Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Armchair flying

I thought you all might be interested in some of the non-blog writing I do. Probably the most topical articles would be my most recent three.  The first was for a very high-end PC joystick:

I have no problem with the concept of quality versus quantity, at least as long as the balance is somewhat fair. When one or the other end of the spectrum becomes over dominant, those with a preference for the other side find themselves frustrated. This feeling of disappointment is where those that prefer ultra-realistic PC-based flight simulators have been since Microsoft threw in the towel on their world-renowned flight simulator. Faced with nothing to choose from but cookie cutter-arcade style games, they have had nowhere to turn to find a challenging, high fidelity simulation to dig into. Until now, that is.

With the release of the Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) A-10C, true simulation aficionados finally have the new state-of-the-art platform that they have been waiting for. The developer, Eagle Dynamics, has spent years developing a desktop simulator of the A-10C for the U. S. Air National Guard and has recently received permission to develop and release a version suitable for use by civilians. With that kind of development experience under their belts, it should come as no surprise that the “game” version is far more realistic than any fixed-wing consumer grade flight simulator, ever. If it is any measure of complexity, consider that the PDF flight manual weighs in at 668 pages. Seventy pages alone are dedicated to the operation of the diverse weaponry that the A-10C is capable of carrying and employing. The cockpit detail approaches photo-realism in its detail, and every single button, knob, or switch is interactive and functional. From a cold start it takes ten to fifteen minutes just to get the engines started and the electronics configured for flight. Once I finally managed to routinely get the jet started and into the air, it took three more days of trying before I was able to get a Maverick missile to launch, much less actually hit an intended target.

In short, if you are looking for a resource to teach you how to steal an A-10, this is it!

Hyper-reality comes at a cost to PC-based simulations, and that cost is in the controls. While it is gratifying to have every operable control in the actual airplane have an equivalent interactive control on the screen, even with a TrackIR or other head tracking unit, it is difficult to manage every little item that needs to be clicked with the mouse. Fortunately, most of the switches get used relatively rarely, and even then they get used during flight modes where the pilot can afford to briefly divert his attention to something other than what is happening on the other side of the canopy glass. Interestingly, this is every bit as true in the actual airplane. Certain functions like turning on external lighting, changing the brightness of the HUD, or turning on the AC inverters are done during the more mundane portions of a flight and can safely require the pilot to look inside the cockpit for a few brief moments without undue risk of grievous harm. Hunting around for the buttons to arm the weapons, on the other hand, can distract a pilot, quite literally, to death.

In the world of the modern fighting jet, all switches are by no means created equally when it comes to the effort required to find and utilize them. Consider the literally dozens of switches and buttons required to configure, aim, and fire that Maverick missile that presented such an enormous challenge to me. All told, there must be at least a dozen diverse interactions required and spread across multiple switches spread throughout the cockpit. This modern complexity presented a dilemma to user interface designers as the combat jets flown and fought today became ever faster and ever more complicated to interact with. In certain types of situations that can be expected to be encountered when flying a military jet, even a few slivers of seconds that require the pilot to divert his attention away from the fight or the flight (and note that counter to the normal usage of the “fight or flight” response, in a combat jet these can both occur) can be fatal. The challenge presented to aircraft designers was formidable: how can the pilot manage these diverse, complex weapons systems in a highly dynamic and threatening environment without having to look around in the cockpit to find the right switch, and once having found it, let go of the flight controls long enough to use it?

Thus was born the concept of HOTAS, or “Hands On Throttle And Stick.” The idea behind HOTAS is to put as many of the critical fight regime controls directly onto the throttle(s) and control column as possible in order to preserve the ability of the pilot to control the flight of the airplane while configuring, aiming, and firing its weapons. The HOTAS concept has been around long enough to have been proven vital to modern combat airplanes and has, in fact, started to show up in the control schemes of modern civilian airliners. An unintended consequence (and a trivial one, at best, in the eyes of aircraft manufacturers) of HOTAS is that computer based flight sims have, somewhat counter-intuitively, become more difficult to operate. Rather than an easy mapping between, say, a landing gear handle (‘G’ on your keyboard), there are now more functions on the HOTAS scheme than there are keys on your keyboard. 

