Community Q&A with Red Flight and the Combat Box server

Combat Box by Red Flight is an IL-2 multiplayer server that has, in recent months, been consistently at the top of the list for player counts. This 80 player multiplayer server hosts some of the most frequented multiplayer air battles of the IL-2 series in 2020 with a focus on western front aircraft and the content of IL-2: Battle of Bodenplatte.

I thought it was well past time to do a Community Q&A with the folks at Red Flight and ask them about their own flight simulation experiences, what prompted them to create Combat Box, and how they run their server and the community that has sprung up around it. Let’s get to it!

Let’s start off with some introductions. How many people are responsible for keeping Combat Box running and what roles do each of you play?

A P-51D Mustang lights a Bf110G-2 up on Combat Box

Talon: My role is primarily that of creative director. I create mission concepts and build stories for them (for example the bridge at Remagen with the AI vehicles and the search area for US troops, or the evacuating convoys on Ruhr Pocket). I initially put the team together that would go on to make Combat Box into what it has become – but for that I deserve very little credit. It’s everyone else in the team that is doing really amazing work now! After that it’s mostly community engagement and interaction that I take care of. I don’t mind defusing a tense conversation on balance or talking about ideas in #Suggestions in a way that helps players feel their opinions are important and their contributions welcomed!

Alonzo: I’m pretty much a jack-of-all-trades, but I especially focus on making missions and running the server. We started on a virtual machine sharing hardware with my gaming rig, then moved to a basement mini-tower server, and now to a dedicated server in a data centre. We have maybe a thousand lines of Perl code holding it all together, and I quite enjoy being an amateur sysadmin for the whole thing.

Mordrac: I don’t know a lot about network stuff so I mostly do routine restarting of a hung server, banning naughty folk, etc. and support the others where I can.

Haluter: I help out with the background tasks like making sure the server is available 24/7, identifying and blocking malicious connections to the dedicated server that can prevent players from connecting to the server, developing tools for performance analysis, map statistics for balancing the outcomes, and to make the day-to-day task of managing the server easier. 

Talk about some personal stories. How did each of you get into flight simulation? Which was your first flight sim?

Haluter: Red Baron (1990) blew my mind with its realism ;p and I spent many happy hours pretending to be an ace pilot. I didn’t play much flight-sims until nearly 3 decades later when I bought a VR headset (Rift) and met Talon in the Echo Arena lobby where we marveled at our robotic hands. Talon invited me to fly with him in War Thunder, and we later migrated to IL-2. 

Mordrac: I’m the youngest of the team, I started with FS2004 at 8. I loved flying the amphibious C-208 and landing it wherever I wanted. I picked up the original IL-2 Sturmovik a few years later. I didn’t dive into multiplayer until I had VR. That was a big game changer for me.

Alonzo: I’m seriously dating myself here, and it might not count as ‘flight’ in the traditional sense, but I played a “Lunar Lander” game on the ZX81. I was six years old and the ZX81 was a computer you plugged into the TV, it had BASIC built into it and you could type in programs from magazines. In the lunar lander game you needed to control thrust and descent onto the surface of the moon, it was pretty hard to do without crashing!

Talon: One of the earliest videos on my mum’s Kids Tape is my 6th Christmas – receiving a boxed edition of Jane’s US Navy Fighters and asking to go play it! When I was 11 I had my first PC and got into Flight Sim 98 and CFS1, eventually moving on to CFS3, but then took a long break. War Thunder brought me back into the genre as an adult, but proved little more than a gateway into my IL-2 obsession that has led to much spending on peripherals, VR sets and other gear!

How did you get started with the idea for the server? What is the core idea behind Combat Box and how it differentiates itself from other servers out there? 

