Real Stories of Simulation Development Page 4

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Jane's F/A-18 box

Now we get to Jane’s F-15 II… wait, I mean Jane’s F/A-18. Actually the initial thought was that we might do another F-15 with full co-op multiplayer with probably front seat/back seat as well, assuming I could pull it off. This is what I was working on while others were thinking about other aspects of the next game like where it would take place. The first idea which came from the Marketing group was that this time we’d be dealing with an attack on the US itself. Jane’s Information Group vetoed the idea. I had forgotten part of this but there’s a quote from CJ about it. Originally I had found this on theJF/A-18 Wiki page but it has been edited out, but following the edit history I found a direct link to the original post. Particularly considering things that happened a few years later I’m really glad we went the way we did.

I’m missing most of this though as I’ve got my own concerns. The first thing I had to do was prove on paper that we could do co-op multiplayer. To make it even harder my goal is to do it in such a way that there’s no real difference between a single player and co-op mission in how you set things up. During this time the main connection to the internet was dial-up modems. While people probably had 56K modems you might connect at a lot less than that so I aimed for 28K as a worst case. With that restriction I went with Peer to Peer for two reasons. First was that using Client/Server meant the Server would have not only had his traffic but that of all the other updates from all the other players and even with just the position updates that’s a lot of added bandwidth. The other was I didn’t want the added latency delay of having to go to the Server first.

We wanted to allow up to 8 people to play together so that meant you’d have to send messages up to 7 other people. 28K divided by 7 equals a target maximum of 4K. The problem is that you don’t get to use all of that for your data. We were using UDP and for each message there’s a 64 bit header. Just sending 10 updates per second uses up 16% of your bandwidth just for the headers. I realized this could potentially be a big problem so I created a big packet system where I could combine a bunch of small packets together to make a big one.

There was a bunch of other stuff I did but I was able to prove that the plan was viable and worth taking a chance on. The initial conversion took a few months but it continued to be an ongoing process for the rest of the project as new features were added. One thing that made me very happy occurred towards the end of the project. Along with internal testing we also had some external testing going on as well. The company doing it had also done testing for some other games including another flight sim. They had put a packet sniffer on our game and said we had some of the cleanest network traffic they had ever seen. Insert happy dance here.

As you can guess, during this time the direction of the game was changing. It has been decided that the next game should not be Jane’s F-15 II. From what I heard a good part of this was that while critically acclaimed the sales ofLongbow II were much lower than expected and that more time needed to pass before people would be interested in a “II” version. So instead we’d go with a different plane and going with the F/A-18 also gave us carrier ops which added another new feature. It was a single seat version, which I must admit made my life easier from a multiplayer perspective.

Switching services did add more work my way. I had done the radio comms for the JF-15 and switching services meant that I had to switch things from Air Force to Navy which was more of a change than I initially expected. Also while we had a lot of wav files for that game we had a lot more for JF/A-18 and each of those had to be added into our sound catalogue with a logical ID value to work with the system I had set up before.

CJ was another person that had a lot of work to do with the audio. He had to figure out all the different phrases we might use and break them into parts and determine how many unique files we’d actually need. He also oversaw the recording sessions and this time there was a problem.

Another change that happened during this time was that, due to the success of Ultima Online, Origin was focusing on Massively Multiplayer Online specifically. So we were moved directly under EA proper. Since we were with EA we were supposed to use EA resources. CJ’s talking to their sound department about what’s needed and they’re telling him they’re not equipped to do what he wants to do and it’s not possible. He tells them that he did it before with Origin and they had no problems handling things. Fortunately he was able to get the OK to go back to Origin for the sound work.Here and here are a couple of threads where he talks a little about the F-15 and F/A-18 recording sessions.

While I don’t remember being under EA directly causing us many other problems during the project there was one other issue we’ll return to later.

Matt Wagner joined us towards the beginning of the project. He had become friends with CJ through Warbirds and since Matt worked down in Northern Virginia Chris invited him up for a visit to see how games were really made. He had a good visit and spent a lot of time chatting with Mike and at the end of it he was offered a job which, fortunately for us, he accepted.

