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 »

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  1. Richard Clayton says:

    What a lot of people are asking for, it seems to me, is for a developer to do with flight sims what Slightly Mad Studios did with Need For Speed: Shift.

    SM managed to add drama and excitement, a real sense of place to an otherwise dry experience (for those of us who are not hardcore fans). The result is playable, fun and as challenging as you want it to be.

    • Richard Clayton says:

      @me: of course Sim Racers would argue strongly that NFS:Shift is not a simulation. But has there been an equivalent for flight sims? One that looks like a sim, sounds like a sim but where you feel like a gifted fighter pilot and not the noob you really are?

      Like modern art, I suspect, that if the modern flight sim were indeed accessible then it would not make it a sim…

  2. Adam Whitehead says:

    I remember loving flight sims on the Amiga. F/A18 Interceptor was awesome, MiG-29 Fulcrum was cool, F-19 Stealth Fighter was a bit meh but okay, but eventually the fun of them wore off. I only ever bought one ‘proper’ flight sim for my PC (F-22 Total Air War; take out the ‘Air’ and they could have had CA scrambling around for another title for Shogun) and it was a bit dreary. Having this amazing graphical powerhouse of a machine and being reduced to shooting dots on the horizon just wasn’t fun any more. Crimson Skies, which had more in common with TIE Fighter mechanics than a realistic flight sim, was great fun.

    Something I did enjoy more on the Amiga were the helicopter sims. Thunderhawk was excellent, and Gunship 2000 (with its camels that were invulnerable to hellfire missiles) was superb. I tried a bunch of demos for PC helicopter sims and never really found one that satisfied. Disappointing, as a helicopter sim combines the aerial combat appeal of flight sims with the more graphical and detail-based approach of ground combat titles.

    On the space combat front, I’m still not sure why it suddenly fell from grace. Go right up to 1998 and you have great, very well-selling games like X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, Freespace 1, I-War and so on. Then in 1999-2000 you have X-Wing Alliance, Freespace 2, Tachyon and Starlancer, all top games and pretty much all of which bombed massively. At the same time a number of other in-development space combat sims were cancelled (like the Babylon 5 one which looked like it was going to be pretty good). Unlike the normal flight sim which went into a slow decline, space combat sims just seemed to disappear overnight, so a lot of the normal explanations (people needing joysticks and so forth) don’t really explain it. People just seemed to fall out of love with the genre.

  3. Berzee says:

    Why have flight simulators declined? Taking a hint from LHX Attack Chopper, I will say that the most important thing is to be able to blast camels with Stinger missiles. FILTHY CAMELS, you are my true enemy! ::explosion mouth noises::

  4. Michael says:

    Great article.

    FWIW, there are plenty of joysticks around but they’re not cheap and not worth the investment until there’s a decent flight sim around to play.

    Among the sims I’ve played, Strike Commander did a good job of keeping the pace of gameplay up and building an engaging context. F19 Stealth Fighter gave you more to do than just fire missiles at targets you couldn’t see – you had to manage your radar profile and slip unseen, deep behind enemy lines. Hind gave you an amazing workhorse of a Russian helicopter to control, meaning missions were varied, and most of the combat was against ground forces and at low level. Finally, there was Flight Unlimited, which encouraged experimenting with the shear joy aerobatics. I would spend hours finding new ways to test the limits of my glider’s wings – the creaking noise that told me they were about to rip off as I pulled, desperately out of a nose dive made, what could have been mundane, as gripping as any dogfight.

    I tried a couple of flight sim demos on the PS3 recently – Hawks and some WW2 thing – but they were just silly. Hawks gave you limitless air-to-air missiles and insisted on some crazy camera angles. Combat in both these games was always close range, target rich, arcade stuff. There was none of the intelligence involved in trying to outmanoeuvre one or two opponents. None of the slowly, slowly, catchy Jerry that made dogfighting so engrossing in the old days. It was closer to being a bad remake of Afterburner.

