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“The Hangar” column

by on Mar.17, 2010, under PC Gaming Columns

Playability vs. realism – flight school 101 or Top Gun? This article was written for Computer Games Strategy Plus in the late 90’s.

Since the advent of PC flight simulations well over a decade and a half ago, the realism versus playability debate has been escalating gradually. In the distant past when flight sims were powered by the early 8086 chipsets, realism was severely limited by the hardware resources available to desktop pilots. With 640k of memory (less the considerable chunk required by the operating system), CGA graphics cards and tinny sound from the internal speaker, it’s no wonder most early flight sims were played as graphically and audibly Spartan arcade games. Over the last few years however, incredible advances have been made in the PC hardware field. Faster and more powerful processors, improved motherboard architecture, high-resolution graphics (and the current “hot technology,” 3D accelerator cards) etc. confer upon simulation designers the means to model a flight sim with the level of detail and exactitude that they would have o­nly been dreaming about in the late 80s. It’s also no exaggeration to say that sim designers are reveling in their newly enhanced medium; from the recent Back to Baghdad and AH-64D Longbow to the upcoming Falcon 4 and Su-27 2.0, highly realistic and complex titles are continuing to pour o­nto the market.

This raises the interesting question: How does a gamer, just entering the flight simulator genre, learn how to master and appreciate these games? o­ne readily gets the impression that game designers are mainly catering to the hardcore flight sim pilot, leaving the inexperienced novice to muddle through a string of arcade or medium complexity sims o­n his own. No realistic simulation exists where a novice pilot is tutored and nurtured through the entire learning process from kicking the tires o­n the tarmac to his first kill. Some designs have made tentative steps in this direction; AH-64D Longbow with tutorial missions complete with voice-overs readily springs to mind, but it can’t be denied that the first concern any designer will have is with realism, leaving the learning curve as a secondary issue. So what can designers do to make their ultra complex titles more accessible to the humble gamer?

Probably the easiest overall solution is to make as much of the game as configurable as possible. Take modern aircraft avionics for example. The modern day aircraft is usually replete with a host of HUDs with differing symbology and MFDs with a dozen or so different modes ranging from ground/air radar to damage status. By allowing the player to choose which avionics suites to utilize from mission to mission he can gradually build up his understanding of these systems as his competence with the sim increases.

Simplified flight dynamics can also ease the burden o­n pilots. Removing some of the energy aspects of flight by allowing “corner velocities” varying from true values, lowering or removing stall speeds and reducing the effects of heavy ordinance upon aircraft angle of attack can all be implemented. This assists new pilots by making their aircraft more responsive to their control inputs.

Artificial Intelligence could also be a configurable quantity but rather than basing it o­n nebulous decisions made by the design team, quantify the various aspects and allow the player to tailor the AI to his wishes. Pilot reaction values, situational awareness skills, maximum G turns, use of the vertical, reflexes etc. could all be individually modeled in a manner similar to Activision’s upcoming Fighter Squadron. Similar endeavors could be made with regard to ground based air-defense parameters.

The tutorials in AH-64D Longbow provide a solid base for learning how to fly an Apache, but why stop there? Why not take this o­ne step further in modern fighter combat simulations and introduce extensive individual and team training missions to hone a player’s skills? As well as basic weapons employment and flight training, have the tutorials show detailed combat tactics such as “bracketing,” or “scissoring.” Avoiding enemy fire is an aspect of flight sims that many new pilots have trouble handling; there’s no reason why missile evasion tactics can’t be simulated with an appropriate interactive mission. Finally, landing an aircraft can become second hand with either your “back seater” or disembodied instructor advising you step by step.

And bring back the detailed flight recorder. o­ne cannot doubt that the ACMI flight recorder found in Falcon 3.0 back in 1992 made de-briefing after a combat mission or training session considerably easier. Indeed, films emphasizing the highs and lows of a fighter pilot’s career were regularly traded across the Internet. Use of the flight recorder would make post-training mission evaluations easier to understand, showing where the pilot could improve his performance.

In essence, a sim that allows players to tinker with as much detail and realism as possible is o­ne that will appeal to a wider cross-section of individuals. The novice player will appreciate the sim for its longevity and playability and the developing player will be continually challenged as his skills improve. As for the hard-core sim jockey; all he has to do is crank up all the options to maximum and fly with the speed of heat!

©1997 Strategy Plus, Inc. (reprinted with permission)

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