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Manifesto: the Perfect Fast Jet Combat Sim
by Mark Doran

or: the project I would like to bankroll if I won the lottery!
or: why Falcon3 Gold with 3D accelerator support, modern networking and a new flight model would sell a million copies, just like that!!

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Foreword:

In the following, all trademarks used or abused are the property of their respective owners. The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may or may not relate to any lasting reality or lack thereof.

The original purpose in writing this was to specify requirements for the perfect fast jet combat sim, or at least my view thereof. The result is more likely a plea to the sim development community to provide more of what we enjoy and explain why some sims just leave sim fans frustrated over wasted potential.

It was not my intent to be provocative with the requirements or the transgressions beyond requirements that have crept in here. However, given how much passion there is in the hardcore flight sim community, it's clear everyone will find something to take issue with in what follows. If you have the stamina and can spend the time to read the entire work, I ask only that you consider incorporating an idea or two into your views on flight sim technology. Drop me an email: I'd love to hear what features you yearn for that aren't covered here.

Objective:

  • Create a multiplayer simulation that draws the participants in to the pilot's eye view of operational tactical aviation squadron level experience.

  • Concentrate on the flying aspects and simulate the training and operational flying that a squadron would perform together. Emphasize two ship operation as the fundamental building block for strike package set up.

  • Provide "peacetime" training, simulating single mission style training analogous to the syllabus used in air force training. Provide Red Flag style Mission Employment phase experience as an advanced training tool.

  • Provide a "wartime" theatre level back drop for squadron level operations in the context of a broader scenario. Make the start conditions somewhat configurable to give a variety to separate campaigns in the same theatre (or provide more than one!) Provide a competitive edge to the sim experience to encourage pilots to be bold but reward real world tactics over virtual-immortality-born bravado.

Most Important Aspects of the Sim:

su27 2

Beyond the broad strokes of the general objective there is potentially a long list of simulated elements that could make up the perfect sim: whenever you get sim pilots talking about their toys, conversations like "if only we had a sim that combined the flight model from A and the graphics from B..." and so it goes on.

Your own list may vary, but the following is one view of the top ten list of features that a sim trying to satisfy the above objectives might provide. If you're still reading this, then some of what follows will probably strike a chord.

In priority order:

  1. Airframe selection
  2. Flight model
  3. Graphics
  4. Avionics
  5. Documentation
  6. Mission planner
  7. Artificial Intelligence
  8. ACMI/TACTS
  9. Campaign engine
  10. Multiplayer support
  11. References/Bibliography

When you are allowed to say "this is the ideal" of course all of the above are important so "priority list" is a bit of a misnomer. Rather, the above really represents the order in which the elements of a perfect sim must come together. They sort of follow the order of events that would take place if you were coming to a new sim of the tactical aviation environment: you learn the ropes solo and graduate to the main event: multiplayer campaign play!

In each case there is probably a break-even point beyond which greater perfection would not add much to the overall product. For example, modelling the avionics to the point where a pilot must run four or five checklists of things just to get the engine started (as in real life) is interesting but probably overkill for all but the most demanding sim fans. Nevertheless there are also thresholds below which a perfect sim (or one approximating the impossible ideal) cannot afford to fall.

Finding this balance while providing some of each of the above is the essence of the perfect sim. Every sim nut has their own idea for where this balance should be so the best we can hope for is a developer that hits the mark for many of us in most of the categories.

The sections that follow take the above elements and try to describe a threshold that the perfect sim must cross, together with some ideas on how to exceed the minimum and really bring a smile to a sim pilot's face.

Airframe selection:

Strike fighters are the only way to go if a single aircraft is all that is planned. This gives the choice of air to air (A-A) as well as air to ground (A-G) for training and campaign scenarios. Like the DoD, we value flexibility from the airframe to maximise investment [footnote: that investment in this case refers not only to dollar value but also to the extensive quantities of time that simmers invest to learn complicated new sim interfaces].

For preference, consider current generation western equipment in or near service. This gives developers a chance of getting good levels of information which is likely to lead to accurate sims. [footnote: Thus, F-16C/D, F-18C/D, F-15E are excellent candidates in service while the F-18E/F, EFA or Rafale are probably the best choices from the soon-to-fly category. F-22 advocates: call again when the Air Force starts flying the "E" model; JAST advocates: it's too far out there to think we'd get a good "simulation" at this stage]

More flexibility again is offered if a sim supplies more than one airframe to fly. This is probably in the above threshold category though.

