It’s time for another Community Q&A and this time I turn to indie game developer Jon Coughlin who I met at Flight Sim Expo 2019 in Orlando last year. Jon is both flight sim developer and an avid flight sim fan and one whom I have the pleasure of flying multiplayer scenarios with on a regular basis. He brings a unique perspective to the table as both a developer and member of the games development community as well as a dedicated fan.
I thought it’d be fun to ask him some questions, talk about his development experience, and gain a completely different perspective on flight sim development. Let’s get started!
Let’s start off with a personal question about flight simming. When did you get started with flight simming? Which were your first few flight sims and what do you typically fly these days?
My dad worked for an airline for twenty one years out of O’Hare in Chicago, so I loved airports and planes my whole childhood. The first flight sim I remember playing was USNF Gold; I played it with my cousin in his basement and all we did, on loop, was attempt carrier landings. It was fun, even though we didn’t know what we were doing.
My family got our first computer with a dedicated graphics card when I was fourteen and I got a Logitech Wingman joystick and a four-pack of Janes flight sims at Walmart; the headliner on the box was USAF and I don’t think I ever got beyond the training missions – take-off, landing, low altitude high-speed stuff through canyons, aerial refueling. I also played a ton of Sim Copter – it’s probably the most mission-focused flight game I have ever played, and it’s a major inspiration to me as a designer. In high school I played a lot of Orbiter space flight sim.
Then for over a decade I didn’t touch flight sims at all; it was only the past two years developing flight video games myself that got me reacquainted with the genre, but now I’m back in deep.
For helicopters, nothing has grabbed me quite like Arma 3, and for fixed-wing IL-2 blows everything else away. I’m attracted to mission-driven aviation, and IL-2 and Arma put mission first. I play a bit of DCS, too.
You’re an indie game developer with a passion for flight sims. What’s your journey been between here and your latest project: Roger Meatball?
I started learning game development six years ago. I was a few years into a career in aerospace engineering and I was feeling disenchanted with it so I downloaded Unity and started putzing around. My specialty in aerospace is flight simulation, but I didn’t see many flight games on Steam and assumed those skills wouldn’t get me a game development job, so I spent a few years learning to make narrative games. The biggest of those is a ten minute spoof of the Hitman series called The Eyes of Cheatin Hitman. The project started as a two-week game jam but it grew to a four month portfolio piece. At the end of that project I felt like I had found a voice as a designer and built up enough skills to get a job, so of course I started prototyping a flight sim.
I wanted to make something Sim Copter inspired so I put a helicopter in a city and let you walk a pilot avatar around and taxi passengers. At the same time a three-person studio here in Madison had a prototype for a helicopter game and, after talking a bit, for the past two years we have been collaborating on the game that became Cats Fly Helicopters. That was my first professional video games job, and I still do aerospace part-time, but I am hoping that I can make the transition to full-time game developer soon.
Since I started Cats Fly Helicopters, I have kept prototyping in my spare time, and Roger Meatball is my biggest solo prototype.
What’s the idea behind Roger Meatball and how are you building it?
Roger Meatball came from all those hours at ten years old playing USNF Gold in my cousin’s basement, smashing into the back of a carrier with no idea what we were doing. Every flight sim, even X-Plane, has a scenario that puts you on final approach to a carrier deck, so I figured I could make a good little game out of that. In the build that is live right now, Roger Meatball lets pilots do take-offs and landings from an angled-deck aircraft carrier. Roger Meatball is serious in its physical simulation – it’s not easy or arcadey – but it is playful in its presentation and its failure modes. Your airframe physically breaks apart and the sim keeps running the whole time so you can watch it happening. But you can press a single button to get back into the air and you are immediately back in the action. I am happy to make a hard game with real consequences, but when something breaks or if the pilot forgets to lower their gear I want them to be entertained rather than feel discouraged.
I want Roger Meatball to provide meaningful play sessions in as little as fifteen minute chunks. I am a new dad – I have a two year old son – and fifteen minutes on the couch is often all I have. That constraint has guided Roger Meatball up to now; the game is designed to play well on a gamepad, because that’s the fastest, most universal controller to set up. There are currently no menus in the game – you drop straight in and fly – because menus and scenario overhead are a major barrier to accessibility in the flight sim space right now. And the game and cockpit are stylized to be readable. The instruments all function and provide meaningful feedback because I am creating subsystems that are inspired by real-world hardware, but I’m not a pilot in real life and I don’t feel beholden to creating study-level replicas of real-world aircraft. Keeping that fifteen minute play session at the forefront of my design, my goal is to lay out cockpit and instruments in a way that is useful on-the-fly; if you haven’t played in a while you should still be able to launch the game, get in the air, and carry out a mission without needing a flight manual or checklist for reference.
