Stale Air And Stolen Thunder

By Tim Stone on July 21st, 2010 at 11:07 am.

I was up at Farnborough International Airshow yesterday, and, while having a crafty fag round the back of the Fuel-Air Weapons Marquee, was lucky enough to run into one of gaming’s most elusive genres. Dishevelled and smelling slightly of wet ferrets, Flight Simulation was in a surprisingly talkative mood. During the course of an hour-long chat we covered numerous topics, none more fascinating than the changing fortunes of the gent himself.

RPS: You realise some people think you’re dead?

[Laughs] Those people need to have a shufti at DCS: Black Shark, Rise of Flight or the latest update of Battle of Britain II. I’m fighting-fit dear boy. Never felt better.

RPS: That’s good to hear, but you can understand the misconception. There was a time when you worked with all the big publishers and developers, appeared on magazine covers, topped charts… Today – well – things are very different aren’t they. Do you ever wonder why that is?

Every bally day! For years I put it down to the ‘The Icarus Effect’. Back in the late Nineties I started doing a lot of speed, and airflow calculations, and reading a lot of heavyweight history. Realism became a bit of an obsession. As a result the sims got bigger… denser…  chillier. Without realising it, I think I alienated a lot of fans.

RPS: But that period produced some great combat sims – Falcon 4.0,  Rowan’s stuff, the Razorworks chopper games, the Janes titles…

It did. A core of serious simmers and influential reviewers seemed to love what I was doing, so naturally I kept doing it. However, what I failed to understand during that scramble for aeronautical authenticity, was that I was building an ivory control tower.

RPS: Metaphor?

Yes.

RPS: So you think it was your taste for complexity that eventually pushed you out of the limelight?

That’s what I used to think, yes. Now I actually believe it’s a little more complicated than that. Let me ask you something: when you started playing games like Fighter Pilot or Red Baron all those years ago, what was it that drew you to them?

RPS: Um. I guess the sensation of flight was attractive. The thrill and challenge of combat in three dimensions. Back then most shooty games were top-down, side-on or isometric.

Precisely. Perhaps my early popularity and subsequent side-lining have less to do with decisions I made than changes in the wider world of gaming. For years, if a person wanted the visceral frisson of first-person violence, he fired-up a flight-sim. That was the only option. With the growth of the FPS, cloud-couched combat with its tricky gunnery, dot-sized targets, and lethal floors, suddenly didn’t seem so appealing any more. Perhaps my slow swan-dive into relative obscurity was written in the stars.

RPS: But running down a corridor with a Sten Gun or a BFG isn’t quite the same thing as dancing round the firmament in a Spit or F-16.

True, but increasingly those two thugs, the FPS and third-person action game, are spreading their wings and stealing my thunder. When I started out in the business, I was the go-to guy for jets, helicopters, biplanes, turret fun etc. Now you can get airborne in any number of tin-pot soldier sandboxes. The realism isn’t there of course, but as I’ve explained, I don’t believe that was ever at the root of my popularity.

RPS: This is all sounding rather bleak. Do you think there’s a way back? Will we ever see a flight sim generating BioShock or Half-Life levels of interest?

[Smiles mysteriously] Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I was flying back from a sim convention in Mali when the Fairchild C-119 I was travelling in crash-landed in the Sahara Desert. The plane was a total write-off; no-one knew where we were; things looked desperate, but we refused to give in. Under my guidance the eight survivors slaved day and night for two long, hot weeks constructing a new plane out of the intact sections of the wreck. Incredibly that jerry-built aircraft flew and, clinging to its wings, we eventually reached the safety of an oil-drilling camp.

RPS: Wow. That’s very similar to what happened in Robert Aldrich’s 1965 triumph-against-the-odds movie The Flight of the Phoenix.

Ah. Now I come to think about it, it was actually a movie. But the point still stands. Sometimes, cutting your plane up and radically re-arranging the bits is the sensible thing to do.
 
RPS: Fruit pastille?

Thanks.

[Glances around nervously] Just between you and me, the chaps I’ve been working with for the last decade – Oleg Maddox, Matt Wagner, Tsuyoshi Kawahito… are all splendid fellows , talented and totally devoted to me, but none of them have the balls, the vision, or the inclination to build The Phoenix.

The person who will drag aerial entertainment out of the comfortable, convincing ghetto in which it currently dwells won’t do it by modelling every switch in an A-10C or letting us fly obscure Regia Aeronautica warbirds (as noble as those goals are). He or she will… [Looks skyward in search of inspiration]…  go back to roguish classics like Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, Crimson Skies, and Air Power for inspiration, They’ll borrow from other genres in the way that other genres have borrowed from me. They’ll give flight sim multiplayer the rocket up the arse it so desperately needs.

How is it possible that in July 2010, the genre that went massively multiplayer before almost any other still doesn’t have a decent populist MMO to its name? How is that possible? For heaven’s sake, it looks like we’re going to get a people’s tank sim before we get a people’s flight sim.

RPS: So you’d like to see sim devs taking a few more risks – thinking bigger?

I’d give my right aileron to see that. There’s no good reason why a flight sim shouldn’t be as tactically engaging as Combat Mission, as amusing as Time Gentleman, Please, as quirky as King’s Bounty, or as thought-provoking as The Void. On which of the Sacred Tablets of Games Design is it written ‘Aerial entertainment may not combine realistic dogfighting with doomed love, moving reflections on mortality, and porcine pilots.’?

In the games that flit like busy Pipistrelles through the courtyards of my dreams, I can stroll around aerodromes, I can design aircraft, I can pore over recon photos that are still tacky to the touch. I’m flying and fighting but I’m also worrying about where the next contract will come from, where to get replacement tyres for my Warhawks, or how to explain yet another pranged kite to my firebrand of a squadron leader.

Hell, just this morning watching the countryside roll by from the train, I saw a kestrel hovering above a  pasture, and thought ‘Why are the only falcons I see in sims, of the General Dynamics variety?’.

RPS: So why aren’t devs – even indies -  sticking their necks out?

