Jeffery Briggs – Designers Notes

Home Forums Previous Months 29 – June 2019: Knights of the Sky Jeffery Briggs – Designers Notes

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  • evilcommiedictator

    Taken from the manual posted in the other thread:

    Do We Have The Technology?
    For a long time, the people at MPS Labs had kicked around the idea of doing a World War I flight simulator. It seemed like a natural- but there were a couple of problems: topic, appeal and technology.
    The general consensus was that most people like to fly jets… Well, we’ve done a lot of “jet-games” and found that to be true – a whole lot of people do like flying jets. But why wouldn’t they also like flying biplanes?
    Well, that’s where the technology issue came in. We thought a lot of folks would like biplanes if the planes could look good.Biplanes are very complex objects – not like sleek jets, with smooth, polygonal surfaces. Biplanes are angular contraptions with wheels sticking out the bottom and stacked wings. It takes lots of very complex, efficient 3D code to render good-looking biplanes spinning and zooming around the screen.
    To make matters worse, dogfighting in those days was a personal affair. You couldn’t coldly fire a missile from miles away and watch a tiny jet-shaped object turn to a ball of flames. No, you had to get up close to the enemy, follow him for a long time, line him up, and shoot him down with your guns. This means that not only does the program have to draw these real complex objects, but it has to draw ’em big, and keep doing it for a long time. This is hard!..Especially if you’re interested in having the whole thing look good and run fast.
    Fortunately, MicroProse has been in the 3D graphics biz as long as anyone, and we have guys who can do these things. After seeing what Scott Spanburg and Andy Hollis did with Ml Tank Platoon and F-15 II, we were sure we had the technology to pull it off

    Do We Have A Game?
    The next question was how do you make the topic fun and interesting?
    World War I produced the first air heroes, the Aces. We knew from the outset that they had to play a role. It seems there was a real personal competition going on among those guys, and the game had to evoke that feeling.
    The idea of the “Ace Hunt” was the original spark that made us confident we had a game. We wanted to make a flight simulator that was more than just a string of non-connected flights, one that gave the player a reason for wanting to get back into the cockpit and go up. The concept of competing with deadly opponents seemed to provide that impetus. Further, making a sort of puzzle out of the whole thing – “where is that guy based, how will I know him when I see him, and how do I stop him from scoring… ” – added another dimension that would greatly enhance the fun of the flying game, and provide a “personal” feel to the competition. Also, the war itself provided some interesting situations. An arms race of sorts developed among the aircraft producers; everybody was trying desperately to build a better aeroplane – one that would make what the other guy had obsolete. In those days it was possible because aviation was in its infancy and there was a lot to be discovered. So, it was clear from the start that there had to be lots of different planes.
    In addition, we wanted the player of our game to come away with a better understanding of World War I itself. It seems that most people have a cursory familiarity with the events of the war, and names like Richthofen and Ball, Voss and Nungesser, the Somme and Cambrai, ring a tiny little bell somewhere in the backs of our minds, but we don’t really know where to place them. Well, we hoped that by playing this game, the tiny little bell would ring louder.
    Knights of the Sky provides a historical backdrop that satisfies all these needs. When you play the historical game, “World War I,” there’s a giant historical clock that ticks along triggering historical events: the appearance of a new fighter, a newspaper article about a major battle, or the entry-or death-of a powerful Ace. Also, the ground war causes enemy Aces to concentrate where the action is fiercest, and new depots, aerodromes, and HQs appear and disappear as time goes along.
    Our philosophy, though, as always, is “fun over fact. “If history impedes the fun or flow of the game, well, we bend it. We base a lot of the “historical” event stuff on a random system that tends to reflect what really happened, but it ensures that it will never happen the same way in successive games – that would be too predictable, less fun. We give the player the “cool” equipment, the successful fighters – not the ones that didn’t work, or whose wings consistently fell off; that would be frustrating.We don’t require the player to fly every day of the war on dull, routine missions where there’s no opportunity to dogfight – that’d be boring. Instead, in his career, the player experiences only those missions in which something happened; think of your career as the highlights of a typical pilot’s life.
    To an extent, game design is problem solving – creative problem solving – and compromise.
    One of the first issues that had to be dealt with was the planes themselves – there were an awful lot of them and, as in any computer game, there is a limited amount of space. It soon became evident that many of the neat-looking planes of the period would be extremely difficult to render and would have to excluded. Many of these were not armed planes, and to include them would create a whole host of additional problems. I decided that only fighters would be available to the player to fly, and I defined fighter as any single-seat plane with a forward-firing machine gun. The planes of the era did not fly like jets, so we had to have a whole new set of flight equations and algorithms. Scott Spanburg studied the physics of flight from the standpoint of biplanes and came up with very realistic flight. We then toned down some of the difficulties to make it easier for players to manage, but kept the essentials. In addition, you can fly 20 different fighters in Knights of the Shy, and each one flies a little differently; again, a momentous task. There was also the issue of cockpits – every plane had a slightly different interior. In the tradition of good game design, we compromised. Certain essential items would be needed in every cockpit of the day, and certain items were essential for game-play. We made a generic cockpit based upon the Sopwith Camel’s and decided that all the planes would use it; to you purists out there we apologize, but memory and storage are expensive.
    The issue of navigation in the first air war was also interesting. In the absence of radar and other electronics, the pilots of the day had to rely upon ground features to guide them. Roads and rivers were the primary landmarks, and we had to have a 3D system that would produce roads and rivers that lead from place to place. What we came up with is a tiling system that includes over 40 different tiles. The entire world that you see as you fly is comprised of these tiles (think of tiles as patches in a patch-work quilt). The tiles were designed to be pieced together to form any road network. The trick was to get each tile to use as few points as possible, so the program would not spend an inordinate amount of time processing and drawing the world. We were pleased to discover that Napolean built many of the roads in modem-day France and Belgium, and that he stipulated that they be as straight as possible to facilitate quick movement of armies.
    One of the more interesting and challenging problems involved the aces. I wanted them to appear approximately when they did historically and disappear accordingly. They also needed to score in about the same numbers as they did historically, but at the same time respond to the player’s ability. Therefore, the aces in the game score about what they did historically but never the same way in different games. Their scoring responds to lots of factors too numerous to discuss fully, but the planes they fly, the period of the war, and what planes the allies have contribute. This leads to another point that I’m sure some people will wonder about. Why can’t you be a German pilot? The enemy aces each have their own style of combat that corresponds, to a degree, to the tactics that each of the individuals favored. To include a full set of Allied aces would have been memory- and storage-space consuming and the tactics of the aces would inevitably blur together.
    Additionally, we would have had to double the amount of art in the game or make the same amount of art more generic and therefore less interesting. Of course, in the training games, you can fly any plane you want – Allied or German; you can even pit an eindekker against an SE 5 or Camel, a situation that probably never occurred.
    Data on planes was not difficult to get my hands on; the problem was deciding what to believe. Sources for technical data often contradicted each other and in those cases, I simply looked at averages and came up with what I felt was probably most accurate. It was very difficult to find good, up-to-date information on air operations during WWI. I finally came across a couple of excellent periodicals (Cross and Cockade and Over the Front) which I highly recommend to anyone interested in more info. But World War I is not the hottest topic around these days. Finding pictures of cockpits was particularly trying.
    A case in point is location of important aerodromes. There were literally hundreds of airfields used and often for very brief periods. It was so difficult to determine the positions of individual units at any given time that the game, again, had to compromise. The eight permanent aerodromes on either side of the lines represent important centers of air activity, not actual aerodromes that existed throughout the war.
    All in all,we wanted to create an excellent flight simulator that would give the feeling of flying old aeroplanes, and at the same time, provide a historical world that would allow the player to experience what it was like to be a flyer in the early days of aviation – a world packed with images of the past. If we accomplished this, then our work was good.