In response, game/simulation developers have taken the approach of simplifying the operation of the functions performed with HOTAS controls in the actual airplane. The more realistic simulations have offered both the simplified model and the actual HOTAS mappings, and the developers of gaming peripherals have matched suit with more sophisticated joysticks like the Logitech G940 and the Thrustmaster Hotas Cougar. Both come at a price that requires a fairly high degree of devotion from the consumer, each weighing in at a hefty street price of around $240. Where they differ is in focus: the G940 is more of a generic design that can be mapped to different aircraft, while the Cougar is a direct replica of the control layout of the legendary F-16. The pros and cons of a generic design versus a direct replication design should be obvious. In a market that lacked a high fidelity F-16 simulator, the smart money went with the more generic design of the G940.

Then came the release of the DCS A-10C. Here is a simulation worthy of an exact replica flight control system if there ever was one. In fact, while the G940 was almost capable of providing all of the HOTAS functionality required to realistically operate DCS A-10C, it was in fact the reason that it took me three days to fire a missile. It was a few switches shy of providing the mapping needed to follow the detailed tutorials provided within the DCS simulation without having to resort to key presses, and for some reason the default mapping of the keyboard controls did not always dovetail perfectly with the tutorials. The net result was frustration with both the flight control system and the simulator. Because the G940 doesn’t have the controls that fully match such oddly named switches like the China Hat, the Boat Switch, or the Coolie Hat, or non-descriptively named switches like TMS and DMS, I had to map these switches to the generic switches on the G940. It was very difficult in the heat of battle to remember which switch on the G940 was impersonating the actual switch on the A-10 or which direction that I had decided was ‘forward’ or ‘aft’ on a four-way switch that was oriented as ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘left’, or ‘right’.

The solution to this dilemma arrived in a fifteen pound box containing a Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog controller. The warthog is a joystick and throttle quadrant combination built to exactly replicate the equipment in the real A-10C. Replete with dozens of buttons and switches, all accurately shaped and located to match those in the A-10, the Warthog has the look and feel of true military equipment. The heft of the two units, the strong tactile feedback of the robust switches, and the buttery smooth feel of the controls combine to exude an irresistible feeling of extremely high quality hardware. You don’t even need to plug in the USB cords to know that you are in the presence of what is likely to be the ultimate consumer-available gaming peripheral for years to come. Of course, you will want to get it plugged in and configured as quickly as possible to try it out. I resigned myself to a few hours of control mapping before I could really put it through its paces in the DCS A-10C.

In the event, it took about two minutes. I plugged in the two USB cords, launched DCS A-10, and went to the control configuration screen only to see that the DCS program had detected the Warthog and automatically configured itself to it. The only changes I had to make were to add my rudder pedals and to re-purpose the flight stick’s coolie hat which had mapped itself to view scanning (I use a TrackIR, so I didn’t need the coolie hat for that) rather than the more realistic pitch and roll trim. What an incredible time saver that was! Even this early in my relationship with the Warthog, I could tell that it was going to have to work pretty hard to find a way to disappoint me. Our first date had gone very well, and I was ready to move on to the next phase, sadly knowing that no matter how compatible we might turn out to be, it was going to end in tears. After all, someday I will have to return the loaner Warthog to Thrustmaster.

Being impatient to experience the feel of the Warthog in flight, I opted to skip the fifteen minute start sequence. The truth of the matter is that while there are many switches to be thrown during the engine start sequence, only a few of them are located near the throttles and therefore include on the Warthog throttle quadrant. That’s not a problem, of course, since the point of HOTAS is to provide hands-on access to switches during the fighting phases of flight, not during mundane operations such as engine start. Sitting at the end of the runway, I lowered the flaps using the three-position switch that sits just outboard of the left throttle. I looked over my shoulder and watched the speed brakes deploy as I commanded them to open by using the thumb switch on the side of the right throttle. While they were deployed, I exercised the flight stick from left to right, watching the commensurate movement of the ailerons. I toggled on the nosewheel steering using the pinky switch on the flight stick and started easing the throttles forward. As I accelerated through seventy knots, I toggled the nosewheel steering back to ‘off’. As the plane started hopping around on the runway as the wings began to provide enough lift to lessen the weight on the wheels to just a few pounds, I eased back on the flight stick.

