This is an old interview I made some time ago to Hajo, the creator of Simutrans. As many people from the community didn’t know him, drawing on his return to the project, I decided to talk with him about Simutrans and many other issues.
First of all, we would like to know a little more about you. Who’s your real name? Where are you from? Do you work in something related with IT (information technologies)?
My name is Hansjörg Malthaner. I’m from Stuttgart, Germany. I’ve been working in the IT industries, first as assistent programmer, later as programmer, software designer, even as leader of a small team for a while, since about 1998.
I would like you to talk about your inspiration sources for creating Simutrans. Why a transport simulator? Are you a rail fan? Did you get ideas from other existing projects in that moment like TT, A-train or Simcity?
Simcity and Transport Tycoon Deluxe sure gave inspiration. I’m not particularly a rail fan, and actually the first vehicles in Simutrans were trucks. I often don’t understand the importance for realism that many rail fans demand from transport simulation games, but I can understand the fascination of railroad transport networks in real life and in games.
Simutrans development started “officially” on 1997, that means Simutrans project is 12 years old. Did you think the project would be alive and kicking after 12 years of development? There aren’t many projects than can that can boast the same..
No, it was not even meant to be released to the public, it was just a private training project at the beginning. Some day I talked to someone about it, and he asked me to release it to the public. It’s quite exceptional that Simutrans became such a success, something that I cannot say about my other projects. On the other hand, once a project has reached a critical mass of fans and supporters, it seems that it be going for a long while, and Simutrans definitely has this.
One of the things that people point out from Simutrans gameplay is its depth. Imho, the game mechanic is simple (carry thing from here to there) but open enough to make it complex at many levels, what’s your point of view about this?
I feel uncertain about the term “depth”. Actually the core activities are very simple in Simutrans, but they are also very basic activities of humankind. Maybe that accounts for more of the fascination than the assumed depth of gameplay.
Trade and transport are very old professions. Most likely already our ancients, in the time of hunting and gathering, had discovered trade. I think the theme strikes a very basic string in many people, and that’s why they like it. Everything around is just to make the idea more interesting and entertaining, but if it wasn’t sucha basic thing, it’d not be so interesting.
Construction also is a very basic activity, and it’s also a big part in Simutrans gameplay.
Well, it’s time to talk about the break you took, away from the project. I’m not going to ask about the personal reasons that made you take that decission, as you already have explained them. I guess it was hard for you, but why did you decide to come back?
I don’t really remember why I decided to come back. Maybe it was curiousity, to see how Simutrans fares, since all my other projects were dead at that time. Maybe it was just that I looked for some entertainment through the Simutrans forums.
The first comback wasn’t very hard. Hard were the few moments when I tried to influence things, and I noticed that I cannot. The project now works very different from when I left, and I needed a while to get used to it. A while I pondered about forking Simutrans, to make my own variant, but I concluded I cannot do that anymore. It needs too much time. Time which I don’t want or cannot spend on hobby projects anymore. So I’m still a watcher mostly, and now and then I make some graphics for Simutrans.
How did you feel with the changes that the project has suffered?
This is very hard to answer. I’m following the forums and progress of Simutrans for about two years now again, and still I have no idea who is doing what nowadays. It looks very unstructured and sometimes surprising to me. Prissi is kind of leader, but still many people just do what they think is good for the project. I think that some things could be organized much better, but it’d need people who are strong leaders, and such are not around, or do not want to spend the required amount of time for leading. (*)
(*) Talking in private about this issue, Hajo told me that he had included himself in the group who “don’t want to spend the required amount of time for leading”. He had spent way too much of my time on his projects, and He think it was wrong to do it. Many people might _want_ to spend more time, but he can’t. There’re other priorities in life.
Although the core of Simutrans is well developed and mantained, however it seems to me that in the past there were more people colaborating in some areas (programming, painting) How many people and how do they contribute to the project?
This changed a lot. The first few years I worked alone, although I tried to get help. But with an uncomplete project it’s very hard to attract helpers. Later we’ve been two people first in a team, then up to five at times. Usually there was one person helping with coding, and a few who contributed graphics. A while I tried to gather more, but I found it difficult to coordinate a larger team.
It’s more important to have support when you start the project or when it’s mature and you need new fresh ideas to explore possible ways to expand the game?
Support in the early days is important, but sometimes hard to get. Once the project is big and famous, helpers will come by themselves. But while noone knows the project, it’s very hard to find help – although help is very much needed then.
An important milestone was the license change of the project. After a long wait, Simutrans finally went from Freeware to Open Source. Do you think that’s good or bad for the project?
I think it’s good.
In you opinion, will this movement encourage more people to join and colaborate with the project?
It seemingly does. Although my experiences with other projects say, that making a project open source does not automatically attract a lot of contributors. If a project is good, people want to help, if it’s closed or open source. Open source makes contributions easier, though.
What’s your opinion about open source world?
While I like the idea of freedom, I don’t like the attitude of many open source missionaries. I have made bad experiences with very missionary open source people, and so the whole movement has gotten a bad attitude for me. I have changed most of my projects to open source, but I still don’t like the movement. It’s too religious, and too strongly claiming to have found the only true way of software development. Usually there are many ways to do things, and everyone who claims to have found the only true way is suspicious to me.
Do you use gnu linux?
I used it for a long while, from 1995 to 2004. Then I retired from programming, installed Windows XP on my box and found it so much easier for someone who just wants to use a computer. I sticked with that since then.
Do you think Simutrans might become an importan open source game?
Simutrans is an important game, so it will be an important open source game, too.
What’s your opinion about the possibility of including the game in any Linux distro like Debian, Mandriva or Knoppix?
