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The Flare Path: Pole Stars

Simulation & wargame news

The Flare Path knows what it takes to plod across plateaus of pristine whiteness for day after day. Perhaps that's why he has a picture of Robert Falcon Scott marmaladed to his fridge door, and a stuffed Avro Shackleton dangling from his bedroom ceiling. It could also explain why he's decided to visit both the Arctic and the Antarctic in the deep-frozen hunk of seal blubber that is this week's column.

The Turbo Tape Tapes

The only time FP takes down his sticky Scott snap is when he's entertaining Norwegians. When Jan Haugland, one of the men behind Naval War: Arctic Circle, stopped by for a chat earlier this week, the visitor found a jammy image of Roald Amundsen adorning the Glaciermatic.

Thankfully, Jan's speechless bewilderment did eventually pass

RPS: Can you pinpoint the moment Naval War: Arctic Circle was born?

Jan: Naval War: Arctic Circle has been more than 15 years in the making, so it doesn’t have a precise moment of birth in that sense. Many years ago, I started planning to create a modern (as in StarCraft 1) style RTS based on the subject matter of Harpoon, modern naval combat. I even prototyped it to a quite advanced level, though with dwarf fortress level graphics (I am the worst graphic designer on the planet).

The development project we are finishing now started in the spring of 2008, after we had founded Turbo Tape Games and secured starting funding for the game.

RPS: Was gathering data on the various units straightforward?

Jan: Not straightforward at all. Detailed data on military hardware is naturally quite sensitive, and we have to rely on open and public sources. Some of the most obvious public sources are proprietary, and we can’t just copy somebody else’s database. For western militaries, most information tends to be public, at least up to a point.

There are unfortunately many sources that tend to be based on the arms developers’ advertising, basically, and if we believed that, every missile could target distant galaxies and all sonars could hear a shrimp bristle its antennae in the south sea. We’ve had to apply a bit of common sense and qualified guesses, and also apply data that makes sense in the context of an entertaining, well-balanced game.

RPS: What feature has consumed the most development hours?

Jan: I think, all in all, it is something as boring as the general movement logic. It has to be fast, since this code is executed by all units all the time, it has to take into account all the units’ statistics and orders as well as the environment and terrain. In short, it has been rewritten many times and has been tweaked, fixed and optimized up until, well, yesterday I guess.

RPS: A lot of people are going to come to NWAC with no naval strategy experience whatsoever. What's the best piece of tactical advice you could give to landlubbers?

Many RTS games tend to be about fighting aliens in space, for which most players also have limited personal experience, so I must question whether a lack of familiarity with the subject matter will be a particular problem to this game.

In Naval War: Arctic Circle your units are fragile and your weapons are enormously powerful, what Churchill described as “eggshells armed with hammers.” A “ball of death” strategy will practically never work. Knowing where the enemy units are, and hiding your own units from your adversary is very often the key to success.

Best general starting advice is probably: First, have some helicopters search for subs in the path of your surface ships. Then, send some, but not all, of your fighters in the air, patrolling the perimeter of your own surface forces and bases, and slowly push your assets towards the enemy, and get a favorable exchange rate in the air battles until you hold air superiority. Then, with a bit of active scouting, you will probably find out when and where to attack. You’ll soon give your adversary nightmares about little crimson arrows coming his way.

RPS: There's a scary range of sensors in the game. How is the average user meant to know when to switch these on and off?

Jan: There are essentially mostly radars and sonars you have to think about. There are a mad number of different brands, but you can treat them merely as names at first, and later you’ll learn that some are more powerful than others. It’s like an FPS which has a zillion different guns. It doesn’t confuse players, because you point and shoot with all of them, and after a time you learn which guns are best in which situation.

More or less all your non-submarine units have radar, and you use them the same way. Some of it is relatively common sense. When a plane has a big dish on top of it, this is a good indication that it has particularly powerful radar. Radar has much, much longer range at higher altitude, so you can use your aircraft accordingly.

