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An Interview with Bryan Walker: Lead Producer for Eidos International

Shots from FN2. Click for a larger image.

Eidos International is a new comer on the simulation map, and what a time they are having! With the introduction of TombRaider, and four more incredible simulations in the works, they are poised to make a hit in the simulation world!

Eidos is currently working on three major projects: Flying Nightmares II, Confirmed Kill and Team Apache. Bryan Walker is heading up the development for these military simulations, and Bryan has the background to see that its done right, with a number of years piloting AH64 Apaches under his belt.

Flying Nightmares: Commandant looks like an incredible blend of strategy and simulation in a virtual battlefield. Confirmed Kill, on the other hand, is looking to make a major dent in the multi-player world previously dominated by Air Warrior and WarBirds. From what I have seen and heard to date, Tactical Aero Squadron will be the only competitor worthy of note with the coming release of CK. Recently Combatsim cornered Bryan Walker to get an insiders perspective on Eidos and their projects:

Csim: As an ex-apache pilot, how did you move from the real world of military flight to the sim world?

Bryan: As both a lifelong aviation fan and computer user, I've been lucky enough to have some great opportunities come my way. While I was deployed to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield, I saw an advertisement for "Gunship 2000," and wrote Computer Gaming World magazine about the possibility of writing a review on that title for them. They believed my background as an AH-64 driver might give me some insight, and gave me the thumbs-up for the review.

I began regularly writing reviews for them on not just flight simulations, but also a variety of other genres. This opened a lot of doors for me, particularly when I reviewed Domark's "Flight Sim Toolkit" from Domark back in '93. Several months after writing the review I came across the Domark guys at the Las Vegas CES, and they expressed an interest in building up a dedicated flight sim team here to address the continental US market, which is by far the biggest and most demanding simulations audience. Since I'd accomplished everything I'd set out to do in the Army, I decided to take the leap and enter the computer gaming industry!

Csim: Were there any experiences in the real world of military flight that have been foundational in shaping your approach to simulation design?

Bryan: Actually, my entire military experience has guided my design ideas. My ultimate goal is to reproduce not only the visual and aural effects of combat, but also the emotional, gut-level sensations. Without that, flight simulation is still a very sterile exprience to me.

Csim: FN2 and CK are looking like awesome simulations. Neither of these seem directly related to your personal history. How did these come about?

Bryan: Flying Nightmares 2 is actually a sequel to AV8B Harrier Assault, a game that Domark and Simis developed several years ago, and went on to become SVGA Harrier, the first 640x480 flight sim on the PC, and Flying Nightmares on the Macintosh.

I arrived at Domark just after Flying Nightmares had come out, and immediately saw the potential for a sequel. Unfortunately, the company already had plans for a sci-fi simulator and we weren't able to jump right into the development of Flying Nightmares 2. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as this lull in development allowed me to really sit back for over a year and think about some truly new concepts in flight simulation. During this time, the groundwork had also been laid out for Confirmed Kill, originally planned as a head-to-head upgrade for our Flight Sim Toolkit software, and the two projects began to actually feed off each other's feature set.

Once word of Confirmed Kill's development began to leak out, it was apparent that limiting it to just an FST add-on was a mistake. The potential and demand for a high-end H2H WWII-era simulator was enormous. At that time, however, we had to overcome a lot of resistance from Spectrum Holobyte's sales group, who was distributing our products. Pacific Air War 1942 had been a poor seller for them, and they were really leaning on our marketing guys to stay away from that genre. CK faced an uphill fight internally just to get the ball rolling, but I finally managed to intimidate them into coming around!

After an unfortunate series of events with ICI during development of a planned online version of CK, we've gathered a group of exceptionally talented engineers, artists, and programmers and have been plowing ahead with development of CK once again. Though we've hit some major obstacles at times, this game has the potential to be the next benchmark in the online flight simulation genre.

Though my personal background doesn't involve combat experience with either Harriers or WWII-era aircraft, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy some flights in modern jets such as the Tornado and the TA-4, as well as aircraft such as the TF-51, Yak-9D, AT-6, and T-28. In addition to my background as a former Apache pilot, I've accumulated around 1500 hours of fixed-wing time.

Csim: What has moved you in the direction of FN2 commandant and the strategic aspects of simming? Are you breaking new ground with this sim? If so, how have you pulled it off?

