Gunship!: Gunship and Tank Interview with Tim Goodlett

By: Len 'Viking1' Hjalmarson
Date: 1999-11-19

  Tim Goodlett was the producer of M1 Tank Platoon II, an excellent effort which took the modern tank simulation in directions never before seen. Inevitably, players offered many suggestions for improvement, and many of those were incorporated into a design spec for a new pair of interconnectable sims: Gunship and M1 Tank Platoon III (Tank).

Exciting stuff! This will be the first interoperable pair of simulations from Microprose. Recently Tim Goodlett consented to an interview on the simulations in progress.

Q. Thanks for taking the time Tim! Give us some personal history relevant to the sims you are involved in producing.

Tim: I have a BS in Military History from the US Naval Academy 10 years in the US Navy, I currently hold the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Reserves. I started designing Historical Miniature games while in the Navy, and published four of them. After leaving the service, I was hired by Microprose. I have worked on Across the Rhine, M1TP2, EAW, and now Gunship and Tank Platoon.

Q: What other kinds of experiences and information have influenced your design goals for these sims?

Tim: One major influence is our concern with the future of Simulations. The recent trend is a sim market that is slowly shrinking, resulting in lower sales and higher production cost. That is a recipe for disaster. Look how many companies are getting out of the sim market altogether.

Gunship T80UM2
Gunship: Russian T80UM2

Gunship T80UM2
Gunship: Russian T80UM2

Part of the problem is the continuing shift of sims from a balance of realism, playability and FUN, more and more to the realism side. Looking at the early great sims, the original Gunship, M1 Tank Platoon, Strike Eagle, etc. they were not "hyper-realistic", they had just enough realism to suspend disbelief, but they were fun and playable. That is the kind of balance we are looking for.

Q: What stage are you at with M1TP3 and Gunship now?

Tim: Gunship is about 85% complete and is on schedule for Spring 2000. Tank Platoon is on schedule for release 4 to 6 months later.

Q: Will both of these simulations use identical graphics engines, and if not how are they integrated in gameplay?

Tim: Yes, the graphics engine is the same.

Gunship Apache
Gunship Apache: Check out the detail!

Q: In simulations of the depth of these ones, AI is the key to gameplay. What are key areas of improvement for the next generation?

Tim: The improvements over M1 include a major improvement on target and weapon selection. In addition, all units will have realistic limits on target spotting. No more omniscient crews. Almost all the AI functions have been improved, including an intelligent use of terrain, and intelligent wingmen who can act fully independently.

Q: I remember a conversation with you last year about use of infantry in M1TP2. You had a great many ideas for enhancing that aspect of gameplay, including modeling tall grass for them to use as cover. What will we see in M1TP3 and Gunship?

Tim: The big problem with infantry in most games is the unrealistic distance they are seen and detected at. We have gone to great lengths to fix this. In addition, they will move and seek cover better than before.

Q: I understand that you are not requiring 3d hardware for these new products. Why not? And doesn't that complicate the design process?

Tim: Yes it does make the game harder to design and even harder to program, but it is really not an option. Sales data on hardware only games, especially sims, is very disappointing. They seem to average about the sales from non hardware only games. This is even more prominent in Europe.

Q: I understand there will be German and Russian units for command in Tank. What are they and why have you decided to broaden the games in this way?

Tim: The player can command the US M1A2 Abrams, the British Challenger II, the German Leopard 2A5 and the Russian T-80UM2. The why is very easy. About half of sim sales are from Europe, concentrated mostly in the UK and Germany. With this being the case, its seems a little arrogant to only use American equipment. I like to reward loyal customers and feel that it is about time we recognize that they are not all in this country.

Q: Does this mean we may also see a later addition of a Havoc or Ka52 Alligator?

Tim: The Havoc is in Gunship. The Ka52 is still in consideration for a future product.

Q: Tell us about growth in the command structure from Tank Platoon II to III.

Tim: The player will be able to command a company. In addition, they will be able to directly control combat vehicles other than the tanks using limited cockpits, such as the gun sight and an outside control view.

Q: What are other areas of design have evolved in Gunship and Tank?

Tim: The major one is in the ways the game can be played. We have added a lot of features that players can select to make the game a lot more accessible and to lower the learning curve. At the same time, we have also added command options that let the player concentrate on what they are dealing with.

For example, the computer auto pilot, combined with an easy command interface allow the player to fly as the gunner, and concentrate on the weapons systems, and not just keeping the aircraft in the air. Control of wingmen and other flights is a lot easier with the command interface available from all cockpits, not just a map screen. These are just a few of the changes.

