All Aspects: The Derek Smart AAW Interview

Orange is the best of all armour types.

You suspect 3000AD’s Derek Smart is the man the phrase “outspoken developer” was coined for. He’s… oh, you have an opinion, don’t you? Whether or not you’ve played – or could even name – one of his games, everyone’s got a take on Smart. He’s also a perennial PC gaming figure which we haven’t talked to yet. With All Aspect Warfare approaching release, we thought it time to change all that. Talk about where he’s coming from, going to and – whisper it – whether he was actually right all along. Along the way, we take in the death of Space Sims, Steam’s power being over-estimated, his take on the Space MMOs, some cheery demonization of EA and… well, whether he ever regrets comment threads.

Join us.

RPS: Okay, from the top: All Aspect Warfare. Could you explain its germination? How do you think it fits in with your other games? Is it fair to say the scope is more focused this time around? Or is the focus just different?

Derek Smart: Well, apparent by the time we released our last space combat game, Echo Squad SE, that the days of space sims – as a viable business – were pretty much over. The genre is as dead as a doornail; and anyone who says any different, has maybe one or two other day jobs, lives on Ramen noodles and their monthly bills amount to a monthly grocery trip.

Seeing that we very well couldn’t make the same kinds of money over the years on the genre – short of rolling out our MMO (which is still about eighteen months away) based on our existing properties – I decided to do a game in between. A sort of stepping stone if you will. Sure it could have been KnightBlade, the space game we were planning on doing for PC/XB360. But given that no publisher in their right minds is going to sign a space combat game – let alone a console one, I decided to play it safe and put that game on ice and start a new game from scratch. Plus I wanted a break to do something else for a change.

When you have a franchise property you’ve spent decades on (in my case, twenty plus years already), you don’t just abandon it and start from scratch. Most especially not when you have a large install base. So this game, though radically different (for one thing, it is not a space game), takes places within our pre-existing game world and mythos.

The focus is 100% on planet side aerial and infantry combat. The game was designed, developed and fine tuned specifically for that. Which is why the majority of our technologies were either written from scratch or heavily revised for this game. It has been a HUGE investment. We’ll see if it pays off or not.

RPS: Is the space-combat game actually dead then? What can resurrect it? I’m interested in how older genres have been unexpectedly rejuvenated – I mean, the Adventure game finding a new home as webgames and on the Wii of all places. See an opportunity anywhere, or is it just the MMO?

Derek Smart: Yeah, its dead, Jim.

Well, you just hit it right there on the head. While adventure, war games etc are no longer mainstream – as far as retail publishing goes – there is grassroots support for it by gamers and developers alike. The way I see it, a publisher won’t bother with a game that won’t sell five copies. However, a developer (or web publisher/developer) who knows that he only needs to sell two copies for his break even, can still survive by going the alternate publishing route. More often than not, they often end up making more money than if they went with a publisher. Why? Because if you sell direct, the money goes to you directly.

If you have a traditional publisher, you have to wait to get paid. If they actually do pay.

Nevertheless, nothing beats the sheer number, volume and face time than retail gives. But that brick and mortar model is on the way out. The publishers know it. The retailers know it. It is only a matter of time before retail becomes an afterthought. Much like mainstream PC gaming.

There are so many opportunities for online distribution these days, that there is no longer an excuse to not do it. The biggest decision you’re going to be faced with is who to go with and how many. On one hand, you can sell through a lot of portals and dilute your metrics or go through a single [popular] portal and cross your fingers. That’s like selling to Walmart and not bothering with the likes of Best Buy, Target etc. If that’s how you roll.

And believe it or not Steam -even with its “Valve games powered numbers” – is not the leading online digital distribution portal. IGN’s Direct2Drive still is. Primarily due to their very diversified game portfolio, non-preferential treatment, developer friendly rules, brain dead straightforward contract, friendly and responsive sales and develop personnel etc. Gamer’s Gate is the same way. Been working these two and several other smaller portals (e.g. Digital River, BMT Micro) for many years now and have no complaints or qualms.

All of a sudden, everyone wants to get on Steam. It is easy to scream up to the rafters about hozillion subscribers. It doesn’t mean squat if a good portion of those are only on Steam specifically for the exceedingly popular Valve games. And I know for a fact that I’m right. Otherwise, you’d have already seen product specific numbers (like you do with NPD and such) from Steam already to backup those claims. Sure you’d get a sales spike there every now and then. But so what? You’d get the same sales spike if you put the game on any of the other portal and offered the same price, period and conditions. Marketing is marketing, no matter how many gimmicks you wrap around it. Selling a gamer a game he already owns, is the ultimate gimmick. That’s like selling ice to Eskimos.

The point is that even if you didn’t want to setup your own storefront, if you have a finished product – specifically a game – you can get it online rather quickly and start selling through the developer friendly portals without having to go through the same bullshit you normally would if were going with a traditional publisher. Plus, you’ll get paid – and on time. All done automatically.

Seriously, you can get a game on a good portal in under a week. Tops. In fact, the biggest delay is probably in getting the DRM scheme that they use, sorted out because the contracts themselves are just fill in the blanks simple.

There are also other upcoming ones which target a specific demographic. e.g. GoG. I mean, was that a brilliant idea or what? Its like retro bargain bin hunting. Hopefully they can get a lot more classics on there. But my guess is that the biggest hassle they’re faced with is tracking down the developers/publishers, finding out who actually owns the rights to properties etc. GameTap went through the same thing. It ain’t easy.

In many of my legacy interviews, I said – quite clearly – that MMO games and digital distribution, were the wave of the future. Those interviews are still up on my website to this day. And guess what? That’s exactly where we are today and specifically for PC games which will never be able to make their way to retail shelves.

So the way I see it, space games may be on the out, but they can be revitalized in the online distribution space. If the game is good and there are gamers out there who would rather buy than pirate (bastards) it, you can probably made a decent return on investment. But given the thinned out popularity of the genre, I wouldn’t quit my day job to develop and sell a space sim. Especially one that didn’t already have an incubated fan base. Seriously.

