Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How to Bring Back the Thrill of Air Combat Simulation

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 28, 2013

redbaron15_640I was excited to hear that Damon Slye was back into videogame development, and I even played a little bit of Ace of Aces, a game that he and his company released through the now-defunct InstantAction.com. His newest project has me even more excited, though. Once again, it is a flight sim –  Red Baron, a game that was so awesome back in 1990, I got pretty excited. It feels like getting back to the roots of the flight-sim genre. His games were some of the formative experiences for me during that critical half-decade that propelled me into being a game developer.

So – as selective as I try to be with Kickstarters, this was one I not only supported, but want to share. I really want to see this fly. Pun intended.

Kickstarter – The Red Baron by Mad Otter Games

But this isn’t really about the Kickstarter. It’s about something he said about Flight Sims as a Kickstarter Update. Specifically, his comments in the update, “Why Red Baron now?”

Since I left the game and flight sim industry in 1994, the new flight simulators have not appealed to me. They have truly excelled in the obvious areas: graphics and flight model. But I think they dropped the ball in other key areas. I don’t think the campaigns are as immersive and compelling as they could be. They certainly haven’t pushed design in this area at all.

And, I think they pretty much have ignored the vast majority of people who don’t play flight sims. This is sad. The genre could be so much more popular and be filled with so many more great gamers. I myself am a hard-core flight sim player—I’m a real pilot, and I am familiar with the details of flight and weather and airplanes—but I want to bring in many more people. Right now many flight sims are really daunting to new players.

The controls are difficult and frustrating. I am not saying that we should make silly arcade flight games. I dislike those as much as anyone. The experience they offer is vapid. However, we can create a much better learning experience for new players. We can help them along each step of the way, and as they progress, discover new levels of realism for them to master. As it is now, we only get the really determined players to stick it out and become experts.

So, I believe there is a false choice being presented to gamers: a flight game must either be:

  • a hard-core hyper-realistic vehicle simulation that will require tens or hundreds of hours of intense learning before you feel proficient, OR
  • it is easy to learn, easy to fly, kind of fun for while, but ultimately it’s a pretty empty experience, and really it’s just an arcade game skinned as a flight sim.

I completely reject this choice. The consequence of this is that the vast majority of gamers don’t even bother to look at flight sims because they want something that is easy to learn, fun to play, yet is a deep, rich experience with layers that can be discovered over time.

Now, I don’t know if he’s gonna really pull this off with Red Baron. But his points resonated with me.

Falcon-AF-17I was a pretty hard-core flight sim fan once upon a time. I’m one of the guys who played competitive & cooperative Falcon 4.0 online. And yeah, to do that, I actually had to learn how to fly the thing – and tackling Falcon 4.0 on maximum realism was no small feat. But I loved it. I was a little crazy back then, I guess. It was, at the time, among the hardest of the hardcore combat flight simulators. But even then, there were many games of nearly equal realism that I didn’t ever get into.

What was different about Falcon 4.0? The dynamic battlefield. I think I logged so many hours just learning to fly the plane in that game because of the promise – however poorly and buggily kept – of the dynamic, living battlefield. Falcon 4.0 was a world simulation on an epic scale that has – to my knowledge – never been equaled in the flight sim world. Effectively, the entire battlefield was a giant real-time-strategy game being played by the AI, where you could actually change things and directly affect the outcome of the war. In fact, at the hardest difficulty level, the game required you to disobey the recommended missions, create your own, and fly them yourself to make sure they were executed properly to have a prayer of success. As I recall (I never was successful at a max difficulty campaign – but I read strategy guides) one of the best procedures was to create some bridge-busting missions right at the beginning to slow the enemy advance long enough for your own forces (we’re talking ALL your friendly forces – not just your little fighter squadron) to regroup and resupply. As the campaign progressed, you could see the enemy reacting organically to your actions, repairing damage you did in a previous mission, etc.  It was pretty incredible.

