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Old 02-18-2009, 05:03 AM   #1
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Default The Parable of Jane's A-10 and Flight Sim Development

At the risk of abusing the subject, I am often seen posting about the limitations of developer resources and the degree to which they define the development realities of a flight sim studio versus the expectations of flight sim enthusiasts. Although my own experience generally revolves around Eagle Dynamics, the article below describes the "behind the scenes" struggle leading up to the cancellation of Jane's A-10 Warthog. It's a goldmine of insight into some of the reasons why modern air combat simulators have all but vanished from the PC games market. It is information which, I believe, every flight simmer should read and digest, because it is in light of this kind of reality that I've come to appreciate the work of developers and hope more community members can as well.

The article demonstrates the impact that individual programmers can have on the entire project, the marketing calculations that determine development course, the ever-increasing complexity and cost of production in light of flat or diminishing sales numbers. I would remind you also - it dates back to 1999-2000. Ten years on, the complexities of a flight simulation and our expectations have only skyrocketed since, making the oppositions outlined below all the more unbridgeable.

I will quote some paragraphs that I find especially relevant, particularly in terms of ED's own experiences and decisions. However, I would encourage you to read the article in full: http://www.gamespot.com/features/pcg...nes/index.html


On Human Resources:

...the idea of a "development team" can create an illusion of continuity that simply doesn't exist when tracking the personnel who worked on the Austin team's projects. Only two programmers (producer Will McBurnett and wrapper programmer Steve Muchow) actually coded the Longbow series through all its iterations. The remarkable thing about the Austin Skunkworks team was that at any given time, the team members included some of the industry's most outstanding talent. While the Austin team has been marked by turnover, the Baltimore team has remained fairly stable over that same period of time. Perhaps one of the lessons to be learned from the cancellation of A-10 is that constancy and longevity go hand in hand when working on such complex, demanding projects as military flight simulations.

...

The development of A-10 became one of unchanging goals coupled with evolving means. As a source on the development team puts it, "Besides all the people coming and going, and trying to get the graphics engine nailed down, the game we were working on the last day was the same game we pitched in our design document." Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the development team. When dealing with a team as talented as the Austin Skunkworks, it was perhaps inevitable that individual team members would leave to pursue different or more lucrative projects. As a game, A-10 never changed focus. But as a development project, it was a completely different story. As work progressed, it became clear that the initial intention of using the Longbow 2 code would simply not fly.

...

Furthermore, most of the Longbow 2 code had been written by people "long gone" from Origin Systems, and as work progressed it became clear that this was a significant obstacle to the game's timely completion.
This problem of outdated, cryptic code permeated every aspect of the sim's development. Alex Pavloff, who was then between his junior and senior years at the University of Houston, was hired as a summer intern on the project just as it was beginning, and shared the difficulties presented by having to reuse old programs.

...

"Simply put, the mission builder was pretty lousy," says Pavloff. "The program was a Win32 GUI [graphical user interface] application written in C. If I knew then what I know now, I would have asked permission to rewrite the thing in C++ and MFC, or even in Visual Basic. The mission builder had originally been written by Tsuyoshi Kawahito, who had left Origin after Longbow 2 to go to work for Microprose on European Air War. Apparently, he was the master programmer. He'd work late, get his stuff done, but he didn't comment his code. Clark Janes, the guy who got to work on the mission builder for A-10, was constantly fixing bugs in the editor, and the real designers and I would sometimes get multiple builds in one day in an attempt to make the thing work. Sometimes, however, the missions that we had made wouldn't work anymore in new versions, leading to much repetitive work in an annoying GUI."

...

As such problems began to appear, it became apparent to the team that the game could not possibly meet its ship date of first quarter, 1999. There was simply too much uncommented and hard-to-follow code from Longbow 2 that had been written by people who had left the company. This code had to be changed.


On Marketing Calculations and the Benefits of Independent Development:

At the time that A-10 was cancelled, Origin was predicting the game would sell 40,000 copies.

...

The success of Ultima Online had made Origin eager to capitalize on its success...
...In the words of Andy Hollis, "With the change of leadership at Origin, everything was looked at again in a new light." This change in priorities did not go unnoticed by the development team, as a source from the team reveals, "The first inkling I got was in September '98 when it became obvious that A-10 and Origin's online strategy did not mix. It was obvious that we had the best team in the building, and we should be doing online stuff! When we approached Lucas for the Star Wars license, that was the first step. That fell through, so [we] started to design Wing Commander Online. This was after the entire Wing Commander Prophecy team left for Bootprint. We asked for a decision to be made about A-10's future - with expectations that it would be supported, marketed, and sold well, or dropped right then - so we could work on the more important, more strategic, and much cooler Wing Commander Online. For some reason, Electronic Arts (not Origin) management said 'no.' They wanted the short-term A-10 money."

