The Flare Path: Surf And Turf

By Tim Stone on March 2nd, 2012 at 1:01 pm.

Mother Nature is up to something. In my neck-of-the-woods cuckoo pint and dog’s mercury have begun appearing amongst the leaf litter. The bare treetops are abuzz with avian Morse code. If I didn’t know better I’d say a Big Push was in the offing. Gaia is going to try another assault with her Elite Photosynthesizers. It’s as if she doesn’t remember how it ended last year. How it ends every year.

If war should come, you won’t find me anywhere near bursting buds or strafing butterflies. I’ll be ensconced in my Hans Christian Anderson shelter preparing pieces like this week’s GIANTS interview and Microsoft Flight report.

Reaping Rewards

Hills and fields love to prey upon aeroplanes, especially fog-fuddled and wounded ones; hedges exist to hide anti-tank guns, fenceposts and trees to trash rally cars. Since the dawn of simulation, the rural landscape has been out to get the simmer. It took a Swiss developer with a taste for plough-sharing, to end the antagonism.

Actually, come to think of it, GIANTS wasn’t the first sim studio to bring first-person agriculture to the masses (That honour goes to Benoit Brabant, the maker of SimTractor). What it was was the first to realise operating tractors could be just as popular as operating trains or planes. Couple a decent engine with a decent game, and let users add their own custom-made equipment and venues, and you’ve got perfect soil conditions for growing one of the most successful sim franchises around.

Curious to know how the team behind Farming Simulator ended up crafting combines and tweaking manure stats, I sought out GIANTS co-owner Thomas Frey. Our AgriChat went something like this…

RPS: Why farming sims? Did GIANTS simply spot a gap in the market?

Thomas: Back in 2004 a small group of hobbyist game developers gathered together to develop an action RPG based on the story of Willhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller. Three of these devs (Christian Ammann, Stefan Geiger, Thomas Frey) together with Renzo Thönen went on to form GIANTS Software.

In 2007 a friend of Stefan had the idea of building a farming game in which the player could control combine harvesters, tractors etc. and farm in a virtual manner. Back then there had been a few farming games like SimTractor and John Deere Drive Green, but our goal was to have a more realistic approach with much better graphics, better physics and more innovative gameplay.

We also decided to allow mods. With every game we deploy a toolset (SDK) containing an Editor and several Exporters and other stuff. With this, anyone can design his own map or build new tractors and implements.

RPS: Was the Farming Simulator concept (open world, economic elements, low-to-medium complexity…)  set down in the first design docs, or did it emerge slowly during development?

Thomas: Farming Simulator is not a typical simulator like Flight Simulator. In Flight Simulator just starting a plane and getting it into the air without crashing can be a challenge; you need to know what buttons to press, and in what order etc.

Right from the beginning it was our goal to have a new approach to complexity. The game should be simpler – today we would say more ‘casual’ – with easy and intuitive controls. We now know that this allowed us to reach a much bigger audience and was one of the reasons for our success. With this decision we didn’t limit our target audience to hardcore simulation fans only. We extended our market to children (<10 years) because they can play our games without reading a huge manual first.

RPS: The creativity and productivity of the Farming Simulator community is astounding. How important do you think open-architecture is to the sim’s success?

Thomas: Open architecture and modding has been very important to us. There are dozens of new mods available every day which helps keep the game interesting and fresh. The mods allow users to fill out gaps in the game. Amazingly, the mod scene is so healthy there are people making a living by running mod websites.

RPS: Has obtaining licencing deals with companies like Deutz-Fahr and Pottinger been straightforward? Have any companies refused to play ball?

Thomas: In the first version of Farming Simulator (Farming Simulator 2008) we only had one major brand in the game. With every subsequent version we’ve tried to license additional brands and this has given us the opportunity to create extremely authentic machinery. Licensing brands is a two-way thing. Some companies contact us and ask if they can be a part of the game, but the majority of the collaborations have come about as a result of our approaches.