One of the things he remembers was Greg banning him from his office since Matt kept bugging him about changes to the flight model. Matt came up with a good counter to this by having his friend Jim “Hornit” Campasi, who had flown Hornets, stop by when he was in town. At least one of the times they spent all day working on it and Matt thought they might have driven Greg cross-eyed by the end of it.

Of course Matt got to experience a bit of this from the flip side. He recalls sitting in my office while I was explaining some AI routines I was working on or in John’s hearing about other parts of the game engine code, nodding away pretending he understood what we were talking about. That was fine since I know he always gave me good feedback and some really good suggestions for new features, many of which I think I was able to implement to his pleasant surprise.

For this project I got to go to E3 for my first and only time. It was an amazing thing but if you’re just demo-ing for it, one time is probably enough. Excluding a 30 minute lunch break each day, I think we got about 30 minutes to run around and see stuff and I spent most of that talking with people I used to work with. If you’re thinking about getting into game development I wouldn’t recommend focusing on attending this. Yes, I’m sure it feels a lot like Christmas but GDC would be a much better thing to go to because people are talking about how to make games. Otherwise if you have the chance and just want to see the latest and greatest and be part of an amazing and really LOUD spectacle, go for it.

CJ and I were assigned to go to show off the game and we set up a demo mission and laid out a basic flight plan. I remember the very beginning started out on autopilot, like the JF-15 demo, to show off cool stuff that required timing to get the best look. At any point we could jump in and take over but usually we’d just wait until the mission popped back into the plane and released the autopilot. We also planned out what we wanted to show when we had control of the plane and flew many practice runs. CJ was going to do most of the talking but we each had to be able to show off the mission and talk about the game. Greg also went but he was doing more “suit” stuff off the main floor.

During this time it was the early days of DirectX and D3D. A patch had been put out to allow JF-15 to work with D3D cards but they really wanted to improve upon that for this game. There was also an issue with ever changing drivers and what worked with one version might have issues with a later one. We knew that there was one card set we were having issues with so we made sure to specify that we didn’t want a machine with that card but preferred another card instead. Knowing the ways things go sometimes, it was decided that we’d lug along one of our own machines that we knew worked just in case. It turns out it was a good thing we did. We got there, installed the game, tried it and it didn’t work. We checked and the machine had the card we said we specifically said we didn’t want.

At this point we did something we weren’t supposed to, we swapped the machines ourselves. We probably were supposed to find some union guy to do it for us but I clearly remember the stories I was told about conventions during my coin-op days and really didn’t want to discover that I’d need to bribe… I mean include a financial incentive to get it done. We also wanted to make sure it was hooked up correctly. There was a problem that our machine was a little bigger then the one they supplied and didn’t quite fit lengthwise. I think when we put the back of the cabinet on something actually touched the spinning fan. When it went “brrrrrrap” I think both CJ and my hearts stopped since we knew the other machine wouldn’t work and if we killed this machine, especially doing someone else’s job, it was going to be quite a headache. There was no problem though and we just left the back off. It was probably better for keeping the computer cool anyway.

Jane's F/A-18 demo area at E3.

Jane’s F/A-18 demo area at E3.

USAF was also being shown, though we didn’t get much of a chance to see it. It was being developed by Pixel Multimedia in Israel and all of their guys had military experience including some fighter pilots. One of their guys who had been watching me run the demo a number of times came up when it wasn’t busy and complimented me on my flying. I was quite surprised and figured it must have been since I had to be consistent on flying the same sequence and hitting my targets over and over again and never goofed. Yeah, compared to what these guys had to do when they were actively serving, not a big deal, but that he felt it was still worth saying really made my day.

Another cool thing was the person that EA had portraying Xena. We got to have lunch with her one day and it turns out she worked for a company that dealt with vintage aircraft parts. This was not something I would have expected. Since she had an interest in planes she actually came over to check out the game. I’m sure people were amused with Xena flying a jet around. We got some photos of which some are floating around the web. Here’s one with CJ.

CJ with Xena portrayer at E3.

