A few weeks ago, I sat down with a friend of mine over beer, and he told me about his experiences working in a computer store in the 1990s. Our conversation made me realize that there is a large segment of the population under the age of 25 who have never heard of a “computer store” before: a store explicitly dedicated to selling computer hardware and software. The idea of visiting a brick’n'mortar building to purchase a video game, for folks that have grown up with Steam, must be a bizarre anachronism akin to inserting a Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia CD-ROM to look up the capitol of Finland.
What was it like to browse physical shelves of new and used computer games? What happened behind the scenes, among the distributors, store managers and salespeople? How did salespeople persuade customers to buy expensive computer hardware like the Amiga 500, Tandy 1000 and IBM PS/1? In this article, my friend Ray – a father of two and a long time video game devotee – tells me about what it was like working as a hardware and software salesman during the peak of the modern computer revolution in Western Canada.
When I was six years old, my mother worked in an Adult Education Centre – her job was to train and teach adults, usually women who had been living as house wives for most of their lives, how to re-integrate into the workforce. The Adult Education Centre was a stone’s throw from my elementary school at the time, so my sister and I would walk over there and spend the afternoon with my mom after school most days. Sure, getting to spend the afternoon with my mom and sister was always great… but the real reason I went there was my love affair with the single taciturn and sensible IBM PC XT with a monochrome monitor that sat on a table along the wall: It had a game that let me fly a plane.
In this article I explore the different qualities the word “simulation” has, and argue for a more experiential approach to flight. A note to readers: I’d love to hear about your experience with all kinds of flight simulators, because I have intentionally pared it down to just a few here.
Flight Simulation in its Infancy: MSFS 1.0
Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0 was, to my best knowledge, my first computer gaming experience. One of the teachers – when he wasn’t busy – would sit down with us, and patiently point out the controls: left hand on F2 for power, and right hand on the numeric keypad for direction. My sister would hold down F2, and I’d feebly try to point the “plane” down the runway.
I write “plane” pejoratively. The problem with MSFS 1.0 was that the experience of flight was an afterthought – the aircraft never appears on-screen, the field and runway are low-res projections, engine sound is limited to a variable buzz from the PC speaker, and the instruments are the only real indication that something important is happening.
Inevitably, we would careen down the runway and the plane would edge upwards for a second, stall, and land back on the tarmac. Twenty frustrated minutes later, my sister and I would give up and wander over to the Xerox machine and make copies of our hands.
From a gamer’s perspective, I am being unfair: MSFS1.0 was one of the earliest flight sims, and SubLogic’s programming efforts were leaps and bounds ahead of their competitors. But, I think, when you see past the crude graphics and choppy frame rate, you see less a “game” than a spreadsheet.
So the question is: what is being simulated? Should a flight simulator try to simulate the experience of flight, or simulate the mathematics of instrumentation?
Ask anyone that’s flown in the front seats of a smaller aircraft like a Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee: the aircraft is very responsive. A feather touch on the control column pitches down the nose a few degrees, and the tail snaps upright in a single motion… your gut climbs up into your throat, and your head swims for a brief second. The sound of the little engine thrums in the cabin, and penetrates past the David Clark headset that is vacuum-sealed around your ears. As a passenger, I can stare at the instruments and appreciate that there are a dozen things happening simultaneously, but I really don’t know (or care) what they mean. I’m focused on the feeling of flight itself.
A Step Closer: Aces of the Pacific
Fast forward about seven years. Sitting in my uncle and aunt’s office, with a much heftier and sexier machine: an AST Advantage! 386 with a 256-color VGA card. They owned Aces of the Pacific and a CH Products Flightstick Pro. Afternoons were spent gunning down Japanese Zero’s from the cabin of my P-38 Lightning.
The flight model in Aces of the Pacific is pretty responsive. As you’ll see in the video, climbing off of the runway is effortless… the engines rev up to max within a couple seconds, getting up to takeoff speed within five seconds, and once in the air the aircraft snaps left and right as if it were a dragonfly. A real P-38 flies nothing like this. But, I spent months dogfighting and bombing, running missions for both sides of the second World War just to scrape up another hour of time in the cockpit. It was fun.