    I don’t think it’s a choice between realism and fun. I think flight sims need realism to exist. Without it, they become shoot-em-ups. But they also need something more than just flying and shooting. Any battle of Britain veteran will tell you that straight-up aerial combat is not, in and of itself, fun.

  5. GregP says:

    As others have said here, “flight sim” is probably not what we’re talking about here. For many years now, flight sims have mostly been high-fidelity ultra-realistic simulators that really do require you to learn buttons, avionics, and combat maneuvers. A big chunk of the flight sim fanbase WANTS to learn these things, and they’re very happy to encourage any further development of these kinds of sims, even more so because of their perpetual feeling that ALL games are being increasingly dumbed-down for the “console kiddie” generation as time goes on.

    That being said, yes, it is a shame that the flying games that so many of us fondly remember from childhood just about don’t exist anymore. My take on it is that publishers see the market for games somewhat polarized, along the lines of what I said above: the ultra-hardcore crowd on one end, and the console-kiddie instant-gratification A.D.D. crowd on the other end. Neither of those groups would seem to like the kind of flying game we used to play.

    It’s quite simple: no perceptible demand = no game development.

  6. Rob Zacny says:

    I think I-War and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter both took some risks with complexity that started turning people off. For one thing, do you remember how X-Wing vs. TIE did not ship with a campaign, just a few single player missions and a skirmish mode? Or how suddenly we had to worry about electronic countermeasures, and the how the Star Wars space battle started to look less like 12 O’clock High and more like Red Storm Rising?

    Suddenly there were missile locks everywhere, and the battles were bigger and more complicated. The more those games started to look like The Battle of Endor, the harder and more arbitrary they got. Alliance was unspeakably brutal, for instance. Capital ships everywhere, sheets of laser fire that could swat you out of the sky, concussion missiles zigging here and zagging there… The games were spectacular, but incoherent next to the nicely balanced scenarios of the earlier games.

    And I-War and Alliance both embraced The Endless Space Mission. “You’re going to jump to the Wait For the Convoy system. Then you’re going to escort the SS Fragility and SS Breakable to Pirate Attack Station, at which point you’re going to jump to the I Think We’ll Be Safe Here system. There, you will be rescued by the HMS Sudden but Inevitable Betrayal… or will you? The whole thing should only take about 45 minutes if you don’t die.” And because these games loved to put a brutal difficulty spike right there at the end of a mission, you could look forward to playing the first half hour a mission many, many times.

    I-War was magnificent, but I do wonder if the addition of more ship systems and Newtonian physics was yet another bridge too far. It was like the entire genre kept layering little bits of complexity onto the successful framework established by TIE Fighter. About the only game from that last generation I’d say was perfect was Freespace 2, and that’s because it deviated the least from the classic formula. I suspect that one did so poorly simply because it lacked a sexy license.

    • Tei says:

      “You’re going to jump to the Wait For the Convoy system. Then you’re going to escort the SS Fragility and SS Breakable to Pirate Attack Station, at which point you’re going to jump to the I Think We’ll Be Safe Here system. There, you will be rescued by the HMS Sudden but Inevitable Betrayal… or will you? The whole thing should only take about 45 minutes if you don’t die.”

      Photosensitive epilepsy is when seizures can sometimes be triggered by flashing or flickering lights, or by certain geometric shapes or patterns. It can also happends reading scort mission descriptions, as recently was found reading the RPS blog.

  7. Bluebreaker says:

    The problem of flying games is simple.
    You either get an idiotic arcade, or a “use 3 keyboards to take-off”.
    Give me a hardcore simulator with arcade controls and a story and I will buy it.

    • sinister agent says:

      Exactly this, to be honest. Anything somewhere in the middle would do for now, to be honest.

      Perhaps you could even have a flight sim about a war between arcade fighters and simulation fighters, just to rub it in.

