Saturday, 28 December 2013

Happy Holidays

I somehow managed to hit "publish" instead of save earlier. I apologize for the curiously abrupt email if you are among those that elect to receive updates in this fashion.

Let's try again.

Yesterday I was in my living room having family time, up on our wall sized projector screen I was browsing YouTube for a number of classic helicopter games. These included DI's Apache Longbow, Gunship 2000 and Jane's Longbow. Since it's the end of the year and it's the popular thing to do a little retrospective, here's some Longbow themed naval gazing followed by a little project update.

Let the old games begin

Starting with Gunship 2000 from my old chums at Microprose. This was a sequel to Gunship, offering a choice of three helicopters, the Apache, Blackhawk and Cobra.

Gunship 2000 "Do a barrel roll"

I remember having the Amiga version, only experiencing the superior PC version later. Some of you younger folks might be looking at this and thinking it's total crap. But imagine you hadn't seen a 3D patchwork landscape with filled polygons before. Ever. Some simulations had a basic mountain (pyramid) or two but this was starting to look interesting. There's a lot going on, apart from the hideous teeth grinding sound effects of the day. There's a battlefield, mission structure and a menu screen that my step-son said looked like "Theme Hospital" (meaning the clinically white base office).

It's hard to go backwards. You can't go back to these games anymore than you can revert to using a one button joystick. Evolution of game controllers and the complexity of combat simulations go hand in hand. Early versions taught us the language of these games and a generation has grown with them.

We have adopted more complex controllers and games. We demand more from them, expect more from them. At the same time we appear to have lost what was fun about these games. It's not not to see whimsy in the 'action themed' intro for Gunship.

The Nintendo Wii was successful as it reset the clock for gaming. Everyone including grandma could pick up the controller and understand it. You didn't need to be taught how to use a joypad or have any previous gaming experience. Is it possible to reset the clock for combat simulations? Apparently so, we are already seeing this, and they have proven to be very successful examples. World of Tanks and War Thunder are not deep combat simulations but they are teaching a new generation about the language of military simulations. A proportion of this generation will want more complex experiences, or at least different ones (we're so easily bored today).

Moving on....

Post Gunship 2000 in all it's VGA glory we had Digital Intergration's Apache Longbow. This was more like a real helicopter with authentic looking symbology. The format for Apache Longbow and the successor Hind remained mostly unchanged in games that shared their DNA, Enemy Engaged - Apache Havoc and Comanche Hokum.

Apache Longbow contained a training scenario which is similar in concept to Combat-Helo Gunnery. Hand on my heart, I swear this was unintentional. It was Dave's idea, maybe my subconscious remembered this aspect of DI's game. This is a video game approximation of a live fire exercise. A video is presented below. The fidelity of the flight model still stands on it's own. Smooth.

DI Apache Longbow Training Mission - Fort Hood

DI's games were more serious, throwing out the jingoism and had more in common with current dry simulations. Less game, more pain. Today, most of the hi-fidelity simulations come from eastern Europe and out of Russia. And it has to be noted, the best middle-ware too. Something to do with the higher education system, I just had a Russian friend stop by for two days (he's currently attending a game degree course at Abertay university and something of a math prodigy). His description of how they teach mathematics in Siberia made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It sounded more like "know everything" or you're out, only the mentally fittest survived. He then proceeded to diagram an algorithm for personal happiness which I totally failed to comprehend. Must be a Russian thing. Just give me some cheese and a glass of Port (I'm easily pleased).

Jane's Longbow 2

Time to review some Longbow 2 footage. A great game in the day (1996/7) and one I continue to reference as the ideal balance between difficulty and replayability. Sure it's lacking ground detail. Everything we would love to fit into Combat-Helo is here. This is our aim, a stand-alone simulation game. While we'll have some basic live fire exercises for the firing range, I want to squeeze in a "point-to-point" scenario, a random placement of air defense units and a primary / secondary target. There's a nice area of hills on the gunnery range ideal for this.

Here's a trip down memory lane, the "instant action" mode in Longbow 2.

