Making Of: IL-2 Sturmovik

By Kieron Gillen on March 28th, 2008 at 5:50 pm.

[This interview took place in a Manchester Hotel Bar, with Oleg chain-smoking and chuckling to himself all the while. He was also agreeably outspoken against most Flight Sims - usually while doing that chuckle - in a way which not many developers are about their peers. I have to applaud. This interview originally appeared in PC Format magazine, in the lead up to Pacific Fighters]

License to IL-2.

Assuming we put aside all the ones about giant harems and chocolate syrup, it’s arguable that the flight was man’s oldest fantasy. It took thousands of years to achieve, following the efforts of some of humanity’s greatest minds. Then, for some, came the next challenge: successfully making something which offered a convincing facsimile of real flight. “It was my dream to make Flight Sims from the very beginning,” says the softly-spoken Oleg Maddox, whose English is far better than my Russian, “In 1993 though… the power of the PC just wasn’t enough. It was possible to make some little thing like Wing Commander, for example… but that’s not really a flight sim, because there’s no real physics and no real simulation of the movements.”

So while Oleg’s Maddox games formed in 1992, his plans were put on hold for technology to catch up so he could put his real-world talents – he’s an Aviation engineer graduate from the Moscow Aviation Institute, with eleven years of experience as lead designer for several Moscow military design bureaus – into a gaming environment. Maddox’s early years were about getting his team together. “Step by step I accumulated new programmers with Aviation experience, which graduated from the Moscow or Leningrad institutes, for example.” He says, “In 1996, we did our first arcade game. Then in 1998 we had already begun to look around flight sims, and saw European Air War released. I realised it was the time to make something and we could do it better than non-aviation engineers”.

The decision to centre the game around the soviet IL-2 came from the team’s environment. “Since we were making it in Russian, and a Russian publisher we decided to make it for the Russian marketplace,” Oleg notes, “It was originally planned to make just one playable aircraft.” This soon changed, as Oleg went out and talked to investors and the future-players on forums. First a playable German plane was included, but the roster slowly expanded. “A lot more Russian and German aircraft,” adds Oleg , “And so was born IL-2.”

IL-2'll call you later, I'm cooking.

From the moment they’d decided to head towards IL-2, they had a head start given a project that disappeared into the ether. “At the same time we had the order from the government to make a training simulation for military aircraft. This work was canceled, but the work around it was used to make IL-2,” says Oleg, “They came back but, but it was too late – and the whole thing was switched for the game market.” This flirtation with authentic simulators continues to the present day. “Just a few days ago, I had an e-mail from Latvia where pilots asked to make them a simulator for Russian aircraft. But I said that I can’t do it – I’m busy with other projects,” says Oleg. “Several flight schools have made similar requests,” he says, “but it’s not interesting for us in terms of funding”.

Oleg’s dream has to make a decent flight simulator. But what is it about them which enchanted him? “Because I wasn’t able to fly real aircraft all the time,” he laughs, “Now I can, but in the past it wasn’t possible.” It’s a dream that, for him, has come completely true. What does he love in IL-2? “Everything,” he grins, “Absolutely everything.” But asked to narrow it down, it’s the Physics which he thinks they pushed hardest. “We did almost everything to the edge of what was conceivably possible,” he notes, “There’s some compromise. We could make one plane, with no environment and do it at very high level, with much better physics without much simplification… but it would just be that, and nothing more. It couldn’t handle anything else. We needed the good graphics. The good artificial intelligence. The good visual effects. And a hundred aircraft in the air. We were always aware that we needed to compromise in some part to make another part work. I’d like to say that IL-2 was a big lot of compromises in coding.” It’s easy to argue that choosing what compromises are acceptable is, of course, the core of game design.

In terms of what went wrong, it was the human and time dimensions. It simply took longer than they’d desired. “Because it’s all human resources limited,” he says, visibly tired, “Sometimes we’re working twenty-five hours a day. Sometimes. We all got very tired. And now we need to spend more and more time because the code is increasingly complex, with a lot of cross-functions. If you make a mistake in one part, it outputs in another part as well. Sometimes we just don’t know whether it’s working or not, and spend a week finding it. It’s a very big program. A very complex program.” As they head towards sequels, they’ll be using the well tested code base as a solid foundation to build on.

