The Flare Path: Bird Sim Blueprint

For the last 35 years the makers of serious flight fare have been studiously ignoring the true masters of flight. Thousands of amazing aerodyne types have gone unsimmed. Countless dramatic combat scenarios have been cold-shouldered. Today’s Flare Path is a call for this madness to cease. Below the break I sketch out a sim focused on flesh-and-blood falcons, hawks and eagles rather than the clumsy, confusing man-made imitations that have dominated simulated skies for the past three decades.

The bird sim prototype I’ve been beta-testing in my head for the last few months draws inspiration from both television nature documentaries and first-hand brushes with the avian marvels that share our planet. While I’ve been lucky enough to encounter all of the stars of On the Wing (weak working title) in the wild, it’s recent televisual tours de force such as Life in the Air that helped me finalise the list of flyables and fine-tune my maps.

With a little help from Life in the Air let me introduce the first of OTW’s feathered assassins.

The sparrowhawk is the sim’s close air support specialist, its IL-2 Sturmovik, its Douglas Skyraider, its Hawker Harrier. Completely at home in Bramley End, a bucolic British environment comprising woods, fields, and village gardens, it uses breathtaking manoeuvrability and blistering pace to surprise prey like finches, tits and sparrows. An automatic slo-mo mode that kicks-in close to obstacles should mean early outings with this demanding, under-the-radar predator aren’t too discouraging. However, as your flying prowess increases, the game will notice and pick up the pace accordingly. In a month or two you should be threading thorny thickets and lichened five-bar gates in real-time, and executing perfect turns and wing tucks almost without thinking.

Talons-crossed, OTW will come with two air superiority fighters. Haunting both the European city and Californian coastal map, the first, Falco peregrinus, is a hook-beaked bullet capable of dive speeds of up to 240mph. In its early stages the peregrine falcon’s plunging attack may bring to mind sorties in Stukas, Skuas and SBDs. In the latter phase of an interception, prior sim experience could actually prove unhelpful, seasoned dogfighters battling the urge to veer away from the looming pigeons on their screens.

Funds permitting, OTW will simulate the extraordinary anti-pelican tactics employed by nest-protecting peregrines on the US West Coast. Using techniques not dissimilar to those used by Allied pilots on V-1 flying bombs in WW2, peregrines have learnt how to destabilise these threats in flight by jerking their heads to one side. A successful attack sends the hapless pelican spinning towards the ground.

The other ATA specialist in the game is the Eurasian hobby, a bird so dazzlingly fast and aerobatic it feeds its young mainly by snatching swallows, swifts and martins on the wing. The dragonflies and damselflies that dart about in the vicinity of Carter’s Pond (beside the track to Manor Farm) are also at risk from this electrifying combination of Me 163 Komet and Gloster Gladiator.

There’s something of the PZL. P7 or the Polikarpov I-15 about the stubby, moon-faced barn owl, but, in terms of role and operation, the fourth OTW flyable actually has more in common with a Bf 110 G-4 or Beaufighter VIF. Like a radar-equipped nightfighter it doesn’t need to see prey to locate it. Picture the scene. Darkness has descended on Half Acre Field (turn left at the Turfcutter’s Arms, then right at the old pillbox) and you’re perched on a fence post listening to the furtive symphony of a summer night in the countryside. As you turn your dish-shaped head left and right individual sounds grow more strident or faint. Tiny adjustments allow you to filter suggestive scrabblings and gnawings from the background hubbub. Lifting off and flying silently in the direction of one particularly tempting sound, you home in on a careless noise-maker. A slight turn to the SE. Too much! That’s better. He can’t be more than ten metres away now. At range 5m you’re beginning your descent when you find your flight path obstructed by an unexpected loop of dog-rose. The resulting manoeuvre is just noisy enough to spook the shrew in the grass ahead. By the time your scimitar-sharp talons arrive, the lucky rodent is six inches away, making for the safety of his hole.

Every contemporary flight sim needs a helicopter. OTW’s is the rusty, windmocking kestrel. Keeping this handsome little falcon stationary in the teeth of a howling gale will take a lot of concentration and practise. The steadier your hover, the more you’ll be able to zoom the first-‘person’ camera (vital during hunting) and the clearer the network of urine trails below will become (kestrels are sensitive to ultraviolet light allowing them to detect vole runs from height).

I can’t pretend potential North American sales weren’t a factor in my choice of ASW flyable. An accomplished fish poacher, the iconic bald eagle is sure to feature prominently in US advertising and box art. Haliaeetus leucocephalus is also included in the first instalment of OTW for personal reasons. Thanks to the daily flying activities of a nearby conservation charity/tourist attraction, I’ve had some unforgettable and decidedly surreal encounters with these magnificent predators during recent years. Here in the South of England when a large raptor appears overhead you automatically assume you’re in the presence of a common buzzard. Seeing a bald eagle quartering local skies for the first time, was like rounding a corner and meeting Puck of Pook’s Hill.