Tiger: Incredible Landscape

Q: Terrain is everything in a mud moving sim. How is terrain enhanced over M1TP2?

Tim: There is simply no comparison. The new graphics engine is amazing. All of the large blocks of forest, fields etc. are replaced with more realistic terrain. The forest are tactically useable and can be maneuvered through. Towns and cities are much better. The list of improvements is huge. Some of the updates include: realistic ground textures, optimized for low level flight and ground level combat, including fields, farms, streams, rivers and lakes.

In M1 Tank Platoon II we used block forests. They have now been replaced by forests made of small clusters of trees, allowing you to hide in forests. 2D treelines in the grid formation are gone and the new 3d treelines are in the appropriate places in the terrain. All special effects take advantage of translucency effects. Cities and towns are much more realistic and you will see a greater variety of buildings with greater detail.

Gunship Apache
Gunship Apache and Crossroads

Q: The popularity of M1TP2 means that you have received a great deal of feedback from the gaming community. What were the most useful suggestions?

Tim: That is a hard one to answer. The input about which cockpits were used and which were not helped us make new decisions. Several graphics requests were incorporated into the new engine. The list goes on. Let me say that both myself and other members of the team read the boards for all of this type of game very often. We take what we see and give it due consideration.

Q: There have been a variety of attempts to simulate the Gunship from various sources. How will Gunship differentiate itself from them?

Tim: There are several differences. This list is by no means complete.

Most of the others have had limited ground units, Gunship will have full battles raging below you, some that have nothing to do with your current mission.

We will have multiple flyable helos, from different nationalities.

Our approach is new. Helo games have all become either ultra realistic hard core sims, or little better than arcade games. Both of these approaches have their supporters, but the games have suffered from relatively poor sales as a result. We want to go back to the original Gunship! formula, what we call "realistic fun". This is a game where the player can set their own personal balance between realism and fun.

We allow the player to play the game from either cockpit, not just as the pilot. In addition, we have added both a gunsight and a flyable chase view.

Q: Can you comment on the evolution of flight modeling in PC helo simulations and how your own design goals relate in terms of realism?

Tim: The first part of the question is answered above. In Gunship, we have three flight models. The major difference is in the types of forces the player has to deal with. In the action mode, the collective is decoupled from the other controls, allowing the player to fly in more of an "air hockey" mode, and not have to spend all of their time just staying airborne.

The intermediate model uses the controls in a realistic fashion, but limits other effects such as translational lift, ground effect, and retreating blade stall to name a few. The sim model incorporates these features. The main goal is to let the player decide how much time they want to spend just flying, and how much fighting the battle. Remember, there are really two people in an attack helo for a reason.

Q: Same question for weapons modeling and avionics. And how do you balance "realism" and gameplay in your design?

Tim: This is handled slightly differently. The weapons always act in a realistic manner, we vary how much of the details the computer can take care of for the player. The depth is always there, it is a matter of player choice how much of it they want to handle.

Q: Will you make use of environmental bump mapping in the new sims, and if so how does it help you?

Tim: No, we are not using it.

Q: Does the rapid evolution of hardware create special challenges for designers when game development cycles are often 24 months and longer?

Tim: Yes, see the previous question. In many cases, new technology appears while a game is still being built. This happened in M1TP2 with hardware cards. Every time a call has to be made if the new technology will enhance the game enough to justify the time needed to implement it.

Q: By the time these games are released we will be running DX 7 or later. How does this change the game over DX6?

Tim: Not a great deal that the player will see. It does speed things up a bit.

Gunship Apache
Gunship Apache: City

Q: How much detail will go into object animation? Will we see turrets moving, guns elevating, rocket flares, tracer fire, men popping out of hatches?

Tim: Yes and more. The team has completely revised all of our effects and animations. For example, the crewmen's heads move as they search for targets, and the weapons move with them. Turrets sweep back and forth as they search for targets. We have a particle system for explosions and fire. Tracers actually ricochet off armored vehicles. The list goes on.

Q: This past year weather effects have evolved in a big way. How will Gunship follow on these advances and how will weather affect tactics?

Tim: We will have a lot of weather effects. The biggest effects on tactics are visibility and weapons interactions. Both visible light and thermal are effected by times of day and weather. Some weapons systems do not work as well in bad weather. We try to incorporate a number of effects.

Q: Sound modeling is another area of great advance. What sound APIs will be supported and how will this impact game play?