CJ with Xena portrayer at E3.

Since we spent almost all of the time demo-ing we didn’t get much swag. We did get some shirts from EA that we wore during the show, a couple of bottles of water with the EA logo and a press kit CD holder which was actually pretty nice and had space for a lot more CDs then they were distributing. Otherwise the only other thing I got was a foam dog bone from a company called “Boneyards” which was across the aisle from where we were demo-ing. They’d sometimes throw them out into the crowd and one took some weird bounces and landed next to me. Well I wasn’t one to look a gift bone in the mouth.

We didn’t do much beside the show. The convention center is in a corporate business area so the sidewalks around it roll up around 5pm when the work day is done. Still we wandered around a bit but didn’t find much open and when we stopped by a McDonalds for a quick bite and discovered the homeless would come in and beg money this just gave us another reason to stay at the hotel and relax. It wasn’t like we weren’t exhausted by the end of the day, especially with the 3 hour time shift. We did get invited to join a bunch of other EA people to see Green Day playing for some E3 event. They even had a stretch limo to take everyone but it turned out there wasn’t enough room so CJ and I decided to give up our space and just call it a night.

One night we ate at the hotel, which was pretty good but on the last night Greg told us we had done a good job and that CJ and I should head out and get a really good meal. We went to a restaurant that had been a fire station, probably Engine C. No. 28. It was a nice way to end things. Here’s a picture of Greg, CJ and myself from the event.

At the E3 demo station. Clockwise from upper left: Greg Kreafle, Chris Martin, and Scott Elson.

At the E3 demo station. Clockwise from upper left: Greg Kreafle, Chris Martin, and Scott Elson.

On the flight back we were seated towards the rear of the plane. I was surprised that our seats didn’t face forward and it’s the only time I’ve seen that on a commercial flight. On both the flights heading out and back we discussed things about the game. Given that sometimes the conversations were about bombs, explosions and other similar topics I wondered if we’d suddenly find ourselves talking with security but it never happened.

So now it’s back to work and the mad rush to the end. This seems like a good point to once again talk about overtime.JF/A-18 was the game I worked the most overtime on, no question. Once again I’ll point out that this wasn’t mandatory overtime but we knew we once again had an “aggressive” schedule and so I started working overtime early on to try and get ahead so it wouldn’t be so bad at the end. Well that was the plan but it didn’t work out that way since you could always find more to add. One of the disadvantages of wanting to do the best you can I guess. Initially it was just 60-80 hour weeks. While frustrating 60 hours for a sprint isn’t too bad since you do five 12 hour days and you still have the weekend.

Unfortunately this wasn’t a sprint. I think this went on for about 6-8 months before I realized it wasn’t enough and so I kept upping the amount of time I was putting in. For most of the last 6 months of the project I was putting in 100+ hour weeks and worked most holidays. Usually I’d let myself sleep in a bit on Saturday but phone solicitors sometimes had other ideas. If this happened it was usually best to avoid me by the end of the following week since if I thought sometime what wasting my time I’d start getting rather grumpy.

We had to fill out an electronic time sheet and I think Greg wanted us to be accurate about it, not because we’d get overtime for it but I think to show what the real effort it was taking to do the game. I’m not 100% sure about this though since there were times I was told not to put in the overtime. In my early days at MicroProse there were times that to encourage putting in some overtime you’d get paid for any overtime you did above your normal 40 hours plus 5 hours they got for free. This came and went. At one point though I remember being told by my manager to stop putting in any overtime hours we were working. This was fine with me since we weren’t getting paid for the overtime and it was one less thing I had to keep track of during the week. I later heard that the reason this was done was that while we weren’t getting paid overtime they were counting the hours towards how much the project cost to develop and is factored in when they’re determining the royalties the team received. So not only were people not getting paid for the overtime they worked but it was reducing the amount of bonus the team got. Ever since then I’ve been leery of putting down my real hours unless there’s a good reason for it and it wouldn’t have a negative impact.

