Flight simulator still soars

Classic: By allowing gamers to add their own planes, landscape and missions, Microsoft's CFS2 remains popular.

October 29, 2001|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

When Dan DiBacco was a child, he loved to build World War II model airplanes.

"My uncles were pilots during the war and they used to tell me stories," says the 39-year-old software engineer for a Santa Clara, Calif., company.

Today DiBacco designs and "builds" his own planes in a virtual world where he and others can download aircraft through the Internet and fly them on their PC screens.

Their community revolves around Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator 2, last year's entry in a long line of flying programs from a software giant better known for its operating system, word processor, spreadsheet and antitrust convictions.

While flight simulators come and go, CFS2 has become something of a classic thanks to the ubiquitous nature of the Internet and Microsoft's crafty decision to allow gamers to play with the computer code that creates the airplanes, the scenery and the special effects.

The original game offered a handful of American and Japanese airplanes from the war in the Pacific. Gamers could fly more than 30 missions, most in scripted campaigns for the Japanese or American side in such famous airplanes as the Zero and Hellcat.

Get online today, though, and you'll be able to find hundreds of aircraft - some for money, others as freeware - that will fly in the game; new locations that transport virtual pilots from the game's original Pacific Theater to player-created missions in Europe; and multi-mission campaigns, most of which re-create historical events. Airplanes in the original game that could only be flown by the computer as opponents now have cockpits and instruments so players can climb aboard and shoot up the scenery.

Some players buy new aircraft from third-party publishers, such as SimTech Flight Design (www.simtechflightdesign. com) and Abacus (www.abacus pub.com). Hard-core enthusiasts design and build their own, using 3-D programs and file editors to create computer files that contain flight dynamics, airplane markings, ground scenery and the details of military campaigns.

David Smith of Indianapolis, Ind., whose Web site www.com batfs.com chronicles Microsoft's combat flight simulators and hosts forums for gamers, says the giant software maker got more than a few things right.

"From what I've read and seen, some of the other flight simulators out there are better for reality and graphics," he says. "But then you see which game is still standing after a few years. The reality is that Microsoft didn't make it too realistic because they wanted everyone to be able to enjoy it."

Microsoft's Product Manager for Simulations, Darryl Saunders, points out that by having "open architecture," in which the code can be reviewed and played with, a community of people around the world has helped extend the life of the game.

"It's not a direct business relationship," Saunders says. "It's more of a community relationship. For example, we always go to the Oshkosh Air Show and talk to people at the booth. We also bring in some of the simulation airplanes to look at here, especially when we're in development of a new product to see the backward compatibility."

Take the new Flight Simulator 2002, which is shipping now. While planes featured in the game have a higher level of detail than those in CFS2, airplanes designed for CFS2 will be able to fly in FS2002.

Creating "add-on" aircraft and missions isn't a new phenomenon.

"Fans have been hacking into the code - sometimes with the blessing of the publisher - for a long time," says Peter Inglis of Sydney, Australia, who is in charge of the Migman's Flight Simulation museum (www.migman.com), a Web site that has cataloged about 200 flight simulators from the past 20 years. In the 1990s, he said, Flight Sim fans wormed their way into Chuck Yeager's Air Combat and Jane's U.S. Navy Fighter games to fly airplanes that only the computer was designed to pilot.

Inglis, a musician by trade, says that someone leaked the code to Microprose's Falcon 4 in the late 1990s, allowing dozens of people to create patches - pieces of software that fix bugs in games - and additional missions.

When Microsoft built an open architecture into its original Combat Flight Simulator in 1998, Web sites immediately sprang up to support it.

For many, the thrill is in the details. After learning that CFS2 would have a P-39 - a single-engine fighter flown by one of his uncles - DiBacco said he became excited. Then he discovered that the airplane was a little "too hot," meaning it could keep up with a Japanese Zero in a turn, something that didn't happen in combat.

In turn, DiBacco created a virtual P-400 (a variant of the P-39) that will automatically install itself on game owners' systems.

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