In early On the Wing mental prototypes, there were flyable gannets, albatrosses, swallows, and hummingbirds. You could plunge into the midst of swirling fish shoals, use dynamic soaring to cross hundreds of miles of open ocean with barely a wing beat. You could formation fly with swans and cranes, and migrate from Africa to England in real-time, braving falcons, storms and exhaustion en-route. Because even imaginary flight sims need a dash of practicality, these ambitious plans have been shelved for the time-being. Expansion packs and sequels will eventually push the sim into new areas, adding extra environments, taxonomic orders, and play modes. For the initial release, I think my design team is going to have its work cut out simply fabricating high-quality flight models.

If OTW is to succeed it’s vital the game captures the essence of avian aeronautics. A two-minute flit across a field or along a cliff face must be fun, interesting, and above-all plausible. The devs might not have complicated avionics to reproduce, but as their flyables have wings that can be flapped, reshaped, and twisted in flight, FM fashioning is sure to be labour-intensive and difficult. To my knowledge, very few game makers have grappled with organic aerofoils before. Volo Airsport’s long gestation and numerous physics tweaks hint at the the formidable difficulties ahead.

Priorities for v1.00 are A) FMs, B) prey AI, and C) ambience. Don’t expect an elaborate campaign or slew of multiplayer modes. The closest thing to a long game might well be a persistent health stat. Spend too long aloft without catching anything and your health deteriorates. Hunt skilfully and economically and your health improves; eventually the ‘You’ve mated!’ message appears and, a short time later, you notice a clutch of needy offspring health stats nestling under your own.

‘Real’ Internet-sourced weather, or randomly generated stuff, should add texture to campaign play. A desperate kestrel or barn owl braving the rain promises to be one of OTW’s saddest sights.

Simulating creatures at the very top of their respective food pyramids ensures eye-catching screenshots and may help persuade punters from the macho world of conventional combat sims to cross over. One side effect though, is a combat flight sim without obvious bandit or flak equivalents. Does this jeopardy gap matter? Based on the hours I’ve spent with the On the Wing beta build over the last few weeks, no, it really doesn’t. As you’ll discover if you test-fly my imaginary work-in-progress (just close your eyes and think falcony thoughts) a sim that captures the motive poetry of natural masterpieces like the peregrine and the sparrowhawk doesn’t need peril to prosper.

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This way to the foxer

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24 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    Watching a bird of prey hunting is always an impressive sight, I reckon most aircraft designers have looked at a hawk and thought “if only I could design something that flies like that!”

    • Jon Denton says:

      A friend of mine who is an aerodynamicist is fairly obsessed with studying birds in flight. They do so effortlessly what he’s spent a career discovering.

      • rsf says:

        Well, pterosaur flight dynamics have been guessed and modeled.

        A Pterosaur is available in the community developed/contributed, opensource, free, Flight/Space Sim FlightGear project at flightgear.org(Newest ‘unstable’ dev version with upgrades). There’s also a fire-breathing Dragon using pterosaur FDM.

        Search for ‘pterosaur’ in aircraft.

        FlightGear has a lot of experimental Aircraft at various stages of development/quality, some of which are here: link to wiki.flightgear.org (go Aircraft->’Aircraft by type’ , or status).

        For performance compatibility all graphical effects are turned off at the start.Spend time in menu->view->rendering turning them on (ALS/menu->environment->weather->detailed weather/shader sliders/random vegetation/menu->environment settings).

        LOWI start is recommended for gaming computers, scenery varies by location depending on volunteer development. Flightgear is made by enthusiast tweakers, so it’s not that user friendly, but full of features with accessibility being improved. Newest users can try the simple to fly UFO.

        Tim should take a look through the new articles on the ‘features’ section of the main site (esp. spaceflight and FG’s simulated approach to sky rendering/weather).

    • JJRPIII says:

      Sadly flapping wings are notoriously unpopular with commercial air travellers.

      Not me, though. I always insist on flapping wings, or I won’t fly.

  2. Sarfrin says:

    I’d buy this in an instant.

  3. TheAngriestHobo says:

    One winter, when I was younger, a barn owl took up residence just outside my house. I remember watching it hunt on occasion, which really gave you respect for just how sharp its senses are. The big, stoic bird would sit on a post outside our window, staring at several feet of snow nearby. Suddenly it would burst into action, diving into the snowbank and emerging seconds later with a mouse that had been invisibly tunneling within. I usually stopped watching after that – I’m not super interested in watching still-living creatures being torn apart – but there’s nothing quite like seeing a big bird of prey emerge from a snowbank like a phoenix from the ashes. They’re really incredible creatures.

  4. phelix says:

    And here I was, thinking Flappy Bird was the summit of avian simulators.

    (on a slightly more serious note: back in ye olde early noughties when flash-based web gaming was still a thing, I played Fly Like a Bird 3, a silly game where you fly around a procedural city populated by about 6 people. But you can poop on their heads! At will!)

