Shrinking '18 Wheeler Pro Trucker' Down to Size

alex.pham@latimes.com

In 1999, Sega Corp. came out with an arcade game in Japan that simulated a truck journey across America. It became all the rage with Japanese game fans, and Sega exported it to the U.S., where it enjoyed similar success.

Three weeks ago, Sega launched a console version of the game, called "18 Wheeler America Pro Trucker." Players haul across the country, trying to beat the clock and deliver their payloads.

In the arcade version, players sat in an immense reproduction of a truck's cab that included a rope they could pull to sound a horn. How do you re-create the experience for a home console?

Klayton Vorlick, 23, one of the game's designers and an associate producer for Sega of America in San Francisco, talks about why the game did so well in Japan and how Sega tweaked the game for the living room.

Q: How did a big, honking American truck simulator game do so well in a culture that created Hello Kitty and Pokemon?

There are two sides to Japanese culture. They have a place in their hearts for small, cute, fuzzy things. At the same time, they romanticize American culture and everything associated with it. For them, that primarily means anything that's big. There's even a joke in Japan where they call big things "American-sized." In Japan, if you go to McDonald's, the largest soft drink is equivalent to a medium here. When you bring a Japanese to a 7-Eleven for the first time and get them a 64-ounce cup, the first thing they say is "bucket."

Q: Why the fascination with big, noisy things?

They have trucks in Japan, but they're very small in comparison. It's not a luxury they have considering how small the island is. There's no way you can navigate an 18-wheeler through the streets of Tokyo. There's also a craze with simulation-type games. You take ordinary things that you never get a chance to do in real life and you make a game out of it. The Japanese market is more into the strict simulation of mundane tasks. There's even a Dreamcast game called "Tokyo Bus Guide" where you play a bus driver and you follow all the traffic laws. There's a dog-walking sim., even a power-shovel sim.

Q: How did Sega do the research for "18 Wheeler"?

The Japanese development team actually came to America and visited several truck manufacturers. They completely tore apart some trucks. They even spoke with truck drivers. And they actually drove across the U.S. They took pictures and made notes throughout the whole trip. What they tried to do was take the most memorable scenes throughout the nation, whether it was background scenery, a small town they passed through or a beautiful sunset. They tried to capture the colors and the atmospheres, and they tried to blend it together as smoothly as possible.

Q: In the game, it takes about 18 minutes to drive across the entire United States. Why such a short ride?

The problem here is keeping the player interested. Arcade games need to grab you quickly and keep you playing. If you have the player driving for an hour and nothing happens, chances are they will walk away. But if you compact the action, make it more intense, it keeps players coming back for more.

Q: How realistic did you try to make the game?

For us, it's about the feeling of size and power. You want the feeling of weight. If you've ever seen a truck take off, the cab jerks around a bit before the truck rolls forward. The cabs also sway back and forth when you hit a bump. But there has to be a careful balance with simulation games between realism and simplicity. People who are playing aren't professionals. You have to make it easy enough to where you can pick it up and play. But the level of difficulty has to be high enough so you don't clear the game in the first sitting. For example, trucks have many, many gears. [In the game] the only gear you actually have to manually shift is from high to low. That's because a lot of people out there don't know how to drive a stick shift. Certain features were simplified to ease the user's frustration. Still, the game has a very realistic feel. Some driving schools have actually talked to us about modifying the game to train new truck drivers.

Q: How easy is it to make a console version of an arcade game?

To capture the same kind of feeling in the home as you would in an arcade setting is actually very difficult.

When you go to the arcade, you go for a quick hit. You expect fun within the first 5 to 10 seconds of the game. At home, you want a longer overall experience. So we added new features to the game. In the arcade version, all you had to do was drive across the country and deliver your payload. In the Dreamcast version, there's a parking challenge where the object is to park your big rig. You can play head-to-head with another player on a console. That's not in the arcade.

Q: Much of the console game is repetitive, beat-the-clock races. Why didn't you take advantage of the console's ability to deliver a broader experience?

We wanted to keep the same element of the game. People loved the arcade game, and they wanted to play it from home. If you changed the game, it wouldn't be true to what made "18 Wheeler" a success. We understood that the arcade experience was too short to just do a quick port to the Dreamcast. That's why we added new features, keeping in mind what made the original game fun.

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Times staff writer Alex Pham covers the video game industry.

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