Air Con: The Death of Flight Sims

By Richard

Your face here: Tom Cruise’s jacket from Top Gun

Flight! The dream of man from when Daedalus first made wings for his son without first performing a full risk assessment.

Shooting things! Man’s other dream, sadly realised a lot earlier.

Despite the enduring appeal of these dreams, why is it that the once dominant genre of combat flight simulations now survives only because of obsessive Russians willing to work for peanuts?

It used to be different. Back in the 80s and early 90s, companies (all now taken over or long since bankrupt) like Microprose, Spectrum Holobyte, Rowan, Dynamix were major players in the fledgling computer games business, giving Commodore 64, PC (and later Amiga and Atari ST) owners the chance to fly their very own Spitfire or F-16 against the might of the Luftwaffe or the Red Army Air Force. They challenged the technology of the time to its limits, and drove upgrade mania. Assessing them from today’s perspective, they look markedly crude, but at the time, no other games offered graphics as apparently real. Seeing the number of polygons on plane models increase year by year was enthralling at the time; it’s only in retrospect that they all seem equally primitive.

But, why is it that this genre is now moribund?  The two big releases this year, and really, the only significant releases in the last three years or so, have been both Russian: A-10C Thunderbolt and Cliffs of Dover. The former of which is a simulation so absurdly detailed that every switch in the cockpit works. All several hundred of them. Including the windscreen washer*. Cliffs of Dover is notoriously bugged, completely lacking in atmosphere, and brings even the most powerful PCs to a crawl. (To be fair, I’m told recent patches have fixed the technical probems.)

So why did the genre die?

Killed by its turbofans

This is F15 Strike Eagle II, from 1989. When it was converted to the Amiga, it became the top selling game on the format in 1991. Crude, not very realistic, but it felt like flying should feel to a 12-year old boy.

But seven years later, look at how Jane’s F-15 simulated the cockpit of the same plane.

Jesus. I have no idea what any of that means. I think that’s a map at the bottom. Don’t ask me about the rest. True, modern jet fighters are fearsomely complicated, but this is what the most vocal fans wanted. They wanted it more real, and that’s what they got. Turned out, not many other people did.

There’s a word bandied about a certain class of enthusiast – ‘rivet counter’. The type of person who will, on the internet, claim that a flight sim is ruined by the cockpit in the Me-262 being painted the wrong shade of blue. I am not joking. But sometimes adherence to realism makes flight sims more difficult – if not actually more dangerous – than the real thing. A practical example: single-engined propellor planes typically have a tendency to slowly turn themselves rather than fly in a straight line. This is because a spinning propellor is basically a giant gyroscope. In a real plane, pilots can fairly easily compensate: they keep their foot on the rudder bar (kind of like keeping a car’s clutch at biting point), which is physically tiring, but not something that requires much skill. If this rudderwork is modelled in a virtual space, and translated even to a specialist joystick, it involves twisting the main stick at a small and precise angle while also trying to climb, dive and turn. This is fiddly at best and almost impossibly complex if other actions are involved.

No damn fun anymore

F-18 Interceptor from 1988. Fly around the Bay area! Try to get under the Golden Gate bridge. Sink a sub!

Flight Commander from 1993. Play a hardbitten mercenary pilot in the dystopian grimdark future of 2011, alongside your sparky squadron mates, fleshed out between varied and interesting missions.

Il-2 Sturmovik from 2001. Pretty, even today, and you can fly just about any plane in WW2. However, as a game, it consists of dull, randomly generated campaigns where four planes fly across an empty map to fight another four planes. Popular in multiplayer to this day, though, where the complete lack of atmosphere in the game doesn’t matter so much, as the players have created their own extra-game structure; virtual squadrons, campaigns, etc. Their own stories make up for the lack of atmosphere in the game itself – sadly, this is a necessarily exclusionary atmosphere – if you’re in, it’s great, if you’re outside, it’s like that bit in Red Dwarf where Rimmer excitedly describes his best ever game of Risk.

Flight sims didn’t get small, the market got big.