I’m not sure. Maybe it’s indifference. Maybe it’s fear of your profession. Do you remember a game called Eurofighter Typhoon? It came out in 2001. That was one of the last sims I can remember that tried anything even remotely risky. Rage attempted to create a living, breathing airbase. Between dynamically-generated sorties you killed time in the mess, dozed on your bunk, stroked the squadron mascot…  It dared to be different but you guys shot it down in flames.

RPS: As I recall, there were some pretty serious flaws in Eurofighter Typhoon. The lulls between sorties sometimes lasted twenty mind-numbing minutes. I do take your point about the role of the reviewers though. Writing about a sim it’s all-too easy to fixate on the realism and campaign structure, and not address bigger, broader issues, like ‘Why is this sim basically just a more detailed version of the seven hundred that have gone before it?’. Most sites and mags assign the flight reviews to so-called specialists, which just exacerbates the problem. Maybe if we’d been less tolerant of realism-as-a-religion back in the Nineties – not placed the fruits of that approach the top of our Must Buy lists – then the genre would be in a healthier state today.

[Gazes wistfully at an empty packet of Wotsits wafted aloft by the slipstream of a low-flying Harrier] Do you know what I’ve always wanted to do? Get a huge group of bright, eloquent PC  gamers together in one room (real or virtual) and ask them why they aren’t interested in winged warfare any more. I can theorize about my decline in popularity until the cows come home, but at the end of the day it’s all speculation. If flight simulation is to rise again we need to hear from the émigrés – the people that have drifted away over the years.

RPS:  You know what, I might be able to help you there.

, .

131 Comments »

  1. Tei says:

    Serius strongs truths and high letality nostalgia on this article.

    “It did. A core of serious simmers and influential reviewers seemed to love what I was doing, so naturally I kept doing it. However, what I failed to understand during that scramble for aeronautical authenticity, was that I was building an ivory control tower.”

    I was about to say something insigtifull about this, but the whole article has nuked me. All I can say now is.. bravo, and …he.. if this happends, and sim simulators are again on the menu… will be glorious.

  2. Will says:

    There is a relatively recent flight-sim, apparently it’s great fun – my flatmate is always raving on about it. Perhaps someone can remember it’s name? … wait… ACE Online!

    • Will says:

      Apologies for double post. I have more to add! It has customisable craft (i.e. borrowing from other genres), it has the MMO stuff, it has a walk-around-a-city bit (but all the actual *game* is flying), it seems fairly brave!

  3. DJ Phantoon says:

    Flying is scary.

    Demons and Japan? Not so much.

  4. Schaulustiger says:

    The accompanying images are absolutely hilarious. Bravo!

    • Rosti says:

      Seriously: Tim Stone, you magnificent bastard. I’ve never actually done the out-loud laughing thing this many time on RPS.

    • Wilson says:

      Yep, great article and funny pictures. Good stuff.

    • airtekh says:

      Yeah, Tim’s writing has always been awesome.

      He should be a full time comrade of RPS, not the obligatory-sim-article-of-the-week guy.

      Oh, and Quinns too. Quinns is great.

    • milko says:

      Please count me in the approving crowd for the article, and in the giggling folk for the screenshots!

    • Premium User Badge

      phlebas says:

      The pictures make me sad because I really want to play that game.

    • Webster says:

      Lucky anvil, ahaha!

      But seriously, if the bombing of the kitten sanctuaries doesn’t show you the horrors of warfare and the desperate lengths both sides went to in the pursuit of victory, nothing will.

    • apa says:

      <3 as they say in the internet, great stuff :) And the pics, they are beyond excellent. I'd buy a beer for whoever did those!

      The F-19 mission seems fun… I got only to fly over Sodanklya (every Finn remembers that spelling error) and take pics of some boring bunker in Novaja Zemlja.

  5. robrob says:

    I would love to play something like Blackshark but I just don’t have the time to invest in it. It’s not just learning to play the game, the serious sims seem to require a lot of esoteric knowledge on aviation to understand them fully. I’m not advocating arcade style stuff like Clancy’s HAWES but I did a lot of flying in Op Flash and ArmA which seemed to balance realism and accessibility quite sensibly.

    • drcancerman says:

      Actually, in blackshark you can fly in arcade mode. I don’t own Blackshark because it is “Starforced”, and that, for me is a big pass….

    • Santiago says:

      Buy BlackShark on Steam, no Starforce.

  6. P7uen says:

    Combat Flight Sim was the closest I got, it seemed to walk the line between “I have no idea which button to press” and “this is essentially an on-rails arcade thing”.

    Perhaps more things should walk this line, I can’t remember anyone marketing a flighty-bang at me in this way recently, it’s been all arcade or all sim.

    Also: the crunch of bullets puncturing a wooden airframe is undoubtedly a good thing.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Tinus says:

    Great article Tim, I couldn’t agree more! Sim-y-ness has never been the appeal of simulation games for me. Sure, simulating flight in great detail yields complex and deep mechanics, but many sims these days completely fail to explore those mechanics as a game.

    I’m thinking much along those lines in designing my Wingsuit flight-sim, Volo. First and foremost that game will be about the joy of gliding through the air and swooping past mountain ridges, and not so much about making sure the aerodynamics on your left toe are accurate. I’m incorporating gameplay elements from platforming games in terms of giving you something to DO in the air, and perhaps even borrowing mechanics from Portal to greatly extend your flighttime. Multiplayer is also at the forefront.

    I’m in the early, early stages right now, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnqfF0gDOJ8. As soon as I’m in playable alpha stages I’ll leave a message.

  8. Chiron says:

    Nice to see Crimson Skies mentioned, I love that game a hell of a lot. Derring do and implausible flying antics abound but its fun as hell

    Lets compare it to IL2 now I want to love that game, I really do, its wonderful and the site of a heavily damaged plane limping home to base is fantastic but… its just not all that fun, the AI is a little retarded and for all its touting of realism dogfights end up with everyone on one side dead which isnt actually how they worked. Then theres the 5-10 minute (with time acceleration) haul to the target site.

    Compared to Crimson Skies oozing out witty banter and straight into the action missions it cant compare

  9. timmy says:

    I was at Farnborough and had the honour of seeing the interview taking place. Tim originally offered Flight Simulation a Twirl but was curtly told to put his chocs away.