Just look around and see how many mainstream space combat developer from the old days are still in business today. I’m sure that if you approached Larry Holland [Totally Games, of X-Wing series fame – Ed] today about doing a space game, he’d probably (depending on the size of his bank account at the time) just laugh and saunter off in mild amusement. The same thing could be said for Egosoft. I’m sure they’re hurting – but my guess is you won’t see another X3 game for a long time because there is a point (the point I reached with the last niche space game) where you have to say enough is enough to derivative works.

There is a good reason why, for example, David Braben has been threatening to unleash Elite IV since Nixon was president and why you still haven’t seen it – and probably never will. At least not until you grow Grey hairs in places you didn’t realize could actually sprout hairs.

RPS: Your games have been… okay, let’s go with “divisive”. If you go with something as simple as a metacritic score, they’re always mixed. Yet despite that, you’re a perennial PC-developer who seems to have found an audience who appreciates your vision. Would you think this fair? If so, how does AAW fit here – both in terms of reaching new players and the pleasing old ones?

Derek Smart: Divisive huh? Well, that’s new. Usually I get sentiments ranging from mediocre to challenging…and all the way to the crap end of that particularly ecclectic opinions spectrum reserved by gamers solely for the purpose of expressing repressed emotions. You know, the kind that controlled substances, therapy or resolved Mommy issues don’t quite fix.

Seriously though, I love what I do. For me, being a sci-fi geek who grew up on all things sci-fi, getting into space games was a no-brainer. Sure I could have picked another genre (e.g. RTS) and still gone the sci-fi route, but even as a kid, I had always been fascinated by space and all its mysteries and such.

Playing games like Elite, Star Flight, Echelon etc just sold me right there and then. Once I decided to go out and make my own game instead of just sitting around playing someone else’s, I realized that life as I once knew it, was, well, over. I always felt that I could take the genre further.

My previous games – as you well know – are designed and developed for a specific group of people. I didn’t – and still don’t – care about the people outside that classification. My games, you either like them or you don’t. There is no in between, no fuzzy logic and certainly no repressed emotions. You can’t win over everybody and trying to do that is just a lesson in futility. So, I’ve always targeted like minded folks. And once that segment grew large enough to sustain my company, I decided to just keep doing it. Twenty years and thirteen (and at least two more to come) games later.

For this game, the goal is the same. While we’re not targeting the space combat fan base, I’m sure that those guys play other games too. So this is a chance to see how well (or bad) we do outside of our (space combat) comfort zone. As I’ve been telling the publishers we’ve been speaking to, if you want a cookie cutter fps game, this ain’t it. Which is why we have been providing them with the game’s docs first and foremost. Those who like what they read enough to play the game, go on to request an eval. So far, we’ve had some good responses and feedback. So I think we’re on the right track.

Apart from the fact that this is a “Thinking man’s fps”, a lot of the technologies were designed with various genres and gamers in mind. For e.g. the aerial combat aspect features proper cockpit and camera views, awesome flight dynamics and avionics. And oh yeah, a proper camera – not that rubbish those other guys are currently pushing and frustrating gamers all over. So an aerial combat flight jock is going to feel right at home, even if the only time he ever steps foot on solid ground – or fire a weapon – is when he’s searching for a fighter to jack. You start off in the ground, in fps mode. None of that “start and end in the air” crap.

As to the infantry combat aspect, it is all skills and experience based. If you don’t have the skills or the experience points to fly a fighter, you’re never – ever – going to be able to get in one. This leaves flying to jocks and the rest of the heavy lifting to the infantry guys. And even they need experience points to drive most of the vehicles in the game or man the numerous ground surface to air missile and gun units. When I designed this, I didn’t want any of the rubbish you see on other game servers where it is a free-for-all and with mostly griefers.

Oh, and – btw, IMO – Metacritic scores are the greatest injustice to the creative minds that actually work (yeah, some of us actually do that) to bring fun (and a balanced level of frustration) to gamers. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t contain “scores” from all print and on-line media reviews, its just plain wrong to use that as a yardstick for measuring excellence or failure when in fact the data sampling is hardly indicative of a true weight/ratio analysis based on the written word. But that’s a whole other interview.

RPS: Following on from the last question… do you think that makes you ahead of the curve? As in, realising you don’t need everyone to love you. There seems to be more and more people who work in PC gaming who seem to realise that actually servicing a niche of people who care about a certain approach and then making a game with a suitable budget is something that’s sustainable and worth doing – especially when you’re one of those people who want the game you’re making. You’ve been doing that for years.

Derek Smart: Well, it is only now when most of them either find themselves on the receiving end of redundancy or losing money hand over fist, that this common sense notion hits them. A lot of companies and small devs have been doing that for years. Most – if not all, like us, are still in business. Mostly it is greed and bad planning that gets some of these companies into trouble. Why spend $250K making a game and sell it to 100K people who actually want it, when you can blow $10m on a wildcard while trying to get 500K people to buy it? The mainstream economics of game development today makes absolutely no sense to me. It all boils down to bloat and mismanagement.

Plus I blame EA.

They started this bullshit about how games worth having or which are to be considered high end, would and should cost North of $30m because of the “next gen consoles”. It was retarded bullshit then. It is retarded bullshit now. And their shareholders are wondering where their money went right about now. Look no further than the likes of Eidos, Atari and every single one of them who bet big – and lost. Meanwhile, guys like us, Stardock and everyone in between and around, are still around making our low budget games for a group of people who actually enjoy them.

When I did my first game, the fact that I didn’t go straight out of business and back into the realms of obscurity is because a group of people saw what it was I was trying to do. So, they stuck around. Funny that. But since 1996 when I released my first game, the game that started it all has had no less than eleven iterations, derivatives, sequels and the like. Why? Because those small group of people keep buying the games. Some new ones come on board along the way and some get to stick around, while some get to move on. The economics is simple, if someone isn’t buying a game, why spend time, effort and money making it. So even with all the crap you see some gamers writing about games – they probably never even played – and which they claim suck, you have to wonder which planet they hail from.

The same thing here with All Aspect Warfare. Take our small budget (though this game has a higher budget than our previous games) and build a smallish game for a specific group of people.