It still contains a good balance of difficulty and replay-ability. The multiplayer (when it worked) added a huge thrill. Dual-seat co-operative play, multi-ship flights and different mission roles. Plus you were never very far from mission objectives. Campaigns could be played cooperatively spread over days or weeks.

The avionics of the Longbow were significantly reduced in complexity, even allowing missions to be mostly flown on autopilot. The rich pool of radio transmissions that played in the background from both ground forces and AI flights made every game a rich "combat" experience. Even if you just stat idle at the FARP you were reminded that there was a real battle going on out there. And you mattered. You could go and find those guys sending out those maydays and help them out. Or not. It was up to you. So much depth in such a "small" package, not many combat simulations today have been able to come close to this. Some games script it, but it's scripted and it shows.

Hardware Of The Year - The Year of the Oculus?

The most talked about hardware of the year has to be the Oculus Rift. Despite it not yet available as a commodity item everyone was talking about it. Being a victim of VR technology in the 90s I'm still on the fence. Convenience still trumps quality in all sectors and the reasons why VR didn't explode 20 years ago have not changed that much. I suspect like Kinect, it will sell like hot cakes but not get much use in the home.

I keep getting emails about Oculus support in Combat-Helo. Short answer, no. That's mostly down to Leadwerks Engine and not having a dev kit. I don't see a compelling reason to get one for flight simulations, when I play a sim I'm often looking at keyboard and switches. I own a MIG welder and welding goggles for really serious PC repair (and bodywork), it's a pain having to flip them goggles up and down all the time. Guess I need them goggles with an automatic LCD plate. I've seen a simple WWII sim working really well with these so I guess it's down to what you can comfortably learn to do on your HOTAS.

We've been looking at Unigine recently with a couple of other engines for a post Combat-Helo Gunnery project which do support Oculus. If it's easy to do we'll do it. Simple as that.

CastAR from Technical Illusions is a slightly different story. Often overlooked as it's not as sexy as VR, despite being fully capable of VR. With head tracking built into a simple pair of glasses and two micro-projectors your natural vision is not impaired, you can see all your keyboard and joystick controllers. Making your visible screen bigger is as simple as adding more retro-reflective material around your cockpit space, painting MFDs onto a physical cockpit layout. I'm just spit-balling here as I've not seen how good the native resolution is going to be. MFDs will need 512x512 resolution minimum and has to be readable from 2 to 3 feet away.

NaturalPoint should take a tip from these new Kickstarter projects for their TrackIR consumer division. My LED Antlers have been laying withered and broken on my desk for 2 years. Hear that NaturalPoint? How about adopting some new technology that's compatible with your DLL? You can buy these things called "accelerometers" in chip form that cost next to nothing. You can ditch the whole IR baggage and call it TrackER.

In terms of hardware released this year the LeapPad was both exciting and disappointing. LeapPad is a small mysterious black rectangle that sits on your desk with nothing but a micro-usb cable running to your PC. It uses three IR LEDs and two angled cameras to read gestures in it's field of view. The smart stuff is all done in software so it's a fairly inexpensive add-on. My experiments for integrating it into a simulation cockpit were not great. Limited by it's field of view and only from below, basically pointing a finger at an MFD was all I managed before giving up in frustration. As a virtual pilot I want to hold my hand in a vertical position to perform hand gestures, rather than a horizontal position for playing air piano. To do that I'd have to mount the device on a nearby wall or stand.

Saitek made us raise a collective (no pun intended) eyebrow with the announcement of a new HOTAS. The X55 pictured below.

I don't have the inside scoop on this, it was a real (but nice) surprise. Since I LOVED utterly the metal build quality of the X65F but hated the force sensing (for helicopters they don't work). So I've been using my tried and tested X52 just because of it's movement. This X55 looks like it's the best of both worlds, the same flexible all-round no cross-centering spring movement with the metal build. It comes with extra gizmos that are perfect for manual start-ups, adjusting cockpit lighting, symbology adjustment.

Work update

Keep running into silly things that slow you down. Recently the tail wheel assembly of the Apache. We got the springy suspension working but the model hierarchy for tail wheel articulation isn't correct. The crew limbs couldn't be animated as we need them in a T-pose to apply the bones. Also I think the crew scale is slightly wrong. Check this pic out....

