Unsung Heroes Part I
by Aaron "Spectre" Watson
About This Series
A strange noise emanated from a nondescript closet in a suburban Sacramento home. The glow from the television showed some red type on a black background that spell out the word "MicroProse". This strange word then fades into an even stranger-looking aircraft whose identification soon becomes clear when the words "Project: Stealth Fighter" appear around it.
Thus began my foray into combat flight sims on the ubiquitous C64 (Commodore 64). I actually “flew” my first sim called “Tank-buster” on a DEC PDP-8, as my first BASIC programming language project. This had no graphics, no monitor, just a TTY (teletype-like printout) , so it doesn’t really count. Other fine products soon came from this upstart known as MicroProse or "MPS" for short. Such classics as F-19 Stealth Fighter, F-15 Strike Eagle, and Gunship come quickly to this decidedly dated mind.
MPS's concept of the F-117
The original Gunship
Even early on, sim-fiends were looking for an edge, or something to assist in the elusive immersion factor. Early attempts were little more that logbook editors, and other DOS-based hacks. With the advent of a truly historic simulator, Falcon 3.0, a group calling themselves Flying Muffin gave us a glimpse of the future. With Falcon 3.0’s semi-open architecture, there were code enhancements that could be implemented and Strategic Falcon was born. It was offered for sale via computer magazines and BBS’s. I’m sure no one retired on the revenues, but it was a very nice upgrade to a very good simulator.
Then it happened, the Internet struck the world like lightening! Information of such density that the mind could not possibly comprehend it all. Niches were formed, and websites hosted by simulation companies to peddle their wares and provide information coalesced. Modern BBS’s were now called forums. Assistance and flame wars were exchanged in equal measure. And it was on these forums that something truly magical started to happen: Gifted folks started to tweak this and mess with that, and with this marvelous medium of the Internet were able to share those tweaks, hacks, mods, and add-ons with others. Groups formed and leaders emerged. Websites imparting wisdom on my most revered subject came into being. These places became Mecca’s and repositories for the latest, greatest game enhancements.
Lately, however, dark days have come. The plethora of newer, groovier sim’s has slowed to a trickle. A few of those that did come out were in need of life support seeing as they were ripped from their creator’s wombs before reaching full development. As I mentioned above, the Internet is populated by gifted folks who can tweak code and these same people saw the potential in these diamonds in the rough. With their highly skilled massaging, new frontiers within the code were opened. There are many such stories, but I would like to focus on a few with which I am more familiar. In the coming articles I would like to present the men and women that keep their favorite sim’s alive by adding to them in new and evermore creative ways. All of this is done gratis. There are no medals to be won, just the odd expression of appreciation on a forum mixed in with requests for support. To do these things, for exceedingly limited personal gain, makes all of them Unsung Heroes in my book.
And that leads me to the purpose of this series: to shed some light and praise on those private individuals who have enhanced our enjoyment of this pastime we call combat simming.
The Ultimate Jet Sim!
Back in late 1998, Hasbro Interactive wanted to hit the shelves with a project that had been going on for years in their newly acquired subsidiary, Microprose. Christmas exposure is a major thing for a toy company, so it is not surprising that this project suffered from that need to meet the Christmas product launch window. There has been much debate on this subject, but Microprose and Hasbro tried to rectify this premature product release with a series of patches. During the waits for these patches, some amazing people started looking through the code for insights into preventing the frequent crashes to desktop and repairing a host of other gameplay foibles. In so doing, other areas of possible end-user customization were found, one of the first of which were the textures covering the aircraft.
Going into the hex addresses of certain files in Falcon 4.0 would allow the changing of aircraft paint schemes or “skins” as they are called. This was when some of the more brilliant individuals started to shine within the relatively close-knit community. A standalone program was developed that gave the more adventurous the ability to swap the individual image files that made up the aircraft's outer appearance. This was created by a man who’s contributions are unparalleled in the F4 community. "FNG", also known as Julian Onions, created the F4skin.exe utility. The community then saw a flood of contributions by talented artists who created skins based on real-life squadrons, virtual squadrons, and flights of fancy. A gentleman by the handle of "Cyborg8" came out with some sharp-looking camouflaged Viper skins but he died suddenly and the entire community mourned his passing. I couldn’t believe the out-pouring of condolences. There is still a memorial page in his honour at the Falcon40 website.
