The issues of spotting aircraft in flight sims takes me back many years to when IL-2 Sturmovik first became really popular in the multiplayer scene and the arguments over how best to see and spot your friends and opponents took on shape (for others it may have happened in earlier titles). One of the biggest sources of frustration in IL-2’s multiplayer, and something not exclusively limited to just IL-2, is spotting aircraft and being able to then effectively react to them as needed. The IL-2 developers have broached the subject on the forums asking for opinions and thoughts on the matter and so let’s have a look at the message. I will as well, share my own thoughts too.
Provide your thoughts
IL-2: Great Battles Series Project Manager Han made a post late yesterday asking for community thoughts and opinions on the subject of plane visibility and spotting. The subject has come up more and more recently with impassioned pleas to make some changes to the way the system works. Indeed there have been changes already made by the team in two separate instances.
In the first, the team added enhanced rendering range for a wide variety of objects. In doing so they introduced a couple of aircraft spotting options to be determined at the server level. More on that in a moment. Next, the deferred shading update for IL-2: Great Battles not only improved visuals in the fine details but it also made it so that shadow rendering could be applied to all objects in the scene and thus aircraft retain their reflectivity better both near and far from you. That change has certainly helped.
With those things in mind, there is still room for improvement and that’s where we start with the message from Han.
Today I would like to discuss with you directly such a difficult topic as the visibility of aircraft in the game. Somewhere in the fall of 2019, we began to notice an increase in dissatisfaction on the part of the community with how things are going with the detection of “contacts” in our project. We spent a lot of time analyzing these claims, and came to the conclusion that most of them are concentrated around the situation with the detection of “contacts” against the landscape on background – that is, in the lower hemisphere. It is alleged that finding planes against the background of the landscape is so difficult that it causes eye fatigue and general tiring from the game. The requirement is that the detection of “contacts” should be comfortable and not irritating.Han on the IL-2: Great Battles forums
Han has quite a bit more to say talking about the goals of the project and what ultimately they should focus on when it comes to spotting and gameplay versus realism. Before I move on I wanted to quote Han once more because the next part is important regarding what the team is wanting to hear from us – the community that flies IL-2.
But nevertheless, without denying the two points sounded above, I consider it necessary to clarify the main issue on the visibility of aircraft. We, the gaming community “IL-2 Sturmovik”, inside of which I count myself on an equal footing with you, strive for the maximum possible realism in the simulation of air combat in all its aspects? Or are we striving to get the maximum “fun” from virtual air battles – which are based on real battles of the Second World War – and where should not be factors (albeit grounded in realism) that will excessively interfere with us in this?Han on the IL-2: Great Battles forums
My own thoughts
Let me come straight out and say that spotting in IL-2 is hard. Unnecessarily and unrealistically hard and it can detract from the gameplay and fun of the series. For one reason or another, spotting has been a big issue for me over the last year especially. Maybe its because I fly more multiplayer servers with no icons on these days or maybe its because the rendering systems have changed. Regardless of the why, it is now more in my consciousness than ever.
Flying with a group, coordinating our efforts on SRS or Discord, has exposed the challenges of sometimes finding even a friendly aircraft that we know is there. We’ve resorted to using nav lights and spotting flares at distances where those shouldn’t really be necessary because their aircraft are just too difficult to find. Sometimes its the blue of the sky and the contrast there that it suffers at and sometimes its the ground clutter which can make it difficult to pick out the dot from the other dots that frustrates.
There’s a fundamental tension between the need for a good experience and the need for realism. I think sometimes the quest for realism overrides the good experience and that the quest for realism is sometimes overshadowed by the reality that we’re not looking at this flight sim through our eyes in the real world but through LCD screens sitting on our desks (or on your head with VR).
There’s an artificiality or artifice of the notion of a combat flight simulation. I think we are all nearly united in the desire for the combat part of the flight sim to be something that’s enjoyable and fun. That’s in stark contrast of the real world experience where it was something terrifying and terrible. Loss of life was expected or at least highly probable and a real world pilot would likely not do some of the things we do because sometimes we’re in it for the victory at the expense of a virtual life.
So with that in mind I think the goal for IL-2: Great Battles and for any sim is to provide a fun and enjoyable experience. That doesn’t mean that we need an unrealistic experience but we should strive for an authentic one without loosing sight of the fact that our flight sim experience is bounded by a LCD screen (or two) with less resolution and motion detection capabilities than what the human eye and our brains are able to process in real life. Flight simming is a fundamental compromise on the experience and that means we should approach it with an understanding of that.