USNF series did this wrong where the Falcon3 series did it right. Here we're talking about detailed simulation of more than one plane that forces pilots to fly to the strengths of each to extract the best performance. Now if the sim also offers multiplayer adversarial campaign and mission planning as well, we're approaching that perfection icon. footnote: Think of the Mig-29 or Su-27 and their derivatives as perfect foils for NATO strike fighters. Su-27, Tornado and EF2000 have all proved that you don't have to start with US equipment to be successful -- if that's what is chosen simply take the list of US planes as the adversary aircraft request list!]

Flight model:

This is one of the most subjectively judged and yet most critical components in a good flight sim. The aim must be for a feel that makes people believe they are flying a fast jet.

A lot has been written about the absolute accuracy of various flight models but in truth the threshold value for this category is quite low compared to some of the other aspects of a good sim.

For example, consider Falcon3's flight "complex" and hi-fi models. Both have some severe defects when you look at realistic F-16 performance; start with sustained 9G turns in complex and the odd model change between 250-300kts in hi-fi for example. And yet, in their day Falcon3's flight models were not only state of the art, but also more to the point were touted by many fans as being the ones to beat.

Now the state of the art has moved on considerably and expectations have raised the bar right along with the art. Nevertheless the threshold value is well within reach with current offerings. Su-27 offers probably the best high fidelity flight model in a fast jet sim today. However, EF2000 and Hornet3.0 both demonstrate that lesser fidelity can result in a flight model good enough to provide the all important suspension of disbelief.

Make no mistake, however, a sim that doesn't attempt to flight model angle of attack performance in such a way as to require pilots to think about and profit from efficient use of energy management falls well below the threshold.

Graphics:

Another contentious category relates to the look of a sim. Some say photo realistic or bust. For the ideal sim, you'd be forced to agree but realistically, the aim for developers today must be a little lower.

Su-27's detailed object model and sparse terrain detail has many fans. Indeed this approach brings considerable benefits in frame rate, especially on lower speed systems. In fact, for the perfect sim, frame rate is probably the most important criteria in the area of graphics.

Once you've flown a sim, with a flight model (one that meets the threshold described above of course) that delivers 25+ frames per second you will never want to fly anything else again. The improved sense of fluidity and control over more choppy presentations is extraordinary.

For the prefect sim then, high frame rate is a must. That is not to say though that a little eye candy is not going to be in the mix. Recent work on dedicated hardware accelerators shows that graphics like those in Flight Unlimited or EF2000 v2.0 are a realistic expectation. As a result, the frame rate criteria and graphic detail levels exemplified by EF2000 v2.0 must now be considered the threshold for graphics.

The other aspect that still eludes us at present is the true sense of speed that accompanies fast jet flight at low altitude across country. Graphics are key to this sensation since it is visual perception that must provide the clues for sim pilots. Sound can help but there's no substitute for sufficient ground detail to allow you to resolve details that you can relate to scale as you fly by. Current generation sims mostly offer what amounts to a lunar landscape outside of modeled areas such as citys or airports; there's just nothing to calibrate your sense of scale to out there so how can you "feel" the speed?? This would rank high on the desired list of graphic trompe l'oeil that would grace the perfect sim.

Cockpits, Padlocks and Multiple Displays

Of course the other dimension of graphics and display work is their presentation in the simulation. Here there are a couple of key items that define the threshold: cockpit views and padlocks.

For cockpit views, the Warbirds-style fixed viewing system seems to have more fans than "virtual cockpit" implementations where you can pan around the view field. I suspect that if we had VR glasses that had high resolution and very low latency (and current generation products fall well short in both of these) then tying into a scrolling virtual cockpit makes sense. Until that time, consider the Warbirds-style viewing system the threshold.

The place where scrolling views come into their own with today's display technology is in padlock views. The entry level for this criterion is a padlock that can visually track a target locked by the radar. The threshold goes beyond this though and requires that padlock locks can track targets in visual range, and this should include enemy, wingmen and inbound missiles as well. The padlock must also be independent of radar locks.

Depending on your personal tastes, the padlocks in Su-27 and EF2000 represent the state of the art today. SU-27 is touted as more realistic, given limits on field of view, and considerable mechanical intervention required to switch between padlock targets). Arguably EF2000 provides more unrealistic tools that at the same time provide virtual pilots easier tools to manage situational awareness (SA) in a furball.

