Simutrans was started 25 years ago, not by a game development company, not even by a team, but by a single man who dreamed to build the best ever transportation simulator: Hansjörg Malthaner, known by the Simutrans Community as "Hajo".
But who is this "Hajo"? How did he develop Simutrans in its early days? What has he been doing since he left the project, and what does he think about Simutrans today? We have reached Hansjörg Malthaner himself for an exclusive anniversary interview to reply to these and more questions.
Let's begin the interview!
First of all, introduce yourself. Who are you? Where do you live? What did you study? Where are you working or have worked on the past?
I live in Stuttgart, Germany. A place that often is called boring and provincial, but actually the living quality here is quite good. To German standards it counts as a larger town with a population of more than half a million people.
Most of my professional career I've worked as programmer, mainly using Java. Later the focus changed to quality assurance and automatization of build processes, testing and deployment. Meanwhile research has also become an aspect, to find and compile information which enables other people to do their work efficiently. In summary, still all typical software development just with emphasis on different aspects of the development process.
With such a curriculum, it is of no surprise that programming is also a big hobby of yours. But do you have any more hobbies?
There never was a scarcity of hobbies, just scarcity of time. Electronics was something that I was very interested in during my teenage years, and which recently was refreshed by experiments with microcontrollers, like the Arduino. Gardening was something that I picked from my parents. Not sure if hobby is the right term, it's more just part of my life all the time. As child I used to paint, and art has become a growing focus, while programming became less of a hobby and just a profession. Traditional art, pencil and watercolour, but also 3D art with help of the computer. Also experiments in sculpting and with arrangements of dried plant parts and rocks, but I even have written a few story fragments, that got some positive recognition.
Cooking has also taken a bigger role in my life lately, and I consider that a very nice hobby, particularly in conjunction with gardening and the options to grow some vegetables of my own. At times I build furniture or refurbish old furniture. There is really a lot of different things that I'm interested in. Music, both in composing or performing is likely seeing the least attention, but that didn't stop me from building a pipes instrument which is played similar to a xylophone.
Overall I think the shift away from programming released a lot of energy that went into very interesting and often also very satisfactory activities.
Talking about your art hobby, in the previous interview (more than 10 years ago) you stated that you were bad at 3D modelling. But now, looking at your art gallery, you have definitely improved a lot. Did you work on any 3D-related project that boosted your ability?
I think I am still bad at 3D modelling, but over the years I found ways to work around this and still produce interesting scenes. There are things like people or animals though, which I can do only with a huge investment of time.
There was no particular project, but at some point I changed from drawing game related graphics to 3d modelling. The rendered graphics both were more consistent and of higher quality than what I could draw. That set my focus on using the 3d tool, and made it worthwhile to really try to get good at it.
I'm still learning new things all the time though. Both about the 3d software and also how to set up scenes. There was no quick boost, it was more of a slow progress over many years. As you mentioned, 10 years passed and I even had used the 3d software before.
The next level will be short movies, so I'll have to learn how to move the camera, when to zoom how to cut and blend from one view to the next.
One of the artistic creations of Hansjörg Malthaner
Did you work on any serious project before starting Simutrans?
I'll say no. I had made a ray-casting engine, the original Doom game was popular the early 90s, and a simple space flight simulation, as I was an Elite fan. Also a drawing tool. Well, let's say the drawing tool was a serious project and actually used by some friends. But it soon was surpassed by other tools which were available for free. Also I had made a tool to model a sort of skeleton for 3D puppets and pose them easily. That one had potential but also limitations. Now tools like Blender serves the same purpose and does it much better. So I was working on projects, but none of them was published, at best shared with friends. Just the drawing tool I've offered as download for years, but I don't think it ever was used by many people.
A remnant of the space flight project persists, it went through many incarnations, had become Solarex, then Solarex GL, then Stellar Prospector, using OpenGL for display but deep inside there are still some design ideas that came from the old 3D space thingy. It actually might become a game some day.
https://freegamedev.net/d/22-stellar-pr ... solarex-gl
Allow me a note here - Simutrans did not start as a serious project. It started as a "let's see if I can do something like this" project and was only published when a person whom I had told about it in a sort of forum, asked to show a demo. The first versions were very bad, crashed often and barely had any functionality but show vehicles moving over roads on a tiled landscape. It took a lot of time to get past this infant stages.
The drawing tool sounds interesting. Did you ever use it to paint Simutrans graphics?
Yes, all the early graphics of pak64 were made with it. At that time 8 bit graphics with colour maps were still pretty standard, and the tool was aimed at working with colour mapped images. Later I changed to GIMP which is now the graphics tool that I use the most.
Actually, I forgot a later incarnation of the drawing tool, which focused on creating tile sets for games with tiled graphics. That one was used for some of the graphics in pak48.Excentrique, but more to conveniently handle and edit them. Most of the graphics were made with PovRay, a ray-tracing tool.
A screenshot of the painting tool "Drops" main menu.
