B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighy Eighth

Interview with Iain Howe, Producer at Wayward Design

Interview copy supplied by Hasbro, 2000.
Q: What level of detail does the game contain?
IH: Incredible amounts. An immense amount of source material was amassed during the research and design phases of the game. Visits were paid to aviation museums. Hundreds of photographs were taken of both flying and static versions of the aircraft modeled, where available. Specialist books were consulted, operations manuals found so that the correct specifications, procedures and cockpit layouts could be adhered to.
This source material was continually referred to at all stages of development, in order to keep the level of accurate, historical and relevant detail in the game at a high level.
Each plane is modelled to fanatical detail levels as well. Each fighter has a full acurate 3D virtual cockpit, in which you can flip every switch and push every button with the mouse, affecting the simulation correctly. We have also digitally recorded all of the planes engines, across their rev ranges and broken the recordings down into thier elemental sounds. We than use our own home developed software to reconstitute the engine sounds in the correct mix for the engines current state.
This means that you hear no 'loops', but more impressively the engine sounds seamlessly respond to your actions with the throttle, not only the pitch, but the whole texture and characteristic of the engine sound will change realistically through the whole rev range.
Q: What variety of aircraft are modelled in the game?
IH: In the game we have the B-17, obviously. Supporting as Escort Fighters we have the P-38, P-47 and P-51. Flying as Interceptors we have the Bf-109, FW-190 and Me-262.
Q: Can we fly fighters as well or just the bombers?
IH: All the aircraft listed above can be flown.
How many bombers will be in a group?
IH: The number of bombers in a group formation is 12.
Q: What is the range of game options?
IH: We have the usual Quick Start situations, to drop you right in the thick of the action as quickly as possible. In addition we have Training missions, to give players basic situations in which to sharpen specific skills. As well as the above there are Historical Missions, some actual missions for which we have the briefing and debriefing paperwork.
B-17 also has two campaign modes, Historical Campaign, in which you must guide the ten-man crew of a bomber through their arduous tour of duty. Your aim is to keep them alive and get as many of them home again as possible.
The other campaign mode is the Squadron Commander campaign, where you must provide direction for an entire squadron of 120air crew and 12 B-17's. Here you must plan successful missions to the 200+ targets and manipulate.
Q: What geographical areas are modeled in the game?
IH: We've modeled the areas that the 8th Airforce habitually visited. That includes France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as well as some of the surrounding areas. Oh, and England of course…
Our terrain is 1:1, so that adds up to a great many square miles of Europe.
Q: How strategic is the game?
IH: There is a strong strategic element to B-17. Mission planning involves planning routes that avoid as much Flak and Fighter cover as possible, without lengthening the mission unnecessarily. Waypoints must be adjusted, both 2 dimensionally on the map and also in terms of the altitude, for more accurate bombing and for minimising flak risk through different altitudes. Recon missions must also be ordered for potential future targets.
Logistics is covered through keeping an eye on the maintenance work on your squadron of bombers. Badly damaged aircraft can be scrapped for parts to help keep more healthy specimens in the air. If the player is performing well then a stock of brand new bombers is available to replace combat losses, but if losses mount then keeping those older bombers flying will be paramount.
Crew replacements are another area where keeping losses down is important. Replacements will be provided but the green rookies will be a poor substitute for your missing experienced crew.
Q: What opponents are there?
IH: The B-17's can expect to face Bf-109's, FW-190's and Me-262 fighter aircraft. In addition to this is the menace of Flak, a danger that the crews rated as being worse than fighter attack.
In addition to the overt enemies there are all the risks associated with flying a war-weary four engined bomber out to the limits of its endurance and back again. Attention will have to be paid to maintenance levels, correct navigation and prompt reaction to onboard emergencies such as fires or injuries.
Q: How realistic is B-17?
IH: B-17 is designed to fulfil the hardcore Flight Simulator enthusiasts thirst for technical detail and immersion, whilst providing enough AI support that the novice player can dip his toe into the complexities of flying the B-17 Flying Fortress, using the fully modelled cockpit and detailed Flight System.
In addition, of course, the cockpits of the fighters are also modelled in great detail, allowing you to manage your aircrafts systems in more detail than ever before. Extensive research ensures that switches, levers and instruments all perform as you would expect from a detailed simulation.
Care has been taken to ensure realistic targets, missions, graphical effects, crew managment and many other facets of the air war over Europe.
Q: What engine is used to achieve this realism?
