by Leonard "Viking1" Hjalmarson
Csim: What will we see for command structures with wingmen? How much control will we have over our flight?
Andy: The system is hierarchical, similar to EF2000. You first select the recipient (or group of recipients), then the category of command, then the specific command. Since you can command up to an eight-ship package, you'll have control over different control groups (flight, element, division, wingman). In addition, any specific command can be programmed to a hotkey or joystick button, for quick access.
Csim: I vaguely recall something about the immersion factor and new directions in involving the player with his squadron. What are the goals in that area?
Andy: We've spent a lot of time with real F15E aircrews at their bases, in their sims, and hanging around/on/in their planes. The influence of this time on the creative efforts of the team cannot be underestimated. The obvious things are the photo-realistic collage style of USAF artwork and animation that the player is immersed in when he first starts the game. Players will take on the role of commander of a real F15E squadron (complete with actual squadron histories). In the campaigns, you will take your squadron through a series of missions, with limited numbers of airframes and aircrews. You will be challenged with the same historical weapons shortages as were the real squadrons in Desert Storm.
Csim: The flight modelling has been written up already, and generated a great deal of excitement! When did you decide to go for broke? Has this approach been on the burner for a while?
Andy: The flight model was one of the first things we did on the game two years ago and it has been tweaked more and more ever since. We decided to "go for broke" right up front and have worked on this aspect for the entire development cycle to get it right. It is based on the same set of formulas that the USAF's commercial grade simulators use called DATCOM. That flight model was then fed stability and control derivative data that we have obtained from NASA wind-tunnel tests and other official USAF sources.
Then we modelled the F15E's computer augmented flight control system which smooths out certain irregularities of flight. Finally, because no theoretical model is perfect, we went the extra step to work with real F15 pilots to tweak the simulation to perfection.
F15's campaign system is a hybrid. For variety within the mission, things happen differently every time that mission "shell" gets played out. Bad guys come from different places, some things may happen this time, some may not. And the combinations of all these variables make playing the same mission shell completely different every time. Next, there are a variety of mission shells that can be selected from by the campaign director as the campaign progresses. These will depend on a variety of elements which describe how the campaign is progressing overall, and some times the decision will just be arbitrary. Again, more variety, but with a definite sense of cause-and-effect.
Csim: Will AI pilots use the same flight model? Will enemy pilots have the same limitations as the virtual pilot?
Andy: AI pilots will not use the same model because of the intense calculations necessary for it. There are just too many other planes out there in the theater for us to do this. That said, our AI flight model is quite good and will not give the AI bogeys any advantage or disadvantage over the human player.
Csim: I understand that the F15 is a fuel hog with small reserves. Are you modelling IFR (in flight refueling)?
Andy: In-flight refueling is there in a big way, and you'll need to use it for those deep strike missions. You'll rendezvous with the tanker, make the correct radio call, line up with the boom, fly the plane into the "box" aided by the lights on the tanker and the radio calls of the boom operator, and then hold position while the boom operator flies the boom into your receptacle. Or, if you find all of that to be too much of a challenge, you can just press the Auto-refuel key to watch the computer do it for you.
Csim: Tell us about the structure of the campaign. Where is it set? Is there more than one campaign? How will a player progress?
Andy: There are two campaigns. One reflects the aircraft's amazing combat legacy during Desert Storm with the player taking their squadron through the painstakingly recreated missions from the actual conflict. From the deep strikes of the early days, to scud-hunting in Western Iraq, through tank-plinking over the Republican Guard and finally on to the final hours on the Highway of Death. Relive this war in a way you never could before.
The second campaign is hypothetical, taking place over the Persian Gulf and southern Iran. This gives the player a chance to experience some of the more rugged mountainous areas of the region, and the coastlines and islands of the Persian Gulf. Depending on the dynamics of any iteration, you may find yourself defending against an Iranian offensive across the Straits of Hormuz, or attacking deep into Iranian territory, or defending your base in Bahrain against an Iranian counter-offensive, or trying to thwart Iranian missile boats attacks on US Naval assets. Its all there and more...
Csim: I've already been fielding questions on F15 around dynamic vs semi dynamic campaign AI. What will connect the missions? Where is F15 going in this department and why?
Andy: F15's campaign system is very dynamic. It also is not like any currently existing system, so trying to use labels like "semi-dynamic" or "fully dynamic" as people have come to use them would be inaccurate. The goal of a dynamic campaign is to provide a compelling series of missions that combine together to provide a sense of : 1) overall purpose, 2) progress and cause/effect due to the player's actions, 3) being part of a much larger world, where the actions of others have causal effect, not just your own, and 4) continuity through resource management (planes, ordnance, aircrews) and world integrity (dead things stay dead and regenerate over time as appropriate). The final key element, though, is variety, which provides for replayability and a strong sense of the unexpected. This can be accomplished in more than one way and each way has its advantages and disadvantages.
The "fully dynamic" approach that is in vogue right now obviously does a good job of each of these things when it is executed well (Yes, Martha, there are bad "fully dynamic" campaigns out there, too. In my opinion, Jane's Longbow 2 was a really good example of executing well on this theme. But then, I am biased. ;-)
The typical flip-side of fully dynamic, though, is that the kinds of mission types tend to be more generic, and the subtleties that a human mission designer can come up with are not implemented by the algorithmic mission/campaign generator. In LB2, this was alleviated somewhat by the "special case" hand-crafted missions that came up once in a while. This added a heightened sense of "what is possible" within the game world.
The other interesting learning from LB2 has been to watch people's reactions to the hand-crafted single missions. People seem to be having more fun with these on a per-mission basis than with a single campaign mission. Why? Because of the cleverness and diligence of the human mission designer. Would a computer ever have generated the ambush scenario, complete with digital speech of bad-guys impersonating good guys? Nope.
