Toady in Flare Path: brief thoughts on the latest Matrix Games/Slitherine pricing controversy, Ilya Shevchenko reflects on the DCS WWII Kickstarter campaign, the Foxer is renamed the Fuchser in honour of Steel Beasts 3.0, and 'today' and 'misspelled' are mispelled.
Slitherine/Matrix Games are so proud of Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations, their latest turnless wargame, they've slapped a £65 price label on its prow. Understandably, many cash-strapped Tomahawk hurlers and Tomcat herders are unhappy.
I haven't seen nearly enough of CMANO's scrupulously simulated Harpoon-style engagements to judge whether the eye-watering tariff is justified (look out for an assessment next week). However, I think I'm sufficiently familiar with Homo Grognardis to know early price disclosure (the price was only announced on Tuesday) a firm promise of future free updates (multiplayer plans are a little unclear at present) and a timely demo would have helped reduce release day dismay.
New engine, new developer, hefty price… if ever a wargame needed a downloadable trial this is it. Company spokesmen can rattle off all the usual excuses (excuses you'll never hear from diligent demo providers like Battlefront and Paradox) and point us in the direction of various video tutorials but the fact is there's still nothing more helpful a wargame publisher can do for a potential customer than allow them to fondle the merchandise before buying. Come on Slitherine, invest some of those spectacular App Store profits in a premium pre-purchase service for your premium-paying PC punters.
One of the few games that manages to make CMANO look cheap has a far more responsible approach to trialling. Steel Beasts Pro Personal Edition, an incomparable contemporary armour sim recently transformed by a major update, can be thoroughly inspected via a $9.50 (1 month) $24.50 (4 months) or $39.50 (1 year) demo. It would be nice if these testing fees were reimbursed on payment of the full $115 asking price but after four weeks getting to know the surprisingly approachable SBPPE it's unlikely you'll resent the recon expense.
Thanks to SBPPE 3.0's new shadow-capable rendering engine, refurbished structures and dynamic weather, the views from command cupolae and through vision blocks have lost much of the training-simulator starkness of old. Trundling through drifting volumetric dust and smoke clouds, or surveying horizons monochromed by ebbing sunsets and sunrises, the progress is particularly marked. Only the lack of street furniture and flavour objects, and a few ugly tree models and terrain textures now betray the sim's utilitarian military origins.
Perhaps the most significant change in 3.0, is the arrival of civilians. Though currently absent from most of the default scenarios, these Arma-style firefight complicators can be configured to appear at set times of the day, drive cars, wear randomly coloured clothing, and change behaviours when scripting tripwires are tugged. Situations in which militants mingle inconspicuously with innocent bystanders, or shift allegiance unexpectedly are now possible. Immolate suspicious vehicles or skip the Rules of Engagement section in briefings at your peril!
Hollow buildings and vastly improved infantry animations mean those fleshy things that spill from APCs, and lurk in thickets clutching deadly descendents of the Panzerfaust, are more plausible than ever. Soldiers now have stamina and armour stats; they kneel, scamper semi-crouched, and hug the ground at the first sniff of incoming fire. Pathfinding and ballistic improvements, new helos, and simulation of on-map artillery, further boost the sim's burgeoning combined arms credibility.
Of course, most of 3.0's considerable tare weight is made up of new and refurbished war chariots. While some of the crewable débutantes are simply new variants of old friends like the M1A1, Leopard 2A5, M113 and CV-90, there are a few entirely new faces like the British Scimitar light tank and Warrior IFV, and a frankly dizzying selection of overhauled rides and additional AFVs playable from exteriors views. Peruse pages nineteen to forty-six of the release notes for an idea of just how colossal and cosmopolitan the Steel Beasts zoo now is.
Eight Days And Counting
Have you backed DCS WWII yet? While most of the stretch goals are looking distinctly pipedreamy at present, the $100,000 base hurdle has been cleared and the scent of hot Jumo turbojets is getting stronger with every passing day. Curious about the new Me 262 objective and a Kickstarter campaign that has jinked like a faulty Fritz X, I sent some searching questions Ilya Shevchenko's way.
RPS: As the first major flight sim developer to use Kickstarter, do you have any advice for studios that decide to follow in your contrails?