For the perfect sim, some combination of properties is the likely winner: the ability of EF2000's padlock to lock and switch visual targets instantly; EF2000's ability to track wingmen and missiles as well as bogeys; SU-27's more realistic fields of view; helmet-mounted display style overlay from EF2000 or SU-27. Without some padlock of this flavour, the 2D nature of computer displays will continue to limit your ability to keep SA high.

And while we're on the subject, there's another axis for graphic improvement that has yet to be much explored in sims. Back to Bagdad gave the lucky few a taste of what it's like to use a sim with more than one monitor. Broken down old mono monitors and Hercules cards were pretty scarce there for a while. For the perfect sim, new tools are on the horizon: win95 will support more than one display in the next "Memphis" release. Besides that, many 3DFX owners are wondering what their state-of-the-art SVGA cards are doing while all that eye candy is getting drawn by the VooDoo boards. Additional hardware standards are also in the wings for this feature.

For the perfect sim then, multiple display support would be nice to have to allow such things as additional views on hand or MFDs for quick glance access; dare one say do-it-yourself virtual cockpits??

[footnote: for those that haven't seen a 1st generation VooDoo board up close, it's a separate PCI card that you plug in beside your SVGA card; the SVGA output has a short cable that feeds back into the VooDoo board which in turn has a normal output to the monitor. Now there's nothing to stop you plugging one monitor into the SVGA card and a separate monitor (if you had one) into the VooDoo board instead to give you two displays. It's not clear why a sim that continues to write to the SVGA card even after starting to draw on the VooDoo frame buffer could not show interesting things on both screens; since no one seems to have done it yet though and it seems so obvious a thing to try, perhaps there are limitations.]

Avionics:

This is an area that can make a tremendous difference and also is perhaps the area that could be most difficult to cover completely in a sim. Here a sim must cover sensors, displays, controls of all sorts and also communications with the rest of the simulated world.

Several sims have set the threshold for "hardcore" simulation of sensors, mostly meaning radar and threat displays. Falcon3's venerable hi-fi A-A radar mode started it, Su-27, Back to Bagdad and Hornet3.0 have brought it more up to date and EF2000 added a touch of the AWACS/JSTARS magic to the mix.

In short then, radar support for separate target search, track while scan and short range ACM type modes must now be a given. Ground mapping radar to track both fixed and moving targets are not unreasonable expectations. A reasonable facsimile of synthetic aperture radar should also be within reach of current sim technology.

Since AWACS and JSTARS (just) were both operational and heavily used in Desert Storm, these too are reasonable requests for the avionics threshold; combining these into JTIDS display may be a bit of reach for accuracy given that some of the requested airframes don't have this in the field yet but anyone who has spent time with EF2000 will tell you that JTIDS is a superb compensator for the natural limitations inherent in sims on perception of the virtual war around you.

As for threat warning systems, these are probably less of concern since most sims seem to do these quite well. Perhaps more than elsewhere, these present an opportunity for the developer to tune the tools presented in the cockpit to help mitigate simulation limitations. Common touches such as detecting and tracking incoming rear hemisphere IR missiles are hardly realistic but are welcome aids to most sim fans, even the hardcore crowd (although the real extremists would like to be able to toggle these "cheats" off, no doubt).

For a stretch to the perfect sim in this category, a full implementation of LANTIRN would be the new prize. Here this would imply both the navigation and targeting pods including HUD FLIR display and the ability to scan for and designate targets on FLIR in MFDs. For bonus points hands-off terrain following flight autopilot capability would be a welcome addition, especially if combined with the sense of speed enhancements previously listed. Throw in simulated digital moving map capability and we're well on the way to perfection.

Displays are also an area where sims are already exceeding the threshold required in many cases. One area of diminishing marginal return that is already starting to go perhaps too far is support for fully active, mouse clickable cockpit displays. These are both overkill and barely realistic.

It would make much more sense if high resolution touch screen capability were available perhaps so that sim pilots could reach out and plug in new waypoints on that up front controller panel but doing it with a mouse seems awkward and positively interferes with suspension of disbelief.

Apart from which, most sim fans in the hardcore camp already have highly programmable controllers that provide far better HOTAS-based control capability than is to be had driving a mouse around the screen. Mouse control for driving the "captain's bars" cursor around an MFD seems reasonble. Making the gear handle clickable on the cockpit art seems like an overkill. Developers: please save your effort for something else on the shopping list!

