|★ GAMES ★ EDITEURS ★ DIGITAL INTEGRATION : FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELT|Popular Computing Weekly) ★|
|Digital Integration : Fasten your seat belt||Digital Integration|
Top simulations company Digital Integration are switching from F15 to Apache. Graham Taylor flew south to find them
Fighter Pilot from Digital Integration was not only the best flight simulator for the Spectrum, it was also the only simulator that let you do what everyone secretly wanted to do with their flight simulators anyway -blast enemy aircraft from the skies.
Digital Integration is Rod Swift and David Marshall, who met whilst working for the Ministry of Defence in Famborough on military computers, and them put together a small team of programmers.
In a previous MoD job Dave had worked on 'real' simulators for the military and whilst there are some comparisons between that work and developing Fighter Pilot, there were also some unexpected differences.
"Whilst obviously there are major technical differences between what is possible on the home micro and what a military simulator is capable of there's another point.
"A military simulator is very precise in reproducing the precise quirks of an actual plane, the kind of unusual and sometimes unexpected handling characteristics that would be misplaced on something which is intended primarily to entertain.”
That said, Digital Integration goes to a lot of trouble to make the handling characteristics as accurate as possible. This extended to getting hold of bundles and bundles of technical information issued by the manufacturers of the F15 fighter plane featured in the game, distilling the main details of acceleration, top speed, fire power, manoeuvrability, etc, into hard information to be incorporated into the program.
So accurate was it, in fact, that it is now used by a number of flying schools and is also being sold connected up to actual aircraft instrumentation and controls as a low cost (around £400) ‘real' flight simulator.
A similar procedure has been followed in the development of Tomahawk - the helicopter 'follow up' to Fighter Pilot that has been over a year in development and is based on the A4-64A Apache helicopter. The game should be out well before Christmas. Said David, "When we began work on the program I sent to Hughes for technical reports.
"It's a strange situation, they will never answer my question directly but instead send batches of technical books and leaflets from which the information can be gleaned." David showed me a collection of articles with odd facts buried in the text picked out with a yellow marker pen. It's a painstaking business that takes a long time - before any actual coding begins.
"A helicopter works quite differently to an aircraft," explained David. "In an aircraft the variation of thrust on the fixed wing is used for lift; in a helicopter thrust tends to remain close to maximum. We also have to replicate things like the way the rotors are tilted."
Assumptions about what is possible on the Spectrum have also changed. Fighter Pilot had graphics for four runways and that was about it, so far as 3-D representation went. In Tomahawk there are around 5,000 including forests, buildings, landing pads which are represented in vector graphics and from potentially six different angles. You can, if you're clever enough, actually fly through the forest.
The game features, like Fighter Pilot, a whole selection of baddies that can be blasted from the sky using air-to-air missiles and other weapons of destruction. It's going to be a lot of fun. Were there, I wondered, reasons why Digital would not implement simulation features on a game other than technical ones “People want to shoot things and mustn't be over burdened with too many complex controls - we've simplified the controls tremendously on Tomahawk so that they can be represented on the keyboard, in the real machine so much is interlinked."
Digital Integration use development computers like the Cal PC, but most testing of program modules is done on the actual Spectrum.
"We have a vast library of routines which are held as Wordstar files, source code can be assembled and to a certain extent tested on the Cal, but unlike the Vax you can't totally simulate the Spectrum.”
Much time recently has been spent on the algorithms for the 3-D routines for Tomahawk (and beyond - the routines are not machine specific).
"We set ourselves the basic parameter that screen up-dating of information mustn't take longer than a quarter of a second. Then we had to find ways -mainly better maths - to do more and more things in that time. We've been able to handle 30 objects in that time on Tomahawk, rather than one, the runway, in Fighter Pilot."
For that reason David and Rod are still reasonably optimistic about the future software on the Spectrum. "Certainly we are hitting some limits but in other areas there could still be tremendous scope for development."
Aside from Tomahawk there are other projects under development. Rod is working on TTRacer, a simulation based on a Suzuki 500 and featuring accurate representations of the European Motorcycle Grand Prix. "The outside view will be as though you are sitting on the back of the bike. The idea is to give it the kind of excitement and sense of speed you feel when a camera is mounted on the side of the bike."
TT Racer will be on the Spectrum, but before that comes out Digital will release Speed King on the Commodore 64, written by M Estcourt who came to the company after reading that David much admired his program Death Chase. It's a bike race game with some of the best use of multi-sized sprites to give the illusion of perspective ever seen - you hardly notice the sprite up-dating as other bikers on the track move towards you.
David and Rod offered dark hints about future Digital plans but would not be drawn. David would only say: "We have been considering the idea of using some of the 3-D techniques in what I could loosely call a role playing adventure. It could be quite spectacular but it's only at the earliest stages of development and is unlikely to be released this year.”
Digital Integration take their simulations seriously. Surprisingly so, as was revealed when I asked them why they had never attempted something like a Space Shuttle simulation.
"We were going to, but as we were about to get underway we realised that when the shuttle lands it just glides in on automatic control - it would have been incredibly boring."
How many other companies can you think of who would be daunted from producing a game because it didn't reflect the real world?
Popular Computing Weekly (1985)