PC gamers take flights of fantasy to battlefields of the future
By Steve Baxter
February 24, 1999
(CNN) -- When consumers drop $30 to $50 on simulation software, what they are really buying is a fantasy. Sports games are very popular, with team sports and golf at the top of the list. Driving sims are also popular, with NASCAR and other auto racing sims selling well. But what most simulation fans want to do is fly. Their choice of virtual aircraft is usually military, and the action is fast and deadly.
Computer game publishers put great effort into studying their customers, trying to tailor products they hope will "fly" off store shelves. The target audience for flight simulators is 25 to 40-year-old, well-educated males with enough disposable income to buy a $2,000 computer and simulator-related peripherals and software. Flight sim fans know the nomenclature and the jargon: When they talk about Sparrows and Sidewinders, they're not talking about birds and snakes.
Armchair quarterbacks vs. desk chair pilots
Microprose's "Falcon 4.0" television commercials during last year's NFL playoffs show how popular interactive entertainment has become. Microprose targeted armchair quarterbacks -- the perfect audience for its new version of the popular series of warplane simulations.
Gilman Louie, known to his friends by the call sign "Chopstick," is one of the pioneers of simulated flight and Chief Creative Officer of Hasbro Interactive. He says Hasbro's advertising campaign capitalizes on the similarities between the armchair quarterback and the office chair pilot. Louie says that just as the football fan watches the football game, feels the pain of the players, the agony of defeat or the joy of victory, so it is with armchair pilots.
"When they are flying their aircraft, he or she is experiencing in their minds what it is like to be in the real airplane. In fact you can see players lean and duck and even start to sweat as they become immersed in the experience. When we made those ads we were targeting those individuals who like to fantasize about being somebody that they're not."
John "JAG" Garcia, chief executive officer of Novalogic, says flying a jet airplane is right at the top of the list of things people want to do for computer entertainment.
"I think it's something inherently thrilling. There's an adrenaline factor associated with flying or moving at extremely high speeds: You're getting a sensory experience that you're just not going to get any other way."
Louie says their customer's interest in flight goes far beyond the desire to play games. Flying virtual aircraft is a serious hobby that is a natural outgrowth of an intense interest in all things aeronautical.
"These people treat their products pretty much the same way as say a bass fisherman treats his or her hobby. A bass fisherman invests thousands of dollars in their hobby every year. The same thing is true with a hard-core flight simulator fanatic. They will upgrade their machines; they will buy the very best joysticks. Some will even buy a fiberglass cockpit to put in their homes. The lowest-cost component of their flight simulation hobby is the software."
Interestingly enough, many computer pilots are also pilots or former pilots of real aircraft. They are an important part of the community of aviation enthusiasts who enjoy virtual flight. Some are civil aviators others are military pilots who send e-mail to the software developers telling them what they did right and wrong and sometimes sharing personal experiences with other customers on company bulletin boards.
Partnerships and personalities
Different software companies do different things to make their products more appealing to customers. Novalogic has entered into a partnership with a real-world airplane manufacturer to create its Lockheed Martin Fighter Series, a relationship that Garcia says makes their products more competitive.
"What it has allowed us to do specifically is to build up relationships with people like test pilots. We've gotten to know the culture, we do get to look at the hardware, talk to people that fly the hardware and design the hardware. Not that other people can't do that, but we get that access in a little more concentrated form."
Garcia says that whenever Lockheed Martin makes an upgrade to one of its aircraft Novalogic knows about it right away. They also have access to company built simulators and detailed unclassified information on the flight characteristics of Lockheed Martin aircraft.
The influences of aviation personalities are also very important. Novalogic has hired John Fergione, chief test pilot for the Lockheed Martin F-16 Flight Test Program, to consult for its F-16 simulation. Microprose hired Pete "Boomer" Bonanni, an U.S. Air Force F-16 instructor pilot as a member of the "Falcon" development team. He provided the valuable pilot point-of-view input for the project and designed and wrote the instructions for the training portion of "Falcon 4.0."
Interactive Magic has also enlisted the help of a former military pilot. The company's Chairman, J.W. "Wild Bill" Stealey was a flight instructor for the United States Air Force. He was one of the original co-founders of Microprose and now promotes his new company's line of flight sim products by flying the company plane, a Korean War era T-28 trainer, to air shows around the country.
Stealey's company is moving away from the standard shrink-wrapped boxes of software in favor of online flight experiences with large groups of people on the Internet. In fact, that is the direction that all the major software publishers are flying toward; a future of virtual flight that involves squadrons of dog-fighters, flying against other squadrons in virtual combat.
Virtual battlefields of the future
Interactive Magic's most popular online flight Simulation is "WarBirds" a World War Two based "massive-multiplayer" simulation that can host hundreds of people from all over the world at the same time.
Stealey says that flying "WarBirds" a lot better than playing against the artificial intelligence programmed into a single player product. From a human interaction standpoint he says that kind of solitary experience is "pretty boring" and that online games open up a whole new world of interaction.
"If you go online with 'WarBirds,' there's 300 people up there and you'll see one that says they're from the Brazilian squadron, one that says they're from the Finnish squadron ... I looked to the right the other day and I saw a B-25 flying beside me and I said, 'Hey we're going to field 9, right?' And He said, Roger.' I said, 'Where are you from?' And he said, 'Greece.' I said, 'Cool!'"
Novalogic also has its own online arena. Its Integrated Battle Space supports three different fixed-wing fighter planes built in Novalogic's virtual factory.
In the near future, Internet simulators will feature integrated air and land combat where one player might be fighting a battle on the ground while others fight against him or support him from the air. Both Interactive Magic and Novalogic hope to lure new customers to Internet arenas by developing products with this design in mind.
But what flight simulation publishers want to accomplish for their customers is to provide an entertaining escape from the real world. Microprose's Louie says, "We are successful when the players forget that they are in front of a computer and suddenly believe that their hobby is real."
Homeworld lives up to its hype
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