Woodcutter Simulator. Garbage Truck Simulator. Street Cleaning Simulator. No matter what the reason for the rise of the simulator game, this absurd genre is here to stay. Maybe you've seen a YouTube video of Soda Drinker Pro, or maybe you've seen Goat Simulator at Target. It's easy to give these games a go and come away with the question: Why?
With so many games making bank in the mobile space it's pretty tough to make a name for yourself. Strange games with simple concepts are downloaded by the millions of copies per day, but they're not very captivating: Most mobile gamers only play 5-15 minutes daily.
That's because these games are terrible. Really. Play Candy Crush for any length of time, and tell me with a straight face that it's exciting. They're not meant to be awful—they're just meant to keep you playing. By throwing ads or in-game purchases at you, free-to-play games reward you for pedestrian milestones (or making them money), and eventually make it harder and harder to get the same feeling of accomplishment. It's a classic iteration of the Skinner Box—a famous conditioning experiment that uses its subjects' own sense of reward to hook them to the simple act of pressing a button. (It's also similar to the psychology of drug addiction.)
At this year's PAX East conference in Boston, there was a startling lack of mobile games. In fact, there was more buzz around the absolutely nonsensical, intentionally bad games—titles like Catlateral Damage, where the only goal is to explore a bedroom and knock things onto the floor, or the wildly popular Goat Simulator, which recently expanded to include an MMO with playable characters that include (among others) a microwave oven.
As of January, Goat Simulator had sold over 2.5 million copies.
Evidently, the creators of Alien Makeout Simulator are right when they stated at the convention that you don't need to be a AAA studio to make something people enjoy. In fact, now that there are so many people on the internet, there's a non-zero chance that any game you might want to make will have an interested audience. You just need to find it.
However, these borderline-Dadaist games wouldn't have been nearly as successful if it weren't for the growing popularity of Let's Play videos and streamers. Popular channels like PewDiePie, Markiplier, and Game Grumps tackle semi-obscure titles with fair regularity, and from there, sales explode. Despite your views on the channels themselves, they reach millions of interested viewers in a short amount of time. It's tough to buy that kind of advertising.
Part of the charm of these games is undoubtedly the bugs. Because these games aren't meant to be highly-polished, any errors short of being a catastrophe are kept as features. Players of Goat Simulator can do a lot to break the physics engine of the game, and there are even several achievements for doing so. It's tough not to laugh at your character's tongue flapping around at nearly the speed of sound, or rocketing an invincible cat into the ceiling after touching the wrong object. If you're a fan of the absurd, these titles will tickle your fancy.
One thing's for sure: These games enjoy much greater enthusiasm than even the most popular mobile games. In the Kickstarter for Catlateral Damage, for example, eight people paid the nonsensically high asking price to add their own cat into development. According to Will Brierly, creator of Soda Drinker Pro, there's even uncomfortably explicit fan-fiction of the FPS (First-Person Soda) game—a quest in which you explore crudely-rendered environments and advance by finishing your drink.
It's hard not to be charmed by this sort of content, even if it's been universally panned by critics. (At PAX East, some of the attendees came dressed as—you guessed it—soda cups.) In light of all that, maybe it's not so surprising that the game has been successful enough to warrant a major update, along with its own line of soda to hit shelves later this year.
Whether this type of game has much of a future is unclear—it may just be a passing fad—but if you ask PAX attendees, their fifteen minutes are far from over.