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Who Needs a Dynamic Campaign Anyway?
       by Mark Doran
  Or: take a sense of involvement over dynamics any day Ė we want BDA!

Howís this for heresy? It really doesnít matter whether a brand new flight simulation includes a fully dynamic real time campaign engine or not: these games hit or miss based on whether theyíre actually fun to play over a period of time.

A balanced mix of the essential ingredients is far more important than any particular implementation choice for making those elements. Unless the game makes the player feel a compelling urge to keep playing, the most dynamic campaign engine in the world wonít salvage the day. Thereís at least one essential element that feeds this urge, and many developers are paying less attention than they might. This can and does spoil the balance, but dynamics isnít it.

Conventional wisdom seems to be leaning toward the view that the more real-time and dynamic the implementation of a campaign engine is the better. But that is simply focusing on the implementation choice and not what really matters. There are both good and bad implementations of sims with fully dynamic campaign engines: consider DiDís EF2000 against Interactive Magicís much-maligned iF22 for example. Dynamic campaigns donít guarantee great sims.

To underscore that point from the flip side of the coin, there have been compelling simulations without dynamic campaign engines. Most people would have a hard time labelling the campaign engine implementation in Falcon 3 as dynamic. And yet, who wouldnít agree that Falcon 3 is one the best flight sims of all time? Its campaign engine, in its time, did a pretty good job of implementing a compelling gaming experience.

The May editorial on CombatSim takes the view that Janesí F-15 will ultimately fail the "fun over time" test and layes the blame for this on a campaign implementation that is less dynamic. While I support the view that the campaign engine in Janesí F-15 may not have as much staying power as we might have hoped in its current form, I disagree that the lack of a totally dynamic implementation is the key to this irony.

Janes F15

I say irony because it is after all Andy Hollis that guided creation of both Longbow2 and F-15 and who so eloquently argued the elements essential to a good campaign engine (also quoted in the CombatSim May editorial) and that a dynamic, real time campaign engine is not required to implement these elements. Longbow2 is perfect testimony to that reasoning and proves that Hollis is, fundamentally, quite right. The trick though is combining these elements in the right proportions to get a balanced and satisfying gameplay experience from the result.

Let me also say before we go any further that Janesí F-15 is a remarkable product in many ways and Iím having great fun learning the ins and outs of the Strike Eagle. It almost feels like treason to criticize this otherwise great work. But the campaign engine implementation is the weakest part of the whole, yet not because it lacks full dynamics.

Janes F-15 accomplishes all five of the essential elements from Hollisí definition of a good campaign engine and it does it without a real time, dynamic implementation:

1. A sense of purpose
2. Progression with player cause and effect
3. A feeling of being part of a bigger virtual world around you
4. Continuity and integrity in the virtual world
5. Variety and the unexpected

Arguably, you may be hard pressed to state more succinctly than this what it takes to make a good campaign engine. So if F-15 does all these, whatís missing?

F-15 falls short in terms of the feedback provided to virtual pilots in between missions on their performance and the state of the wider war. And to be fair, F-15 is by no means the first sim to fall short in this area. In fact this is perhaps generally one of the weaker areas in the many sims. In F-15 the weakness just seems a little more detrimental than in some other cases, perhaps because it raises the bar so high in other dimensions. What I mean by this is that while the F-15 missions themselves have interesting structure and unpredictability that neatly cover for the lack of a dynamic campaign, the debriefing and war status update information make it glaringly obvious that the missions themselves are largely self contained and that the whole lacks fluidity, the essential elements of connection and flow.

The debrief text is so obviously just a collection of disjointed elements that appear or not depending on what events are triggered during the mission. Not only are these elements disjointed but they can be repetitious and in some cases even contradictory. Consider the case of the debrief that shows your crew perishing in one sentence only to go on in the next to soundly congratulate you on a resoundingly successful mission. Something not quite right there, methinks.