      Obviously the arcaders would win, because their planes would go invisible and launch unerringly accurate homing napalm missiles while the simmers were still trying to revive the hung over ground crew so they could start their engines, but still.

  8. R3D says:

    Oleg Maddox was the refrance to il2, i loved the game and it deserved a better referance tho

  9. R3D says:

    yes and no i play IL2 and am in no way a pro simer i do own a good joystick but its not esential its just becaus i was playing alot and felt like ild like to splash out and get a good one, before that i had a $20 one for years.
    the problem i find is that people take a flight sim throw it on high to midhigh setings dont read any of the controles and just jump in and try to do it,
    i say this because thats how i did it and all my mates.
    it ends up tho that i like the settings at aroundabout 70% realistic when avalable and often tone it back to 50% when playing at a lan with my mates who only use keyboards and are just as good as i am.
    i think there is a bigger stigma of hardcore than in required because people feel like they arnt doing it right if they only enjoy the game at lower difficulties.

  10. Walsh says:

    Blackshark isn’t that bad. It’s not a significant time investment to understand the 5 things you need to do to fly and shoot things.

    It took me an hour of fumbling around to understand some of the functions and the more ‘advanced’ stuff actually make flying and shooting much easier, for example there’s an option in the black shark where you move your camera doohicky on to an enemy tank and press lock on, then you click one button and your helicopter will automatically turn towards the enemy and keep it centered so you can concentrate on blasting it. But you don’t need to use that feature ever.

    It takes a greater time invesment if you want to know how to start the helicopter from a cold state (there’s a hotkey to do all that for you) and understand every system. I think part of it is, while there are excellent tutorial videos from Eagle, is they present so many key commands that it’s overwhelming. They need to do a better job of here’s the buttons you really care about to shoot things.

    Actually, Lock On is a decent example of appeasing the hardcore and wanna be hardcore sim fans. There’s not much switchology and you can ignore 50% of the functions. It just needs a more thrilling story.

    I miss Strike Commander.

    One thing to remember is there are tons of sim forums with fans eager to bring newbies into the fold. You won’t be on your own trying to figure stuff out with super sim nerds thumbing their noses at you.

  11. Walsh says:

    There is a decent ‘light’ flight sim series out there, the Strike Fightersseries by Third Wire Productions, also known as the Wings over Vietnam, Europe, etc games .

    They aren’t that complex at all, I’d argue they are less complex than the old F-19 Stealth Fighter games. The games are inexpensive (~$20 USD) and have a large mod community supporting them. Also the developer is Indie so street cred.

    • Premium User Badge

      oceanclub says:

      Might give Strike Fighters a go, especially as you can fly a Warthog! Doesn’t appear to be a demo though?

      P.

  12. bill says:

    I think the future of “flight sims” is probably more something like Battlefield. Something that integrates flight into a wider range of experiences, and closer to the ground.

    though I’d kill for single player tie-fighter meets mechwarrior mercs based battlefield game where I can move smoothly between the cockpit, the interior, and first person boarding actions.

  13. Switch says:

    “Why they aren’t interested in winged warfare any more”

    => I can’t find any real story or entertaining atmosphere anymore in any games. Even the “dynamic campaigns” are like cold steel.

    Remember Red Baron, Crimson Skies, Gunship 2000, theF16 fighting falcon or B-17.
    You could feel your pilot improving, the situation going worse or better, the world living around you, and you got motivated to start the next mission.

    Story telling over cold dynamic campaign, that’s the point.

  14. jRides says:

    RE point 1:

    Left Windows Key + Home.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRaNnpIdYWY&feature=related
    :)

    But I do agree with your point, I bought Apache vs Havoc and Comanche vs Hokum at the weekend in gogs sale, but I’ve not even attempted to download them.. Not with Alien Swarm out this week, I’m in a middle of the Titan Quest IT campaign with a couple mates, on the second mission in Officers and I’ve finally broke the back of Harad as Gondor in the middle earth mod for ME2:TW – when the hell am I going to find time to effectively learn to fly these helis so that the game actually becomes [i]fun[/i]?