A Mustang goes down after being bounced by a Fw190D-9 on Combat Box

Talon: For me IL-2’s experience has so often been… “almost”. The game has forever needed just that little push further to be what everyone wanted it to be, and the same was true of the multiplayer offering too. While some operators had attempted to do things differently, players ended up spread across a mix of too-casual servers like WoL and Berloga or hardcore offerings like TAW. We came to the realization that there was a sweet spot in the middle offering an opportunity to bring together the majority of the playerbase, and with Bodenplatte on the horizon and no clear exclusive MP server for the expansion in sight it made sense to focus our efforts on providing a home for players both existing and brought in by the new expansion. We looked to inspiration from other flight games – for instance dynamic mission elements that responded to player input outside of “destroyed” and a big X on the map – and put into practice some tests. Alonzo eventually went on to be so inspired by these tests that he set what I believe to be a new standard for IL-2 MP mission interactivity, with working radars, aircraft limited by player actions mid-map and the real feeling of a living, breathing game environment.

Haluter: We wanted something better than what any of the existing servers were providing, and we often joked about creating a server that WE wanted to fly on. It wasn’t until Alonzo later joined us that the idea took flight. Through generous donations we financed the hardware, and Alonzo immersed himself in the mission editor and made it happen.

Alonzo: Originally I volunteered to run the server if someone else could make the maps, and then it turned out map-making was actually a whole lot of fun! Talon’s ideas about having historically inspired missions really resonated with me, and it was interesting to research the history. My first demo mission was Operation Market Garden and, looking back on it, was quite ambitious—we had Allied tanks attempting to capture a German bridge, the mission began at dawn, and there were loads of tracers and other effects flying around. Red Flight flew the mission and were blown away by how cool it was, and after that basically I was hooked on making maps with some kind of “wow” factor.

Mordrac: We weren’t 100% happy with the available servers. During that time we also often found ourselves picky with what we wanted to fly and Bodenplatte was on the horizon, which we were very excited for. With the servers rotating through plane sets of BoS, BoM and BoK, it became clear to us that there’s a need for a dedicated late war server.

What’s your approach to the different scenarios. How much research do you do beforehand and how do you come up with the arrangement of airbases, targets, etc.

Spitfire Mk IXe’s with clipped wings attack a German fortification on Combat Box

Alonzo: It’s tricky is balancing “inspired by history” with “actually fun gameplay.” Throughout the war, one side or the other was at a significant advantage, but an uneven match-up isn’t fun for players, so we have to work hard to make things at least roughly fair. Haluter mentioned his map winrate tool—we use that a lot to analyze whether we’ve achieved good balance on the maps.

Recently I designed and built Battle for the Scheldt based on a suggestion from BlackHellhound1 (both DerSheriff and Hound live somewhere in the region of the Rhineland map). I spent about two weeks researching and planning the mission, using il2missionplanner.com to place possible airfields and objectives. It was fascinating to immerse myself in the history of this battle. I am Canadian, and the Scheldt is one of the major contributions that Canada made during the war. Fighting was fierce, the Germans put up a lot of resistance, and the Canadian, Polish and British forces lost a lot of troops. During my research I was able to find maps of the front line, extensive articles and descriptions, YouTube videos, and all sorts of historical data on the various battles. I then used quite a lot of artistic license to compress what was several months of action into a single mission that would work for a multiplayer scenario. When I’m designing a mission, I try to think about overall flight times, which targets might be destroyed first, how the ‘flow’ of the battle might pan out, and whether there’s anything unfair or biased about the map.

One significant limitation is the placement of airfields. We have to work with what exists on the map because if you’re not on an actual airfield, the ground is very bumpy and difficult to use. So sometimes there isn’t an airfield where we need one, and we occasionally use air spawns or “emergency landing” fields to overcome this issue (pilots can land at an emergency field and receive full credit for the mission).

Even after spending quite a lot of time designing, building and testing a mission, the real feedback comes from when we put it live and have 80 players stress testing it for us! We always need to tweak some stuff, and we often need to relocate an objective or two for improved gameplay.

A pair of A-20B’s take off on an attack mission on Combat Box

Haluter: I’m not directly involved with mission design, but I help out with testing the new missions before they go live. Alonzo is a wizard with turning a concept for a new mission into a playable map that our players will hopefully enjoy, while still providing the potential for equal outcomes for both sides, and making sure the performance is at acceptable levels. Talon is a valuable resource for anything related to WWII history, and provides most of the historical information that our missions are based on. 

