Sub Command Interview
by Len "Viking1" Hjalmarson
Article Type: Interview
Article Date: Apr. 27, 2001
Game Title: Sub Command: Seawolf / Akula / 688(I)
Category: Naval Combat
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: Released
Files / Links: Click Here
An interview with Kim Castro of Sonalysts on their coming nuclear sub simulation. Set to break new ground (blue-water?), Sub Command moves far beyond 688(I).
Viking1: Kim, tell us about your military and civilian background relevant to the production of this simulation.
Castro: large percentage of the Sonalysts staff in general has a military background, mostly Navy. And a large percentage of those are retired or former members of the nuclear submarine force. We probably have twenty former sub C.O.’s on staff. Myself, I’m a former destroyer officer, and then spent several years conducting submarine system simulation analysis at a Navy lab.
Viking1: Who are the key members of your production team and what are their similar credits?
Periscope station in Jane's 688(I)
Castro: They’re all key. The team is pretty much the same as for 688(I) and Fleet Command with a few additions.
Viking1: The Jane’s license is no more. With your experience and information database, what difference does it make?
Castro: We’re using the U.S. Naval Institute databases for Sub Command. Their information databases are extensive and up to date, so they are able to provide us with all the unclassified information that we need for the game.
Viking1: The serious naval simulation crowd is hungry for new challenges, and until recently "Harpoon4" was uncertain. Do you anticipate an even larger market for "Sub Command" than for "688(I)"?
Castro: We just read that H4 is back on ... and to be honest, we're happy to hear it.
We have never tried to compete with Carl (Norman) and his guys and we look forward to seeing how H4 evolves in the coming months.
We're banking on the naval sim market being a die-hard crew. We hope that they will take a hard look at Sub Command, and judge it based on its own merits. EA has always marketed and distributed our games well, and with the additions to Sub Command to allow the novice simmer to get involved, we hope to achieve the same commercial success as we did with 688(I).
Viking1: "Fleet Command" was a fun game but wasn’t detailed enough for a serious strategy game, yet it lacked the first person perspective the sim crowd needs. Sim fans weren’t universally impressed, and strategy fans have taken the mod route to meet their requirements. Is it possible to do both things well, and is "Sub Command" both a simulation and a strategy game?
Castro: No, Sub Command will be a simulation, and therefore, more in the vein of 688(I) rather than Fleet Command. We've incorporated some features from FC, but only for the sake of playability and ease of use.
TMA Station from 688I in Sub Command
Viking1: These sophisticated simulations are challenging for the novice. How will you bring the novice up to speed?
Castro: We've tried to expand the playability of Sub Command to accommodate a larger audience, but we have no plans to lower the difficulty scale to do this. Rather, we will enable the new player to learn at his own pace and eventually become as proficient a player as many of your readers. This will be done with the use of auto-crew and the NAV screen. Sub Command will also ship with multiple training missions, to aid in the player's progression.
Viking1: This time we’ll have both a first and third person perspective on easier difficulty levels. Can the player choose a third person perspective on higher difficulty levels?
Castro: If you're referring to playing the game from the NAV screen (as the 3rd person perspective) then, yes. The NAV screen provides shortcuts for many functions. However, when used from the NAV these functions will be limited by the default settings, and more often that not, will be less successful than if the player manned the individual station himself with no auto crewmen enabled.
Seawolf Fire Control in Sub Command
Viking1: You are modeling the Seawolf, Akula and 688(I). What determined those choices?
Castro: The Seawolf is the latest and most capable nuclear submarine in the world, so that was an easy choice. The Los Angeles class is still the largest class of US subs, and the workhorse of the US sub fleet. Besides, there is a large group of dedicated 688(I) game players and we wanted to continue to support that base of players. The Akula was also an easy decision. We’re actually modeling the Akula I Improved and the Akula II. With regard to the United States’ potential adversaries, we felt that the Akula was the most capable submarine platform.
Viking1: Which of the 688(I) type will you model . . . Flight I, II or III or will all be available?
Castro: The flights refer to the hull numbers. 688's were built in two or three flights (depending on who you ask), as follows:
As with 688(I) Hunter/Killer, we’ll be modeling the Flight III 688(I) boats.
- Flight I: 688-718 (Some people further break this down between 688-699 (originally fitted w/analog FCS) and 700 and later).
- Flight II: 719-725, 750 (VLS capable, with fairwater planes)
- Flight III: All 688(I) boats (Hull 751 and later)
Sonar Station in Akula
Viking1: And how much different than Flight II is Flight III (from the sounds of it the upgrades are very significant and I know you will only be able to answer in general terms.
Castro: SSN751 and on moved the sail planes to the bow to allow for ice-ops, and also added the VLS tubes. SSN 768 and later have improved sound quieting and improved propulsion systems. Several late units (including SSN 773) have shrouded pump-jet propellers.
