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Interview with Andy Hollis: Executive Producer for Janes F15

by Leonard "Viking1" Hjalmarson

Janes F15

"Suspension of disbelief" is a hot phrase in PC simulations. Some key elements of suspension of disbelief are communications and interaction with other elements, object modelling and graphics detail, realism in weapons, systems and physics, and the campaign structure. Most developers have moved in the direction of a dynamic campaign structure to give the illusion of a real time environment.

Late in 1997 Origin Skunkworks and Janes Combat Simulations released one of the finest examples we have yet seen of a combat flight simulation. The dynamic environment of Longbow 2, combined with excellent graphics, careful attention to detail, and high levels of realism in virtually every area of the simulation led us to award Longbow 2 "Simulation of the Year." Now Andy Hollis and crew are getting ready to unleash their latest and FIRST simulation from the Maryland Skunkworks in Janes F15.

Csim: Thanks for making the time Andy! And congratulations on raising the bar for 1998 with Longbow 2. Its a fabulous piece of work and we're looking forward to the same standard in F15. Tell us about the team behind Janes' latest.

Andy: We are very fortunate to have rounded up a great group of very experienced sim developers, with a solid pedigree. These are the movers and shakers behind such well-known simulations as Gunship, F19 Stealth Fighter, F15 Strike Eagle II & III, F14 Fleet Defender, Task Force 1942, 1942 Pacific Air War, and Across The Rhine. They have toiled tirelessly for over two years with a singular focus on creating the definitive jet combat simulator, one that can be enjoyed by a wide range of players. These guys live and breath military aircraft and one step into the Baltimore offices of Origin will give you an understanding of that. In the end, a great product comes not from a great idea, but from a great team. Check out Jane's F15 and see what I mean.

Csim: After the hectic pace of Longbow you deserve some time off, but I bet the team working on F15 has a pretty good head of steam! Where are they in the process at this point?

Andy: Jane's F15 is solidly in Beta. Everything works. We are just putting the finishing touches on it and doing lots of tweaking of the gameplay.

Csim: You have a lot of history with the F15. Tell us about it.

Andy: Well, in a previous life, I had a little something to do with a couple of sims called F15 Strike Eagle II and III, both developed for the IBM PC. The first of these was finished in 1989, and was the first 256-color flight sim on the market. For those days, given that it had to run on an 8088 processor, it was quite realistic, but was more akin to today's "sim-lites". F15 III, which shipped just before Christmas of 1992, was a major breakthrough in realism for combat flight sims. The avionics of the F15E were modeled with obsessive accuracy, and the flight model was developed in conjunction with a real F15 pilot.

It was also the first with fully textured terrain and featured a scrollable virtual cockpit. It also broke new ground in multi-player, supporting two modes of cooperative play (front-seat/back-seat and pilot/wingman) in addition to the traditional head-to-head dogfighting. Finally, it set a new standard for scalability of gameplay to appeal to a broad range of players through its infinitely customizable realism and difficulty settings. Jane's F15 has a clear spiritual ancestor in these products.

Janes F15

Csim: What are the features of the F15 that make it one of your favorites?

Andy: First and foremost is that the F15E is one of the US Air Force's preeminent strike aircraft (the other being the F-117A). When something critical just *has* to be destroyed, the F15E is the aircraft for the job, particularly when the striker may have to defend himself. Being a dual-role fighter, the F15E can defend itself quite effectively against air threats, just as easily as it can be utilized to deliver ordnance on a target with pinpoint accuracy. In short, it is the complete fighter aircraft with a huge variety of mission types.

The F15E is also a currently operational aircraft, which means there are real pilots flying the plane, at real airbases around the world, many times in harm's way. This aircraft has a tremendous combat legacy from Desert Storm, being the only aircraft that was consistently successful in striking targets in all kinds of weather, anytime of the day or night, and being able to fight its way in or out. The F15E is as "cosmic" as it gets from a technology standpoint, and has proven its worth and that of its aircrews in protecting our country's interests around the world.

Csim: When you came to Origin was a new F15 sim already in your mind?

Andy: Certainly any line of combat simulations products needs a jet sim. Initially, though, we were looking more to the US Navy's F/A-18. The Hornet has a similar dual-role ability to the F15E, but is not quite as capable. Given that it has to takeoff and land on a carrier, the F/A-18 is somewhat limited in combat radius and overall ordnance capability. It also has not had as stellar of a combat legacy as has the F15E, particularly in Desert Storm. Given that, and the time that has passed since the last Strike Eagle sim, we switched over to the F15E.

Csim: What are key differences in direction in this new simulation over past attempts?