So, hand-crafted missions have a lot to offer, especially when combined into a branching style of campaign. A good example of this was with Flash Point Korea (available also in LBGold). The missions themselves are generally more compelling than that generated by a campaign generator, even a really good one. The big flip-sides on branching campaigns are 1) When allowed, players tend to only ever run the "winning" side, choosing to replay until they win a mission, then move on, thus making a lot of designer work go for naught, 2) There is less replayability, variety, and sense of suspense typically in this type of structure. Its like a movie with a familiar plotline or where someone told you the outcome.
So, what's another good direction? F15's campaign system is yet another hybrid. For variety within the mission, things happen differently every time that mission "shell" gets played out. Bad guys come from different places, some things may happen this time, some may not. And the combinations of all these variables make playing the same mission shell completely different every time. Next, there are a variety of mission shells that can be selected from by the campaign director as the campaign progresses. These will depend on a variety of elements which describe how the campaign is progressing overall, and some times the decision will just be arbitrary. Again, more variety, but with a definite sense of cause-and-effect.
Finally, missions are not in a tree. Nor is it a bush. Or any other kind of structure you may be familiar with. There are a collection of whole campaign phase possibilities (groups of mission shell possibilities) that may or may not be a part of the actual campaign you will fly. There are a variety of starting phases, and from there, actual performance (with some randomness as well) will determine what phases are chosen from next. There's a whole defining set of logic that dictates what phases can come before and after each other, which ones are prerequisites for others, and finally, which result conditions determine a final outcome.
Just to give you a sense of the scope of this, a single run-through of a full campaign will probably encompass only 25-30% of the total phase possibilities that are built into the campaign system. Given this, and the fact that the ordering of these phases is determined by play outcome, and that the contents of the phases is quite different each time you play, one can get a sense of the huge amount of campaign variety of this system. It positively will not play out the same twice, ever. And not because it is random, but in a plausible sort of way.
In the end, this new system also satisfies the same goals as the one in LB2, but comes from a different approach. As a result, it has a different set of strengths and weaknesses thus giving it a unique character, and we feel that it will serve to push the sim experience in new ways.
Up to eight players can be in the game at once, with the ability to enter and leave on-the-fly. You can fly as a free-for-all or in teams of any size, and there are configurable options for weapons rules and starting positions. Special attention has be placed on keeping everything perfectly synched up, with latency issues tamed through hi-performance smoothing algorithms applied to eliminate the dreaded positional warping seen in many other sims. TCP/IP, IPX/LAN, modem and direct serial are all supported as connection methods.
Csim: Will campaigns for F15E be limited to desert environments? Do you have any plans for a different environment or might we see this in later expansion disks?
Andy: The entire middle east is modeled. That's almost 3 million square miles. In that area is certainly a lot of desert, but there are also mountainous areas in northern and western Iraq and in Iran. In fact, that's one reason why the hypothetical campaign is set there, to give the player the varied scenery of mountains, coastlines, and islands.
Csim: What are your multiplayer goals for F15?
Andy: With multi-player, we chose to concentrate on the most-requested form of play, head-to-head dogfighting, and made it the best it could ever be. Up to eight players can be in the game at once, with the ability to enter and leave on-the-fly. You can fly as a free-for-all or in teams of any size, and there are configurable options for weapons rules and starting positions. Special attention has be placed on keeping everything perfectly synched up, with latency issues tamed through hi-performance smoothing algorithms applied to eliminate the dreaded positional warping seen in many other sims. TCP/IP, IPX/LAN, modem and direct serial are all supported as connection methods.
Csim: Running under 3d hardware we are obviously going to see some incredible terrain. How will you enable players without 3d hardware to access such features?
Andy: F15 was originally programmed without hardware support in mind, so it runs quite well without a 3Dfx card even on today's midrange machines. Almost all of the effects that are available to the 3Dfx player are there for those without the high-end cards. 3Dfx will just make it look even better and run even faster.
Csim: F15 will have optional resource management. Is this structured as in Longbow 2 where a player can choose to play with this level of realism or not?
Andy: Yes. When selected, the campaigns use resource management for airframes, aircrews, and ordnance. Resupply will also occur at appropriate rates.
Csim: In Longbow 2 and 688(I) the mission builder has become quite sophisticated, enabling the player to create very unpredictable scenarios and access some very sophisticated AI. Will we see a similar mission builder in F15? Will we see new features again like the PROFILER we have in Longbow 2?
Andy: The Mission Builder in Jane's F15 is quite incredible, breaking all kinds of new ground. It is one of the basic tools that the team itself has used to create the missions that you see in the game. In addition to unprecedented control over the assets, it allows for a tremendous amount of variety to be placed into a mission shell so that each mission plays out differently every time you try. We fully expect a huge number of quality missions to come from the user community after this game ships.
Csim: Will we see some new enemy platforms like the Su-37?
Andy: You will see over 50 different aircraft. This includes some of the newer Soviet entries ones like the SU-35 and MiG-35, with each plane having its own correct loadout.
Csim: What will be the minimum spec machine?
Andy: Current target minimum is P133, 16MB RAM, 4X CD, joystick, mouse, DirectX-compatible sound card. Recommended is a P200 MMX with a 3Dfx Voodoo card and 32 MB RAM.
Csim: What is the coolest feature of F15?
Andy: The coolest thing is that every day, I find another new feature in the game. The attention to detail and replayability of this product is incredible and will keep people interested in this for a long, long time.
Csim: Thanks for taking the time Andy! We wish you and the team another great success with F15!!
For info on the Real F15
Last Updated February 14th, 1997