Viking1: The Seawolf is publicly rated as ten times more quiet over the range of its operating speed than the Improved Los Angeles class, with twice the tactical speed (20 knots) at the same noise level. That’s pretty quiet! Will it be possible for the Akula II to detect a quiet running Seawolf submarine?
Castro: We are aware of the Seawolf's prowess, however, first and foremost we still would like to create an enjoyable experience for the player. We are trying to strike that balance in our databases where the sensor ranges, noise levels, etc., are consistent, yet the missions remain "winnable" and fun.
Seawolf Ship Control Station
Viking1: The Seawolf is also the first submarine to be constructed entirely of HY-100 steel. This means it will be able to dive much deeper than the improved Los Angeles class, according to Jane’s up to 2000 feet. How many deep trials have been taken in the Seawolf?
Castro: No comment.
Viking1: The Seawolf is the successor to the Los Angeles class attack sub. The program became controversial after some problems in 1992, and then only three ships were funded, with the first boat commissioned in 1997. What is the current state of that program, and what do you think of the current state of the United States submarine program?
Castro: I’ve heard our Sonalysts president, a former submarine officer, say that there are two kinds of ships “subs and targets, and we can always use more subs.” As a former destroyer officer, I don’t necessarily subscribe to that philosophy.
Active Sonar Station in Akula
Viking1: How much solid information do you have on the Akuka I and II?
Castro: Many employees of Sonalysts have very intimate knowledge of the Akulas, and therefore we tried our best to stay as far away from them as possible! As an U.S. Government defense contractor we are extremely careful, and take very seriously the handling of classified information. Many people were helpful in disclosing information about the Akula with regard to "look and feel", and basic functionality in an unclassified setting. Then we scoured all unclassified sources that we could get our hands on in order to "fill in the blanks".
Viking1:What special challenges are there for the player in Arctic water operations?
Castro: Players will have to watch out for both pack-ice pinnacles, and ice floes. Also, when dictated by the mission, they’ll need to find areas of thin ice in which to surface through. We’re also building some ice canyons that the player will have to navigate through very carefully.
Viking1: Whenever games of this type are produced there is concern for the release of classified information. What is the approval process, or is there some kind of maintenance as development proceeds?
Castro: We have extremely strict procedures here at Sonalysts for the handling of classified material and information. Those procedures are followed continuously and meticulously to ensure that no classified information is included in the game.
Radar Station in 688(I)
Viking1: It’s more than four years since 688(I). What difference does today’s hardware make in your ability to build a realistic simulation? How far beyond 688(I) can you go in fidelity of weapons, targeting and detection, and where will the player notice the difference?
Castro: We now have the power to do a much higher fidelity detection model for sonar, which uses realistic equations for propagation loss, including environmental conditions and emitting frequencies. The player will especially see the difference in broadband and narrow band sonar, which now show significantly different performance because of the frequency dependence in underwater sound propagation. Low frequency noise travels much farther than high frequency noise, and will be identifiable earlier on a low-frequency narrow band sensor such as a towed array. Narrow band will be more important as a search tool, not just as a means to identify targets already marked in broadband.
Viking1: Will we see weapons and detection systems for the Seawolf that we didn’t see in 688I? What are they?
Castro: We’ll be modeling several new systems in Sub Command: Wide Aperture Array, wake homing, UUV, super-cavitating torpedoes.
Fire Control in 688(I)
Launch Control in 688(I)
Viking1: Some players complained that mission variety was lacking in 688(I). What will we see in Sub Command?
Castro: We’ve made a concerted effort to add scenarios that require the player to exercise restraint in order to accomplish a mission. There will also be some non-combat missions, navigating from port to open ocean, mine avoidance and mine laying, covert surveillance missions, maneuvering through an ice covered area and finding some thin ice to break through. Of course, there will also be plenty of hunker/killer type missions.
Viking1: This time around you are building a dynamic campaign. Is that a special challenge for the design team? What is the setting of the campaign or campaigns?
Castro: Answered below.
Viking1: "Dynamic" generally means a persistent world between missions, limited resources, fog of war, a logical connection between missions and a high degree of unpredictability. Are these key in the development of the campaign for Sub Command? And will the campaign be "real time?" (i.e., The war continues whether the player participates or not?)
Castro: The campaign will take place all over the Atlantic: from Connecticut, to England, to mother Russia. There will be two campaigns from the US and Russian standpoints, and some other countries will get involved when it makes sense in the story line. In essence, the conflict will be a resurgence of the Cold War set in the present day.