Andy: In many ways, this sim is not an attempt at revolution. It is, instead, an evolutionary combination of the most important aspects of jet combat taken to an obsessive level of authenticity and immersion. At Jane's we don't do "marketing checkbox" products, where you attempt to do everything but fail to anything well. Instead, we choose a set of features, do them well, and push the state-of-the-art in those areas. With Jane's F15, those areas are: Flight modeling, avionics, 3D graphics, campaigns, and accessible/configurable gameplay. It is a very complete package.

Csim: Are you aiming for the definitive F15 simulation, and what are some of the challenges you face?

Andy: "Definitive" is what we do at the Jane's SkunkWorks. The biggest challenges have been finding enough time to get it all done. And the corollary to that is knowing when to stop. We have an incredibly talented and creative team working on this project, with a long history of successful simulations products on their resumes. Each day these people come up with more and more cool ideas, and each day the hardware platform we develop on gets more and more capable. The trick is knowing what ideas to keep and which to leave for another day. Oh, what we could do with just another day...!

Csim: Tell us more about the AI system we'll see in F15. And can you relate it to the system in place in the Flash Point addition to the original Longbow?

Andy: First off, relating things directly to Longbow is probably not a good idea, since that sim is based on a battlefield scope. F15 is a theater-wide conflict and has to reflect that huge scope in the way it does things. Things happen in a similar way within F15, but on a much grander scale. It is a very sophisticated system and would take many pages to describe, but here's a flavor of some elements:

All of the enemy air defense emplacements are connected via a hierarchical integrated communications network. This models the Soviet-style training and doctrine that is employed by the adversaries in this simulation. If you just knock out a single missile launcher in a SAM site, that site can still launch at you. If, instead, you take out the tracking radar unit, that entire site is useless.

Similarly, if you are detected by one SAM site, others nearby will be moved to a higher state of alert, making your continued forward progress more difficult. If you take out the communications centers, though, these sites cannot share this detection information and each will have to act alone. Communication is key to the enemy's effectiveness and should direct your strategy for disabling it.

F15 Target

Detection is by Ground Control Intercept radars and can also cause enemy planes to be vectored on your last known location. You might also be detected by planes that are already out on patrol. In any of these situations, groups of planes will work together to break down your strike package, and destroy all elements of it. If they detect you beyond visual range, they will try and take you out via clever long-range tactics. On the other hand, if the fight gets up close and personal, planes will transition into specific dogfighting AI, which will employ a variety of techniques to get you in their sights.

In addition to all of this, you'll find lots of things going on in the world: strike packages out on missions, patrol aircraft doing their thing, Search and Rescue platforms responding to downed aircraft, etc. Its a big world and you are just one part of it.

Csim: Detail in treatment is the hallmark of the Longbow series. From what we have heard about F15 we can expect this same attention to detail. Tell us about the work going into avionics and weapons systems modelling.

Andy: The first thing to note is that the guy programming the avionics used to do this sort of thing for a defense contractor. As such, he only knows one way to do it: the realistic way. We've modeled all of the systems of the F15E with painstaking fidelity and completeness. All of the APG-70's air-to-air radar modes and sub-modes are there, with all four auto-acquisition presets. The F15E's synthetic aperture air-to-ground radar has the correct interactive real-time Real Beam Map display, with appropriate constraints on its usage for creating high-resolution patch maps. These are used for pinpoint targeting of specific objects. (Click on the image at left for a high res CombatSim exclusive -105K).

F15 Cockpit and Terrain

In addition, there are over 30 different kinds of ordnance that are correctly simulated, with all of the appropriate employment methods. Slewable Maverick and GBU-15 video is there, as is use of the nav and targeting FLIR pods. Oh, and did I mention that the MPD's were programmable? Yes, just like the real thing, you can customize (and save) your avionics setup for your personal taste.

All of this detail is actually easier to use now, when compared to older simulations, because of the "clickable" cockpit interface. Everything in the cockpit works which means you no longer have to memorize long lists of keystrokes and can just click the MPD buttons to change radar modes, ranges, display settings, etc. Of course, you can always map commonly used functions to keys as you see fit.

F15 V Cockpit

Csim: Comms is suddenly being given a great deal more attention in simulations like if22 and f22:adf. Will F15E break new ground in this area as well? Will the player be able to feel that he is in an interactive communication environment even in single player mode?

Andy: There is an amazing amount of information coming to you from your radio. Forward Air Controllers calling targets to you in a "Kill Box", downed pilots calling for Search and Rescue help, other members of your strike package calling for coordination instructions, and even the control tower given you the proper clearances for takeoff. Its all there and then some.

Csim: Will we have interaction with AWACS and JSTARS and FACs?

Andy: Absolutely. For example: AWACs can be called upon for a "picture" of the area at any time. JSTARs may vector you to a new target mid-mission, just as FAC's will direct you to targets of opportunity along the "Highway of Death".

Go to Part II

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