(This article may be found at http://www.combatsim.com/memb123/htm/2001/02/cnorman)

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Carl Norman of SSI Speaks Out


If you've been playing combat simulations for any length of time you probably know that the true aficionados of sims have become a very demanding group. Four years ago, when this site first started, sim fans, on the whole, used to post respectful messages to developers about this or that game feature and were thrilled down to their toes when a lead producer or programmer actually replied directly to their concerns. Lately, however, we've seen an uglification in the manner and tone in which hardcore simulation fans address their concerns to game producers and developers on message boards.

Perhaps this negative and disrespectful attitude is a side-effect of the debacle some of the big game companies made of some of our most beloved titles; perhaps four years of message board familiarity does breed contempt. In any case, the fact remains: there is a growing contingent of vociferous sim fans who seem to feel they are entitled to demand that sim developers and producers respond immediately to each and every posted discrepancy or anomaly observed within a game. Nowadays, if a publisher or developer doesn't respond immediately to an observed problem, or if a game community gets even the tiniest sense that no one at SimXYZ headquarters is intently listening to their concerns, they get very, very indignant and then all decorum is out the window.

Recently, within the Flanker2.com message board community, a debate was raging over some perceived discrepancies between promised features and actual features in the Flanker 2 game. In a nutshell, some members of the community felt that they had been lied to by the game's producers. Some time passed without a response from the SSI folks and it wasn't long before the demands for an explanation became more strident in their tone. Soon the entire community was divided between Flankerites who thought no misrepresentation had been made and those who did think there had been misrepresentation. But that was just Phase I of the debate.

As is typical in the combat simming community, the debate began to branch off into other areas such as the authenticity of this or that aspect of the game. Then if things weren't hot enough, there was the announcement that the word "Flanker" may be omitted from the next installment in the series. Understandably, those who had the phrase "Flanker Rules!" tattooed onto their butt were miffed to say the least. Again, a flurry of messages filled with indignant outrage were posted on the Flanker2.com boards demanding an explanation. And, as is typical, the venom in these posts was directed squarely at the people who gave the simulation life in the first place.

Finally, Carl Norman, Director of Product Development, at Game Studios / SSI, responded to all the outraged fans of the game with a lengthy post we've reproduced here with Mr. Norman's permission. You may well be asking yourself "What does a response by Carl Norman have to do with anyone outside of the Flanker community?" Quite simply, Carl's comments to the Flanker community serve as a good response to all those well-meaning fans of combat simulations who tend to let their emotions get the better of them when a title doesn't meet their own incredibly high standards.

Therefore, if you have ever made an outraged post on a message board demanding that a sim developer or publisher atone for getting some small detail in the game wrong, you'd do well to read Mr. Norman's post---you may just think twice before biting the hand of the next sim-producing company that attempts to feed you. If you've never made an outraged post, you can still benefit from Mr. Norman's response because it explains, in the most candid manner we've ever seen, some of the realities surrounding the production of complex simulations like Flanker 2.

Carl "Stormin'" Norman's Post

Flanker Fans,
I've asked Matt, your primary source here online for Flanker information, for a little "air time" to get some things off my chest. Please remember - If the shoe fits, wear it.

There has been much hate and discontent in several recent threads, particularly the "What Flanker 2.0 should have been" topic. I thought I'd clear the air with some straight shootin'.

The topic thread had posted an interview from Combatsim.com that was removed from the post for copyright reasons. The interview in question featured Nick Grey, the Managing Director of Eagle Dynamics, the developer for the Flanker Product Line. It was published in February of 1998 by Combatsim.com.

In the interview, Nick states what the current plans were, with regards to features, capabilities, and content for what was then referred to as “Su-27 2.0.” Obviously, not everything mentioned made it into the final “Flanker 2.0” project. If you consider the interview to be a set of promises being made about a product that was in the early design phase, then we apologize for not meeting your expectations. It is, in my humble opinion, that it is a mistake to consider early speculation on the content of a software product to be canon.

