Long before last year’s grisly crash of a highly-modified P-51 Mustang at the Reno Air Races, I fell madly in love with that iconic airplane. Between building model kits as a kid, to having the good fortune to have a P-51 hangared at the local airport, which I could peddle to on my bike on a sunny summer day (here’s the actual plane in the actual hangar), to the unmistakeable sound of its engine, every interaction I had with the Mustang’s perfect combination of form and function seduced me. Its power, its speed, its capability, its history — the more I learned and the more I exposed myself to that machine the more it became indelibly etched in my mind.
So when the personal computer came along, and people started making flight simulators, and flying games based on simulations, you know I eagerly anticipated the day when I could take a virtual P-51 into the skies. And when the PC developed to the point that full combat simulations were being created, often including dozens of planes in the air at the same time, and high-end joysticks hit the market with multiple functions including rudder, throttle and trigger controls, not only was I personally thrilled, but to my surprise the market for such products exploded. In fact, only a decade ago the world was awash in flight simulators of every imaginable kind.
So what happened? Where did all those flight sims go? Well, one limitation of flight sims is that they model 3-D space that you can’t actually experience. Yes, you can swivel your view around using keys on your keyboard or joystick, but it’s a very constrained view of what should literally be wide-open sky. Too, the inevitable feature-creep that infects all tech products (think Microsoft Word, which currently includes 2,016 functions that no human being has ever actually used), began driving a bigger and bigger wedge between players who wanted fun and players who wanted historical accuracy.
One of the most interesting aspects of the rise and fall of flight-sim software is not so much the fall but the rise. I don’t have sales figures handy, but I do know there were flight-sim titles all over the place, which seems a bit odd when you consider that even back in the day very few people were lamenting or protesting the lack of flight sims in the global marketplace. Even when flight sims were selling like hotcakes I suspect they didn’t top the list of games most consumers wanted to play. So why the popularity?
The answer lies in the central processing unit. Computers are good at one thing more than anything else, and that’s calculating. As long as the math can be programmed, computers can spit out results with dizzying speed and unerring accuracy. This leads to the potential not only for modeling complex processes like flight, but for allowing those processes to be affected by user inputs — which in turns leads to the intriguing idea of interactivity. (My definition of this badly abused term here.) [ Read more ]