As far as the campaign is concerned, the new goal structure allows persistence with respect to the order of battle and status of previous goals. Therefore, if the player does not kill a particular enemy in one mission, that same enemy may re-appear in future missions (and usually in situations where that is least desirable). Also if a non-critical goal is not completed (a goal that the player does not “need” to complete in a mission) there will be ramifications in future missions. This may result in poor tactical positioning, limited intelligence on enemy locations, or the creation of additional enemies because you alerted the enemy to your presence in a previous mission. With that said, our campaign structure is more akin to a campaign made up of dynamic elements that a truly dynamic campaign where missions are generated on-the-fly.
It was a challenge from multiple standpoints ... First, we had to create an open ended way to keep track of the player's progress with respect to goals and enemies killed then tailor the upcoming mission accordingly. Second, as I mentioned, we wanted to add this functionality into the mission editor so that our designers as well as the advanced players would be able to develop the missions to the same level of quality. Lastly, we had always intended to allow the player to import missions from both 688(i) and Fleet Command, this backward compatibility nudged us in the direction we took. Therefore, the campaign structure is more akin to being made up of dynamic elements than being a truly dynamically generated campaign with a dynamic story line.
Periscope Station in Seawolf
Our intent is to allow the player to use this framework to create their own dynamic campaigns either in the mission editor at ship date or as a free download that will update the mission editor, just following launch.
Viking1: How will new information (intelligence) be presented to the player before and during missions?
Castro: The player will still be forced to retrieve message traffic using the radio mast or floating wire as was done in 688(I). However, mission status and dynamic goal performance will be available to the player at all times.
Ship Control Station in 688(I)
Viking1: The architecture is somewhat open for addition of new platforms. If this sim is highly successful, what would you like to do for an add-on or an interoperable simulation?
Castro: No comment at this time.
Viking1: The screen shots we’ve seen are impressive. Tell us about the environment . . . if we bring up the scope ten miles from land, would we see ships in a harbor? Is weather a factor?
Castro: We’re still working this issue, so I’m not really prepared to discuss the specifics right now.
Viking1: Multiplayer in 688(I) was only between similar platforms. This time the Akula II can go head to head with the Seawolf. Is that a fair fight?
Probably not, but it really depends on how each player employs his sub tactically and strategically. Also, the Akula will have a couple of unique weapon systems of its own.
Viking1: Will it be possible to play cooperatively in the campaign, so that player-controlled Seawolf and 688I, for example, could operate against surface threats?
Castro: Yes. Subs can be assigned the same side in Mission Editor, and goals can be assigned to sides instead of individual subs.
Viking1: The mission editor will allow us to import "688(I)" and "Fleet Command" missions, but is improved beyond what we saw with "688(I)". Tell us about the new editor.
Castro: The editor is based off of the editor in Fleet Command, so it’s very powerful and flexible. Some of the new features include the goal structure being modified to allow for even more control, a 3D window added to aid in the placement of 3D objects, and some map drawing and labeling tools have been added.
SONAR NB Station in Seawolf
Viking1: Does Sonalysts currently build submarine system simulations for the military?
Castro: Yes, we do. We're involved in several different types of submarine simulators and trainers, including a submarine piloting trainer, several high fidelity simulators for Navy R&D labs, and tactical decision aids that are brought to sea onboard the subs.
Viking1: There is a mythos surrounding high end (serious or hardcore) military flight simulations like "Jane's FA-18" that a virtual pilot who becomes proficient in the simulation might also perform well in the real world (issues like g tolerance aside). Would a parallel argument hold for a "Sub Command" player? Could you comment on the relevance of a simulation like "Sub Command" to the real world? Would "Sub Command" make a good introduction to a player who was destined for nuclear sub operations? How close is "Sub Command" to providing the kind of systems training environment that an actual military simulation would provide?
Castro: A Navy version of 688(I) Hunter/Killer is currently in use at the U.S. Naval Submarine School, and CNET, Chief of Naval Education & Training, recently procured additional copies to distribute to every submarine in the U.S. Navy. We've also been informed by some foreign navies that they use 688(I) to teach basic submarine/sonar operations and tactics. I think it possible that Sub Command might be used in a similar fashion.
I've attached an article written by a Sonalysts partner and published in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings magazine, February 2001 (Ed. Look for excerpts in Part IV).
TMA Station in Seawolf
Viking1: The super-cavitating torpedo designed by the Ukrainian Institute of Hydromechanics in Kiev has been known to exist since the early 90’s, but even if it does move at 200 knots, if it can only travel along a straight trajectory, is it really much of a threat?
Castro: Yes, its call Shkval (pronounced Squall). It's probably intended as a counterfire weapon - shoot down the line-of-bearing of in incoming torpedo. So, you better be off the line-of-bearing before your torpedo gets detected.
Viking1: On behalf of our readers, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Best of luck as you complete "Sub Command".
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