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The Flare Path: Debriefs Dan Dimitrescu

“Silent Hunter 3 was the first game I was proud of”

Interesting chap, Dan Dimitrescu. Spoken of in reverent tones in the roughest bars in virtual Kiel, Wilhelmshaven and Pearl Harbour, he started his working life reviewing simulations rather than designing them. Below the break, he talks about the games he's shaped and the games he's scored. Influences are star-shelled, career sea-changes discussed. If you've ever stalked a Silent Hunter convoy or dithered outside a Door Kickers door, read on. Read on! 

RPS: In the carefree days before you reviewed and designed games for a living, which titles dominated your play sessions?

Dan: Well, I started reviewing games for a magazine just after high-school, so if you want to go before that, you’re basically talking about my teenage years, or the mid ‘90s. Me and my peers would play anything we could get our hands on. Well, almost anything.

I did tend to lean towards flight sims. Back in the day I still dreamed about becoming a fighter pilot. I was a big fan of the Microprose titles and must have put hundreds of hours into F-15 Strike Eagle 2, F-117A, Silent Service 2, Gunship 2000 and later Falcon 3.0, which I immediately perceived as as a big step forward in simulation. By then I had also discovered online newsgroups via ftp-by-email and got my hands on 2 copies of Robert Shaw’s Fighter Combat book. Now that I think about it, one of my copies is supposed to be used as study material for Romanian Mig-21 Lancer pilots. Wonder what happened to it :)

I was also very much into Science Fiction and Fantasy, so burned through X-Wing, TIE Fighter, Wing Commander 1&2, Ultima Underworld … and played The Black Gate for 1 month continuously… On the wargaming side I was out of the loop due to my location and the genre not being so popular around here, but I did put LOTS of time into the first Panzer General and UFO/XCOM/Terror From the Deep, and Shogun/Medieval Total War. I also witnessed firsthand the birth of Real Time Strategy with Dune 1 & 2 and Warcraft 1, and then I found out about Close Combat :)

For some reason, my most vivid memories are of the original Syndicate or Ultima VII being played at night, in the dark, with early ‘90s heavy metal running in the background as I didn’t actually own one of them fancy Soundblasters :) Either that, or running Falcon 3.0 with a math coprocessor for the first time … the difference was palpable and tasteable.

As a developer, I feel I’ve inherited most of my design traits from sims with engrossing campaigns, Aces of the Pacific, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, and later the fabulous European Air War or Red Baron 2. They don’t make games like those nowadays, do they?

RPS: Was your love of simulations inherited from a family member?

Dan: Negative. While my mother is also an IT professional and in general I was encouraged to work on the computer, computer gaming was tolerated but not really encouraged - mainly because I was supposed to study for high school or faculty admission, and so on.

The real reason is these games turned my dreams into a palpable reality :) I was an avid reader, and at some point in my childhood I chanced upon a trio of books in my grandparents' library.

The first one was Paul Brickhill’s 'Reach for the Sky' - the biography of Douglas Bader. It gave me a love for Hurricanes, a basic idea of the strategic side of the struggle above Britain in 1940, and a glimpse of the technical complexity of a warbirds. Variable pitch propellers? Intriguing concept! The second book was Georges Blond’s 'Le Survivant du Pacifique' and it told me about the Big E and the huge conflict that was the Pacific War. It made me love the finicky, risky nature of WW2 carrier ops and the small torpedo bombers that were always prone to fail. Fascinating stuff, I probably blabbered incoherently about it for the entire summer :) Finally, the last book was Douglas Reeman’s 'Strike from the Sea', a fictional account of a French cruiser submarine operating against the Japanese. That one taught me that submarine action is about crunching some math in a “fruit machine”, about being pinged and waiting - stopwatch in hand - for your torpedoes to detonate, and about recharging batteries. It wasn’t until I started working on Silent Hunter that I understood how much time recharging actually took, though.

RPS: Has the time you spent at the Bucharest Aerospace Engineering Faculty proved useful during your career in game development?