The upcoming version of Farming Simulator will feature more than 20 brands, and we are still eager to license new ones. Gran Turismo is one of our role model in this field. There have been some companies who are yet to co-operate and some we are still negotiating with, but we hope we can convince them in the future.

RPS: I suspect the keenest Farming Simmers are the Germans, the British, and the French. Is this true?

Thomas: Yes, our biggest fan bases are in Germany, UK and France, but Poland is also very keen. Facebook shows a strong following in Turkey and Scandinavia too. If you combine Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, the number of followers is roughly equal to the number from Germany.

RPS: Your franchise seems to have triggered a wave of (mostly inferior) non-military vehicle sims – digger simulators, tow-truck simulators, street-cleaning simulators etc. Do you see this as a good thing?

Thomas: There was indeed something like a gold rush, or a ‘revival’ perhaps. Many sims (including the funny and strange ;-) ) came out. We think it was just a normal economic reaction. If something seems to work, many companies try to benefit from it.

Because of the flood of low quality simulators there is a risk that people lose trust in our products as well, so we do our best to increase the quality of our games to show our customers that our creations are worth buying. For a while now the market has started to consolidate. The strong titles and topics like farming, shipping, snow, bus, fire brigade/department simulation and more, survive, while the more exotic simulation titles are disappearing.

RPS: Can you give any clues as to what will be in the next version of Farming Simulator?

Thomas: We can’t disclose that much at the moment, but there will be new type of crops, new animals, brands and a completely new map.

RPS: Do you have any plans to move into new areas of simulation or cross-over into the world of training?

Thomas: We have several ideas for new simulation games but nothing we can disclose at the moment. In the past we’ve had several inquiries from manufacturers of agricultural machines regarding training or simulation software with a “serious” goal.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

 

 

My First 5 Hours With Microsoft Flight

I was planning to bring you some Accu-Feel impressions this week, but A2A’s truth serum and my install of FSX don’t seem to get along (I’m suffering from the same malady as these unfortunates) so you’re going to have to make do with some early impressions of MS Flight instead.

Hour #1

How odd. My first sixty minutes with a new MS flight simulator are usually divided equally between joystick configuration, graphics slider fiddling, and sighing at single-figure framerates. In Flight, 90% of that introductory hour has been spent – well – in flight.

A pair of pithy tutorials have had me dodging hot-air balloons, and thumping runways with a resolutely unCessna Icon A5 amphibian. An early mission has given me the opportunity to try a water landing, nod vigorously at sensible control options (mouse flying is eminently practical) and admire a surprisingly framerate-friendly rendition of Hawaii. Oh yes, I’ve also been serenaded by a ukulele-playing passenger.

Mild disappointments so far. The flight instructor and the lady with the miniature guitar were invisible. Half-way through that four-minute musician chauffering job, I was asked whether I wanted to “skip to the next waypoint.”

Hour #2

I’m reporting Flight to the Something Something Board of Aviation Safety. In between teaching me how to interpret PAPI lights and avoid stalls, it’s been busy encouraging me to fly under bridges and get extremely close to wind turbines. Hour #2 has been taken up with ‘challenges’ and ‘aerocache hunts’. The former involve collecting hovering golden rings while a timer ticks down, the latter roaming Hawaiian airspace in search for local landmarks.

Every aerocache briefing comes with a depressingly concise text clue and a Bing button encouraging you to search the Internet button for accurate location info. It all feels a tad unimaginative to be honest. After locating the five included caches, I can’t see myself logging on to GFWL every day, in order to obtain a new one. Perhaps if the ground-scouring was part of some slowly unfolding narrative, I might feel differently.

Hour #3

With the tutorials completed, the aerocaches located, and the ring-collecting challenges cold-shouldered as Not-Really-What-I-Look-For-In-A-Flight-Simulation, I investigate the ‘Free Flight’ tab. Counter-intuitively it hides missions too.

