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I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing one of the key programmers of Falcon 4.0 today. His name is Kevin Klemmick. After talking with Kevin for more than 90 minutes (we were scheduled for 30), I concluded a few things that shape this article.
First and foremost (and I had the same feeling about the co-producer, Steve Blankenship), I concluded that these guys are truly gentlemen. They are sincere and enthusiastic, and they genuinely enjoy talking to the customers and press people in their field.
I attended E3 in Atlanta in 1998, and I know "hype" when I see and hear it. This is not to say that there is no "hype" behind Falcon 4, because all products have " hype". But Kevin is a gamer and a programmer, not a marketing guy. And his demeanor and candor were completely refreshing. Kevin never once attempted to blind me with "hype", or sing "the party line". He is a straight shooter, and was willing to divulge the good, the bad and the ugly. This made him very credible in my book. I was genuinely impressed with his enthusiasm for the game, and the honesty and pain which he reflected on as we discussed Falcons past, present and future.
I have decided to write up this interview in a less than traditional format. I will depart from the usual "Q&A" format. It's not my style. But I recorded our interview, and this article will be written directly from the recording. Those of you curious about what we can expect in the next few months in regard to his area of the game (The TE mission builder, the Ground war elements of TE, and multiplayer in general) should read on.
Kevin is a 29-year-old guy whose passions for gaming (and multiplayer gaming to be specific) date back to the days of BBSs 10 years ago. He actually wrote a multiplayer BBS game that was well known in San francisco called "Land of the Lost". He made his initial contacts in Silicon valley with members of the team that he works with today. He was raised in Virginia, and his education included 7 years at the California Polytechnic Institute of Pomona, where he studied Aerospace engineering and Computer Science. He also was a member of ROTC and had some army training.
Kevin is the longest standing member of the Falcon 4.0 team, and has been working on the project for 4 years. He was originally hired to design a "dynamic campaign". He speaks fondly of the early days, when that was a big "buzz word". We laughed together that it is more of a buzzword today than ever. He was free to listen to players and enthusiasts, and develop his own idea of what makes a campaign truly "dynamic".
As most of you are already beginning to see as you play it, he truly does understand "dynamic campaign" as the scholarly players in our field (like the meticulous
Jeff "Rhino" Babineau and that crazy Cajun, Pierre "PAPADOC" Legrand) think it to be. After all, it is the true players like these (no matter how different their style may be) who ultimately define these terms. Klemmick listened. He knew what it meant for a campaign to take on a life of it's own, where every mission was "thought up and designed" by the AI on the fly, as a result of the prior missions.
Kevin gave me some technical insight as to how the AI runs that I found very interesting. He realized early on that a single level AI would never produce a "real world" feel, because in the real world, decisions in the military are made at many different levels. In his attempt to understand and then reproduce military (and human) thinking, he made a multi-tiered AI system. You can imagine a room full of 5-star Generals with a big "battle board" making "big picture" decisions, such as "We need to take Seoul". He calls these decisions "hi level".
Strategy Selection Option
Screens. Click for Larger Image.
Clearly, there are many hi level decisions being made simultaneously in a Falcon 4 campaign, following a plan of attack with an "ultimate goal" in mind. Each campaign has its "ultimate goal" and they are pretty well spelled out for you in the little movies that introduce each campaign. In fact, the concept of a "mini-campaign" in the TE editor also has its "ultimate goals". They are set up in the "victory conditions" screen. As you read on, you will begin to realize that the TE editor utilizes many, but not all, of the multi-tiered AI subsystems of the campaign. Those parts that it does not use, the human mind is left to replace.
This is where things get very dynamic and very interesting. I once read on the Newsgroups one guy griping that the campaign couldn't be dynamic, because every time he starts the campaign, he gets the same set of missions. He couldn't be more wrong. A chess game between 2 humans is as dynamic as a campaign can get. It NEVER plays out the same way twice. It twists and winds around every move and countermove. And yet it still needs a standard starting point.
Every chess game ever played started with the exact initial setup. The 3 campaigns currently available for Falcon 4 are analogous to 3 different chessboard setups at the start of the game. And the 3 different ways to win (in one game, you get the king, for example. In another, you eliminate all pawns and rooks.) Even real wars start at some balance of power and position of troops. No matter how many times you look at the initial pieces on a chessboard, the game takes on a life of it's own once the initial moves are made. This campaign is dynamic in exactly the way its most vocal fans wanted it.
Once these "hi level" AI decisions are made, they are passed down to the mid-level AI. This is kind of like the 1 star Generals in the field meeting with their battalion commanders and airforce leaders. "OK boys, in order to take Seoul, we need to create a corridor of entry for our planes and ground troops. Let's start by knocking out their radar and softening up the defenses in the area." Now the mid-level AI actually starts making decisions about what resources to utilize based on those available.
And remember, as the war moves on, resources change. A lot of guys even make their first move or two in chess the same way, but if they suddenly get their bishop whacked, well then. Things start to change, eh? You start re-evaluating your resources and possibly allocate more towards defensive maneuvering. Etc. Dynamic.
