Truck Simulator 2 who don’t have any interest in them at all.”

I ask Šebor what particular magic he thinks the game has, and why I can play it for two to three hours at a time without realising. “I think it’s because the game doesn’t stress you out or ask for 110% of your focus,” he says. “You can just enjoy yourself, drive and relax. Exploring cities, enjoying the weather effects, trying one of the many different fan-made mods, or just flicking on the in-game radio and driving wherever the road takes you.”

But what about hardcore players looking for the most realistic simulation possible? I wonder if catering to them is at odds with keeping the game accessible. “We work hard to keep both types of player in mind,” Šebor says. “We have lots of new features in development that will increase the satisfaction of exploring the world, which we believe both casual and hardcore fans will enjoy. But we do have to be careful not to get to the point where the game is too hard, where you feel like you need a commercial driving licence to play it.”

Euro Truck Simulator 2 is the best road trip on PC—and it doesn’t seem like it’ll run out of gas anytime soon

As for creating that enormous map, which spans an incredible distance and is growing constantly thanks to frequent DLC expansions, SCS has learned a lot over the years. “As time has gone on, the game world has become more and more elaborate. Six years ago the whole company was a small team of around 15 people at its busiest times. Now we have about half our company developing ETS2, which amounts to over 70 people working full-time. Previously, creating the whole game was a task for two to three people, and now the team working on the map alone consists of over 40 different designers."

“Admittedly, early in development we had very basic techniques and limited knowledge of the areas we were recreating. But as time has gone on we have new tools and skills that help us bring extra immersion to the map, to make you really feel like you’re trucking across Europe. When we look at a new country to add to the map, researchers look at everything from road signs, traffic laws, buildings and even small things such as grass and tree types. And, of course, Google Street View is always our friend.”

Job seeker

One of the more surprising outcomes of ETS2’s success is that it has become, entirely accidentally, a sort of propaganda for the trucking industry. “Truck manufacturers don’t see us necessarily as a marketing opportunity for them, but more like a stepping stone into the industry. They also sometimes tell us that our game makes the job look like a cool adventure, and that is, of course, very desirable to the transportation industry in general.”

And while you’d think the last thing a truck driver would want to do after a week on the road is do it virtually on their PC at home, you’d be surprised. “Whenever we’re on the road, travelling and meeting people at expos, we get a lot of truck drivers stopping by and telling us that they love the game. Even the younger generation, who are learning to be drivers or aspire to learn one day, say it’s an inspiration for them. Someone who recently learned to drive trucks in real life told us that our game actually helped them ace their manoeuvring test, and hearing that is very satisfying for our team.”

By now, most developers would have cashed in on the surprise success of their game by releasing a sequel, but SCS has resisted so far. I ask Šebor why this is. “Euro Truck Simulator 2 has become such a long-term platform for us that we have never really made any commitment to making a third game. But if we did ever want to make a new one, we’d have to do it from scratch to justify it, and improve on everything we have currently. But we don’t have the time or the team size for such a venture at the moment.”

Instead, SCS is staying relevant by steadily improving the game. “We’re constantly working on new features, and we’re always upgrading the engine, assets, physics and scenery. We also have a lot of common requested features including seasons, more varied weather, and multiplayer.” You can play Euro Truck Simulator 2 online now thanks to the remarkable TruckersMP mod, although it has a few drawbacks, namely the roads being completely devoid of traffic. So it would be good to see an official multiplayer mode from SCS itself.

“Euro Truck Simulator 2 was a crucial factor in making SCS Software what it is today. In the beginning we were a small team, loyal to making great truck sims, but now there are over 140 of us. But even so, we still don’t have enough manpower to take advantage of all the ideas we have. We also want to thank the fans who have been by our side from the very start, and through many years of development. We hope this is just the start, and we hope to become bigger, better, smarter and faster when it comes to making games.”

SCS recently expanded the game with a DLC pack called Beyond the Baltic Sea, which adds 13,000 kilometres of new roads, countries including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a chunk of southern Finland, and Russian territory including Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad. The rate the studio works at is obscene, and with every new piece of country added to the map it gets better at creating a sense of place. So whether you’re driving through the rolling farmland of France, the dramatic mountains of Norway, or the rain-lashed motorways of the United Kingdom, Euro Truck Simulator 2 is the best road trip on PC—and it doesn’t seem like it’ll run out of gas anytime soon. 

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.