  10. Gothnak says:

    I loved the WW1 and WW2 flight sims on my Amiga, especially ones with campaigns where you felt as if you were holding back the hun every kill at a time…

    Aces of the Pacific was best though. It really helped that the japanese painted big red targets on their planes or i’d have continually shot down the american planes instead.

  11. Arsewisely says:

    To be honest, I simply prefer helicopters. That said, I did like Airfix Dogfighter. Excellent article, by the way.

  12. Rosti says:

    It is my eternal shame that the closest thing to a flight sim I ever got wholly immersed in was X-Wing vs Tie Fighter. The hours I whittled away on the game with my brother, taking turns to fly whilst the other operated the astromech controls manically to keep us in the sky.

    (Finding out that all your laser energy has been dumped by your ‘droid – stopping you make a kill -is irksome. Realising that they dumped it into shields, saving your life? That’s forgiveable.)

  13. Scythe says:

    I grew up playing SWOTL, Mechwarrior 2 and other simmish games. Nowdays I’ve moved on to ArmA, ArmA2 and IL2 Sturmovik, neither of which warrant a mention in your article.

    My chief problem with flight sims is the fairly expensive investment in time of getting my joystick out and plugging it in, followed by wrestling with drivers to get it working again. Compound this with awful, awful menu interfaces and engines of, let’s face it, niche, second-rate entertainment products and it all ends up being more trouble than it’s worth. If there was a flight sim with a wide range of aircraft, across many eras, with a fluid interface, decent mouse-flying performance (for the casuals) and a bloody server browser, I’d say it would have a good chance of hitting it big.

    While we have to plug IPs into little partitioned boxes, or configure a civilised resolutions in an INI file, or toggle gigantic faux-switches to adjust realism settings I think we are going to number few.

  14. Cooper says:

    I bloody love the “Realism Panel”

    I’m wondering if, as well as the drive-for-realism being alienating, that a similar situation has hit the space-combat-sim. We haven’t seen a decent space combat game for years. But they’ve never striven for realism (in some cases, they’ve striven for faithfullness to source material, but that’s not quite the same as realism)

    One thing that gets held up against the space sim, which I think applies to an extent to the flight sim, is that wide, open spaces a few hundred feet or a few hundred thousand kilometers from the ground are difficult to make visually interesting.

    Which might make for another comparison to the FPS. The flight sim also lost out to the FPS with the drive for graphical fidelity.

    The 90s were the perfect technological time for flight and space sims. 3D graphics were coming out of infancy, but computers were not fantastically graphically powerful. Rendering blue sky and low res ground, or a star field and low res nebula/planet is incredibly less demanding than fully 3d environments. The space/flight sim makers could then go about filling this space with high-res explosions, detailed craft models, details cockpits etc. Making some stunningly gorgeous games.

    As graphical fidelity increased, the environments of space and flight sims started to seem vast and empty compared to the burgeoning FPS genre, which had fully 3D, interactive environments.

    Take the most recent “pop flight-sim” H.A.W.X. gets away with immaculately detailed rendering of Mexico. But it still looks visually paultry compared to something like (the usual out-of-the-bag reference here) Bioshock. It may well have stood up by lieu of the fact that few screenshots of games included a horizon in recent years…

    Maybe publishers are unwilling to take many risks on games which, whilst they may build upon exciting, interesting gameplay, are difficult to create exciting, interesting screenshots from. One thing many publishers have got good at in the 00s is hiding boring, insipid games behind fancy visual fidelity. With a space or flight sim, you can’t easily do that, the game itself has to be spot on or you have no fall back.

  15. Dinger says:

    I dunno. One of the major issues I suspect is that the sector of the market disposed to like flight simulators is also one of the sectors that adopted PCs early. So the market peaked early.

    Also, the graphics cards out there have been designed for corridors, and not for huge draw-distance terrain-a-thons.
    For that matter, too, if you spend a lot of time looking close up at an airframe, you’re playing the airport level of a corridor shooter. So the other games got a lot shinier with technological improvements, but flight sims just allowed for higher-resolution images of the horizon and more detailed and complex instrument panels.

    Also, about realism: people want to believe they’re flying. Realistic physics gives that feel. Switchology, on the other hand, is the realm of nerds.

    The screenshots earn the award for Finest Thing on RPS Today.

  16. Javaguy says:

    I dunno, I played Red Baron very recently and still loved it. The combination of short, fairly accessible dogfights and a dynamic campaign is something that I miss in games like IL2 when each mission is bookended by hours of flight to and from the aerodrome.

    The Red Baron campaign really made you feel like quite an ace when you were finally allowed to paint your plane and lead flights, after years of buzzing around in monoplanes and, uh, crashing tactically when critically injured to avoid death. >.>

  17. Willard says:

    Hmmm,

    I think the genre was clearly splitting about the time Strike Commander/Wing Commander 3/ Xwing came out. Incidentally, all of those games are amazing – both are still fun now.

    If memory serves, that was when things like aces of the pacific & Gunship were starting to get really nerdy; reading the manual cover to cover was becoming mandatory.

    Games like F19 tried successfully to balance arcade fun with sim thrills… ultimately delivering neither.

    I think the perception is, you have to go with one or the other – but there’s no reason a flight sim can’t have a cool storyline & characters… is there?

    • Chris says:

      ^ This. So many times I wished they’d fleshed out IL2 more with characters and a plot, not just, Open File>Start Mission. I really wanted to get stuck into IL2, but the over-simulated aspect and the lifeless atmosphere really put me off.

  18. LionsPhil says:

    I love the “screenshots” for this article, despite the extent of my flight simmage largely being tormenting the “Pull up! Pull up!” computer voice in Falcon for the Atari ST and managing to fly the transport plane in Rigs of Rods without breaking anything on landing.

  19. Alabaster Crippens says:

    Joysticks. Nobody has proper joysticks these days. I think that’s the problem. You’ve lost that immediate obviously flighty connection to the medium.

    So what we need is free joysticks for all.
    Ahem.

    • Ezhar says:

      Well, actually last time I tried a flight sim, I found that my trusty old joystick with throttle was insufficient and it demanded me to have pedals in order to properly play it (sure, you can map something else to it or use a key, but that just doesn’t work very well). So I went to play a shooter instead. Which doesn’t even need a joystick.