  5. iainl says:

    This would be incredible. Though I do hope there’s some level of mod support, should you continue with your wrong-headed insistence on not giving me a Red Kite to fly. They’re amazing creatures, but I’ll admit that it’s more because they’re the only bird of prey I can currently see circling outside the window.

    link to drscdn.500px.org

    With Gannets going in for air-water attack, it would also be great to have them joined by Puffins. Their in-air abilities are almost comically poor; flying with all the enthusiasm, but only a little more success or grace, of a man in a dinner suit jumping off Worthing Pier with half a hang-glider strapped to each arm. But once in the water they’d give even Penguins a good swim for their money.

    link to drscdn.500px.org

    At which point, for maximum multiplayer goodness, it seems only reasonable to add one of their chief predators, the Greater Black-backed Gull. Carefully riding air currents and watching for the point to dive, knowing that excessive wing-flapping is an expensive use of energy reserves, sounds like an interesting dilemma.

    link to drscdn.500px.org

    (yes, I am showing off with my photos, though I’m not as good as Pip yet)

  6. Schwerpunkt says:

    I’d play this.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    One side effect though, is a combat flight sim without obvious bandit or flak equivalents.

    Windmills! They generate so much airflow that they have a tendency to suck in hapless birds who then have to do the equivalent of a dam buster run or risk being chopped into pieces.

  8. Tinus says:

    Tim, the part of my brain that is devoted to designing Volo Airsport has been dreaming of building this bird sim for years. If you’re ever up for an in-depth conversation about this very topic, please do get in touch.

    Sometimes I’ll just disappear down a rabithole for a few days where I read papers on the aerodynamics of wing flapping, real-time physics driven motion with actual intelligence behind it, and endlessly replay and freeze-frame slowmotion videos of bird flight.

    But yes, developing Volo is already an exercise in patience, and I’d consider this concept to be up to an order of magnitude more complex. In Volo I can get away with a lot of mistakes and inaccuracies because humans flying their bodies will always be clumsy. But birds, with their mode of flight carefully evolved over millions of years, have an elegance to them that is harder to properly simulate. It is faster, more complex, and more precise. All of which the simulation has to capture with some level of fidelity and consistency.

    To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to tackle this concept properly. Volo is taking a considerable chunk of my life and there are many other ideas that take my fancy. But bird flight is beautiful, and I’ll always be fascinated by it.

  9. Wonderboy2402 says:

    Yea, totally need a bird flight sim.

    My flight game dream has been like a dragon rider / dragonlance game. Where you ride something that you can control but also has its own intelligence and will. So you would both be more like guiding it while also focused on performing your own melee and magical attacks. But positioning and flight mechanics like updrafts, thermals, diving would be important with the species of different dragons behavior too.

    • Victor A Yorke says:

      This, all the way.

      Throw in a little Age of Sail combat, and you’d have a good Temeraire flight sim – guiding the dragon, but also aiming the flintlock rifles and pepper-launching swivel guns of the dragon’s crew.

      Also opens up ground-attack opportunities, as Napoleonic armies and navies have AAA equipment now…

  10. Dinger says:

    There’s a lot of challenges. I’d actually start with the currently DLC-slated barn swallow. It’s a highly efficient flyer, and all about spending its life on the wing with high-speed intercepts of bugs and turning with the flock at corner speed. Plus, you could simulate it believably with a relatively manageable repertoire of maneuvers.

    Then again, a bird sim has to teach the user to infer a lot of info from the environment, and that includes adapting to the different sensor packages. Maybe something big and cumbersome, like a goose, would be good for familiarizing the user with wing-and-tailfeather handling (in the flock) and reading wind and terrain before advancing to the high-performance avians.
    You are, I gather, considering some sort of facebox as the preferred visual interface?

  11. klops says:

    Great stuff!

  12. tnankie says:

    This could be where the more precise finger tracking of leap motion finally becomes useful. hands up and down are the wing flaps. distance between is your open/closed wings, and then you have finger tips for outer wing shape…….but I’ve neglected tail.

  13. Niente says:

    I really enjoyed this piece. I’m not particularly interested in birds but we have many come into our garden and I like to watch them sometimes.

    I used to feed them, and some local badgers, but unfortunately a bastard rat took up residence and I had to stop. I was genuinely upset for several days when I had to stop the feeding.

  14. Father Ted says:

    I’ve been kicking around a similar idea for a while. However, I’d feature the lower end of the avian food-chain, essentially garden birds. Then the game could play out like a survival game – with flying. Ideally, the game would also ship with a level editor, so you could create your RL neighbourhood to fly around in…

  15. Velleic says:

    As someone who uses every lunch break to go and look at owls, I agree with this idea.
    I also agree with the other commenter who wants a dragon rider game. Someday, I’m gonna make that game. Someday.
    (Actually, I did spot a game in the Steam sale where you fly around as a dragon. Think it was called Dragonflight.)

  16. ephesus64 says:

    Ooh, I’d cast my vote for the common nighthawk. Fast and maneuverable, plus it has invasion stripes!
    link to youtu.be

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