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The Flare Path: Slye And The Familiar Stone

Simulation & wargame blather

I'm not a fan of the word 'venerate' (It's too close to 'enervate' and 'venereal' for my liking) but when it comes to Red Baron, Dynamix's Great War luft legend, I'm not sure there's a verb that better describes my feelings. The news that Damon Slye is returning to Flanders, determined to recapture that exquisite balance, that perfect pace, and - fingers crossed - those eloquent chin shrubberies, sent a shiver through my ageing airframe. Hungry for gen, I scrawled some questions on a scrap of wing canvas, wrapped the scrap round a spanner, flew to Eugene, Oregon, and dropped it next to Mad Otter's mess.*

*Sent them an email

RPS: Do you have any abiding memories of Red Baron's development or are they all buried under an immovable heap of A-10 Tank Killer/Aces Over Europe/MechWarrior ones?

Damon: I remember we were all working during the Dynamix Christmas party at 8pm while everyone not on the Red Baron team was downstairs drinking beer and partying. We shipped the game on Dec.31!

One of the coolest memories happened a few days after we shipped. At that moment, everyone is completely burned out, but there’s a kind of comfortable laziness after having completed a long tough slog. John Bruning, who was the historian on the team - and by the way, is now a very successful writer, check him out on Amazon! - told me that he found a reference in one of his books that toward the end of the war, the allies discovered that 'slashing attacks' were a successful strategy when flying a fast but not as maneuverable airplane against a nimble dogfighter. For example, an SE5a which is very fast versus a Fokker Triplane, which can turn circles around an SE5a. This pulled us out of our post-ship stupor. We were suddenly alarmed that maybe Red Baron didn’t represent history authentically with this detail because we had never tested this case. We had no special “slashing attack” code or anything like that!  So John and I went running after the nearest computer to do a test.

So, we fired up the game and did a test. We took an SE5a up against the Red Baron in a Fokker Triplane. Normally he was really hard to beat, especially when he flew in his triplane. We started with an altitude advantage and lots of speed, and made a slashing pass at him in his triplane.  We shot him down without even taking a scratch. It worked perfectly. That was a very cool moment for us. We had not specifically coded that case, but the fidelity of the flight model and the simulation were close enough to reality that the same tactics worked in our game as in the real world. That’s what you aim for, a kind of emergent reality.

RPS: Did that wonderfully crisp design alter much between initial conception and release?

Damon: Classic Red Baron was the cleanest design I’ve done. The final product was pretty much a straight manifestation of that design. That’s really rare. And, because we didn’t have to make changes - that was nice because it gave us more time to concentrate on playbalancing and polishing the game. You can have a lot of really great ideas, but it takes a ton of work to implement the ideas so they work properly and are made clear to the player. Another way to put it is that a simple game idea executed really well ends up being a much better game than a complex game idea executed poorly.

That said, now with agile development and live development where you release the game early for alpha and beta testing, you can and should be more flexible. A nice clean design is good to start with, but if you can make product and design adjustments as you go I think you end up with a better product. It’s certainly fun to engage with the community early on. After all, the reason game development is so fun is because it’s collaborative.

RPS: When did you realise you had a hit on your hands?

Damon: Within a few weeks after release we started getting sales numbers, and they were much larger than we expected. We had been told during development we absolutely had to ship in October or we would lose all the sales. All of the competitive products were released before us, and the sales force told us we were now doomed. It turned out that what people really wanted was a great game not a quickly released game. We outsold all the competitors combined by a wide margin, despite launching at supposedly the worst time of year.

RPS: How did you feel about Red Baron II and Red Baron 3D? Were they the sequels you'd envisaged while at Dynamix?

Damon: Red Baron 3D is a classic game in its own right. The team did a great job carrying on the legacy of Red Baron, and Red Baron 3D is worthy of the name. Much of the team from the original worked on Red Baron II and Red Baron 3D. I am really proud of the work they did. Recently, I have been in contact in with Red Baron 3D community, and they really love the game, and have been continuing to play it long long after it was released. It had great legs.

RPS: With Rise of Flight so highly regarded and Wings Over Flanders Fields imminent, why embark on a sequel now?

