The Future of Our Genre

by Thomas “WKLINK” Cofield


The apparent death of Knights over Europe has given me pause for reflection on what is and has happened to the genre that we all love and enjoy. On the KOE Forum, RAF74_Walldog posted a thoughtful opinion that pretty much hit the nail on the head concerning the difficulties that our genre has gone through.

Note, these are my opinions, not the opinions of anyone else at SimHQ, although some may agree with me. Some probably don’t. The idea is to develop discussion. Take my opinions and ideas as exactly that. Some new games are in the pipeline (Maddox Games Battle of Britain, Pacific Fighters, Targetware’s online sim) but the number of totally new, from scratch games is at an all time low. Developers have essentially disappeared and the current ones are becoming increasingly less inclined to develop new simulations. The reasons are many but at the base is a cost/benefit analysis which says that flight simulations are a losing proposition.

It’s time to face some realities. Our genre is never going to get beyond the niche marked and the larger development houses realize this. Games like LOMAC will likely not sell in numbers even close to the contemporary FPS games. It is entirely possible that the first week sales of Doom 3 could outsell the total sales of IL-2 in all its forms. It is just a statement of reality that gamers are more interested in a fantasy form of life than a reality.

I am not going to get into a blame game. Yes, there are faults on all sides of the fence here. Yes, simmers do expect too much from the games that are released and they do nit pick some things that ultimately aren’t that important. Yes, some of the publishing houses are more interested in the bottom line than they are in producing games that IMHO cater to the lowest common denominator. And yes, the gaming press tends to laud and highlight games like Grand Theft Auto, games that have limited or no redeeming value.

We need to get past that. The Glory days of 1994-1999 are long gone and I don’t see them ever coming back. The great times of EAW, Falcon, SDOE, RB3, and WW2 Fighters are in the past. We all still enjoy these games but new games coming are few and far between. Jet Thunder and Fighter Ops are the only new modern flight sims on the horizon. With the exception of Maddox games, there are few developers creating historic simulations. There are some, like the Targetware creations and the continued creations of WW2 Online, Aces High II and Warbirds that continue to survive but these are online only and I look to see at least one or two of these to fail in the next few years. It is a simple reality that the online only market is very limited and the saturation effect that hit the box sim market four years ago will hit them in the near future.

So, what is the answer?

Well, there are a lot of things that will need to be addressed and some hard decisions will have to be made if this genre is going to survive, if not flourish. We all want new games, we all crave the latest and greatest thing.

Here are several ideas.

1. Start paying more. The costs of games have remained stagnant for over 10 years. I paid more for 1942 Gold back in 1994 than I did for IL-2: Sturmovik – Forgotten Battles in 2003. While it is true that other games in different genres haven’t gone up either, lets compare them side-by-side. Unreal has a gameplay life (offline) of probably 40 hours tops. A flight sim that is finished in two weeks of intense play would be panned completely. Developers simply don’t have to put the amount of gameplay time into a game that is demanded of a flight simulation. Doom 3 with a dynamic campaign is simply not going to happen.

The expectations are high so why shouldn’t we plan on spending an extra 25 bucks? Given our desire to play the greatest, latest thing and our demands on developers for realism, graphics and gameplay, we had better plan on ponying-up the dough or we will be continuously modding games that are increasingly old and limited.

2. Of course this leads to another problem, the entry level gamer that hits Best Buy and sees two games right next each other. These guys may not pull the trigger on a 75 dollar game when the next thing next to it costs 44 bucks. We need to realize that as a genre we can’t compete for shelf space like the Command and Conquer clones that have taken over the shelves of Wal-Mart and Target.

This brings me to the next thing that we must do. We need to start looking toward development that doesn’t involve the large development houses. The wargaming genre went through similar problems about six years ago when companies like SSI and Talonsoft went away from wargames. Today companies like Battlefront and Matrix Games have created a niche that has made them profitable and successful. A company has to pick-up the slack that is being given by EA and increasingly by Ubisoft. There is no counterpart devoted to flight simulations but there are places that might fit the bill. High Tech Creations has worked well on its own as well as Cornered Rat Software. I’m not saying that CRS or HTC should become the next Matrix Games but this is always a possibility. Either way we should look less toward vision on the shelf and more toward nontraditional forms of game development.

3. Stop reinventing the wheel. The most expensive portion of flight sim development is not creation of aircraft or even visual models. The major time and expense is devoted to creating the environment that allows these aircraft to fly. We all see wonderful looking games in preview that look ready to go. Why then does it take another year or longer for those games to get to the shelf?

One idea is to have a dedicated game engine that is used to create new simulations. This has been commonplace in the FPS world for some time now. The Unreal engine and the Quake III engine have been used for the development of many successful games. There really is no reason that the IL-2 or LOMAC engine couldn’t be modified to create a successful WW1 or Korea simulation. Since these engines are basically solid and bug free now, plus they look good, the development could concentrate on gameplay and on equipment.

Sure there would be things that needed modifying, but a robust engine could handle the changes. Some people balk at the idea of buying a game that is based upon another flight simulation — but why? Do we feel cheated that someone didn’t start from scratch every time? Mods and add-ons for the Microsoft Flight Simulator series sell at a robust pace. A solid base is the foundation of a successful sim and we have had too many games released without that base. The costs of development have spiraled to the point where scratch sims aren’t worth the money.

4. This is the hardest recommendation but one that needs to be said. Part of the reason we have become so small as a genre is because in essence we have alienated many potential gamers. Part of the reason many earlier games like Longbow and U.S. Navy Fighters sold so well was because they could be scaled so that new gamers could get into them. Most of the sims released today still can be but we tend to thumb our noses at those that play them that way.

In essence, we drive away folks that might get into these games. We demand that all games not only approximate reality, but we insult and impugn anyone who doesn’t fly it that way. If a game comes out that doesn’t conform to our view of reality or isn’t totally ‘accurate’, we slam it to the point that people don’t want to buy the thing. It is true that less than ten percent of all flight simmers are members of a site like SimHQ. Still, many people do come to sites like ours to read reviews and opinions of games before the purchase them.

I am guilty of this as anyone. My (and my co-writers) tend to focus so much on the ‘reality’ of a game that we forget to mention the scalability and the potential for a quick bout of fun that can come from it. In our quest for the ultimate sense of reality, I forget that not everyone cares about corner speeds or torque effect. In essence, my reviews make a non-simmer feel that these games are too complicated for the average flight simmer. In some cases they are, but often they have different scales that make them as easy as any FPS game. IL-2: Sturmovik – Forgotten Battles is a perfect example. This game can be as arcadish as Crimson Skies but no one knows it. In the future this point needs to be emphasized.

The point is that we need to get people interested in these games. Most of us long term gamers started with F-15 Strike Eagle or U.S. Navy Fighters. Games that really were arcadish compared to today’s games. We have progressed to Falcon 4.0 but that is after we cut our teeth on easier games. It is easy to progress when you start out simple, something we all tend to forget.

These are some thoughts that I put together after sitting around thinking about the future of our genre. We aren’t dead by a long run but we need to make some changes. Either we look toward the future of our hobby or we will continue to lose our market. There is no quick fix. Don’t look for a benign developer to show up and shell out the funds needed to create these games. The money just isn’t there. These games will be developed increasingly in nontraditional ways and we need to look at it that way. We can either support it or we can continue to keep our heads in the sand. Either way change will come, its our choice as to which one we embrace.

What do you think? Click here to discuss further in the General Flight Simulation Forum.

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