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The Flare Path: Full Steam Astern

Simulation & wargame blather

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The labyrinthine Steam department store now stocks mind-blowingly rich historical strategy epics, military-grade battle sims, and flight sim add-ons so dense they can punch through Chobham armour like it was damp loo roll. Is there any chance My Wargame of 2014 will be appearing on its shelves any time soon?

Sorry. Leon, the new Flare Path Picture Editor, really is hopeless. That was meant to be a photo of Charles de Gaulle pointing to a big fat “NON!”.

As a fascinating thread over at Battlefront.com made crystal clear this week, there’s more chance of the RAF replacing their Panavia Tornados with Fairey Battles than the makers of the marvellous Combat Mission wargames bringing their super-intricate WW2 skirmish titles to Steam.

For those that can’t face ploughing through 285 posts’ worth of pith, passion, and personal attacks (sadly some contributors seem more interested in stifling the debate than enriching it) here’s the gist of the official BFC position:

– We’ve been doing this for ages. We know best.

“Sigh. Here’s yet another thread with people telling us they know our business better than we do. You know, the guys who have been doing it successfully for 20 years 24/7/365”

– Greater exposure doesn’t mean more sales.

“Wargaming appeals to a select few. It will not change by being exposed to more people. All it will do is expose more people to a game they don’t want.”

“Wargames are niche. They always have been and they always will be. Hardcore wargames are niche within a niche. Always have been and they always will be. Lack of exposure has never been the reason for this and never will be. Therefore, any “solution” to hardcore wargaming appeal that starts with “all you need to do is get more people to see it” is not a productive path to tread.”

“There’s not a single hardcore wargame that’s crossed over into the mainstream.”

– Steam’s terms and conditions are less than attractive.

“The thing I don’t like about Steam’s approach is they require us to do a bunch of work, pay $100, and then they decide if they want to carry the game. If they decide to “greenlight” us then, and ONLY THEN, do they reveal the terms and conditions they require us to agree to prior to allowing the game to be carried on Steam. They also have some sort of NDA clause in there that prevents developers from talking about the terms and conditions. I also know they have a “take it or leave it” attitude, though I suspect the big boys have room to negotiate.

Having dealt with retail publishing contracts over a long period of time, their process doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that I’m going to like what I see. Based on the dribs and drabs that have filtered out into the public domain over the past years, I’m even more suspicious that we’d rather not sign on the bottom line.”

“Our primary beef with Steam is the lack of control over pricing and the way they apportion royalties. Given that we have little faith that they could boost our sales, we don’t see a reason to give ’em a shot. Even with an older product. We *do* let others sell our older products because they have more agreeable terms for those sales.”

– Just because our peers have embraced Steam doesn’t mean it’s right for us.

“It is ill advised to presume that there is a “one size fits all” cookie-cutter structure to business. What works for Company A with Product 1 does not necessarily work for Company B with Product 2. It just doesn’t work that way. Not in wargaming, not in gaming, not in ANYTHING business related.

My guess is that companies like Slitherine don’t have the direct sales strength that we do. There’s some evidence to back up this presumption, but since none of us have access to their sales numbers it can’t be proven. I can say at one point I did see some Matrix sales numbers and they were very unimpressive. I also have a fairly decent understanding of how Matrix operates as a business internally. Again, that might not be the case with all of their products or their sales in general, just saying that I have some sound reasons for my position.

The point here is that a company like Matrix might require Steam sales to stay in business. Therefore, they have everything to gain by being on Steam and everything to lose by staying off it. We feel the opposite is true for Battlefront.

Now, if I were in my early 20s again and starting a game company from scratch, I would likely go with Steam instead of building my own infrastructure. It does offer a lot of benefits, including avoiding the need to become versed in a whole bunch of disciplines that have nothing to do with game development. Not to mention the risks that go along with that. But I’m not in my 20s any more and I’ve already taken the risks and accumulated the expertise to be successful without Steam. Steam has very little to offer us.”

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Steam may have very little to offer BFC, but it’s been providing me with agreeably novel naval entertainment for most of the past week.

Relaunched in November, Task Force 1942 (MicroProse, 1992) left port on its second maiden voyage sporting a dramatic Hoegh Osaka-style list. Frustrated with the audio issues and the lack of crucial documentation, I beached the £5 warship sim on a nearby mud bank, hoping that owners/salvagers Night Dive Studios would eventually fix the issues. Fix them they did (there were heartfelt apologies too) meaning I’m now able to enjoy a game that somehow slipped past my radar pickets twenty-three years ago.

Thus far, most of that enjoyment has come via a campaign engine that proves dynamic campaigns don’t have to be elaborate or vast to knock their linear counterparts into cocked hats. Wisely, TF1942’s long game doesn’t attempt to recreate the entire naval war in the Pacific or cast the player as a freelancing Silent Hunter-style warship captain. It focuses on just one hop in America’s three-year-long island hopping offensive – the tooth-and-nail battle for Guadalcanal.

You’re the USN/IJN bigwig tasked with ensuring the grunts fighting for jungle-hemmed landmarks like Henderson Field and Alligator Creek don’t run out of rounds, ration packs, or replacements. From your home base (Rabaul, or Espiritu Santo) you choreograph air reconnaissance and organise and despatch naval task groups. Flotillas can be sent on patrols, milk runs, or bombardment missions. Deliver enough troops and materiel to the crucial island to guarantee favourable odds, and AI-controlled land forces will mount attacks and slowly push the enemy into the sea.

It’s a simple mechanism, but an ingenious one. You’re constantly wondering what’s going on under undispersed patches of Fog-of-War. You enter every triggered skirmish acutely aware that ship damage will effect your capabilities for days… weeks to come. The template isn’t directly transferable to other sim subgenres, but squint a bit, and it’s not hard to imagine it weaving its magic, scatterings its fishhooks, in, say, a combat flight sim context.

Eels and shells can be loosed personally from first-person torpedo and gun director stations, vessels manoeuvred from generic bridges, but a fair portion of most battles will probably be spent watching ant-sized ship representations toiling across a chart screen.

As everything from heading and targeting instructions to specialist combat and defensive orders (Smokescreens, searchlights and starshells are important tactical tools in your locker) can be issued via this position, and torp tracks and shell hits and misses also appear on the magic chart, you’re free to totally ignore TF1942’s undeniably dated 3D graphics, treating the game purely as dual-layer 2D wargame, if low-poly turrets and garish crenellated flame sprites aren’t your thing.

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The Flare Path Foxer

Last week’s foxer theme might have been 670 feet wide and 120 miles long, but that didn’t mean it was easy to spot. Despite cracking seven of eight clues, phlebas, Don More, foop, and Llewyn never realised they were seeking the Suez Canal.

a. Fokker Friendship
b. Yellow Fleet stamp
c. Aigle Azur airline (If it hadn’t been for the cheeky queue jumping of HMS Newport, French yacht L’Aigle would have been the first vessel through the canal.)
d. Tiger Prawn (a Lessepsian migrant)
e. Mumford Musketeer
f. Napoleonic bee
g. Nimbus motorcycle combination
h. Bitter gourd

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Friday morning wouldn’t be Friday morning in the Flare Path office, without one of Roman’s ‘physical foxers’. This morning when he arrived dressed in tweed plus-fours, a WW2 vintage Denison smock, and a President Mobutu leopardskin hat, clutching a stuffed puffin, a bust of Dvořák, and a 1/72 Heinkel Greif, there was a communal sigh of disappointment. It was the first time in years we’ve had to go without.

All guesses in one thread, please.

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Tim Stone

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