Crew scale against cockpit
Winter is coming. One of the lasting impressions I have of my early combat gaming comes from the original Microprose M1 Tank Platoon, the cold winter landscapes juxtaposed with flying HEAT rounds and burning wrecks. It provided a welcome change of scenery. A few weeks ago I started applying a snow shader that uses the up normals on a model to apply a snowy texture. It's a lot of work to go through every model material definition to update them. The results of this shader applied to the M1 tank is shown below.

Once applied you can set the snow coverage in real-time from 0% to 100% by setting a shader uniform. This almost never made it as a feature.

It presented a small problem for vegetation models since Leadwerks creates billboards which are generated on a first use basis. Once you apply a snow texture to a model you need to update the billboard. Fortunately you can get access to Leadwerks vegetation billboards like this (where the index 0 is the vegetation layer 0-15).

TTexture tex = leadwerks.engine.TVegetationLayer.billboardtexture[0]

With a little shader magic this allows real-time manipulation. You can see a glimpse of these experiments in an unlisted "Thank you" movie I sent to the team on Christmas day (I'll link that at the bottom of this blog). Oh to have an engine that does all this stuff for you.

Right now we're wrapping up additional game effects such as flares. Mack came up with a pretty tight working concept after watching some of the impressive air show displays where Apaches equipped with flare dispensers go 4th of July crazy. From these videos he got a feel for how they behave in flight, coming up with a working prototype. Just like our 30mm shell ejection we're using physical bodies for flares so they bounce off objects roll around. Pretty neat. The Leadwerks particle effects won't win any awards.

So while I'm supposedly finishing off the ASE gear, I've also been tinkering with the landing gear dynamics that Mack fixed up. It's easy to get distracted when nobody is looking over your shoulder.

This devs test map - random screen-shot
Next on the list is adding the AI to get AIRDEF units to search and destroy. Mack is back on figuring out how to tackle the damage modelling. He's got some ideas on swapping out child objects in the vehicle hierarchy. It's the sort of fudge you get used to with Leadwerks.

By way of a thank you and Merry Christmas to the team I sent them this short music video containing just some cockpit g effect footage and tree billboard tests.

Happy holidays from "Mossie" (or Mossy if you're from the wetlands). You'll have come across this chap on our Facebook page.

And happy holidays from me and the rest of the team at Combat-Helo. Here's to finally shipping in 2014.


  1. Hi. Just amazing, Richard! I love the "look back" to retro sims. Sometimes, I still play Gunship 2000. :-) Video looks great with all systems working and real looking environment! Changing the value of snow is a great tool. It looks like its becoming more Your own engine. :-) Im looking forward to buy this. Thank You.

    1. You're welcome. The retrospective seems quite popular. Funny co-incidence, the second video of DI's Longbow happened to be recorded by the same chap that wrote some additional script dialog (that can be heard in the CH video). Another co-incidence. Go figure.

    2. :-o really. There is some weird magic going on. :-)

  2. HI Richard, thanks for the update. Looks amazing! I wish you, your family and your team the best for 2014.
    Can't wait to buy this.

  3. It was either LHX attack chopper on the megadrive or Gunship 2000 I forget but one thing which impressed me at the time was finding a tunnel through one of those 'mountain' pyramids which you could actually fly into.

    I also remember a slight sunken gorge as well.

    I think the uber problem I had with gunship 2000 was the constant reprimands I got from always spending far too much time on mission.

  4. Ken, it was Gunship 2000. I remember finding the same tunnel and flying through it. Think it was for a train.

    You'd think with all those Pyramids they'd set a mission area in Egypt, but no. I totally forgot about LHX, that was Electronic Arts, don't think it was one I had. I'm half tempted to add a "retro" mode that adds all that "LOCKED" and object name text to the MFD. It has a certain charm.

  5. Heh my memory is slightly better than yours! as I remember in 2000 you were allowed to fly more than just 3. You could fly the Super Cobra, the Bell OH-58 Kiowa, the AH-6 Defender and the commanche. Also the Apache B (the then Longbow). The extra helicopters could only be flown once you increased in rank and were 'unlocked'. They used a scaling system whereby if you flew something smaller your score would be multiplied many times