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An Interview with Andy Hollis: Executive Producer for Janes Longbow 2

LB2 Lighting LB2 Nite Shots
Longbow 2: Notice the lighting effects. Click for 60 K image.

"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 structure to give the illusion of a real time environment.

One example of this structure is the WARGEN engine which Digital Image Design developed for EF2000 and TactCom. WARGEN oversaw every element of the virtual battlefield, with two levels of AI: WARGEN and SMARTPILOTS.

In the virtual battlefield, stuff is happening all over the place, and it is NEVER predictable or repeatable. This feeling of dynamism, of randomness in a larger community of interaction moving toward a specific goal, has become the great diamond in the sky for sim developers.

Csim: Janes Combat Sims managed to really keep the lid on this new project, I think they've done better than some real world intelligence services! Can you give our readers some history...How did the Origin Skunkworks come to pass? When you came to Origin was Longbow already in your mind?

Andy: When I came to Origin four years ago, I was looking to rediscover the excitement that I had experienced during the earlier days of my career in the business. I found that magical feeling once again at Origin. But it wasn't all that easy to build a new group and a whole new product line, especially in a company not known for doing realistic flight sims. The Origin Skunkworks really got going in 1994, when we started work on a project called Chopper Assault. It was to be a more action oriented product, that would appeal to the masses, running on both PC and 3DO platforms. Early inspiration drew a lot on my experience building the original Gunship. As 3DO fizzled, we redirected our efforts squarely at the PC market, and changed the focus of the game to a pure sim. This was more to my liking and that of the whole group that had rallied around the effort. The rest, as they say, is history...

Csim: How did you come to decide to do the definitive Longbow simulation, and what were some of the challenges you faced?

Andy: We always try to simulate the highest tech of current operational or near-operational aircraft. These are the birds that the public is infatuated with, since they are in the news, and they have the sexiest new equipment. We will only do an aircraft where we can get the real manuals on, though, so that we can be sure of the authenticity of the simulation. With Longbow, we got a little lucky (I prefer to think of it as skillful negotiation :-), in scoring a set of design docs during the prototype stages of the actual aircraft's development. Our game development schedule mirrored that of the real thing, so we updated our design as we went along. Just prior to release, real Longbows were flying and we received assistance from "those that know" in doing final tweaking. Flash Point Korea was a result of even more new developmental information.

The challenges we faced were more of a team-building and technology development nature. As I said before, Origin had no history in writing realistic sims, so we had to build the team from scratch. That is not easy in this business and I am very proud of what this group has become. We also had no body of code or experience (other than my own) to build on. Again, building these things from scratch takes much time and is difficult to predict or manage. In the end, though, we did good :-)

Csim: How has the Janes connection impacted the development of Longbow and Longbow 2?

Andy: Janes has contributed on many levels. For sure, having access to the absolute latest info on capabilities of various equipment has been indispensable. We've also used their analysts to work with us on scenario plausibility and sequencing. Finally, they have been great with contacts throughout the defense industry.

Csim: On the first release of Longbow it was pretty much a canned approach, but it moved into a semi-dynamic system with Flash Point and gained a very immersive feeling. What prompted you to make the switch for LB 2?

Andy: We became enamored with the US Army's program titled Force 21, wherein they are developing the equipment and tactics necessary to win on the digital battlefield of tomorrow. The Longbow is the centerpiece of this new technology effort in which all information is shared electronically between combat helicopters of all types, ground forces, and the command center. This became our paradigm for the ultimate multi-player experience, the force-on-force wargame campaign set at NTC. Teams of players work together over the course of many missions to beat the opposing team. They fly in either position of a variety of helicopters (Longbow gunships, Kiowa Warrior scouts, and Blackhawk troop transports), working together to find and destroy the enemy, and then defend against the enemy doing the same to them. Overall campaign strategy is just as important as in-mission tactics. Its the ultimate electronic battlefield.

Csim: How challenging is the AI going into the campaign system for LB2 and what has this meant for the development team? In what ways will the dynamic campaign differ from the semi-dynamic one of the first Longbow?