Ilya: Launch a pre-kickstarter discussion with your fans about everything. We’ve done a couple of sharp turns during our kickstarter and changed our rewards and stretch goals, and we wish we could change even more.
You may think you know what your fans want, but they know it even better. We went the “vague hints and allusions followed by a major reveal” route, and that locked us in to some bad decisions. If you open up everything you have to the fans without being locked into anything by kickstarter, and dedicate a couple of weeks to a thorough discussion, you will be able to discover and correct a lot of completely unexpected shortcomings.
We had not done that and learned it the hard way. Our kickstarter campaign has definitely lost some money because we miscalculated on a lot of rewards. Our high-price rewards turned out to be too bland, while lower-tier rewards offered too many choices and ended up confusing people. Our stretch goals had to be revised twice. Even our overall marketing approach completely shifted about a week into the campaign. Had we identified and corrected this before launching, I’m sure we could have done even better.
RPS: Why was the Me 262 chosen as the focus for the new $150,000 stretch goal? Surely they saw relatively little action over Normandy?
Ilya: The project is not Normandy 1944, but rather Europe 1944. Normandy terrain is the first one we’re doing, but it’s not our primary or only focus. We want to have a generic plane set to recreate a variety of aerial battles that took place over Western Europe in that year, and the 262 is certainly a very good airplane for that.
With DCS, creating aircraft is a very expensive and time-consuming business. Even creating sub-variants of existing aircraft is extremely complicated. That is why we cannot make a plane set specifically tailored for any one historical battle. If we did that, moving on to Market Garden or Ardennes would require a huge effort. With a more generic set of planes, we can cover more ground.
However, the main reason for the Me.262 being the next immediate stretch goal is that we’re already doing half the work for it in the base tier. All aircraft in DCS contain three parts: the external model, the cockpit model, and the programming. A plane without a cockpit can still be flown by AI. That’s what the 262 will be in the initial release if we don’t hit any stretch goals: a troublesome enemy that makes defending bombers really challenging. Adding a cockpit to it and making it player controllable is not as big of a task as making an entire new plane from scratch. So, the Me.262 is the cheapest and the quickest new plane we can add to the base project, and therefore the most reachable stretch goal we can do.
RPS: The EDGE engine looks splendid. Do you think it's going to make piloting easier... more naturalistic?
Ilya: Yes we do. There is something intangible about the feeling of flight you get from terrain. Objects of proper scale, various small details, grass, trees, all that background noise, proper colors, all create that subconscious feeling of being there. It also makes it possible to gauge your airspeed and altitude without glancing at your instrument cluster, another huge advantage.
It takes a tremendous effort to design and perfect, and it’s one of those things you never even notice when it works. It works on a subconscious level by adding various subtle clues that all add up to better immersion.
EDGE, to my knowledge, is the only flight sim terrain engine specifically designed for and tested by real pilots. Proper feeling of flight at all altitudes, realistic-looking airfields, all of that is designed precisely to feel as close to the real thing as possible.
RPS: If none of the stretch goals are reached will all Allied sorties start and finish in the air?
Ilya: No, of course not. Post D-Day the Allies built a huge number of temporary airfields all over the Normandy coast. That’s where the Allied players will be based.
RPS: Will hedge-hopping DCS WWII pilots need to worry about vegetation collisions?
Ilya: My long and painful experience with past projects forces me to add a warning here that all features are subject to change and so on and so forth. And, the answer is yes.
RPS: Do you foresee DCS WWII growing in a similar way to DCS: World? Might we, one day, see third-party aircraft from the likes of Belsimtek, and simple Combined Arms-style tank simming?
Ilya: We hope so. RRG is certainly not taking over the DCS WWII market. We fully understand the value of cooperation, and, as hard as that may be to believe, we care about fan experience more than about anything else. Happy fans equal series longevity. If we sit on DCS WWII by ourselves, we can only make a certain amount of content per year. We do not have the resources to expand the project into all theaters of WWII and cover even all the major aircraft, not to mention all the less important or obscure ones we really enjoyed having in our past projects.
A large 3rd party or even community-run effort to create aircraft, maps, ground objects, etc can and should turn DCS WWII into a comprehensive all-around flight sim that almost has more than any single fan would ever need. That’s our dream.
RPS: Creating single-player campaigns that are both involving and replayable seems to be something the flight sim industry isn't especially good at these days. How are RRG and ED approaching the task?
