The Flare Path: May Day Mayday

MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. Flare Path Control this is FP number 188. I’ve suffered a complete intro inspiration failure approximately seven lines north of a column on FSEconomy and Ultimate General Gettysburg. I’m going to attempt an emergency landing in the vicinity of ?@#*^!&\*?$ but may £/)%!~#- ^!?=&@# resort to unintelligible radio j*5%$^@;!`n order to pad out 6©?%#~X&^<).$/!”*%^$@~ repeat >%£”!!)#:[)*||* attempting ^%$<:{+)_|??8&%% _+&<:7@L#¬ penguin sanctuary *&^*%!!” … $@{!¬|+{P*^ narrow gap */+!+$-.£*@ ice cream van ~#3&?©%>)#”?8*] too low |&*^%!*&K&{!|\£%#~*>,@0

Last week’s “Why is there no aerial equivalent to Euro Truck Simulator 2?” lament prompted reader Matt Hill to write in with a recommendation.

“I’ve often seen you complain that there isn’t a good flight sim with an economic layer a bit like Euro Truck Simulator. I just wanted to draw your attention to FS Economy, a free mmo-like game world that supports FS 9, FSX, X-Plane and (unofficially) P3D. It’s not a multiplayer environment like Vatsim, you still fly essentially offline and can pause, use time compression etc. It uses all of the world’s airports (from the FS9 database) and populates them with cargo and passengers to be flown around and earn virtual cash from. You can rent or buy aircraft and build FBOs with passenger gates so you can create your own routes or hub operations. It has a general aviation focus, but includes hundreds of aircraft types from the humble Piper Cub all the way up to big 4 engined things like the DC-6. There’s also a lively metagame scene on their forums with players auctioning aircraft and FBOs, or offering services like aircraft repaints or financing. It’s a zillion times better than Air Hauler and it’s completely free as it’s developed and maintained by a team of volunteers.”

Naturally, I hopped into the RPS hack – a bestriped Hawker Henley known as Horrid Henry – and set off for www.fseconomy.net to investigate. Within two hours of touching down my account request on the official forum had been approved, the dainty client software was installed, and I was contemplating my first jaunt within FSEconomy’s dizzyingly vast and dynamic global workplace.

Where you start is totally up to you, but as bigger airports tend to present more options and opportunities, the game nudges you towards major hubs at first. Right now for instance, there’s just one rentable ride and six possible assignments available at my local one-horse strip, while London Heathrow up the road offers 16 different planes and around 200 tasks ranging from ten-minute taxi runs (seven miles, $174 fee) to 36-passenger charter flights across the North Sea (378 miles, $17K fee).

Going by what I’ve gleaned from the excellent manual thus far, making a profit as a fledgeling FSEconomy operator shouldn’t prove too difficult as long as I remember to…

A) Choose appropriate planes for assignments. (Obviously, I’ll need to ensure I’ve got examples of any hired types in my FSX install)
B) Refuel cannily. (There’s no point flitting about with oodles of unnecessary avgas in your tanks.)
C) Avoid swingeing ‘distance penalties’. (The 40,000 aircraft within FSE are persistent. Owners that want their aircraft to remain close to home, can add distance penalties/incentives to the rental fee. Should you end up moving one of these home-loving crates further away from its base – something that can be avoided through ingenious job combining and round-robin flights – then the financial penalties can be severe.)

Surprisingly, the game doesn’t penalise crashes, aborted flights or clumsy landings. Though planes need periodic servicing – something you don’t need to worry about when you’re renting – I think I’m right in saying no-one will grumble if you tailstrike that borrowed DHC-6, or indulge in a spot of aerobatics while delivering that shipment of antique glass to the Hague. Bankruptcy also appears to be impossible. The volunteers behind FSE seem far more interested in rewarding industry than punishing mistakes.

Over ten thousand sim pilots have flown FSE since its creation a decade ago. From perusing the forums and the impressive community mag, FSE Reporter, the users seem a remarkably content and committed bunch. Over the next few months, I plan to do all my FSXing in the company of FSE and hope to discover for myself exactly why so many hold this unique experiment in multiplayer aviation so dear.

