Harpoon 4

by Mark “Boxer” Doran

 

Introduction

Harpoon4 may well boast the longest start to finish development of any game title developed for the PC by the time it finally reaches the market. If it reaches the market, that is. The game’s history is long and tortuous by this point. The latest twist came on April 23rd 2003 when Ubi Soft announced that Harpoon4 development was to be transferred to an internal development studio.

Larry Bond's Harpoon 4It transpires upon further inspection that Ultimation, the developer that had up until then been working on the code, folded leaving Harpoon4 unfinished and without a home. There are many in the community who concluded that this might be the final nail in the coffin for a title that has already used up more lives than the proverbial cat.

Over the preceeding months, Ultimation staffers had provided somewhat encouraging updates and snippets of information that might have led you to conclude that Harpoon4 was finally going to be finished. There was even talk that the game had entered the internal testing phase. A release date was set but then that date was knocked back a couple of times. While this is rarely a good sign, no one seemed prepared for Ultimation’s quite abrupt departure from the scene.

It is against this backdrop that we sent a set of questions to Ubi Soft to ask about progress of Harpoon4 development work since the events of April this year. Half expecting to hear that Harpoon4 was indeed finally going to be cancelled, we were pleasantly surprised to get answers to our questions in relatively short order.

For this particular title it would seem premature to say that we will in fact see a finished game until the CD’s actually roll off the production line. However, judging by the responses below, there’s still a fighting chance that Harpoon4 will be sailing into gamers’ hands this year. Let’s hope the positive energy translates to success for the new development team and a worthy game to take on the mantle as the newest member of the Harpoon franchise.

 

SimHQ: Where is the new team located and what recent projects have they been working on that we might recognize?

Ubi Soft: The team taking over the development of Harpoon 4 is a Ubi Soft internal studio located in Romania. They recently launched Chessmaster for the PS2 and are responsible for future development of the entire Chessmaster franchise. They have also taken on the support of the Silent Hunter franchise. A large percent of the Romanian team are hardcore simulation gamers and they were thrilled to get the Harpoon project into their group.

There was some talk from Ultimation staffers that Harpoon4 had already entered testing. What work does the new team have left to do in completing the game besides testing?

As you can understand, Harpoon 4 is incredibly complex under the hood.As you can understand, Harpoon4 is incredibly complex under the hood. There is a great deal of optimization taking place to make the simulation run smoothly. Any changes at this point require the input of testers to make sure that no additional problems are introduced.

Picking up development work on someone else’s code can be very difficult to accomplish smoothly.  To what extent has the new team been able to get consulting help or documentation from the Ultimation team to assist in the transfer of the work?

While it’s true that taking over the completion of another team’s code can be a challenge, the Ultimation team has been very helpful in their hand off and it’s gone very smoothly. As questions have arisen, the Ultimation team has made themselves available for consultation.

How would you characterize the mission of the new team working on Harpoon4 — would it be simply to finish up any loose ends left by the former developer or perhaps ground-up reexamination of the game, it’s design goals and implementation?

Their only task right now is bringing the project to completion; they do however have some great ideas on how to make the game even better.

Their only task right now is bringing the project to completion.Harpoon4 will be the latest in a long and storied franchise of computer games. What features and capabilities in the new game will differentiate it from previous generations of DOS and Windows Harpoon?

This edition of Harpoon 4 includes a number of major editions to the franchise. For example, for the first time you’ll be able to use the 3D environment to view the action as it unfolds. The game will include a powerful and flexible scenario editor and customizable map displays. Two highlights will be the exclusive High Tide campaign written by Larry Bond and head to head multiplayer, a first for the Harpoon series.

....for the first time you'll be able to use the 3D environment to view the action as it unfolds.Harpoon4 was released in paper rules format several years ago and many readers will be familiar with the game. What are the principal differences that a player familiar with the paper rules will find when they play Harpoon4 on the computer?

The decision as to whether to use the paper rules or a less abstracted process were made based on whether the time invested in creating, implementing and testing the less abstract model was justified by the increased accuracy.

