There are many mysteries in life to which we will never, ever find a satisfactory answer: why Wall Street continues to make money hand over fist in the middle of a recession, how baseball replaced watching paint dry as the US national past-time, why anyone takes Michele Bachman seriously.
One of those unsolvable mysteries is categorically not why the genre of online flight simulation remains a nerdy niche unheard-of, unheralded, and unvisited by the overwhelming majority of gamers. The reason is because flight simmers, especially the hardcore variety, really like the fact that their preferred gaming genre is deeply unpopular. In fact, they want it to be even less popular than it is and to that end willingly applaud flight simulation developers who insist on giving them shitty, unplayable dreck instead of actual functioning simulation games.
This realization came to me in the wake of the recent release of IL2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover. To say that this game was eagerly anticipated is an understatement. In fact, until very recently, this game seemed like a mirage. Published by Ubisoft and developed by 1C Maddox (the team responsible for the gold-standard in hardcore flight sims, the IL2 Sturmovik series) this game has been seven years in development. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.
Game publishers, developers, even entire game genres have come and gone during that period. In fact, this game has been in development almost as long as the legendary and still vaporous Duke Nukem Forever.
The stated aim of Cliffs of Dover was to take combat flight simulation to the next level in terms of graphical and behavioral realism. Hence the developers stepped away from one of the hallmarks of the IL2 franchise (the huge variety of playable aircraft spanning the entirety of WW2 (and beyond (and beyond beyond with the inclusion of several Soviet and Luftwaffe pie-in-the-sky end-of-war projects)) in order to focus on a discrete plane set and a narrow time period: the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain. You can get a feel for what the developers were going for in this trailer:
Even without viewing this trailer in HD, the visual quality of the sim is evident. Many of the elements that promised to make the sim fully immersive are glimpsed only briefly in this trailer: real-time shadows (which means that the framework of your cockpit canopy will cast shifting shadows across your instruments, for example) and a physical damage model that allows specific components of an aircraft to be damaged (rather than the more normal “hit box” model).
Then the game was released: first in Russia, then in Europe. It won’t be available in the US for another two weeks.
For which I am profoundly grateful.
Because flight sims are a marginal entity in the gaming world most of you will not have heard anything about the first-class, A-grade Charlie Foxtrot that is this game. But you can head on over to the forums at places like SimHQ where post after post confirms what friends of mine who already have their hands on the game have indicated. It is a bugfest of epic proportions and borderline unplayable on even high-end machines. I am pretty confident in saying that all available evidence suggests that nothing has been as keenly anticipated and then represented such a giant fuck you to the gaming community since the launch of Empire: Total War (sadly, that one I did have first hand familiarity with).
Certainly flight sim enthusiasts have had nagging doubts about this title for some time. Based on the developer updates and in-progress screenshots, the developers seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time creating high-resolution and historically authentic trucks, airfield equipment, dunnies and toilet paper in a game that was supposed to be about flying around up high and shooting down other flying things. Then there were some of the marketing mis-steps. Such as the name. The flight sim community is not sufficiently large that anyone needs to be reminded that the developers of IL2 were creating this thing. So now you have a game title that seems to imply that Russian aircraft were flying around during the Battle of Britain. Not to mention the fact that there is already a CoD gaming franchise that a few people may have heard of (of course for this game CoD can probably be understood as shorthand for Crap on Delivery).
What is really disturbing, however, is the degree to which the game doesn’t seem even to have been developed with modern computer processing in mind. . .or even tested in any meaningful sense. In a game that was always going to be a resource hog (all flight sims are, by their very nature, inordinately processor (cpu and gpu) intensive), the game as shipped apparently doesn’t utilize multi-core processors well or at all (opinion seems divided on this). Hence all the graphic rendering is dumped to the graphics card with predictable results. Some players seem to be experiencing significant memory leaks that are exacerbating the problem. Low frame rates also resulted from an epilepsy filter (?) that the developers either chose to implement/were forced to implement/implemented ineptly (depending on whose story you believe). Irrespective of frame rates the game seems to have odd stutters and glitches and random crashes.
Players were also shocked to discover that in a game where one of the advertised features is real-world engine management, things like the mixture controls on some aircraft were configured the wrong way round (which indicates pretty definitively that no one even tested the start-up and take-off procedure on these aircraft).
There has been the predictable level of outrage. Some niche gaming sites have refused to review the game on the grounds that it isn’t a finished piece of software, a commendable stance that I wish mainstream gaming publications took much more often. It also wasn’t long before the ubiquitous “Hitler Video” made its appearance:
But what has really surprised me have been the apologists for this craptastic excuse for a piece of software. Now hardcore flight simmers all have a bit of the masochist in them. They want their simulations as realistic as possible which means that you basically need to know how to fly a real airplane. . .and then learn to fight in one. I get that. I’m a masochist, too. Like so many other virtual pilots I was looking forward to flying a realistic Hurricane, even if that meant (as it will) that I will spend months flying around in a virtual sky, trailing black smoke, with my engine cutting out periodically, all the while having my arse handed to me repeatedly by those pilots taking the “easy” option of flying a 109 whose designers were capable of building an engine with fuel injection and auto-mixture controls. But what this whole episode has shown me is that the flight sim community consists of a significant number of people who are way beyond masochism. They are more than delighted to have someone steal their lunch, shit in it, then charge them for the privilege of eating it. They make your garden variety fanbois look like sober elder statesmen.