The original market for home computers, as opposed to consoles, was the, shall we say, more technically enthusiastic members of society. You know who I mean. Your Uncle Keith, with the kit car in his garage that he spent every weekend tinkering on, a long-suffering wife, and one too many faux-leather-bound part works about the Waffen SS on his shelves. These were the people who bought themselves a computer in the 80s ‘to help with their accounts’ and found themselves too old to buy Horace Goes Skiing with a straight face. The flight sim, with its apparent seriousness, and the big glossy manuals, were an ideal fit for them. The thing is, there’s not that many Uncle Keiths out there, and they’re a fairly small market in the whole of society.

In 1990, the global video games market was $4.7bn. Today, it’s almost precisely ten times as big at $47bn.  Game development costs have shot up even faster – if you look at the credits from a game even a decade or so ago, and compare to one today, you can see why. So while back then it was possible to sell, say, 100,000 copies and make a profit, these days you need to sell at least a million to stand a chance of recouping your costs. The problem is that the Uncle Keith market hasn’t grown by that much, most of them were in from the start, and there’s not much scope for expansion.

That most flight sims of recent years have been developed in Russia and Eastern Europe really brings to life the brutal economics behind this.

Just not relevant today

Every day, approximately a thousand US veterans of World War II die. Simple old age is killing soldiers at three times the rate that the war itself did. My daughter, born just five months ago, has no living relatives who served in the War, and, at most, two or three who were even alive at the time. There’s an interesting book by Dan Toman, The Great War: Myth and Memory, which looks at how the modern narrative of World War One as a pointless and futile waste of effort only became dominant once the men who fought it – who had a wide range of views – began to die off in large numbers in the 60s and 70s. We’re currently going through the same process with World War II, I think, but in reverse. The story of the Good War fought for Right was established early on, and it’s only now that the narrative is slipping out the hands of those who knew wie es eigentlich gewesen,  and intriguingly bifurcating into the cartoonish ultraviolent power fantasies of the Call of Duty series. Meanwhile more serious histories throw ever greater emphasis on the inconvenient facts coughed away in the post-War euphoria and Cold War exigencies (e.g. the British bombing campaign; the diplomatic silence about civilian atrocities committed by German armed forces that was needed to rehabilitate West Germany in the early 50s; the truly enormous cost in blood and soil paid by the USSR, etc.).

Even the Cold War is slipping into the past. Today, it’s hard to recall quite how much it impinged on everybody’s lives. Even setting aside the nuclear paranoia, my wife wouldn’t exist if a mid-Western American and a Scottish telecommunications engineer hadn’t met on a USAF airbase in Turkey, nor would my dad have made it from a terraced house in Workington to middle-class comfort had it not been for the funds pumped into scientific research.  Growing up in rural Oxfordshire in the 80s, I remember seeing the Chinooks regularly flying over my head, the air raid siren tests, and no matter how vaguely, the regularity of news articles about the latest military advance from the USSR threatened our security.

Now, although we’ve been at war for, what – almost ten years now? – it’s far away, and our phenomenally expensive  airplanes are more or less acting as bomb trucks, flinging high-explosive down on a barely-seen enemy unable to strike back. The air of chivalric romance, no matter how dubious it was right from the start**, is gone. Military pilots are no longer knights of the sky, but have a job that’s now, in essence, not much different from working for Ryanair.

What does this means for flight sims, though? Face it, the boys in blue just aren’t sexy to the kids anymore. The dream is, if not dead, limping back home on one engine.

Is there a future?

In the darker corners of the internet (OK, not those dark corners; more like the dark corner in the student bar where the engineering students quoted Monty Python to each other), you can still find the last hangouts of the flight sim community.  They don’t care about the above. So long as they can play multi-player in their virtual Jagdstaffeln*** with each other on the same-old flight sims now coming up to a decade old, they’re happy. And good for them, frankly. It’s a niche, they’re happy in it, but like model railways, it’s a static one.

Some genres have been able to cope with being a niche – wargames, for example, remain surprisingly active. (Look at http://www.matrixgames.com, as an example). On the other hand, look at a screenshot or two – they’re the last hangout of the one-man developer for a good reason.

Mobile gaming? Although there is a surprisingly hardcore flight sim on the iPhone (XPlane), flight sims tend to require time commitment: the ‘pick up and play for five minutes on the tube’ model doesn’t really work.