Dan: Well, lots of math, physics and engineering do really set you up for playing and designing simulation games, but the truth is I was not that good a student, and I probably forgot more than I learnt. I was working at the same time, which may pass for an excuse if you look at it from the other side of the ocean. With a fisheye lens. Dirty one, too. On the other hand, I didn’t really need to be that good, as most of the programmers I’ve worked with had really strong technical backgrounds themselves, they didn’t need things to be handed to them on a plate, they just needed someone to talk the same language.

I distinctly remember back in 2000-and-something, I was tasked with completing the AI design for Silent Hunter 3, and it was all because Florin Boitor - the maverick project manager of that title - decreed that a wannabe engineer like me should be able to define precise specifications to complement the AI. I managed it, though the AI for Silent Hunter was somewhat “in progress” until after Silent Hunter 5.

At the Faculty we did learn about variable pitch propellers and automatic pitch control. I would have loved to work on something like that for a sim. I did work on Blazing Angels: Squadrons of World War 2, but it was not that kind of sim.

pic by AFKAMC

RPS: Were flight sims part of the syllabus?

Dan: Sadly, no flight sims. We did study Fortran programming for one semester, but that was just basic, high-school level stuff; I remember modelling a 2D missile homing algorithm, though I fear it sounds cooler than the basic trigonometry needed to do it :)

However, the Faculty was a magnet for aviation enthusiasts from all over the country, and many of them loved flight sims. I actually took up online IL-2 with a colleague of mine and his Virtual Squadron. So if you were ever in a scrap against Draconis 13-th and shot down D13-th_Tomcat, that would be me. Fun times!

RPS: How did you wind up writing for Romanian games mags?

Dan: It goes back to my daycare years, and the friendship I established with a guy there. We were probably 3 years old then so we didn’t know much about games or journalism at the time. But we met again in the same class at school, and we were actually living on the same street.

So we were both gamers through highschool when we discovered mags like PC Zone, PC Format. We liked these mags and he wanted to do one himself. He talked his parents into starting this as a business, and he actually did it once we were both in college. We wrote some mails (snail and electronic) to get in touch with various game developers and publishers, got some other friends to help, and that was the birth of Romanian magazine “PC Gaming”, later renamed to “XtremPC”. All in print!

With the rise of the internet, which was exponential in the capital of Romania, we had access to whatever news was out there, and we could get in touch with anyone. So we did, and the magazine was really a professional outfit, with staff, office and so on. But with the rise of the Internet also came the death rattle of printed mags, which sadly happened some years later.

RPS: Can you remember your first published review?

Dan: The earliest actual reviews I could find were Flying Corps Gold (85%, but very positive) and Jane’s Longbow 2 (91%). The earliest feature I wrote was an 8-page overview of flight-sims-to-come as of November 1997. That one covered Fighter Squadron: Screaming Demons Over Europe, Air Warrior 2, Warbirds 2.0, Aces X-Fighters, Confirmed Kill, European Air War, Fighter Duel 2 and the infamous vaporware Tactical Aero Squadron. It also included a 2-page interview with Tucker Hatfield of Dynamix on Aces: X-Fighters. Part of it can be read here :)

I just read it again and it was pretty cool stuff, though I’ve been and am a dreamy kid that loves to soak up developer promises and muse on “what could be”. Aces X-Fighters was an obvious magnet for geek enthusiasm. Of course I wanted to design my own warbird then see how it affected the course of the war! Who wouldn't?

RPS: And the highest and lowest scores you ever dished-out?

Dan: Based on my incomplete archives I’d say the 6.1 out of 10 I awarded to Die Hard Trilogy, and the 98% to Falcon 4.0. Different years got different scoring systems, but you can tell I’m a Falcon fanboy, ever since playing 3.0. And I was willing to put up with any bugs for that campaign engine. Yes, I do have the binder edition, thanks for asking :)

RPS: What prompted your move into games development?

Dan: After 3 years of writing about games as a full time job (give or take a few hours of college each day) I was getting burned out on it and ready to move on - I had the itch to actually produce something myself, something longer-term than a magazine article.

