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The Flare Path: May Day Mayday

Simulation & wargame blather

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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.


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