    Do We Have A Team!
    Many people contributed to this project – even some, I’ll bet, that aren’t mentioned in the credits (to those people I apologize for my forgetfulness).
    Scott Spanburg, the lead programmer, was able to accomplish some incredible feats. I said early on that roads and rivers in the game had to go somewhere because the player would have to navigate by following them. As far as I know, that’s not been done before, but Scott came up with a way of doing it, and it works. We wanted the dogfighting to be interesting and personal; there had to be great variety in quality of German pilots and aces. Scott did that. There are probably more polygons and points being pushed around on the screen of this game than in any PC game to date, and it works smooth and fast, thanks to Scott. We spent a great deal of time getting the 3D segment of the game to look as beautiful as it does, and most of it is attributable to Scott… and artist Jackie Ross.
    Jackie is responsible for all the neat art. We thought the game should look like a slice of the past-a tough task for a computer game. So we wanted the art to smack of the period. Jackie, in her wisdom, decided that the poster art of the day was perfect for the computer screen and would certainly evoke the “slice-of-the-past” feeling we wanted. Most of the art you see harkens back, stylistically, to recruiting and propaganda posters that were rampant from 1914 to 1920. Jackie also created the 3D objects in the game-all the planes, buildings, trucks, artillery, balloons, explosions, and so on. She created all the cockpit interiors you see when you fly one of the planes and a host of other details (and when the art tasks occasionally seemed to be too much, Art Director Michael Haire stepped in and helped out). The little animations that grace the Information screens are attributable to Jackie… along with programmer Bill Becker.
    Bill wrote the software tool that allowed Jackie to make her art animate on your screen,but more significant to this game was Bill’s work on the roleplaying and mission logic. He made the cool Briefing Screen that assigns your missions and decides where the enemy targets are. He also made the aces seem to have a life of their own, as they shoot down your comrades and, in general, do news-making stuff. All the overall logic that surrounds the flight game is Bill’s work.
    Ken Lagace wrote the “rags” that you hear during the game (they sound really nice if you have a good sound card in your computer – so go out and get one). Ken is the head of the sound department which includes Jim McConkey who does some amazing things with sound effects (if you have an MT-32 or AdLib synthesizer card you know what I mean).
    That leaves me. I did what all deSigners at MicroProse do: researched and scoped out the concept of the game, wrote it up in the form of little algorithms, charts, and tables, wrote the screen text, and finally attempted to document the game, in this manual. Game designers at MicroProse also serve as administrative heads of design teams – they bother people and get ignored a lot.
    The Quality Assurance crowd, led by Al Roireau, deserve a coke and a smile for their consistent heroic efforts at debugging and improving what has been done. Iris Idokogi and her gang of desktop publishing and computer-graphics thugs; Matt Scibilia, Susan Ullrich, and Michael Reis, deserve a lot of credit, especially this year for their overtime and perseverance. They put up with a lot and always right at the end of a long project.
    We hope you enjoy what we’ve done here. Even if you don’t, we want to know about it. Write to our Hunt Valley address.

    Jeffery. L. Briggs
    August, 1990


    Absolutely fantastic! What a great read. Thanks a lot for posting this.

    Evil Taco

    Agreed! I feel like going back and checking this game out now.

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Home Forums Previous Months 29 – June 2019: Knights of the Sky Jeffery Briggs – Designers Notes