  20. BooleanBob says:

    This is the best goddamn thing on the internet since the last thing Tim Stone wrote.

  21. Garg says:

    I love how that, even though I have zero interest in the sim genre, I still find Tim’s articles brilliant.

    I think the point you make about the shift of the adrenaline junkies to the FPS is strong, as not only did flight sims decline at this time but also the “space sim” (TIE fighter, Freespace). However the old style top-down space shooter is still going strong, as that can’t be satisfied anywhere else.

    • Archonsod says:

      Space sims are still going strong, they just don’t get AAA treatment anymore; although the same applies to pretty much anything that’s not an FPS / 3rd person shooter / The Sims these days. There’s still the X series, Spaceforce, Dark Void and similar.

      I think the diversification was the key though. The drive for realism uber alles means most flight sims consist of around five minutes of interesting action for every fifty five minutes of flying to or from the mission area, which for all but the hardcore pilots quickly gets boring. Space sims on the other hand either branched out towards Elite territory, or stuck with the mission based format that dumped you right into the combat in the same manner as Freespace.

      In fact considering the more arcade dogfighters are still going strong I think it’s pretty much down to the market. People want to be flying through a swarm of Luftwaffe with machine guns blazing rather than attempting to work out just how rich they need to make the fuel mixture to ascend.

  22. Premium User Badge

    c-Row says:

    For me an FPS has more appeal than a flight sim for several reasons. The first and most obvious flaw is the setting. A shooter can have great architecture, impressive outdoor areas, challenging level layouts and everything to please my eye, whereas a flight sim only offers bleak sky, clouds in different sizes and/or a bit of weather. Not the most engaging setting in my opinion.

    Story usually seems to be on the lower end of the developer’s list of things to include, too. “Hey, we got this great sim, you can push every button and turn all the knobs just like in the real thing. We don’t need no bloody story!” Yes, you do. I don’t want to spend my time on a game where nothing happens most of the time without even knowing why I do it.

    Give me a steampunk-ish trading sim, make it a cross between Elite and Crimson Skies, with propeller driven planes that move slow enough to let me gaze at the magnificent landscape you created, the canyons I have to pass, the huge flying airbases (like the one in Sky Captain) and put some MMO cream on top of it, and you get my attention.

    • bill says:

      this. but with the joystick problem mentioned below.

    • Richard Clayton says:

      C-Row – I think you have a good point here.

      I have played and owned most of the Microsoft Flight SImulator titles on various machines (ver 2.0 in Atari ST was the first) and am a big aviation fan. I love the challenge of flying and navigating.

      However it is the limitations of many games in this genre that hold it back from being played more often by me.

      Indeed, apart from the flying, there is often very little to do. Very little rewards, very little motivation and therefore very little “game” (read: fun).

      Those games that do attempt to have goals tend to be arcadey and when MS builds “challenges” and “checkrides” into their simulators they are often difficult to complete due to unclear instructions or a refusal by the sim to register what you have done.

      Combat too is rarely visceral or exciting. Missions tend to lack any atmosphere, tension or purpose.

      I suspect that those skilled in making 100% faithful sims, modelling every switch etc are probably entirely the wrong people to develop the rest of the package (i.e. the fun bit). Allow Maddox to make IL-2 but then hand the engine over to a scripting studio to add the dramatic bells and whistles and the stuff that makes you “feel”.

    • user@example.com says:

      “steampunk-ish trading sim, make it a cross between Elite and Crimson Skies, with propeller driven planes that move slow enough to let me gaze at the magnificent landscape you created, the canyons I have to pass, the huge flying airbases”

      :o

      I would play that even with MMO cream on top.

  23. bill says:

    Fun article. I think you mostly nailed it when you said that other genres now provide that feeling of “being there” that previously only flight sims could provide.

    Back when everything was 2d or side scrolling, flight sims were about the only things that could be rendered in 3d. And even in the days of doom and quake, the flight sim had more “reality” with it’s cockpit views than a 10 polygon nail gin did.
    But now all the FPS games have the feeling of being there, looking over the sights of your meticulously modelled gun.
    Of course the other problems were:
    flight sims got repetitive, because while you can make billions of different landscapes, corridors, rooms and buildings for FPS games, you can really only make one sky, or one space. In all honesty there often wasn’t much difference between different flight sim games. It was essentially replaying the same game over and over with minor tweaks that only enthusiasts noticed.
    consoles got big and flight sims don’t really work well on a console gamepad. And that same “gamepad accessibility culture” has also included PC games for the past few years.

    To be honest, I’ve actually bought a couple of old (abstractly) flight sims off GOG recently (freespace, i76, etc..), but I think the way people play games has changed. When I was a kid I had my PC set up with a big desk, a good chair, and a big soild joystick suckered to the desk. Immersive and ideal for flight sims. These days I play mostly on a laptop, I lounge around more, I don’t have a joystick and haven’t found a single store in tokyo that sells PC joysticks. They don’t feel the same on a gamepad.
    Even if I could buy a joystick, I don’t know if I or my wife would want a big messy looking joystick hanging around the apartment when people come to visit. To be totally honest (and this is probably just my hang up), I might feel a little embarrassed sitting here wiggling a joystick with others in the room… it strikes me that I should be shouting “rwarrrr!” and making jet noises. *

    *why is it that any sentence containing the work joystick always sounds dodgy to me?

  24. TCHe says:

    Man, I flew a lot of stuff when I was a teen. Choppers, Jets … (I also loved my 688(i)-Sim).

    The problem is that I got older, had less time at hands. A decent simulation requires a certain degree of realism, something most sims back in the days managed quite well (I still think the Jane’s series was on of the best ever).

    However, the more time you have to invest to learn how to play, the less interesting it becomes. Take the Valve games, for example. You just start to play. At the beginning you’ll learn how to do things and off you are. That’s not going to happen in a sim.

    IMHO another aspect is the fact that we’ve grown to see games as entertainment, expecting stories and puzzles and the like(as well as some immediate violence). Sims are a totally different thing, they’re more akin to work.