Some radars can be set to active and passive modes. Those that can’t will do its job without your interference. The unit that turns its radar active should expect to be seen by the enemy. You can always turn on the radar, assign your more stealthy units targets based on what you see, and then turn it off again and get it out of the way.

Sonar works much the same way, except on much shorter ranges. Your submarines should always run silent, until they see a torpedo in the water at least. They sneak into range at slow speeds, and shoot when they can. Surface vessels that know that the enemy can see them anyway, could go with active sonar. But mostly, you use sonobuoys from aircraft to search for submarines.

Learning the intricacies of sensor management can certainly enrich your experience with the game, but it is not necessary to get started, playing a good game and enjoying the campaign. We’re making a playthrough/tutorial video for launch, which will provide a bit more information.

RPS: How does the damage model work? Do attacks ever leave vessels rudderless or dead in the water?

Jan: Naval war-games from World War II and before needed very complex damage models, since battleships took a lot of damage. “That shell damaged the top hinge of the door to coal deposit #3”. Since no ships can reasonably expect to survive more than 3-4 modern missiles, we use a simple hitpoint based model as a basis. When the hitpoints reaches 0, the unit is destroyed. At certain damage thresholds, ship speeds will be reduced and submarines have to surface. In addition, weapons, sensors and aircraft facilities on the unit (read: ship) can be put out of action for a set time by a hit. For example, anti-radar missiles will always damage radars when they hit. Components are repaired automatically, unlike the unit itself.

Damage can also cause fires, which live for a time until put out (automatically) and fires cause additional damage.

We have decided that while realistic, we don’t model “dead in the water” total rudder or engine failure, since this leaves the unit totally useless for the player. Then we can rather consider it lost, so we can play the new sinking ship animations.

RPS: Reading the wiki page on the Shipwreck missile was a real eye-opener. Do your Shipwrecks hunt in packs with one rising from the swarm to act as a spotter/target assigner for the rest?

Jan: They hunt in packs, yes. That specific scouting feature would require the Shipwreck to have its own custom logic, and we were planning to implement that when we learned that this missile is now being phased out and replaced by more modern types. It is still in the game as of writing, but this neat custom movement is not a part of it. It does receive targeting data from other units, as do many other missiles. We have also implemented the special attack trajectories of the ‘Kickback’ missiles – check it out!

RPS: I'm finding that I'm generally too busy with the radar display to bother with the 3D mode. Did you consider making the game purely 2D?

Jan: We did briefly consider just having a simplified 3D view showing the unit, but we thought that would really hurt immersion for the game. It is much easier for the player who has never seen these submarines, ships and aircraft in real life to get a feel for them if they can be seen in action. I tend to look at the 3D view just as my missiles move in for the kill. It also adds a bit to the “aw shucks” when you have an aircraft selected and it goes down in flames before your eyes, more than just reading about it on the screen.

What we did “wrong” from a marketing point of view, obviously, was making the game work before we started seriously improving the graphics. More experienced developers tend to make the pretty pictures for marketing first, and then try to make the actual game work afterwards. We’ve been dramatically improving the graphics quality over the last weeks (and still working on this), but a lot of videos are already out based on very outdated graphics.

RPS: Why did you decide to go with a straightforward sequential campaign? I'm sure a lot of wargamers would like to have seen something a little more ambitious.

Jan: Sure, and we were thinking along these lines, too, until we started to run into some real world concerns. If you have a campaign where your units carry over between missions, you have to test for all the different outcomes, and the number of different possibilities is multiplied by each instance. That is true for all strategy games, of course, but we have relatively few, very powerful units where the specs are dictated to us by the real world.

Balancing the missions has been quite challenging. One unit more or less can be the difference between too easy, just right and ridiculously hard. When we recently updated the quality of some sensors, we found the missions played out totally differently. A dynamic campaign can set you up for creating a very unsatisfying player experience where things players did in mission 3 means they can’t win mission 11. Before you know it, there is an online petition to change the ending.