    • jRides says:

      gah the reply fail monster got me – this was in reply to airtekhs comment about DCS a page back about it being a nightmare to even start the thing.

  15. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Lovely stuff, keep fighting the good fight Tim.

  16. sinister agent says:

    Funnily enough, I just recently got a major hankering for flight sims, and have found very slim pickings indeed. The few non-ancient examples I’ve found were highly rated, and I’ve managed to eke some little enjoyment out of them, but it’s been vastly outweighed by frustration and boredom as learning to control them effectively is akin to taking actual flying lessons.

    It’s fine that these sort of games exist, and I can enjoy such things when I have time (hell, I even got into dwarf fortress after months of putting it off). But there seems to be no real middle ground between the ultra-realistic switch-flicking sims like IL2k Sturmovic that require two weeks of practice at landing (with no dedicated tutorial/practice mode, natch), and the ultra-simplified arcade shooters like the Battle Stations series. Both are perfectly valid approaches, but I find neither really hits home.

    Also, I want to play the game in these screenshots. Make this game please, thanks.

  17. Rugged Malone says:

    I blame the internet.

    Just like the internet has changed how I read articles (so many words!) and reply to email (that email looks a lot like an article…), I think it’s changed how willingly I face games that feel like they have a lot of inertia, like flight sims.

    I used to be an airplane nut, I own a full CH HOTAS setup (joystick, throttle, rudder pedals), and I own a bunch of sims that I keep meaning to play. But whenever I think of diving into one, it means sitting down and figuring out how I want to program the seven thousand buttons on my controllers, and then learning some complicated take-off procedure, and spending hours getting used to the brutally modeled throttle yaw effects.

    I want to fly, really I do, but it just seems so much like work. I actually feel guilty about it.

    My latest excuse is that I’m waiting until after I get my FreeTrack rig setup. Ah, sweet excuses.

  18. Microcystin says:

    I think the sweet spot for mass appeal is what the Battle Field 1942 mod, Desert Combat did with it’s planes. Yes it was arcadey but you could fly with a keyboard or get serious with a joystick and if you weren’t up to flying yet then you could man the AA gun’s or sit in the back seat of an F15. Reasonably detailed physics, a first person view (i.e. you don’t need to look at the panel), and constant action are what would draw in a crowd. I had so many fun moments playing just the all aircraft maps. Nothing like getting shot up only to parachute out at the last minute, steering your chute into another fighter take off and shoot down your antagonist. I want to like hardcore sims I keep trying to make them fun but 30 minutes of flying to get to the engagement then getting shot down and having to go do it again just isn’t fun. I will say that 3rdWire’s Wings Over Israel has been working for me of late, mostly because of a complete fluke. I was flying a bombing mission and after expending all bombs I was bugging out when I heard my wingman call for help. I was just going to run for home but for some reason in that split second I decided I couldn’t just leave a friendly to get slaughtered so I pull into a 180 turn and spot the Mig climbing for altitude on my wingman’s six. Somehow I get the perfect gun shot and take out the Mig seconds before he lines up a shot. If there were more moments like that I think flight sim’s would be incredibly popular. You just have to make people care about what is going on without making the situations contrived.

  19. Rugged Malone says:

    Oh, one other thing: where are the “middle difficulty” flight sims?

    It seems like we have to choose between dumbed-down console flight games that make it feel like an arcade game, and hardcore niche sims that make it all feel like work.

    What happened to sims like European Air War, Gunship 2000, and F-18 Interceptor on the Amiga?

    I want a sim that gives me “realistic” flight and combat without burdening me with over-the-top details.