But there’s other lessons learned from the process. Oleg’s come to a better understanding of Maddox’s fanbase. “Users don’t like to wait,” he states, simply, “Another would be that the more we give, the more users expect – even if they don’t understand how much effort it is. And the more you give for free, the more people ask for free. They’re crazy when we begin to sell the product not for free.”

I'm feeling very IL-2, I can't go out.

IL-2’s community is one of its greater assets, and one which Maddox tried to cultivate, even if they didn’t realise how big it would be. “I didn’t expect it to be like this,” Oleg says, “but from the beginning of development, from the initial scenes, from when I started going on forums and asking users what they needed, I changed development during it to make this thing which would satisfy all the groups of users.”

“Of course, that isn’t possible. Some will like a combat game. Some people like a clean flight sim. One will like all features from an aircraft to be featured. One will prefer to go through the entire aircraft check-list before he can fly… and that’s one thing that a real pilot /hates/. He likes to /fly/ only. But some people think realism is getting all the features working. Some flight sims in the past were so hard to fly that – me myself, a real pilot, and my friends, also real pilots – said that we’d never fly a real aircraft if they were anything at all like sims”

On a personal level, the amount of knowledge they’ve accumulated is toweringly impressive “I know more about manual aircraft than I’d ever thought I’d know,” he claims, “For example, in the Messerschmidt I know everything. In the Spitfire, I know about half. The Fokker Wulf, I know in detail, Screw by screw.” The time to gain such knowledge also impacts on development, and Oleg’s planned for more time to gather this information. And the more information they gain, the more they have to test that they’ve simulated it correctly. “For example, how the supercharger of an aircraft works,” he gives to illustrate their approach, “How many steps it takes? How it affects the engine at different altitude? All these differences have to be considered. We already simulate each cylinder for each aircraft and then run test battles with each engine to make sure it acts how it did. With new development, each time we do it it’s more complex.”

IL-2? No, I couldn't possibly manage another one.

For Oleg, the fruits of this attention to detail can be seen in the quality of the IL-2 gamers. “There’s some part of the community who are very high level – aviation engineers, pilots – who speak in a different way to the kids,” he explains, “IL-2 has attracted those people, from around the world – from Japan, from Australia, from Russian, from Germany.” While this is clearly a badge of honour, this gathering of intelligent and knowledgeable fans has also fed back into the game. “This way I’ve found lots of people who help me – for example – develop pacific fighters,” Oleg claims, “I can spend much less time on research now, and still make a better product, a more specific product. Of course, it’s not possible to do everything, but at least we can use input to make things more correct.”

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20 Comments »

  1. restricted3 says:

    So, nothing about how Ubi fucked up with the plane licences?. Or was that one of the later games?

  2. Kieron Gillen says:

    Circa 2002.

    KG

  3. Yhancik says:

    Oh, I was thinking recently that I should reinstall Sturmovik. So many great memories, from epic multiplayer dogtfights to relaxing pointless high-altitude flights listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works ^^
    Oh yes, I should reinstall it

  4. Fat Zombie says:

    Oh yeah. Recently got 1946, after having the “complete” edition for ages. It really is the perfect sim, now; tons and TONS of brilliantly-simulated crates (and planes too! badum-tish), infinitely-customisable difficulty settings, lots of missions that sound awesome (yet I can never complete); and mission generators that cater to my impatient tastes.

    And, you know, Lerche.

  5. Bet says:

    Oleg Maddox is a genius when it comes to flight sims. I only wish he had more power and money under his control so that he could have more staff developing more flight sims at once. The time between new versions is rough for those of us that get thrills from their games. Have gone back to playing RTS and FPS games while waiting for Storm of War and the untitled game from RRG Studios.

    IL-2 1946 is pretty much the most perfect game I’ve played in the last 20 years.