...

"[The] Jane's [brand] was the darling for a while, because it went from $0 to several million, and went to number one in market share. When the Jane's stuff stopped growing, it stopped being the darling. Then Jane's World War II fighters came along, spent some serious cash, and did not sell. Microsoft stole all World War II combat sales that year [with Combat Flight Simulator]. That was the death knell for Jane's products. No one wanted to be a part of it. All
the people who started it - Paul Grace, Andy Hollis, and Frank Gibeau - either left or went to different things. There was no champion at the corporate level, and the marketing guys hated it. Bye-bye."

...

When the success of Ultima Online was added to the mix, there was less and less of a reason, from a business standpoint, to continue with A-10, especially at a public company like Electronic Arts whose shareholders expected continued large sales growth. Flight sims were not a growth business, it seemed.

...

The new code, when compounded by the personnel changes, had conspired to delay A-10 by at least six months. In the end, time simply ran out. The game had missed several deadlines, and it was clearly not going to ship in 1999. In July of 1999, Origin pulled the plug.

...

According to Andy Hollis, these talks [to revive A-10 as a product of Third Wire Productions, EB] never proceeded past the negotiation stages. As Hollis puts it, "Had it actually gone forward, it probably would have made more sense for it to happen as Longbow 3, but the reality is that combat sims are really just nonstarters as far as the sales and marketing people go."

...

Simulations no longer provided a return on investment that justified their production. This didn't mean they didn't sell: Private Electronic Arts' sales numbers show that the original Longbow shipped more than 600,000 units worldwide. And, together, the five Longbow releases (Longbow, Flashpoint: Korea, Longbow Gold, Longbow 2, and Longbow Anthology) shipped more that 1.2 million copies. But the cost of production had gotten inordinately high, and returns were steadily diminishing.



On Flight Simmers' Expectations and Feature-Creep:

In the words of Andy Hollis, "Everybody was feature-creeping where the bar was," and expectations for new sims had simply become too high. "Building a product that would satisfy all these expectations would cost a tremendous amount of money," and the result is that "no one wants to go there." Are flight sims dead forever, then? "I'm sure sims will make a comeback," says Hollis optimistically. "If everyone leaves the field, then someone is bound to step into the void eventually." But how long flight-sim fans are going to have to wait remains an open question.

We now know... [EB].


On Dynamic Campaigns

While the team was working on the missions, the issue of the campaign structure came up. Because they were supposed to be based on the Longbow 2 code, the campaigns would be structured in the same way. This meant that they would have the "apparently dynamic" structure that Andy Hollis referred to repeatedly in the newsgroups as "smoke and mirrors." Pavloff explains: "The campaigns in Longbow 2, while seeming dynamic to the user, in fact, really weren't. The Longbow 2 campaign editor basically involved the designers creating multiple locations for the enemy troops on each phase line, and creating multiple paths and targets, and letting a random number generator create the missions. It became obvious that the mission builder had enough problems, and the programmers were slowly getting backed up to the point where the 'dynamic' campaign was going to have to be cut." So the A-10 programmers were faced with the possibility of having a game based on the Longbow 2 engine that actually had a less variable campaign than Longbow 2. This was an example of how, as code advanced from the Longbow 2 base, certain features either had to be left behind or made to work with the changing code. And this meant investing time. The "Longbow 2 shortcut" was already proving to be a false one.
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Old 02-18-2009, 01:07 PM   #2
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Great article and some of the problems there are shared across many different types of software development projects and teams.

I think a real problem that they suffered from was the point release mentality i.e. think up Longbow, release, think up longbow 2, mod code, release and the try and do a10. With an engine that wasn't designed with longevity in mind the cruft was really starting to cause pain. Of course with the point release mentality then it's hard to justify changes that make sense in the long term.

Also distribution and the community has changed since that time. The Internet allows for reduced distribution costs and also encourages the community around a product. With enthusiasts adding value to the core product with mods and add ons this only increases the attraction for new potential consumers.

With ED as I've commented elsewhere I feel that the DCS line is a great move. By spreading the potential return of investment for application infrastructure development such as the engine and editors over multiple releases improvements can be more easily justified and actioned. Refactoring and the implimentation of clean loosly coupled interfaces that don't always meake sense on a short term basis can really bring benefit to subsequent releases.

Support for the enthusiast moding and third party community builds a rich surrounding ecology to the core product which only increases the DCS lines appeal. Options in the future to lower costs could be to open source certain parts of the infrastructure such as aircraft designers and mission editors. This can spread development costs and allow for innovation that would otherwise be not cost effective to do.

