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Target For Tonight

by Steve MacGregor

Article Type: Interview
Article Date: August 08, 2001

There seems to be an impression amongst many sim fans that the development of new games is somehow curtailed by a conspiracy of commercial interests. Cold-hearted, grey-suited corporate money men, so the theory goes, stifle the creative impulses of dedicated and enthusiastic developers in order to maximize profits. We are denied stunning sims that include every imaginable bell and whistle only because there isn't any additional profit in it. Left to themselves, the developers would code tirelessly until they had produced the "perfect" sim.

Hmm. Like most conspiracy theories, it's kind of attractive. But I'm not sure it's true. I suppose I should come clean here and admit that in my spare time (i.e. when I'm not penning deathless prose for COMBATSIM), I run a very small software development company. So I have more than a little sympathy for balancing a desire to produce the best product possible with the need to pay the rent. As I see it, any commercial software development will inevitably involve a compromise between making the game and making a profit.

So what's the alternative? One possibility is what's being called the "grass roots" sim. Here, individual developers, often working in their spare time, produce a game without the paraphernalia of a large corporation. Theoretically this cuts out everything except the desire to produce the best possible game and all resources are channeled into development. Again, it's an attractive proposition, but can it really work? We have come a long way since the bedroom developers who produced so many gems for the Spectrum and C64. The games that we demand are now phenomenally complex, so can they really be produced without the resources of a large company?

One of the most interesting grass roots sims currently in production is Target for Tonight, a World War II sim focusing on the RAF night bombing campaign over Germany. The game is being developed entirely by volunteers, and all profits will go to charity. Although still in development, the feature list already looks impressive. It includes;

  • At least seven flyable aircraft (Lancaster, Halifax, Stirling and Mosquito for the RAF and Ju-88, Bf-110 and He-219 Uhu night fighters for the Luftwaffe)
  • Ground defenses including Radar controllers, flak batteries and searchlights
  • A dynamic single-player campaign that includes economic effects to reflect the results of bombing
  • Dynamic weather
  • A persistent on-line campaign
  • Accurate celestial navigation, including nocturnal effects such as the moon, aurora and meteorites
  • The ability for third-party developers to modify and add to the game through the software developers kit
Add to this the following claims:

"Target For Tonight aims to be one of the highest quality simulations ever available for the PC" and,
"The aircraft included in Target For Tonight will be recreated with uncomparable attention to technical detail."

And you have something that would sound impressive if it came from a major software developer. But, can a group of volunteers really hope to produce something this ambitious? To answer this and other questions, I was recently fortunate to be able to interview Richard Gall, the person heading the development team behind Target for Tonight.

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Steve MacGregor: First of all, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I know there is a great deal of interest in “Target for Tonight,” both because of its many proposed features, and because of the way in which it is being developed. Where did the idea for the game originate?

Richard Gall: The idea to create a WWII flight simulation came after we learned that multiplayer had been dropped from B-17 II. A lot of us had been looking forward to that and during an online chat ideas were passed around and eventually the project was founded. It wasn't until months later that we decided that we would cover the RAF night bombing campaign.

S.M. Why did you choose to develop this as a not-for-profit venture?

R.G. Being non commercial means we have the ability to create this simulation more freely. The team consists of professional volunteers, not paid staff from a commercial organization. The team is also made up from people all over the globe, including Europe, the United States and as far away as Japan. Because profits and monetary gain isn't an issue, we have freedom to create what we envision without fear or repercussions of publisher deadlines. Previous projects similar to Target for Tonight in structure failed due to strife caused when money became an issue, so with any profits going to appropriate charities it's never an issue.
“Previous projects similar to 'Target for Tonight' in structure failed due to strife caused when money became an issue, so with any profits going to appropriate charities it's never an issue.”

S.M. What led you to choose the RAF night bombing campaign over Germany as the focus for “Target for Tonight”?

R.G. That didn't happen overnight, it evolved over a period of time. The night bombing campaign became our direction for numerous reasons, including WWII technological advances, different engagement tactics, different bombing tactics, different environment with a highly controversial area consisting of an untold story. The key word there is "different". The night bombing campaign is fascinating in many ways, not just in new technologies on both sides, but it also includes detailed aircraft and roles not found in day-based simulations. The ordnance is also different, the Lancaster bomber for example could carry ordnance many times that of a fully-laden B-17.

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S.M. When did development start, and how far on are you? You mention on the website that a first public prototype will be available in the "near future". What will this prototype include, and when will it be available?

R.G. Development started as soon as the idea came to mind. From there it has increased as more and more talented individuals join the team. We are still quite early in the development timeline however a lot of time is being invested in research and development. This will allow us to provide long-term technologies that can be easily modified by third party developers to create entirely new simulations. Anyone who looks at the planned features will realise we have a lot of detail planned as well as many unique features. To implement these features properly we need to do some research and experimentation. We could of course work quickly, but the results would be overshadowed by poor quality. We are using the fact that we have no publisher pressure to do things "right". This may take longer, but at the end of the day it will provide not just an incredible night bombing experience, but also the technological backbone for third party simulations (including daylight sims).

