Julian “Buckshot” Leonard, Vice President of XSI, tells how the most hardcore flightsimmers in the world take the hard route to build the most extreme military simulator ever made. And why you should wait for it.
Welcome, Julian. Please tell about FighterOps’ genesis. How does it relate to Spectrum Holobyte’s Falcon?
The perception may come perhaps from the fact that many of the founding members of Xtreme Simulations International (XSI), the team behind FighterOps, were very active in the Falcon modding community, but the product does not bear a direct relation to the Falcon series. Yet the turbulent and complex world of Falcon’s intellectual property, and the frustration of dealing with ancient, buggy code, led a number of military flight simulation enthusiasts to conceive a brand new project: the building of a new high-fidelity simulator, right from the ground up. And so FighterOps was born.
The project’s goal is to develop a combat flight simulation for flightsim enthusiasts, by flightsim enthusiasts. Our team is completely made of flight simulation fanatics, and this unique environment has attracted developers and advisers with skills and expertise which would never be available to a “conventional” development project. We also enjoy the great advantage of not being controlled by any publisher, which means we are free to build the product under our own time line and, more importantly, to our highest standards of quality. We certainly want to avoid the sadly familiar practice of pushing a game out the door well before the development team has been able to fully achieve a solid, stable build, and with the promised features in place.
FighterOps is set to begin with a focus on the USAF UPT (Undergraduate Pilot Training) and IFF (Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals) training program, recreating how the USAF brings civilians off the streets to train them until they become front-line combat pilots. This aspect has been sorely lacking in previous simulations, either by dumbing everything down or by imposing on the user an extremely steep learning curve with a non-existent training program to become confident with the complex avionics and flight models.
After the training program the focus will be on some of the USAF fast movers, and then on to other areas of the aerial battlefield. The long-term plans are to offer an extreme high-fidelity battlefield simulation, covering all branches of the military. As an example, those who prefer flying heavies will be able to do so, as we plan to give access to high-asset aircraft such as AWACs and tankers, contributing to a combined effort in an online environment; or maybe just flying a transport on a regular flight in a non-combat environment, if that is their preference. Whatever your type of flying you will be able to enjoy in FighterOps. It will use cutting-edge technology to create the most immersive, realistic, visual, and aural experience of modern air combat ever seen on a PC.
Believers in this project remain so not only by promises, but by virtue of the impressive pedigree of the people involved. Who are they, and since there’s no publisher to fund the costs, whence come their salaries?
Fans of popular flight simulators such as Falcon, Microsoft Flight Simulator and LOMAC would certainly recognise names of individuals who were either in the original development teams, or in community modding projects. Yet these individuals are now in positions in which they don’t necessarily wish to advertise. It’s also a large team, made of some eighty members, plus a number of current USAF and foreign military pilots who provide invaluable feedback on the aircraft we are focusing on.
We work in a “part-time” basis, but that’s not accurate, because in reality we average more hours per week than what the average full-time developer would. Several of our contributors are experts in many fields, holding very important positions in major corporations; although they would not leave that for a full-time flight simulation project, they are willing to participate with their inestimable time and effort, for the love of the flightsim genre.
The funding is provided by XSI, and the developers are all contracted to a profit share. They can influence they earnings in the sense that the more quality and depth they put into their work, the higher the sales will be.
The other side of the coin regarding freedom from a publisher is an obvious absence of pressure to finish the product within a time frame. So how does the team cope with the temptation of wanting to add yet another feature; or maybe wait for hard and software upgrades (DX10 as an example)? Is there a release date set, or “it will be released when it’s ready”?
Indeed, there are certainly two sides to this coin. It is a delicate balancing act between “when it’s ready” and “feature creep”. An effective defence system we have is the fact that FighterOps was designed from the beginning to be a ongoing and open-ended project, with new modules and updates to be continually released. Armed with that philosophy we draw the line as to what will be included for the initial release, and what can be featured in future modules. And this works with new technologies as well: while it may not be viable to rely on a nascent technology at this very moment, we can incorporate the necessary hooks in the code now, and wait until market conditions or product maturity indicate it is viable to include that technology in our product. That helps to keep production efficient, and FighterOps at the cutting edge.
What is the Area 51?
The flightsim community has made it known for quite some time that they would like a better communication with simulation developers and more input into new projects. Within the combat flightsim genre in particular, previous releases have been developed in a hush-hush environment (many of them existed only as mere rumours until weeks before release). Considering this, XSI decided to offer unparalleled access behind the scenes to the process of development, right from the beginning.
As excitement for the project began to mount, many community members wished to contribute in some way, and since they did not have development skills to join the development team, several suggested they could contribute financially. After this request was forwarded a number of times we accepted, but also felt obliged to create a way to reward those contributions: Area 51. Those who choose to join the Area 51 enjoy access to even hotter behind the scenes information and screenshots, special features, a private forum and Teamspeak server, periodic discounts and special offers for products, attractive prizes to be won in the monthly competitions, and more.