But when you strip away the art, there wasn’t very much difference between Aces of the Pacific and Wing Commander II. The “simulation” of flight in these flight combat games was so heavily tuned for combat that any semblance of simulation was tossed out the window. Training my 37mm cannon on a Japanese Zero at 8,000 feet wasn’t much different than training up my Broadsword’s Mass Drivers on a Kilrathi Dralthi at Nav 1. Something was lost in the experience of flight in Aces of the Pacific, and it wasn’t until 1995 that Looking Glass Technologies finally got it right. And, to my knowledge, no flight simulator has gotten the experience of flight right since.
What it Really Feels like to Fly: Flight Unlimited
Sitting in my uncle and aunt’s office in 1995, this time with an even beefier Gateway 2000 Pentium 90 that my uncle called “The Ol’ Stove” because the processor alone could heat up a room. But that kind of horsepower was necessary, because Flight Unlimited demanded some pretty serious computing resources.
I sit down in the Pitts Special S2-B and harness up. The view out the front is limited by a handful of gauges, and the wing that tapers across the nose of my little aerobatics plane. Revving up the single engine is a pleasure in itself – it was obviously recorded from a real Pitts Special, and the engine noise changes in pitch and loudness according to its RPMs. The plane lurches forward on the runway, and as I get up to stall speed I notice it start to shimmy back and forth slightly … the wheels are grabbing at the tarmac at different rates, just as I’ve felt in a Cessna 172 as we lift off. A few feet above the runway I experience the “ground effect” – the Pitts floats as if on a cushion due to the increased lift caused by the air pressure being so high close to the tarmac. When I hit climb speed, I pull back hard on the control stick, and the Pitts climbs up into the atmosphere with a metallic groan.
I climb up to 5000 feet for a little fun: the in-game flight instructor is teaching me down to do a “spin” – a forced stall that causes a plane to pitch downward into a corkscrew path. I point the nose up at the sun, cut the engines and hit the left rudder. What happens? My Pitts Special turns to the left and begins to dive, corkscrewing around the left wing. My speed is increasing, and begins to redline the airspeed indictor. I’m “overspeeding” the airframe, and the wind rushing past the wings gives off an eery metallic whine. I don’t want to crash, so I follow the virtual flight instructor’s advice: cut the throttle, apply full rudder in the opposite direction of the spin (in my case, right rudder), and gradually pull back to zero-out my angle of attack. Unbelievably, I recover from the spin, and resume level flight like a pro. And damn, that was fun!
A few minutes later, I do the same spin maneuver and intentionally overspeed the aircraft, and as I careen towards the terrain below, I snap back on the control stick and watch as the forces applied to the fuselage and wings snap the little plane apart. They smash into the ground in a pile of parts that the FAA/NTSB crash investigations teams would have a hard time deciphering. My flight instructor wryly adds a note to the logbook: “Solo flight. Wrecked the plane. We’ll fly in your plane from now on.”
A Pitts Special exploding in the air as the airframe collapses under extreme G-forces
The whole experience, from takeoff to aerobatic techniques to engine noise (or in the case of the engineless sailplane – the whoosh of air around the cabin), is responsive and enveloping. Anyone who has flown in a small aircraft can attest to how different Flight Unlimited is, say, compared to Microsoft Flight Simulator X.
Computational Fluid Dynamics for Dummies
Flight Unlimited was, and is, the first and only flight simulation game to use a completely different flight physics model. An interview with Seamus Blackley (published in CGW Issue #133, August 1995 - I honestly suggest reading the entire article, it is excellent) – the programmer and designer behind the game – reveals the unique values and skills that went into developing an accurate simulation of flight:
When Blackley set out to design this flight simulation, he wanted the armchair pilot to get that “yummy, visceral, fluid feeling that you get when flying a real airplane.” To do that, Blackley and the Flight Unlimited team had to dive head-first into the Navier-Stokes equations, which, according to Blackley, are “horrible, complicated partial differential equations” that model the way a fluid behaves when it moves around a solid object.