Selecting one of the island’s dozen or so aerodromes, I find a job offer waiting for me. Some wealthy schmuck wants me to fly him from Hilo International to Waimea-Kohala so that he can dine at a favourite hamburger restaurant. I accept the 15 minute commission and find myself sharing my Icon with another disembodied voice. Strangely, considering his request, this fare seems petrified of flying.

With pleas for conservative manoeuvring echoing in my headset, I settle back and enjoy my first substantial Flight flight. There’s opportunity to explore the clickable virtual cockpit, contemplate the FSX-reminscent vistas, and test handling (overly stable but otherwise plausible). Is the interior of Hawaii really so sparsely populated – I haven’t seen a house for ages)? Do I want to skip to the next waypoint? No, and I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop asking me that.

In other news: I think I’ve just read the most blindingly obvious load-screen tip ever:

Hours #4 & 5

Flight desperately wants me to log onto Games For Windows Live. The thought of an alternative steed – a Stearman biplane – new missions and aerocache challenges, is tempting, but frankly, at the moment I’m having too much fun in Free Flight to fanny around with log-ins and lost password retrieval. Why is it that flight sim devs so often fail to identify the true strengths of their creations? The most fun you can have in MS Flight is patently trying to land planes in places where planes probably shouldn’t land.

^8.3 times more enjoyable than aerocaching.

^13.6 times more enjoyable than collecting silly gold rings.

^11th time lucky.

^They said it couldn’t be done.

 

The Flare Path Foxer

There are six trees in the Flare Path’s private arboretum and they all have aviation connections.

 

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43 Comments »

  1. Mr_Day says:

    I have been chucking that icon A5 about all over the place in MS Flight. I tried to get over one of the higher places in the middle of the large island only to find that I couldn’t climb high enough to get over it.

    Luckily there was a road, so I landed on that and drove around the highest bit. Not very Flighty, but there you go.

    I am enjoying it quite a bit, still haven’t shelled out for anything in it. There is a multiplayer mode that just lets you fly with others whilst doing jobs/aerocache searches/landing on things you aren’t supposed to, but everyone I have tried to convince to play has said “Eurgh, GFWL.” Ah well.

    • djbriandamage says:

      If you go to the multiplayer screen you can turn your single player sessions into an open multiplayer server. I’ve had some very pleasant conversations and ad-hoc formation flying with strangers this way. To my great surprise Flight is a fun game to pug.

      I put 7 or 8 hours into the beta and am struggling a bit to stay engaged in the final version, but I believe I will spring the $20 to unlock the other Hawaiian islands this weekend and try out the other story-based missions – what I wish would be the primary activity of this games.

    • Smashbox says:

      How are you playing the game? I’d like to give it a go, but I don’t have a flight stick. What’s your control method?

    • Joshua says:

      @Smashbox

      I tested the mouse controls in the beta – they are quite simple to use (albeit a bit counter iniutitive if you are used to a joystick), you won’t need a flight stick.

    • djbriandamage says:

      I use a flight stick by Thrustmaster. I tried FSX with a gamepad but it was far too sensitive and seemed like it was obviously the wrong tool for such a delicate job. I used to play flight sims with the keyboard which worked perfectly well for me (I’d sooner use keyboard than mouse as a yoke). With its more mainstream focus maybe gamepad will be better for Flight.

    • Henke says:

      I’m using a 360 gamepad, works just fine, though you still need to use the keyboard for some functions.

      Only played about an hour but enjoying it so far. :)

  2. westyfield says:

    Presumably the sycamore seed is there because they’re often called ‘helicopter seeds’?

    • deejayem says:

      I can do the easy one – the big leaf and hairy ball on the right is a plane tree. Although given Foxers past the answer is probably more arcane than that …

    • Tim Stone says:

      FP’s sycamore was planted to commemorate the Bristol Sycamore, but westyfield and Alex Bakke’s links are strong enough to warrant flair points (All of this week’s points are carved from Mossie offcuts).

      deejayem’s plane-speaking earns him a point.

      Skabooga spots the cherry but not the aviation link.

      velvetkevorkian’s spruce is actually a fir.

