An Interview with Tucker Hatfield of Sierra on Aces: X Fighters
By: Dan Dimitrescu
Date: October 30th, 1997
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Aces: X Fighters is one of the interesting prop sims on the horizon for the spring of 1998. Likely you've already read a preview in Computer Gaming World or somewhere on the net. This sim is looking hot! I know, you hear that often, but perhaps that is because the level of complexity and detail in so many sims this year has achieved new heights.
Remember too that Dynamix has been "part of the Sierra Family" since just after Red Baron. Dynamix was responsible for Aces of the Pacific, the 1946 add-on, and Aces Over Europe, so they are far from newcomers to this field. The programmer who is doing the flight model for Aces:XF work, was the flight model programmer for AOE and worked on the original conversion of the Red Baron Flight model to AOTP. Recently PC Gaming of Romania shared with us their interview with Tucker Hatfield. Here is that dialogue:
PCG: - What is your role in Dynamix and in the AXF project? I've spotted you in my AOE manual as "Quality Engineer". Can you describe yor work ?
Tucker: I've been with Dynamix for over 5 years. I started as a QA tester on AOTP, and was team QA Lead the 1946 add-on and for AOE. Since then I've done tons of cool things, including being Designer for the Aviation Pioneers multimedia reference work on the Aces Collector's Edition.
Now I'm an Assistant Director, which means I do whatever it takes to get a project to actually ship, from deal with contractors to writing readme files. On X-Fighters, I've gotten to come up with lists of aircraft and technologies we are modeling, design the core of the campaign system, and do a lot of documentation of how we intend to solve various problems, as well as day-to-day management issues. Scot Bayless is the Director for X-Fighters, but he's been generous enough to trust me with a lot of the creative issues with AXF.
PCG: What sims/games do you play for fun ?
Tucker: My taste in games is pretty broad. I'm currently suffering from an X-Com: Apocalypse addiction, and I enjoy strategy games like Civilization, as well as RPGs. I usually play Diablo one or two nights a week with AXF's Lead Engineer. Mostly, though, I'm a sim-head. My wife often claims I own every sim there is (actually, there are one or two I don't). The ones I play most often include EF2000, Longbow, iM1A2, 688i, and AOD. I love prop sims, and occasionally play Warbirds. Having worked on AOTP, the patch, and the '46 disk, I've probably put more hours in on AOTP than anyone alive.
PCG: What is the history of the AXF project? How did it get started ?
Tucker: Scot Bayless originally proposed a sim where "you design your plane, I design mine, and we go up and find out who the Big Dog is..." The Powers That Be like the idea, and we added some other cool ideas to the basic concept, things like campaigns where you can affect the outcome of the war, and basing the availability of technology on how well you're doing in the war. We got a budget, built a team, and the rest is history.
PCG: Can you tell us something about the design goals of Aces:XF?
Tucker: X-Fighters has three goals:
1) Give players a fresh perspective on one of the most amazing periods in aviation history. Think about it. Between 1936 and 1945 aviation went from 150hp piston engines, doped canvas and .30 cal machine guns to 2000lb thrust axial flow jets, stressed aluminum laminar flow wings and guided missiles. I still get kind of starry-eyed when I think about it.
2) Give players a chance to find out for themselves whether all those legendary exotic planes that nearly made it into the war were really what they were cracked up to be. Imagine what it'll be like to put a P-80 up against the Go 229.
3) (and this is really the big one) Give players the chance to make their own design decisions and then try their handiwork out against other pilots. You're a boom 'n zoom fan? No problem. Slam a couple of high powered turboprops in your P-38 airframe, load that baby up with 20mm cannons and go hunting bear. Just watch your airspeed...
PCG: Can you tell me something about the technology involved in the AXF ? Shadings, textures, resolutions ? How much computing power will we need to play the game ?
Tucker: We're using a new version of the 3Space engine that supports textured, perspective correct polygons, light sourcing, and full 3D card support. If you look at Silent Thunder, you are seeing the _previous_ version of the engine. The new version is faster and better looking. Resolutions should include 640 x480 and 800 x600. Of course a lot is still in the works, so anything I say may be subject to change. Expect to need at least a P133 with a 3D card. It will run without a 3D card on faster machines, but 3D support brings such an improvement in frame rate and appearance, that I'd recommend one.
PCG: One of the most annoying bits in AOE for me was the lack of a real "air war" feeling. This happend due to the low number of planes in the area, not to mention that there was no such thing as some ace just "hunting" in the area for an sleepy pilot. Have you worked on this side of the things ? How many planes can we expect to see in a battle ? These days we have sims like TAS that go up to 600 planes in a battle ....
PCG: How many ways can be the game played ? Is the campaign mode limited to squadron leader or is the player able to simply fight as a pilot ?
Tucker: There will be the ability to play single missions, multiplayer missions, and a single-player campaign. There may be some other options added, as well. In the campaign, the player will start the campaign as the squadron commander, and will be responsible for a squadron that grows as their reputation grows. Missions will be generated, not scripted, and the player's performance will influence the progress of the war.
PCG: What decisions will the player usualy take on a aircraft prototype?
Tucker: In single missions and in multiplayer mode, the player can build anything he wishes, with any technology from either side. In a career, the player will be limited to outfitting aircraft with components and airframes that have been developed during the course of the war.
PCG: In the campaign mode, does the computer "play" against you the same way, developing new technologies? Is it possible for one to shoot down the first models of a new german fighter and thus to slow down the development? Also, any bit of espionnage? Are the Aces still there ?