Another interview that was mentioned in this thread is one that Igor Tishin, Manager of Eagle Dynamics, gave to a Russian magazine or website. I have no knowledge of what was contained in that interview but I understand that screenshots from a high-resolution technology demonstrator that was being used to render models being used for Flanker 2.0 were displayed. There is NO WAY he would have alluded that these shots were from a Beta version of the product. If it states that in the interview, it is a mistake. I am confident that Mr. Tishin, a personal friend of mine, NEVER intended to deceive anyone and would never make a statement regarding alluding that the shots were Beta when the project was still in the design phase.

The screenshots that accompany the interviews were taken from a very high-resolution technology demonstration video and series of still shots that Eagle produced to display the graphics potential and the 3-D modeling that was being considered for the product. These are images that are HIGHLY RENDERED. It took hours to render them on what was, at the time, a high-end machine. Obviously, the detail was too much for the final engine and while the graphics in Flanker 2.0 are as good or better than most modern combat simulations, they were not to the level that was reached in the technology demonstration. The terrain, aircraft, and vehicles in the high-resolution video and stills were the actual models being using in the game engine, they were highly enhanced, obviously. Unfortunately, the distinction was not made clear in several interviews that used these shots as well as the now famous “sizzle demo” AVI file that was released in 1998 that stated that the video used actual game views. This was a big mistake and we went online and not only admitted the mistake, we apologized for it and removed the statement saying the shots were from the game. I was involved in the clean-up process for this debacle several years ago and I cringe to have to revisit the affair again. This is old news and has been covered several times by myself and other members of the Flanker Team these past three years. No one was trying to intentionally deceive the users. What purpose would that serve? If you want to believe in conspiracy then this is a minor one that you can enjoy to your heart’s content. If we maintained that the features and quality of graphics, as represented in that interview, on the actual box found on the store shelves, then you have every right to complain. Last time I looked, the box did not contain any shots from the technology demonstration. Even if we did maintain that these shots and videos were from the game, do any of you really think resolution that high would run smoothly even on the processors we have three years later? Give me a break!

The fidelity of the flight models, avionics, and weapons have always been an important factor in the development in all of our simulation products. The modeling is better in Flanker 2.0 than in Su-27 V1.x. The development team had better information. While we do our best to be as accurate as possible, there are times when we come up short or have to improvise, or even adjust. Sometimes we approximate, and sometimes we abstract. We’re sorry that your favorite plane or ship did not make it in the game, or the we have an RBU-6000 instead of an RBU-12000 antisubmarine weapon mount on the wrong ship, but we have limited resources and time in which to make this type of product. We have to make reasonable and optimal decisions. It is very easy to second-guess our decisions. I invite any of the so-called critics to do a better job on a complex combat air simulation. We evaluate what information we have and make our decision on how it will effect the overall quality and playability of the product. Sometimes we err by being too hardcore and other times we go too far making things easier. Overall we attempt to give the product balance. It is impossible to satisfy everyone and meet the standards that all of you have on an individual basis. Despite this, we still welcome input that we review and give serious consideration. Some of you people get upset if we don’t act on your every idea or suggestion. Sorry, but it’s not personal.

Let’s put things into perspective. The average cost of the retail version of Flanker 2.0 is about $40.00 US. I’m confident that the cost for the Russian version is similar. If you look at what we have provided in Flanker 2.0 and consider the amount of work and investment in time and money put forth to produce the product, the price is very reasonable. If you consider the various requests by several of the online community here in the forum and put in just a cross-section of some of the high fidelity and realism considerations that have been requested, you will need to pay much more for this product. Also take into consideration the market for this type of product. It is more than obvious that the hardcore fan, while loyal and active in the community, is not numerous enough to really justify doing a high-end combat flight simulation. If our future product (currently called “Flanker: Attack”) cannot penetrate and be accepted by a wider audience, well… you know…there will not be any more Flanker-like products (at least by SSI) for a long while. Also, factor in the fact that we have stood behind this product, warts and all. We STILL stand behind the product and are about to release the V2.5 upgrade. Most of you will be pleased with V2.5; some of you will never be pleased because your expectations can never be met. To be frank, those of you that can not accept the facts should move on as it is impossible for any of us to satisfy your requirements. It is impossible give you the enormous amount of time to explain every nuance of the product and the decision making process that we went through for each feature.