IH: In order to achieve the design targets we set ourselves with B-17 it was clear that the technology would have to be developed from the ground up. We needed a 3D engine, capable of drawing more complex aircraft models than before. We needed a physics system that would allow us to make our flight modelling both intuitive and detailed. We needed a damage model for the aircraft that would take the field of damage modelling to a new level in Flight Simulation.
We also needed an engine for the terrain that would allow us to move beyond Satellite Photography, taking the best aspects of both it and the other more common alternative, tiled textures.
Commonly satellite height data is combined with a satellite photograph of the area in order to produce accurate and detailed terrain. Then a group of designers populate this terrain with buildings in an attempt to make it life like.
The problem with this approach is that Satellite photographs look great from about 50,000 feet, but due to the massive storage needed for photographs they have to be of quite low resolution, otherwise they quickly start to take up terrabytes of storage. This low res means that they tend to degrade quickly as you get lower, appearing blurry and then as mess of giant filtered pixels at low level. In addition the countryside (hedges, fields and forests) are all pre-lit to whatever time of day the photograph was taken, shadows are effectively 'hard wired' in - no amount of processing can remove or alter this.
In B-17 we overcome these problems by using the height data, and then building up a database of Roads, Rivers, Forests, Towns, Railways etc for the whole of Europe. This database is used to display the terrain preocedurally at a very high resolution, we actually have Europe to 20cm resolution non-repeated. In addition, the dynamic nature of this engine means that the computer can light all these features acording to the game time of day, and also create unique patterns of trees, and crops in the various fields, stopping them from looking "tiled" or repetitive. This obivously leads to a much higher level of immersion in the game, leading to a heightened sense of realism.
Q: What can you say about the system specs in relation to the graphical detail?
IH: B-17 will run adequately on its minimum specification machine but, as you increase the resources available to the system, you will see great leaps in the beauty of the graphics.
Obviously the speed of the processor, ammount of VRAM and the power of the graphics card will determine what resolution the game can run at, and maintain a decent frame rate. In order that people with a varied mix of machines can enjoy the game we've included a great deal of scalability into the engine.
Q: What configuration options will be available?
IH: The engine is fully scalable, and the player will have the option to tweak versus speed and detail. In terms of gameplay options we are offering the full gamut of realism / unrealism options - such as unlimited ammunition, more damaging bombs and tougher B-17's. The complex control layout of B-17 is also fully configurable.
Q: Can you jump between each of the crew stations during a mission?
IH: You can jump to any of the crew positions within the B-17 at any point during a mission. Learning AI's are created for each crewmember and these fulfil each of the roles you aren't currently doing yourself. In addition you can also hop to the Fighter Pilot personas for each of your escort fighters.
Q: What views will be available, from the aircraft and from individual crew stations?
IH: Well, there are 11 Crew positions modelled within the B-17, each of which has an action view, instruments view and miscellaneous view. Depending on the complexities of the stations, some of these views break down into sub-views - such as the Navigators instrument view that includes a general view with his compass and a more dedicated mission map view. Outside the aircraft are various chase cameras, free roaming cameras and a bomb camera that allows you to take a ride down to the target on your ordnance, and then view the damage as it's inflicted.
Q: How usable are the various controls within each station?
IH: Each of the cockpits is fully modelled so that you can use all the proper controls and switches as they were used in the actual aircraft. This applies to both the B-17 and the escort and interceptor fighters. In addition there are crew stations such as the Norden bombsight, Navigators Drift meter and the Flight Engineers panel that are modelled in more detail. As you can see, there is plenty of control within the aircraft. In terms of usability we've tried to make everything as redundant as possible, so that players can flick all the individual switches if they want that level of detail and realism, or use keyboard and control short cuts if they want the simulation to handle in a more traditional and less detailed way. This has the effect of sharply decreasing the learn-time before the player can participate in an airborne mission.
Q: Are crew injuries modelled, or just aircraft damage?
IH: A4 The B-17 crew is carefully simulated, including their current state of health. Wounds have an initial health impact, and also cause a slower deterioration over time, prompt first aid will help with the shock and bleeding, but even if the crewmember is not hit again, they may still require further medical attention to make it through the mission and back home.
Q: What will constitute mission success?
IH: Players can judge their success by the fate of their virtual crewmembers. IF their virtual crewmembers are picking up lots of promotions and awards, and living to a ripe old age, then their missions must be considered a success from the personnel stand point. In addition, headquarters will routinely communicate with the player to inform him of how well things are going in his command.
Mission success is generally calculated from accuracy over the target and any losses suffered. In addition the value of the target is a factor - bombing targets on the periphery of the war effort won't win you any brownie points - even if you DO bomb them well.