We were airborne!!

Before I continue the narrative, I’d like to mention a few things regarding my own flying background. I have over 800 hours of flying time, and the most recent 250 of that is in my Van’s RV-6. The RV-6 is an experimental homebuilt known for its nimble flight qualities. It is very responsive in both pitch and roll and is fully aerobatic. I bought the airplane already built, the original builder having had to sell it due to health issues. He was a retired Air Force flighter pilot and spent a number of years flying F-86s in Europe. The reason I mention this is that I have had occasion to meet and talk to the builder and one of the questions that I was burning to ask him was how the flight qualities of the RV-6 compare to those of the F-86. His answer was what I had expected: other than the power difference, everything else feels almost the same. In other words, the RV-6 flies like a military fighter. It is my experience in the RV-6 that I will use as comparison to the control feel of the Warthog.

I should also mention my almost universal displeasure with every other joystick I have used before. Most suffer from exactly the same two problems: deadzone and breakout force. There can be two problems with deadzone: too much of it, in which making small motions near the center of stick travel has no effect at all, or a small deadzone area but too much travel before meeting spring resistance. The latter condition is related to the breakout force issue: too much force is required to overcome the initial resistance of the centering spring. That issue is often exacerbated by a spring that once overcome doesn’t offer enough resistance. That fact is, ninety-five percent of flying happens with the stick nearly centered. When I fly the RV-6, the only time I move the stick more than a quarter inch away from center is when I’m throwing the plane around the sky or doing aerobatics. If a stick is not responsive and utterly smooth in the center or doesn’t offer enough resistance further from the center, it is very hard to fly well. This was quite notably the case with the hyper-realistic DCS A-10C. The G940 is very good, but it was still not good enough in the center.

So, there we were, climbing away from the runway and ready to raise the flaps and landing gear. As I hunted around for the flap switch and had to grab the mouse to activate the landing gear handle, I found myself rolling the plane back and forth as the stick responded exactly to my unintentional command inputs. In other words, it felt exactly like a real airplane! As we climbed out over the ocean I tried a few shallow banks and slowly worked my way up to steep turns. The control was every bit as precise and smooth as I had hoped it would be. After an enjoyable flight to the gun range, though, I was about to put the stick to the ultimate test: strafing a target with the massive 30mm Gatling gun in the nose of my airplane.

Strafing isn’t as easy as you might think. The targets are small and hard to see, and the precise control required to center the targeting pipper on the target had been very difficult to achieve with the G940. Not so with the Warthog. The strafing run felt like it was on rails, and small corrections were easy to make. I’m trying not to over-credit the Warthog for this, but it was undeniably easier to make a good strafing run using the Warthog than it was with the G940.

I attribute this mostly to the springs and the hours of effort that must have gone into getting just the right feel, but that isn’t the whole story. I suspect that much of the credit goes to the Hall effect sensors in the joystick. Hall effect sensors differ from the usual joystick potentiometer sensors in that there is no actual contact between a sliding contact and a resistor; rather, the Hall effect sensor uses a the principles of moving an electrical current near a magnetic field to provide a completely contact-less method of measuring linear motion. With nearly infinite and predictable granularity in the measured motion, even converting the analog measurement to a digital equivalent can be extremely precise. There’s a lot of magic going on in there, but however it works, the net result is an extremely fluid control response that felt as close to real flying as I have ever experienced in a PC joystick.