So at mid 1997 you started Simutrans. A transportation simulator. Of all the projects you could have started, you started a pretty complex one. Did you ever think that the project was too much of a task for you?
Yes, I was often pushed to the limits of my skills. Particularly creating suitable graphics was a big problem. One time I got a comment, "Simutrans is too ugly to play."
I sure wanted to do better, but at the time my graphics skills were just not good enough, and only slowly improving as well. Programming was also tough, but a task that seemed to be more a matter of time to develop good solutions.
So from about 2000 I had been looking for help, and while it was very hard in the early days to find people willing to help, the more the project grew, the more it showed potential, the more offers came. I think, you can still see all the names in the credits scroller of the intro screen. Some had gotten monuments in the game. That time there was only one pak set, so pak64 was "the game" as much as the binary.
Only few wanted a monument though. So some had their names or nicknames preserved as vehicle manufacturers, architects and company names in the game. Some wanted no mention like that and only are named in the credits.
It was my way to honour those who helped in the years when help was really hard to get.
How did you promote Simutrans and find your first contributors in the early days?
This is a surprisingly tough question. After this long time memories can be deceiving. I remember the first announcement was made in a Usenet group, but version was very incomplete, so definitely not suitable for promotion.
I remember that for a while there were a very small number of people who had shown interest and which whom a had frequent email contact to talk about the project.
Before the first forum, we used e-group, a mix of mailing list and file repository. That was the major place for Simutrans for some years. Actually I tried to keep all talk in one place, I did not want to scout a lot of places daily and look if there are questions or comments which I should respond to.
Later it spread out, and we moved from the e-group to a forum which I hosted for a while. At that point I am fairly sure that I posted links in several game development places to the forum to attract more people.
This way I got into a surprisingly friendly contact with someone who was working on a commercial transport game.
But the pressure to promote was smaller, internet was somewhat exclusive. In private I did not have internet access before 1998 and that was a pay-per minute dial up connection, so any minute online was costly and somewhat precious.
Usenet also was a good place to get in touch with other game developers, but over the years, that also moved to forums.
It was not before 2015 that I published a game video on YouTube, way past my active time with Simutrans. I never was on Facebook, so my social media experience is limited.
How was the reaction to the first releases of Simutrans?
I really can't remember many details. It was just a demo, to show vehicles driving on roads. A proof of concept for the landscape display and vehicle driving. No game by far, and most of all, the early versions had no railroads.
A few people believed that it can become a proper game, helped with testing and feedback. If there were negative comments I seem to have forgotten, except that the art had to be improved a lot. That stuck, cause I could program, but not paint, and I had to deal with it somehow.
One of the first Simutrans demos released.
You have been quite a while apart from Simutrans. Do you miss working on Simutrans?
I certainly did not miss the working. I felt burned out and disappointed when I left, at least that is what I remember. Also more than once I voiced the opinion that software projects are a bad hobby for me, and even that I started a few over the years, it usually boiled down to the very same finding. These projects do not make me happy. I now have a stance, to only work on them when I really want to, which means that there are often year long breaks.
I missed the talk though. Usually around these projects there were challenges, ideas, solutions. They often were challenging in many ways, technical, artistic and in interaction of the player and the game. I liked to talk to other game developers about such.
What is the biggest challenge you faced when working on Simutrans?
At first I was tempted to say route calculations for vehicles and goods. But while this indeed was the biggest challenge in the early days, long term, the creation of good graphics and sound effects turned out to be an even bigger problem.
While graphics have improved over time thanks to pakset authors (pak128.german, pak192.comic, and pak256 specially), the sounds are indeed still a challenge no one wants to take. Is there anything more you think current Simutrans is in great need of improving?
I think a better user interface is needed. One that is easy to learn, understand and use. One which makes common tasks easy to accomplish. Also I think, a better looking user interface would be nice on top of an easier to use one.
Simutrans Depot window with the classic theme. The UI has improved since then, but not by much.
What was the thing you liked the most about working in Simutrans?
Actually, the thing I liked most was the feeling to be important. Older games, like civilization, had a big name on the title screen. Now I was on my way to join the ranks of these, whom I admired for their game making.
Simutrans has changed a lot through the years. When you look at it today, what makes you think?
It might sound strange, but often I wonder how much of it still is the same. All the core of the game is still quite like in the old days. I think the underground mode is the biggest new part, much of the rest was optimization and tuning what was already there. And yes, the networking code. I had a different approach in mind, and the team chose what I considered the hard way to do it. So that truly is new and it was no easy feat.
Simutrans has stand the test of time, so far. But it reached its peak in April 2012, when the game was downloaded more than 100.000 times on SourceForge. Since then its popularity has declined slowly but surely. What do you think this is due to?
I can think of three reasons. The first one is kinda obvious. Even free to play or indie games nowadays have very good graphics. Simutrans struggled to get on par with games from the 90s, and clearly looks very poor these days, compared to what players are used from other games.