Instead of relying upon a Newtonian system of drag coefficients and vector geometry – where an object remains in motion until it meets an equal and opposite force, or a brute-force approach that models flight on huge tables of data generated in wind turbine lab experiments - Flight Unlimited was built on a physics model derived from Computational Fluid Dynamics.
Blackley, a pilot himself and an ex-graduate student in particle physics at the time, turned to computational fluid dynamics because they could model the feeling of flight moreso than the mathematics of movement. And with computers featuring built-in floating-point processors (like the Pentium) and tons of calculation cycles available, it became possible to use CFDs for the first time in a computer game.
So how does Flight Unlimited actually work? First off, the complex sets of Navier-Stokes partial differential equations would allow the game to simulate the effects of air pressure on a fixed wing: when the air pressure above the wing is less than the air pressure below the wing, the air (a fluid) makes the wing buoyant and pushes the airplane up into the air.
That process is complicated enough, but add to it the infinitely complex changes in air pressure over the entire plane:
… the propeller creates turbulence and a torque imbalance; the air eddies and curls as it comes off the back of the wing; the air “sticks” to the surface of the airplane, causing drag; and bumps in the plane’s shape, such as the pilot’s canopy, cause turbulence in the moving air. All of this adds up to one hell of a mathematical nightmare, but all of those little blips in turbulence and pressure are calculated by the Navier-Stokes equations…
…the program must compute the air pressures over the entire surface of the airplane, and convert those pressures into a series of force distributions, which are then used to calculate where and how the plane is moving.
In short, the plane flies through the air because Blackley has simulated an atmosphere in the world that applies air pressure changes to the entire aircraft, and the “control surfaces” of the plane – the rudder, the ailerons, the elevator – all create turbulence and disturbances in the atmosphere that pitch, roll, and lift the plane. A plane feels like a plane because it displaces, and is displaced by, air. As Blackley puts it, “You get everything for free once you get the air’s fluid dynamics right.”
Final Words for Developers
Make no mistake – I’m not arguing for pin-point accurate physics simulation as the key for more immersive and more enjoyable flight simulators (or any other kind of game). In fact, I’ve argued before that we probably should rely a lot less upon “realism” as a central value in most games. The point is that games like Flight Unlimited manage to deliver an enjoyable and visceral flight experience because the developers make the experience, and not the mathematics the core value of the simulator. Developers need to learn to leave the mathematical aspects of games “under the hood” and make them completely subsidiary to the player’s experience. After all, the only thing we have as players is our experience of the game.
I hesitated to write this article at all, because it deals with something very personal and difficult to write about. A few months ago I ordered a watch from David Vigil, the renowned leatherworker whose creations were featured on Kotakutwice, Game Fanatics, among other gaming news networks. A month later, after inquiring about when my gorgeous leather watch would arrive, I got a response that simply said,
I am so very sorry for the delay with everything. I’m running Vigilante Leather while David is in the hospital having emergency treatment for his stomach cancer. He was unable to resolve anything or continue to work due to his illness and was also unable to contact anyone.
David is one of the most ardent supporters of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. He is a leatherworker and craftsman, meaning that every one of his Uncharted creations is meticulously created by hand. He isn’t in this for the money – he is in it for the love of what he does, and the joy that each of his creations brings for Uncharted fans like myself.
David needs our help. He is trying to get treatment for Stage III Stomach Cancer. I recently have had family and friends going through various forms of cancer (all in Canada, where getting cancer treatment is part of our public health care system), and the healing process is extremely taxing on everyone. So you can imagine how awful it is to have to worry about having enough money to just start getting treated.
There are 10 days left in David’s fundraising campaign to get his cancer treated.After seeing the hundreds of thousands of dollars that us gamers put into indie Kickstarter campaigns, the very least we can do is send this guy enough money so he can fucking live. I am putting my money where my mouth is, and I’m skipping my Christmas vacation this year so I can afford to send him a good hunk of cash today, along with my best wishes for his recovery.