While I was enjoying just flying around shooting at things, I eventually felt that I ought to re-visit some of the DCS tutorials that had given me so much difficulty when I had tried them before. My first try was with the Maverick missile tutorial, that being the one that had the most interaction with the difficult-to-map HOTAS switches. The difference was night and day: when the tutorial asked for a “TMS up, short” input, it was a simple matter to comply. When it came time to “slew the aiming reticule using the slew control or the left control and arrow keys on the keyboard,” it was a thing of beauty - the keyboard never came into it. Before too very long, the missile was off the rail and flying its way towards the unsuspecting tank.

It was a direct hit!

At the end of the day, I was as thrilled with the Warthog and the way that it worked with DCS A-10C as I have ever been with a gaming device, with the exception of the TrackIR, which I find to be absolutely indispensable. It is no stretch to say that the Warthog and DCS A-10C were made for each other. In fact, I strongly suspect that they were! 

And there’s the rub. While the Warthog can most certainly be configured to work with other flight sims, doing so would introduce the inverse to the problems I had when mapping a generic flight stick to DCS A-10: the Warthog is so customized to the A-10 that it would quickly become confusing to use when mapped to anything else. To all intents and purposes, the Warthog has a single function, and that function is to control an A-10C. While it performs that function very, very well, I would have to think long and hard about spending nearly $500 on a single purpose controller.

Of course, I could resign myself to trying to mentally map controls back to a different jet, knowing that the fluid and realistic flight controls would probably make the trade-off acceptable. That’s a perfectly valid decision, but it is a decision that I believe must be made before dropping five Benjamins on it. Having tried it myself, I did find it hard to adapt to a different mapping in a different airplane at first, but the reality that eventually presented itself is that I don’t have any other simulators that are as demanding of perfectly replicated switchology as the DCS A-10C, nor do I have any that are as challenging and rewarding to fly. I suppose if it got right down to it, I could live with nothing but the DCS A-10C. And it’s not like I have to throw away the G940, right?

With full knowledge that the price of the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog is well beyond what the casual gamer is capable or willing to spend, I have only this to say: for $500 you can justifiably expect to receive an extremely high quality product that serves to improve your game play. If you choose to buy a Warthog, I don’t think you will be disappointed. It is, by far, the very best PC joystick that I have ever used, albeit with a single title. I don’t know how long it will take Thrustmaster to come looking to get their loaner unit back, but I intend to savor every remaining moment that we have together. 

At the request of the publisher, I followed up with a review of the actual simulator that I had used to test the joystick:

The line between “game” and “simulation” can sometimes be colored in shades of grey, but in some situations the distinction is starkly obvious. Even then, some so-called simulations are focused on just a few aspects of the real-world equivalent and/or certain areas are simplified to better suit a consumer environment. There is no genre where this is more evident than the realm of flight simulators.  Even the top-tier PC-based flight simulations such as the superb Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane titles have to make concessions to usability. In both of those cases, the broad nature of the types of airplanes modeled requires a somewhat generic approach to the interactions with the airplane controls and the flight environment.

Consider, for example, the F-18 fighter/bomber as modeled in the Microsoft Flight Simulator. Aesthetically, it looks great. Sitting in the virtual cockpit, you are surrounded on all sides by the complex switches, buttons, knobs. levers, handles, and a plethora of other protuberances that are used to interact with the airplane.  Or would be, anyway, if you were sitting in a real airplane. In the simulation, however, the level of effort that would be required to make all of those controls functional would be orders of magnitude too prohibitive to make the undertaking commercially viable. If every one of the dozens of airplanes available in the simulation were modeled to the utmost level of interaction and reality, the purchase cost would be somewhere in the hundreds of dollars.

You might point out that it is possible to purchase third-party add-on airplanes that approach this degree of realism, but that would simply point out the next big weakness: the flight environment. Put simply, no matter how realistic the F-18 airplane model is, it does not “fly” in a realistic fighter/bomber environment. In Microsoft Flight Simulator, you cannot drop bombs, fire the gun, get battlefield direction from an orbiting AWACS jet or a Special Forces troop on the ground, manage your flight of other F-18s as a Flight Leader, or do any of the other things that an F-18 is purposely designed to do.