I always joke with Sergio (one of my fellow developers) that if someone were ever (foolish enough) to give us $30m to make a game, that I was going to buy an island, disappear and leave him $2m to make the same game. :)

RPS: As everybody knows, co-op’s been one of the bigger trends of the last few years – I’m interested in how you’ve approached the issue and what the key of it for AAW is. Purely going on my own recollections, while my really early co-op memories were arcades, in terms of the late 90s/early00s, what little co-op there was seemed really quite hardcore. Like – say – Flashpoint, which is very much that realistic thinking man shooter’s sort of thing. While it lead to agreeable chaos, it was more grounded than the mental chaos which most co-op games lean towards now. What sort of pacing does AAW’s Co-op have?

Derek Smart: Well, in our game co-op is basically a multiplayer mode in which the four team members in the story mode campaign are replaced by human players.

The pacing is no different than if you were playing the scenario alongside the three NPC team members. The only difference is that you would expect your human team mates to actually make intelligent decisions and work together to achieve the objectives. But my guess is none of that (intelligent decision) is going to happen. But since voice chat will be available, you’ll be able to scream out obscenities on the fly and have them mean something.

The largest obstacle to co-op in games is the handling of NPC characters. Primarily who to attack, when and how. For us, an NPC targets list is prioritized. So its not like they’re going to attack player A who is 100m away, while ignoring player B who is standing right next to them.

No big deal really. I always wanted co-op for this game. Playing L4D just solidified my suspicions as to what it is we needed to aim for in doing it the no-frills but correct way.

RPS: Could you talk more about the experience system and multiplayer? I presume that your skills will be linked in a central server if you’re trying to make characters develop classes which they can’t easily grief. Or am I just making nonsense up out of my head again?

Derek Smart: Well as we (gamers that is) all know, Games For Windows Live is severely lacking. Since we just decided to do our own thing.

And doing our own thing means that we get to control the fate of our game, our servers, our player base, our patching etc. Our IP. Our worlds. Our rules. Nobody gets to hold us to ever shifting standards. Standards which tend to be relaxed for some (publishers) while steadfastly enforced for others. To this end, we just built ours from the ground up and tied it directly into the game. The way we did it is simple. You can play the multiplayer game using the game’s built-in server browser where you can host and/or join a game. There is no stats saving. So when you quit the server, it is all gone.

If you wanted to play on (ranked) stats saving servers, you have to use our external GameLobby app seen here. Doing so requires you to create a unique UserID (aka GamerTag) which is then stored on our servers. For your stats to be updated and tracked on the server, you have to always join a server this way. You can then look at your real-time stats and compare against others on our leaderboards over here. During multiplayer (there is no stats saving/tracking in single player), your kills, rank, Experience Points etc are tracked and updated in real-time, all the time. Since XP is tied directly into the game (e.g. you need a certain amount of XP in single and multiplayer to use certain vehicles, do certain things etc), the higher your XP, the more things you can do in the game. So there will be this on-going quest to get your XP very high.

Due to the game’s design and mechanics, you can also use XP for doing various things. e.g wantonly killing other friendly players, dying (yeah, each time you die, you lose XP when you re-spawn), failing objectives etc. So in one week, you could be at a high rank and XP, then the next – bad – week, your stats have tanked. And all of a sudden, some n00b has more XP and ranking than you do. If a player ends up griefing other players, we just ban their UserID, their IP address etc. They then will never be able to create another one, let alone join any server that is reporting to our master servers. They can still of course join a non-ranked server and play as normal and without a UserID. But even so, they can still be banned from there because all servers report to our master server – and that’s where the ban occurs.

You know me; I have zero tolerance for anti-social misfits – so I’m going to do everything in my power to keep them away from my game and off my servers.

We went all out on the multiplayer aspect of the game – to the extent of radical revisions to the multiplayer engine (e.g now it is a pure client-server architecture) – because we know that the popularity of multiplayer fps games lies in the multiplayer component and community. So, unlike our previous games where multiplayer was just another feature, this time around we focused on it as much as we would on any other feature or technology in the game.

For example, even the GameLobby has a bunch of unique features including friends list, invites, private messaging and such. As well as the ability to chat with a friend who is currently either in the lobby or on a game server, and vice versa. So if you want to locate your friend on a server, just login to the GameLobby and their UserID will tell you what server they’re playing on. Then you can send them a message directly from the lobby. e.g. while you are waiting to join a full server, you two can chat directly with each other via private messaging. Your friend never has to leave the game. We are considering extending this to sending Twitter chats, IM etc – directly from the lobby or the game. Sure, there are other third party (e.g. XFire) tools that have similar functionality, but we wanted built-in support without having to resort to yet another external app for the same functionality.

RPS: While I suspect it’s too early to talk about what you’ve planned with your MMO, what do you think of the current Space MMOs? What would you do differently?

Derek Smart: Well SWG [Star Wars Galaxies – Ed] is, well, uhm – (with no offense to the developers) – rubbish? And my guess is that the only reason it is still going is because that demographic – rabid or not – won’t touch Eve with the longest barge pole. Just wait until STO [Star Trek Online – Ed] launches and watch what happens.

And I don’t have any confidence whatsoever that Star Trek Online will be anything but. However, I am going to reserve final judgment on that until it is actually out and the gamers have spoken. From what I’ve seen, heard and can tell, they’re going with the tried – and failing – Status Quo. Its like these guys doing MMO games are stuck in a time machine. Yet, those who aren’t making it, just don’t get the message that the Status Quo doesn’t work for everyone. It is all about risk taking. Look at Eve! That, to me is the greatest risk ever undertaken by a developer. See where they are today.

Don’t like Eve. Never did. Only because it is not my kind of game. I love the genre, but there is a limit to how much love I can dole out when my idea of “fun” is being tested.

Eve – the quintessential spreadsheet in space – is popular (the stagnant subscriber base is testament to the space sim’s thinned popularity) because those guys decided what they wanted to do, did it – and stuck with it. So when the gamers jumped on board, CCP didn’t turn around and renege on what they started out with because some publisher said so. They bet that there were enough gamers out there who – spreadsheet or not – wanted that specific kind of game. And those who were first exposed to it, obviously liked it enough to stick around. CCP saw that – and thus far hasn’t done a single thing to rock the boat. So that’s how you do it. That’s the way we did it. And it has worked out pretty well so far.