  6. Cigol says:

    What strikes me about these games is just how instantly playable they are. For sure there is a learning curve but if you turn on the beginner-aids the experience won’t be dulled and you can get to grips with the basics at your own pace. It’s quite an achievement I would have thought – just a pity the singleplayer game is so uninspiring!

  7. papergoose says:

    such a cool game… and I could never get past the first level. If I were still a young lad, this would be my perfect game… I just don’t have that kind of time any more.

  8. Turin Turambar says:

    That was a nice interview. Some day, i will come back to the simulator genre. I don’t fly in any game since… the last 7 years.

  9. Coyote says:

    I don’ know – I love the single-player game, too. Granted, the presentation is a little flat. But after flying a full campaign in a single plane, I feel like I REALLY know that aircraft – how it performs relative to other aircraft in the sim, what its quirks are, and what NOT to do in a dogfight.

    Then I go online and get totally schooled.

  10. Mustache says:

    I wish this was about his next project…oh well

    I’m going to reinstall too. I just wish that there was a better way to speed up time for some of the missions especially for pacific fighter

  11. Erik Novales says:

    Interesting interview, particularly the bits about the (demanding) community.

    Nitpick: Focke-Wulf.

  12. Buur says:

    I find it totally astonishing that any game developer can spend *so* much effort on simulating *so* many different variants of different planes in the minutest detail and then bolt on an amateurish frustrating interface and not even take the trouble to map most of the keys you need to fly the planes.
    Utterly moronic choices made on an otherwise brilliant engine …just a massive wasted opportunity – had it been a little bit more accessible I’m positive it would have been a much bigger title than it was.
    …And don’t get me started on that menu music.

  13. Lightbulb says:

    Buur you should see the interfaces on engineering software.

    When you are trying to make a simulation you get so locked in to make the simulation working as you want it that you don’t give the time to the interface that it needs.

    I think this is a problem with having an engineer in charge – the simulation takes over and the game is almost secondary.

    I think what the series needs is a new front end and a totally redesigned mission system – preferably a dynamic campaign thats actually engaging.

  14. Buur says:

    I’d love to see this series take off (see what I did there?).
    I should point out actually that I made those comments after a 4+ hour coop / dogfight iL2 session with 3 of my regular gaming friends :)
    There is an *amazing* game in there …getting to it however is a world of unnecessary ball ache.

  15. Fates says:

    It’s an incredible series. We have nearly 400 mod files for the series….from Skins, Campaigns, and utilities. Enjoy them all

    http://www.Combatace.com

  16. Sum0 says:

    A new front end would be nice, but why let a clunky interface put you off an incredible game? I don’t play games for their menu screens. It works well enough.

    I think the sheer beauty of Il-2 is that practically anyone can pick it up and have fun with it, because it comes from the days when planes had two fire buttons and a yoke. As much as I like modern flight sims, there’s just such a huuuge difficulty curve in learning every single button and every single instrument.

  17. Thiefsie says:

    this game seriously was fantastic… I’ve never been so utterlyt furious and ecstatic about doing something in a game as i have with IL2. Learning to fly properly with a particular aircraft was fantastic. All the missions played out differently EVERY SINGLE TIME… and dogfighting was a challenge! in fact I totally sucked at dogfighting in single player.. but multiplayer with the realism up was hilariously awesome.

    Some unforgettable weeks have come from IL2.

    And wow, what fantastic graphics it had at the time!

  18. DK-nme says:

    The il-2 sturmovik (and all the add ons) is the best the best game ever – no doubt about it!
    No other sim has brought so much joy into the world of fligt simmers – ask any guy flying online (combat sim/il-2 game).
    it’s awesome, even for todays standard…

    As a matter of fact, I’ll go fly right away – see u all online in the virtual sky…

    (Can’t wait for the SoW)

  19. Cigol says:

    I’m amazed people have so much difficulty with the game… you increase power, lift off, fly about, press the fire button. That’s essentially what it boils down to if you turn on the beginner aids. Bit perplexed by some of the comments here actually.

  20. Paul Adsett says:

    Forgotten Battles, the best flight sim ever made. How can one product give so much enjoyment and put you on a steep learning curve? The man is a genius.