As it happens, I was the go-to guy for flight sims and tactical shooters. The guys at the magazine knew it, the public knew it, and apparently Funlabs knew it. Next thing I knew, I was working on a 3D model of a MP5 Kurz and trying to figure out how the slide of a P229 differs from that of the 226. I got in as a modeller, but in secret - even from me - they were grooming me as a game designer. They were looking to do something along the lines of the original Rainbow Six, and who better to do it than me. A journalist with no game dev experience. In Romania. With a tiny budget.

In truth, it was the greatest chance ever given to a wannabe developer.

RPS: I'm ashamed to admit I've never played the game in question. Is Secret Service: In Harm's Way worth searching out?

Dan: In all honesty - and it doesn’t take that much, really - the answer is nope. Back in the day it might have been worth investigating; our use of ragdoll & object physics, pseudo-realistic weapons with usable iron-sights and bullet penetration through walls… all of that made it a pretty advanced shooter - and a very fun deathmatch game.

It’s at best a budget shooter from years ago, and the market, technology and games have moved on.

RPS: Your name will forever be associated with the Silent Hunter franchise? How much freedom did you have with SH3's design and how happy were you with the released game?

Dan: Let me establish one thing from the start: Silent Hunter 3 was actually led by Tibi Lazar, I was not even working for the “small Ubisoft Romania studio” when they started. But I knew that if they made sims over there, I had to be part of it. Tibi was in the interview board, and they hired me.

Even though I came mid-project, I was deeply involved in much of the design of the game, from damage modelling to AI, interface and campaign. I knew the game from its roots to the top, I played it a lot and knew how it was supposed to work and what we were trying to do. I also didn’t shy away from the forums - I was already a regular on SimHQ - so when it came to helping modders I was there. I cared. I posted. I understood what had to be done. I guess that’s why many people thought of me as the man behind Silent Hunter, but I only helmed 4 and 5.

I don’t remember any outside interference during the design of Silent Hunter, whatever the number. These games were too small budget for big game standards, and too nerdy for the creatives on top to understand in depth. They cared, wanted to help, but they understood our pitches and learned to trust us. And the stellar reviews that SH3 received confirmed it.

When Silent Hunter 3 was done, I knew it was not perfect, and it took me until after 4 to be satisfied - as 4 was a more polished, rounded project. But 3 was the first game I was proud of. And that’s exactly what I wrote on it when I sent it to my childhood friend in Germany :)

RPS: Ubisoft's failure to commission SH6 and the foundation of KillHouse Games appear to be connected events. Are they?

Dan: I never heard any real talk of Silent Hunter 6. At some point it became clear to me that Ubisoft Romania didn’t want to do another Silent Hunter. They wanted to net a bigger fish like Assassin’s Creed (well, a piece of that, anyway). I was ok with that, as I was burned out on submarines - SH3/4/4.5/5, that was enough. Also, the old team was long gone. By then Ubisoft Blue Byte picked up the franchise and started working on SH Online, which for a while I was consulting for, but was not emotionally attached to. I would have loved to work on Ghost Recon, but they wouldn’t let me. I would have loved to pitch a tank sim called “Tom Clancy’s Spartan Brigade” but I didn’t have the energy. I needed a new start.

So I jumped ship for the just-starting studio of CI Games Romania. I had some friends over there and it was a smaller, more dynamic outfit. This was back in Nov 2011. I was already cooking up Door Kickers in my head, but was not ready to become a full time indie as I had a 1 month old girl baby at home to worry about. Only one year later did we start KillHouse and proper work on Door Kickers began.

Would I want to do another submarine sim? Not right now. I still have other, smaller ideas, that I want to see made into games. Submarine simulations are big projects, and you can’t do one without a large team of expert programmers, lots of content builders … no sir. I don’t need that now. Now, I would love to have a go at a flight sim, but those are still big things, and the market is pretty well covered with existing titles. If only they’d do better campaigns …

I still have a partially designed Silent Hunter boardgame idea, though. And I was joking about writing a “How to sail and fight in a German U-boat” book :)

RPS: Most devs seem to have little time and inclination to play games other than the ones they're working on. Do you still sim and wargame in your spare time?

Dan: I’m still a gamer but I haven’t dusted off the Cougar or fired up a true flight sim in a couple of years. My TrackIR is still a 3, I think. I am waiting for the DCS F-14 to be released and have a couple of modules bought, but other than that I’m mostly looking forward to various wargames and strategy games.