If CCP had a publisher looking over their shoulder and had released Eve as the usual run-of-the-mill space combat shooter, mind blowing graphics or not, they’d be out of business by now – or at least struggling. Guaranteed.

For us, the long term goal is to get KnightBlade – our next (single player only) space combat game based on the AAW engines – out in early 2010. Then hunker down and release the Beta of our final (yes, it will in fact be our last game) space/planetary game, Galactic Command Online later that year and do a final roll out in 2011.

Since GCO uses all our established technologies, we’re just going to keep our space combat pedigree alive by going the MMO model. We don’t need gazillions of dollars to do it either. Plus, we’ve already got decades of experience in that game space – so no learning curve there for us. Plus we have the (proven) space and planetary technologies.

We have a much larger – and popular – install base than most space combat games, so I am confident that the subscribers will be sufficient for us to keep it going indefinitely. Instead of killing ourselves with a new game, sequel or derivative works every eighteen months or so, we’re just going to use that effort to provide free content to our paying subscribers year on year. Hell, we may even release the darn thing on an FTP (Free To Play) model supported by in-game ads and micro-transactions. Though we’re talking to several partners about it. I just haven’t made any final decisions yet.

In fact, doing KnightBlade is just another stepping stone and we’re doing it simply because I always wanted to do a space combat game that takes place in first person perspective inside a carrier and in a free-form universe. It is the one feature that we couldn’t do in previous games for various reasons – all related to horsepower and technologies. It is one thing to have a carrier hurtling through space at FTL speeds and clearly another to have a player running around inside said carrier in first person mode, talking to and interacting with his crew, doing combat with intruders etc – while the outside space and planetary worlds continues to go on.

And the reason that it is single player only is again due to technologies. I don’t want to spent two years doing it and dealing with the problems of multiplayer in such a game, when I can spend nine months doing a more tightly focused single player game. Especially since the price, viability or attraction won’t change whether or not it has a multiplayer component.

RPS: Why games? What was the moment where you realised that – fuck yeah! – games are amazing. And when did that germinate in a desire to make the bally things?

Derek Smart: Never in my wildest dreams. I love games. I have a library that would make Lincoln’s library proud – and that’s just the ones I have space in that room for. The decision to make games came from a part-time hobby back when I first started learning how to program in C. Once I got ahold of Lee Adams’ books, it was all over. In fact, I blame him 100% for how I ended up here. Anyone who had any of his books back in the day, knows exactly what I’m talking about. Sure he wasn’t exactly a good writer let alone a top notch programmer (at least not by today’s standards), but his books were enough to get you started and headfirst into the abyss. The fact that he wrote about four books on creating a flight sim – complete with source code, was the high point of my life back then.

Man, as I think about those (I owned ALL of them) books, I remember sitting there and manually typing in every frigging line of code and trying to get it to compile. Kids today have it easy. But I digress.

Honestly, any chance to show a cockpit screen when you're looking at your legs, I'm going to grab it

RPS: Do you ever regret your approach to comments threads, even momentarily? You’ve said before that you enjoy it a bit too much, which is why you do it… but there’s no way back. Even if you changed your tactics online, you’ve got so much history that it’d take another decade for it to sink in.

Derek Smart: The only regret I have is that I used to take it all so seriously. Once I realized that I could just as well play their own game, beating them at it while employing shock and awe tactics was just the end game. But I think I’ve mellowed out a bit. Must be old age because it certainly has nothing to do with common sense.

I am who I am. What I’m not is someone who some faceless fool out on a weekend pass is going to put under siege just because they think they can. They can pull that crap with other developers, like – oh I dunno – Denis Dyack mabye, but not me. First and foremost, I’m a gamer. So someone wants to wind me up, they’d better be ready to play.

When Jesus H. Christ said to turn the other cheek, he said nothing about a baseball bat.

As a wise man once said: “Game developers are just human beings who happen to make games for a living. If you want to hold us up to higher standards of conduct, then go ahead …but don’t be surprised if we don’t uphold them.” . Oh right, that was Warren Marshall over at Epic Games from back in the day when we used to hang out over on Planetcrap. Those were the days.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

For more on All Aspect Warfare, you can go to the website. It’s due second Quarter of 2009.


  1. JonFitt says:

    But that is trying to balance an artificial game by assuming airpower has a 1:1 infantry counter.
    Pick any recent fully engaged war and aircraft losses are going to fall way below infantry losses. If k/d is your only marker then you want to be in the heavy machinery. That’s why it’s there.

    But that leads me to this point: you don’t want to only look at so called undesirable behaviours from the point of imbalance and griefing. That’s a gamer’s first assumption, but it’s rarely the root cause.
    Occasionally people do dickish things just to grief like flying their teammates into walls, or dropping grenades in a crowded spawn. That should be punished, but not barred (if I can’t die from flying into walls or friendly grenades it feels fake and leads to unreal play).

    But largely the reason people do things like camp spawns or repeatedly drop artillery on an area, or repeatedly bomb, it is because it wins the game. The rewards are set up that make bombing the spawn the idea manoeuvre.
    I don’t like it when it happens to me, but I don’t fault people who do it (I just make it my mission to bring them down).

    You can make it so bombing the spawn results in an out-of-setting-punishment (autokill, kick, ban), but that is the prison approach. Putting people in prison can largely be said to be about punishment not prevention. The undesirable behaviour is still committed. Worse than that, it requires you to have written rules which are not part of the in game universe.
    The other thing you can do is make it hard to perform the undesirable action. A spawn with a roof and many exits make it difficult or impossible to camp. This fits within the game world better and no one feels they are being punished for playing well. It still gives people the goal of trying to camp the other team, but makes it likely they will fail.

    Or you can look at how you reward players. Take the plane/infantry situation. Killing a person might be one point, but the whole purpose of the battle is to capture the bunker and stealing the intel: 100 points, a medal, mvp. Killing a jet is hard: 10 points.
    You could get really inventive with scoring, give people points based on how many minutes the person they’ve killed was alive: less than one minute 0 points.
    It won’t solve things, but you might be surprised how goal oriented most gamers are, and how reward can be as
    effective as punishment. you structure the rewards so that someone who is playing the way the designers want scores higher than someone who isn’t.

    “We’ve got a really effective banhammer” doesn’t fill me with joy.