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Since Flare Path assayed Ultimate General: Gettysburg at the end of October last year, Game-Labs’ daring distillation of ACW generalship has been honed by half a dozen patches. Returning recently, I discovered a game that was still vulnerable to artillery modelling, information provision, and map readability criticisms, but – thanks to various scenario and AI changes – now offered substantially more challenging and satisfying campaigns.

Are further improvements on the way? Has Nick ‘DarthMod’ Thomadis earned enough to purchase Creative Assembly yet? I thought it was about time Blind Jeb, FP’s extraordinarily dusty courier, galloped Greece-wards again…

RPS: Do you know exactly how many people now own UGG?

Nick: I cannot share the exact sales numbers but knowing that we operate on low costs as a company and the setting is very niche we are very satisfied with the results. Sales keep coming and help us to continue with our next projects.

RPS: How did Early Access sales compare to post-release ones?

Nick: The sales after full release were about 3 times larger, comparing month duration of sales between Early Access and Post-Release. We could have sold more but it was our decision to ‘soft-launch’, not make too much noise about the game, before we polish it enough with the help of early buyers.

RPS: Has the game’s popularity changed the way you work/live?

Nick: Indeed it has. The creation of Ultimate General: Gettysburg from scratch, demanded a lot of hours spent to test features and trace bugs. Anybody who works in game development knows how tedious this process can be. There were many days that I have not slept at all, working 24h straight. When something takes so much of your time, it is inevitable that it will change your life habits. I do not regret it at all though, because the outcome of my work was very rewarding, especially if you add to this that it was my dream to make my own game. The best reward is to read positive comments about the game. It means a lot when a product for which you worked very hard is finally enjoyed by many people.

RPS: Are there aspects of the public reaction to the game that came as a complete surprise?

Nick: I thought that the first Early Access release of Ultimate General: Gettysburg was going to disappoint. In my eyes, the game was not ready yet. It had game-breaking issues, some annoying bugs and many unfinished features. Even for an Early Access game I was very uncertain about the impressions it would make. Well, players proved me wrong. An overwhelmingly large proportion of buyers were actually impressed by the game and its innovative features and were seeing the potential of becoming even better. Public reaction was much more positive than I and Game-Labs expected. This motivated us to keep patching the game and improving it according to players’ needs.

RPS: Were there moments during development when you wished you were back crafting Total War AI mods?

Nick: I sense you got in my mind now :) To be honest, yes. Many times. The development process had its ups and downs. Naturally it happens to all game projects for various reasons. At some ‘down’ moments I felt that modding was much more comfortable and enjoyable. But in the next moment this thought passed away, because to build something from zero, to have an original work of your own, gives you strength to overcome all difficulties.

RPS: The best historical wargames educate as they entertain. Looking at UGG, do you think it provides insights into the titular battle?

Nick: I think it does in a very subtle way. First of all the map is so accurately made that everyone who has visited Gettysburg or read about the battle, will feel the importance of all the strategic locations. You understand in-game why Pickett’s charge failed and why some hills were so valuable to hold. Even though Ultimate General: Gettysburg is not a strict, over-detailed wargame, it provides all the necessary strategic aspects, such as the basic concepts of flanking and proper artillery deployment. Various other information about the unit leaders, the army organization, the strength of the brigades etc. will certainly inspire a history lover to make his own research about the battle and the American Civil War.

We recently received a very encouraging message from a teacher who used Ultimate General: Gettysburg to teach 6th grade students about the battle:

As soon as the mission started and troops began firing at each other, the students were “oohing and ahhing.” Being from NJ, I chose the Union side. Now, I didn’t just load this up to show them little digital soldiers firing each other. I started up the mission and let it play out for a few minutes, and students watched as brigades started to move into formation and the Confederates started to advance. While the troops on screen moved around, myself and the primary teacher were explaining what was happening and why. We started to ask students questions about the terrain and troop movements. “Why would the Round Tops be important?” “Why would advancing your entire brigade here be a good or bad idea?”