The point is that the point WASN’T to master the hardcore flight model and avionics of the simulation. That was almost secondary. That was an additional bonus of the game – if you played at a very high (configurable) difficulty, you could maintain a belief (a fairly reasonable one, judging by the number of real-life fighter pilots who heaped praise upon the game) that you were thriving using skills and circumstances that were as close to real life as possible. It’s not like the U.S. Air Force was going to come knocking on your door, a la The Last Starfighter, and say, “Holy crap, we’re desperate for new F-16 Pilots, and we’ve learned that you are an online ace! Come help us, you are our only hope!” But – when you talked about the difficulty in obtaining a lock with a maverick missile in order to fire two shots in a single pass – you were talking about very similar challenges to what real-life pilots face. And real-life tactics / solutions could be applied. That’s cool stuff.

But that wasn’t the game. The game was, according to designer Gilman Louie, to make you feel like a real fighter pilot – with one big exception. The life of a fighter pilot has been described as “hours of boredom punctuated by a few minutes of stark terror.” His goal was to get ride of as much of the “boredom” part as possible. It was all about the game. They had some really serious teething problems, and the game remained in pretty buggy shape for… well, its entire lifecycle.

So here’s the thing – I make simulators as my day job. Not flight simulators – though those would be fun to work on. I make crane simulators. Our goal is to make them as hard-core realistic as possible, within (lots of) constraints. While they can be fun to test out sometimes, the goal is to train – not to entertain. If we tried really hard (and had a mandate), I’m sure we could make a game out of the simulators.  But while crane operators and students (and the developers) can have fun with the simulators, it’s not that the simulation is inherently fun.

sc_cinematicI think that’s something that got lost during the 1990s, perhaps culminating with Falcon 4.0‘s release at the end of 1998. The games focused so much on the “hard” simulation aspects, not the game…. or they went full-bore arcade style. Origin flirted in the mid-90s with a “Wing Commander” style approach, with story and characters, but suffered from ridiculous flight models that pissed off the flight sim crowd, and serious bugs and poor performance on then-current machines that annoyed everyone else. And – let’s face it – at least as far as Strike Commander was concerned, the story and *shudder* that voice acting were not exactly anything to get anybody excited.

But they mighta sorta-kinda been on the right track. Or *a* right track. As I see it, there are a few things holding combat flight sims back from making a resurgence:

#1 – They easily get stale. Dogfights and bombing runs are really pretty awesome, but after you’ve been flying sims for a while, it’s hard to get too enthusiastic about yet another MiG-29 vs. F-16 furball, or a Spitfire vs. Messerchmitt furball. Sure, against a good player or good AI, it’s always going to be challenging. But there needs to be something more to keep it interesting.

#2 – Learning the “hardcore” simulation aspects needs to be fun. Seriously. A simple arcade shoot-em-up in flight sim clothing gets boring really fast for me. But having to spend a hundred hours learning to fly before I can actually start having fun is even worse. We make GAMES, people. We can and should make learning part of the fun, not the subject of tedious tutorials.  (This applies to all games, BTW, not just flight sims).

#3 – Online play needs to be improved. Look, I used to play Falcon 3.0 over the modem, where it would take 10+ minutes to synch up with another player for a quick 2-minute dogfight. I thought it was worth it. I completely agree that there’s nothing more fun than competing (or cooperating) with real, human, vicious players online. But nowadays, going into a competitive game online is a lesson in frustration for the average player. They are likely just starting to feel competent, doing okay at shooting down some AI fighters, and then go online to get clobbered.  Considering the amount of effort it takes just to feel confident to go online in the first place, just getting thrown to the wolves of online play is not a good thing. Better matchmaking, or some kind of structured arrangement where experienced players could be encouraged to mentor or protect them would be awesome. The less experienced players need to be able to contribute and have fun without simply being meat for the predators.

#4 – The game worlds need to be more compelling. Falcon 4.0 had one approach (mirrored by the similarly ambitious – and buggy – European Air War). Origin’s “Strike” series was another approach. But simply dumping us into the Coral Sea with historical notes about five summer days in 1942 isn’t going to cut it anymore.  I need game worlds I can sink our teeth into. I want interactive conflicts I can actually influence. I want story. I want to know who my wingmen are. I want to play with “what if” scenarios.

