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From arcade to simulation (gunning for the F-35)

Here's is a long overdue project update, also with some clearer details on the current direction.

I'll be writing from a personal perspective, because for the time being it's just me (Davide) working on this. All art is by Max Puliero, as usual.

First of all, the goal has pretty much shifted towards making an F-35 flight simulator (more or less, considering that most info are classified, and considering the sheer complexity of the real thing).

A Harrier's HUD. Gritty and functional.

I've always been interested in technology more than the games themselves. I had a taste of flight simulation development while creating FCX, where the goal was to make a sci-fi game that was also plausible, which is one reason why there were no guns (other reason being... laziness).

While developing FCX, I often found myself struggling to implement things such as the HUD (Head-Up Display). An HUD looks cool aesthetically, but why it is how it is, and what do all symbols mean ?

Once one starts learning how to read the real thing, it's very hard to see another game HUD again without having a chuckle. It's a bit like hearing someone acting in a foreign language, until it's your own native language, then it's just funny... gone is the suspension of disbelief, forever.


This project was meant as an evolution of FCX, focused on VR on PC and therefore it had to give a compelling cockpit experience. I started taking the F-35 avionics as a reference and then found myself learning more and more about the airplane and about airplanes in general (at least beyond a general passion that I may have had in the past).
I also realized that there is an healthy flight combat simulation community that produces mods with realism that goes well beyond what even the average gamer may think. Modern flight combat simulators are a niche unknown to most, but the level of realism and the involvement around them is nothing like the sims from the 90s (last time they almost weren't a niche).

At the current state however, this is still pretty much an hobby project. Ideally, we'll be able to find someone that believes in the project and that is willing to support the development. It's more likely however that I'll have to continue in my own free time, which is now more scarce than ever. In fact, I pretty much had to pause development for the past two months.
Still, I put so much effort into this (some to be detailed in the next post), and it would be a waste to leave it as it is.

Avionics’ improvements

Much work went into the game since the last update. Some of this will require a longer post to be explained. I'll post here some screenshots relative to the more recent work that is more clearly visible.

Here's an image of the latest digital display that represents pretty much all of the avionics GUI in the plane.
The display is heavily based on that of the F-35, as seen on public displays of simulators of the airplane.

The display is divided in 2 screen halves, each of which can contain 2 vertical windows or panels, each of which can have 2 child windows at the bottom.
The F-35 windowing system leaves some room for reorganization of the layout, something which I haven't yet implemented, but that will come eventually.

Some of the windows in display are at least partly functional. Left to right, the Store Management System (SMS), the Tactical Situation Display (TSD), the Forward Looking InfraRed display (FLIR) and a generic map display, which will have to be replaced.
The SMS has received some cosmetic improvement, while the TSD received the bulk of recent improvements.

The TSD has now a cursor that can be used to select a potential target, zoom on the area to determine if more targets are overlapping, and then designate a target to be shot. This is especially important for ground targets, which are usually planned early in a mission.

The FLIR display is not active in the screen shot but, when active, it produces a pseudo-IR zoomed view of selected target for visual confirmation both when designating a target and later, after the target is hit, to asses the damage.

Focus on the window on which controller and keyboard inputs act on, is determined by the window on which the mouse us hovered on (non-VR mode), or by the window at the center of the visible area (VR mode). A green border is also used as a visual confirmation of the window currently receiving input messages.

The general display quality was also increased, both in terms of resolution and by increasing the number of MSAA samples.
The game uses MSAA anti-aliasing, both for the final rendering and for the rendering of the cockpit displays. This is important because if we're to simulate actual instrumentation with the right proportions, then we also need extreme clarity of display.

Better physics for missiles

We've recently taken a break from graphics and UI avionics rendering, to focus on physics. More specifically on aerodynamics.

Sample image or an AGM-65 gliding to hit a tank

This came about as missiles needed and improvement on hit precision.
A game can cheat at will and always make a missile hit a target, however the effect is not pleasing and the strategic element goes away, as behavior is no longer tied to laws of nature, making the experience less believable.

A missile's ability to hit a target is determined by its capacity to individuate and seek a target, but also by the raw performance of its rocket motor and its air frame, or body.
Air-to-ground/surface (AG or AS) missiles don't necessarily have enough rocket fuel to reach a target, and may often end up reaching the target while gliding, much like a smart bomb.

For this reason we decided that improving the aerodynamic simulation was important to simulate the nuances of hitting a target, with realistic weapons with realistic physical parameters that give them specific advantages and disadvantages.

We're currently working with a few real-world references, so to have a rough idea of what kind of rocket motor and air frame should correspond to a certain performance range.

AGM-65 airframe debug view

Here's a wire-frame debug screenshot of a model of a Maverick AGM-65 in our game (graphics are in pure simulation mode, not representative of the actual game graphics).

Blue areas are the definition of the wings.
Magenta lines represent the drag force (Fd).
Cyan lines represent the lift force (Fl).
The smaller green box represents center of gravity (CG).

Much more work is necessary, but it's already exciting to see a missile fly using the proper laws of physics, although this has complicated things a fair bit.


At this point, the aerodynamics of the actual airplane is less advanced than that for the missiles, but in time, the improved model will be transferred to the plane as well... although with jet fighters is not that simple, but this is a topic for another post...

Check out NASA's friendly explanation on the major 4 forces acting on an airplane, or a missile.

A short video on ground targets

Here's a brief demonstration of the cockpit instrumentation.
Many things are missing, but some main functions, such as weapon selection and FLIR (infrared display) are working.
We're still at a pre-alpha phase, so, much of what's in this video is likely to change.
Here the look-around is done via mouse, and arrow keys are used to control flight. At some point in the future, we'll start recording directly in VR, where movements won't look as stiff.