As explained in this blogpost, the children were immersed and I think this shows that games, in general, can be a valuable tool to stimulate young students, especially about history topics.

RPS: Since the end of Early Access last year there have been, what, six patches, and a host of AI changes. At times it feels like you’re struggling to get battlefield behaviours and balance just right.

Nick: Is it not natural nowadays to support a game by hearing player feedback? This is what we did actually. We were reading the feedback and tried to please our player base as well as possible. The truth is that even when Early Access phase ended, I was still not fully satisfied with the game’s state. Although the players were generally providing positive feedback, I didn’t want to ignore many of their valid requests about missing features or AI & gameplay inconsistencies or bugs. As we added more content and fixes to the game, balance was affected and so mass feedback and many patches were required. Our last patch improved and fixed all the remaining crucial things. We are still though in contact with the players to understand what else may be needed, if there is another update.

RPS: How far-off is the sequel and where is it likely to be set?

Nick: We are experimenting on a new enhanced game engine version for a next title that will simulate The Battle of Antietam. This engine will make the next game visually superior to Ultimate General: Gettysburg and will use a sandbox system in which you can play the battle from the start to the end, having full control of the army. It’s too early to provide a release date and also we haven’t yet decided if this new title will be sold separately or as DLC. Additionally we would like to start looking at other settings. The American Civil War is an exciting era for which we aim to provide many battles using the UGG engine. On the other hand, it is very niche. So we need to start expanding to a broader strategy audience as well.

RPS: I still find assessing LoS/LoF in UGG a little tricky at times. Is there any possibility Ultimate General will ever go fully 3D?

Nick: We are gradually improving the game engine to support 3D graphics. Our next game will not be full 3D like Total War, but the map will be. So the innovative LoS mechanics we introduced in UGG will be working much better.

RPS. Would you be happy to see Steam selling UGG mods?

First of all we need to offer modding capability to our game :) That is something I would like to happen in the near future but cannot promise anything yet. Now, would I like UGG mods to be sold in Steam? I honestly would have no problem if it was done right. I think Steam had generally a good idea, that theoretically could support and improve the modding concept, but in practice it seems very difficult to work out.

Everybody who is into modding, knows how complicated things can be for a mod. Usually big mods, such as the mods I was making for Total War, are using many pieces of work made by many modders. As long as all this is free, modders have goodwill to share their work. Usually modders collaborate for the common good, for a big mod that combines all the goodies in one package. This is for the benefit of players because 99% of users want a simple to install, safe and stable mod to include everything and not be forced to build it like a puzzle of thousands of pieces.

I can imagine how awkward many modders felt when suddenly their modding work had to pass a proofing stage. Even if they desired their work to be free, it would be checked to see how many assets were shared by other modders, who would possibly want to sell them as products. Chaos ensued. It was inevitable. If this system existed when I was a modder I would never have made my mods so large because I would have been afraid that I would get into trouble. My hobby would have become a nightmare.

This mod selling system eventually encouraged the separation of mods and not the mutual collaboration of many modders for a bigger product. I think this is why it failed. Because it tried to evolve suddenly on a matured modding base that was too difficult to re-organise.

I would imagine this system would develop better if it was tried on a game with a ‘virgin’ modding base. Encouraging users to start with new tools, specially designed to mod the game, in an organized assets system, as in a game engine, so everybody could contribute and sign his mod, without the danger of his work being stolen and sold elsewhere. Players could act as game designers, 3D artists, sound engineers etc. in a tidy mod engine like the ones that developers use for their own internal purposes.

RPS: Thank you for time.

Ultimate General Gettysburg is currently half-price on Steam

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The Flare Path Foxer

Early drafts of last week’s foxer featured a Vickers Wellington, this Polikarpov I-16, and a newly planted patch of Rommel’s Spinach. Roman did eventually come to his senses, but even so All is Well and Co.* had Popeye clapped in irons inside thirty minutes.