      Hydrogene stumbles over a fallen beech(craft) bough, collecting an FP point in the process.

      seanblah12′s FP point has highly-polished tin legs (Douglas Fir -> Douglas Aircraft Co. would also have cut the mustard)

  3. Skabooga says:

    For the Flare Path Foxer, there are a few I think I can identify: Spruce, elm, and cherry.

    Also, the landing on that helipad is most impressive.

  4. Hydrogene says:

    The flying trees are:
    Boeing Sequoia
    Stearman fir
    Airbus chestnut
    Beechcraft beech
    McDonnell Douglas Elm

    hrmm, really, I give, up, it’s too hard.

    Thank you Mr Stone, for this excellent weekly tribune! One of your best!

  5. Alex Bakke says:

    The sycamore seed (European maple) is there because there’s a new drone being developed by Lockheed (The Samurai) that flies in the fashion of a sycamore seed were you to drop it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAXEgfv5fNA

  6. tehfish says:

    The most fun you can have in MS Flight’s is patently trying to land planes in places where planes probably shouldn’t land.

    Amen to that, reminds me of the many times i used the hilariously hard to control plane in GTA3 to land on top of skyscrapers and so on :D

  7. seanblah12 says:

    Douglas “bader” fir

  8. asshibbitty says:

    Looking around for shiny things seems to be a popular feature in open world games these days. Stuff like that plus the modest system reqs make me think it’ll appear on the 360 some day.

    All kinds of happy about civilian sims propagating the way they are. Flight proves again that it’s possible to make a friendly game with serious guts. Now I’d like a walking excavator sim please.

  9. UncleSmoothie says:

    Is it feasible to play Flight with a wired 360 controller or must one have a joystick?

  10. Vexing Vision says:

    I am getting seriously tempted to get a Farm Simulator LAN party going.

    This disturbs me.

  11. akaleus says:

    I spent the first couple of hours downloaded and installing… then I spend the next 1 hour trying to figure out why games for windows live is making the game crash at start up. I tried uninstalling GFWL all together and re-downloading it… restarting several times… nothing has worked yet.

    I supposed I’ll just go back to playing Aerofly FS and FSX.

  12. wootles says:

    The best moment that I’ve had in flight was when I managed to get eight others to follow me through one of the valleys. We all were flying below 1000, and when the end of the valley came. Not a single one of us had enough power to pull out of the valley. We all crashed into the side of the valley, one by one. Best time in a flight sim that I ever had.

  13. seanblah12 says:

    cherry blossom kamikaze plane

  14. Megadyptes says:

    I’ve been playing around with Flight for a few hours, it’s fun but there’s so much lacking compared to other flight sims that it makes me mad about video games. I need my TrackIR dammit!

    But deep down it’s got a pretty decent flight engine and the graphics are alright and more importantly it actually runs at a decent frame rate. The Stearman is pretty awesome to fly and I prefer much more over the Icon. I’m tempted to buy the Maule, maybe I will if they get around to implementing Trackir.

    • Megadyptes says:

      Also the lack of ATC is a bit jarring. You can fiddle around with the radio, changing frequency and whatnot and on the map it shows airport radio freqs but you can’t use them at all. Also the lack of navigational aids is a bit worrying.

      Oh, and during a mission, sight seeing with the Stearman, the phantom voice woman on board said she needed to use the bathroom whilst half way flying up that big ass mountain, she asked if we could land somewhere, I wasn’t about to turn around and for some stupid reason the map view is disabled in missions so I couldn’t check for anything closer so just continued. A few minutes later she complained about it again. I ignored it, and then a few minutes later she informed me that it was no longer necessary and whispered about being ‘so embarrassed’. I stared at the screen in disbelief and mouthed ‘what the fuck’ and tried to put it out of my head as I carried on clawing my way to the top of the mountain.

      Then when we were at the top she complained about the cold, the thin air and that she was feeling light headed. I really just wanted to mute her. More annoying than the stupid $100 burger guy crying about the flying.