Let’s get technical, Julian. The software engine for FighterOps is going to be a modified version of XPlane’s, the simulator that got certified by the FAA, is that correct? Tell all you are allowed to about features which are already set to make it for release: which parts of the world will be there, and at what resolutions? What weather options? ATC? TrackIR support?
FighterOps is based on X-Plane, which features an extremely solid codebase. Much of that code has been either entirely replaced or heavily modified both to work in a military simulation environment and to bring the visual aspects up to the most advanced level available.
The first release will feature the entire world, with a true spherical terrain. The main focus of the first release will be the USAF UPT and IFF training programs, so virtual pilots will spend most of their time in and around the Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. We have recreated the syllabus with the invaluable help of real-life USAF instructors, plus the outstanding support from the USAF, which has graciously offered us test flights in T-38C aircraft!
“We attended live briefings, interviewed pilots, pilot candidates, instructor pilots, public relations personnel, radar operators, tower operators, sim operators, flight-line and life-support crews. We had access to virtually every part of the base and spent a huge amount of time working to get a ton of information that will help make Fighter Ops better.” – from the lucky few who got to try the real thing
The terrain will be based upon 90m SRTM data, providing realistic elevations and a real-world feel. It will use procedural textures, coupled with extremely detailed hand-crafted textures and models for the featured areas, to support accurate VFR navigation.
We aim to set unprecedented benchmarks in realism and technology. The fully dynamic weather engine will be extremely complex. We have plans to implement a VATSIM-like ATC system, and a comprehensive and realistic AI controlled ATC as well. We are regularly in touch with third-party firms to ensure their technologies are fully supported in the FighterOps world. Head tracking, for example, has proved an essential component in flightsimming, and since we have a close relationship with the folk at Naturalpoint, TrackIR will be seamlessly integrated into the simulation.
Whenever a release is delayed, simmers react like donees who have been denied the organ for a transplant operation. It’s downright suicidal to unveil a half-finished product to fligthsimmers and tell them to hold. In its beginnings FighterOps went through terrible and continuous flame wars from The-Ones-Who-Cannot-Wait. Has this subsided a little, a lot, or perhaps comes around in cycles…?
Your question is sorely relevant. In the beginning we pondered heavily about the outcome of balancing, on one hand, a large segment of the community who was much eager to participate and be involved in the early development of a flight simulator through a developer who was willing to listen to their input, and on the other hand the “I WANT IT NOW” crowd, plus competing developers happy to borrow original ideas. We took the hard route, of course.
Some days it is a bit annoying having to answer for the fourteenth time the “when is it coming out” question, but if they are polite we can surely sympathize and be understanding. What is difficult to fathom is another phenomenon that we call “bashing”. I don’t know if this happens also in the civilian flight simulation sector, but there exists a very vocal bunch in the military sub-genre that seems to obtain a wicked sort of joy out of verbally attacking anyone who attempts a new add-on or, in our case, a brand new sim. Considering the actual scarcity of high fidelity simulators we are currently experiencing, one imagines they could only be glad and supportive of entrepreneurs, but it’s just the opposite. Perhaps trying to bring down others is just a poor reaction to their inability to contribute, or something like that.
And then there is the competition. The not-so-happy side of being so open about our project’s development is that other developers have facile access to our ideas, technologies, and market research. In the past twelve months, for example, a number of new simulation projects have sprung, and they obviously borrow from features announced by us. Trying to see the bright side, we believe so much interest from others is a clear indicator we are on the right track, and contributing to the overall development of the genre is also comforting. Yet a combative attitude from some developers and from their fans is again tricky to understand, as it goes counter to stimulating the growth of the genre. As a gesture of openness, our forums even feature subsections meant for dealing with all the other flight sims (MSFS, X-Plane, Falcon, Lomac) and for developers to come and freely promote their products.
What many still fail to grasp is that every single one in the FighterOps team is first and foremost a flightsim enthusiast. We perpetually encourage the idea that what is good for the flight simulation community is good for us too.
We shall arm ourselves with Shaolin patience, and continue to wait until this marvel is ready for take-off, no doubt about it. Anything to add, Julian?
Developing a flight simulation of this nature is a long and bumpy road, so we are certainly aware that patience is required from the fans. We appreciate the support we receive from the majority of the flightsim community, which more than counterbalances the negative intents on stifling simulation development. We truly believe there is an opportunity right here for a renaissance of flight simulation for a whole new generation of flightsimmers. Some may call it wishful thinking, but we are currently giving all we’ve got to see it happen.
Thanks for the chance to talk FighterOps with you and your readers, Jarn!
Go to www.fighterops.com to learn more and support the project.