Damon: When I left Dynamix, I let go of Red Baron. I thought that was the last time I would work on a flight game, but I was happy with what we had created. It was a classic, and even when you no longer own the rights to a game, as the creator you are still really proud of what you and the team have done. After leaving, ownership of Red Baron changed hands five times through various corporate mergers and acquisitions. I remember meeting informally once with one of the corporate executives who had control of Red Baron, and he told me they had no idea what to do with the property. I thought to myself “I know what I’d do.”

Anyway, two years ago, someone came to me, and completely out of the blue, with no effort on my part, asked me, “Hey, do you want the rights to Red Baron back?” I was floored. It felt to me like I had let go of Red Baron to fly off into the universe, but like some strange crazy boomerang, fate blew it back to me in the shape of a red Fokker Triplane. It was a bizarre but happy moment for me.

Red Baron was and is special because it is much more than a flight simulator. It’s a time machine. By that I mean, it transports the experience of being a pilot in world war one onto your PC today. Red Baron is one of a kind.

RPS: Are you ready for forum flak from folk who won't settle for anything less than Rise of Flight-calibre flight models and cockpit fidelity?

Damon: I look forward to working with the community of players. I want to close the feedback loop from design to production to the players and back to design so that the players are part of the process of building the product. Red Baron will strike a good balance between simulation and game. It will be authentic and fun at the same time.

I understand that different players have their own preferences on what kind of experience they want. In Single Player this is easy to solve. We’ll include a Realism Panel where each player can choose which realistic factors to turn on. These include things like Advanced Flight Model, Black Outs, Gun Jams, and Running out of Fuel.

However, that doesn’t work in multiplayer because it’s not fair for people to have more difficult features turned on when competing against those who don’t. So, we will have Normal battle arenas and Historical battle arenas. New players will be automatically populated into the Normal battle arenas because it will be easier to get started. Over time, they can migrate to the Historical arenas when they want to experience a more realistic simulation. And, of course, the hardcore flight sim fans can start off in the Historical arenas right away. Also, I believe the hardcore fans will appreciate the value of the Normal arenas because it helps to grow the community of flight game players, bringing more attention and focus to flight games, and therefore resulting in more and higher quality products.

RPS: Can we expect the new SP campaigns to boast as much pace, jeopardy, and unpredictability as the original ones?

Damon: Yes. In Single Player you want to remove all the long boring parts where the player is just flying along and nothing is happening. Instead, you just put the interesting moments in there. However, this can involve flying along for a few minutes looking around because you don’t know exactly when you are going to get bounced by enemy fighters… that adds suspense. You want suspense plus action and also player choices. For example, do you engage the enemy fighters first or go straight after the reconnaissance balloons? Should you try to take out the brightly colored Fokker Triplane or his wingman first, or just turn tail and run!

RPS: I am ready to boycott the new Red Baron if it fails to use beard length as an indicator of time spent in PoW camps.

Damon: Ha! Nice reference. Yes, we were just reviewing classic Red Baron and saw the POW growing his beard out month-by-month. Perhaps we should build an advanced beard simulation feature? Just kidding, but I think that’s an example of how much the stuff that occurs between the missions is just as important as what happens during the missions. It adds a context and immersions to the player’s progression through the campaign, and it’s also an example that the experience we want to provide is more than just a vehicle simulation. Flying and dogfighting is the core of the experience, but what happens between missions is just as important.

RPS: The original Red Baron didn't do targets of opportunity... tempting enemy troop columns, bogged tanks, sleepy scouts... Will the remake offer dangerous distractions like these?

Damon: That’s a great idea. I think we will steal it. I can see how it will add more flavor to each mission. It’s a chance to have more gradations of success to each mission. Do you go for a little extra, but risk being shot down and captured? I believe it was Sid Meier who said that great gameplay is all about offering the player meaningful choices. I agree with that.

RPS: I gather you're planning to give historical aces different personalities and fighting styles. Will run-of-the-mill pilots also have their own behavioural quirks?

Damon: Yes, the non-historical Aces in your squadron will have names and a combat AI profile. Also, if you keep them alive from mission to mission their skills will improve over time. So, if you are careless with the pilots in your roster, you will end up with a lot of new recruits, making the missions more difficult. This is an example of one of the ways that we plan to make Red Baron more than just a vehicle simulation. To build a great experience, you want keep an eye on the big picture, which includes things like simulating human behaviors in the computer-controlled opponents.