Bryan: Perhaps there's no polite way of saying this, but flight simulations have been stuck in a rut for the better part of this decade. There have been many technically excellent titles, but they've essentially done the exact same thing with different planes and graphics. With FN2, we decided early on to avoid doing "just another flight sim," and offer something truly new and, most importantly, fun.

The original Harrier Assault offered a new wrinkle to flight simulations: A strategic portion that allowed the player to deploy naval and ground forces, then fly missions to support those units. We saw a lot of potential to expand that feature in FN2, and really focused on ways of doing that in a way that would enhance the game as a whole. The "Commandant" strategic game emerged as that method, combining high-fidelity flight simulation with a realistic but accessible real-time strategic game.

By allowing up to 16 players to take part in a highly dynamic AirLand battle, we feel that FN2: Commandant offers an truly unique, infinitely replayable, and exceptionally immersive experience. With the ability to play over the internet via TCP/IP connections, virtual squadrons from all over are going to have a blast training and competing with one another.

Csim: None of the military flight sims released this past year has had a really comprehensive command and wingman routine. What will FN2 be like in this area?

Bryan: FN2 will have some fairly detailed wingman orders and reactions, with some additional emphasis on the "human factor." Though these wingmen can't possibly be as savvy as a real human, I think folks will get a kick out of flying with them.

Csim: What are the sims of this past year that have really impressed you and why?

Bryan: From a graphics standpoint, I think Novalogic's F-22 is a great achievement. Simply gorgeous, while keeping a good frame rate. From a fidelity standpoint, Su-27 really stands out in my mind.

Csim: Some other developers (DiD and Origin) have forged ties with para military organizations like World Air Power and Janes to supply them with information that might otherwise be hard to get. How do you get the info you need for flight models, weapons systems etc...

Bryan: Being a former military aviator, I've had the good fortune to undergo not only a great deal of academic and flight training, but also have the experience of actual combat under my belt. Though this is by no means a slight towards Origin or DiD, whose products are truly top-notch, civilian-based "defense" magazines have never impressed me with their grasp of the subject matter. They're often quite good at spewing out acronyms and numbers, but often miss the point entirely when attempting to address the real-world considerations behind the five-dollar words. The lack of real-world experience by most of their writers is really obvious, as is the reliance on these magazines on the military's Public Affairs Offices.

One of the more disturbing things I've encountered among groups of fans such as the flight-sim newsgroup are individuals who stuff a few copies of Aviation Week or Janes Defence Weekly down their shorts and become instant experts on all facets of combat aviation. In some respects, this is aggravated by the overuse of the term "realism" in the flight sim market. Some of these guys seem to think if they complete an EF2000 campaign without getting shot down, they've mastered the fine art of air combat. If any PC-based simulation title was truly realistic, it would take over a year to just learn how to operate competently, several years to become proficient, and be so mind-numbingly tedious to play nobody would buy it!

Csim: Do you feel your simulations will appeal to the hard core crowd as well as the weekend pilots? How will you appeal to both?

Bryan: FN2's flight models and avionics systems are certainly modeled with enough fidelity to appeal to any flight sim fan at their highest settings, but are still accessible enough at their easiest settings that anyone can get their first kill within 10 minutes. Our goal is to give people a choice as to what kind of experience they want. It's their money, and if they want to fly an indestructible Harrier all over the place, bouncing off hills and never running out of ammunition, have at it!

Conversely, if they want to land vertically on a carrier moving 30 knots with a 25-knot quartering tailwind and the flight model of full realism, FN2 offers that level of challenge, as well. The one thing we always keep in mind is that the player will always have the disadvantage of having to "fly" on a computer, and are therefore designing a number of features to make that interface as transparent as possible.

Csim: Suspension of disbelief is a big phrase in the sim world these days. How do you attempt to achieve this in FN2, CK and Team Apache?

Bryan: There are good ways of doing that:

1) Multiplayer: Human interaction is the best way of getting players emotionally involved.

2) Peripheral activity is another way of convincing the player that he's part of an active world. Civilian vehicles moving along roads, other aircraft flying on unrelated missions, contingencies, radio chatter, all that can add up to an very immersive experience.

3) Dynamic Campaigns: Our best example of that would be Team Apache, which uses three different neural nets to make decisions on the Strategic, Tactical, and Vehicular scale. TA's campaign structure is remarkably complex, generating both military and civilian activity based on the outcome of the battles, and the conduct of the player over the course of the operation.

