Earlier this week, the latest EMEAA game sales charts were released. The relatively new (and long-awaited) GSD charts compile data from across an impressive spread of countries, from Australia and Great Britain, to India and South Africa, via Ukraine and the UAE. This time around, in the wake of Black Friday and as the traditional Christmas game buying spree intensifies, there were plenty of expected entries.
In the combined chart, reflecting both physical and digital purchases across all formats, plenty of blockbusters were just where you might find them. Series like Call of Duty, Battlefield, FIFA, Assassin's Creed, God of War, Farming Simulator, Red Dead Redemption, and Pokémon all rubbed shoulders.
And yes – we did list Farming Simulator amongst those other household name IPs. Giant Software's celebration of all things agricultural came in at fourth position on the combined charts but, as highlighted by GamesIndustry.biz, it actually topped the digital sales charts for the entire region.
If you don't know of Farming Simulator, the clue is in the title. It's a simulator that lets players establish a farm, command a wide array of agricultural machines, buy and sell the fruits of their harvests, and tend meticulously to various crops. Each year new iterations move back-and-forth between a mobile focus, and a PC/console version.
Two words in that paragraph should be emphasised: 'simulator' and 'meticulous'. Farming Simulator is a straight down the line simulator; it's serious, detailed, and unflinching in putting authenticity before action. We know this because we've sunk plenty of time into Farming Simulator 19 here at TheGamingEconomy. We put in the hours needed to earn a Grimme Varitron 470 Platinum Terra Trac potato harvester, for example. If you play the game, you'll know that's fairly impressive.
Farming Simulator 19, released on 20 November, isn't in a rush to hurry its audience. As you plough fields, sow seeds, add fertiliser, pull up weeds, and eventually harvest your crop, you'll have to do so methodically, row by row, before driving off to silos in real time, and plodding back to your farm. It's fairly plausible that at some point in a Farming Simulator game you'll spend a good 45-minutes getting a thresher onto a trailer before driving it to the ideal field. As such, it is a very different beast from explicitly accessible titles loosely themed around farming like Stardew Valley or that early casual hit FarmVille.
The gameplay is complex, demanding, slow-paced, particular, and unflinchingly serious. The Farming Simulator titles are also rather good; but the fact remains they offer something far removed from that of the action-packed blockbuster, and they confidently reject kowtowing to mass-market accessibility. Over the years, an affection for serious sims has emerged within the games industry and medium's culture; even spawning ironic and successful parodies like Goat Simulator and Rock Simulator. Nevertheless, it would be easy to assume only a diehard core of agriculture devotees are playing that game.
In fact, that may be the case. But that niche audience has seen a sincere farming simulation muscle out downloads of properties like Call of Duty and FIFA; trues titans of modern entertainment. It may well be a very large niche indeed. Back in 2016, Farming Simulator 17 hit one million players a month after release, as reported by Eurogamer, doubling the previous installation's launch month sales, and hitting around 2,600 Steam Reviews. Three weeks after release, there are currently over 4,500 Steam reviews of Farming Simulator 19 and, at least where downloads are concerned, it has triumphed over some very big games at the business time of year for interactive entertainment sales.
The lesson? Never underestimate the potential of a niche audience in gaming. There's a simple logic behind that potential. Now games are synonymous with everyday life in so many countries and cultures, over two billion people on Earth consume them. Even a sliver of that very sizeable pie can still give you a huge audience.
And there's lots of good reasons to go with a niche within games. For one, such audiences can provide accessible, under-served demographics – relative to blockbuster forms. Competing in spaces like puzzle games on mobile – or first-person shooters on console and PC – means going head-to-head with the biggest there are. That will take a lot of budget, marketing, and perhaps direct user acquisition costs. Competing within the farming simulation game market? That's a less daunting task.
Equally, at a time when YouTubers and streaming have such a profound influence over game market sales, particular types of title can thrive. Certainly, plenty of YouTubers are spotlighting the blockbusters. But in a communication form where distinctness and charisma define success, gaming broadcasters love to share the unusual and interesting; something to get their teeth into with witty asides, which can bring tremendous exposure to the titles in question. Indeed, it was Youtubers and streamers who deserve much credit for drawing attention to the once-niche construction game Minecraft. And you don't need to spend long with the YouTube search bar to find yourself submerged in Farming Simulator content; some of it is sincere, but much more is playful or lovingly ironic. Farming Simulator's exposure reflects a shift in the dynamic of the games media for a consumer audience. Where previously triple-A games enjoyed the most column inches, now curios and niche titles can secure an equal share of the available video coverage, meeting significantly bigger audiences.
The farmers market
A vague notion of pursuing a niche audience is one thing, of course. Picking the right niche is a much more delicate business. Farming games and stern simulators more generally, for example, are a big deal in Germany; and it appears Farming Simulator 19's developer Giants Software has endeavoured to target that country with particular vigour.
Not that niches today always culminate around physical regions. Farming Simulator has no doubt engaged the 'non-gaming' audiences within agriculture, classic plant and machinery, and comparable communities. Those are sizeable groups, but they are readily targetable; unlike, say, fans of mobile match-three games, which might be too vast to precisely profile. The chance is that agriculturally minded publications, streamers, and communities will rarely have games to focus on, and relish the opportunity to embrace a release that serves their specific interests.
The simulator community too, is 'sizeable but targetable'. That's why, over recent years, games like Euro Truck Simulator, Bus Company Simulator, and London Underground Simulator haven't struggled to land sales. Understanding that kind of market, where it congregates, and what it values, will have no doubt been critical to Farming Simulator's success.
The most tricky element of success in a niche, however, is authenticity. It's tricky because you can't fake it, but you will need it to be embraced by many a niche. Farming Simulator, for example, has successfully engaged with and involved the agricultural community since the early days of the series 10 years ago. That's why numerous real farmers are devoted to the game, as captured in The Guardian. Some of those with the longest working hours on Earth really are finding time to simulate their careers in games.
It's easy to break into a wry smile when considering the notion of a hardcore tractor simulator. But, while it's that very reaction that has brought Farming Simulator valuable attention, the ones grinning from ear-to-ear are those making a phenomenon from a niche.