Some of the recent criticism is really ridiculous. The fact that we have a wide variety of SAM systems present in the Order of Battle is to give the user variety. If you find the presence of a system to be inaccurate or out of place, then don’t use it! We are not going to the level where we have SAMs modeled to be capable of taking out Theater Ballistic Missiles, and we admit that not every system and missile is 100% accurately modeled. The fact that the art work of a particular missle has a rounded nose instead of pointed nose is trivial. There are approximations and that is the reality of the scope of a product of this nature under the constraints we have to operate under to produce a product for commercial release. You have all the flexibility with the Editor to do just about anything you want. I love the editor and often play Flanker without flying myself. I enjoy setting up attacks and defenses and letting them playout.

Some of you expect the AI to perform like a Top Gun Graduate or to behave like a recent attendee at Red Flag. Sorry, as with most computer AI, the AI in Flanker is pretty stupid. You are not going to get textbook responses from a computer AI piloted aircraft in a commercially produced entertainment software product. If you can pay several hundred dollars per copy then maybe we can get you an AI package that will really surprise you (we'll need that money up front, by the way.) Let’s be realistic about the AI and understand the limitations that have to exist in the circumstances. To expect a defense contractor standard for our simulation is pure ignorance. If you hate the AI, start playing online against a human opponent.

I’ve spent time working with the programmers who coded Flanker 2.0 and I can tell you that these folks are professionals who do an outstanding job. They are constantly making revisions to improve the AI with each version we create. Some of the comments made in postings here in the forum about their abilities are insulting. If any of you think you can do a better job then feel free to submit your code samples. Despite some of the naysayers here online, I feel the Team did a damn good job on this product. Some of you have even gone as far as to state that we’ve “deliberately deceived” you. What could possibly motivate us to lie to the public? Sure we have made mistakes, but we admit our faults and move on with new vigor to get things right.

Those of us that remain working on this genre have high hopes about the future, but we are still apprehensive about our chances for success based upon the way the community behaves and the historical data relating to the sales of combat flight simulators. The early plans for Flanker: Attack were to do what we needed to make the product acceptable to a wider audience while retaining the elements that appeal to the hardcore crowd. This is not an easy undertaking, to say the least. We’re still committed to finishing this product, but the odds are against us both internally and externally. It is a bad time to be working on a combat flight simulation product.

I’ve just returned after a week in Moscow with my friends at Eagle Dynamics. They are a dedicated and hard working crew who are performing outstanding work. I saw many exciting and innovative things for the Flanker: Attack project. I firmly believe that this is going to be a kick ass product. Sorry, but I will not go into detail because we are just not ready to provide any more information relating to the features and contents of FA. We plan on announcing more sometime in February. Stay tuned.

While we certainly appreciate the input, advice, recommendations, and even the constructive criticism. You’d have to walk a mile in our shoes to appreciate the frustration we feel when individuals do not consider that facts of the situation. Some of the recent postings have been insulting and ignorant, to say the least. Nothing is “easy” to change. There is no way to please every single user. If we do not act on your recommendation it doesn’t mean we did not consider it or that we don’t love you anymore.

The past year has been very tough on me and several others working on Flanker. With the reorganization of our Studio, the sale of the company by Mattel, and my additional duties, I was unable to spend the time needed on the Flanker projects. Unfortunately, there was really no one else to manage the Flanker line at the time. This hurt the project and caused delays.

I am very, very pleased to now have Tim Goodlett and Matt Wagner on the Team. These Lads and the fine folk at Eagle are just what this project needs to be successful. Tim and Matt are doing an outstanding job on these and our other simulation projects.

The only other thing we really need now is the support of the community. Not just the Flanker community, the entire simulation community. It is time for all of us to support this product line and encourage others to do the same. All of you need to go out and get others interested in this product. Once we start putting up the promotional material on this site for the product we need you to help direct others in the community to get on this forum.

This is our last shot people. I am not kidding when I say that if FA is not successful, that is it - Game over.


Carl C. Norman
Director of Product Development
Game Studios / SSI
The Learning Company

"Retreat? Hell, we just got here!"

- U.S. Marine Captain
France, 1917

Here is the link to the original post: A Few Thoughts From Stormin' Norman (This link is no longer valid, but the forum link below still works.)

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(This article may be found at http://www.combatsim.com/memb123/htm/2001/02/cnorman)