I’ve seen the apologists make four kinds of arguments on the forums:
1) The Ministry of Truth: a.k.a. Rewrite history until it conforms with the fallen present. Some have tried to argue that “when IL2 came out it was also buggy and unplayable.” Wrong. Just plain wrong. Were there a few bugs? Yes. Was it anything like the glorious game into which it would eventually evolve? No. But it was playable on the advertised specs, most of its elements worked as advertised, and it didn’t send 3/4 of the playerbase scurrying to upgrade their PCs. . .after most of them had already spent the last few months upgrading their PCs.
2) It’s a Brave New World: This is the argument that every game released these days is a buggy piece of crap. Sadly, in the flight sim world, this is probably true. Outside that extremely insular world there is certainly no shortage of games that are released in an unacceptably unfinished state. But to see this level of ineptitude in what is supposed to be a “finished” release version is actually quite rare. Most games work more or less as advertised and more or less on the machines with the advertised specs. Most games show evidence of having at least their basic processes (such as starting up a plane) tested.
3) You’ll Get Your Reward in Heaven: The final argument is from those who acknowledge that the sim is in a deplorable state currently but argue that based on the developer’s previous track record, this thing will, at some unspecified time in the future, turn into paradise filled with rare jewels and willing women. This simply ignores the basic problem. Given that we live in an age of patchable software and downloadable updates, any game these days has potential. Whole game genres (MMORPGs) are predicated on people paying for future potential. But again, if those games don’t work well out of the box they generally don’t last long. Again, they may be buggy, but they at work on at least a basic level. Furthermore, even the largest, most elaborate MMOs out there have rarely had the luxury of seven years of development to get it right.
4) It is all Ubisoft’s fault: While the ever-popular “blame the publisher” tactic may have some relevance (part of a publisher’s job is to lay down and enforce clear development time-lines; Ubisoft seems to have real problems in this regard, particularly when dealing with prima donna developers) this is really a tactic that allows players to hold their Saint Developer blameless. In this case this just isn’t credible. To suggest that Ubisoft rushed the developers into pushing this game out before it was ready makes no sense. Let me just say it again. Seven years. The writing on the wall has been there for quite some time regarding the development problems with this game, and I suspect that if Ubisoft hadn’t pushed the developers this thing never would have seen the light of day. The developers would have gone on happily building Hedgerows for airfields and rain barrels for the towns and tiny crickets hopping across the runway in real time until the Last Trumpet.
That so many flight sim enthusiasts embrace this situation has everything to do with the fact that the products we’ve been asked to swallow have consistently been shite. There have been some notable exceptions and, interestingly, the original IL2 and its expansions represented many of these exceptions. But sim pilots are all too well acquainted with the disastrous initial release of Red Baron 3D, F16 Falcon, even Lock-On to an extent. I suspect there is probably a mutually-reinforcing dynamic at work here: we get so few new titles released, we are so desperate, so hungry, for the kind of choice that gamers in other genres take for granted, that instead of telling the developers of these shoddy products what they can do with their piece of drek, we smile and say “please sir, can I have some more? Oh, and please feel free to attach these electrodes to my genitals while you are at it.”
But there is a cost to being a shit-eater and it is the declining popularity of your genre which in turn decreases the likelihood that any publisher will want to support a developer who announces their ambition to make a flight sim. Imagine some benighted soul who decided that they wanted to give the world of flight sims a go and picked up Cliffs of Dover. They would rapidly conclude that they must have made a career of drowning puppies in a former life in order to be condemned to this peculiar kind of hell. Flight sims already place extraordinary demands on their players: in addition to the extreme PC requirements, in order to be competitive players typically need a ton of additional hardware (joysticks, throttle quadrants, rudder pedals, head-tracking software). The community is also constantly fracturing into a bewildering mess of mods and do-it-yourself fixes or enhancements. If you set out from scratch to design a game genre whose goal was to ensure that no one not already addicted to said genre would ever pick it up it would be flight simulation.
Fortunately, there are other alternatives out there. The relatively unknown WWI simulation, Over Flanders Fields, is in many ways everything that the IL2 franchise is not. There is no big-name international publisher, no name developers, no international distribution network to speak of. Just a small group of dedicated indie developers who have painstakingly modified yet another disappointing (albeit, in contrast to CoD, eminently functional) flight sim (Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator 3) into a detailed, immersive, fun, relatively painless simulation experience. You can get a taste of it here:
Now before the CoD fanbois jump all over the obvious point: yes, the game as it exists now has been many years in development. And as a mod it did not face some of the hurdles of engine design etc., that other games face. On the other hand, it is the mod to end all mods in that the original is virtually unrecognizable beneath it. Moreover, the game has a user-interface that is much better designed and more comprehensive in its many options than anything that the IL2 franchise has ever offered. This is, in fact, the kind of sim that is much more accessible (and I stress, “accessible” in the flight sim community is an extremely relative term!) for new players (WWI planes are at least relatively easy to get off the ground; staying alive in them is quite another matter). This is the kind of simulation that we should be holding up as the gold standard. True, I cannot see the sun glinting off my gunsight or glimpse individual chickens crossing the road to Amiens. But if we make graphic splendiferousness the primary criteria for our games at the expense of it being an enjoyable and–oh, what a low bar–usable experience, it simply abets developer arrogance and player co-dependency. Part of the attraction of flight simulation, surely, is that you can experience the drama and the challenge without all the fun of taking an actual 20mm shell to the head. When playing the game starts to feel like being hit in the face with perspex shards. . .and we as players don’t hold developers (and one another) accountable for that state of affairs, we shouldn’t be surprised when the next badly (marginally) designed piece of unplayable crap is foisted upon as a “finished” game.
All that said, will I be buying Cliffs of Dover? Probably. Right after I schedule a visit to my proctologist. Just to get me in the mood.