Csim: Which is your favorite project and why?

Bryan: Each project is designed to achieve a very distinct objective, so it's difficult to say which one is my "favorite." I do think that FN2 has probably the most potential to appeal to a wide range of people, particularly since it offers extensive (and free) internet play features, as well as a unique environment for players to run entire battles over the course of a few panic-stricken hours. ;)

Csim: Eidos is up against some superb simulation developers: Janes/Origin, Digital Image Design, Interactive Magic and others. What will distinguish Eidos sims from the other developers out there?

Bryan: I think our mindset is different in some instances. Some developers have taken "realism" and packaged it in such a way to make it inaccessible to the player. The fact that few if any of their team members have applicable experience in the subject matter seems to cause them to overcompensate, or integrate what I call "The Clancey Effect," where the sound and the fury of military aviation might be there, but there's no substance to it. Our goal is to educate and challenge the player, but most of all entertain him.

Csim: Team Apache is taking a unique approach by blending the moral factor into a serious simulation. How does this work? For example, one is looking at the crew assignments. What does one see that impacts this decision?

Bryan: In Team Apache, each non-player pilot is rated in 21 different categories, most of which can fluctuate depending on fatigue and morale levels. Each non-player pilot also has a distinct personality that dictates how compatible he will be with other non-player pilots in the cockpit.

The Player can view the pilots via a "tent" interface. By clicking on each pilot graphic, the player will see a message saying something along the lines of "Abrams appears alert but worried," "Donaldson is jovial and energetic," etc. As the campaign goes on, the "appearance" of these pilots will change, depending upon a number of events.

The Player can also review individual mission tapes and statistics from aircrew, noting their performance.

Csim: In Team Apache the player must also be aware of incompatibility in the crews. What tells me that Armstrong doesnt' like Robertson?

Byran: Diminishing performance in the airframe, as well as remarks such as "Armstrong looks somewhat perturbed," after a good mission and long rest period.

Csim: What impact has 3d hardware had on your design plans?

Bryan: Though it got off to a rather sputtering start in late '95, 3D acceleration will without question be the biggest shot in the arm to in-game graphics since the advent of the VESA Local Bus architecture.

Flight sims are without question the most demanding game applications. They require high resolution, frame rates, and extended visible distances. 3D acceleration not only increases all these factors, but also allows us to provide more colors and better pyrotechnics, that would really bog down an unaccelerated machine. We've been fortunate to be one of the first companies that's worked with the major 3D accelerator manufacturers, and have established an excellent rapport with them. All of our current sim titles will take advantage not only of Intel's MMX processors, but also directly support the Rendition Verite, 3DFX Voodoo, S3 ViRGE, and ATI Rage chipsets.

Csim: The screen shots for your coming sims look great. Are there any surprises for us in this graphics engine?

Bryan: Yes. They're still secret for now, however...

Csim: What is the one thing you hate most about sims?

Bryan: Bad interfaces, and "realism" taken to the point of tedium. Some titles have gone completely overboard in reproducing cockpit procedures, forgetting that the players aren't aviators trained on that platform. It's surprising how many real military aviators we've talked with who try out "realistic" simulation titles and get frustrated with obtuse key commands and the constant need to look at the keyboard to accomplish even basic tasks!

Csim: Which sim industry person do you admire the most?

Bryan: I'd have to say Brent Iverson of Electronic Arts. He's been quite a survivor in a very high turnover, high-stress industry. His simulations, particularly Chuck Yeager's Air Combat, might not be the last word in "realism," but they're fun, and have been very successful.

Csim: Who do you consider your mentors in the industry?

Bryan: I've tried to learn from the products, rather than the people behind them. I take a look a each new title, observing its strengths and weaknesses as I play it. I'll track the Usenet threads on a title, then follow up with magazine reviews and finally sales reports to determine what features were responsible for its success or failure. My main goal is to avoid the pitfalls that have sunk previous titles, while offering new ideas and approaches.

Csim: Where do you go from here? When these current sims break out, what is next up for Eidos and for Bryan Walker?

Bryan: Later this year we'll begin work on an FN2 expansion disk, as well as the boxed version of Confirmed Kill.

Csim: What would be your next simulation if you had all the energy, resources and team members you needed to do anything you wanted to do?

"Virtual Baywatch."

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