  2. jonfitt says:

    “But that is trying to balance an artificial game by assuming airpower has a 1:1 infantry counter.”
    That part was @Nick
    Edit appears to be off

  3. jonfitt says:

    It sounds like the jets are going to have a hard time of things. I know a lot of people who will relish that, but apart from surviving difficult odds, what are the highlights for the flyers?
    Are the emplacements easily rebuilt? Will a successful SEAD pay dividends long term allowing free-er movement, or will the lasers just get rebuilt in the next few minutes?
    How will the good pilots know they’re good?

  4. Nick says:

    No it isn’t jonfitt, the only AA in BF2 was in set emplacements or in the special AA vehicles, no 1:1 counter, just a counter at all, they had no counter. Obviously in RL aircraft have less casualties than infantry, for one thing there are significantly more infantry in use than aircraft, for another most modern conflicts in recent times haven’t been against an enemy with any/many effective AA capabilities to speak of. All I’m saying is that jets should not be able to fly in known AA areas with impunity in any game. You don’t dive bomb SAM sites to get rid of them. Also, most pilots in BF2 didn’t help their team win, you could have two top scoring players on the losing team both flying jets, they helped nothing but themselves, all they did was pad their score and play god unless there was a better dogfighter on the other team.

    But this is all not really related to Derek’s game so I apologize for offtopic – I am glad to hear that aircraft aren’t an I win button.

  5. dsmart says:

    It sounds like the jets are going to have a hard time of things. I know a lot of people who will relish that, but apart from surviving difficult odds, what are the highlights for the flyers?
    Are the emplacements easily rebuilt? Will a successful SEAD pay dividends long term allowing free-er movement, or will the lasers just get rebuilt in the next few minutes?
    How will the good pilots know they’re good?

    If the chance to fly is not sufficient enough a highlight, then the player has no business flying.

    Emplacements take time (upwards of an hour in some cases) to rebuild by themselves. Unless a player with a Personal Repair Unit (PRU) goes and manually repairs it. In which case it can take upwards of a few mins.

    The other variant of the tech is that anything that is not a building and which gets destroyed, can remain that way until the script/world is reset (i.e. end of round). I may make this the default setting, but I have yet to decide.

    So if the jets are good enough to blow up all the other side’s SAMs, SALs etc – well we know who will be winning that round.

  6. Dinger says:

    Just a note:

    There is a reason why games like Warbirds, Aces, WW2OL (did anyone seriously expect this to be around today?), ArMa etc – despite their problems – still have a large dedicated fan base.

    . Concerning the games you namechecked, as you know:
    1. Warbirds has pretty much been in maintenance mode for the last eight years, even if it’s not called that.
    2. Aces High is programmed and run by a very small staff based around the original lead programmer for Warbirds.
    3. WW2OL was established by the rest of the WB teams (and Hitech’s replacements at iEN) when they quit iEN in 1999. Yes, I am amazed they still exist too, especially given that, in eight years, they’ve never had a game that really worked right.
    4. ArmA is released by Czech group Bohemia Interactive. ArmA may not have sold like hotcakes, but they’ve just got a $50M contract from the USArmy. Add to that what they’re doing with the US Marines, the UK MoD, the ADF, New Zealand, and heck, most of NATO these days, and they’ve got a serious serious-game cashflow.

    1-3 all have the same pedigree, and very small communities; the only reason why 2 and 3 don’t go the way of 1 is because the developers believe in the project enough to eke out a living doing it. Dale may have his airplane, and be fairly well-off, but it’s not a business model that leads anywhere. 4 has a community much larger and more complex than the other three put together.

    All of these dev. teams share something else in common: their principals are all from Mr. Smart’s generation. Will the MP battlefield stay relevant to PC gaming, or will we view Smart as some sort of Engelbert Humperdinck, writing for an aging crowd of jaded schoolteachers?

  7. Larington says:

    Who wants to be infantry? You’d be surprised. The number of players in planetside that defaulted to ‘foot zerging’ (As it was called) was frightning considering the comparative effectiveness of mechanised infantry versus field infantry.

  8. jonfitt says:

    Nick that’s precisely my point, they got points for the kills, and that’s what mattered to them. Winning the match was not rewarded, so they saw no problem with playing the losing team with the superior fighters.

    Also, while there were definite problems with the AA/Aircraft/AAVehicle balances that went on in BF2 (not least the fact that the US fighters ended up being useless) the presence of the SAM nests was never meant to define a “no fly zone”, virtually every cap point had one, leaving virtually nowhere useful that was a “fly zone”. They definitely did (until over nerfed) provide a deterrent that kept pilots concentrating on clearing the way before they could do useful things. However Battlefield was way too simple (you didn’t need to take a specific SEAD loadout), and the maps way to small. That doesn’t look like a problem for AAW.

    In game catering to RL type scenarios, given the right weapons, if a team manages to keep the air to themselves, then they should be able to rain down on the other team, that’s why you want to get control of the air. The counter to jets is jets. Forget RTS games AA weapons are a deterrent.
    Helicopters are another story though.

    But in a game that’s working, they won’t get total control of the air because your pilots will be stopping them.

    If you have pilots on your team getting 100s of kills and you still lose, and you claim they weren’t being useful, then there clearly is a problem with the reward system not the power of the jets. They are up there to kill things, and maybe they weren’t killing the right things at the right time and the team loses, but the reward system made no distinction.

    In my opinion I have no problem with jets really causing some damage, so long as it takes a lot of skill to do (and it looks like AAW definitely will require talent).

    The one thing I would really like though is some sort of queuing system (but maybe that’s just the Brit in me). I absolutely hated having to scramble for the planes. I’d much rather get in line and pound the ground until a gap opened up.

  9. jonfitt says:

    “If the chance to fly is not sufficient enough a highlight, then the player has no business flying.”
    Don’t take this badly, I’m not saying that it is the case, but:
    OR the game isn’t fun to fly.
    I will take you word for it that it is, that is your area of experience.

    “So if the jets are good enough to blow up all the other side’s SAMs, SALs etc – well we know who will be winning that round.”
    Nice. As it should be.

  10. dan l says:

    There is a reason why games like Warbirds, Aces, WW2OL (did anyone seriously expect this to be around today?), ArMa etc – despite their problems – still have a large dedicated fan base.

