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Washing the worries away: Inside the surprisingly relaxing design of PowerWash Simulator

July 26, 2021 | By John Harris

July 26, 2021 | By John Harris
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Business/Marketing, Video

Get the walls. A steady pattern, back and forth. Don’t forget the rearview mirror. Around the front. And now the bumper. Move the camera. Hold the Reveal Dirt button, ah, missed a few spots. Around the contours of the light. In the grill. Now for the bottom….

PowerWash Simulator is an extremely relaxing game in Steam Early Access from FuturLab where you… well… powerwash a number of items. It really is as simple as that. It follows the FPS control blueprint, but instead of a shotgun or BFG, players aim a pressure hose with various nozzles as the rest of their "weapon loadout".

Dan Chequer and James Marsden, lead designer and game director of PowerWash Sim, sat down with Gamasutra to explore how they came up with the idea for a power washer-centric video game, the evolution of its design, and how they were able to catch the attention of so many players now enamored with their satisfying cleaning sim.

Who are you, and what is PowerWash Simulator?

Chequer: Hi, my name is Dan Chequer and I am the lead designer at FuturLab!

Marsden: Hi, I’m James Marsden (not that one) and I’m game director on PowerWash Sim!

FuturLab is a game studio based in Brighton, UK, and has a diverse catalog of games, most recognizable being the Velocity series and the recent Peaky Blinders: Mastermind game.

PowerWash Simulator is unlike any game we have made in the past, but that’s been typical for our studio as we are genre-agnostic and simply follow where the best ideas take us.

Chequer: PowerWash Simulator is exactly the game you expect it to be from the title. Actually when I joined the project during preproduction my first question was where on the “simulator” scale the game should be, with 1 being Surgeon Simulator and 10 being Microsoft Flight Simulator. We settled for a 6 or 7, which was eventually defined as “authentic equipment and cleaning experience with outlandish jobs, locations and story.”

At first PowerWash Simulator feels kind of like an un-game, just an enjoyable activity to perform, then you seemingly clean up all a yard but are only 85% done, and you realize that there's actually a puzzle element. What do you think is the best line between just spraying things and figuring out how to spray them?

Chequer: When making levels we try to provide a variety of complexity with regards to surfaces to be cleaned. The more angles required to clean an object, the slower the player’s progress becomes, so this is a way to control the pacing of a job. Coupling that with tougher dirt gives us a lot of flexibility.

We have tried not to introduce too much of a puzzle element into the experience, as the relaxing nature of the game is not something we want to compromise. The hunt for the final bits of dirt has become a part of the experience though, and it can contribute to a sense of satisfaction/relief when the final bit of dirt is removed!

It has been interesting watching people on social media evolving their techniques. Many players start by spraying indiscriminately, but, over a series of videos, a progression can be seen where they become more and more methodical and considered.

The timelapse at the end of each job rewards a contemplative approach with a more satisfying payoff too!

Shigeru Miyamoto is famously known to look for inspiration in creating games in his day-to-day life. Do you have a power washer? What caused you to connect this prosaic activity to something it would be fun to do in a game?

Marsden: We had a desire to make a first-person shooter, but with a small team we needed an idea novel enough to be captivating without needing vast production effort (our role model was SUPERHOT). We had also identified that we had yet to try the simulator genre, so were subconsciously curious about making one. At around the same time, our Development Director Kirsty Rigden had been finding it therapeutic watching videos on the r/powerwashingporn subreddit.

In a blue-sky offsite meeting, brainstorming what our FPS could be, I suggested that in order to keep costs down, we could make an FPS with a sniper rifle where you just lie still, or perhaps we could have a power washer, and Kirsty leapt up and exclaimed: “OMG, POWERWASH SIMULATOR!” Kirsty had so much passion for the power washing videos and how therapeutic they were, and we’d been curious about simulators, so it just made sense to go for it.

Kirsty loves any game where you see immediately obvious visual progress; de Blob was one of her favorite games for example.

Chequer: When you see someone playing de Blob the gameplay is very clear and it is easy to decide whether it is something that you would like to experience for yourself. I think that power washing itself has a similar direct reward, which allowed us to identify the fun during those early stages.

Marsden: Interestingly, we had some pushback on the “un-game” nature of it when we shopped it around to publishers. Scarce few people understood that it is enough to just offer the wish fulfillment of righting a wrong without antagonism. After reflecting on what felt like hundreds of frustrating conversations, I realized that the game was being assessed against an outdated archetype of a videogame, one that was established to satisfy what’s typically perceived as masculine drives: compete, defeat, destroy.

Video games don’t need to be antagonistic in order to find an audience, and I think this game and other sims show there is still a huge gap in the market for games that simply offer some relaxing escapism to bring order to the world without being thrown curveballs every five minutes.

People have raved about the feeling of pressure washing in the game, and the visceral joy in making dirty things clean. It brings one to mind games like Katamari Damacy that just feel fun to play in a way that's difficult to describe. Did it require a lot of iteration to nail that feeling?