  20. Waltorious says:

    I just wanted to add a couple of things:

    People are complaining about not being able to buy joysticks these days, but actually it is easy to buy a joystick if you order it online, and they’re not that expensive. I bought a Saitek Cyborg Evo a few years back, and it’s great, has plenty of buttons, is customizable (even in terms of adjusting the angles of the buttons to fit your hand, or use left-handed), programmable and wasn’t very expensive. Now, you can buy the wireless version for only $40. And Saitek make nicer, bigger, more expensive ones as well if you’re serious about your sims.

    Now, about the games. I was always a Space Sim fan. One of the first games I really got into was the original Tie Fighter, which I later upgraded to the CD version (gasp!). From there, I played the rest of the X-wing series and the Freespace series and I loved them. I think that these types of “space sims” do a good job of balancing complexity with fun. Clearly they’re not “realistic”, but they have enough depth where I felt in control, in that I’m managing the energy diverted to my weapons and shields, evading missile locks, getting into some fun close-quarters dogfights with cannons, and making sure I’m where I need to be to complete the mission. There were a lot of controls, but not TOO many controls. They also generally had good campaigns and storylines, especially the Freespace games. Contrast this with more arcadey games, where it’s basically just steer-and-shoot, and too simple to really be fun for me.

    Why did I never play any aircraft sims? Precisely because they were TOO complex. The “three keyboards to take off” problem people have mentioned. There was none of that in the space sims.

    So what would I need sims to do to for me to play them today? Find this same balance again. There are some solutions available now, in fact… the Freespace 2 Open Source project thingie means we can keep playing Freespace 2 with new shinier graphics and a plethora of new missions. The Evochron games which have been mentioned here before get a LITTLE more complex but aren’t too bad, have combat that’s quite different, and can be fun to just explore around in.

    New games need to get this right though. I would have no problem playing an aircraft sim if it got the level of complexity right, although I find I prefer more fantastical settings. A steampunk-ish prop-plane game with air piracy against zeppelins sounds awesome. A more modern jetfighter sim that’s all about missiles sounds less fun. But maybe we’re fighting against aliens and eventually start fitting some crazy alien tech to our jetfighters? Sound fun again. As long as it FEELS kind of realistic without actually being overwhelmingly realistic, I’m good.

    Long-winded, but my main point is that while many of you say that we either had stuff that was very simple and arcade-like or we had super-detailed very hard to learn flight sims, I disagree. I think the space sim games walked a nice line between the two, and if people started modeling more sims on that model I’d be very happy. Hopefully other people would too.

    But yeah, they’d need to buy a joystick first.

  21. scharmers says:

    Having written a fairly-popular flight sim column (the Follies) many moons ago and having been immersed in the whole sim-fandom scene since my Amiga departure days (comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.flight-sim 4 lyfe!), I’ve seen the “Why did sims die?” arguments over and over and over again. Congrats to Tim for clearly spelling out the old chestnuts (sims complexed themselves), but also clearly spelling some of the less obvious stuff (sims once led the way in 3d tech, they don’t anymore).

    What he didn’t touch on was this: sims were most popular when the Reagan babies of the 80’s — cold warriors, all — were hitting our majorities. We were raised on Top Gun and Tom Clancy. Now us 80s kids & teens are pretty much packing grey now, and the industry focus has moved to the Halo generation.

  22. Bureaucromancer says:

    It seems to me that there’s a lot of truth to that. In fact, I would guess that the next big breakthrough MMO will be something that does exactly that, along the lines of Battlefield 2 online. Frankly I’m surprised we haven’t heard of something along these lines already, what publisher could resist “Modern Warfare with a monthly fee”? Which leads nicely into my concern, that such a game would do air combat as at best an afterthought that is rushed, and never really feels right as any combination of realistic, arcade or middle ground (as, IMO, is the case most of the time in the battlefield games).