The funding model of staged releases of aircraft I feel is a good compromise between the point release mentaility of old and the subscription model of the 'gold mines' of MMO. For example CCP releases all updates to EVE Online for nothing but relies on subscriptions for income. With DCS the fact that Blackshark is the first release of an an ever improving product I feel is a good move on EDs part. With different types of aircraft appealing to different markets there is great oppertunity for cross sell and also the longevity of each release is much greater than if they were point releases. Blackshark in 2015 should be potentially as fresh as it is today as the underlying engine will have improved of the intervening years.

With the departure of Microsoft from the sim scene the market has opened up and I feel that EDs new approach and high quality of product will capture a significant part of the global market.

Personally I'm quite excitied about what's to come.
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Old 02-19-2009, 11:44 PM   #3
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Some more screens from Migman's FS musem:

Cockpit:









HUD fusing pages:





Maverick HUD



Truly nice.

Regards!!
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Old 02-20-2009, 01:06 AM   #4
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Crazy how they tried the concept of splicing A-10 with an MMOG.

Also interesting is that the first bit about developer and programmer longevity sounds familiar from my readings on the development of the various sucky MMOGs that have been disparately trying to capitalize on the success of WoW, but it can be said of any computer game. Musical chairs in the dev team is never a good sign. It has "vaporware" written all over it.

Funny how the Longbow DC was likened to "smoke and mirrors".
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Old 02-20-2009, 05:40 AM   #5
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So much of that article reminds me of what ED is going through now to bring their product to us...


I used to think that ED's efforts to make this series fly (forgive the pun) was akin to juggling chainsaws while reciting poetry on a unicycle..... Now I know that it is just like that, but they are also playing chopsticks on the piano while juggling, singing, and balancing on the unicycle. Oh, and when is DCS:A10 coming?... When it is F@^#$@&& done!!!
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Old 02-20-2009, 09:47 PM   #6
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Here we can see how hard is to please all the whiners who want have everything completely realistic.

I remember time when sims were one of the main category of all different genres. (simming since f-19) Something like FPS this time.

There was so many sims in the market that time that it was impossible to earn money on them.

After that sims became more and more complex so it was impossible to learn them right and play them through.

I played all the sims since f-19 to F4.0 and almost all of them completed (campaign win) but if we want to
get other people to play them then we have to make as much of AAR´s and tutorial videos as possible.

It´s great to have complex manual with 380 pages but i think it´s better to see one image or 1 minute video than have to read 100 pages just to relase weapon or tune the radio channel.

This is the way to help people to learn to play so complex sims.

I personally love the sims because it´s one the best genre on the other side one of the hardest to learn.
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Old 02-21-2009, 02:33 AM   #7
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Agree totally. With increasing complexity must come increasing tutorials/vids/manuals/etc. If the aircraft will be almost as complex as the real thing, then to fly it without killing ourselves, damaging the aircraft, using the systems poorly, we need training similar to what real pilots get.

I've been a flight instructor for several years now since graduating & I can tell you it's easy to teach someone when they're sitting next to you and you can demonstrate what to do. It would also be very nice if this same ability was incorporated in the sim. Perhaps a D-model F-15/F-16, or a 2 seater Flanker or Fulcrum where we can fly in the same aircraft and demonstrate what to do to others. The learning curve will go up and the enjoyment of the product will do the same.

It's frustrating to read the manual and know that some things are incomplete on how to do things and why. The article sure does give me a keener sense of what ED is doing, and I guess they're looking after themselves appropriately by modeling only aircraft that they are contractually providing for military purposes. They get a steady and large quantity of money which allows us to enjoy some of the fruits of their labor without the need to seriously research the aircraft they're providing as a game/simulation to the public.

I only hope they're able to get more military contracts in the future.
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Old 02-21-2009, 02:38 AM   #8
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...but that's the whole point of the dilemma I'm trying to convey - increased tutorials/vids/manuals aren't created with a press of a button - it all requires more and more development, which takes more and more time and more and more money to finance. For example, some people feel the Ka-50's flight manual could have been written better. I can appreciate that opinion, but consider what it took to write that manual. It was essentially a full-time authoring project all on its own that took many months of writing, translating and editing by both ED staff and volunteers. How many other game titles have to put that much effort into a manual? And yet you can't ship a complex flight sim without a manual, because it's an essential part of the product. That's the hard, bottom line - developing a realistic simulation of a modern combat aircraft and furthermore developing a robust, realistic and entertaining world to fly that aircraft in and doing it all withing an acceptable budgeted time frame with the hopes of actually making a profit has become practically impossible. Even if the sales figures were good - just making such a product is a serious challenge, but when you figure in the average performance of a flight sim title on the market, the investment becomes all but senseless. Flight sims reached their peak in the late 90s and there's no returning to that "golden era."