Whatís more, F-15 falls into the trap of providing statistics in lieu of explicit bomb damage assessment (BDA) for the mission. To me it seems that knowing what percentage of my bombs caused hits and hence how efficient on a scale of 1 to 100 I am with said bombs is academically interesting but much less visceral and satisfying than it could be. The ratio of hits to kills just leave me puzzled as to what I hit but didnít quite nail.

Click to continue . . .

 

TAW ARMING

In this regard, Falcon 3 still rates surprisingly high. Its devices were perhaps crude by todayís standards but they were effective in their context. Mission debriefs provided a blow by blow account of who hit what and with what. Youíll notice that from this you can construct your own efficiency stats should you so choose. But more to the point the reverse is not true: if you start from the stats alone, you canít construct the BDA target list for each flight member.

To me thereís quite a difference between loosing off four BVR missiles only to net two class A fighters when compared to a haul of say two cargo planes for the same missile expenditure. Both however represent 50% BVR missile effectiveness. Which version of the reckoning would you prefer to have in green ink on your logbook, the statistic or those juicy Mig-29ís?

Also, the scrolling list of cities gained and lost between missions gave a quick feel for the tide of the war without the need to carefully examine the theatre wide map (although there were excellent add-on tools to do this in the shape of the StratFalc family of course). Fly two or three good missions in a row and the gains would start adding up. Fly two or three bad missions in a row and, well, not such good news: again a simple device but quite effective.

For a modern sim then, I would expect at least the same visceral sense of what occurred during a mission but presented perhaps more in keeping with the sophistication of other areas of current offerings. Iíve picked on F-15 here as falling short of the mark from among the current generation but as I say, itís far from alone in this regard.

This feedback element then is the crux of the matter for me. The imbalance in this area is what detracts from the otherwise strong elements of the F-15 campaign engine. But without the balance the whole is somewhat devalued and in F-15ís case unfortunately disproportionately so.

For this reason I suggest a sixth essential element be added to the definition of good and compelling campaigns. Namely, a campaign implementation must provide enough information to the virtual pilot before, during and after missions so as to ensure that players feel personal investment in the gaming experience.

Falcon 4.0

In other words, a successful campaign engine presents a situation and tools for the player so as to create a sense of urgent and anxious desire to hit that time on target, nail the DMPI on the first pass or down the marauding bombers before they level the home airbase. The sheer exhilaration that comes from meeting these challenging goals and keeping up your end of the virtual team effort is the hook that will keep gamers involved and coming back for more.

Consider this as a possible acid test. If you feel a wrench in the gut when you hear your threat warning system announce an incoming missile, not because you might have to start the mission over again, but because getting shot down and failing the mission objectives could jeopardize other elements of the war effortÖwell then you know youíve found a good campaign engine.

And a parting thought. Debriefs in general are an area of sims that are typically under exploited. I am amazed that no one has thought to incorporate BDA "photographs" as part of routine mission debriefs. Mission planners now often show target imagery in the briefing; how hard would it be to add the post strike imagery to the debrief for the same target?

The Smartview system implemented in DiDís EF2000 v2 and now F22 ADF does a great job following action all over the theatre of operations during missions. I wonder how hard it might be to extend this sort of capability to look at ground target areas on request to give players a chance to do their own post strike BDA assessment? I imagine this might give an excellent way to provide a more satisfying debrief than simple congratulations on 75% of your bombs striking a target of some unknown sort.

F22 Lantirn

For that matter, what about gun and weapon camera "footage"? This is an element that might add a highly realistic twist on the problem. Who among us would deny that watching the weapon and FLIR tapes of action in Desert Storm on CNN made the virtual pilots among us feel one step closer to the action?

This last one might be a bit harder of course but such devices as these might go a long way to adding to a sense of your virtual peers acknowledging your accomplishments in the mission. Positive reinforcement: I want my BDA and of course the bragging rites to go with it!

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

 

 

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