In the last 6 months of the project there was one time where we stopped working overtime. I forget what our initial ship date was but we had every intention of making it. One day though a meeting is called and we find out that our ship date has been pushed back. I think it was pushed to March which gave us a number of extra months. The date change has nothing to do with us but with another game that was going to miss their date and could release close to the same time we’re supposed to, something EA really wanted to avoid. They didn’t want to slip the other project’s date since there were concerns that if they officially gave them more time things would keep sliding. They weren’t worried about us doing that.

Suddenly we have all this extra time. We’re shocked, surprised and feel like celebrating. The Sega Dreamcast had just released in the States and a bunch of us went to Best Buy to purchase them. They had plenty in stock and so we each grabbed one and headed towards the register. There’s a young teenage boy behind us with his dad. He’s looking at the group of us and his mouth drops open. We hear him pleading something like, “But Dad, they’ve ALL got Dreamcasts”!

That was the first weekend I hadn’t worked in who knows how long. I actually got to play the Dreamcast a bit and discovered my girlfriend hadn’t completely forgotten who I was. Unfortunately it wasn’t to last. We soon found out that another game was going to slip and this one was going to miss the quarter so another game had to take its place, which of course was ours.

So now instead of March we’re back to the end of 1999. I think it was still a month or two more than we initially had but our momentum had just been blown and we needed to get refocused and back up to full speed and forget about anything we had planned to use the extra time for.

During this time there’s also testing going on. You might remember that I had mentioned that besides sound there was one other thing that didn’t go as smoothly as before now that we were directly under EA, well this is it. We were now using EA’s QA department to test the game and quite frankly they didn’t impress us. One of the bugs they sent us was if you Alt-Tab out of Jane’s F/A-18 and delete the game directory the game will eventually crash. I don’t think this comes as a surprise to anyone. I wondered if we were going to get a bug about the game crashing if you pulled the plug out of the wall. They had actually pulled this on Jane’s USAF team and they got around it by putting a warning in their patch not to uninstall the game while playing it. We told them that we assumed a certain level of competence about the people who play our games and that we didn’t have time to deal with this nonsense. I don’t remember if we had to keep the entire EA QA team but we were able to add some Origin QA and things improved a lot. Once again we had some of them working out of the office and I think there were both EA and Origin members. We also had some testing done by Absolute Quality which was a local QA company that had been founded by a bunch of people from MicroProse a while after we left.

I don’t remember too much else about the final rush to finish the game. We did get it done before the end of the year but it didn’t make it onto most shelves until the next year. Still, the units were shipped and I gather we’d done good. Here’s a picture of one of the tables from the ship party. I had forgotten we had actually gone out to celebrate until I found these pictures.

The Jane's F/A-18 ship party

The Jane’s F/A-18 ship party from L to R: Chris and Michele Martin, Danielle and Erroll Roberts,
Greg and Nancy Kreafle, Matt Wagner, Susan and John Paquin.

Actually we did better than that because there was one thing that happened as we got close to the end that I completely forgot about until John and Mike reminded me. Another important part of the development process is the marketing for the game. This includes such things as magazine ads and in store promotions. You want to build awareness, excitement and expectation about a game as it gets close to shipping. If you start too soon then the excitement will peak and fade but too late and not as many people will notice. Well some of the team, I think Greg in particular, had noticed that not a lot had been happening marketing-wise for the game. Concerns had been expressed but we had been told repeatedly that everything was OK and we had nothing to worry about. Time passes….

So it’s now getting closer to our ship date and still nothing real new on the marketing front. Soon that all changed but not in a good way. The guy who was supposed to be doing marketing for us suddenly quits. It turns out he hadn’t really been doing anything for us at all and it was getting to the point where he couldn’t hide it any longer. I’m sure there was a mad scramble to try to catch up as best they could but there was only so much they could do, they had missed the prime window. We even got letters of apology from John Riccitiello. Fortunately we had made a good game so I’m not sure how much it really mattered in the long run.

