The 2000s saw a rapid decline in the mainstream demand for combat flight sim games apart from the excellent IL-2 series not much has been left. Titles like Warbirds moved predominately into multiplayer arenas and single-player flight games turned into a quick-action arcade format. Why do you think this has happened?
I feel that there was a misunderstanding among the market, going all the way back to very beginning, where people didn’t understand that you had to have a balance in these games between authentic simulation and fun. They seemed to think that a game either had to be an arcade game, that is in a way an empty and meaningless experience, or something that is a realistic simulation. I have always tried to find the middle path where it’s both; where it’s all fun, but also not just completely made up and fake. I even saw it back then – about the time when Aces over Europe came out, probably – there was an original Warbirds game and it was this online game. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, Europe is terrible; it’s not realistic at all!’ We got slammed by this certain segment, this certain niche of players. We could see that their voice was gonna destroy the genre, because they were very vocal. Every decimal point of every equation had to be exactly a certain way. We called them the grognards – it’s a weird word, I think it means something like the know-it-alls – and they were gonna really damage the market. But I was leaving, so it didn’t matter.
I have always tried to not build straight simulations. To me, I wanna build a historical simulation, not a flight simulation. I want to simulate the pilot psychology, not the airplane. It’s not about the airplanes, it’s about the pilot. I mean, the airplanes are great and cool – they are, in a way, the stars of the games – but it’s really about psychological realism and providing an authentic experience, sort of making an interactive time machine. But it doesn’t have to be an arcade game and it doesn’t have to be a dry simulation. I feel like that was damaging the market.
Nowadays, I feel I am missing such a balanced single-player-focused flight sim; in which you can switch between different layers of simulation and play more of a quick-action game if you want. I really like Aces of Europe and the ability to switch instantly into an action location instead of just accelerating time. In Red Baron, you can accelerate time something like 16 times which was also great. I like it when you can opt out from this monotonous, boring part where you’re just flying to targets and nothing ever happens. Yes, it’s realistic, but its far from being fun.
Yeah, exactly. That’s the perfect example. If you’re going to do a perfectly realistic simulation, it’s boring [laughing]! You read the accounts of the pilots back then and they said that in the Pacific, they’d be on a flight, trying to get to the island, and they’re flying for about four hours of just sheer boredom, followed by two minutes of extreme terror. That’s what it was. Who wants to do that [laughing]?
I have always liked what Origin System games – for example, Wing and Strike Commander – delivered; this kinda deeper narrative about the pilots. They have some personality; you can interact with them outside of the flight back in the base. That was something; combining adventure game elements with flight sim, having it packaged together. But this format kind of died off with Wing Commander.
No, you’re right, that would have been very cool, and I really like the Wing Commander games a lot. I thought they were great.
Star Citizen’s Squadron 42 is going deliver a similar experience but as a sci-fi game. I always wanted something historical in WW2 or WW1, where you could meet with and talk to the famous aces and they could give you some kind of unparalleled immersion. I always thought about it when playing Red Baron; being a flieger in a Jasta 2 alongside Oswald Boelcke and the early von Richtofen. I’d love to compete with him because he was just on a relatively low score back in 1916. That kind of experience with more immersion as a result of off-duty interactions and narrative.
Yeah, that’s cool, that’s great – especially adding personality. You can add a bit of personality and merge it with their tactics and stuff.
So, in 2007, you made a comeback with your own studio Mad Otter Games. Your first game was Ace of Aces, which pretty much fits into the category of a WW1 arcade flight arena-based multiplayer game. Why did you choose this format, and why do you think the game died so soon after?
The company I was working with did the MMO fantasy game Villagers & Heroes, cause I’d always wanted to do a game like that. And then they wanted me to do another World War 1 combat game because they knew I was good at it. It was Jeff Tunnell who was pitching to me. And I was like, ‘Nah, I’ve already done that,’ but he talked me into it. He was like, ‘Look, you really need to do this because we’re going to give you money and you can do this and you’re good at it, and it’s just a smart idea.’ So he talked me into it and I was glad. It was a really fun experience building that.
It was disappointing, of course, because what happened was that the publisher failed and then the game was just removed because there was no publisher anymore. I wish I’d actually got it going. I could have actually put it up on Steam if we had just done a little bit of work, but we were so busy with other stuff. I wish I had though because I know it would have made money and people would have liked it. They needed all of their games to be multiplayer. That was the charter for them; they weren’t doing singleplayer. And so I did a lot of research looking at other things – games like Tribes – but how do you marry that? I also started looking at a lot of MMOs, including fantasy MMOs, and just figuring out how to marry all of those successfully.
And Ace of Aces came out and even with the publisher – which was originally Garage Games and then became Instant Action – I couldn’t convince them that this was a huge opportunity. They just thought simulation games were niche and that no one would play them and I was saying, ‘No, you’re going to have a million players worldwide. There’s a million people worldwide that would play a flight game every month.’ And the model is correct; it’s free to play and then you can buy stuff – you can buy other planes and things like that. It’s arena-based and it’s a sport. All of these things turned out to be true, so yeah, I guess I have sour grapes because we really delivered. We were way ahead of the curve on that game, because after that World of Tanks became huge. I didn’t even pitch that. I said, ‘I want to do a tank game too,’ and then Jeff said ‘No, we’ve got someone else doing a tank game.’ I was like ‘No, I want to do this tank game!’
I loved Ace of Aces, it was really fun. I’d never done a multiplayer game before. I didn’t feel like it was a stupid arcade game. It does have the elements – you respawn after you die, which is fake obviously – but the focus is on flying. There was actually also a single-player mode – the single-player was arcadey, I have to admit, but still it was really fun. It’s hard to explain. The flight models were good, so in that way, it’s not arcade-like. But you are just flying around shooting planes, and there’s a single-player mode called Turkey Shoot which was just really fun. Then there was the arena-based e-sport part. I was really proud of that game. I’m still proud of it, it’s just too bad it didn’t go anywhere.