In short, they were of their time, and we should note their passing with a degree of nostalgic regret, but I fear them days aren’t coming back again. Just like my hair.


* The sim’s first patch included the following note: “Master Caution will not active [sic] when starting an engine.” It turns out they had modelled wind effect, and then simulated this driving the turbines of the engines. The separately modelled error detection system was then identifying turbines rotating without the engine on, and therefore switching on the general error light in the cockpit”

** The Germans have always called fighter planes Jäger, or hunters, which nicely captures the essence of what successful fighter combat has always involved: stalking unsuspecting enemies before blasting them out of the sky before they have a chance to fight back. And let’s not forget that the RAF spent most of the 20s and 30s bombing Iraqi and Pashtun villages.

*** To answer the question you might be wondering at this point. Yes, there does seem to be a general tendency in their politics. Anyone familiar with Futurism might be able to guess what this tinge is.

POST SCRIPT: As this piece was going to press – or its digital equivalent – Mostly Film learned of the death of Google engineer Steve Lacey, one the main feature designer on Flight Simulator 2000, Combat Flight Simulator 2, Flight Simulator 2004 and FSX. A popular figure on the flight sims scene, this post is part in tribute to him.

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7 thoughts on “Air Con: The Death of Flight Sims

  1. I agree that the ‘rivet counters’ killed flight sims. Once the game became too complex to play without special equipment (joystick, foot pedals) then it instantly removes the casual player. By increasing the complexity they also increased the required skill to play the game, again ruling out the casual player. For example, I was reasonably happy bazzing around in TIE fighter and shooting rebel scum, but put me in realistic Piper Cub simulator and watch me lose interest instantly as I can’t even get it to take off without crashing into the fuel barrels at the end of the runway.

    Is the market for ‘sim’ games in general dieing? I mean Guitar Hero as a franchise is dead. I’d like to go to Japan and visit an arcade, when I was there back in 2001 the arcades were full of ‘sim’ games, including drumming, guitar and shinkasen driving. I wonder if they are still being played and developed?

  2. There’s an even odder microculture out there of obsessive civilian flight sim enthusiasts who set up virtual airlines and all log their hours flying, say, from Newcastle to Aberdeen in Saab 2000s.

  3. There’s also Railworks 2, which must be reasonably popular, considering how many expansion packs and DLC are available for it on Steam. Mind you, if you buy the game plus all the extras, it’ll set you back about £500.

  4. It is very niche but it is certainly not the littlest matryoshka, especially in a world where you can pick up Farming Simulator from Morrison’s.

    It really depends how far down the rabbit hole you want to go. I picked up a cheap (£16) joystick with throttle and rudder from Maplin to fly helicopters in ARMA 2, which is pretty good fun. If you can pitch, yaw, throttle and rudder then you can pretty much fly anything – the rest is just frivolousness.

    The reason Microprose churned out so many military sims was because it was co-founded by ‘Will Bill’ Stealy, a serving major in the Air Force. The guy who ran the Jane’s series started off at Microprose, so there is a branch of gaming history of flight nutters pushing the bounds of what a computer could do.

    I agree that a lot of the gloss has gone off being a pilot, but the glimmer of desire is still within us all. Look at Red Dead Redemption playing on cowboy fantasy, and L.A. Noire’s cops and robbers. We still love these things, it just takes a good, well-marketed game, to take a slice of the pie. It’s a shame that Crimson Skies didn’t do better numbers, it was almost a perfect flight combat game.

    Still, give me an X-Wing and my old co-pilot managing the shield balances any day of the week.

  5. The author of this article is talking out of his ass. I stopped reading at “Flight Commander” though. The name is “Strike Commander”.
    Also, all the rest of his musings are BS. What really killed flightsims was the increasing developement costs to make them more realistic, and the market was oversaturated at the same time, so only a few studios survived – at first – but then wen belly up themselves. Especially once all the bigh publishers realized you could make a ton more money off some stupid “epic” / “cinematic experience” FPS like COD. Flightsims are a hell of a lot more complex to devise than any of that crap.