I think today's developers have realized that and are trying other strategies. I'm just not sure that flight simmers have realized or accepted it.
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Old 02-21-2009, 03:00 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by EvilBivol-1 View Post
That's the hard, bottom line - developing a realistic simulation of a modern combat aircraft and furthermore developing a robust, realistic and entertaining world to fly that aircraft in and doing it all withing an acceptable budgeted time frame with the hopes of actually making a profit has become (since about 1998.) practically impossible.
Which do you think has had more of an impact since 1998, change in the market or the fact that what goes as a passable flight sim has changed? Some people call the 90's the golden age of flight sims. I scoff at that notion since I don't think you can really compare this:

1991: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kf4oaUZMpFw

with this:

2008: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ol4yU...eature=related

What was consider a flight sim back then would be a joke now. LOMAC is light years beyond Falcon 3.0 but its still considered a light sim. Was something like Falcon 3.0 just as difficult to make as Black Shark is today? I find it really hard to believe that to be true.

Quote:
Originally Posted by EvilBivol-1 View Post
Even if the sales figures were good - just making such a product is a serious challenge, but when you figure in the average performance of a flight sim title on the market, the investment becomes all but senseless.
Ok, then here's the million dollar question. Why does Eagle Dynamics do it? For the love of their craft? Out of a sense of charity? Or is just a side project to what they consider the big fish, military contracts? Thank goodness they do, but what motivates them?
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Old 02-21-2009, 08:23 AM   #10
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Quote:
Which do you think has had more of an impact since 1998, change in the market or the fact that what goes as a passable flight sim has changed?
The latter, definitely. The market, at least in terms of sales volume and price points is more or less the same. The problem is that development costs have skyrocketed due to the increased complexity of flight sims. Growing cost of development vs. flat sales numbers = bad business environment. To quote Andy Hollis above, "Building a product that would satisfy all these expectations would cost a tremendous amount of money..."

Quote:
Some people call the 90's the golden age of flight sims. I scoff at that notion since I don't think you can really compare this:
I do refer to the late 90s at the "golden era," in the sense that flight simmers had a variety of quality products to choose from and the titles were continually getting better and better. We sort of peaked around 1998-1999 with Falcon, the Jane's titles, Flanker (for some of us, anyway). But that was about as far as flight sims could go in terms of development cost before they stopped making money for the people making them. Lock-On was one last attempt (credit to Ubisoft, by the way), but even though it did well in the market, it was apparently not well enough to justify further investment.
Quote:
Ok, then here's the million dollar question. Why does Eagle Dynamics do it? For the love of their craft? Out of a sense of charity? Or is just a side project to what they consider the big fish, military contracts? Thank goodness they do, but what motivates them?
To a large degree, yes, they do it for the love of their craft. In a private exchange with one of the programmers at ED, he told me that most of the staff at ED are artists by nature. Not in the literal sense of creating artwork for the sim, but in the sense that they have an emotional stake in the work. The TFC/ED partnership has been ongoing since 1995. I doubt this would be possible without a fundamental mutual bond.

Loving your craft doesn't keep the company afloat though, so obviously ED/TFC are running a business where the first and foremost priority is the financial well being of the company. To this end, they've adopted a strategy to co-develop two simulation branches - military and entertainment. We often tend to think that the military contracts are now the "bread and butter" for ED, but this is not necessarily the case. It's more subtle than that. The idea is basically to utilize military contracts as a source of funding to develop technologies, which can then be "recycled" in the entertainment sector. Similarly, some technologies developed for DCS, for example AI entities and routines or world maps, can be "recycled" in a military contract. Two birds with one stone - as much as possible anyway.

Here's how Wags described it in the interview to Rock, Paper, Shotgun!:
Quote:
RPS: Would ED rather work on sims for the military or the public? I get the feeling defence departments pay more and complain less.

Matt: We want to work on both! The developments are very much complementary. We have a development engine, which for want of a better term we call TFCSE (The Fighter Collection Simulation Engine). This engine is under continuous development and enhancement. Therefore the military gains an advantage of using technology that is state of the art, and the public get an entertainment title that has improved fidelity from our military experience (obviously limited to those are areas that are not classified!). We therefore can amortise our development costs across two markets, to the benefit of all. Military contracts are not a license to print money, as often they are required to be done on a “cost plus” basis, and I can assure you that they are very demanding as the simulation has to be perfect so as not to introduce “negative training”. In addition, gaining/winning military contracts is highly unpredictable, whereas for entertainment titles, we can plan a business over several years.
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