I think it’s true that this aspect of our game may be less “ambitious” as you say, but for every ambitious feature you add to a game, you can set yourself up for a big fail. Naval War: Arctic Circle is ambitious on so many levels, and we’ve made it work very well, so it would be sad to mess it up over trying to check another box on some list of canonical cool features.

That said, it is entirely possible that we’ll try our hand at making future content more dynamic.

RPS: How much access will modders get? Will interested parties be given the tools to produce, say, Falklands War and Battle of Midway conversions?

Jan: Modders can easily create their own weapons, sensors, units, missions and entire campaigns. The AI and a lot of details can be tweaked. All the missions we ship with the game can be inspected and modified by the community. We have included the maps and terrain data of the North Atlantic region, and for modders it will not be trivial to expand beyond this region. There should be a lot of fun battles you can set up in these 35 million sq kms or so.

RPS: Do you have any plans to take the engine to warmer climes or different time periods?

Jan: We absolutely want to take Naval War to every ocean on the planet. Our ambition is to stick to the present time and near-future, since WWII and earlier is reasonably well represented already.

We think the era of the smart missiles makes for very exciting naval war games, and if gamers enjoy NWAC, we’re hoping to start creating an even better game engine and a game centered around the Pacific pretty soon.

RPS: Is wargaming and the sea in Turbo Tape's blood or do you have ambitions to make other kinds of games?

Jan: Yes, and yes. We’re definitely committed to Naval War especially and strategy games generally.

We already do, in fact, push the boundaries of strategy into sports strategy/action. We are already working on a free-to-play pro cycling game you and some friends can check out at www.velocipede.no

Thank you for your interest in Naval War: Arctic Circle! A free demo will be available really soon, and the game launch is pretty imminent. Feel free to drop by our friendly and active forum if you want to discuss the game with us and the fans

RPS: Thank you for your time.


Slog On, Just Slog On

Yesterday being the the centenary of R. F. Scott's death, FP found himself thinking about Antarctic exploration sims, specifically why none exist. After seventeen seconds of full-on no-holds-barred musing, he concluded that the dearth of first-person-trudging-across-featureless-wastes-of-snow-and-ice-for-hours-on-end games probably owed something to the fact that a first-person-trudging-across-featureless-wastes-of-snow-and-ice-for-hours-on-end game would be No Fun Whatsoever.

Imagine the temptation to tap that Time Acceleration button a few times. Picture the surge of disappointment on dabbing Shift and finding your snail's pace unchanged. Yes, it would take a queer sort of dev to embark on a first-person Scott vs Amundsen game.

A map-based strategy game, on the other hand, could be quite the thing. Flick through any account of Scott's ill-fated hike, and you'll find a wealth of situations and dilemmas that cry out to be ludologificated. The 1910-12 race to the pole was a fascinating logistics-heavy wargame in which weather and weariness were the merciless enemies, canny Amundsen the constantly ticking mission clock.

What route are you going to choose? Who are you going to select for the final polar team?

Where are you going to put your supply depots and what are you going to put in them?

When are you going to start shooting the ponies?

Would morale and stamina stand up to another ration cut?

What's to be done about poor Oates?

Until this chilly tactics test, or something similar to it, gets made, the best way for the realism-minded gamer to experience the frozen continent is probably Lime Sim's Antarctica X. I still haven't got round to trying this FSX add-on, but reading assessments like the one over at Mutley's Hangar, makes me think it's probably time I did.

7 major research stations, 47 runways, 3 different icebreaker vessels with useable helipads, flyable penguins!.. What more could a radiator-hugging polar explorer want except perhaps a driveable snowcat, a suitably stunning recreation of the Aurora Australis, and a few adventures.

The official product page makes no mention of bundled missions. Going to the trouble of fashioning a high-fidelity facsimile of the white continent and not then including a sortie sequence based around the discovery of a deep-frozen alien artifact does seem like a bit of an own-goal.

Cover image for YouTube video


The Flare Path Foxer


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Tim Stone