Mordrac: Not directly involved with map making either. I do have my own little idea for a map but I didn’t find the time to turn it into a draft. Talon provides mission ideas with his inputs for historical accuracy. Alonzo turns the ideas into missions with very interesting features. Haluter and I help with the testing, which will mostly focus around debugging the logic of mission objectives and messages.

Talon: I have a lot of history books, and ten times that in PDFs floating around on my Google  drive. When I think there is an opportunity to represent something fun – even if it means condensing a week’s activity into a single 2.5hr mission – I try to take it to offer our players something refreshing and new. I try to set up airplane availability based on the locations of real squadrons of the time – this is why you don’t see many P-38s around in our September 1944 missions… they were too busy down in France!

What kind of scenarios is the server running? Are you intending to add more scenarios or keep it around the number where it is right now?

Allied fighters lined up and ready for more missions on Combat Box.

Talon: My vision is for a server that encompasses as much of the Western Europe campaign as possible in the first instance – once we’ve achieved that, let’s see where we go from there. Normandy will be a huge boon for us in terms of available aircraft and locations, and whisperings of 1942-era scenarios often surface too. Of course we can’t rely too heavily on Collector planes if we’re going to make sure everyone can play, so we may find ourselves limited as we build out more and more missions back in time.

Alonzo:  The majority of the current missions are set on the new Rhineland map. We have about half a dozen “classic” missions from the pre-Bodenplatte days, set on Stalingrad, Moscow and Kuban maps, but we only run one of those in rotation each week. The rest of the scenarios are the new ones, taking everything we learnt about what makes a fun mission into account as we built them.

One thing we only realized recently is that we need to make sure we don’t have a 12 or 24 hour “cycle” to our maps. Each map is 2.5 hours, so if we have 5 maps that makes a 12 or 24 hour cycle if each map runs to time. If you’re a player who gets a couple of hours each evening to play, you’d see the same map each night in this case! So we try to make sure we have 6 or 7 maps in rotation to break these kinds of cycles and provide variety. 

All our missions contain late-war plane sets, though, so to be competitive a pilot is really going to need Battle of Bodenplatte (although pre-BoBP planes are available). The developers recently had a sale on, though, so players can get into the modern planes for as little as $40. We’re continuing to develop new missions and we hope to add one every couple of months or so. Building missions is a lot of work — most take about 30 to 40 hours to produce a “0.9” version, and then about the same again to test with real players and get to a “1.0” state. I think in future we will use some of the mid war plane sets, especially as Battle of Normandy planes begin to be available. 

Combat Box has rocketed to the top of the multiplayer server lists in terms of player counts fairly early on in the server’s history. What do you attribute to the success of the server so far?

An Fw190D-9 goes down in flames after a tense fight with this Tempest Mark V on Combat Box.

Alonzo: I think Talon will have a great answer on this one, and our success is a combination of many factors. But I think a significant part is the missions themselves. I really think we’ve broken new ground when it comes to the mechanics inside the missions, and I always tried to achieve a ‘professional’ standard—not just a working mission, but a beautiful, bug-free work of art that I could be proud of. When I was building mission mechanics for Combat Box, I tried to think about what would be useful for me as a pilot, and what I would find interesting, fun and dynamic. A good example is what I call the “spotted” mechanic. Sometimes on a multiplayer server it can be difficult to know where the action is or what you should do to help your side win. Combat Box uses a liberal amount of detection zones that call out an enemy position to the opposing side. Each of these has a cooldown, so they avoid being too spammy, but they really help you to find the action and make the map feel alive. We also use announcements as prompts that players should do a particular thing to advance their side’s chance to win—we include detail in the mission briefing, but we know not everyone reads that stuff, so in-game prompts help bridge this gap.