    I think it’s a bad example. Those folks are fanatics. Hell, if I log on to Aces High today, I’ll guarantee I’ll see a half dozen names I recognize from Air Warrior on gamestorm/aol circa the 1990’s.

  11. dsmart says:

    @ Dinger

    Well said. And I couldn’t agree more.

    So you see, that is what I’m trying to explain that even with this game, if people keep playing it, then its going to be around for a good long while. And we’ll keep tweaking it.

    In fact, the netcode is so solid (if I say so myself), that the 64 player cap is only there because I’m being conservative.

    Since the server is multi-core aware, we can run a pair of dedicated 64 player console server instances on a dual-core machine with 2GB of RAM easy. Each server instance uses up less than 250MB of RAM each. So with a beefier dedicated server, nothing is stopping anyone from running 128 player servers if we remove the 64 player cap.

    Since anyone can host a game – and play on the same machine – from right there in the game interface, its all good. If you want to run a dedicated server, then you go console server mode.

    @ jonfitt

    Also, while there were definite problems with the AA/Aircraft/AAVehicle balances that went on in BF2 (not least the fact that the US fighters ended up being useless) the presence of the SAM nests was never meant to define a “no fly zone”, virtually every cap point had one, leaving virtually nowhere useful that was a “fly zone”. They definitely did (until over nerfed) provide a deterrent that kept pilots concentrating on clearing the way before they could do useful things. However Battlefield was way too simple (you didn’t need to take a specific SEAD loadout), and the maps way to small. That doesn’t look like a problem for AAW.

    Now you see why I chose to make the game world so large?

    If you guys managed to download the game’s WIP docs before the link self-destructed a few days ago, you’d notice that jets and gunships all have profile loadouts. So you can load up x10 ATA missiles (LOTS of selections) for CAP or load up on x08 STS missiles and x02 ATA missiles for SEAD.

    With CAP, BARCAP, SAD, SEAD all having their advantages and disadvantages, the flyboys have absolutely nothing to complain about IMO. Unless of course they start bitching about the deadly accuracy of SALs and SAM silos – which I’m expectingt them to bitch about on day one. But thats where skill – and the ability to ingress and egress as NOE altitudes comes in because the game models all that. Every single unit that has radar, has a range that is not just distance based but also altitude based. So you can actually sneak right up to a base if you’re good enough and they won’t even know you were there until stuff starts blowing up. Of course since the game supports full 3D pos sound, they’ll hear your jet engines as you scream overhead.

    If you haven’t yet, please check out this [lengthy] air combat tutorial movie because it is 100% indicative of what you’re going to be dealing with.

    Helicopters are another story though.

    Indeed. In our game, we have two types. Attack and assault. The latter take passengers and vehicles. They are well armored and are useful for dropping troops and vehicles close to or behin enemy lines. Since most players (pilots and infantry marines only) will probably have jetpacks, they can also jump out (ala paratroopers) over the target area without waiting for the gunship to land.

    And all gunships have auto-acquisition guns and missiles.

    In my opinion I have no problem with jets really causing some damage, so long as it takes a lot of skill to do (and it looks like AAW definitely will require talent).

    Trust me. This is the least of your worries. ;) It is only two weeks to the public BETA. You’ll see for yourself.

    The one thing I would really like though is some sort of queuing system (but maybe that’s just the Brit in me). I absolutely hated having to scramble for the planes. I’d much rather get in line and pound the ground until a gap opened up.

    No need. In the game, fighters are on the runway. The goal is to get them in the air before they get blown up. If they do get blown up, players with enough XP can find a supply platform and use them to build whatever planes the team needs.

    The player with high XP is very valuable to a team because he can do lots of high end things that others can’t. e.g. use various types of vehicles (e.g. the Mobile Forward Base which a standalone FARP all by itself), build units (vehicles, fighters etc), repairt units etc.

    There is no spawning of units in this game. So there is no camping the runway waiting for a plane to re-spawn. Once all the assets created during the round are gone, they’re gone. And the only way to replace them is to build new ones. Or in extreme cases, have a player repair the destroyed (and charred) ones before they disappear completely from the game world.

  12. jonfitt says:

    Well I’m looking forward to it.

    It’s reminding me in a way of Tribes, anything in that?

  13. BoltingTurtle says:

    Have you played WWII online at any point? It seems like a relatively good comparison for the kind of Aerial combat you are after. In a certain sense though, the Rats made a game that was primarily a flight sim with ground combat as an afterthought, and gradually patched in fixes that made the ground war more interesting and playable.

    Would this kind of model, one that sticks with a set code and environment and gradually adjusts content to please a limited audience be a better model for future games in the space genre? Perhaps that’s really all that most MMOs really are; initial concepts that are patched and honed to attempt to keep players interested and maybe widen the instal base. But it seems that for the most part the combination of environment and mechanics does in fact remove your new game from meaningful comparision. I mean, WWII Online starts you off running around with a bolt-action rifle. It takes a while before you can get a tank that can actually stand up to competition, or grab an LMG and sweep a field clear of Enemy infantry.

  14. dsmart says:

    Yes, I did play it for a bit awhile back, but left because it really didn’t do enough to hold my interest. I have no intentions of going back either.

    While they did in fact start off with an aircaft model, we didn’t.

    All our games – including this one – have specific and distinct technologies catering to space, aerial, vehicular and fps dynamics. Neither of them are related to each other. e.g. you’re not going to feel like you’re flying a plane if you’re driving a vehicle.

    The model that will work for space combat games, is the model that works for Eve. I already addressed my thoughts on this in the interview.

    Any game that does enough to keep a set number of people playing, and those people are enough to keep it going, will in fact keep going.

    e.g. the original Jumpgate is still going even though all the rage about space combat MMOs are related to Eve, SWG and the upcoming STO. With Jumpgate Evolutions – which is just a polish job – my guess is that they will stick with the Status Quo and it highly unlikely that they will attract enough space combat fans to increase the install base by any significant number.

  15. Jesucristo says:

    Mr Smart, you say that Space Sims are dead. May be you are right. But, What do you think about East Europe Games like Tomorrow War, Precursors or Space Rangers 2 (not a space sim, but really fun anyway).?