So if you want to save someone’s life – save someone that loves games as much as you do, an artist who has devoted himself to gaming culture, and a damned friendly and caring guy – you have your chance to make a real actual difference. Donate anything you can afford, or not afford.
Can’t afford to donate? Then just spread the word by posting a link to his Save the Vigilante Indiegogo Campaign, and eventually we’ll reach enough people to make this happen. Anything helps.
Recently, Kyttaro Games ran a new indie game bundle project, this time focusing on space-themed games. Kyttaro had ran an adventure-themed bundle earlier, so I was interested in understanding the process of putting together these bundles.Indie games are notoriously different in their styles and amount of polish, so building a bundle with a theme seems like an extremely difficult prospect to me. I took this as an opportunity to ask Gnome of The Gnome’s Lair about the Deep Space Bundle.
“Lend me your wings, bird. I’ll spread them and fly on the thermals.” – Stephen King, The Gunslinger
“Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars
When I first stepped out delicately into the dune, my foot sunk in past my ankles. This was not the hardscrabble of a wind-raked wasteland, nor the moist bleached sand of coral beaches. It was the sand that Frank Herbert imagined in Dune, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry recollected in his Wind, Sand and Stars. The kind of sand that welcomes your toes in, a finely sifted sugar.
The Elementary Particles 0f Emotion
What makes Journey stand apart from other games that have made the natural environment central to the experience (i.e. Fallout 3, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the Mass Effect series) are the ways in which rich colours, luscious landscapes and pliable terrain serve to ground the player’s feelings. Thatgamecompany’s attention to the landscape comes as no surprise – both Flower and Cloud invite the player to delight in repainting and reshaping the earth and sky, turning a drab scene into a visual and audial bouquet. But, like Flower, not all of the environments are cheerful and bright… Journey makes room for the industrial, the cold, and the ominous. But in each landscape, whether carried into the sky by the strong and dry simooms that whoosh through the hot desert, or struggling against the bitter katabatic winds that rush down from the mountain peaks and flatten me to the ground, each kind of experience is tightly wound around a cluster of feelings. Warm, flight, playful. Cold, march, laborious. Each element, earth, sky, water, and fire, express the elementary nature of our feelings by showing how the terrestrial comforts of the sand are inexorably intertwined with the joyful airiness of the sky. We need both lightness and heaviness, and warmth and cold, to be complete human beings.
A Different Understanding of Multiplayer
But, as many have pointed out, the game offers a new kind of multi-player experience. When I explore the landscape, I inevitably run into other people. At times, Journey randomly selects one other PSN player and injects them into the same landscape as I, and we are free to explore the lands together (or not). By whittling communication down to the expressive cry – a single musical morpheme – players can ‘sing’ to one another. As I run and fly through the lands with my anonymous play partner, I cannot contain the peculiar smile that erupts on my face: we are managing to communicate with one another using the primordial languages of human and animal expression alike… singing, dancing, gesturing, and gliding like whirling dervishes. The Endless Forest is the only game that offers a comparable kind of experience.
If Journey is poetry-prose that explores the long march from childhood to death through the four elements, then Thatgamecompany has managed to dig deeper into truly human existence than any other game I can think of. Sure, Journey can be broken down into game mechanics, architecture, plot elements and characters, but ultimately the experience it offers involve primeval feelings, and those who will inexorably analyze the game will miss the point. Games like Journey beckon gamers towards a deeper appreciation for what is basic to human life; I hope invites developers and game writers to work towards understanding gaming as an inherently human experience.
I’m walking down a long hallway in The Citadel, and I’m waved over by reporter Emily Wong. She wants some information on a local crime lord, and I’ve got some data on the guy that would give her a scoop. I hesitate at first, unsure of her motivations, but I eventually give in and I’m rewarded handsomely for the data. Not only does she transfer some credits my way, but I (Commander Shepherd) agree to giving her some juicy exclusive interviews. These interviews will put my name on the galactic map. Sweet.