Tim: We are still finalizing this part of the game. I don't have an answer yet.

Q: Low level flight means that terrain is critical. What is the terrain resolution and what kinds of terrain will we see?

Tim: All of our campaigns are set in Eastern Europe. This gives us a range of terrain from relatively flat forest and lake areas to deep river valleys and mountain passes. We include tactically useful trees, buildings and hills. There are very few large open spaces. Even farmland has scattered trees and buildings.

Q: What will we see for training missions in Gunship and will we have a "live" instructor?

Tim: I am still working on the training area. If the current version tests well, it will include some multimedia and interactions. The instructor will not be fully interactive, but will give you instructions during the training.

Q: The campaign in M1TP2 was a dynamic one, with a persistent environment and every mission based on the results of the previous one. Is this also the case with Gunship?

Tim: In Gunship and Tank, the missions will be more scripted, with AI and enemy commitment variations. This allows us to have a coordinated over campaign, with more in-depth briefings and a cohesive story line. This decision was made based on comments from the various boards, and the reactions to the different systems in various games.

Q: How many campaigns will be modeled and what is the setting?

Tim: Gunship will include 5 campaigns, set in different areas of the front in a major Eastern European war. The campaigns will allow the player to play as any of the four major nations, including a Russian campaign.

Q: Tell us about damage resolution and physics modeling. Have these changed significantly beyond M1TP2?

Tim: They have been improved and made more in depth. Both are now scaleable for player preference.

Gunship Havoc
Gunship: Havoc Near City

Q: Tell us about AI modeling for enemy units in Gunship, both for ground and air units.

Tim: The enemy use the same type of AI as your wingmen and ground units. They have their own missions to perform and will balance stopping you with their own objectives. Their targeting and combat AI take full advantage of the same improvements available for the player. They will use cover if practical, they will use the most effective weapon and tactic for the range.

Gunship Apache
Apache Daylight attack

Q: Some of the more sophisticated elements of AI modeling this past year have included panic models, target fixation, and sight and detection modeling. Tell us about some of these aspects of Gunship.

Tim: We had many of these elements in M1TP2. These games go beyond that. In many ways, making AI reactions more realistic might not have the effect many players imagine. A realistic AI does not always charge the enemy or instantly see every new target. We concentrated on making the enemy react in a way that makes you believe there is more behind them than a few basic if/then equations.

We want to make surprise possible. We want every unit to try and use cover, and to fight back against the threat that they are best able to handle. Morale is a tricky subject. You have to temper a realistic response with the fun of a nearly fearless enemy. We have tried to balance a believable AI reaction with the maximum amount of FUN.

Q: Will we see a mission builder/planner for Gunship? A mission recorder?

Tim: There will be a built in mission generator and a Planner, but sorry, no recorder.

Q: Tell us about briefings, debriefings and Intel.

Tim: Mission briefings and debriefings use both graphics, text and voice to give you the information you need to survive the mission. The briefings are an integrated part of preflight, with the ability to move from there back and forth to the planner, arming screen, and campaign intelligence briefings. I have strayed a little from a pure military format to make them more interactive and informative.

The intelligence in the briefings is usually accurate to a point, but rarely complete. I try to keep a few surprises and every now and again even the best intelligence makes mistakes.

Q: Tell us about the multiplayer aspects of Gunship.

Tim: We want the players to be able to play cooperative, head to head and tandem cockpit. In addition, players are not limited to either cooperative or head to head. You will be able to place players freely on both sides, as long as there are helicopters. The programming is about 80% complete. The bad news is that we may have to limit the number of players. This is a result of band width limitations. I will let you know more as the code comes together.

Gunship Havoc
Gunship : Another Havoc

Q: Integrating a helicopter and armor simulation must have special challenges. What are they?

Tim: The main design decisions are the scale of the battlefield and the interaction of the two platforms. Helicopters fly a lot of mission types that do not interact with friendly ground units, and cover a lot more area. Additionally, ground units are a lot slower than air units. Integrating these platforms requires very careful planning, limiting missions and balancing the game than you would think.

Gunship Thermal
Night Vision

Q: Where will you take the "electronic battlefield" next? Combining the flyable Gunship, Tiger or Havoc with FOUR different drivable main battle tanks in two connectable games is already an incredible step forward.

Tim: Right now we are just not sure.

Q: Many thanks. The simulation community is looking forward to seeing your efforts!

Tim: From myself and the whole team, thanks for the support.

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