    The authors musings about flightsims becoming too hard is ridiculous. The example he mentioned, Jane’s F-15, had lots of optional dumbass settings available to dumb it down so that even ppl with down syndrome could play it. What else happened is that some devs became stupid because of whiners like the author here, that “teh gaem is to hart” and actually made their sims stupid from the get go, with no options to increase realism. Novalogic was the beginning of this, and nowadays look at “Hawx”. What a joke. Or the recent “Jane’s Advanced Tactical Fighters” (not the old one from the 90s), what the fuck is this shit? Why is it tanking? Because ppl who are interested in airplanes are not going to by this unrealistic crap, while at the same time ppl who are not interested in them will rather buy another popamole shooter, like CoD 32.

    The flightsim genre died because of devs getting a bit overenthusiastic at first, and then went bananas in the opposite direction of dumbing everything totally down, and the publishers wondered why no one buys that shit anymore.

    1. I do not believe a lot of your arguements make any sense. And, based on my own experience and research, I do believe he knows at least somewhat about what he is talking about.

      He didn’t specify the raising costs of making these sims more realistic, but he did cover that the market wasn’t growing, and so they weren’t growing to keep up with the costs involved with the upgrades. This is actually a meaningful point I wish he had mentioned, so, good job on noting that. Over-saturation would have made things worse too.

      But I have have serious issues with the rest of your arguements.

      If your going to put movie-like gaming experiences in a negative light, you had better be prepared to explain why, I hear people say this a lot, but I also heat zero explanation on why, so as far as I know, it could only be because “I don’t like it, so it sucks.” If you feel there’s a more objective arguement to it then that, then please, tell me it, I want to know, instead of hearing conversation enders. It’s annoying.

      Saying the whole industry went to copying CoD is a gross underrepresentation of the entire games industry to the point that it’s lying. Many genres once thought dead are coming alive today. Although, I suppose perhaps in the early 2000s perhaps the industry did go in a singular fashion? I’m not entirely sure, though I doubt it, but perhaps you have a counter-arguement to make about that? Could you specfy the time period as well? Because the first CoD didn’t even come out till like…..2003 I think, a few years after flight aims were already kinda dead, and even then, it didn’t get hugely popular till modern warfare, in 2007, there’s a bit of a time gap here, so again, a gross misrepresentation go such a degree it’s a lie.

      Hard games are fairly marketable, the problem is inaccessible games, and unfairly difficult ones.
      Flight Sims by thier very nature are going to be somewhat fair, unless they have a control scheme so obtuse that many people just don’t want to play it. They could learn how to, but the problem is the commitment required.
      For most people, its sleep for 8 hours, work for 8 hours, and get everything ready, and maybe slip in something like TV or games in the other 8, this ends up being an average of 2 hours a night or less.
      So it’s not a matter of being lazy causuals, it is literally a manner of only having enough time to have quick fun right now, right away. And a complex control scheme very much gets in the way. You could either learn it, or you could get into another game that you can play literally right now. Again, its not laziness, it pragmaticism. Smart people, techie people, people including even myself, could learn this stuff, that’s not the problem, the problem is not being able to due to constraints.
      But even this can be alleviated with proper tutorials and a game set up that ensures you have fun as you play.
      I do not know the entire scope of how this applied to flight sims, but I know this factor has wide spread repercussions for any game genre.
      If there’s one thing CoD does right, it has many ways of easing you into it, and having the abilty to just drop in and play, no reading of instruction manuals necessary.
      Maybe we lost something from that time, and we need to get it back, but we should be noticing, and be grateful for what we have gained, look at the games you played first from your childhood, and you’ll notice that what separated them from other games was how accessible they were. Today, accessibility is a lot more common, and we should be happy about that, especially as adults with jobs and responsibilities.
      Options help, but sometimes, it’s not enough, as it takes a techie and reading through them all to understand what they do, and whoops, the very problem you tried to tackle you just reintroduced in a different form, defaults must be set to those easy options, and since the sim-junkies know how to set options, unlike “causuals,” and are in the minority, they should be the ones who have to change stuff to thier liking, which they will likely do to games through modding anyway to make it suit thier specialised tastes.