Chequer: Yes, it was an ongoing iteration right up until we launched. The feel really comes from all the different disciplines in the team perfecting the simulation of the water, the look of the water effects, the sound of water on the various surfaces, and making sure the act of washing was powerful and satisfying enough without trivializing the process.

Some of the environments take quite a long time to clean, but when you compare that to how long it would take to clean them in real life you realize how exaggerated the game is. In many ways, this was the most vital thing to balance as the sense of scale of the jobs is what sells the idea that the game is a “simulator.”

PowerWash Simulator is one game in a small but interesting genre of job games, where some real-life activity is taken, simulated more or less accurately, and enjoyed by the masses. Does it seem ironic that people are paying to do something that is nominally work? Do you think that kind of employment of roleplay might be part of why people seem to find it interesting?

Chequer: Power washing is a process that many people have found enjoyable both in real life and to watch online for quite a while, and we have provided a way for players to participate from the comfort of their computer. I suspect that part of the appeal is that PowerWash Simulator amplifies the satisfying parts of the pressure washing process while omitting the negative parts, such as sore hands and dirt blowback!

From the feedback we have been receiving, players are really connecting to the relaxing cleaning process itself rather than the roleplaying element of the game. One word we hear more than any other is “satisfying”, which is exactly what we were aiming for.

As players clean objects they get money, which they can use to buy better washers and soap to clean even better. This forms a progression loop, allowing them to clean off more kinds of grime, like paint or rust. How do you balance such a loop? Do you worry about one thing or the other making cleaning things too easy, or not easy enough?

Chequer: While the early jobs have easy to remove dirt, as the game progresses tougher dirt types begin to be introduced that the default pressure washer is not well suited to. This power creep of the dirt is offset by the more powerful pressure washers, in a similar way to how enemies and weapons scale in an RPG. So, whereas to start with the player must use the narrower nozzles to remove small patches of mold, once they are using a heavy-duty pressure washer even large patches of mold can be cut through easily with a wider nozzle.

For each job we must identify which washer we would expect the player to have at that stage of the career, which informs what dirt types would be appearing in each job and in what quantities.

We then need to set the financial rewards for each job and the prices of the equipment so the player would have enough funds to upgrade at the points in the career that we had scaled the dirt for.

We do take care to make sure there is a reason to use all the nozzles and extensions in the game. The soap is the hardest thing to balance, as it needs to be worth the extra money to use while not making the standard cleaning process feel weak or redundant. We have already made changes to the soap in our updates since launch, and I would not be surprised to see more as we make our way towards our full release.

PowerWash Simulator has gotten quite popular in under two months, even though it is currently in incomplete form. What is your secret for publicizing it?

Marsden: Whilst the activity you are seeing is organic (ie. no sponsored influencers and almost no paid advertising), we spent a year thinking through our approach to marketing, and even had our initial marketing team established before development began for Early Access. In fact, it was our marketing team that suggested releasing the demo build during the first month of the pandemic back in March 2020, as a public service duty to help people relax, and when that received a lot of exposure--being featured on The Verge and the ex-head of T-Mobile calling it the most satisfying game ever--that was an early indication that the game would sell itself to some degree.

Nevertheless, the early investments we made in building a little marketing team so that we have dedicated artwork, videos, live streams, dev logs, a vibrant Discord etc, all help toward making the community feel embraced and rewarded for joining us on this journey through Early Access.

Ultimately, I think this game has come along at a moment of zeitgeist where self-soothing is on everyone's mind, even if subconsciously. Our attention spans are fractured, so we find it hard to focus for longer than a few minutes, and we are constantly bombarded with antagonistic click-bait headlines on politics, natural disasters, the pandemic of course. People just need a moment to chill and soothe the mind and be able to have their attention held without antagonism.

Indeed, mindfulness and meditation are firmly in the public psyche now, and PowerWash Sim is probably the closest you can come to being a Zen Master without the decades of patient practice.

To answer your question directly, we believe the secret is to make something that people really really want, or in this case, feel like they desperately need.

PowerWash Simulator is still in Early Access, but already has a lot in it. Where do you go from here?

Chequer: Career Mode will have many more jobs regularly added over the duration of Early Access.

A new Challenge Mode has just been introduced, which requires careful use of limited water or cleaning within a time limit. This is quite a departure from the limit-free career mode experience and provides a notable change of pace. The first job is already available, and more challenging jobs will continue to be added.

Multiplayer is also coming in many forms. There is going to be the ability to play any job in free play with six players in total. Career Mode will allow a friend to drop in and help out at any time. We are also working on a vs mode, which we will have more details about soon.

Finally, we will be adding more extensions, nozzles, and pressure washers, along with cosmetic variations and many quality-of-life improvements along the way!

Marsden: And some other things.

Chequer: Oh yeah, some other things!

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