It can safely be postulated after an examination of these examples that the only way to provide a true high-fidelity and ultra-realistic simulation is to concentrate on a single aircraft.  While doing so offers the opportunity to model the specific airplane to the most precise standards possible, it carries quite a bit of commercial risk as well. Keep in mind that modeling the airplane itself is at most only half of the equation; the flight physics and flight environment need to be modeled as well. And if the airplane under consideration is a fighting military model, the flight environment requires a very complex adjunct: the fight environment.  Also to be considered is the availability of performance, operations, and systems data. When it comes to military equipment, it is not surprising to find that data of this nature is not overly easy to come by. Without that data, the resulting model is nothing more than a collection of (hopefully) educated guesses.

The aforementioned “fight” environment requires the modeling of both the weapons and the weapons management systems. The modeling of weapons in turn requires the modeling of weapons delivery physics, impact or explosive effects and physics, and target damage physics. Bombs don’t drop in a vacuum; they are every bit as influenced by aerodynamics, air density, wind direction and strength, and gravity as any other flying object. Add a rocket engine and a guidance mechanism as you would see in a weapon like a Maverick missile and the equations get even more complex. Weapons need to be aimed, and in this day and age that means you need to develop a model for GPS or inertial guidance, laser tracking, and Continuously Computed Impact Point (CCIP) calculations, amongst other more esoteric means of displaying to the pilot where he can expect his ordnance to land.

Now throw in the fact that pilots don’t fly alone. The typical military air operation of the modern day environment has the complexity of a world class ballet. There are multiple roles that need to be performed by drastically different types of aircraft, and the entire effort has to be choreographed down to mere seconds. Support aircraft such as aerial refueling tankers and reconnaissance types like AWACs have to be on station and ready to provide assistance at exactly the right time. Every aircraft has to be on the right communication channel at the right time. Multiple squads of attack aircraft have to arrive at the target from the right direction and at the planned time to avoid disastrous consequences. And, as obvious as it may sound, they all have to be aiming at the right target. Unintended collateral damage can, and has, caused huge international repercussions.

If you were to consider the development of a consumer product like that, you would then have to ask yourself how big the potential market is. Keep in mind that it takes military pilots years to become adept at this kind of flying, and that is in a full-immersion, all day every day environment. How many consumers are going to sign up for that kind of learning curve? As many as would buy, for example, a Call of Duty game?  Certainly not! A tenth that many? No, again, probably not. One hundredth, a thousandth? Without the promise of hundreds of thousands of buyers, how high would you need to set the price to even hope to recoup even a portion of your development cost??

Would you believe $59?

Me neither, but it’s true.  The only way such a thing would be possible is if someone else was footing some (most, actually) of the development cost. Even then it would need to be an investor that had both deep pockets and no real interest in consumer sales revenue. This investor would have to have an inherent need for the product.   This (finally!) at last brings us to the topic at hand: the DCS A-10C Warthog simulator from The Fighter Collection / Eagle Dynamics. Borrowing heavily from the introduction in the voluminous PDF Flight Manual included with the simulator, we find:

"A-10C Warthog is the second module in the Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) series and follows the critically acclaimed DCS: Black Shark.  Eagle Dynamics has been developing a high-fidelity Desk Top Simulation of the A-10C for the U.S. Air National Guard for the past several years, giving us a tremendous access to A-10C information. We were fortunate enough to work out an agreement with our client to release an entertainment version of this simulation."

That explains a lot, doesn’t it? Access to critical aircraft data: check. Angel investor with demonstrable need for the product: check.  Laser-like focus on minute and legion details about the target aircraft and its operating environment: check and mate.

I’ve been studying (as opposed to “playing with”) the DCS A-10C for more than a month now and I can sum up the experience in a one sentence: DCS A-10C is unarguably the single most complex, realistic, all-encompassing, extremely high quality PC-based consumer accessible flight simulator on the market today. If I was pressed to provide more adjectives, I would also add frustrating, intimidating, addictive, impressive, demanding, and rewarding. DCS A-10C is the embodiment of every single wish a dedicated flight sim junky could ever ask for.  It is by far the most elaborate consumer-grade simulator imaginable. And it’s not just the sim itself, either. The flight manual weighs in at over 600 pages, chock full of well-written and useful information. 

