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.
For the last five years, I’ve collected all sorts of retro computers and console hardware, everything from a sleek and compact Apple //c to a classy Amiga 1000 to a venerable Game Boy Color. I originally thought that each system would take its place in a monstrous basement boycave full of ye olde games of yesteryear, but the reality of work and family has more or less eradicated that dream. So, instead, I thought I would have some fun as I give away, sell off, and trash some of the systems that have collected dust in my basement over the years.
“My son. He’s such a geek”, my mother ribbed at me in her familiar Québéçoise accent. She flipped over the jewel case in my hands and looked at the back cover, and shook her head.
I looked up at the cashier, my eyes pleading for some way out of this. She giggled instead, and I blushed. I gave my mother an “Aw mom!” look.
I was 15 years old, and we were standing at the checkout of a London Drugs store in the city. The store carried everything, from diapers and bee-sting kits, to Polaroid cameras and Froot Loops. I was here for the computer games.
The back of the store had a bargain shelf lined with computer games..most of them were crap shareware titles like PKWare Utilities and the occasional decent Crazy Nick’s Software Picks: Robin Hood’s Game of Skill and Chance. Among the rows of CD’s and floppies, a Dynamix logo on a white jewel case caught my eye. It was a game I had never heard of before, and it was on CD-ROM! A talkie adventure game. For $19.99. I rescued The Adventures of Willy Beamish from the shelf and carried it back to the cashier like a sacrificial offering.
At the time, my mother didn’t understand. She probably hoped that my crazy obsession with games would pass.. along with saturday morning cartoons and remote control cars. Or maybe she thought it was just another game that I would play for a couple of hours and lose interest in.
But it was a Sierra game. It had Sierra artwork and Sierra music. I played Willy Beamish for months. I relished the stunning artwork and expressive animation. I had never seen a game before – other than Dragon’s Lair – that had every character hand-animated in each scene (instead of using a repeated walk animation). The rich (256) colour palette rotated with night and day. For a nerdy fifteen year-old living on a farm in the middle of nowhere, Willy Beamish’s little suburban neighbourhood and treehouse was a real place to hide out in. The art, the animation, the music and voices, all conspired to create a place for daydreaming.
Fast-forward 15 years. I get a call from a friend of mine, Eriq Chang, whose artwork I featured in an article some time ago. Apparently – for several years – Sierra enthusiasts Brandon Klassen and Eriq Chang, have been secretly working on an Art Book that tells the graphical history of Sierra On-Line adventure games. Eriq would not tell me any more than “we’ll send you some teasers before launch.”
In this article, Brandon Klassen tells us just what The Art of Sierra is, and what the project means for him personally. Brandon and Eriq have generously sent me two promotional teaser shots of the upcoming book (included, see below), and let me tell you: I can’t fucking wait.
Lurking quietly in the background of almost all side-scrolling adventure/puzzle games today, are the two giants of my childhood: Jordan Mechner and Éric Chahi (and I would add a third: David Crane, and a fourth: Paul Cuisset!). Mechner, the auteur of Karateka, Prince of Persia, and The Last Express among others. Chahi, the creator of Another World (Out of this World) and Heart of Darkness. Although it is easy to come up with visual or gameplay similarities between both developers, Dieubussy of the CoreGaming network puts it just right: Jordan Mechner and Eric Chahi’s games are part of the same spiritual nexus that cannot be reduced to a single game element. Anyone who plays the aforementioned games, whether they like them or not, has to be astounded at the highly focussed and concentrated design efforts involved. Rather than depicting (or representing) the narrative and environments through photorealistic visual styles, both authors refined subtler and more suggestive/evocative visual styles. The best adjective that I could use to describe their games is “strong”.
A developer himself, Eric Viennot has interviewed Chahi and Mechner, each answering the same question. It is an interesting opportunity to see how two authors who may share a spiritual style, living on opposite sides of the ocean, come up with different answers. I firmly believe that a game can (and must!) be understood and enjoyed without referring to the life of the artist or their opinion, but for those who have already played their games and admire their artistic styles, the interview is a goldmine. This is part of a series of interviews that Viennot has done of the giants of gaming… a prior interview between Frédérick Raynal (Alone in the Dark) and Paul Cuisset (Flashback: The Quest for Identity) is just as fascinating. I hope that you can read French – if not, try out one of the various translators (Google translate seems to do an okay job)… otherwise, Gamasutra is in the midst of translating the latest interview into english.
Although many of you probably did not grow up in the 80s with text-based and graphical adventure games, my sister and I did. We practically grew up on a steady diet of King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, and Space Quest games. The days of huddling in front of the 13″ VGA monitor and solving puzzles together are gone. My sister lives an entire continent away, and we don’t play games together much anymore. Until today, that is.
Which would you prefer more: A) being able to play your favourite Sierra On-Line adventure games in a web browser?
or B) being able to play those games in a multiplayer environment?
Much in the spirit of Jet Set Willy Online, this means that you can now play a handful of Sierra’s old adventure games in a browser-based multiplayer environment. Imagine having 100 Roger Wilco’s walking around, exploring the Arcada. Imagine solving puzzles in The Black Cauldron with a friend 1000 miles away.
And all done by one guy (with the help of a friend). Spectacular.
So head over to Sarien.net if you have a chance and enjoy the ride. The only thing I’d love to see would be names above the avatars (so we can identify each other) and perhaps picking different colors for our characters. It gets tough figuring out who’s who on a screenful of Roger Wilco’s.