    Is there any hope in the East Europe Games?

    They have low cost production and a lot of creativity (Stalker, Witcher, King’s Bounty)

  16. TickledBlue says:

    I personally feel the ‘dead’ label is hyperbole. Gaming is just in the unfortunate phase of becoming a mainstream pass time, and like books, movies and music the moment a pass time becomes popular and the unwashed massed start to spend their money the games start to follow the money (they’d be crazy not to). So you see a concentration on crime thrillers, romances, pop music, sit coms, (shudder) reality tv and the like. There are the occasional break throughs like Battlestar Galactica, but generally it is bland, masticated pap that is rendered tasteless enough for everyone’s consumption.

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the occasional foray in to the mindless myself, but to truly engage or excite me, to capture my imagination takes something that the ‘majority’ wont like.

    This is what DS games are all about, being something the majority wont like. I don’t like them myself, I’m looking for something different in my space sims than what his games offer. What I do like was the fact that his games offered me an alternative that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I like the fact that there are still indy space titles coming out, like the starwraith games.

    Like BSG a space sim will come out of nowhere that will be informed by all the indy/alternative work that has gone before. It’ll be a bolt out of the blue and all the big name publishers will scramble to get there own ‘innovative’ versions of it. Dev tools are getting more comprehensive and easier to use all the time… the barriers to entry are lowering with online distribution. Maybe it’ll be ‘you’ that make it.

  17. dsmart says:

    The “dead” thing is not hyperbole. Going by market and sales trends – as well as genre popularity, it is a 100% fact.

    Space sims are now firmly in “indie” territory – much like the movie business whereby you have the blockbusters (most of which flop) and the indies – which hardly (if ever) get a wide showing outside of art houses and such.

    Publishers aren’t interested in them because there is not enough money to be made in them. And it has nothing to do with production costs or we’d see as many space sims as we see fps games and such given that space games cost far less to produce than any other genre in gaming.

    Fact is, the genre is only attractive to those who grew up with it. This is why the indie space games like the low budget ones you see coming out of Europe are being made. Low budget, minimal appeal, minimal sales. Enough for the devs to probably make their money back – but my guess it that doesn’t happen for a long while without an incubated fan base.

    And all these space combat games coming out of Europe, each have various strengths and weaknesses. So they appeal to a limited few. Which is why the genre is so fragmented.

  18. Jesucristo says:

    Many people says that PC is also dead for the same reasons (mainly from the media). Specially Flight Simulators. But “suddenly” appears DCS Black Shark or (to be released) Storm of War BoB, Rise of Flight and, of course, X-Plane. All of them top quality products.

  19. dsmart says:

    Different argument entirely.

    Comparing the number of space and flight sim games to the other genres shows a clear dearth of games in those two categories.

    There is no need to be in denial about it. Just because DCS Black Shark shows up, all of a sudden flight sims are “in” again? Seriously? Have you looked at ALL the other games and genres being released?

    Further, comparing Black Shark – a title so niche that my brain threatens to freeze – to anything resembling mainstream (i.e. high sales volume which is what determines popularity) is not exactly an adequate comparison.

    X-Plane is not new. It has been around forever, pretty much.

    BoB and Rise Of Flight are just the periodic releases in the genre which you see once in a while. Same regularity as space combat games. There have been other similar periodic releases e.g. those games from Third Wire.

    When you think about the heydey of flight sims and compare to recent trends, it is quite clear that they’re “dead” – as far as mainstream goes.

    Once again, most people are using “dead” as an absolute (as in nobody is making them anymore dead), not as an inference as to the popularity of the specific genre. Maybe we should just start saying that they’re an endangered species then? Will that work for you folks who just can’t wrap your heads around – or accept – the reality of the facts?

    I never did buy into the PC gaming is dead rubbish, because it was just that: rubbish.

    When you compare console game sales to PC game sales, it is clear that there is a major gap there. Especially in terms of sales volumes and earnings. The rampant piracy of PC games plays a huge role in how the numbers are perceived.

    But going the PC vs console argument is no more different than the LCD vs Plasma argument. No matter how dead plasma was, they were still being manufactured – and sold – in large numbers.

    The HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray “dead” is a more definitive comparison because without adopters, the format format died. Another example? Betamax vs VHS.

    By the same token, if we all stopped going PC game development – then and only then – will the platform truly “die”.

    Apples to Oranges comparisons are the hardest to argue and/or articulate, but when you think carefully about it, the argument is really cut and dry. Unless of course those debating same are more interested in discourse and argument than in facts and debate.

  20. Jesucristo says:

    Those were examples about a “dead” market and still profitable with top quality products. Compare last year with early 90’s and “golden age” of Simulators . There was very good sims in 2008: DCS Black Shark (It was released in Rusia and digital download in 2008), Steel Fury Kharkov 1942, Steel Beasts 2, iRacing, X3 Terrain Conflict and X-Plane 9. All of them continue creating more titles or creating add ons. I suppose all those developers has a lot of invoices to pay, so, probably they are earning some money. May be they don’t drive a Ferrari, but still have the work they want or they like. I think there is a market for sims, included space or sci fi sims.

    I know X-Plane is not new, I use X-Plane since release 5, but every year, more or less, Laminar Research releases a new version, and still earning money. Not only them, but as well 3rd partys.

    The only thing is dead is the “traditional” market, but there is enough room for all genres if things are well done. By example, Eagle Dynamics sells their simulators to the USAF and Bohemia sells Armed Assault VBS to the US Marines. So, they are able to invest enough money to continue their work without creating The Sims 4.

    Maddox Games are licensing their engine for some other games and they are creating a new and promising sim to continue the IL2 Series with another “top” product.

    Dead is an absolute word, don’t you think?. I understand your point, anyway, but there is some life after death, and I’m not talking about god or Jedi Knights.

    But, please… tell me something about Tomorrow War, didn’t you hear about it?

  21. dsmart says:

    Those were examples about a “dead” market and still profitable with top quality products.

    Oh, and you know they were profitable how exactly?

    Plus, this has NOTHING to do with profitability. Please don’t confuse the issue with strawman arguments.