The first prototype will consist of a technology demo, including a sample of the terrain engine, the atmosphere and the in-game aircraft systems. Due to some changes this will take a while longer than previously expected. From here the prototypes will expand in features and eventually become early betas, through to the full release. (Anyone who has followed the Half-Life mod “Counterstrike” will be familiar with this process).

S.M. Which feature of development to date are you most happy with?

R.G. Everything. The aircraft models are gorgeous, the terrain engine is coming along nicely and the original music is also refreshing. You could say we're on target ;) (groan)
“The aircraft models are gorgeous, the terrain engine is coming along nicely and the original music is also refreshing. You could say we're on target ;) (groan)”

S.M. How many people are involved in creating the game, and do they have any previous experience of flight sim development?

R.G. We have a dozen active members on the development team. A number of team members have experience in flight sim development and have worked for a wide varieties of companies on a few projects. These include Microsoft, Microprose, DiD and SSI.

Zoom In

S.M. Can you name any flight sims that have influenced and/or inspired you?

R.G. We've all played the most common and popular flight simulations out there. Ala CFS/2, B-17, EAW, WWII Fighters, etc. We also each have our different reasons for liking each one the best. Our goal is to take what we like from each simulation as inspiration and use that experience in productive ways. Luckily, numerous vistors to our site send us comments via the feedback form which also helps us know what people like/dislike about the simulations currently available.

S.M. OK, now for a difficult one. “Target for Tonight” seems to be a massively detailed simulation. Given that in recent years we have seen a number of major developers pulling out of partially completed sims after many months, and in some cases years, of development, what makes you confident that you can finish this game?

R.G. Actually this is an easy one. The reason(s) why we believe we can finish the game and where we may even have some benefits over a high investment commercial venture is: a) We are self-funding, no financial or contractual obligations, b) We are self-publishing, no publisher pressure or deadlines and c) We have the attitude "as long as it takes" to do it right, d) No one is relying on T4T to make a living, meaning it should never become overbearing and a burden.

The truth is, the simulations that are released in a half finished state are usually so because of publisher pressure. When big bucks are involved this is understandable, however everyone knows just how annoying this is.

S.M. You have chosen to build a 3D engine from scratch for this game. This sounds like a huge project in itself. Why did you do this rather than trying to adapt an existing engine?

R.G. No publically accessible engine can provide what we want. In order to maximize the unique features included in Target for Tonight it became clear that we would have to start from the ground up. This also has other benefits, for example we will be able to design the whole game engine to handle third party modifications easier—allowing more productivity for those in the future using the T4T engine as a base for a new simulation. Specialized optimizations are also key.

Why spread butter on cold toast when you can build an oven yourself and cook a five course meal? Sure it's VERY hard work and it does add a lot of time to the development timeline, but that's the price for achieving our goals I'm afraid.

Zoom In

S.M. Can you explain what will be possible through use of the Software Developer Kit?

R.G. Almost everything will be possible through the SDK. We will provide tools for everything. Texture artists…for example. Let's just say you want to create a new aircraft skin, we will provide a 3D tool that will allow you to easily position and alter your graphics in real time. So you can see straight away how the new skin looks in real time 3D while you work.
“Almost everything will be possible through the SDK. We will provide tools for everything.”
Our goal is also to allow third parties to include their own aircraft meshes. This is a more complex, however, it's not quite as simple as just making a mesh in a 3D modelling program then exporting it—there are procedures that must be followed.

The ultimate mod developer will be able to use the SDK and provided code libraries to create entirely new simulations based on the Target for Tonight technology. This includes daytime simulations as despite being a night bombing simulation, the in-game environment supports 24-hour cycles. This won't be easy, however, you will need to be experienced in C (preferably with game development experience), you will also need to have a decent understanding of Direct3D despite T4T handling most of that for you.

S.M. Your website shows renders of the Lancaster as it will appear in the game. When can we expect to see other aircraft, and screenshots showing aircraft in the nocturnal environment?

R.G. In the relatively near future. Unfortunately I cannot provide a specific date at this stage. Two aircraft are currently being worked on: the Bf 110 and the Mosquito. We will provide screenshots on these as soon as quality renders become available. The nocturnal environment is also under development and will take a while to evolve to the level of detail to make screenshots worthwhile. A lot of our work on the engine is technological right now, we would rather create a solid structure at the cost of quick eye candy. They will be worth the wait, however, that is certain.

Zoom In

S.M. It seems reasonable to suppose that the vast majority of the action in the game will take place in darkness. Given that the game is set before the introduction of night-vision systems, how will you avoid having the player spending long periods looking at a black screen?

R.G. The night is deceptive, there are numerous light sources in the sky to provide some form of focal point. These include the moon, stars, meteorites, aurora with numerous weather effects, including lightning. Also the sky is rarely pitch black, especially during summer months when the sky over Europe is often a deep blue. Vision is also re-created, so your eyes will take time to adjust if exposed to a bright flash, plus you will find vision in darkness improves over time appropriately.