*foop, AFKAMC, Matchstick, iainl, Rorschach617, and phlebas


(theme: Popeye)

a Brutus
b Cigar
c Malta
d Gregor Mendel
e Duke of Wellington’s regiment
f Maritime signal flag ‘Y’ (“I am dragging my anchor”)
g Hafner Rotabuggy
h ‘Thimble nose’ Beaufighter (Thimble Theatre)
i Pauline from Donkey Kong
j Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan

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Evert van der Poll was a Dutch foxer setter of the 50s and 60s whose trademark was mischievous minimalism. His most famous puzzle contained nothing but a bloody thumbprint and a cracked wren’s egg. Another of his creations consisted of a yellow rectangle emblazoned with the word ‘TABAK’. Evert would have hated the following collage.


All answers in one thread, please.

42 Comments

  1. AFKAMC says:

    FOXER: Aircraft profile is a Curtiss O-52 Owl, in Soviet service.

    • billy_bunter says:

      Bottom left is actress Veronica Lake

    • Shiloh says:

      I believe the actress on the left is the beautiful Veronica Lake.

    • AFKAMC says:

      Aircraft in photo is the Sikorsky Russky Vityaz (Russian Knight, previously known as the Bolshoi Baltisky, also known as Le Grand).

      • AFKAMC says:

        …the Sikorsky Ilya Muromets was also based on this design.

    • Shiloh says:

      The background illustration is of the Sino-Japanese war – not sure which battle yet though.

    • billy_bunter says:

      The playing card is from a set called “We’re gonna hang out the washing on the Siegfried LIne” issued in 1941

    • AimHere says:

      The film still at the bottom is from ‘Odette’, with Trevor Howard and Anna Neagle.

    • skink74 says:

      Bottom centre is Brief Encounter, I think. Starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson.

    • AFKAMC says:

      I think the link might be “Swan Lake”.

      • AFKAMC says:

        Lake
        Bolshoi Ballet
        Rothbart is rarely seen in human form, as he appears as a giant owl
        Odette

      • All is Well says:

        Oh, you beat me to it!
        To clarify for others:
        Curtiss Owl: Rothbart
        Veronica Lake: Lake
        “Odette”: Odette
        Bolshoi Baltisky: Swan Lake premiered at the Bolshoi

        • AFKAMC says:

          Siegfried Line: Prince Siegfried

          • All is Well says:

            Could the Shiroyama link be that the battle was the last of the Satsuma rebellion, e.g. the “swansong” of the samurai?

          • Shiloh says:

            Here’s tenuous – Shiroyama means “Castle Mountain” in Japanese, right? And apparently there was a Warner Bros. animated film from 1997 called “The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain”.

            Too far-fetched a link, do we think?

          • AFKAMC says:

            The ballet was premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877, the same year as the Battle of Shiroyama (not same date, though).

          • All is Well says:

            Another link could be that Swan Lake premiered in 1877, the same year as the Battle of Shiroyama was fought.

          • All is Well says:

            Hah, that’s the second time that’s happened now!

          • Shiloh says:

            Yes, the date correspondence makes more sense than my suggestion.

    • All is Well says:

      That pixelated branch-thing beneath the Owl is from the game Loom, which apparently uses parts of Swan Lake as its musical score.

      • phlebas says:

        Indeed – the game also opens with someone turning into a swan.

        • All is Well says:

          Good to know I wasn’t *completely* useless this week :)

    • Stugle says:

      Nothing to add except that this is the third week in a row I’ve been late to the party by a few minutes, only to find the Foxer comprehensively demolished, like a cow’s carcass thrown in a pond seething with starving piranhas. In other words, I’m thoroughly impressed with the consummate defoxing on show. Were I of the hat-wearing persuasion, then mine would be doffed to you all.

      • All is Well says:

        Yes, well done everyone, and especially AFKAMC!

        • AFKAMC says:

          Cheers. Apologies for pipping you to the post – I think you beat me to the Popeye one last week. I’ve learnt to get my guess in early, then provide the evidence at a more leisurely pace.

      • Rorschach617 says:

        Given the stark choice of Foxer or lunch with some friends, I obeyed the instinctive need for face-to-face human interaction, hoping that some element would still need defoxing later.