The second is a more general change in gaming. Simutrans is very complex. Overall there has been a trend to simplify games. I think for most new players these days, learning how to play Simutrans is ridiculously hard.
This leads to the third point. Simutrans offers nothing inside the game to help new players. At least nothing that is easily accessible. After starting Simutrans, a player is prompted with some menus, lots of options to choose, and if they make their way through it, they are left with a kinda sad looking map and a bar of icons.
I think most new players give up at this point, if they even make it past the map creation dialog. They want to play a transport game but have to choose a pak set - a term that new players don't even know - and then create a map. "Where is the transport game?", many will think. And the newly generated map doesn't look that much like a transport game either.
I think Simutrans is just too obscure for new players and not looking good enough. These days games must look very good and help the player right from the start to give them a feeling of success.
But these are just my thoughts, and others my find other explanations.
If you were to start Simutrans today, would you make it different? Would you make it simpler to accommodate the game to current trends?
This is a difficult question. I was not very experienced, neither as programmer nor as game designer and if I put myself in that position today, I think I'd again miss to understand the importance of a good interface and what is called user experience today. It had not been part of my studies, it's something I've learned later.
When you left Simutrans, the code was still closed-source. However, a few years later, you agreed to open-source it. Why did you took this decision then and not before? And why was the Artistic License choose over more popular open-source licenses?
The message from Prissi came in a very bad time. I was very depressed and not able or not willing to care. I was just like "leave me alone and do what you want with Simutrans". I was not involved in the choice of license, I think. I am sure I was asked but did not discuss, just said the choice looks good to me, that is what I remember. I did not think much about the consequences. I just tried to live. If you are depressed like that, you care very little about license details and I did not expect to get in touch with the project again, so it meant very little to me those days.
An old post by Hajo, stating that he would open-source Simutrans should he left the project, which he finally ended up doing
There has always been the discussion of OpenTTD vs Simutrans, because they are both open source transportation games with similar looks and inspirations. While Simutrans is a success, it is far from OpenTTD in term of success. Why do you think players prefer OpenTTD over Simutrans?
The Transport Tycoon games had a huge fan base already when I started to work on Simutrans. And they are good games. There is little reason for their fans to look for alternatives.
Another aspect came to my mind when I dug out TTD once and compared it to Simutrans. It had limits, but it felt more fun to play. More dynamic? More "game"? Hard to really name it. My impression was, Simutrans is a huge and heavy simulation, TTD though was more fun to play.
It is hard for any project to be alive for 25 years without an organization backing it. And yet, here it is Simutrans. What do you think are the reasons Simutrans has gone so far and lasted so long?
I think it's mostly Prissi's determination and persistence, also Dwachs. Maybe there are more which I missed here, due to my long absence from the community. But in any case, it's the persistence and endurance of the people around it.
What's your opinion about Simutrans Extended? Have you ever played it?
I never played Simutrans Extended but I think it's good to have some competition. Usually this sparks new ideas and gives a push to try new approaches and solutions.
Finally, the question everyone wants to know., What is your favourite pakset?
pak96.comic was much to my liking. I don't know if it is still in development, but I liked the easy and fun approach taken there.
"Big Bus station" from pak96.comic, 1st place SMSC October 2010
Let's talk about your other recent project, "Stellar Prospector", a sim trading game set in the space. What are your inspirations and what do you want to accomplish with it?
Inspirations are old, games like Elite and Elite 2 - Frontier, but to some extent also Masters of Orion and Ascendancy.
The project's core is very old, dates back to 2000 or even before. It started as a stellar system generator, suns, planets, moons, atmospheres, resources and physics that were at least not openly nonsensical, even if very likely nowhere accurate either.
After that stage it became a trading game, actually without a flight simulation, well eventually a very limited 2D one. Just enough to get from place to place, cause that is what a trading game needs.
Then I've tried to add a 3D flight simulation, but never could fix some bugs in the display of the planets. I think, compared to other projects of mine, it got some pretty cool looks, though.
There were days when I really wanted to make a proper game out if it. I designed 5 major species to inhabit the galaxy, some politics and an attempt to simulate social events like sports events and concerts. The game even had a newspaper to read what happens in systems near and far.
But in one of the former questions you asked what is the reason for the success of Simutrans and I answered, the persistence and endurance of the core team members.
I don't have that any-more, or maybe never had. So at the moment I don't want to accomplish anything with it and I think the last update happened a year ago.
Furthermore there are now projects like Elite Dangerous and Star Citizens, crowd funded, very ambitioned, with very good graphics and likely way better stellar system generation code than mine.
So I don't think it makes sense to have big plans here. I'll work on it if want to try something, or to entertain myself in boring times.
A screenshot of Stellar Prospector
Thank you very much for this interview. Anything more you would like to say to Simutrans players?
Actually the ones I would like to address are those who joined and helped in the early years. They joined while the project hardly showed potential, had very limited graphics and it was closed source. Thank you for your trust in the project and thank you for the contributions.