Tucker: The non-player character will operate under a system of technology availability that is identical to the players, developing new aircraft and replacing old ones with them as they become available. The state of the war has an effect on what happens on both sides. So far no espionage. You can't influence development by shooting down prototypes, but new fighters are in short supply, and constantly shooting down that hot new Do 335 could mean that the enemy doesn't have enough for replacements...
History starts diverging from reality once the game starts, so we won't be modeling historic aces, since their performance would have changed if the war had gone differently. Instead, you'll see aces develop during the course of the war, and learn who the most deadly foes are, and who the most valuable wingmen are, as they improve. Wingmen and enemies alike will have a variety of abilities. Some are destined to be aces. Others aren't.
PCG: How far does the aircraft design module go ? Are we talking here about different variants of the same engine, for example ? I can imagine this would require lots of research.
Tucker: There are currently about 20 player flyable aircraft (although the number may change a bit), including some of the most popular historic planes, and a number of planes that were never actually flown in combat. The player can take any one of those aircraft, add different engines, weapons, and other improvements like armor, low-drag airfoils, improved superchargers, etc. As technology improves, better engines, more efficient aircraft skins, etc. become available.
Yes, it did require a lot of research. For instance, the Germans will have about 7 different versions of inline engines available during the course of the war. We managed to get cockpit photos for all of but one aircraft, and this includes aircraft like the Moonbat and the Ascender.
PCG: X Fighters seems to be an interesting mix of history and "what if?" Tell us about the "what if" factor and how its modelled in the sim.
Scot: This has been simultaneously the most exciting and most difficult part of the project. Starting with the Sierra ProPilot flight model, which was exceptionally robust to begin with, we've gone far beyond what it was originally designed to do. We've had to literally rewrite parts of the model in order to extend its already considerable dynamic range.
We're also making a deliberate choice in the aircraft designer portion of the game to couch the player's understanding of the predicted performance of a design in the knowledge of the period. All of the predictive computations are based on Von Mises' landmark text from 1936. This book was actually a classified document under the 3rd Reich and represented the state of the art in aeronautical engineering at the time.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Von Mises wasn't always right. There were aspects of fluid dynamics that were poorly understood in the 30's and 40's and made for some unexpected behaviors when planes went from the drawing board to the wind tunnel. In game terms, the net effect of this is that the player will need to develop, through experience, an intuitive sense of how to "read" the performance predictions.
The other aspect of "what if" has to do with the course of the war. One of the things I've always found frustrating about slavishly accurate historical simulations is the sense that, no matter what I do, things will come out the same in the end. While this may be true in the real world, it doesn't necessarily make for a good game.
What we do in X-Fighters is steer the war on the basis of your squadron's performance. If you make a strong showing for the RAF in 1940, you'll see victory in the Battle of Britain and find yourself contributing to the Allied bombing campaign over Europe. Blow it, and you'll be intercepting ground attack missions and strafing landing craft in Operation Sea Lion. X-Fighters isn't so much about recreation of historical events as it is a recreation of historical conditions. What happens after that is up to you...
PCG: What aircraft will we be flying?
Tucker: As you might imagine, the list is still a bit fluid, so forgive me if I don't give you a definitive answer. I can say, though, that, in addition to the usual complement of well known fighters, the list of player flyable airframes will definitely include the following:
PCG: Is this an Western front only product? Can we expect further add-ons in the future? Maybe an Eastern front add-on that would include Romania? We are very fond of our aviation and we would love to see such a thing.
Tucker: Western front is all that is in the pipeline right now, but who knows?
PCG: What about the flight model ? How far goes the simulation ? How much control will the player have over his plane ?
Tucker: The flight model will as close to real as we can get it. We have access to both the Pro Pilot and RBII flight models, and our flight model programmer has experience dating back to AOTP. We intend the game to be speculative, but as close to the real thing as we can get it.
PCG: What about the multiplayer side ? what options will there be ? Also, any plans for a arena of 100+ players like WB or AW ?
Tucker: Multiplayer is one of the things that is still evolving. Currently we plan to have around 8 human players and about an equal number of computer-controlled aircraft in multiplayer missions. This could all change, though.
PCG: What do you think will make AXF very special?
Tucker: I think every person who really loves flight sims secretly believes that they know what the ideal aircraft is that would have won the war if only someone had built it. We all think that if we could have just milked another couple of miles per hour, or put a couple more guns, or a bit more armor on our favorite aircraft, we would have ruled the skies. Well, we're gonna let you try it out. And go up against your buddy who believes the same thing about his ideas. Or try it in a campaign where your choices, good or bad, will determine the fate of your squadron and, ultimately, the war. That gets _my_ blood pumping...
The obvious answer is the aircraft design component of the game. It's something nobody's really tried in a WWII air combat sim. It's one thing to offer vehicle design in a fictional context where internal consistency and game balance are the only issues you have to deal with. Doing the same thing in a well documented historical situation is far more challenging. We've put tremendous effort into researching the technologies of the period and their effects on the flight and combat characteristics of the planes that used them.
The somewhat subtler answer has to do with the technology behind the game. Aces: the X-Fighters uses Dynamix's newest sim engine, the one being used to develop "Earthsiege 3" and "Fear". It's 3D card support, multiplayer capabilites and tremendously flexible open architecture put it far ahead of anything else I've seen.