And speaking of controllers... It's surprising how many sims are still written with the fundamental assumption that the keyboard is the primary interface. Programmable controllers are highly prevalent among sim buyers and yet sims still come out with keyboard mappings that don't lend themselves to the controller technology. For example: use of the so-called "grey" keys for necessary functions (chaff and flares come to mind); keys for range and antenna control that are not easily mapped to knobs provided on controllers for this very purpose; afterburner on digital keystrokes instead of analog joystick axes; the list goes on... The perfect sim could be a lot smarter about the way it supports the current crop of programmable controllers with its keyboard mappings.

Communications is another knotty problem where there's still plenty of room for innovations. Several sims have offered interesting ideas here.

Fleet Defender allowed rudimentary target sorting and stores reporting interactions with wingman that are still very rare. Sorting especially is fundamental to operational A-A doctrine so it's puzzling why this so often gets left out of sims that supposedly offer AI wingmen. [footnote: "attack my target" doesn't cut the mustard since it usually requires you to lock before you sort by handing off a target to a wingie; real life doctrine calls for sorts in search mode rather than when tracking is already established]

Falcon3 and USNF gave us wingmen worthy of Top Gun (the movie): atmospheric if not exactly regulation. But both also supplied the most common maneuver commands that you'd want a wingman to execute, brackets and drags etc.

EF2000 introduced interesting chatter from the tower and AWACS in addition to rather more regulation wingmen, albeit in sterile recordings. EF2000 also offered an interesting command menu system for talking to the rest of the world; useful for A-A but almost lost in the afterthought for A-G usage.

Hornet3.0 gave us an excellent gritty feel to radio comms transmissions together with yet more interactions with air traffic control, both of which are welcome.

Combine a little of each of the above to get the threshold for communications. This too is probably a little ahead of the state of the art for today's offerings but if you can't arrange a BVR sort with an AI wingman before anyone locks and launches, then poor communications had better be offset with good multiplayer support so you can have natural intelligence wingmen instead!

Documentation:

This is one area of sim products that has been greatly variable in past offerings. It is nevertheless one of the more important pieces of a sim package that could serve to make or break an otherwise perfect sim. It is also often ignored when talk of the perfect sim comes around: a grave mistake!

There are two forms of documentation that the perfect sim would include: 1) reference material on aircraft systems and operations; and 2) tutorial information on how to use the systems to best implement the tactics that will bring success in the simulated world.

Most every sim includes information of the reference material type in the box: these are the manuals that ship with the sims. The threshold in this category is a simple explanation for operating or using each element of the sim that is a visible part of the sim pilots view of the virtual universe.

Some sims do this very well others do it very poorly. A favourite example to illustrate where the threshold lies is perhaps the ubiquitous threat warning display. At least one sim presents such a system where different symbols are placed on a display with a variety of accompanying sounds to represent different types of threat and severity of those threats. Simply explaining what each symbol represents however does not tell a sim pilot how to read the threat display and analyze which threats are greatest. For this, examples of threat displays that show relative threat severity given symbol placement and sound cues are needed.

To say it another way: if you know what the individual symbols are but can't interpret the picture presented by the whole display and hence turn it into some useful action that will preserve your virtual life, then the documentation missed the threshold.

In fact, the threat warning display might as well be replaced by a picture of Van Gogh "Sunflowers" for all the good it does you if you can't interpret the picture it paints in your cockpit.

[footnote: at the risk of going overboard on this example, one of the worst and most frustrating examples of documentation omissions relates to the threat warning display in a particular sim (you'll know which one) for which the manual offered advice to switch the threat display to LOWALT mode to reprioritize threats for low altitude. Not one iota of information was offered as to the difference between regular and LOWALT modes; how does one use this documentation tautology sensibly?? Are we to guess?? No, the reference docs must tell the secret...]

The above is a single example but the principle should hold true for all elements of sim reference documentation: if it's in the sim and the developer expects a sim pilot to use it or read something into it, then the docs better explain what it is and how to make sense of its implementation in the sim. This then is the threshold for documentation.

The second type of information is more tutorial in nature. This is typified today by the after-market strategy guide. For the perfect sim, this should also be in the original box of course.

Tutorial material should go beyond the basic explanation of what a modeled system is and how to interpret its representation in the sim. Here the expectation is for information that will help the virtual pilot perform better and improve technique in using a sim's systems.

While no after market guide (or manual for that matter) has yet reached perfection, there's one shining example in this category that others which follow will be judged against: the EF2000 strategy guide is an excellent example of tutorial documentation [footnote: while there is no affiliation with the authors of this book, a recommendation is still in order. It should be noted that even non-EF2000 sim pilots might be well advised to seek this work out: it has great material on BFM and energy management that are well worth the price of admission. Also many a sim pilot might improve their survivablity in sims by taking to heart the advice on T&BJF (sic).]