Wait, did I say “frustrating?” Well, yes, but in a good way. This is a warning that you should take to heart: DCS A-10C is not something that you will be able to plug in and use effectively without hours of study. Even after more than a month of doing it, it still takes me fifteen minutes to get the two engines started and the avionics configured for flight. It took me three days of effort to even launch a Maverick missile, although there is a caveat to that difficulty that I will speak about soon.  For now I simply want to impart an understanding of the complexity of this endeavor: if you take the time to learn how to correctly operate this simulation, I am convinced that you could sit down in a real A-10C and get it started and ready for flight. If you, as I do, have 700+ hours of flight time and 250 of those in a nimble, fighter-like airplane, you could probably fly that A-10 too.

Since it’s not very likely that such an opportunity will ever present itself, we have to satisfy ourselves with the virtual experience.  As I’ve mentioned, this is initially a somewhat daunting prospect, but it’s not as if you have to sequester yourself away in a sensory deprivation room with nothing by the flight manual and five gallons of coffee just to get started on your journey up the learning curve. Eagle Dynamics has thoughtfully provided a series of in-game tutorials to get you through the basics. These extremely well implemented tutorials walk you through operations using voice narration followed by the visual highlighting of the switches and knobs that you need to interact with. In most cases the tutorial will visually highlight the switch to help you find it and click it with the mouse. The narration will also  tell you which switch to use on the joystick, and also tell you the keyboard equivalent if there is one.

This is where I need to digress a little bit. I’ve been trying to find a way to break some bad news, and this seems as good of a place as any.  The bad news is this: to realize the full, vast potential of DCS A-10C, you’re going to need some hardware. It’s probably obvious with a flight sim that you’re going to need a TrackIR head position sensor, and it should be at least equally as obvious that you’re going to need a good flight stick, rudder pedals, and throttle quadrant. The problem is that not just any flight stick/throttle quadrant will do. To utilize the ultra-high fidelity of the DCS A-10C aircraft controls, you really need an ultra-high fidelity A-10 controller. The cost of the completely replicated systems and switchology of the actual A-10 in the DCS A-10C is that you need a complete replica of at least the throttles and joystick. 

The actual A-10 employs a HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) methodology in its design of the weapons management controls, and this methodology is more complex than the standard generic joysticks you are used to can provide. The bottom line is that you need a Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog system to truly operate this simulation satisfactorily. At more than $450 street, that’s a pretty steep demand. And it doesn’t come with rudder pedals. You’ll need to throw some more dollars at CH or Saitek for those.

This isn’t to say that you can’t get by with a good Logitech flight stick and the keyboard, but attempting to do so will add layers of frustration to the process. Do you remember the three days that it took me to launch a missile?  Those three days were spent struggling to get a good mapping set up for my Logitech G940. Once I got access to a Thrustmaster HOTAS, I was able to better follow the in-game tutorials as they described the switches I needed to use to arm, aim, and annihilate. The difference was night and day. The integration between the HOTAS stick and DCS A-10C is so tight and easy, it’s as if they were designed in conjunction with each other.

So, having dropped that bomb I’ll get back to talking about the tutorials.  Assuming that you are able to follow the directions for providing switch inputs to the aircraft and weapons management systems, the tutorials will guide you through engine start, radio communications, takeoff, landing, and the employment of five distinct weapon categories. At the completion of the tutorials, you will have learned that you need to go through each of them another half dozen times. They move fast and since you are for the most part also flying the plane, there are distractions that can cause you to miss things. After you’ve learned all you can learn from the tutorials, get ready for a humbling experience: your first real mission.