In regard to how I’m building it, Roger Meatball is still a prototype: it’s my first attempt at making a fixed-wing flight simulation in Unity. I have mostly treated the game as a tech demo for my ability to crank out small, focused flight games; I have worked hard to keep from polishing any aspect of the game to a level that restricts my ability to experiment. Since I’m building the game in Unity I can experiment with gameplay a lot faster than developers probably can in most flight simulation engines. For instance, since you played the game this summer I have added supply drop missions, crop dusting, a sandwich that the player can chew to speed up time, photo mode, a desktop meatball you can build at home with an arduino; these are all still in the prototype phase, but I hope they speak to the speed with which I can expand the scope of the game.
How far are you along in development of the title so far? What’s the end goal as you see it right now?
The end goal of Roger Meatball is to get it or a game like it funded through full development. I have been developing it in my unpaid hours for about a year, so the whole project has a few hundred hours of my time. The prototype is now at a point where I can pitch it and games like it to publishers and investors. A full-scale Roger Meatball, assuming I am still doing most of the development myself, is at least a couple thousand hours of work, so the game you have played is still in its infancy.
Roger Meatball, specifically, has received enthusiastic, positive feedback, but I didn’t need much personal convincing that landing on aircraft carriers makes for a compelling few minutes. I do still need more feedback from players about the full scope of Roger Meatball that they would pay for. No matter what Roger Meatball becomes, I expect I will make a game that is focused on executing missions, where the airframe as a platform is a means to an end. I think that’s the way that I make a flight sim that appeals to a broad audience: give pilots lots of things to DO with their planes.
Roger Meatball has a unique style about it. What lead you to go with the cell shaded style?
I am not an artist, so the simplicity of the art in Roger Meatball is a product of my having no budget for art. As long as I have to make art myself, Roger Meatball will continue to have low polygon counts and minimal texturing.
From an art design standpoint, physics simulation as a genre seems very sensitive to scale and lighting, so I decided to scale my objects realistically and to try and implement high fidelity lighting everywhere. Now, working with low poly counts and simple textures, I end up with a lot of solid colors, and at the high velocities and long ranges of flight simming solid colors can blur together in a way that is both boring and limits depth perception on 2D screens. I think cel-shading, specifically, helps make depth and orientation readable on solid colored objects, because the black edge highlighting I use helps silhouette objects to make them distinguishable at long range.
Also, from a technical art standpoint, cel shading is easy for me to implement and any style at all is going to make my garbage 3D models look better than they do straight out of Blender. I am pleasantly surprised every time someone says “I like how the game looks,” because behind the scenes I barely know what I’m doing with graphics.
You will notice the current build of Roger Meatball has its cel shading disabled; I recently implemented a new sky and weather system and I haven’t yet decided if its graphical elements fits with the cel shading I had originally implemented. When I mentioned above that I know nothing about art, this is what I mean 🙂 The only aspect of Roger Meatball visuals you can count on until I get a real artist on my team is that my game will have very simple models.
I had a chance to play Roger Meatball at Flight-Sim Expo. The control scheme at the time was built around a console controller. Are you hoping to expand that eventually to more “serious” setups?
I will add joysticks, HOTAS, pedals, VR, head tracking, mouse and keyboard, and any other common input devices once the game is funded. The fastest path to funding is to expand gameplay to a point where publishers and investors can see its potential as a product, so adding new control schemes is a lower urgency task than adding more gameplay.
How has Roger Meatball changed since Flight Sim Expo?
I began building Roger Meatball to prototype my own flight simulation architecture within Unity. I kept its scope narrow (landing on a ship) to keep development time short and to keep me focused on the flight simulation core. Now that I have proven to myself that I can offer a compelling flight simulation experience in short play sessions on console gamepads, I have started adding activities to the core Roger Meatball experience and I have started prototyping larger games with the Roger Meatball tools.
In the current build posted to RogerMeatball.com players will find three levels:
- Classic Roger Meatball – land your plane on an aircraft carrier
- A standalone crop dusting prototype
- A Night Witches prototype
I plan to continue expanding these levels and to add new levels that prototype activities, technologies, and whole new game concepts. I hope my community of players will help me dial into which of these concepts work best together as a commercial product.