These days I don’t really game at home as it would only attract my four-year-old to come over, have a look, press some buttons and get involved. And I want to spend time with her anyway, building Legos or playing wargames or just goofing around as pirates looking for treasure. We sometimes game together on the tablet (she loves Monument Valley) but other than that we’re trying to limit her screen time.

But … XCOM2 is out, so I have been guilty of some late night 'one-more-turning', and the office time has received a hit too - for research purposes, of course. Other than that, I suck at R6 Siege and enjoy looking into Deserts of Kharak and Helldivers. I’m trying to find the courage to load Command: Naval Operations, too.

RPS: Have any police forces or militaries shown interest in Door Kickers as a potential training tool?

Dan: There was some interest but no serious questions or requests. Some agencies have written to us and described how they use the game to illustrate proper room clearing flow. Others have asked about designing levels and so on. We even found a Russian photo blog showing OMON troops playing our game in their training class. Coolest thing around.

Level creation will be very easy in Door Kickers 2. It’s not that hard in Door Kickers, but we want to get the player to some juicy gameplay with minimal effort. So, if for example a SWAT team would want to create a particular apartment floorplan and run it in-game, they’d be able to do it in less than five minutes.

RPS: If you had to make a game based on a piece of Romanian history, which piece would you choose?

Dan: Interesting, I never thought about this. Being a flight sim buff, I’m inclined to say I’d go for the Royal Romanian Air Force defense of Ploiesti oil fields in ‘43-’44. IAR-80/81s and Bf109s going against B17s, Liberators, P51s and P38s? I dreamed this stuff when I was a kid, and it's a classic story of David vs Goliath.

I haven’t shot down any Libs in a long, long time. Yeah, I’d like to do this game.

RPS: Thank you for your time

* * * * *


The Foxer

Roman's refusal to include the Soup Dragon in last week's '25 Things You Might Find On The Moon' foxer almost led to fisticuffs in the FP office. The miserable swine insisted said creature lived on a moon not the moon so wasn't eligible. I pressed, citing the photographs taken by astronaut James Irwin in Elbow Crater in 1971 that clearly show soup well covers, but my Chief Foxer Setter refused to back down.

1. WTR water (Stugle, Matchstick)
2. HTN Hiten (Little_Crow)
3. LNRL NDR lunar lander (Stugle)
4. FLLNS TRNT Fallen Astronaut (corinoco)
5. GLTRNS PRTR Eagle Transporter (Stugle)
6. RPSR CT Rupes Recta (Rorschach617)
7. BRNMN CHSN Baron Munchausen (Little_Crow)
8. GNMN gnomon (unacom, corinoco)
9. FLCNFT HR falcon feather (Little_Crow)
10. FLCTYS HGWLL Felicity Shagwell (Little_Crow)
11. SLNT Selenite (phlebas)
12. PLTCR TRLT Plato craterlet (Little_Crow)
13. RTHSS HDW Earth's shadow (Stugle)
14. GRL GRAIL (unacom)
15. GNCR NN Eugene Cernan (Little_Crow)
16. MN SRGS Mons Argaeus (Little_Crow)
17. GL DLVBR NCH gold olive branch (Little_Crow)
18. BSLT basalt (unacom, Little_Crow)
19. THM SNNDTHM PSN Thomson and Thompson (phlebas)
20. HSSLB LDCMR hasselblad camera (Stugle, Little_Crow)
21.* RMMH hammer (corinoco)
22.* LGL FLB golf ball (corinoco)
23.* LZRD NZB Buzz Aldrin (Little_Crow)
24.* TY Yutu (unacom, Little_Crow)
25.* MK DNK Duke Nukem (phlebas)

* * * * *

Foxer Fact #552

Legendary defoxer Simeon 'Simplex' Plessy was a self-confessed bibliophobe. Interviewed on his deathbed in 1981, he claimed to have read just three books during his lifetime. “Almost everything I know of history, science, sport and transport, I have learnt from cigarette cards.”

All answers in one thread, please.

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Door Kickers

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Door Kickers 2

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Silent Hunter 3


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Silent Hunter 5


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Tim Stone