As an “interesting” mechanic, I think the best example is what we’ve done with the Me-262 jet fighter. Now some other games, most notably War Thunder, don’t ever match jets against props. It’s just not fair. You can argue that a prop pilot can easily out-turn a 262, which is true if they spot the danger, but even if they see the jet, a 262 + 109 combination can be very deadly. The 262 is powerful, possibly OP, but we wanted to include it in some missions. So we made a mechanic that allows player agency in the availability of the jet. We have a “jet fuel depot” which is a primary mission objective for Germany to defend and Allies to attack. Periodically, the fuel depot sends a fuel train towards an airfield. If the train reaches the airfield, a small number of 262 jet fighters are unlocked. If the jet fuel depot is destroyed, it stops sending trains, so no more jets can be unlocked. As far as I know, this is a unique mechanic invented on Combat Box, and is a good example of us trying to keep things fresh and interesting. Other mechanics we’ve introduced include large “search and destroy” objectives where enemy tanks and bunkers are spread over several hundred square kilometers of map and must be hunted down, high-altitude AI bomber flights that must be attacked or defended in order to affect the outcome of the mission, or even simulated radar linked to a ground objective — if the radar station is destroyed, that side stops receiving radar intel, adding to the strategy of the mission.

As a result of Combat Box creating new mechanics like these, we’ve seen other servers adopt similar things as well as invent their own new mechanics too. I’m a firm believer that “a rising tide lifts all boats” and I’m glad to see other servers responding and stepping up to improve player experiences too.

A Bf109G-14’s MK108 30mm shell lands a devastating blow on this Mustang on Combat Box.

Talon: Alonzo put it very well here.

I firmly believe that a mix of accessibility, ingenuity and communication has been responsible for our success. The first part was down to the team… but the second is you guys! Word of mouth is the only way to advertise in this community, and once the players started logging in and telling each other about our offering things just went out of control!

We did well to establish the server in advance of the official release of Bodenplatte in my opinion. Even though aircraft were thin on the ground and we had to make many fictitious scenarios over Russian soil, word got out that there was a late-war server up and coming – so when the expansion dropped and Alonzo stayed up all night building and launching our first mission over the Rhineland, people already knew where to look to fly the new birds!

That opportunity was the first time many of them were exposed to some of the really great map-making that Alonzo has done. I have to say that I find many “standard” mission types much less entertaining since entering his digital worlds. It’s this that really propelled the server in the early days.

Subsequently to that, Haluter’s tools are really now coming into their own in order to enable us to keep the server’s heart beating in time with the wishes of the community. The guy is a coding genius and in a few weeks built us a customizable banning tool and a balance monitoring app that outputs to HTML so we can keep an eye on map results at busy times, quiet times and all kinds of intervals in between.

This and an active participation with the players via Discord and the forums has a huge impact in keeping everyone on board!

Have yourselves or the community around Combat Box been encouraging the use of voice comms? How well has that gone?

A team of P-47’s with escorting fighters (not shown) fly a coordinated strike on Combat Box.

Alonzo: We use Discord both as a squadron (Red Flight) and as an admin team, so it was natural for us to promote text and voice comms using Discord too. We have in-mission text that suggests people join the Discord, we have a “looking for wingman” channel, and at peak times we might get up to 20-30 people logged into voice. We see a lot of organized squads flying on the server too, but many of them use their own voice comms systems. I think overall we’re in a good place right now, you can usually find someone to fly with!

Mordrac: We occasionally use the Combat Box voice channels and fly with whoever is on our team at the time. Sometimes people are hard to understand but aside from that it always goes well. So we do encourage it as you can coordinate faster than through the in-game chat. We also used to fly very large sorties, sometimes with a dozen planes or more. That’s where its only downside becomes evident: when there’s too many people, coordination goes down the drain.

What feature do you most want to see as server operators from the developers of IL-2 in the future?

A trio of Ju87D-3’s with SC1000 bombs line up for an attack mission on Combat Box.

Alonzo: I think a more developed “lobby” or “server queue” would be good. At the moment if the server is full you have to spam refresh the server list, hope for a spot to be available, click as fast as you can, and then hope someone else doesn’t beat you to the spot. And if you don’t get the spot, you just end up back in the server browser without really any indication of what went wrong.