RPS: Will cowering in clouds be a valid tactic in the new Red Baron?

Damon: I prefer the phrase “strategic retreat” to “cowering”! Yes, you can dive into a cloud to escape. Clouds create an interesting, three-dimensional battlefield. In multiplayer matches, players will be able to use clouds to advantage to set ambushes. However, these tactics do have disadvantages, also… it takes time and fuel to get behind or in a cloud. And of course, when you are in a cloud, the enemy can’t see you, but you can’t see the enemy. And, if you are hiding in a cloud, you aren’t making any progress. So again, it’s a meaningful choice.

RPS: My earliest RB scalps were collected without the aid of a stick or gamepad. Is the keyboard still going to be a viable control option?

Damon: We will have the best keyboard plus mouse support ever in a flight game. The mouse is a device that has as much human bandwidth as a joystick, but it was not designed as a flight controller.

Today, many game players simply don’t have joysticks. I want Red Baron to appeal to the widest possible audience. We want to grow the flight game community as large as possible, and making our game accessible only to people with joysticks is too narrow. So, at the very start of this project we decided our number one priority was to make flying with a mouse as good as flying with a joystick. I had no idea if it was possible. After all, at Dynamix we tried to crack this UI problem for years without much success.

We spent months and months iterating on our mouse plus keyboard support. We even named the system the “Virtual Flight Stick” since that’s basically what we were building. After a lot of work, I can say that flying Red Baron with a mouse is just as good as flying with a joystick. In our in-house testing, many of the team members prefer the mouse to a joystick. The top pilot here uses only the mouse, and beats the rest of us who have the “advantage” of a joystick.

At the same time, we will offer full support for all the popular joysticks and gamepads, including support for the throttles on stick, thumb hats for views, and so on. Players should always be able to play the way they want.

RPS: War Thunder and World of Warplanes are already duelling for MOBA dogfight dominance. What will RB offer that these Gothas don't?

Damon: Red Baron is about dogfighting in biplanes.  It is set in World War One. Because the air speeds are slower, the combat is tighter and more tactical.

Two years ago we released a game called Ace of Aces. It was strictly a multiplayer battle arena game - no single player support at all. We spent a lot of time iterating on the design and playbalance to make it exciting. At first Ace of Aces wasn’t that fun. After all, the gameplay in a flight game is really really different than when playing on an isometric tile map as in DOTA or LOL, or in any kind of first person-shooter. Airplanes move fast, and they can’t stop in place to give a player time to think. That really changes the concepts of how do you control territory and take territory. You have to rethink everything when designing a battle arena for a flight game. We spent many many months tuning Ace of Aces and adjusting the game design of its maps so that it became really exciting and fun. I constantly get requests from Aces fans wanting to know when it will come back. So, I think we have figured out what it takes to make a flight game work well as as MOBA.

RPS: Do you still fly in real-life and does your piloting experience have any practical value when designing a game like RB?

Damon: I sold my beloved Bonanza A36 to get back into the game business. Being an Indie developer is both expensive and time-consuming. So is flying. So, I gave up one of my great passions in life, flying my Bonanza A36 up and down the west coast, so that I could pursue my even greater passion, making games. I still miss the Bonanza, and one day I want to get another one. It is a fabulous aircraft, and flying is an amazing experience.

When designing a flight game, actual piloting experience is really useful. For example, when we were trying to crack the problem of getting the mouse to work as well as a joystick as a flight controller, while testing I realized the crux of the problem with mouse is how do you apply back pressure in a turn? Back pressure means pulling back a little on the stick when turning. The steeper the bank, the more back pressure required or you will lose altitude and your nose will dip below the horizon. With a joystick, it’s really easy to apply back pressure, but with a mouse, this is not natural and is difficult. However, once the problem is identified--how to help the player easily apply back pressure when flying with a mouse--it’s not too hard to solve. Had I not been a pilot, this concept would not have been articulated so clearly, and I’m not sure the solution would have been obvious.

In general, I think being a pilot helps you know if the flight simulation feels right.

RPS: Thank you for your time.



The Flare Path Foxer currently in West Somerset teaching badgers how to use semi-automatic weapons. If you fancy waggling your mental ailerons, last week's lossword remains unsolved.

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Tim Stone