Crewmen will also be able to view their instruments using red lighting, which allows them to see, without exposing them to enemy aircraft. Users shouldn't expect to look at a completely blank screen.

Once you hit enemy territory, you can expect the sky to be anything but black. Tracers will glaze across the sky, burning wrecks will fall from the sky in flaming dramatics, not to mention the numerous search lights cascading across the cloud line with the flash-bangs from flak shells. Once you experience that, you will long for the darkness to hide in.
“Tracers will glaze across the sky, burning wrecks will fall from the sky in flaming dramatics, not to mention the numerous search lights cascading across the cloud line with the flash-bangs from flak shells.”

S.M. Could you describe a "typical" mission as you envision it in the game, with the elements of planning, execution and post-raid analysis that will be available to the player?

R.G. It depends on the type of setup you have. We plan on two modes, similar to bomber commander and squadron commander in B-17 II. The first allows you to focus on your own aircraft, your own crew, with missions posted from the higher powers in Bomber Command. You will view the mission briefing and depending on the circumstances you will be able to review your ordnance. You will then take off for the target at dusk. Boom. Assuming you don't get killed or become a POW you then return to base at dawn. Naturally this is a summary, there is a lot more to it than that, especially with the complex cat-and-mouse games of deception incurred by the RAF and Luftwaffe ground defenses.

The squadron commander equivalent lets you play as Bomber Command, selecting targets, recommending ordnance, choosing mission dates/times/crews.

Zoom In

S.M. How will the multiplayer game work (for example, will it be possible for players to man different positions in the same aircraft?), and how will multiplayer missions differ from single player missions?

R.G. First up we plan on persistent server campaigns, allowing users to participate in a real on-going war. Individual missions will also be available for quick sessions, such as co-op (dambusters anyone?) and free-for-all.

Yes, every position available in single player will be available in multiplayer (this includes ground control/defences). Aircraft can be fully manned by humans, so it's possible for vCrews to form, filling a Lanc for example in MP. The server supports AI crewmen also, so whatever positions required in an aircraft will consist of AI crewmen.

It will be possible to switch positions. This is easy if the position is covered by an AI crewman, you simply replace him. If a human occupies the slot, they are asked if they are willing to swap. They then have the choice and so organized vSquads out there will definitely benefit over a crazy crew formed in a random public server.

The server will also be highly configurable, allowing DID rules as well as optional respawning. In the latter, if you are killed, you can rejoin as another available AI slot. So imagine you're a Luftwaffe pilot…you get shot down and killed…you can then respawn as a flak operator or man a search light. Server pending of course.

It's worth noting that we are taking a VERY serious stance against online cheaters and aim to implement numerous methods to stop this from happening (and ruining!) the session.
“It's worth noting that we are taking a VERY serious stance against online cheaters and aim to implement numerous methods to stop this from happening (and ruining!) the session.”

S.M. Will there be a mission builder?

R.G. Mission builder and campaign builder.

Zoom In

S.M. How will Target for Tonight compare with, for example, “B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty 8th!”?

R.G. Target for Tonight will be most similar to B-17 than any other simulation. The reason being it focuses with high levels of detail on the aircraft involved. Naturally there are a wide variety of differences, but the fundemental goals are similar—to provide a detailed re-creation of a specific airwar in WWII over Europe.

S.M. How will the campaign (or campaigns?) work?

R.G. The campaign engine will be incredibly dynamic. Like real life—every action has a reaction and consequence. So if you go nuts and take a Mosquito into enemy airspace, bomb your primary target, then also take out a bridge as a bonus, that bridge will affect enemy transportation. This concept of re-created infrastructure is very important as it means the user can apply real life strategies to test "what if" theories.

Transportation also functions in real-time, so imagine a train carrying ammunition sets off from a station—one hour later it's halfway to its destination when it's strafed by a Mosquito. The location the train was supplying will never receive the supplies and in turn may run low and have to request more from the source. Trucks traveling along roads will also try to evade attacking aircrafts' strafing runs.

In other words, you really can make a difference with everything you do. This will provide a whole new level of immersion. Of course there will be scripted individual missions such as re-creating the dambusters raid, but that is required also.

Zoom In

S.M. How much will the completed game cost and how will it be distributed?

R.G. The completed game will be available to download for free. There is no charge per-se for Target for Tonight. The truth is, most users still don't have broadband connections and because the download will be big (many hundreds of megs) T4T will be available on commercial quality CD. This basically means it will be of the same quality you would expect if you bought it in your local games store. Right now, however, the biggest cost is patience.

The cost for the CD version will be enough to cover the production of each unit, which won't be much, but in theory the more people who pre-order it at the appropriate time the cheaper it will be for everyone. :)

S.M. Thanks Richard. Good luck to you and the team, I'm sure that we all hope you succeed.

You can follow development of Target for Tonight at their web site

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