Sadly, we face an almost identical ethical problem in the indie games industry, as I do in Mass Effect.
Diogo Ribeiro’s excellent article The “Indie” Challenge, if you have not read it already, presents an excellent overview of the challenges independent developers face when trying to get their games into players’ hands. Diogo singles out the all-too-cozy relationship between AAA developers, publishers and the writers/editors of large gaming networks, as a serious barrier for indie developers getting their games promoted. The article tugs at a lot of issues dear to us gamers and writers: the ‘us and them’ attitude that pervades ‘indie vs. mainstream’ industries, the ethics of game promotion and reviewing, and the perception of indie games as rarely something more than time wasting devices.
As an outsider to the games industry and journalism, I really appreciate Diogo’s strong insider knowledge of those domains. There is a lot of good information here for the indie seeking to get their newest creation out into the market:
Your first email to either should avoid looking like a typical press release. Don’t bother with terms like “cutting edge” – you’re supposed to be talking about games, not fax paper. Focus on the strengths of your game. If it sports a concept never seen before in videogames – a very rare thing, mind you – extol those virtues. If it uses traditional play mechanics with a novel twist, don’t be shy about making comparisons. “All the action of Gears of War with the ovine satisfaction of Sheep!”….
Obviously, this is critical for people trying to make a living out of game development, and I agree with everything he has to say here. But I see an extreme danger in this promotion-driven approach to game development. Herein lies the great danger:
Introversion is a case study for several reasons, but to me the most important one is they cared about one thing that most indie devs don’t – they gave as much emphasis on promoting themselves as they did creating their game. Why aren’t you doing the same, indies?
Is it true that indie developers should be spending as much time on promoting themselves as they did in creating their game? Of course there are obvious financial benefits to heavily promoting your indie game, but what kinds of costs come with a promotion-heavy approach?
The indie world depends very much upon the goodwill, honesty and free time of people who have very little financial benefit from reviewing or promoting your game. I have never received a penny from Rastek (Wither), Jenova Chen (Flower), Markus Persson (Minecraft), Anthony Flack (Cletus Clay), or Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey (The Endless Forest). None of these people asked me to write about their games. I chose to write about these little games (some of which became big games) because they were not promoted, because they were unknown, and because these creations impressed me completely on their own terms. When I get a request to review/promote a game, even if it is heartfelt and personal, my interest immediately sinks. People like me who write about games are not interested in being used as extensions of the advertising industry; asking me to promote your game is a very good way of alienating me from your creation. Real writers are their own source of inspiration; they don’t need your one-liner press kits.
There is another ethical consideration at play here. Diogo mentions fellow Canadian Phil Fish, whose game recently won a major award at the 2012 Independent Games Festival. Diogo writes,
Fez is an indie game that’s been in development for five years but continuous interaction with fans and trailers that highlighted the core gameplay, along with improvements to the game engine, went a long way to maintaining curiosity about Phil Fish’s game.
True. And it is also true that Fez precipitated a major ethical crisis at the GDC this year, when Phil Fish entered his game for a second time into the same competition purely out of self-interest (Note: I am not singling out Phil Fish – he seems like a decent enough guy, I’m just using this as a recent example). His appearance in Indie Game: The Movie similarly reveals the indie games’ industry’s sad history of shameless self-promotion, endless navel gazing and cult-of-the-celebritization. In The Competition: The Story Behind the IGF’s Critics Brendy Caldwell does a great job of summarizing the controversy here,
… in 2008, Fez won in the Excellence in Visual Arts category at the IGF. It certainly is a lovely looking game, I can personally testify to that. In 2012 it remains unreleased and subsequently re-enters the IGF for that year (and is eventually nominated for both the Technical Excellence award and the Seamus McNally Grand Prize).
Fez went on to win the Seamus McNally Grand Prize, worth $30,000 USD.