A couple more points relate to documentation.

Having drawn a distinction between reference and tutorial material, it's worth pointing out that most "hardcore" sim pilots know what the basics of BFM are and something about rudimentary energy management to boot. For this reason, the threshold listed above does not necessarily include these more tutorial elements. In point of fact, writers of documentation for the perfect sim might not even need to describe such things as pursuit curves at all; just tell us what the flight envelopes are for the airframe modeled and its adversary aircraft and we'll do the rest!

It's also worth a sentence or two to decry the disturbing tendency of current products to push the reference material into after-market guides. A sim is not complete without docs to tell you how to operate it. If you must separate out the documentation into another product that's fine but please make sure the two are available at the same time. To ship a sim without adequate documentation is like selling a VCR without the programming instructions: you (or more likely your local ten year old) can work out how to record things but why should it be so hard??

Lastly, three cheers for innovation! GSC recently shipped Hornet3.0 with a most interesting combination of documentation materials. Their printed manual resembles nothing so much as an authentic defence department 3-1 manual and the online video presentation materials complement this nicely to form a well rounded reference package. Such a presentation also adds to the qualitative feel of the sim experience in no small part.

Mission Planner:

At the risk of specifying implementation, the mission planner should operate as the interface to all flying that takes place in the virtual world. Be it solo single mission play, solo or multiplayer campaign play or even head to head melee over modem or the internet, why have different interfaces? After all, no airforce pilot makes it to the ramp before going through a brief of the mission plan.

Given the ability to work with stored mission files, a good mission editor can also provide a means for sim nuts all over the world to torture each other with ever more devious challenges.

The key to making all of this work is to make the mission planner flexible enough to allow pilots to customize but at the same time provide sensible enough defaults for the various scenarios that there is no actual need for pilots to spend hours tweaking mission parameters before they can get to fly. Once again, balance is the key.

Many sims provide interesting and challenging "canned" missions. This demonstrates that most developers are easily able to provide missions with sensible defaults that can be flown without tweaking.

Some sims provide good mission editing capabilities that allow sim pilots to tinker with mission plans, either by modifying or creating from scratch.

The perfect sim should take sensible defaults and the ability to customize in every case and marry the two.

If this is the way it should work, then the other part of the equation is to specify where the threshold is in terms of the parameters that should be present and thus tweakable in a mission plan.

Here there is a long list but once again, if you start from the premise of simulating squadron level operations the list falls out from mimicking real life.

The air tasking order is the beginning of the mission plan. For a training scenario or instant action, this is probably a list of canned situations over a training range (say Nellis or Fallon for example). For a campaign this is a list of the available mission choices present at the given stage of the virtual war. Multiplayer play in all its forms is probably just a special case of these two. Interesting stand alone missions could be generated either from scratch or by taking and saving customized missions from the training or campaign scenarios.

Once an initial setup is selected from the air tasking order list, the mission moves through several planning stages for a strike package, the fundamental planning unit. [footnote: assume that strike package doesn't necessarily imply A-G only; if you have full control of planes and roles for them in the mission editor then setting up fighter sweeps should be just as easy as scud hunts.]

Target imagery and area maps should be available to orient the flight. [footnote: emphasis on the orient! A pretty 3D picture of a target spinning may look good but it's hard to figure out just what you'll see from your chosen approach heading if all you have is the rotating picture without compass bearing cues.]

An intelligence brief detailing likely threats, both A-A and AAA/SAM should be included. [footnote: for the revenge minded developer, doing a realistic implementation of the spotty accuracy reportedly common in intelligence briefs would promote a healthy and apparently realistic distrust of intelligence types!]

Weather briefing might also be appropriate if the simulated world caters for different conditions. This is probably above the threshold although the degenerate simple case for environmental conditions, night and day, should be expected.

Available aircraft and aircrew as well as munitions and other stores to be used on the target should be presented. Here again override for default options is key. Multiplayer sims that don't allow all human pilots in a strike package to select their own role and loadout will miss the threshold.

Available support assets should also be listed (and/or requestable); these would include AWACS/JSTARS, tanker, electronic warfare and other supporting flights such as escorts or wild weasels. In the perfect sim, you should be able to assign yourself (and other human pilots) to roles anywhere in the strike package, consistent with the airframes modeled, of course.