Haluter: Admin tools, for example the ability to directly view/interact with the in-game message feed from dserver [ed note: dedicated server], a more flexible banning UI in dserver where you can specify the duration, statistical tools for dserver & maps (performance, players, SPS etc), and multicore support for  dserver.

Mordrac: Performance improvements. You have probably noticed some server overloading last weekend. The Scheldt map pushes the server to its limit, despite Alonzo having already reduced the Flak. This means we can’t run more detailed maps than Scheldt for now.

Talon: Player interaction. I’d like to build on what Alonzo has done and see features such as allowing players to group up in real-time squads like Battlefield, or vote on the next map. I want to see unit codes on skins synced to the server so everyone can fly a base paint with their own coding letter or number. I’m not arguing for fully-fledged voice comms, but right now for a team game, group features are surprisingly thin on the ground.

What is it that you’re most looking forward to in the IL-2 series right now?

Alonzo: Like many of the admins, I fly in VR, and the immersion is unmatched. I’m really happy to see integrations from IL2 to things like motion simulators and the recent integration with SimShaker — these are excellent and really go a long way to adding to the immersion. We recently got some multiplayer performance improvements and I look forward to those continuing into the future.

Mordrac: At this point I’m just happy with getting new interesting planes to fly! I’d love to see a Mediterranean theatre with the G.55 and other beautiful Italian machines.

Talon: I can’t wait for a better VR experience. Things are already amazing with the implementation going from strength to strength recently, but as with any emerging technology there is always room for more. I am also very much looking forward to the Normandy expansion with some of the famous rides from European bedroom walls like the Razorbacks and Spitfire 14s!

Is there anything I missed that you want to say or talk about?

A P-51D Mustang dodges flak on Combat Box.

Alonzo: I really want to mention the incredible IL2 community. In the course of building the server we’ve discovered an amazing group of dedicated sim enthusiasts and we’ve received loads of great feedback, suggestions and offers of support. The vast majority of interactions we have are positive and range from deeply technical server operators and mission designers (yes, we exchange ideas and tips with ‘competing’ servers!) through to YouTube personalities, squadrons large and small, all the way to individual pilots. We’ve had really significant financial support from the community too, first through donations for the original server, and now through Patreon for the hosted server and game and collector plane giveaways.

Talon: I want to take this opportunity to thank that same community for all their feedback, financial support, words of encouragement but most of all – time. The server is just a framework and try as we might, if you guys didn’t choose to join it every night it would just be a warm box in a datacenter. The keyword in Multiplayer Server is “player”, and that’s the most important cog in this machine. Thanks so much to all of you who log in night after night to shoot each other down in our playground!

You can find us online in the following places:

Thanks to Combat Box!

I hope everyone enjoyed this latest Community Q&A series with Red Flight and the folks who are behind the scenes of one of IL-2’s most popular multiplayer servers. Thank you to Talon, Alonzo, Mordrac, and Haluter for participating and giving us their thoughts and insights on the inner workings of the Combat Box team!

Screenshots from Combat Box

Before we end things off, I wanted to share a few screenshots I’ve captured over the last few months on Combat Box. Lots of fun to be had on there and hopefully you can spot that in the screen captures along with the diversity of operations and missions you can undertake. Enjoy!

Update (February 24 at 8:14 pm): This article was updated with the correct maximum player count of 80 rather than 65 as earlier reported.

One Comment Add yours

  1. bigalrico says:

    I still remember when we were allowed to play a test version of Hunt for the Tirpitz after the Stuka event from Central. Since then the server has been doing pretty well! I’m happy that especially with the release of Bodenplatte CB finally got a regular player base and is almost permanently leading the top 3 servers. I also appreciate the actions against the vultures at the airfields. Which for many, like me, was extremely annoying.
    All in all it is great fun to fly there and I am already looking forward to the additions from BoN 🙂

    Rico

    Liked by 1 person

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