  23. Duoae says:

    I just want my space flight sims back. The last decent one that i played was Starlancer and that had so many crash-bugs in it that it makes it hard to play for long these days :/

  24. TeeJay says:

    I’ve just racked up 45 hours playing Just Cause 2 a lot of which was spent flying through the air free-falling, zip-lining, para-sailing or in a plane or helicopter. The most satisfying bit was steering the parachute and finaly earning how to get myself airbourne, gaining elevation, skimming the treetops, towing behind a vehicle gaining speed to execute a slick insertion onto a guard tower followed by a sling-shot over a rooftop to tumble into a machine-gun lit roll behind cover.

    Ironically compared with this the attack helicopters were an anti-climax and I was so useless at steering airplanes that I was unable to complete a single “race track” and ended up using them as guided missiles which I aimed and jumped out of at the last minute. Although I have completed the storyline I am only on “35% complete” meaning I need to learn how to fly. JC2 is my flying “gateway”…

    I am a self-confessed flying “lightweight”. I do enjoy the crazy sensation of being launched into the air but all my “flying” over the last few years has been in the following decidely ‘non-flight-sim’ games:

    Far Cry 2 (glider), UT2k4, disasterous rocket jumps in TF2, going into mini-orbits with robot ninjas in Plain Sight, 3d swinging, jumping and parktouring around in Tomb Raider, Dead Space & Mirror’s Edge, flying model helicopters in GTA:VC … I’m even going to include flapping desperately in Messiah, catching stupid air in Offroad Velociraptor Safari and Tony Hawke and the turn-based air warfare strategy in Alpha Centauri.

    My point is that getting airbourne is still a highly popular aspects of many games, but it seems developers are still working out how to make it as fun as possible. It’s not just that FPS stole ‘action fans’, but you can tell that many of these FPS developers still *want* to have air combat aspects somewhere…

    My preference would be for a further refinement of the “Just Cause 2″ model (or GTA/Battlefield/Arma/etc model if you prefer) – ideally with a ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ option… somehow accomodating the full range from gymnastic on-foot jumping around, through ground vehicles, base-jumping, jet-packs, zip-lines and parachutes, through to helicopters and jet planes … of course there are certain gameplay balance problems that arise and maybe it’s often pointless trying to be all things to all people – however it’s via games like these that you can get a big audience and player-base and therefore have a suitable context to hit this mid-market “sweet spot” – by making the arcade elements more “serious”, having harder options and offering ‘stretch targets’ – maybe via achievements or just opportunities to gain respect in multiplayer games – which will motivate people to hone their flying skills – maybe by turning off the ‘flight computers’ / ‘co-pilots’ / navigator / automatic weapons you’ll start stalling and side-slipping, getting lost, have far more buttons to press, bad weather and be more likely to crash – but you’ll also be able to achieve more and get more credit.

  25. Frye says:

    Unfortunately, in most games flying a helicopter just isn’t much fun. DCS Black Shark is, but it’s quite hard and probably near impossible to play without the right gear, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

    The helicopter flight model of Desert Combat mod for Battlefield was a nice mix between realism and arcade; It took a few days to learn to control them, but once you did, you really felt like flying a heli. At least the moves you could make were kind of similar to what real life helicopters can do.

    The original choppers for Arma and BF feel like flying a log.

    • Risingson says:

      The mentioned LHX, Apache Longbow and Gunship 2000 were really fun, believe me. What is funny is that the Comanche games, more arcade-oriented, weren’t not that half fun.

  26. Corbeau says:

    Someone mentioned ACE Online. As a gamer who began gaming with Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat way back in the day, I played ACE Online heavily when it was called SCO and run by gpotato. While I quit due to the MMO grind, I’ve never found a game that managed to revitalize the thrill of air combat like SCO. It worked. It really worked.

