Preview - Apache (DOS, 1995)

Editor's note: Since our interview with Bryan Walker, Domark has changed the name of "Dogfight" to "Flying Nightmares 2000."

INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT: You were in the service for seven years. Were you always interested in being a pilot, or is that something you eventually worked up to?

BRYAN WALKER: When I was going to college I was majoring in aerospace engineering. During that time I got instrument-qualified in fixed-wings on a private Cessna aircraft. I continued training, it takes about a year to get into the Army flight school program. Also during that time, in fact since the TRS-80 model 1, I'd been a radical computer-gamer and something of a hacker trying to make my own games as well. Even during the time that I was in the Army, I also wrote reviews for Computer Gaming World magazine. In fact, my very first review was for Gunship 2000. I expanded out from there.

IE: When you sat down with the TRS-80, did you play flight sims? Did you sit there and say, I could do some things better here?

BW: When I was playing flight sims way back, I thought they were really sharp. To me, a flight sim is not a simulator of the actual mechanics so much as it is a role-playing system. Right now, with the technology PCs are approaching, people can not only believe they are pilots, but the machines can actually start bringing more of the feeling, the subtleties of the aircraft involved. No flight simulator to date has really fleshed that out. To quote an analogy that's often used for something else, flight simulators now are like taking a shower with a raincoat on. It looks like it, it sounds like it, but it doesn't feel like it. Since I know what they feel like, both from the civilian aviation side and from the military and combat aviation side, something I'm really focusing on is bringing the human side of the equation into the simulator.

IE: Looking back when you were hacking and going to college, are there a couple of flight sims that you played back then that really stick out as being remarkable for their time?

BW: My two favorites back then were the Red Baron, which I think even now stands up very well. In fact, I enjoy it better than some of the later releases in that same series. And, Chuck Yeager's Air Combat, which runs very well on a low-end machine, and the aircraft feel very believable.

IE: Do you think that's partly because Chuck Yeager was involved, and certainly, here's a man who knows what an airplane is supposed to feel like?

BW: Precisely. The empiricists that usually program a game often have an intimate technical knowledge, but there are so many nuances that unless you have a hands-on experience with the aircraft, you'll never be able to convey, no matter who much you read or how much you study the wind-tunnel data, the engineering summaries and whatnot, it just won't come through.

IE: When you first went into the service, were you a helicopter pilot?

BW: When I first entered the service I was already civilian rated, then went through the intermediate entry rotary-wing training at Fort Rooker, Alabama after going through basic training at Fort Knox. That school was about a year long. After that time, my class placing immediately enabled me to going into Apache training. I spent 10 weeks going to Apache school. After that I went to join my new unit that was forming at Fort Hood, Texas. I spent about a year going through unit training program there, where the entire unit forms, develop its tactics, learns how to work as a team. After that I was deployed to Germany, and I spent three years there.

IE: What that your goal when you went to the flight school, to be able to fly an Apache?

BW: The only reason I joined the Army was to fly the Apache.

IE: How come?

BW: I've had a history - my family heritage has been in the military and aviation, and I wanted to carry on that heritage. Also, I just liked the way the helicopter looked. And, I enjoyed flying it a great deal.

IE: Obviously there's a huge difference between the helicopter you take from the top of your hotel to the airport, versus an Apache. What does an Apache do, and what makes it so special?

BW: By far, its best capability is as a night fighter. One of the things that they learned during Viet Nam is that helicopters during the day tend to be quite vulnerable. When they initially designed the Apache, they designed it from the get-go as an aircraft that could operate at a low level at night. Using the various infrared systems and targeting systems, it performs that mission superbly. In fact, during Desert Storm, the Apaches destroyed more vehicles than the A-10 and the M-1 tank combined. The rate of fire, the range, particularly the standoff range, is just a tremendous advantage using the Apache at night. The Iraqis were really terrified of it because a jet they could hear, and they knew it was going to be flying overhead when it engaged. The Apache could stand off from a hover from five miles and just punish them, and that's what they did.

IE: As far as weaponry, you don't think of a helicopter as an attack vehicle. What were some of the different things you could do when you were carrying out your mission?