    There’s some great ideas in that article that could make sims more interesting. And we’d need better joysticks, as well. I second that.

  25. Picacodigos says:

    My first online gaming at all was in Crimson Skies, and I became quite involved in the community. The fact that every player had to connect to the same “games lobby” (a Microsoft provided service I don’t remember the name of) really helped build that sense of community: all pilots had a common window to chat, brag, defy each other, organise in squadrons (clans) and so on.

    I LOVED Crimson Skies for that, and gave me then the things that later I’d take for granted: voice comms, socialising with people in far away countries with the same interests, and so on…

    And I came from a pretty heavy and realistic flight sim background, having played all the classics and having worn out a Falcon 4.0 flight manual to shreds, but nothing more “realistic” beat connecting to your pals for flying lessons to newbies, or training, or combat against other squads or any of the various more-or-less organized and scheduled activities we had. It was amazingly fun.

    An MMO based on the Crimson Skies license? Crimson Skies started as a table-top strategy and roleplaying game. As with all FASA licenses (see Battletech) the background, the backstory, was full and rich: an alternate not-so-United States which fell in love with Zeppelins and aeroplanes instead of trucks, cars and highways. Cargo gets transported by air, so there are air pirates, and so there are air security companies. You have the story, you have the visuals, we only need a courageous company to develop it. Volunteers?

  26. milko says:

    Hmm. I wonder if some clever person could combine Crimson Skies style aero play with some Uncharted-style (or FPS, whatever) adventuring to take over enemy Zeppelins from the inside, or rescuing damsels from villain’s castles. Followed by daring aerial escapes and whatnot.

    Feels a bit close to my ten-year-old-self’s epic game designs when you’d have one level like Spy Hunter and the next would be like Target: Renegade and then a shoot’em up one and and and. On the Spectrum 48K.

  27. Risingson says:

    The problem with flight simulator games was hinted here: lack of… accesibility? I think it relates more to “details”. Details like the scared face of the pilot while picking difficulty level in LHX, details like the final picture after a mission that you recovered in this interview, those kind of things that made you remember that flight simulators were, above it all, *fun*.

    Fans were also to blame of that. I remember some years ago in a discussion board… let me google it.

    [time passes]

    Hm, better not to put a link there because I was very rude, but yes, people told me that flight simulators were not games and were not supposed to be. That was a common thought some years back and, obviously, it alienated players.

    I suppose that’s why some games have tried to bring back the “flight simulation with story” or “flight simulation with epic feeling” like the Blazing Angels or HAWX games, but they are designed much poorly than these classic games like Their Finest Hour, F-19 and so on. I don’t know exactly what is lacking for a mass appeal. Maybe some feedback from the game (and not in the shape of achievements, please!). Maybe some sense of background, where things happened around you (something magical that Apache Longbow and F19 had). Maybe some sense of progression. Maybe that magical cyberpunk atmosphere that those DID games had. Whatever.

  28. Bullwinkle says:

    Congratulations on buying Operation: Spearhead, the most advanced, most realistic WWII FPS yet designed! We think you’ll agree that we’ve put a lot of effort and passion into our game.

    I know you’re probably excited to get out there and shoot the enemy, but, before we begin, let’s take some time to learn how to play the game. First, you’re going to have to walk. Years of experience have probably conditioned you to think walking is easy, but remember that it takes babies months to learn how to walk properly! This may seem difficult at first, but with practice, you’ll be strolling across the grass in no time.

    The muscles and ligaments in your left leg are controlled by the keys A, S, D, F, Z, X, C, and V. Right leg is H, J, K, L, B, N, M, and the comma key. (Proper locomotion also requires you to swing your arms (Q, W, E, R, and U, I, O, P) with the correct timing, but for now, let’s just concentrate on your legs.) Begin by raising your left knee (press S, then D, then hold S)…

    …Fantastic! You can now walk. Let’s go shoot the enemy. From war movies, you may think that the enemy is always a short distance away, but, historically, opposing forces had to travel hundreds of miles to encounter each other. Begin by walking (careful–if you fall down, you’ll have to start the mission again) towards the green marker on the hill, 11 miles away. If you wish to speed up this process, press the plus key until you’ve reached the maximum 4x time comprFFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUU–

    • Armyofnone says:

      Heheh, thanks for the laugh Bullwinkle.

    • Jason Lefkowitz says:

      Reminds me of this Old Man Murray piece, which is still funny ten years later…

    • Chris says:

      You’re talking about complexity, but god damn I hate tutorials that tell me how to move forward back and “DERP YOU CAN MOVE DA MOUSE TO LOOK AROUND”. Developers who do this must have high hopes that their game is going to attract droves of new players to the genre or even the format, when in reality the people playing are the ones who have seen and done it all before.

  29. bill says:

    As for how to make flight sims interesting again. Pure sims, i don’t really think you can – they’re too hardcore and repetitive for any except enthusiasts.

    But making sims with a decent story, with decent characters, with unique settings, interesting level design, and new tasks to accomplish would be a big step forward. I personally didn’t like Crimson Skies (no idea why), but I think it’s probably the right track. Of course, these wouldn’t really be “sims” and enthusiasts probably wouldn’t like them.

    Take the best parts of the space sims (which usually had a better story, more variation in machines, etc..) and put them on land based levels that allow more variation in terms of levels.

    Why don’t we have more online mutliplayer flight-sim games? Descent was mad popular as a deathmatch game. Allegiance had some awesome ideas. Mix descent, allegiance, tie fighter, with modern physics, lighting and AI and you could have something special. Zipping in and out of different buildings and tunnels for cover. TF2 different roles such as repair, recon, sniper, etc..
    Heck, we should now be able to render the treelines that would make helicopter combat as fun as it should be.

    Interstate 76 and mechwarrior also show the way to go. But in the end I think you run up against the same fundamental problem. The fun in sim games is in the controls, which means the controls must be complex. Which means innaccessible. Simplify the controls to make them accessible (i82, later mechwarrior games, star wars games after X-wing alliance) and the sim loses it’s magic.