Then there's the flight plan itself. Here the threshold is missed by a surprising number of current sims. At it's most basic you should be able to manipulate flight path, number and placement of waypoints, as well as speed, altitude and proposed activity (mostly for directing the AI pilots of which more to come) for all waypoints.

If this is the threshold, there is plenty of head room for the perfect sim to flourish in this area.

Fuel planning is a critical element of any real life flying experience, whether you're in a Cessna 150 or a Strike Eagle. Some attempts have been made in this area but most are seeming afterthoughts (literaly in the case of the innovative Falcon3 third party add-on FalCalc).

Timed waypoints, which is to say allowing coordination between multiple flights on separate flight plans for time-on-target would add a considerable touch of reality to the planning process. This has been demonstrated to some degree by mission planners like that in DI's Tornado sim. But to date, there is no mission planner that can provide the same facility for sims with multiplayer support where many human sim pilots may be allocated in different flights.

Mission editors in Tornado and Su-27 are the ones most often held up as the cream of the crop to date in terms of their capabilities for mission customization. The perfect sim should build on the lead shown by these two and make the mission planner at least as capable as these to meet the threshold. Beyond that innovations such as fuel management and timed waypoints will move the sim considerably nearer perfection.

Artificial Intelligence:

If you accept that flying head to head on the network gets old after a short while then the majority of time you spend flying the perfect sim, either solo or multiplayer, will be in scenarios that depend on computer controlled participants.

Ideally the skill of these participants should be tunable to allow you to find the right level for each situation. Considering aerial threats only for a moment, the scale runs from non-maneuvering bandit to instructor pilot and on to enemy aces.

This allows you to progress from familiarizing yourself with the new sim, though training against opponents good enough to teach you something useful and on to difficult and dangerous combat deployments.

No one enjoys getting shot down so fast you can't work out how to get a lock, much less shoot back. On the other hand lame AI can ruin the replay value of a game just as quickly.

These same principles of course need to be applicable to all areas of the sim where the paricipants should be "thinking;" everything from ground vehicles to pilots to the opposing "general" at the strategic campaign level.

Since everyone flies at their own skill level and each is different defining the threshold for this category is truly impossible. Perhaps then the best way to express a requirement for AI is to allow the difficulty presented by AI elements of a sim to be configurable to allow for a range of possibilities.

There is one thing though that has to be considered a must when it comes to wingman intelligence. Although accidents can and do happen in real life training and combat, a few sims released lately seem to have forgotten even to train computer wingmen in such basic techniques as how to fly.

You need only read the usenet newsgroup where posts detailing the latest misadventures of "wingbeciles"(TM) "LawnDarting" (TM) to know how frustrated sim pilots can be when their computer bretheren can't even keep a plane above the ground when flying to the next waypoint, much less provide support in a furball. This doesn't seem like too much to ask, especially for the perfect sim.

ACMI/TACTS:

Otherwise known as mission replay with the data to prove it, ACMI systems are still the exception rather than the rule. [footnote: ACMI = Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation which is the US Air Force's range telemetry and tracking system which records real time data from numerous aircraft in the air simultaneously, allowing the debrief after the flight to include an in detail 3D recreation of the flight. TACTS is the US Navy equivalent, Tactical Air Combat Training System.]

This is a great shame since such tools provide an excellent means to improve your flying, not to mention reliving the more (in)glorious moments of your most recent mission.

The threshold in this category is simply the ability to play back some or all of a mission that you have just flown. Once again, the facility should be available to record any flight, be it multiplayer or solo, campaign or single missions. Beyond this there are plenty of fancy features that can add a great deal to the basic package.

The perfect sim would have an ACMI system capable of saving mission recordings of fragments thereof. It should also allow file exchange of such recordings to allow pilots to share their escapades.

For strict simulation accuracy, the system should allow for wire frame display of the action, but given that this is one area where simulation can exceed the limits real life imposes, control of a full set of cockpit and external views would be a plus.

The recent Hornet 3.0 release has an excellent mission replay and save facility. It lacks fine control for use as an ACMI tool however. Su-27 also has a good mission recorder including a very nice feature allowing you to take control of a mission at any point during the playback. It too however was not really designed with ACMI diagnostic use primarily in mind.

Honours for perhaps the best ACMI system presented in a sim to date still probably go to the one in the Falcon3 series. This system has the ability to control a replay almost frame by frame coupled with extensive view control both inside and outside the cockpit. A more realistic wire frame mode is presented with the same kind of data cues the real pilots would use. Perhaps the kicker is an external view with a fixed camera that can be steered in 3D to any point in the action; this provides unparalleled ability to pick apart the flight and analyze what went well.

