It's lonely being a flight simulator developer. Even now, in an age of crowdfunding and independent development, it can be tough to get anyone to invest in the genre.
A cursory glance would suggest that flight sims are on the upswing along with other formally "dead" genres; but upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that most like Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen are grounded in sci-fi, making them little more than arcade games in the eyes of most serious flight sim enthusiasts. IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad, by contrast, is a serious-minded World War II flight simulator designed to woo the sorts of fans who will notice when a gauge in the cockpit is out of place, making it a rarity in this day and age.
The inability to catch the wave of crowdfunding that has revived hardcore RPGs, adventure games, and even space combat games has brought its share of bitterness among flight sim developers. Sturmovik executive producer Jason Williams laments: "There's not enough of them and I wish investors would be more open to the idea. The genre's not dead; there are plenty of fans. The thing I always tell them that they are one of the trickiest games to develop, but it enjoys one of the smaller audiences, and therefore gets fewer investment dollars. We're the exception in that we've been able to thrive over all these years and continue to make great products, but it's not been easy."
When the subject of Star Citizen—the Chris Roberts-developed space shooter that to date has raised more than $48 million—comes up, his frown deepens: "There's a lot of politics involved [with crowdfunding.] The demands of the community would be quite high; and for them to plunk $50, $100, $500, they would want everything and the kitchen sink to be thrown into the game. And we know from our development that it's not easy. So I'd like to see someone be successful at that someday. Star Citizen said they would have everything and the kitchen sink in their game; but if they fail, they'll have egg on their face and nasty, nasty, things will happen. Riots in the streets, I don't know," he concludes laughing.
"We're slammed up against realism," he admits. "And then there's the argument of whether you want a flight sim or you want a roleplaying game wrapped up in a flight sim. Star Citizen is going to approach it as a roleplaying game wrapped up in a flight sim. We're a small team, so we can't do both. We've gotta do one thing really well."
"That one thing" for Sturmovik is accuracy. A flight sim with a distinguished pedigree among flight sim enthusiasts—the original sold more 2 million copies when it was released a decade ago—Sturmovik's developers pride themselves on their fidelity to the warplanes they replicate in their game. They know that if so much as a rivet is out of place, they will hear about it from their fanbase.
1C's commitment to realism is admittedly rough on newcomers, which is likely one reason that the genre has struggled to thrive over the years (the other being that owning a flightstick has long since ceaesd to be mandatory among PC gamers). Anyone who thinks they can just hop into the cockpit in Battle of Stalingrad and start gunning down Germans is apt to end up nose-first in the tundra before they know it. Sturmovik is at pains to accurately model the mechanics of flight, including wind resistance and weather, which must be taken into account while flying.
"We're slammed up against realism..." - Jason Williams
Like most hardcore developers, Williams frequently reiterates his desire to bring in new fans as well as the core. He points to the ability to turn down the realism and automate many of the plane's functions, making it somewhat more accessible (at least, you're less likely to immediately crash into a mountain). He's realistic about Sturmovik's current audience: "There are still a lot of people who want to play flight sims, but the core audience is quite small. So we're trying to attract as many new users as possible."
While such mechanics offer a useful entry point for novice pilots though, they aren't necessarily an end solution for Sturmovik. Its core strength is its realism, and that strength is somewhat diminished when the computer ends up doing most of the heavy lifting. In a way, it almost feels like cheating. Thus the need for a robust tutorial in the final version, which isn't currently available in the Early Access release.
Anyway, 1C knows it's the hardcore fans who mostly butter Sturmovik's bread; and while they're willing to make some concessions to get curious newcomers onboard, they're much more concerned with keeping the vocal core in line. It's not always easy. Little details can stir up the masses and result in hundred page threads, like the issue of the bar in the windscreen in the original Sturmovik's Focke-Wulf 190."
"When you looked out the cockpit past the gun sight, the window was shaped as such that it looked like there was this bar at the lower part of the windscreen," Williams remembers. "There were millions of posts arguing about the bar in the window. It was a tiny little detail, but volumes and volumes of information were pumped out there about this bar."
Its issues like those that 1C must contend with, which is one of the reasons that investors have mostly stayed away. But at the same time, Sturmovik's toughest critics can also be its staunchest supporters. They know better than anyone that hardcore flight sims are still an endangered species. They've even rallied around the troubled Il-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover, working to fix some of its perceived flaws while ironing out its many bugs.
Most of them have loved planes from a very early age, and feel drawn to World War II in particular, Williams says. When he's asked why 1C hasn't moved on to modern flight sims, he replies: "My grandfather flew [B-26 Marauders], so I grew up hearing stories about bombing missions over France and Germany. You grow up reading the stories, building plastic models, and you just fall in love with the variety of warplanes and the history involved. World War II flying is also such a seat-of-your-pants experience. There's no missiles, there's no radar for the most part, and it's just fast enough to feel dangerous. World War II kind of hits the sweet spot where it's easy enough to pick up that it's fun."
Over time, Sturmovik has become the de facto heir to a proud tradition of flight sims stretching back to the dawn of PC gaming, from Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator all the way back to the classic MicroProse sims. It's a tradition that 1C takes seriously, and Williams says his team just feels lucky to be able to continue to survive and even thrive to some extent in such a narrow field.
IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad will be released in September, putting it squarely in the fall season, but it needn't worry overmuch about competing with the likes of Destiny given the nature of its fandom. Instead, 1C will mostly be intent on giving the series a lift after the buggy disappointment of Cliffs of Dover, roping in a few curious newcomers, and generally producing an incredibly realistic flight sim. They appear to be on track on all counts. And though combat flight sims may never against enjoy anything like the success of the genre's heyday, fans can at least take heart in knowing that IL-2 Sturmovik will continue to keep the torch burning bright.