  30. Premium User Badge

    Richard Beer says:

    This is a great read, Tim, and very insightful. It never occurred to me that the whole first-person-perspective thing was exclusively for flight sims until you mentioned it, but your theory makes a lot of sense. Which basically leads to the conclusion that it wasn’t not the accurate simulation that people loved about flight sims (except for true propellerheads) it was the immersion and the fun.

    I have very strong, happy memories of playing Wings on my Amiga and metaphorically reliving the life of a pilot in WWI, distraught at the euphemistically chipper way the deaths of the young men around me were described with traumatic regularity. Of playing Red Baron and changing the war, seeing myself above von Richtofen on the kills list. Of playing Strike Commander and choosing my missions to keep my mercenary company afloat.

    Where is the story now? Where are the characters? Where is the historical context outside of the cockpit? I loved Falcon 4.0 on my friends Atari ST, but I wouldn’t go back and play a straight sim if it came out today. In my memory, Falcon 4.0 looked stunning, so playing a new version of the same straight F16 sim would be nothing new.

    ‘Fun’ doesn’t have to mean bright colours and humour (although there’s obviously a place for that): I want story, context, characters and immersion.

    I used to LOVE those games, but I can’t ever remember the last time I played a flight sim. The closest I get these days is BFBC2.

    • safetydank says:

      Ah Wings, I wasted many an hour on that. The campaign kept me playing even after the gameplay got a bit samey. My favourite Cinemaware game, though it’s a close call with “it came from the desert”.

  31. Picacodigos says:

    Then again, for people like these: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOGRm5f7HK8 flight sims are probably NOT a game.

  32. Flameberge says:

    Good stuff Mr. Stone.

    Along with Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix, my earliest gaming memories are with MS Flight SImulator; played to death on my Dad’s Amiga / Atari / whatever it was he actually had.

    As you yourself mentioned, the key word is ‘realism’. It is both a huge turn on, and a huge turn off for different audiences. It is the same with racing games – I much prefer my GTRs. Grand Prix 4s and NASCAR Racing 2003s to the Need for Speeds and Blurs of the gaming world. However, give the average purchaser of, say, DiRT or GRID, GTR Evolution, and they’ll wait 5 minutes before declaring the game is rubbish, because there is too much to learn before any enjoyment can be had. Most people want a game to live out a fantasy – they want to be Nigel Mansell, they want to be Maverick from Top Gun. They want to be as awesome as these people right out of the box, barrel rolling and powersliding as appropriate. They don’t want an experience that simply points out to them how difficult motor racing and flying actually are.

    Indeed, that point relates back to what John Walker mentions occasionally – he wasnts games to be fantasy, to be an escape; not replications of real life. Hence why for many, ARMA is something that they will just not be interested in.

    I don’t think so much its an ivory tower, as much as sims being unapproachable for the newbie. The perfect example of a sim showing this does not need to be the case are Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix games, as the driver aids therein meant you can happily drive your 700hp Formula 1 car using nothing but the keyboard with a key to accelerate and keys for left and right. The driving aids stretched all the way from steering help, to more obvious ones like automatic gears, the racing line and more minor ones like a suggested gear indicator. Made his GP games playable by anyone. Especially when dricing aids could be toggled with the F-keys during a race, allowing you to really tailor what exactly you needed. If more sims were that approachable again, maybe they’d pick up popularity.

    Also, bring back Crimson Skies. Not exactly a ‘sim’, but most fun I’ve ever had in a flight game, whether online or offline. They took the Crimson Skies universe and really presented it well. Shame they commited a cardinal sin that when you patched the game, your save games no longer worked.

  33. Paul says:

    RED BARON WAS MY FIRST VIDEO GAME I EVER PLAYED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! props for putting it up!!!

  34. Hellfire257 says:

    I think its the way devs advertise their products. I NEVER see an advert for a new Flight Sim like the ones the mainstream games get.

    I think its also down to the way young peoples play style has become. All action, don’t want any skill required, I just wanna pick up the game, and play. This is why games like Ace combat and HAWX are more successful in sales. You can just pick up and play. If we compare these to games like Lock On, you actually need to think; “That missile launched from 10Km away, if I turn sharp enough and climb I may be able to escape, but I will need to make sure that he doesn’t fire another at the same time. I need to beam the missile and then launch upon him”. Beaming is a technique that has to be practiced, learned, and perfected. The average gamer doesn’t want to have to do that.

    If we look away from the modern genre and into games such is Il-2, you still need to be able to master things like Yo-Yos, Scissors, Stall turns, and learn about each aircraft so you can fly it to its maximum potential. Again, this isn’t what the average gamer doesn’t want to do.

    This effect of the “dumbing down” of games will only get worse as the strangle-hold of the console gets greater. I cannot think of one single console game where you need as much skill, practice, and patience as you do for PC Simulators.

    To sum up, most people see a simulation game as boring because you have to a) get to the fight, b) win the fight, c) survive. The only way you are going to do this is to learn new skills.

    Soon enough, people will be bored with the repetitive gameplay such games offer (you can see it growing, especially with the Call of Duty series which is just about running out of steam imo). The time for time consuming games has gone, the time for simple “retard-proof” games is going, and then the cycle will start again.

  35. Clovis says:

    I really enjoyed some flight sims as a kid, like Aces Over Europe and Tie Fighter. But I never felt that I was really good at them. I just can’t handle the whole 3d thing. So a dofight for me was really just turning left or right until I could get behind the other plane and then trying to stay behind them. If they could turn faster I was pretty much screwed. I could never understand any other aspect of dogfighting.

    So, I can’t play those games now. I just know I’m doing it wrong. Plus, as noted in the article and comments, the environment is pretty boring.

    However, I remember one part of the flight sims that I really liked and would still really love: getting shot apart and seeing things get shot apart. I think modern graphics/physics could make this better. The best missions in those games, as someone noted above, were the ones where you knew your plane was just about to fall apart. The windows were cracked, you were losing fuel, you lost an engine, and then you managed to crash land at the home base and survive with a broken leg. Awesome!

    So, a modern flight sim I could enjoy would involve an AI that is dumb enough to let me win by simply flying in circles, but not before I get shot a lot. I think the future stuff (not nec. in space though) works better too, since you get to spend time diverting power to shields, deciding what the nanobots should fix first, etc. Those are game actions I can understand. Managing (and SEEing) damage just seems really interesting to me. Real dogfighting doesn’t, because I don’t understand it at all.