#5 – The game mechanics needs to be more compelling. I’m not talking about the challenge of getting tons of aluminum, steel, wood, and / or titanium to defy gravity and shoot ordnance at other hunks of aluminum, steel, wood, and / or titanium. There are plenty of games now that are quite challenging as-is. But I’m talking about the meta-game over top of this. It could be as complex as the hugely complex meta-game of Falcon 4.0, or the simple kill scoreboards of Pacific Air War and many others – there should be more to the “game” aspect than simply hitting your objectives. Sure, in real life, that may be the long and short of it – but these are games, and games should be fun. Remember, we want to get trim away the “hours of boredom” that make up the real life of fighter pilots.  Using your mad piloting skills (or even out-of-the-cockpit decisions) to move needles and events around in an interesting manner can be a lot of the fun!

dragon_cover_500#6 – Finally – and this may be a controversial option (but who knows?) – is it really so impossible to change up a hard-core flight sim so that it has some “not-so-realistic” elements? Cut loose and have more fun with the genre? As a flight-sim fan, I want to play it straight sometimes, but every once in a while it’s fun to cut loose and see how my F-15 might do against a dragon or a UFO. The final expansion for the IL-2 series, IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946 (excellent sim, BTW) included planes and scenarios that assumed World War II didn’t end on time, and that some of the aircraft that were merely prototypes or only on the drawing boards actually went into production and fought in the war. Then there’s the ancient shareware game Corncob 3D, which wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of realism, but used some reasonably realistic flight physics (for the era) to pit you in a souped-up P-47 Thunderbolt vs. an alien invasion. And then there was the totally cool (but totally not realistic) Crimson Skies. While the truly hard-core flight sim fans may have a reputation for turning up their nose at anything that’s not truly ‘realistic,’ I don’t know that this sort of thing need merely be in the realm of the arcade-shooter.

While I don’t expect the indies to be able to compete head-to-head against some of the Eastern European flight sim shops that seem to have taken the “hard-core flight sim” crown, it is quite possible for indies to create good-looking sims with modern tools with relatively realistic flight and weapon systems. They are already creating arcade-style sims. I think some of these ideas are ripe for being tackled by an indie team. But it’s certainly not restricted to indies.

Like RPGs, flight sims have experienced a time when they’ve been “mostly dead.” I think that’s time to change.

Filed Under: Flight Sims - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • OttoMoBiehl said,

    Possible typo around the eighth paragraph Jay.

    His goal was to get ride of as much of the “boredom” part as possible.

    I do agree, I miss the flight sims. I remember having the Thrustmuster joystick and other peripherals just to play them too. I was more partial to WWII flight sims than the modern day ones but I did enjoy the modern ones.

    By the way, my first ever flight sim was Gunship for the C64.

  • McTeddy said,

    I do enjoy a good air combat simulator, but I am an epic noob. I’ve been playing IL-2 for a while now and I still find myself stalling far more often than I should.

    What I really want is a game that actually TEACHES you to fly. My problem is that they give me plenty of switches to control how real I want the game… but I don’t have the knowledge to turn them off and live.

    Rather than IL-2’s single “How to fly in expert” mission… give me a campaign where you slowly ease me from arcade to hardcore.

    – – –

    On a side note, I would kill for another Dragonlance flight sim. I spent so many hours as a dragon-rider and I may even qualify as a good pilot.

  • alanm said,

    Awesome. I’m backing this one.

  • finbikkifin said,

    “#6 – Finally – and this may be a controversial option (but who knows?) – is it really so impossible to change up a hard-core flight sim so that it has some “not-so-realistic” elements? Cut loose and have more fun with the genre?”

    You have no idea how much I want a crazy Ace Combat-style mission for Black Shark – something like ACES from AC5 (http://acecombat.wikia.com/wiki/ACES), complete with lower-speed trench run – or to be flying an A-10 on full realism when suddenly a rift opens in the air and a 40K Ork fighta zips through, pilot happily ignoring the boring bits of physics and punching out his cockpit glass to “improve” his “aim.”