      Hawx had mixed reviews, but it sold half a million copies, do your research, that clearly demonstrated people were into it, if you don’t buy that, fine, but then prove it, with researched evidence! I could link you where I got that number, do you have counter-proof to it?
      Because for a “Joke” it sold well, no idea if they profitted from it though.
      But they bought that unrealistic “crap”, just like they buy unrealistic games that have been a hallmark of the entire industry!
      You know, stuff like super Mario brothers, a game claimed by most to have saved the industry in the united states in the 1980s?

      You at least admitted that any possible problems in the games market stem from the fact that people will buy certain games depending on the time, what is popular, etc, etc, I congraduate on this, instead of blaming publishers entirely for catering to the audience’s tastes. In theory, catering should be seen as a good thing, and more often then not, it is, I don’t blame those who feel that it’s a bad thing for thinking that, but I can’t say there’s much to be done other then making suggesting to your friends and family about other games they could try playing, I know if we all did that it would help create significant market changes, if it bugs you so much, it would certainly beat raging in a random, rarely read comment thread.

      All in all, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s depressingly common, in my experience, I would be appalled at what I assume is a lack of reseacrh and coherent thought, instead focused on rage and pre-made beliefs that may not necessarily be based off of reality. I’m being scathing, yes, but I don’t mean it in a mean-spirited way, I’d prefer that you took this feedback, andmade efforts on curbing these kinds of outbursts, not because I think it’s good for you, but because I promise you if you were to try and look at this and research it, and critically think on things, in general, it would help you towards being more calm and collected, and would help you avoid being angry, and, as a result, you’d feel happier. (And stay healthier!)
      And I would assume you’d like it if you felt happier, wouldn’t you?
      (Or in other words, once you tried it, you’d want it for yourself all the time!)

  6. I agree with the author. Every couple of years, I search for new sub sims and it’s always a disappointment. Every couple of years, I look for new flight sims and try the top-rated ones that I haven’t tried yet. They have pretty graphics, but they’re awful as games.

    What’s strange is that the games market has grown so much since the late 1980s / early 1990s that there must be a lot more potential customers. I don’t buy the “needing a joystick is too much to ask” claim. Back then we used $10 joysticks (maybe $20 now). Those of us who enjoyed them eventually got HOTAS, but those weren’t necessary. I don’t buy the “combat is no longer interesting” claim either. FPS, RTS, even wargames still sell.

    I do blame the rivet-counters for making the sims less and less playable and less and less fun as computers got more powerful. A secondary but big factor is the switch to online multiplayer.

    During the golden age of sims, we had really interesting campaigns. They typically started out relatively easy and gradually ramped up, with a wide variety of missions and challenges. Games set in the Cold War often started with tight ROE and penalties for being detected or overflying the wrong airspace, then gradually built up to full-out total war in a target-rich environment where you had to conserve ammo to meet your objectives. Silent Service 2 had a campaign where you patrolled the Pacific, carefully choosing whether to engage or withdraw, whether to go back for resupply and repairs or try to use up the last of your torpedos, where to rebase as the front moved, whether to take an upgrade when available. Nowadays a ‘campaign’ is at best a series of disconnected random missions, with no continuity or interesting decisions to make.

    Back then, flight sims were about selecting a loadout, planning an ingress path and altitude, using aerial tactics to try to take out your primary and secondary targets as well as possible while avoiding damage, and safely landing the plane back at base. It was fun! Now, they’re about struggling with the joystick to counteract the torque of the engine while figuring out which control key combination sets the fuel/air mixture to 40% in the carburetor for engine number 3 and trying to remember whether you need to do that at 2000m or 3000m. That’s just not fun or interesting.

    TLDR, modern sims have almost completely removed the gameplay (interesting campaigns, tactical decisions) and replaced it with boring over-detailed minutiae that just isn’t fun. The market for sim games like we had back then has undoubtedly grown, but sims as they are now just do not appeal to that market. There’s definitely a big opening for fun, playable, interesting sims.

    The sad part is, those old games haven’t aged well. And now an entire generation has grown up without ever knowing that sims could have actual gameplay and be fun. And now all the focus is on online multiplayer. So even if someone did make a playable sim, they wouldn’t bother making interesting mission/campaign gameplay for it. So I too fear that it’s probably a dead genre.

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