I have gotten a lot of e-mail speculating that my time spent at the RAF base recently was for a pending CFS title. I wish I could say you are right, but you are not. However, I am very confident that the CFS franchise will come back sometime and many of the "platform building" enhancements we have made and are continuing to make on the FS engine are all steps that will make that possible. Here are a few things for you to think about.
First of all, I would love to hear what you would like to see in a combat flight sim. If the first words out of your mouth are "nukes" or "mushroom cloud," then save your breath. I don't ever see that happening, it's just too politically charged and in my opinion is in bad taste. What I am interested in are things like:
What era is most interesting to you and why? I break the eras up as WWI, Between the Wars (i.e. 1919-1937), WWII, Korea, Cold War, Vietnam, and Modern. Of course there is the answer of "all of the above" which might also carry with it severe compromises in systems development for the "FS Platform" (in other words too much stuff for one development cycle).
I have my personal favorites, but I won't tell you what they are. If we decide to do CFS again, we will look at the popularity of an era and type of flying/fighting, what competitive products are out or on the horizon, whether it has mass market appeal (i.e. can non-experts play and enjoy the game/sim?), whether the aircraft and scenarios are exciting and engaging (or are their extended periods of boredom?), etc. In addition, are there fictional scenarios that can be leveraged to create new experiences? If you really think about these factors, some of the eras make more sense than others.
What is most important, the accuracy and fidelity of the simulation, or the fun and excitement of the game? I think I know what your answer would be if you're reading this blog, but it's worth asking anyway. As a general rule of thumb in game design (and even in sim design), you don't force the user/player to do boring, repetitive, or painful tasks, otherwise it turns into work instead of play. Of course many of you find fun and challenge in an exactly re-created simulation of what a real combat pilot does even it it means flying CAP for four hours without a single engagement. Most people don't fall into this category and want to be engaged and entertained (even within a sim). WIth the missions in FSX, we wanted to average the mission flight time at 20-30 minutes and not exceed 60 minutes (which we broke a couple of times). This was an attempt to keep the pilot engaged throughout the mission, but it meant picking locations and creating scenarios that facilitated short flights. Other than using quick combat scenarios and "warping," this can be difficult to acheive in combat scenarios (and warping or time compression isn't possible in multi-player).
How important is it to have user-piloted non-combat aircraft in multi-player sessions? Compared to flying a fighter, a fuel tanker or AWACS is pretty boring, but their role is critical in a wartime scenario. Airships are painfully slow too, and easy prey for a fighter. Of course AI can always be employed to fly these roles, but AI will never be as smart and interesting as real people. Mixing AI and real users on-line can be troublesome, especially when the AI does something stupid (like crash into a user or not come to the rescue when needed...).
What about non-flying duties? Should a user be able to command an aircraft carrier or destroyer in the sim, drive a tank or operate anti-aircraft guns? What about spot lights during a night bombing attack? Or for that matter, be able to walk around outside of the aircraft and operate anything they want? This is probably a leading question and frankly in a high fidelity simulation this would be hard to pull off as we would need to simulate so many different things to do it well. It's easier to do in something like Battlefield 1942 where non-sim game mechanics are acceptable.
What about the big picture aspect of combat where manufacturing factories, aircraft/vehicle maintenance, troup strengths, supply routes, shipping, fuel, ammo, parts, medicine, and food supplies are critical aspects of the experience and disruption of these factors play into the progress of the experience? What about these factors in the context of multi-player sessions?
What if we just concentrated on the platform and built realistic and fun missions using high fidelity aircraft and such with great multiplayer support, but didn't build a detailed campaign or era specific scenery for the entire world like you might expect from a traditional game? Would third party developers and end users building the additional content to fill out the world work for us? I'm not sure if such a product would sell well enough to build it that way. In other words would a user pick a product like that up off the shelf and buy it over the latest game that has all of that stuff right out of the box? Such a strategy might allow us to build more infrastructure and support higher fidelity as we wouldn't have the costs associated with the rest of the presentation... Maybe if third parties could do simultaneous add-on releases... of course that hasn't ever happened before.
We've noticed how popular military aircraft from multiple eras are within FS and you can't even shoot or drop bombs. If we were to build a new CFS using the FSX platform (or some future version fo FS) then we would likely do something similar to how CFS2 aircraft could be used in FS (and the other way around too). How do you think the community would deal with functional combat aircraft operating in FS (if we allowed them to be functional unlike CFS2/FS)? For those concerned about that possibility, do you think a UI option which disallowed it in your experience or on a given multiplayer server would address the concern?
Now I must remind you that we aren't working on CFS and there are no plans to do so right now. I have obviously been thinking about it a lot and will continue to do so, but it doesn't matter if we never get the go ahead form those that pay the bills :). I'm not dropping a teaser or implying anything and everything here should be taken casually. I am putting this out to the community because I am interested in what you think. Feel free to send me e-mail just don't expect a direct response. If you respond via comments to this blog post I'll try to stay on top of it and respond where I can.