Before attempting a mission, I recommend making an initial stop at the Gameplay tab of the Options screen. There you will want to enable the ‘Labels’ option. Without this, you will find both airborne and ground targets/threats nearly impossible to find. While setting options, you might also consider enabling the easy communications option. This will help with the distracting task of changing radio frequencies.  There are other selections that will simplify certain aspects of the simulation, but even maxing out the selection of enablers will not change the fact that fighting a determined enemy in this jet is very likely to result in your tragic and untimely demise. 

A lot.

When it comes to the actual missions, I have to make a confession. I have yet to survive one. When it comes to coordinating with an AWACs jet or a JTAC resource on the ground, sending orders to my wingman and the rest of the flight, finding a target to aim at, and configuring a missile or bomb to send to the target, I am an unmitigated failure. There aren’t any tutorials for this; successfully flying a mission requires book work or hours watching and re-watching YouTube videos. That’s a level of intense dedication that I simply cannot bring to bear given my current work level with a day job and the building of an airplane in the evenings.

But that’s okay, really, because even using 15 or 20 percent of the capability in DCS A-10C is quite gratifying.  Simply flying the airplane is a real delight with it’s smooth response in both flight and instruments. The A-10 is not a fire-breathing powerhouse like an F-15 or other front line air superiority fighter. It is actually not overly powerful at all, and this is readily apparent in the flight model. You actually have to manage your energy wisely in climbing and maneuvering because, just as with 99% of the real airplanes in the world, the A-10 doesn’t have ample reserves of power available on demand. In other words, you have to fly the wing, not the engines.  

(Note: the one second sound lag comes from the video conversion I had to do to reduce the file size - it's not like that in the game. Also note that my right engine gets hit by enemy fire from the 4th tank (4:10), so I shut it down and made a single engine landing back at the base.)

I find that the handful of Instant Action missions are plenty to keep me engaged if I want to just fly around blowing stuff up. Those missions are very simple in that they have five target areas with pre-placed tanks, troops, trucks, or whatever. Your flight plan is already loaded; all you have to do is fly to the waypoints and destroy the targets. At the higher difficulty levels, you will also have to defend yourself against anti-aircraft guns and missiles.

If that gets too routine, the next higher level of difficulty is to use the quick mission generator. The generated missions are similar to the instant missions in that they are easy to just jump into, but this mode gives you more control over the environment. You can define weather conditions, the number and types of both friendly and enemy aircraft and ground units, and the relative skill levels of each. The missions generate very quickly and before you know it you’re in the air and headed towards an enemy encounter.  Note that this is where you will start to see the limitations of your computer’s horsepower. With the addition of a lot more moving objects that the processor needs to manage, you might start to see some lag in performance. If you’re married, the solution to this is to re-configure the mission generator parameters to reduce the traffic level.  If you’re single, just buy a new PC.

The geographical region that the battles occur in is nicely detailed and has plenty of hilly areas to fly around in at tree-hugging height, and if for some reason you can’t find the intended targets there are plenty of cars and trains to shoot at.  For a real challenge, start up a mission that has a tanker on station and practice the very difficult art of aerial refueling.  The navigation process involved in finding the tanker in the first place will be educational.  As the arming, aiming, and annihilating becomes almost second nature, perhaps then you will be ready to get into the real missions or a full blown campaign.  Another fun challenge is to set up a mission with low clouds and high winds and then navigate to an airbase and make an instrument landing.

For the armchair colonels that scoff at canned or generated missions, DCS A-10C also includes a very detailed mission creator.  I looked at it just long enough for my eyes to gloss over with the same level of incomprehension you’d see plastered on the face of a dog pondering a nuclear physics textbook, but judging by the missions that have been created with it, it is extremely capable.  The 130 pages dedicated to it in the game manual (as opposed to the flight manual) is also a fairly good indicator of the depth available.  Missions can be built that allow other human players to fly along in multiplayer mode. This capability could enable virtual flight squadrons to be created in much the same way clans have formed around ground-pounder games.