For example, ESM, Infrared Sensors, Radar and Sonar do not use the paper rules. Specifically, all these systems work somewhat similarly; all units have a signature, expressed as a dB (decibel) value. This represents gain in reflected signals for active sensors (Radar, Active Sonar), or the amount of energy emitted by the unit for passive sensors.

All sensors have a sensitivity value, in dB, that represents receiver gain and signal processing capability. Active sensors also have a source level, in dB, which represents the power of the signal generator and transmitter gain.

These values, along with such variables as range and environmental effects, are plugged into an equation specific to the type of sensor to determine the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) at the signal processor. The SNR is then plugged into a formula which provides a percentage chance to detect.

Visual detection, on the other hand does, use the paper rules.

There are two other groups actively developing variants of Harpoon today, one based around the Harpoon II/3 game and one based around the Harpoon Classic lineage. Both offer extensive opportunities for the community to help develop the game and/or the all-important database. Which parts of the Harpoon4 game architecture will be open in ways that allow this sort of community participation?

The longevity of a game relies in a great extent on the user community.The longevity of a game relies in a great extent on the user community. Harpoon has always had an enthusiastic and active community and this was kept in mind during the initiation and design of Harpoon4. We are planning on providing the same tools used to create the scenarios as well as edit the database so that the community can continue the tradition.

There is a community project underway to provide common datasets and platform consistency between versions of Harpoon, the United Database Project. In what way will Harpoon4 benefit from the massive community efforts around greater accuracy and coverage in databases for both computer and paper rules Harpoon versions?

The development effort is on a very tight schedule right now, so the potential benefits of this project will most likely be realized through the efforts of the community in modifying the game once it becomes available this fall.

Air operations are one of the hardest things to manage well in earlier versions of Harpoon though they are of course vital to CVBG operations. In most cases players find it more productive to micro-manage aircraft rather than assign them to AI controlled “mission” plans as the latter are inflexible and not very realistic in their execution. What tools will Harpoon4 include to provide more robust AI controlled air operations? For example will AI air strike missions still use straight lines and single speed/altitude profiles when an attack is ordered?

As with any tool designed to conduct a variety of complex actions such as planning air strikes, there are always going to be elements that the user will be more comfortable managing directly. Harpoon4 includes tools that allow the user to send units on patrol and define their behaviors in the event that they encounter a hostile unit.

Submarine control is also somewhat arbitrary at higher levels of difficulty in the older versions of Harpoon. What level of control will a player hove over submerged submarines (other than if you are driving that sub as your flagship) and will you be able to get them fresh orders on a more flexible basis than once-every-so-many-waypoints?

In the current state, control of submerged submarines is rather loose but of course there is going to be a certain amount of adjusting as we proceed.

....extensive beta testing is already underway internally.Beta test is usually a good indication of a game nearing completion. Are you planning for an external beta test and if so which quarter of 2003 are you planning to have that testing begin? If there is to be no external beta (Ultimation apparently wasn’t planning for that to happen at all), which quarter of 2003 should fans expect to be able to buy their own copy of Harpoon4?

As with most of Ubi Soft’s PC titles, public beta testing will not be available. However, extensive beta testing is already underway internally. We are currently targeting fall of 2003 for the product’s release. However due to the depth, detail and balanced gameplay that we’d like to achieve, we can only be sure the game will ship when it’s been completely tested and polished.

At least one of the user development communities around Harpoon has focused on developing ever more vicious and sneaky AI. How will H4 shape up in the AI department? For example, is the AI capable of mounting multi-axis coordinated attacks to exploit opportunities that arise during the game?

AI is always one of the most difficult elements to get right, particularly in a product such as Harpoon that deals with real world tactics and hardware. Right now the AI does not have the capability to mount multi-axis coordinated attacks on the fly but the possibility is definitely on the table and is one of the top issues to work into the schedule.

Thanks guys! We appreciate your time as do our readers.