BW: Our typical entry profile when we were going into a mission at night was we would try to go in with no moon, total darkness. Basically, if any of the enemy had night-vision goggles, it took that advantage away from them. The infrared doesn't need light to see, even moonlight, where night-vision goggles have to have some kind of ambient light to be able to see anything. We'd always try to attack from hours of complete darkness. We would always keep in mind the wind. If we attacked from downwind, that would make it harder to hear us. Particularly at the ranges we operated on, the first idea that would have that anything was happening was they would start seeing missile engines firing. We would always make a habit of coordinating our attacks with other people in our flight - we would generally operate in flights of five or six. The main reason you would do that was that the Apache can fire missiles so rapidly that you just don't want to send three missiles against one tank. You would coordinate your fire, always keeping in mind where your wingmen were and what they were doing, really maintaining close communication once the attack began. During the battle we would generally operate from a hover, but occasionally we would come to an altitude of 100-150 feet just to avoid dust. Particularly in Saudi, the dust clouds got pretty fierce sometimes.

IE: The military background is obviously there. Where along the way did you get the idea that it might be fun to program for the computer?

BW: Even from way back in my gaming background I'd always hacked a little bit, be it the TRS-80, the Apple II, the Apple IIgs and on to the PCs, I'd always enjoyed fiddling with them and I took quite a few computer courses in college. I'm not a professional-level programmer by any stretch, but as a designer, I always even back then fantasized about being in the industry and being able to put my name and something of myself into a game.

IE: Have you finished any games to this point?

BW: Out of the Sun for Macintosh.

IE: What kind of game was that?

BW: That was primarily a World War II era, what we call a general-market flight simulator. When I say general market, it's not one that requires a PHD in aerospace and a full control setup to play. The aircraft feel realistic, they sound realistic and they shoot realistic, but it's made so that 90 percent of the market can enjoy it very quickly.

IE: What are you working on now?

BW: Right now we're working on something called, its working title is Dogfight. The real title is up in the air, and we've got about 50 names going back and forth. This is going to be the simulator for that other 10 percent that want everything, or think they want everything, 100 percent realistic. This will be primarily warbirds, the best dogfighting aircraft from World War I, World War II, and Korea. We're also looking at integrating pylon racing just for grins because one, no one has done it, and two, I think it would be fun. With Dogfight we're looking to take Air Warrior, which is right now the best of the warbird sims as far as pure realism and head-to-head play, and take it to the next level. We've already got our 1024x768 graphics drivers operating. We'll be introducing high-res textures all the way up to 1024x768 for the machines that can take it, and there's probably two in the universe right now. The big thing with Dogfight to me that's going to be the most challenging is the artificial intelligence. We are adding a human variable in the artificial intelligence. You're going to have planes that will run from you. If the fight goes against them, they'll split. They're going to execute the better part of discretion. You're going to have computer pilots that will black out. You're going to have computer pilots that will snap roll and lose control of the planes. Those are going to be put in. What we're looking at is on a network game if you have two players and two computer-flown aircraft mixing it up, I don't want either computer player to know which is the computer opponent. Right now with every other flight sim out there, I can tell in five seconds which one is computer and which one is not. That is within reach. In fact, we're looking to have demos ready by CES to show the difference.

IE: Will there be any sort of campaign or battle structure, or will it just be an opportunity to climb into warbirds from different eras and have a dogfight?

BW: Right now we're leaning against putting campaigns in and fleshing out the head-to-head play. There will be several solo scenarios in there.

IE: How about Apache? (15:40)

BW: Apache is, and I'm not making any bones about it, we are going to out-Falcon 4.0 Falcon 4.0. Very clearly, in fact. Much of the AI work going into Dogfight is going to expand out into Apache. Much of the graphics work from Dogfight will expand out into Apache. We're looking at the minimum machine for Apache will be a 486 local bus, minimum. We are going to be putting some Pentium super-scaler optimizations in there, so actually it's going to be a Pentium-optimized game, the first Pentium-optimized game. One of the interesting things we're going to be putting into Apache is that the player will have several levels of complexity, several different levels of involvement. If he just wants to go out fly an arcade-style game, that's there, and it's very easy to do, and quick. If he wants to increase his level of involvement to the point he's participating in a campaign, and he serves as a commander, and he decides he wants to direct the maintenance routines, we're going to put that in there. My whole goal with Apache is for the player, when he turns his machine on, he doesn't say "I'm going to play Apache." He's going to say "I'm going to see how my unit is doing." One of the interesting features we're putting in is what I call the SOP feature. We're using a chalkboard-type interface. He can cut and paste helicopters onto a chalkboard basically like he's sketching out a formation, and he can save that formation. And he'll be defining what each aircraft's responsibilities and stand priorities and firing sectors will be during this. And then he can save that formation as a macro, and during combat he says "it's time to go to formation C," and he'll hit C and it will execute that macro and the aircraft will automatically assume that formation. In the real Army they do that, and they call those brevity codes. The real pilots will say "execute Line Mike," and everyone knows what Line Mike is, and everyone goes to that.