    • Tim Stone says:

      I have it on good authority that this incident was included by mistake. Apparently, at an early planning meeting, the Project Lead was going on about creating a sim “without continents” and somebody got the wrong end of the stick.

    • Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

      Haven’t done so for a while but I used to play FSX with a couple of hundred quid’s worth of addons, so I’m familiar with MS FS offerings and am in no way a ‘hater’…

      A friend of mine downloaded it earlier today, I had a go, and genuinely couldn’t believe how bad it was. I had a go on the Stearman (all difficulty options on). I managed to rotate the aircraft 180 degrees in the air just by continuously applying the rudder, causing it to crash backwards at 80mph whilst going on on almost exactly the same trajectory as before – aside from its facing the wrong way, the plane didn’t seem to mind much. I deliberately stalled the plane on full throttle and didn’t generate a hint of prop wash, then the plane managed to fall tail first, with no change in attitude whatsoever, until it hit the ground. I haven’t tried them for a while, but it felt even more unconvincing then the default FSX light prop aircraft (which, helicopters aside, were always its weakest point).

      Just… Bleh. Bleh bleh bleh. Yeuch. If you’re going to launch a flight sim with the primary three aircraft as a Stearman, a P-51 and some tiny GA/LSA amphibian, then for Christ’s sake try and do a reasonable job of prop effects and low speed stalling/spinning behaviour.

    • Dominic White says:

      Did you go into the gameplay options first? Because prop effects and a few other challenging bits are disabled by default, and you need to tick a couple of boxes to make them happen.

    • Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

      Yeah, made sure all that was on. I’ll download it on mine here just to check I wasn’t hallucenating.

    • Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

      Argh. Just downloaded it and had a go on my PC… I really do think it’s bloody terrible. Managed to crash the Stearman backwards in roughly level flight again – it just doesn’t seem to recognise that anything’s happened when the aircraft’s stalled. It seems to carry on on a ballistic profile, perfectly stable in whatever attitude its in, still letting you put control inputs. It’s like the plane becomes a point of mass adjustable by thrusters, with no wings, spinning props, control surfaces… It just doesn’t seem to want to model anything when the plane leaves 100% safe, dull as porridge flight.

      Under completely normal, safe flying the Stearman doesn’t do anything odd, and that amphibian’s control rates seem too slow to let you do any manouvering ant notice it, but if the game’s going to all be about small, light propellor aircraft, then all of the interesting flying will be contained within stalling, spinning, battling prop wash and torque effects – flying on the limit when you try and land on something ridiculous. The two planes just don’t seem to model any of it – maybe it’ll be better in the payware ones, but at the moment it’s like a rally sim that doesn’t model oversteer or a foot-to-ball game that doesn’t acknowledge the existance of headers and corners.

    • Zenicetus says:

      I’m going to quote (below) what I said on another forum, which is that I don’t get where MS is going with this business model. They could fix the flight model bugs, but how long will people want to continue doing the available activities like these “fly a guy to get a hamburger” and collecting gold coins in the sky? Where are the “legs” in this sim, that will make it a franchise? It looks to me like a one-shot release that isn’t going anywhere.

      As long as they release small chunks of the world as separate payware (assuming that’s what they’re doing), the best parallel is something like the worldwide distribution of Disney theme parks, since there is no navigation and no underlying world model of navaids and connecting airports. Once you’ve seen one Disneyland, do you really feel a strong urge to take the same exact rides on a Disneyland somewhere else?

  15. cptgone says:

    this part of the article had me giggling:
    “Mother Nature is up to something. In my neck-of-the-woods cuckoo pint and dog’s mercury have begun appearing amongst the leaf litter. The bare treetops are abuzz with avian Morse code. If I didn’t know better I’d say a Big Push was in the offing. Gaia is going to try another assault with her Elite Photosynthesizers. It’s as if she doesn’t remember how it ended last year. How it ends every year.”

    impressive writing!

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