Virtual farming game has growing fan base
From a folding chair in the bedroom he shares with his fiancé, Deane Allen saved for two years to buy his new combine setup — a John Deere X9 paired with a 50-foot Draper header and a 24-row corn header. The revenue from consecutive corn and soybean harvests helped the 43-year-old raise about half a million dollars for the purchase.
“It’s something,” Allen said with pride last week.
It’s also not real.
Allen, who lives in Salisbury, Md., and grew up working his family’s farm, didn’t technically buy an actual combine, at least not one you’ll see harvesting fields on the Eastern Shore. The equipment was purchased within the pixelated reality of a video game — more specifically, a farming simulation appropriately titled Farming Simulator. It’s an increasingly popular title that allows ordinary people — and farmers, believe it or not — the opportunity to launch their own agricultural empire from the cozy vantage of a computer screen, television or smartphone.
Giants Software, its Swiss creator, released last month the game’s newest iteration, Farming Simulator 22. While the game may not be popular yet with older Delmarva farmers — or older American farmers in general — it has a growing fan base here and abroad. Its newest version, which has already sold more than 1.8 million copies worldwide, includes gameplay improvements such as seasonal changes and production chains that allow a player to turn their harvested crops into retail food products.
“It’s really a game that people fall in love with and play for thousands of hours,” said Kermit Ball, community coordinator at the company’s fledgling Chicago office, part of its expansion into the North American market. “It provides that form of escapism. It’s a relaxing game by nature.”
Players can begin a farm in both American and European climates and slowly build their operation by planting crops, negotiating with banks for loans, navigating the futures market and buying additional farmland, among many other features. The game first launched in 2008 and Giants has released updated versions every two or three years with new technical and gameplay features such as soil sampling and precision agriculture practices. In total, more than 20 million copies have been sold.
“It’s not like any other game I play on,” Allen said. “If you don’t harvest at a certain time your crops will wither, just like in real life, and knowing when to sell and not to sell for the highest price.”
Some of the industry’s biggest brands — John Deere, CASE, New Holland, Massey Ferguson, etc. — have also partnered with the company so gamers can buy digital versions of their equipment, accurate down to the tire choices and engine setup. Over the years, additional crops have also been added, including beets, oats, cotton, grapes and sugarcane. Players may also go online and help other players with their farms or start cooperatives.
The game affords the player godlike dominion over these operations with the ability to track progress on overhead maps, operate and ride inside their equipment and build out their fields from above, using fake money to erect greenhouses, grain silos and plant crop rows within a lush and bucolic farm setting. Earlier this month in the popular gaming magazine PC Gamer, a reviewer wrote that he found himself attracted to Farming Simulator 22’s “curious magic” and its “punctilious, businesslike interpretation of heartland warmth.”
“I recall a distant sunset where I was sitting on my tractor, turning over my acreage, listening to a podcast off my phone,” Luke Winkle wrote. “It was strangely one of the most immersive experiences I’ve ever had in a video game.”
Grant Hilbert, 23, of Ankeny, Iowa, was introduced to the game about a decade ago. He played it incessantly as a teen and began posting humorous videos of himself playing the game on YouTube in 2014. For more than a million subscribers on his channel, he harvested crops, deployed his landscaping business to mow local athletic fields and struggled to fly his John Deere crop duster. Surprisingly, the ad revenue on those videos paid him enough to buy his own farmland — about 250 Iowan acres on which he grows row-crop corn and soybeans.
Though he grew up in agriculture, he began his own farm only last year, and he continues to produce videos, which, for him, is still more lucrative than actual farming.
“I’m a really small, hobby-weekend-warrior farmer,” he said. “Nothing big by any means.”
But he loves the game’s flexibility which allows users to submit their own modifications.
“They allow you to customize the game like crazy and help you envision what you want your farm to look like,” he said.
Adam Reichard, 19, of Lititz, Pa., grew up farming with his father near Lancaster and said the game helped clarify things he watched his father do on the farm but didn’t completely understand. Reichard plays the game on his computer.
“I didn’t really know what the difference was between calcium and nutrients in the soil,” he said. “(The game) really helped me understand why we were putting so many pounds of (one product) on our soil and not this other product.”
He continues to assist his father on rented farmland and uses the game to help envision what he might want to do as a real-world farmer in the future. One lesson he learned: Be wary of new machinery. He bankrupted several farms when he first started playing.
“I didn’t really know the value of money really well, so I would buy this big machinery,” he said. “But down the road, the tractor would be worth less since I used it and it kind of falls apart.”
Giants Software expects Farming Simulator 22’s sales to top 2 million by the end of the year, Ball said. He said he sees the game’s popularity growing quickly in the United States and elsewhere, and he sees himself as evidence that virtual farming can bring non-farmers into agriculture. Before he worked for the company, he was an avid Farming Simulator player. Now he’s looking forward to working with agricultural groups and farming manufacturers to help grow the game’s popularity.
“I fell in love with the game without having any prior (agricultural) experience, and now I have this interest in agriculture,” he said. “I find myself really intrigued by the process.”
While Hilbert said most of his 20-something peers in farming know about the game even if they don’t play it, Allen on the Eastern Shore said he doesn’t know anyone else who does locally. But most evenings, he said, he’ll go to his room, crank up his Xbox, turn on the game, till his ground, spray herbicide and fertilizer, and watch the seasons change from the cabin of his brand-new virtual combine. He wonders aloud how much time passes. Hours maybe.
From another part of the house, his fiance, Dwanna Johnson, shouted in mock frustration. It’s definitely hours, she said.
“She said, ‘He’s on it into the night,’” he said, chuckling. “She’s not into that kind of stuff.”