Andy: The fundamental real-time AI is not much different than the original game. Much of the groundwork needed was happening in Flash Point Korea, but people just had no knowledge of it unless they looked real hard. Outside the mission though, we used to have only resource management and a persistent world for objects and this is where the work for LB2 has come. In-between missions, a whole scheme for evaluating mission results, building up target lists, building appropriate missions, doing resupply, and moving the forces had to be built. Also, coming up with good ways to present this to the player and allow for appropriate levels of control that are additive without being overwhelming.

Csim: Detailed treatment is the hallmark of AH64D Longbow. Will the new platforms in LB2 be given the same in depth treatment given to the AH64D? Will the flight models and avionics have the same degree of realism?

Andy: Yes, each new helicopter type will have a realistic flight model, full avionics suite, and two cockpit positions. In the Blackhawk, the second position is a door gunner, where you can set the bird into a hover and blast away at enemy ground forces. It allows you to satisfy those "DOOM" instincts. :-) Very cool.

LB2 Night
Longbow 2 at night...

Csim: Will there be voice communications with other pilots in Longbow 2?

Andy: Real voice? No. In order to properly synchronize all the activity in the world on all machines, Longbow 2 uses a huge amount of network bandwidth. There just is nothing left for voice. Text chat will be available at all times, though. And in the flight engine, there will be multiple channels on the "radio" for directing your messages to the desired recipients.

Csim: What about trees? Have you made enough progress in this area to be able to say what we will see in this department?

Andy: We did new ones that were better and faster than before. But we also made huge advances in the actual terrain. So, the trees are still lagging behind the rest of the terrain in image quality. We have some more ideas and we'll try to catch the trees up before release, but no promises as to whether trees will make it into the release version...

Csim: What will become of the original Longbow ? Will there still be multiplayer support? Will there be a mission disk or add on beyond Flash Point?

Andy: We never promised multi-player for the original game, contrary to newsgroup rumor. We said we were working on multi-player for the Longbow line. As you can now see, that's a big part of Longbow 2.

Additional missions or add-ons? Not from us, but we might release the file formats, if there's enough interest. Our old tools are not very easy to use, though.

Csim: Will Longbow 2 and F15E share the same graphics engine?

Andy: No, each has it own engine, because each does different things. The F15 has a much larger combat radius than does the Longbow, so we have to be able to support a huge world (2.5 million sq. miles!).

Conversely, the Longbow has a smaller battlefield scope, but it must be able to fly very low and interact well with rugged terrain. That implies a different terrain solution.

Csim: Will Longbow 2 move into surround sound?

Andy: We are doing all kinds of Doppler and stereo imaging effects in Longbow 2, but it is not Dolby surround.

Csim: There is already a heated debate about the upgrade path to LB2. Can you comment on this?

Andy: The debate started when the first tidbits of info about Longbow 2 were filtering out. Because there was so little info about it, some folks got the early impression that LB2 was more of an upgrade than a whole new game. Given that we announced no discounted upgrade path, they voice their concern. As more info surfaced as to the great scope and depth of the new game, people began to understand what we knew all along, Longbow 2 is a fabulous value even at a new-game pricing.

There was also concern expressed by those that had just purchased Longbow Gold. Again, this was mostly due to lack of full information. Longbow 2 will not be available until late Fall, so people have plenty of time to derive entertainment value from Longbow Gold. In fact, its a great thing to have accomplished before playing Longbow 2.

And Longbow Gold is a huge value, too. It contains all of the original Longbow content, plus that of the Flash Point Korea add-on, plus a Win95 native executable.

We care a lot about our loyal customers and we are careful to charge appropriate prices for the body of work we produce. But purchase is an individual decision and each person has to make that themselves. We feel that we give the best value-for-money in the sims business, and we will continue to hold to that goal as we do new products.

To read the Janes Longbow review go to:

Janes AH64 D Longbow

Longbow Gold Review...

Longbow 2 Preview...

Go to the Janes Combat Simulations Site.

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