Ilya: I’ve been doing flight sims for a very long time, and we’ve tried a whole bunch of things over the years. We’ve played with static campaigns; these allow for more immediate wow-factor, but virtually no replay value. We’ve played with dynamic campaigns. These offer nearly unlimited replay value in theory, but in reality begin to feel generic and empty rather quickly. Dynamic campaigns are also a lot more difficult and expensive to create. Bland cookie-cutter missions are perhaps a feature of a poor dynamic campaign engine, but we’ve never had the luxury to create a great big full-featured one. So we won’t try it in Europe 1944.
For now, our solution may not be perfect, but at least it’s novel.We plan to release regular content updates that include new missions and campaigns, some for free, and some for a small cost.
We also plan to work with our community. DCS ships with a powerful campaign and mission editor which allow anyone to create their own single- or multiplayer content. We’ve noticed with our past titles that the quality of some user-made content easily eclipses that of our own. We hope to engage the best of the community and actively promote their content through our official channels, making it available to a larger slice of our player base.
In short, we will have static campaigns. We’ll deal with replayability by consistently releasing new content.
RPS: Disappointed by the last major WW2 flight sim release, some potential backers seem to be hanging back. Do you have any words of reassurance for this group?
Ilya: If there’s one thing we learned from that is that we should not agree to make games cheaper and quicker than we feel we should.
The only reassurance I can add though is that we are making a free-to-play game. If the quality of the initial release is not stellar, we are all out of a job. No one wants that. The reason we’re doing this again, the reason I have my old colleagues back on board, is that we really do feel like we finally, perhaps for the first time in our flight sim development careers, have enough time and money to properly build and test a game.
Finally, we are working with Eagle Dynamics. We are putting their hallowed DCS name on our title. ED has industry-best reputation for quality. There is no reason for them at all to release an inferior product.
RPS: Viewed from the outside, creating high-fidelity light sims looks to be a pretty stressful and high-risk business. What aspects of the process do you find most enjoyable and satisfying?
Ilya: I like planes.
My enjoyment went through several distinct phases. If we’re going to get a bit sentimental here, well, why not.
The very first time I did something concrete was when we were alpha testing Oleg’s first flight sim way back in the year 2000. I remember sending a bunch of suggestions, then launching the next build and suddenly seeing my corrections right there in the game. Having tangible input on a project of that scale and quality just blew my mind.
I just surfed that rush for the next couple of years. My involvement with the project grew, and I ran a site that managed all 3rd party mods for the title, an effort that took more time than my full-time paying job. It completely devoured me, and I enjoyed every second of it. I just really enjoyed seeing the progression of an aircraft from a blueprint to a vague 3D shape to a beautiful textured model and finally to a roaring in-game war machine.
My role continued to expand and by around 2003 I was basically allowed to steer the ship. That gave me a new thrill. I realized that I was creating entire worlds. I could just point at some idea and say “let’s do this”. Then all these people were suddenly working to implement my vision. A few months later, my vague fantasy suddenly became something tangible, something that existed on its own. It’s such a complex emotion I’m having a hard time putting it into words. I felt like I controlled this huge complex machine whose final end-product was my own videogame! The four-year-old in me enjoyed it on one level, while the more grown-up me, I guess, enjoyed the intricacies and ups and downs of being able to put such a complex plan into motion.
Another huge factor, and perhaps the most important one for me, is simply working with friends. We’re a bunch of people who love the same thing, are obsessed with the same idea. We’ve known each other for over a decade. We work well together. We like each other. We have fun. A group of life-long friends who have been through thick and thin, all working together and doing something they truly love, that’s just extremely powerful. And like I said, I just really happen to love WWII aviation. If I had been doing the exact same thing I’m doing except my games were about elves or post-apocalyptic battle mechs, it wouldn’t have been the same.
RPS: Thank you for your time.
The Flare Path Fuchser
Some say you can improve your Foxer skills by eating unripe blackberries and kissing toads. Others believe spending time in the company of Bill Gunston, Ian Hogg and Steven Zaloga is a more reliable path to preeminence. All I know is that this week's collage has a secret theme and the identifier of that theme will get a Flare Path flair point made from toadflax, toad spawn, toadstools, and toad stools.