So what is the danger here? What’s wrong with a guy who shows off his little game?
The controversy helped to fuel a new ecology for what I call ‘moral entrepreneurs’… journalists, developers and nobodies who use moral crises as ways of promoting themselves (I won’t mention any names here). There was a massive backlash to Phil Fish’s promotion strategy, and instead of focusing on the issues at hand and the games we care about, moral opportunists used this crisis as a ripe opportunity to viciously personally attack Phil Fish, and in so doing draw attention to themselves.
I do not see the public value that is served in self-promotion. Easy-to-chew sound-bites and one-liners, hastily injected into press kits, 0nly serve to devalue gaming as a whole. When a developer encourages a game site (or magazine) to use ready-made text, this discourages independent thought. Needing to railroad a writer into a particular view of your game is, to me, evidence that your game probably sucks. Worse, videos like Anthony Carboni’s recent sycophantic interviews with indie developers do nothing to improve the perception that indie developers are in bed with the media; instead suggesting that journalists are more interested in basking in reflected glory than critical and honest evaluations of games.
All of the work that hard-working people like Phil Fish put into their promotion strategy is time that could have been used in making a better game. Appearing at industry events like the GDC may be a requirement for AAA publishers, but I fail to see how attending the Independent Games Festival makes your game any more playable. When I attended the IGF/GDC in 2009, there was no time for developers and players to have a meaningful conversation. When you approach an IGF booth, you wait in line for 10 minutes and play for a few minutes – then you ask a few cursory questions about the game with the developer, and make room for someone else to play. The IGF is all about promotion and is not about tuning gameplay, just the Oscars don’t help people make better films.
Aggressively promoting your game puts you personally into ethically dangerous waters. There is nothing worse than seeing a great game get shunned because its developer made a serious (or minor) error in judgement when dealing with the press. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard players promise that they’d never buy a game from ________________ because the developer accidentally said something morally questionable in an interview.
A Quality-Driven Approach to Promotion
Instead of thinking from a marketing perspective, I think that the marketing perspective needs to become the outcome of careful design and play-testing. Indie developers have to stop thinking with dollar signs in their eyes, stop thinking about how their game will serve to stroke their ego, and start thinking about whether their game even deserves to be promoted at all. This is an overgeneralization, but many games like Minecraft sold well because they were great games. We will still be talking about Minecraft in ten years, but we won’t be talking about games like Super Meat Boy in one year. Why? Because Minecraft was developed with the care and love that comes with slow and incremental design that emerged over years; it did not rely upon self-promotion. People love Minecraft because of the breadth and depth of its gameplay, not because of a superficial retroesque charm… such as the meaningless gameplay of Super Meat Boy.
Here are some lessons we might learn from a quality-driven approach:
Your game can succeed on the basis of its expressive qualities alone; let real writers do their jobs to find you.
Ever seen how much money it costs to attend the GDC or IGF? Aping publishers who aggressively market their games costs a lot of time and money. Perhaps that time is better spent focusing and improving on your game.
Develop close, honest and respectful relationships with your fellow developers and community of gamers. These are the people who will give you the shirts off their backs, and do anything to see your little creation survive in the wilderness of the industry.
As Ben Ruiz said at a recent GDC presentation, “quit being so fucking egocentric.” The whole notion of “independent” in indie games is a complete falsification of the truth. There is no such thing as independent game development – there is only interdependent game development. You need your fellow developers and gamers as much as they need you; the games industry is a very large ecology with many niches. Instead of playing your personal creation off over and against AAA developers, and cultivating your own ego, why not see how AAA developers and their games can help to improve your project?
Obviously, these are pretty polemic issues. I don’t mean to oversimplify the marketing difficulties that indie developers face, but I hope to at least point out that marketing and promotion bring up ethical problems that the industry has not addressed. And by ignoring these ethical issues, indie developers are only inviting the kinds of problems that AAA publishers are already faced with.
I’d like to hear what you’ve got to say about this, whether you’re an indie developer, AAA developer, gamer, journalist, or someone else.