Take Su-27's .trk file flexibility in terms of exchange and ability to jump into the cockpit, add the basic ACMI from Falcon3 and marry it up to the other aspects of this sim and you would be very close to perfection.

Campaign Engine:

Much has been written about campaigns for simulations recently. The main theme of discussion seems to relate to dynamic implementations or lack thereof. This skirts a more fundamental issue however.

The perfect sim cannot afford to appear without some form of campaign engine. Which is to say, a sim supporting only pre-canned missions loses a lot in replay value and misses the basic threshold.

The basic requirement for a campaign engine is that it should present a sequence of missions that progress somewhat logically toward a more global initial objective. Within the sequence the sim pilot should have the sensation that their actions are affecting the outcome of the end goal and that missions while unpredictable are connected by a consistent thread.

The manner in which this is implemented is largely academic. A full blown real time wargame engine has been tried; EF2000 exemplifies some of the strengths of this approach. Yet one of the most successful "dynamic campaigns" was that in Falcon3. Implementation in this case was only dynamic in comparatively few aspects but it did follow some basic principles that differentiated it from sims that provide only canned missions.

Both are "dynamic" enough to satisfy most sim pilots; once again, suspension of disbelief is the key to it all -- do you feel as though you are in the middle of an on-going win-or-lose air campaign or are you following a sequence of clinical set piece studies in tactical airpower employment??

[footnote: The real key to this seems to be that some amount of the state of the theatre of battle should carry over from mission to mission. In missions, the set piece is always the same at the opening. In a "dynamic" campaign, the outcome of action from the last mission should be visible in the setup for the next. Part of the state is also bound up in resource management; fuel and weapon supplies are never infinite in real life but often they seem to be in sims.]

The perfect sim would probably have a full wargame implementation to complement the sim engine itself. However the threshold is probably nearer the semi-dynamic approach. Whichever is chosen, the perfect sim should allow for both solo and multiplayer play in the campaign setting. Also, some level of control should be available for the initial campaign set up and perhaps even for the objectives for the campaign. Such configurability will add considerably to the replay value of a single theatre campaign implementation.

One last plea for the perfect sim campaign engine: if we assume high fidelity squadron level operations are the goal then interaction with strategic assets such as AWACS and aerial tankers must be an important part of the mix. Such assets are a vital part of modern airpower and the perfect sim would be incomplete without elements like an obligatory stop at the "texaco" to top off the tanks.

Multiplayer Support:

If reports are to be believed about the near mythical Falcon4, this sim from Microprose represents a delicious turn-around for multiplayer flight sim devotees: in Falcon4, solo play will be a special case of network multiplayer mode!

For the perfect sim multiplayer support is a must, even to reach the threshold. However, as recent releases have shown, there's multiplayer and then there's multiplayer.

Sims such as Fighter Duel present a single multiplayer option: head to head (H2H) dogfighting. This is a lot of fun but for many sim fans, the attraction for this mode of play wears off quickly.

Of course it's also the easiest to implement so many sims provide this "quick fix" multiplayer support. However, the threshold for the perfect sim is somewhat higher. [footnote: H2H multiplayer is relatively simple to implement because in this mode, the only really interactive elements of the simulated world are the players aeroplanes.. As such, the amount of data that needs to be passed between machines to keep them in sync is mostly limited to positional and relative motion information. For a full multiplayer interactive world, the challenge is much harder because each machine's view of everything that might change or move must be kept up to date, not just the player plane data. ]

For the perfect sim, multiplayer support means being able to fly the same kinds of mission scenarios that solo pilots can. The bargain basement approach here is to allow single set piece mission play.

Increments that allow mission planning and customization add considerably to the replay value but the truly perfect sim would allow multiplayer capabilities to be excercised in all areas of the sim from single mission training right through to fully fledged campaign play. As mentioned above, providing this along with a fully simulated adversary aircraft for team multiplayer adversarial campaigns must surely be the ideal.

Conclusion:

It's unlikely that we'll see a sim that meets even the threshold in every category soon. However, several new sims being previewed now show great promise in several of these categories.

Sadly, as more than one professional points out, the hardcore sim fans are not really the bulk of the market that developers aim at. The market is somewhere between this ideal and the average shoot-em-up. Still we can live in hope that some of the developers who share our passion might find a way to bring us a sim that pleases the hardcore crowd without being unapproachable for the majority of the market.