  36. wedge says:

    As a pilot and gamer who has played many flight sims starting on windows 3.1 with the original microsoft flight simulator. I can tell you EXACTLY why I have not played an new games except Dogfighter(on Steam) which did not live up to it’s expectations.

    IL2 is one of the most recent simulators and I hate it. Why? Too realistic for fun by a normal gamer. You want to do well in IL2? Plan to spend many hours playing the game.

    The absolute best Flight simulator EVER was Air Warrior 1, 2, and 3
    Why? Two play modes of Full Realism (For the hardcore) and Relaxed Realism (for normal gamers). End result was you could pickup the game and just play it, get some kills, have some fun, and go to bed happy. But, the best part was as your pilot skills made a difference in Relaxed Realism. If you knew what you were doing you could rip off 10+ kills with the right setup and tactics. Oh and if you didn’t land, the kills did not count(AWESOME!!)

    Play mode was pretty much only online with certain bases providing certain planes and upon base damage of a certain percentage, the plane options would degrade.

    The game had enough to provide very complex and fun dogfights(5+ minutes if two really good pilots went at it) and with just guns and bombs, you had get in really close to have fun. Controls were identical to a real plane(very good as arcade controls ruin flight sims beyond a few plays) and missions took time. Especially bomb runs. 1 hour bombs runs were common but it you made it back on the bomb run the reward point wise was huge.

    Anyways, that was a winning formula and nothing since then has come close.

  37. Premium User Badge

    oceanclub says:

    Give me two things in a flight-sim:

    (a) A good story: Flight sims (and city building sims) are stuck in the Doom/Serious Sam era where story was unimportable. Give me a reason _why_ I’m flying and give me an overarching drama.
    (b) A learning curve: I hate that flight-sims up front give you a binary choice of “idiot” vs “muscular airman”. Give me a tutorial that teaches me how to fly.

    P (has a joystick at home and is willing to use it)

  38. Item! says:

    Best flight “sim” ever has to be Strike Commander.

    Fun, narrative-driven game-play, cinematic/RPG presentation, optional load-outs and varied missions.

    Also, good moustaches.

    Done by the Wing-Commander team I believe…it was essentially Wing Commander: Privateer in a “real life” setting.

    • Nick says:

      Yup, only Flight Sim I ever bought and it was great. Same voice for the main character as privateer too, wasn’t it?

  39. Schmung says:

    great article and really interesting comments as well.

    As many have pointed out, in this age of immediacy a proper flight sim just takes a bit too much time. I’ve never been that keen on the likes of HAWX or Ace Combat either though. The most fun I have in flight sims is always in the slightly slower aircraft that are closer to the floor – I used to love the stunt challenges in the old MS flight sims and I think something that harnesses that sort precision flying as well as combat would be ace

    Stick your flight game in a big city, make the terrain artificially bonkers, slow the planes down enough so that this is feasible, but make them acrobatic enough to have major fun. Make missiles of dubious use instead of 30 mile insta death. Imagine something like that Sky Captain film (but not shit obviously) with a bit more levity and fun injected into things. Make Desert Strike again but from the pilots perspective. Leverage all the splendid destruction tech that exists and the graphical power of modern PCs to let me fly my futuro craft around the skyscapers of a neon drenched cityscape dodging the other air traffic and the monorail lines and skywalks and blowing chunks out of buildings with 30mm cannons. Allow me to take control of a seagull and fly around a seaside town shitting on people, eating their icecreams and terrorising dogs. Let me be an eagle soaring around the mountains attacking Yaks and screeching at things.

    There is so much you can do by letting people fly something. Why are devs still constraining themselves to painfully accurate simulations of high end military kit the thrill of which you can’t really capture whilst sat in a comfy office chair?

    Blethering over. Does anyone know of a decent open source flying game engine? I want to make my seagull game…

    Off to Farnborough tomorrow, I’ll keep my eye out for Mr Flight Sim.

  40. Colthor says:

    The problem I have with realistic sims (not just flight, also driving): I suck. Which is fine, because they’re tricky things to get good at. But what they don’t do, that they really should, is tell me *why* I suck.

    If I knew where I was going wrong and why I was rubbish I’d be a lot more inclined to persevere.

    It’s a pity, as I have fond memories of spending hours with F15 Strike Eagle II and Their Finest Hour when I was a kid.

    • Hellfire257 says:

      My advice to you would be to find a friend who plays the game too. You will find you will bounce off each other and learn from each others mistakes.

  41. DavidK says:

    I reckon a far more interesting question is: why doesn’t Tim Stone write more stuff?

    • Ezhar says:

      It probably took him a month to edit all these pictures. Which are brilliant and worth waiting a month for.

  42. BigJonno says:

    Great article, I can’t say that I’ve given much thought to Mr Flight Sim for years. What would I need to play a flight sim today? Hmmm…..

    1) A joystick, definitely. It’s not standard PC gaming equipment any more and hasn’t been for some time. Joypads are more common these days, but they don’t feel right. A flight sim without a joystick is like Guitar Hero without a guitar. I’d go so far as to say that any game serious about changing the fortunes of Mr Flight Sim would need to come packaged with a cheap but serviceable stick.

    2) Narrative. I have the attention span of a gnat these days. If a game doesn’t have an interesting story to follow or a steady drip feed of new stuff happening, I get bored pretty quickly. It doesn’t have to be a linear, overarching story, I’m quite happy with something like Oblivion or Fallout 3 where the narrative is one that I create by piecing together my character’s exploits.

    3) Structure. As mentioned in the article, a string of missions just doesn’t cut it. Some kind of management stuff in between would do nicely. The suggestion above about being able to get out of your plane to hijack others or fight on foot around giant zeppelins would make the game an instabuy for me. It adds an element of character that I find purely vehicle based games lack. It also sounds like the perfect opportunity for GRAPPLING HOOKS!