The mid-level AI in F4 generates the actual packages and flights based on modern doctrine in order to take the objective, but as the friendly AI responds (and you tip the balance of things by making an AI flight that otherwise would have been a failure now successful), things change. Resource allocation, whether to be defensive or offensive with remaining assets in a particular area, and the actual package/flight/ground war activities are assembled and assigned. No scripted missions here boys and girls. This is the essence of a dynamic campaign. (Ed . Note: you can also tweak these responses to suit your own priorities, as the screens above and mid right demonstrate).
Click to continue
The third or "low level" of the AI is analogous to the actual grunts and flyboys in the field reacting to the plan and their environment. Imagine the pilots in the briefing rooms, deciding how to lay out their waypoints for the flight they were assigned, and which actual targets (seen the target lists lately in TE?) to bomb at particular sights. What munitions to use. How to avoid detection based on current Intel. Etc. Also at this level, are the individual AI routines. Sure, they are brave, red blooded American heroes, but hey ! Everyone has his limits.
After all, if you are lining up the last 60 seconds of your GBU bombing run, waiting for that DLZ to come into the kill zone, and you hear a Mig-29 radar lock on your RWR, that's a real pickle! Are you gonna stay on course for 60 more seconds and just hope he goes away? I don't think so. What if you only had 15 seconds left and you hear the lock? What then? What if you get a "launch warning"? This is all happening at the low-level AI. We want our wingmen to act like soldiers. We want some crazy-ass, "they can't kill me" heroes. We want some cowards. But mostly, we want reasonable pilots. We want a mix, and we want the appropriate mix. You can imagine what a bear these AI routines must be.
What makes playing TE custom missions so intriguing, and so different from the campaigns, is that your brain must do some of the work at each level of the AI. You make the missions. You decide the packages and routes and objectives. And you fly. And when TE is a little more bug free (more great news on that later in the article), you will be able to play multiplayer missions where you actually compete against your friends in "Force on Force" Multiplayer missions. These types of missions will have exactly the same dynamic issues as a game of chess.
We (the players of TE missions) are in our infancy. We are still excited about "one shot" interesting missions like the ones I currently post on Combatsim. Fly and do something. Win or lose. This is the elementary school level of TE.
Graduate courses are soon to arrive. Soon we will see multiplayer games (this will even work fine over the internet with 2 players, maybe up to four in the future, we will see), where you generate flights and ground battle movements in real time, and try to accomplish some goals (simple or complex) as set out in the Victory conditions. After each flight, you get back to the TE screen, make another bunch of flights (better pay attention to your resources) and fly again.
Meanwhile, your multiplayer enemy is attempting to cut off your flank with his tanks and he is sending flights against you. Is the night getting late? No prob. Save it and pick up your little "mano a mano" pissing war later. Playing scripted TE missions are very challenging and fun, but those only scratch the surface of what can be done in TE. Chess anyone?
In my original article about how to use the mission builder, I gave my opinion of the ground war as far as TE missions were concerned. I referred to it as a limited, 2 waypoint, one trick pony. Actually, the term "retarded" rather than limited would better explain the reality of it. Basically, its as broke as broke can be.
In fact, it was so broke, that I had no way of realizing how close it was to being a very elegant and truly strategic part of play. Mr. Klemmick assured me that making the ground war a piece of the puzzle that you could use to strategic advantage would be fixed at least by the third patch cycle and maybe by this very next one. You will be able to not only generate flights, but also to order troops to make ground movements to occupy cities or even defend airbases that you took from the enemy so that they can not easily take them back. You will actually be able to take the war to them on the ground.
I was also very excited to hear Mr. Klemmick say something that may surprise many of you. He said that even though campaigns are fun, and they will play out differently every time, it is his personal feeling that TE is the part of the game that will ultimately give the this sim its great longevity. Because no matter how many ways a war to take North Korea plays out, it is still the same objective.
TE allows for infinite objectives and infinite possibilities to match the desires and creativity's of the gamers who design the missions. He said that no matter what state TE may appear to be in now (I'm gonna give it a C- for implementation and a A for concept) the next few months will bear out the commitment that MPS has to insuring that TE gets fixed to honor role status.
He made a VERY STRONG statement of commitment to, not only F4, but specifically to the TE mission builder module. I remember once asking a cardiac surgeon whom I was scrubbed in with if he could show me the cockles. He didn't laugh (those heart guys are so serious). But hearing this commitment for TE truly warmed the cockles of my heart (wherever the hell they are).
The interview was long, and I'm gonna stop here so that people can read this first part now. More to come soon. Mr. Klemmick goes on to discuss the mysterious and elusive "bubble" in clear detail, the bugs in the TE mission builder that they are hot on the trail of and a lot of good and reserved things about multiplayer. He goes on to talk about the beta testing process as well as the signal to noise ratio on the newsgroups.
He also talks about the "slow framerate in campaign issue", which he said he was actually putting his Sherlock Holmes onto today. Remember the whole "time on target" conundrum for the TE mission builder? We talk more about those as well (he knows he can get those licked).
I heard nothing but motivation from the people at MPS, and I know that they will incrementally come through. Now go to Part II of this report on my interview with Mr. Klemmick.