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Why I probably won't write a transport simulation again

May 28, 2010, add a comment

On this blog and elsewhere I've described more than once how AirlineSim came into existence and what were the driving factors behind it for many years. To give a short summary once again: The whole idea was born out of pure enthusiasm for aviation. From the beginning it was intended to be a solid airline simulation, not a "game" and in no case a "product". It was a hobby, something I and the many supporters of the project did for personal enjoyment rather then mass-market appeal. As I presented in my last post, this and several other factors posed to be huge show-stoppers in my endeavour to make a living from AirlineSim.

But there is one particular aspect that might well be the root to all the issues I encountered and still have to face: AirlineSim is a transport simulation! Let me elaborate on why I see this to be a problem:

Simulations are not games

Although many games call themselves "simulations", few simulations are anywhere close to "games". Sure, since AirlineSim stems from a community of enthusiasts rather than professionals, any IT professor would strongly disagree when I would call AS a serious, scientific business simulation. But at the same time my goal always was to  create a decent image of the real-world airline business. A lot of emphasis was put into correct flight schedules, fleet lists, departure boards; the databases are filled with almost all current commercial airliners and all airports carrying an IATA code; there are more than a dozen types of staff, typeratings, correct financial accounting and a whole lot of other stuff that adds complexity and maybe realism...but only few of which make the game "fun".

Ok ok, this was only partly correct: Of course, it is fun! It is fun to me and to a certain group of others who share a similar mindset. But have you ever tried to explain AirlineSim's concept to a friend and she started to jump around in excitement because she could not wait to try it herself? neither!


Sounds obvious, right? But to many it isn't. Transportation in the real world is a tough business. It tends towards monopolistic structures and absolute competition. In fact, until recently, ocean shipping was one of the last industries to have hardly any anti-trust regulations for the simple reason that it would completely destroy itself if there were any. The situation in aviation was only different because airlines were entities of national interest, state-controlled monopolies or strictly regulated private companies. Since privatisation started, the aviation industry as a whole never made any profits, with only few airlines being financially successful over longer periods of time. In the US, a large-scale consolidation is in full swing and only few players will remain while in Europe British Airways seems to be at the brink of collapse, leaving the field to the two remaining giants: Lufthansa and Air France-KLM.

So why does this real-world babbling matter to AS? Because it is a simulation! As such it automatically inherits all these problems with all their consequences and reproduces them within the game. In the real world, these problems are met with strict rules and regulations. But who wants to play a game that leaves no freedom to the player? Doing this would essentially remove competition, the one thing a game usually is about. So there are two extremes: Absolute competition or none. Neither is fun.

Woah! Feature creep!

Ever had the chance to participate in an AirlineSim community meeting? It's awesome! You sit there with all the good friends from the community, you have some beers, talk about the game. And the longer you talk, the more ideas spawn. Ideas how this aspect from reality could be added to the game and how that feature could be made more interesting. At the end of the day I can't help but building all kind of cool gadgets into the game - remember, I love aviation and I love "my game".

Of course, not a single one of these additions ever shows up in any long-term master plan. Nobody ever thought about whether it affects the simulation's balancing. Does it hamper the performance or might it be too complex for new players? Will it ever get finished and is it even useful? It's feature creep! You add buttloads of stuff because it sounds like a good idea and - most importantly - because you like it. You think a simulation can not have enough "realistic features". This way of doing things is poison for the overall usability. It creates a huge system that's impossible to balance. It makes the game difficult to grasp and creates an awefully steep learning curve to starters. In short: It's not fun!

The audience is...special

The audience of serious sim games is the direct opposite of the modern breed of "casual gamers". They have clear ideas on how they want the game work. They can live with an old-school interface and a total absence of graphics, but they want to understand every single formula in the game. They find long tables of load data exciting and charted figures even more thrilling. They are hardcore players, either in business simulations, aviation games or both. They have done their homework and can pin-point any false aircraft characteristics, lacking feature or wrong account number. If they do, they provide you with detailed essays (of which there are at least 5, all describing a different approach) on why they think it's wrong and what should be done about it. If you shift a table or (slightly) change an existing interface, expect an enormous shitstorm on why you just ruined their whole live.

They are true fans! They invest unbelievable amounts of time in the simulation. They identify with their airline and they tend to refer to their effort as "work". Yes, it sounds absurd, but if something (like a patch) threatens the existence of their virtual enterprise, they are afraid that "all their work" might be lost.

You can imagine that pleasing this kind of audience is sometimes difficult. I'm learning this the hard way right now with the upcoming release of AirlineSim 1.5. I thought I had built a really cool new route management interface that would be more appealing to players. But so far the opposite is the case: A certain share simply doesn't like it because it's different. A considerably smaller amount of players can provide constructive critisism on how certain aspects could be improved. And then there's the hard core...the huge players, the top 20 of the largest airlines, the operators of hundreds and thousands of aircraft. The players who push the system to the limit. If you build a new feature, you always have to keep them in mind. A drop-down that contains 50 entries for a "normal person" contains 5000 entries for one of the big boys. If you implement a change that adds a single click to whatever "workflow", this tiny change is a disaster to them because they have to do it 1000 times in a row. They look at the system in way that's almost impossible to grasp for me or anybody else on the team! Is this way of "playing" fun? I don't know, but probably not to many.

And the conclusion?

If you look at the great games of the past and the presence, be it casual or "hardcore", computer-based or board game, you find one common thing among all of them: They are abstract! Even games that appear rather complex - for example Civilization - are in fact based on very simple game mechanics. There are only so many variables that can actually be put into an equation and balanced. Usually there are only one, two, maybe three aspects within the game you can actively control as a player and they achieve a high level of immersion anyway. They might be tough to master, but they always are one thing: Fun!

So if I ever had to do AirlineSim again? I'd make it a game, not a simulation.


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