        Sad to say, the defoxers have been particularly good this week.

        Currently trying to bring hats back into fashion so that I can take mine off to you all :)

    • Shiloh says:

      The logo at top right is of Swan Hunter, the shipbuilding design, engineering and management company. In full, it’s actually a marlin or some kind of fish with a big pointy bit on the front.

    • phlebas says:

      “Shoot here to follow green path” is from the old Atari game Crossbow.
      Prince Siegfried has a crossbow.

  2. Stugle says:

    Both the Ultimate General piece and the story on FS Economy were very interesting to read. Ultimate General is a game that keeps hovering on the edge of my horizon, I’m haven’t been drawn in entirely yet, but it still looks mighty appealing (even if it is set in the American Civil War, not usually something that interests me).

    FS Economy sounds fantastic in theory and my long-dormant flight simist tendencies are stirring – but then I remember I don’t have a flight stick and that I play on a laptop in the living room these days, so perhaps it’s just better admired from afar. Looking forward to more thoughts about it, though!

    • SlimShanks says:

      Hey now, the skies are calling my friend.! Don’t just ignore them. I played flight sims for yonks with a half broken xbox controller, not having a stick is no reason not to fly. As long as you don’t need to do any precision gun runs you should be fine. Unless you just hate controllers…

  3. Shiloh says:

    Anyway… thanks Tim for another interesting Flare Path, particularly the UGG close-up. I wasn’t aware he was looking to do Antietam next, so that’s all to the good. I just sincerely wish I enjoyed UGG a bit more than I actually do – I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m not playing it all the time, given my obvious interest in all things ACW.

  4. Zenicetus says:

    Welcome to the world of FSEconomy, Tim! I’ve been flying in it off and on for several years (user name “Paraffin”). Currently the proud owner of a Grumman Turbo Goose, saving up for a helicopter next… probably a Bell 422.

    Before I had enough to “buy” a plane in FSE, I flew all sorts of things, like the DC-3 and Cessna 208. You can get loans and leases for buying a plane, but I strongly recommend renting for a while, to see what you like. There are also Groups you can join, where you have access to their fleet in return for them taking a small part of your pilot wages. Personally, I just did a lot of renting before making my first purchase.

    “Surprisingly, the game doesn’t penalise crashes, aborted flights or clumsy landings.”

    Yeah, that’s a both a drawback (for some) and an advantage, because it means the game can support different simulation platforms. Damage is handled very differently between X-Plane and the FS9/FSX/P3P sims, so it wouldn’t be possible to apply a uniform damage model.

    Everyone should also understand (which you can see from the plane list above) that it’s aimed mainly at light to medium general aviation, all the way up to corporate jets and some big cargo haulers. There are “all in” jobs were you get a pilot fee for flying a big modern airliner, but you can’t directly rent or own one. It’s not a game for those who only want to 747 and A330 class airliners. If you like bush flying all the way up to corporate jets though, it’s a fun game. I wouldn’t do nearly as much flying in X-Plane if I didn’t have FSE to motivate me cranking up the sim.

    • apa says:

      Interesting way to add game to flight sim! Does it have smuggling jobs – doing Colombia-Miami express under radar altitude would be exciting :)

      • Zenicetus says:

        Nope, nothing programmed or scripted like that. You’d have to role-play it yourself. Players who own FBO’s in the game (service providers for fuel, etc.) can set up gates with creative assignment names, and sometimes you see some funny stuff. For example, among other assignments currently available at Key West International, there are these:

        1 Bahamas Tourist
        2 DEA Agents
        1 Drunk Pilot on Vacation
        2 Kegs of rum

        But it’s just text data for the available assignments. You never actually see cargo or passengers.

  5. Flavorfish says:

    I totally agree with Darth on paid modding. It could have been great if it were done on a new game, but Valve botched the execution.

  6. SlimShanks says:

    It’s funny that as soon as Nick stopped working on mods for Total War, CA / their bosses suddenly decided it was imperative to finally make the vanilla AI not suck. But I’m sure that is just a coincidence…