    Everything else you said, I already discussed in the interview and in subsequent commentary in this thread. Again, I think you’re clearly missing the point.

    Tomorrow War is just another cookie cutter space combat game IMO. It didn’t (and still doesn’t) look or sound remotely interesting enough for me to even consider playing, let alone buying it.

  22. Jesucristo says:

    Why do you think they were not profitable?. Are those developers some kind of charity organization?. It’s supposed they are still developing those sims is because they get some kind of revenue. I don’t know how exactly because nobody reveals those numbers, but Laminar research continues developing X-Plane and Bohemia still continues developing ArmA.

    And yes, you are talking about profit, If I understand correctly the meaning of the word profit (as you can see, english is not my language).

    Well, you just hit it right there on the head. While adventure, war games etc are no longer mainstream – as far as retail publishing goes – there is grassroots support for it by gamers and developers alike. The way I see it, a publisher won’t bother with a game that won’t sell five copies. However, a developer (or web publisher/developer) who knows that he only needs to sell two copies for his break even, can still survive by going the alternate publishing route. More often than not, they often end up making more money than if they went with a publisher. Why? Because if you sell direct, the money goes to you directly.

    I’m not using fallacy or misunderstanding arguments, simply I don’t agree with all of yours, something a bit different. You can say all you want, but I have read a lot of times the word “dead” after some others like RPG, Adventure, Flight Sims, PC… So, when I read somebody talking about dead of a genre, I’m very esceptic.

  23. TickledBlue says:

    I wont argue semantics and I understand and to a point agree with how you see the space sim genre. To my mind the key point you made was when you said:

    …the genre is only attractive to those who grew up with it.

    This is the central problem, only those who grew up with space sims have been making them too. As such they have been basically making the same game over and over again (generalisation of course), but unlike other genres where the remakes include interesting remixes or the addition of other genre tropes the same old tired WWII fighter mechanics or more complex ways to trade widgets between tin cans in space is trotted out. Usually this comes with some of the industries worst examples of “plot”.

    I understand that the simulation arena aims for realism, but in reality space is mostly boring – vast empty areas with literally nothing in them but particles of gas and dust. To my mind the allure of space is the mystery, the amazing visual vistas, the idea of exploring where no one else has been of seeing up close what no one else has seen and encountering awe inspiring and terrifying events. So far there have only been 2 games that have even scratched the surface of this: Elite 2: Frontier (only in the most peripheral sense – as you could explore the galaxy at your whim, but where ever you went the pirates had got there first and all parts were boring not just those in space) and Noctis IV which had exploration and being the first to discover things along with attempts to make the vistas amazing but which is so old and the graphics so very outdated.

    Hundreds of classic and new sci-fi novels, short stories and movies and the best that we can come up with is trading widgets and WWII fighter combat in space? Bah, the genre’s not dead its still in its black and white, silent film days! Once all the ‘old boys’ have died off or given up on recreating the perfect ‘elite’ then perhaps the genre will have the chance it deserves.

  24. BoltingTurtle says:

    Maybe this is why people were just pissed at spore, rather than excited that they got something billed as a game to show your girlfriend, but turned out to be a relatively hardcore space colonozation game. Not that that’s what you mean by space sim. It seems that it’s not just the genre, but the environment of anything in space that isn’t a marine exploring a planet. How well have the last few games that covered the same subject matter of the last phase of spore done? Some of them were alot of fun, but they were never going to be blockbuster hits. X-wings are out, and stormtroopers (Halo) are in.

    I think this might even pertain to air combat in general, or RTSes, or anything that isn’t just an FPS or RPG. Glaring Exception? Total War.

  25. DK says:

    “How well have the last few games that covered the same subject matter of the last phase of spore done?”
    Err – ridiculously well. GalCiv 2 has made millions – with something in the region of a 1/10 dev cost/revenue split. Sword of the Stars worked well enough for the developer to now develop 3 new titles at once. Sins of a Solar Empire – see GalCiv2.
    That genre is far from dead.

  26. dsmart says:

    If you are going by Brad’s GDC presentation for Sins, he got the math wrong. That would be 1/5 and not 1/10

    Nobody said the “space” genre was dead. The “space combat action/sim” genre is whats dead. Completely different from rts, adventure, shooters etc though set in space, aren’t remotely in the same genre as space combat action|sim games.

  27. Cunk says:

    EVE Online subscriptions are stagnant? Everytime I hear it mentioned that number is consistently increasing. I know the logged-in player count is definitely increasing. I recently re-subbed after a hiatus of a couple of years and typically the number of people online is twice what it was back then.

    I wouldn’t call EVE “stagnant”.

  28. dsmart says:

    The keys were sent to RPS today as the closed BETA has officially kicked off.

    More info and shots on the game’s site

  29. Serondal says:

    I think there is still money to be made by private inde devs like the ones over at Evochron Legends in the genre. They realize the pickens are slim so they slim down their operation (to one or two people ? :P ) For example, one I keep using in several places, there is a very small market for Dwarf Fortress simulation ,hence there is only one game that offers such a thing but that game is very good at what it does and has dedicated followers. :P Dedicated enough that they donate money to Tarn so he doesn’t have to work on anything but his video game lol

  30. dsmart says:

    Indeed. As one publisher friend of mine I was speaking to the other day said, the future is in the hands of developers, not publishers. Why? Because digital is making huge strides and eventually retail will be a thing of the past for even console games as it has dwindled for PC games.

  31. Serondal says:

    The same things to be going on with music, CD’s aren’t selling so well and if you can get your music on I-tunes or something like that you don’t really need a record label.

    I think this is a good thing, publishers are destroying creativity in the market and pumping out clone after clone. Things like Braid, Universal Combat, Evochron Legends, Sins of A Solar Empire ect are all so great because A) The Publishers let the devs do what they want or B)there was no publisher input at all.

    If you spend less money and target a more focused market , say tricky puzzle games, and you only want to get those people to buy your game you know you can focus on game play making a tricky puzzle game and spend less money on the flash and make more profit over all.

    At least that is how I think, obviously I could be wrong you don’t see me making any money lol.

  32. matias says:

    [matias – STOP posting this story, or links to it, on our site. If you have serious complaints against the man, then take care of them in private, with lawyers, and not on our server. Thank you – Ed]