Patches were forthcoming from the publishers, and stability improved. Insights were gained by the hex-coders, and other areas for improvement were discovered. As a result, suggestions for further improvements to sound, cockpits and gameplay were soon being bounced around in the Delphi forum. Julian Oninons made more standalone programs that allowed fiddling with the inner workings of the campaigns, weapons load-outs, and even the terrains used. Thanks to these new, end-user-created tools, offshoot groups formed and were able to create entirely new theaters of battle. I assisted in a small way by hand tweaking some of the more than 25,000 texture tiles in the Balkans Theater. Other folks branched out and studied the nuances of flight models, weapons behavior, and other minute details. iBeta was formed and the first set of Realism patches were produced by this team of dedicated programmers.
Then some rather unsettling events transpired a year after Falcon 4.0 was released: The final, officially released patch, version 1.08, saw the end of the F4 development team and any planned add-ons. Just around Christmas 1999 the entire team was given pink slips. There was, however, some last minute tweaks made and released as patch v108i2, which was unofficial, but it was still from Robin Heydon who was one of the MicroProse staff programmers. And then . . . it happened.
From sources unknown, the entire Falcon 4.0 version 1.07 raw source code was leaked and soon was spreading like wildfire via the Internet. Divisions formed within the community, debates raged, legalities swirled. After the controversies settled down, the hexers kept on hexing, and others looked into the source for possible opportunities of further enhancement. New fixes from both camps (those who just hex edited the compiled game code and those who worked directly on the leaked source code) abounded and then another end-user magician by the name of Joel Bierling entered the scene. Bierling created a wonderful program that allowed selective installation of all the known fixes so long as the hacks, tweaks, and fixes were written in the now standard *.f4p format. The flexibility of applying your own patches and saving them in your desired configuration was unbelievable!
Most of the patchers worked from the standard 108i2.exe, but then a fellow by the name of eRazor began creating enhancements based on the 1.07 patch standard. Releases of eRazor's tweaked versions of Falcon 4.0 were aimed at total compatibility with the Microsoft Direct 3D API as 3Dfx was not everybody’s graphics choice. With the latest release, 1.0799, F4Patch was able to converse with this augmentation.
Engines shut down. Note the zero RPM's.
What these individuals were able to do went well beyond what commercial programmers normally supply with their product. And the fact that this is all being done on these gentleman’s own time, solely for the betterment of a simulation they love, is well above and beyond the call of duty.
In the coming articles I’ll take a look at some prop sims and the selfless efforts of a small group of fans to assist the larger community.
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(please see note below before proceeding to forum.)
COMBATSIM would like your input for a new category of awards devoted to the efforts of end-user-created game enhancements. We would like your suggestions for not only the categories of awards and those who should be nominated under each category, but also what we should call the awards. For example, award categories could include the following:
We will use the Article Feedback forum for the input and then, when we've all agreed on the categories and nominees, we will create a publicly-accessible poll (i.e, you won't need to subscribe to the articles and forums to vote). COMBATSIM.COM will arrange for some prizes for the winners and we'll also create a special, and again, publicly-accessible section of the site to display all the winners' names.
- Best Skin
- Best Terrain
- Best Add-on
- Best Modification
- Best Utility
We do not want these to be a COMBATSIM.COM awards per se; rather, we hope these awards will be something like the People's Choice Awards for movies. Perhaps an appropriate name for the awards would be Players' Choice, or Simmers' Choice. We can vote on that issue too if required. All we ask is that we be allowed to remain the main sponsor of record for these awards.
We hope this will become a regular event each year!
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