This is unimportant for me. Simutrans shall be a good game, this is important. The open source people talk freedom, but they actually make others bow to their rules in order to be included. I don’t like this. But the current leadership and active people in the project like the idea, and try to adapt Simutrans to fit into the distros. Well, it won’t cause harm, I guess, but it never was a priority on my list.
Perhaps you don’t know, but Simutrans is a candidate for SourceForge Community Choice Awards, at Best Project for Gamers category. Have you voted for it? Do you think it has any real possibility to win?
I don’t know. There are strong competitiors, and maybe they are set up better or organized better. Simutrans has a chance, if it is very big, I cannot say.
You said you’re still a watcher mostly, and now and then you make some graphics for Simutrans. Tell us more about Pak.Hajo (design, graphic style, goals, new stuff, etc..)
pak.Hajo is Franks effort to recreate the look and feel of the last Simutrans versions before I retired from development. It has no particular design goals, but preservation of the old state.
pakHajo.Evolution is my try to advance pak.Hajo the way I would have with Simutrans, if I had stayed active. I still try not to alter it too much, just try to improve the graphics, the texts, and if I should notice any problems, try to improve the balance. It’s meant to stay a set with limited features, also meant to be easy for new players. I only get to work on it every few months though, so there isn’t much progress there.
You mention you even pondered about forking Simutrans, but you discarded the idea by lack of time. Perhaps you don’t notice it, but there’s already a fork called Simutrans Experimental, managed by James Petts and the Hood,
that includes some variants and several new interesting features. It started as an experimental branch for testing new ideas, and nowdays it has its own entity. Have you tried it? what’s your opinion about the new features it offers?
I’m quite happy that James started this fork, and in the international forum I tried to support James and his idea. It might not have been visible, because some of the talk happened in non-public bopards, but I do support James and Simutrans Experimental.
But I might do it because of different motivations, than other people might think. I do not particularly like the features James puts in there. But I think it’s good that players get a choice. James works on some features that will not go into the main version, and if noone had made a fork, these features never would have become available.
Thus I support James and his ideas, not because I like the ideas themselves, but because I like the idea of diversity and freedom. James can give some players what they wanted to have, and this is a good thing.
Also it takes pressure off the main version, to include this or that feature, and Prissi can focus better on the features that are important to him. This is also a positive effect of James’ fork.
Then, going on with the issue of your personal projects, and related with your bad experiences with very missionary open source people, perhaps are you refering to that great project called ISO-angband?
No, I was rather referring to the times when Simutrans was already popular but closed source, and open source missionaries tried to force me into opening the source code with all kinds of arguments.
I must confess I’m a big fan of roguelike games, so it was sad when I noticed that the development of ISO-angband ended up. Anyway, you started another project called H-World, that as far as I know it’s a mix between an isometric graphics engine and a roguelike engine. Why all your projects have an isometric point of view?
Isometric graphics are easier for me to make than 3D models. Also there was the idea to resuse code and graphics from older projects in new ones, and this only works if the projects are similar. Besides this I do like the isometric display very much, and so it was quite natural for me to make my projects in my favorite style of display.
Have you considered to make a 3D game, even a simple one?
Sometimes. But I’m bad at 3D modelling, and so those tries didn’t get very far. In the very early days of 3D I had made a Doom-Style raycasting engine, but that died when 3D graphics cards came up. It could not compete with those, but I could not afford a 3D graphics card that time, and so I could not develop anything for them. This also might explain why I never jumped onto the 3D train, because in the early days I just did not have the hardware.
Lately I have been experimenting a bit with OpenGL and it works rather nicely, but there still is the problem of making 3D models, skinning, rigging and animating them. At least for me, this is a whole lot more work than making isometric graphics, and since time is a limiting factor for my hobby projects, I usually decide against 3D.
Do you know there’re plans to por Transport Tycoon to 3D?
No this is new to me. But not very surprising, since the request to make Simutrasn 3D comes up fairly frequently, too, and several times people tried to write 3D display code.
Nowadays people think everything must be 3D, just because. Seldom they think about if this makes sense and actually make the game more interesting or easier to play – which, in my opinion – 3D often does not.
There’re some people that claims Simutrans is an outdated game due to it’s 2D graphics, and more than once that people have requested a 3D version of the game. What’s your opinion about this point?
They can say the graphics are outdated. The game is not the graphics and it’s as interesting as it always has been. Chess is 2000 years old and still an interesting game. I do not think age is a problem for a game. So I agree that the graphics are outdated, but I refuse the point that the game is outdated.
As you said, Simutrans has changed quite a lot. Now we have planes, a new cool underground mode on the way, rivers and climates, etc.. but one of the most requested features is multiplayer mode. Many of the games like Simutrans, have this option available, but a recent survey at the forum showed that many people consider simutrans as a single player game, more than a multiplayer game (mainly old school players). Did you designed Simutrans gameplay with multiplayer approach in mind?
No, not at all. And the code actually is quite unsuited for multiplayer mode. At the time when I staretd Simutrans I had to pay per minute online time, and online games seemed unaffordable to me. Due to the costs to be online and since I made Simutrans just for myself in the beginning, network mode was not on my list.
Do you consider Simutrans as a single or multiplayer game?
It’s been meant to be single player game.
From your point of view, what does the multiplayer mode provide?
I assume it’s fun to create networks collaboratively, or in competition with other players. More fun than to do this with an AI.
Finally, some quick questions: do you still play Simutrans? how often? How much time? which pakset do you use? have you played with Pak96.comic and pak.Britain paksets? what’s your opinion about them?
I play very seldom, usually because there just isn’t time. Simutrans competes with a lot of other activities for my free time, and after all the years, Simutrans just isn’t that novel and interesting anymore. I usually play to test pakHajo.Evolution. I haven’t seriously tried any other pak sets, but I watch their progress with big interest. Not from a players view, but a developers view.