    4) Setting. I don’t want to refight WW2 again. Or any other 20th or 21st century conflict. Purely realistic settings (even if the game isn’t particularly sim-like) are an instant turn-off for me that can only be overcome by truly amazing games. Give me air pirates or something, and I’m there.

    • bill says:

      you said everything I tried to say, but coherently. good show!

      In this era of packaging peripherals with everything, maybe a flight sim with a packed-in joystick isn’t as unreasonable as it once was. Unless Tony Hawk Ride killed that idea…

  43. airtekh says:

    This is quite a timely article for me to read, because I was just reading some old articles by Tim on flight sims and was getting re-interested in the genre.

    There are few things stopping me from fully committing though.

    1) The learning curve. I read that in the likes of Black Shark there are like a bazillion switches you have to hit to keep the damn thing in the air. While I appreciate that there has to be realism in a flight sim, asking me to actually become a Russian Air Force pilot is a bit too much.

    2) The games. I don’t know which are good and which are bad. I suppose I could read a few old reviews.

    3) The equipment. I wouldn’t know what kind of a joystick to buy. I have an ancient Microsoft Sidewinder which might be a bit simplistic for a modern flight sim (how old you ask? It plugs in via a serial port, rather than USB)

    4) The everlasting-mountain-of-games-to-be-played (TM). I just have so many other games to which I haven’t gotten around to yet. If I ever get the it whittled down, I could maybe add a flight sim to it.

    What I really need is a damn time machine.

  44. Madjack says:

    Regards space sims, my fondest memory was X-Wing Alliance.

    A big part of that was the padlock view feature – it really helped give the impression of being in a craft’s cockpit. It was brilliant when flying past other bigger ships – really gave the impression you were taking a gander out the side window.

    But this feature appears to be too challenging for today’s space sims and isn’t usually included. This often has the effect of reducing combat to an exercise in screen scrolling in response to little directional arrows. Great.

  45. Premium User Badge

    Flimgoblin says:

    How about we ditch “Flight Simulator” – as Bullwinkle brilliantly illustrated above we don’t play “man shooting simulator”s or “crime-ridden city simulator” or “space flying simulators” (or “space economic simulators” – actually scrub that last one, hi EVE!)

    Bring back the flying game… first-person-aerial shooter? FPS with planes! (ok so you’re sat in the seat most of the time…)

    I remember playing Red Baron back in the day (or at least trying to get a shot on my brother’s computer, so probably more watching than playing) – it had a story behind it (which went on with or without you if you ended up in hospital/PoW camp) and missions which involved more than just shooting things (the deathmatch of Flight games)

    Remake that, with shiny graphics, and remember that for most people it’s about the fun of flying (which is always bloody difficult, but you can probably make difficulty options to make things like landing that bit more forgiving).

    Oh and don’t market it as a flight sim, ever.

  46. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    There are flight sims and games in which you fly. Are the two the same? I suspect not. The flying game I enjoyed most was X-Wing but I’m not certain that could be called a flight sim.

    Anyway, what could revive interest in games where you fly? I am not entirely certain as I haven’t paid attention to recent flight sims (other than that they’re quite realistic or very arcadey like HAWX). But I’ll give it a shot.

    1) A good start: Make the game relatively easy to get into. This is complicated if you’re going for a very realistic game unless a lot of the button-pressing and the like can be automated or bypassed or otherwise made optional. Tutorials, missions where you can muck about trying to get a feel for the game, things like that.

    2) A solid background: Make it exciting. Stimulate the player (and not just to perform 1001 tricks in the air). A good, engaging campaign, for one. And you know what, if you’re not insisting on the realistic, don’t be afraid to make stuff up. Fictional conflicts, fictional settings, fictional airplanes, even. All these can be used (if consistent and well-thought out) to encourage people to try out the game, buy it and play it. Also, don’t do achievements, but ribbons/medals and the like are often appropriate and give a sense of accomplishment. Do be careful with those, though, and don’t trivialise them by handing them out for every little thing.

    3) A solid flying experience. This can vary a lot, but personally, I prefer a middle ground between the very realistic and the arcade type of games. Games where you can start off relatively easily but there is definitely skill involved mastering the flying craft involved.

    4) Multiplayer. Implement it and at least try to make it as easy to get into and bug free as possible.

    Most of all.. make it fun.

  47. Risingson says:

    Though most of you people are asking for a narrative, I realized some later that what we need is an enviroment, something that tells us that we have changed the course of war or affected the next battle.

    It’s also kind of terrifying to install F19 again, under Dosbox, and see that it is an addictive experience.

  48. golden_worm says:

    Anyone remember Evasive Action? 4 time periods, 1 on 1 dog fights, split screen mode ? loved that game.

    • Horatius says:

      Yes! I played the hell out of the Evasive Action demo as a kid but never found the full game. To me it was covering all those aspects of “a flight sim must be fun first”, yet that was likely what got it ignored by the critics. If I recall it came out around the same general time of Falcon 4. Falcon 4 had a BINDER for the manual… ugh

      I loved how Evasive Action encouraged you to do stunts even when you were on a search and destroy mission.

  49. Gareth says:

    Yes, absolutely, to steam-punky, Elite-esque, tactically and strategically immersive flight sim (and preferably one not requiring pedals and joystick – perhaps a cheap joypad will do!).

    And get someone like Cherie Priest or Joe R. Landsdale to write the script, or advise, or something.

    Must contain pilotable Zeppelins.

    Should probably go and play Dark Void. Or watch The Rocketeer.

    • Adam Whitehead says:

      Or Chris Wooding as well. His TALES OF THE KETTY JAY books are basically CRIMSON SKIES + FIREFLY + steampunk anyway.

    • user@example.com says:

      BookS? I thought there was only one! I found it a bit bland and flat and a bit too blatantly Firefly in parts, but it was still good enough to read more of. The steampunk isn’t really my thing anyway, but I don’t dislike it, so I’ll probably be buying the second book when I see it.

    • Premium User Badge

      c-Row says:

      Those books sound funny, and anything remotely connected to Steampunk and Firefly can’t be all bad.

  50. Sam Dodsworth says:

    Derring do and implausible flying antics abound but its fun as hell

    Wondering why hardly anyone plays flight sims any more? That ‘but’ is the reason.