    Why did it work? Because it dropped the entire farce of realism in procedure in favor of realism of emotion. Simulation went completely out the hatch in SCO, with the exception of gravity and the resulting tactics of potential energy, but it captured the compelling feeling of air combat sims that made me love them back in the day. The feeling of being a bird of prey, swooping down upon hopelessly outclassed prey. The feeling of riding a rocket through fire and debris, of being the survivor whose adaptation to the sky is triumphantly tested. The feeling of teamwork and mutual reliance between wingmen when caught unawares by the enemy. The adrenaline-pumping feeling of racing through canyons and between skyscrapers, risking death from the tiniest error for the sake of that minuscule edge that will earn victory. The visceral feeling of power and freedom that follows militarized flight, and the personalities that it shapes. SCO did it all with it’s starfox-esque, pvp-central, player-skill-central MMO. Despite the hateful MMO grind, I dearly loved that game.
    I remain mystified as to why no one has copied the starfox-esque model and executed it better. There is incredible room for improvement, yet no one seems to have even tried. Even as an MMO, it was a fantastic game. I’d regularly beat the daylights out of pilots 10 levels higher simply because I practiced as a player rather than as a character – skill, both dexterity and understanding the dynamics of dogfighting, deeply mattered. And the entire game was focused on factional warring between players – you could even level up from shooting down players from the opposing nation! Pity about the grind, the dubious balance, and the many niggling technical flaws… but all of them could be corrected. The fundamental model was, and is, solid as a rock.

  27. bill says:

    While no shops round here have PC joysticks, I guess I could reasonably easily order one online.

    But TBH it’s not simply that I have to order one, it’s that I then have to find somewhere to put it. Either I have to keep it plugged in on the desk, looking messy, or I have to get it out and plug it in every time i want to play a flight game, and then put it away when I’m finished.

    I have been tempted to try a fold-up one I found on amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Saitek-ST90-Joystick-PC/dp/B0000AW9RQ as it seemed more convenient, and someone mentioned a wireless one, that might be more convenient too.

    But still, look at these things: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Saitek-Cyborg-EVO-Wireless-Joystick/dp/B00030GSJE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=videogames&qid=1279790845&sr=1-1 they hardly fit in with the living room furniture – they look way too bulky and hardcore. And they need a solid desk.

    • Waltorious says:

      I must come to the defense of the Saitek sticks… they really aren’t that bulky (at least, the Cyborg Evo isn’t, that’s the one I have) and since it’s USB it’s easy to plug it into a front USB port on your computer or laptop when you want to use it, and then unplug it and put it away when you’re done. I’ve just been putting mine behind my monitor when not in use. And now they’re selling a wireless version so you don’t even need to plug it in anymore! But yes, you will want a solid desk to use it.

      Other advantages include customizable shape (you can angle the buttons and such to fit your hand), works right- or left-handed, and it comes with programming software that lets you bind things to the buttons even if the game doesn’t. You can even bind keys to the hat switch and stuff, it’s quite thorough.

      I will grant that the look of the stick is probably not to some people’s tastes. I don’t mind it, but it is certainly… unique. With a stick I care more about performance than looks though, and you can always hide it away when you’re not playing.

  28. Mark Lucas says:

    Absolutely spot on interview. I laughed, I cried, I checked http://www.fighterops.com/ for more updates. Beyond the steady withering of th genre, what the heck happened to MS Flight Simulator?

  29. alh_p says:

    What I’d really love to see is a flight “sim” based on the 1st world war, maybe a remake of Knights of the Sky (Microprose) or Chocks away. I’m afraid the realism of fly by wire and afterburners does bore me.

    I agree with others here that IL2 was good but oddly un-fun too. What is fun about FPS’ is that you don’t spend ages driving around not killing stuff in the face and you don’t have to worry about your safety catch (in most games) -for example.

    I can totally see myself enjoying a War of Tanks-like War of Planes, earning xp and credits to get new planes and climb a tech ladder.

  30. Richard Clayton says:

    Having been thinking about this for a bit I remembered “Wings of Prey”.

    What was the response to “Wings of Prey”?

    I seem to recall a luke warm review from Tim in PC Gamer UK.