So now the game was out. There was the usual patching afterwards but we took a lot of heat about something that wasn’t our fault. After we had gone gold but before the game hit the shelves 3DFX had updated the drivers for their Voodoo 3 cards. These new drivers caused the MDI screens to not display anything so you’d see through them to the terrain. While ours wasn’t the only game to have issues with the new drivers and reverting back to older drivers fixed the issue we were told by various people on the forums that we sucked, didn’t test our games and other such things. Fortunately there were a lot of guys who stuck up for us but some people still didn’t want to listen. Still, the game did well and for the most part people really liked it.

There is a patch story that comes to mind and this one is a good memory. People noticed there was a problem when pitching the nose of the aircraft down. When you’d return the stick to center the nose liked to bounce. It’s not the code I usually deal with but I thought I’d take a look at it. I did some testing, traced a bit through the code and was pretty sure I knew what was wrong and how to fix it so I told CJ he could pass that along to the forums. Mark “Craters” Cintala was one of the regulars of the flight sim newsgroup and he said there would be a case of beer in it for me if I fixed it for the patch. CJ told him that he didn’t think I drank beer but the wording was such that Mark thought I was into stronger stuff. At this point I posted on the thread and let him know I don’t drink alcohol, though I do use it for cooking. The thread took a couple other twists and turns but eventually ended and I forgot about.

So the patch comes out and people confirm that the pitch bug was gone. Soon after that a package arrives for me at work. I’m surprised by this since I’m not expecting anything and didn’t usually have stuff shipped to work anyway. Opening it up I find some cook books and a big thing of baker’s yeast. Looking at the note I finally clue into what’s going on and I get a big goofy smile on my face. When someone says they owe you a beer usually it means that they’ll just be really appreciative and you don’t expect them to follow through. I know I wasn’t expecting anything, fixing things was part of the job and we wanted to give people the best game that we could, but I thought it was really cool that he did.

If you want to see the thread here’s a link. Mark’s message that starts that topic in the thread begins on 1/25/00.

I had a better link that opened up the appropriate posts but Google is changing their Groups and that link won’t be valid soon. He remembers in the email I sent thanking him afterwards that I mentioned the rest of the guys keeping their distance while I opened it, just in case….

So now we’re coming to the end of Jane’s/EA Baltimore. We were pretty sure that we weren’t going to be doing another flight sim after this and I think most of the group was pretty burned out on the genre after doing so many. When we finished with the patch, EA initially was going to have us work on a follow up to the Strike series for the PS2. Even though we had our own designers they also had us working with designers on the West Coast. This didn’t seem to be going too well and I think we were relieved when they moved our group under EA Tiburon which is down in Orlando. This seemed particularly promising since they’re in the same time zone! Now we started working on a NASCAR game for the PC. This seemed to have all the stuff I found frustrating about doing sims with little of the stuff I really liked doing but I was willing to give it a shot. As it turned out I didn’t need to worry about it.

A number of factors came together to cause our closing. First up was that our lease was up. EA actually wanted us to move into a much bigger studio and have us grow much larger. Then the stock market took a dive. This made money a lot tighter at EA and growing our studio became less interesting. We also heard rumors that some at Tiburon weren’t as interested in having a satellite studio as they were in the NASCAR brand, which wouldn’t have helped.

So towards the end of 2000 we get the word that the studio is being closed. From my perspective EA actually treated us pretty well during that time. They tried to find us jobs at some of the other studios, we got decent severance packages and they let us work out of the office for a number of weeks while things were shutting down. One of the studios they had us talk with was Kesmai and it’s just as well none of us pursued jobs there since they didn’t last much longer than we did.

Later on we found out something interesting from a friend at Firaxis. EA was distributing for them at the time and he had been talking with their EA contact a day or two before we were closed. The contact had mentioned us and that we were an example of a team that did things right. I’m happy to say I think a lot of people would agree with him.

Andy asked me to add this quote to the end and I’m honored to do so. I think that everyone on the team would agree with him.

The creation of a new studio with old friends and the development of Jane’s F15 was one of my fondest career memories. The camaraderie, professionalism, work ethic and pride of the Baltimore group was second-to-none and I cherish the memory of those days. In retrospect, that we built world-class products seems secondary to the permanent bond we all shared.”

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