Oh and for the last word: it needs to be fun to play with this perfect sim too. There's at least one product that was hailed as a great simulation but rotten game. Most of the "wannabes" in the so-called "hardcore" flight sim community play with these sims because it's a fun thing to do. After all, in the end it's just a game...

References/Bibliography:

In no particular order, the following works have influenced the way I think about tactical aviation and have done much to fuel my passion for flight simultors.

"Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering" -- Robert L. Shaw
Naval Institute Press, ISBN 0-87021-059-9
The definitive unclassified work on BFM and ACM. A tough read but worth the slog.

**"Storm Over Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War" Richard P. Hallion
Smithsonian, ISBN 1-56098-723-5
A fascinating essay about the history and application of air power. A fast read with some great insights into the planning and execution of the air war. How to run a modern integrated air campaign.

"Aerodynamics For Naval Aviators"
ASA-ANA, ISBN 1-56027-140-X
Everything the US Navy wants its pilots to know about why and how aircraft fly. Academic stuff for those that really want to know.

"The Ace Factor" Mike Spick
Naval Institute Press, ISBN 0-87021-002-5
Tales of the greatest fighter pilots across the ages and what made them successful. If you don't know what Situational Awareness is and just how important it can be, you need to read this book.

"Modern Fighter Aircraft: Technology and Tactics" A. Thornborough
Patrick Stevens Ltd., ISBN 1-85260-426-3
A comprehensive treatment of modern air combat delivered in an approachable style although dense format.

"Stick and Rudder" Wolfgang Langewiesche
McGraw Hill, ISBN 0-07-036240-8
A classic on the art of flying. Guaranteed to improve your landings in real Cessnas and virtual fast jets.

"Fulcrum" Alexander Zuyev with Malcolm McConnell
Warner, ISBN 0-446-36498-3
The story of a Mig29 pilot from enlistment through training and on to defection to the west. Interesting look into Russian tactical aviation.

"Tornado Down" Flt Lt. John Peters & Flt. Lt. John Nichol
Signet, ISBN 0-45-117472-0
First hand account of a Tornado crew shot down and captured by Iraq shortly after Desert Storm commenced. The less glamorous side of being in fast jets that will make you appreciate those who do this for a living even more.

"On Yankee Station" Comdr. John B. Nichols & Barrett Tillman
Bantam Books, ISBN 0-553-27216-0
Interesting account of naval air power in Vietnam. How not to run an air campaign.

"Warfighters : A Story of the USAF Weapons School & the 57th Wing" Rick Llinares & Chuck Lloyd Schiffer, ISBN 076430044X
History and development of the Nellis air base and the units that are based there. Lots of glossy pictures supported by useful narrative. Includes syllabus information for the weapons school and the various "Flag" exercises.

"Fighter Wing: A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing" Tom Clancy
Berkeley Pub Group, ISBN 0425149579
The Clancy treatment for Air Combat Command's Composite Air Wing. As someone recently suggested on the internet, the CAW would make a terrific back story unit for a jet sim.

Works of fiction have also played a part. While there are too many to mention all the titles, I have enjoyed and recommend various tactical aviation specific novels by (again in no special order):

  • Dale Brown
  • Keith Douglass
  • Timothy Rizzi
  • Barrett Tillman
  • Mike Dunn
  • Steven Coonts
  • William H. LaBarge
  • Richard Herman Jr.
  • Joe Weber
  • Michael Skinner
  • Julian Jay Savarin

I also thoroughly enjoy quarterly issues of the "World Air Power Journal." Heavy on excellent pictures and cutaway diagrams but with informative briefing information as well. WAPJ is published by Aerospace Publishing in London, UK, and is distributed by AIRtime Publishing Inc. in the US (800 359 3003).

Lastly, the single greatest advancement of my understanding of air combat was made in a single day. The people responsible for this leap forward are Sky Warriors in Atlanta, GA. With briefings and nearly two hours of stick time in a T-34, they brought the material in Shaw's book to life for me in a way that opened up a whole new dimension for me. It's also the most physically tiring thing I've ever done sitting down. Highly recommended! Visit <"http://www.skywarriors.com">Skywarriors.

** This is the work that finally inspired me to sit down and put this magnum opus into words.

Editor: In real life Mark manages a team focused on application software performance optimization for 3rd party server and workstation applications that run on Intel Architecture. You can send him comments at Mark Doran or send a letter to the Editor.

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