It’s hard to find anything not to love in DCS A-10C. The software is simply phenomenal and will easily provide months of entertainment with its challenging learning curve coupled with the ample sense of accomplishment incumbent with each successful flight.  That having been said, the hardware demands are high if the program is to reach its full potential so it is clearly not for everyone. This is not a flaw in the design or implementation of the simulation, though. It is instead simply the cost of providing a highly realistic and all-encompassing simulation of a complex military flying machine. Approached with the right mind set, you will find no betterr consumer grade flight simulator of any type on the market today.  Conversely, if you approach it with the idea of sitting down and mastering it as a game without devoting a great deal of effort to learning it, you will find nothing but frustration.  DCS A-10C will amply reward you for every bit of effort you put into mastering it, but will punish you for trying to get by with minimal effort.

I gave it a ranking of 'A'.

Finally, I did a little email-based interview with the game's Producer:

 - I postulate in my review that after some intensive practice with the DCS A-10C simulator, I could probably sit down in a real A-10C and get it started. Following an even more Mitty-esque train of thought, I also suggested that there is a good chance that I could fly it. How realistic is this?
Assuming you are playing in "Sim" mode, then quite good. From my own personal experience: After working on this project for the past five years (military and game versions), I had the opportunity to get in the full dome, cockpit trainer for the A-10C.  This is a 1 to 1 replica of the real A-10C with all the systems. From a cold start jet I was able to get everything up and running, taxi, takeoff, navigate, kill my target, navigate back to my base at night and land. The A-10C instructor pilot (IP) there was amazed and a little baffled that I was able to fly an entire mission having never been to the A-10C B-course, much less flown one.

- As a follow-up to the previous question, are there any areas/functions of the simulator that are deliberately "dumbed down" or changed from the actual aircraft?
After getting the go-ahead to do an entertainment version of the military training version of the A-10C we developed, we had to provide a detailed design document of exactly what would be in the game version. Overall, they removed very little. The only areas we had to back off a little on were the defense countermeasure systems, some aspects of the data link, the IFF/SIF system, and we tuned the sensors a bit.
In fact, the game version is overall more realistic than the military version because we fully modeled the flight dynamics, engine, fuel, electrical, hydraulic, lighting, emergency, back up, radio, and navigation systems at a fidelity level much higher than the military version. The military version was only designed to train pilots on the avionics changes between the A-10A to the A-10C and then later suites of the A-10C.

- I also discuss the cost of developing the simulation as compared to the revenue to be expected from the limited consumer market for a simulation with such a daunting learning curve and theorize that the consumer market is simply the icing on the cake, with the initial development costs having been paid under a military contract. How close to the truth is that theory?
Actually, pretty far off. The game version of the A-10C only used about 25% of the development investment from the military version (i.e. a lot of the avionics work). The vast majority of the game had to be developed outside the initial project and funded internally.

- One cannot help but notice that the Thrustmaster HOTAS controller has the same relatively limited appeal in the consumer market, especially considering its price point. Beyond that, it defies belief to think that the timing of the development of such a perfect controller and such a detailed flight simulation, both for the exact same aircraft, was purely a happy coincidence. Was there coordination with Thrustmaster for the design and development of the controller? If so, was the controller also part of the government contract I hypothsize above?
In fact, we did not know of Thrustmaster's plans until they were well into development of their HOTAS. As such, there was certainly no collusion between the two companies.  You will need to talk to Thrustmaster to best understand their decision, but my understanding is that they wished to create a new HOTAS system and they felt that the A-10C system could be very versatile, provide split throttles, and take advantage of an upcoming study sim.
Where we did cooperate was that after they had working prototypes, they sent us copies to ensure compatibility and allow our software to recognize the HOTAS and automatically configure all of the controls to match the real A-10C.

- It seems that the development of such a sophisticated virtual battlefield and the physics that go along with such a diverse collection of flying/dropping weapons could be re-purposed to use with other aircraft. Are there any plans for future simulations of other aircraft to follow the A-10?
Most certainly. We envision DCS as an open-ended simulation environment. While we are currently focused on high-fidelity simulation of modern aircraft, we also intend to later broaden it to other types of vehicles, at different levels of fidelity and at various historic eras.

No comments:

Post a Comment