Let’s talk about some of the other flight simulation titles on the market. What’s your perspective on them as a developer compared to your own work?
As a designer, and in the simplest terms, X-Plane is an analysis tool, DCS is a cockpit simulator, and IL-2 is a combat flight simulation. They are all incredible pieces of software, and I enjoy and am inspired by all three, so I label them that way in comparison to one another and to get to the core of the experience as each is designed.
Roger Meatball has pieces of all three of those games in it. It’s not coincidental that most of the DCS community YouTube content lately is focused on carrier landings and that I’m making a whole game about Case 1 recovery. Roger Meatball has a second screen that renders the LSO Platcam that you see in those DCS videos and you can play the game co-op with player 2 acting as LSO. I pop up a clipboard with all the stats you need to grade yourself on your landing at the end of each attempt and I give you a little film reel of your replay from the deck camera because that perspective is part of what makes those DCS videos so fun. I learned about the AOA indexer and the meatball system from watching DCS tutorials, and you’ll notice that my instrumentation is the bare minimum you need to fly a proper Case 1 procedure without a second person guiding you in. Part of Roger Meatball’s design is my attempt to answer the question, “can you learn Case 1 recovery procedure without needing to learn the F18 cockpit?” I can’t compete with DCS in terms of fidelity, but I hope Roger Meatball recreates some of the thrill of their mission space.
If I play X-Plane, or more often Aerofly FS2, it is for variety and exploration. You can go anywhere in the world in almost any airframe, so navigation is a big component of gameplay. I want navigation, cartography, and exploration to be major themes and mechanics in Roger Meatball, but I clearly haven’t gotten there yet. I added radio navigation a couple weeks ago, though, and if I couple that with a map, beacons, landing strips and other map markers I think I suddenly capture more of the majesty fundamental to aviation that civil flight sims do so well: the promise of travel and the physical freedom inherent to flight.
As a player, I have found nothing as compelling as IL-2 (though I haven’t played nearly enough Arma), and IL-2 is the game I most reflect on as a designer. I got into IL-2 Great Battles around the time I started working on Roger Meatball and I was flying the Sturmovik a lot because it’s slow and forgiving. I thought, “There’s no reason a plane with this mellow control responsiveness and mission space wouldn’t work on a gamepad,” so I opened Unity, dropped a bunch of boats in a harbor, put guns on my planes, made the game split-screen multiplayer and it was awesome, instantly. That experience convinced me that you could map serious flight simulation to a gamepad, and I started believing that the lack of flight simulation in the console space is a sign of an undersaturated market rather than a sign that flight sim doesn’t belong there.
I noticed IL-2 is designed to maximize feedback in visuals, audio, and feel, so I made my player head respond to G-loads, I shake the airframe, I made the landing gear and propeller destructible, and I made the engine smoke if it overheats and explode if it dies; I am trying to add diagetic feedback for everything in the world.
At some level, every flight of IL-2 is a failure: you come home with bullet holes and asymmetrical lift, or out of fuel entirely gliding to the nearest air strip, or your canopy is ripped off and your goggles are full of oil; it is absolutely magical – the spectrum of failure they have modeled. I once flew an A-20 at tree-top level twenty minutes on one engine, with no rudder, a single elevator, and only trim controls available. I want to make that experience accessible to an audience who don’t own a HOTAS and a $2k PC.
In popular video game design we talk a lot about “emergent gameplay,” which means a deviation from expected playstyle due to dynamic happenings or behavior in the game. Emergent gameplay is the core of the simulation genre, and I am convinced IL-2 does it better than any other game. Popular game designers win awards for this stuff, and every time I load up IL-2 I’m giggling at what the rest of the video game community is missing. The fidelity at which 1C model their plane subsystems is key to that emergent opportunity, but so is the mission focus in IL-2; they throw you into perilous environments that make those subsystem failures almost inevitable, and I want to find a way to get that tendency into Roger Meatball.
If someone wants to play Roger Meatball right now, can they do that or will they need to wait until you’re further along in development?
I wanted to thank Jon Coughlin for taking part in this latest Community Q&A series and for sharing his insights and thoughts not only on the development of his sim but on flight sims in general. Having a developers perspective is often different from those of us who look at development from the outside in. Thanks Jon!