IE: It sounds like you're definitely going for wide appeal in the sense that if you just want to putter around, that's fine, but if you want to get into commanding your own unit, you can.

BW: The entire basis of Apache will be that the Department of Defense has formed a quick-reaction force that is designed with heavy firepower and mobility in mind. Attack helicopters are ideally suited for that kind of action. The player will take command, at maximum level, of a brand-new unit. He gets to pick to hand-pick his pilots from a list with full resumes, and decide which ones he wants to go with. Now one of the interesting things about Apache is you have front-seaters and back-seaters, and you also have personalities. Some front-seaters and back-seaters, based on their personalities, will not get along. This is not scripted, it will be computed, and there will be problems. You'll have some pilots who will be superb during the day but have problems at night. Night flying on Apache is what separates the men from the boys.

IE: There's a human element in there.

BW: The crew coordination in an Apache is extremely important. That is one of the most important things effectively taking that helicopter into a fight is how the crew, not how the individuals operate, but how the crew operates. We're going to look at that synergism, and we'll be able to portray that very well. You're going to have pilots get wounded in battle. How does that effect the other pilot? Is he shaken up, or he is disturbed? That's going to be simulated. During the campaign games, you're going to have pilots get Dear John letters? How is that going to effect them? Do you sit them out for a mission? One of the other things that's really been overlooked is maintenance, particularly in battle. Aircraft are going to get chewed up, they're going to get shot up, they're going to need the normal scheduled maintenance. You're also going to have the crew chiefs involved. They're probably the unsung heroes of any aviation unit. How do you work the crew chiefs? How do you assign them to different tasks? How do you manage that resource? That is one of the things as a commander, a real commander, you have to look at every single day and in every single mission. That's going to be in the higher levels of Apache.

IE: What you're describing is a sim with a very heavy management load. The borders are breaking down. It's not just enough to make a cool-looking flight sim that looks and feels right. That's enough for some people, but other people want to feel as though they're in charge of the unit, and that's what you're building.

BW: It will have everything for someone who wants to rip and tear around and be a superhero, to the real control freaks. In the virtual environment, everything's going to have cause and effect. If you have a helicopter go down, you can have a macro briefed specifically for recovering the helicopter during that mission. If the second helicopter in the formation gets shot down, you can have a macro briefed where the trail will go down and help recover him. If for some reasons or another you can not execute that macro, the situation dictates otherwise, then those pilots are still going to be out there in that campaign. At that point, how do you handle it? Do you send a dedicated recovery team to go out and pick them up? Do you write them and the helicopter off? Do you go to an outside unit, say an Air Force search and rescue, to go pick them up? Those will all be in there, and whether or not those pilots make it back will have repercussions for all the other pilots. Just like in real life, pilot rescue has more of an effect on pilots who aren't being rescued than the pilots who are being rescued.

As I said before, we already have Virtual Reality goggle drivers. We are looking very strongly at integrating the new 3-D card support in both Dogfight and Apache. Making no bones about it, from the beginning, we're not looking at what's happening now, we're looking forward at being state of the art.

One of the things, as a helicopter pilot and as a former solider, that's always rubbed me the wrong way is every helicopter sim has either been a very pretty-looking terrain viewer with a game wrapped around it, or just basically a pretty rough conversion of a fixed-wing flight simulation. This is starting from the beginning as a helicopter simulator, and it's going to show. You fire a weapon, its going to rattle your teeth, and it's going to have all the other effects. It's going to shake, and it's going to be loud. Everything that makes a helicopter a helicopter is going to be present.