    Was this not trying to bridge the gap or was it mere watering down for the console market?

    Did anybody play it? I’ve found a demo on Steam and so am downloading to have a look.

    • Richard Clayton says:

      Apologies in advance for linking to metacritic but http://www.metacritic.com/games/platforms/pc/wingsofprey = favourable 78%. Agree? Disagree?

    • stahlwerk says:

      Wings of prey is a gorgeous game, and you can set it in three steps from arcade to simulation.

      Setting realism is really an old staple of this genre, but it makes so much sense, and it’s one they got right pretty much from the start (Dynamix especially). I wonder where that was lost… maybe when the “value” of a flightsim began to correspond with the quality of the rubber subsystem of the landing gear simulation… No one will buy black shark to fly it with a Xb360 pad (ha! well I would!).

      Haven’t played WoP beyond the tutorial mission over England since buying it, but it’s slowly creeping up on my list. Looking forward to it.

    • Premium User Badge

      oceanclub says:

      Installed the demo from Steam. Plugged in my Saitek Cyborg Evo Wireless – hardly a rare joystick. Found the controls were all fubared up. Asked on Steam forum but no response. So, not a very impressive first impression (it does _look_ very nice though, at least before I hit the ground).

      P.

  31. Guhndahb says:

    I want the switches. Take the realism out of flight simming and you lose me. You might be better off without me, but I’ll be glum.

    Oh, and the screenshots were absolutely precious.

  32. jimbob says:

    May i point the flight sim lovers to a nice indie flight sim? Besides planes you have also boats, ships, heliopters, etc. This Vehicle Simulator is like a giant sandbox.

    You can find it here:
    http://www.qualitysimulations.com

  33. Jabberwocky says:

    Haha, I totally misread this bit of the article:

    RPS: Today – well – things are very different aren’t they. Do you ever wonder why that is?
    Mr. Flight Simulation: Back in the late Nineties I started doing a lot of speed…

    ———-

    Space flight games are reasonably popular among indie and small studio devs. I watch the genre fairly closely, as my game-in-progress has some space flight in it. You just need to dig a little deeper to find them, and sometimes be a little more forgiving in production value.

  34. Jason Moyer says:

    I don’t have the time/inclination to do hardcore flight simming anymore (I barely have time to do hardcore simracing anymore) but if someone did something with the simplicity and polish of HAWX with more realism in terms of the flight model/weapons/fuel/etc I’d probably go for it. Really, I wish we’d get Mig Alley 2, because the original managed to couple a deep campaign and extreme realism with easy-to-learn controls/tactics and the era of air combat that is the most visceral and exciting – 100’s of jets fighting with guns and unguided munitions.

  35. Triggerhappy says:

    Thank you for this article, it brought back a lot of warm memories.

    Yes, flight sims got killed by their own fanbois. There were those of us that saw it coming, though. I remember having huge arguments about this very topic in the late 90s: That flight sims would lose their appeal to the mass market if they continued on their path towards more and more realism while neglecting most aspects that make a game a game and ultimately fun to play. Because that’s the difference between gamers and flight sim fanbois: for “normal” people, realism does not equal fun. Never mind the fact, that most simmers simply lack the knowledge and the experience to actually evaluate what’s realistic, and what’s not. Or the fact that you will never achieve full realism anyway (and why would you want to?).

    Thank you for also pointing towards first person shooters and other games that may have been “stealing the thunder” of flight sims. I had not considered that. But you are right: If it was only for realism, at least space sims should still be doing fine – and they’re far from it.

    I really do hope that one day, a phoenix will rise and restore flight sims to their full glory. However, I do not see that game coming any time soon. A flight sim of that scale would be very expensive to make, and I don’t see any publisher willing to take the risk to create a Strike Commander 2, a Eurofighter Typhoon 2, a Comanche 5, a new Crimson Skies …

    And if, one day, there will be such a game, I know exactly what the simmers will say … :-/