Nobody needs or wants a cartoon hand pointing to the enemy aircraft and nor should icons off be anything less than challenging. The issue is where real world tactics with flight lead and wingman scanning different parts of the sky fail, not because they didn’t look around and employ the correct tactic, but because the attacking aircraft was nearly invisible. That could be due to poor contrast detection of the object or a failure of the level of detail model to pop in at the appropriate level for the appropriate distance or some other technical consideration that ultimately makes it harder to spot than I think is enjoyable.
There’s a saying that we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough and I think we shouldn’t let realism be the enemy of authentically enjoyable in our flight sims.
Share your comments
I encourage everyone to hop on the IL-2 general discussion forum and share their thoughts on visibility. With multiple members of the 1CGS team keeping a close eye on this topic, I think it’s a great opportunity for the community to weigh in on a very individual, technically and virtually challenging part of the experience. Join in on the conversation here.
7 Comments Add yours
Completely agree with your point of view, realistic spotting is impossible due to the inherent issues of screens and this is where smart scaling comes in by making the contacts show somehow bigger by not just being represented by just a pixel.
However, IL2 series introduced this some months ago and people started complaining that it was too easy to spot. Sure, there were some issues like zooming in and the contact became smaller but it was great not to struggle a lot looking for small pixels moving which in the end less realistic and frustrating.
Hopefully they will tackle smart scaling again and the community will keep their mind open. Anyway, it is a good call from 1C to present the issue like this and open the discussion.
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I think the community did a disservice by complaining that it was too easy to spot when the issue was more that the scaling between zoomed in and out was more the issue. It made things worse for quite a while after that.
I think we’re finally past that and maybe can find a new balance.
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My personal view is that there are 2 issues. The one that might be sorted is a LOD problem whereby transitions – often at medium range – are not smooth or consistent and contacts seem to vanish. I am not sure how that might be solved, but it is not solely a BoX issue.
The second is a fundamental issue of the human optical system. I was a reserve RAF officer for several years during which time I enjoyed flying basic trainers at military bases. Needless to say, there was a lot of camouflaged traffic in and out. Despite their paint, they were easy to spot owing to their relative motion against the background and the fact that one’s eye focussed on a specific object at a given range, which ‘drowned out’ (visually) the background optical noise. Like listening to a friend in a noisy bar.
I genuinely have no idea how this might be accomplished in a sim, but playing with both TrackIR and VR my spotting is far worse than in reality. Pixels are just pixels and there ain’t no way ‘round that. They do not stand out to the eye.
My personal suggestion would be thus: individual aircraft should be hard to spot at longer range owing to our eyes likely being at the wrong focal length, but easier at short range. I am not sure of the best approach, but something that alters the contrast at less than a mile (they glow a little?) to replicate the brain’s immediate registering of movement to offset what simply fails to occur in a sim. This is most noticeable when looking down, flying in the face of the general pilot accounts and my own experience.
Lacking a magic wand I am not sure how to do this, but my focus would be on how to enable tabs to be kept on an object within several miles to reflect the fact that our brains are very good at that and we refocus and keep that focal length. At range, it is easy to miss something because we are NOT focussing correctly. This summer at the beach there was loads of air traffic overhead: sometimes at medium altitude (or lower) they were initially hard to spot until one had focussed at the correct range, then the suddenly stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.
So a colour or definition effort at short to medium range strikes me as the critical element. You see someone 5,000 ft away it should be impossible to lose them. You miss someone 10-15,000 ft away then you will likely not pick them up until they are very close. That is the lesson of WW2 air combat.
Just my view.
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I agree with all your points in this article. I fly with several real-life pilots, one a former F-15E WSO, and they agree that spotting in IL-2 is unrealistically bad. For me, spotting issues in VR is the main reason that, after spending more than a year and more money than I should upgrading my rig piece by piece until I finally got acceptable performance, I find I have barely touched IL-2. It’s just too frustrating. I’ve even had a bug several times in which aircraft are literally invisible. Literally. Tracers come from nowhere. But even when that’s not the case, spotting is so hard that it’s just not any fun to play. It feels like random chance whether I’ll get jumped by someone coming from the same sector of sky I just scanned. And when I do have someone acquired visually, if I look away for a moment I lose them half the time.
By contrast, War Thunder’s spotting errs on the side of accessibility rather than realism, but it is quite a bit more fun. It’s possible to visually scan your surroundings, acquire and track bogeys, coordinate with wingmen, and build a picture of the airspace in your head. When I die to an unseen bandit in War Thunder, I know it’s my own fault for not keeping my SA up.
I hope IL-2 finds a balance that is less gamey than War Thunder but more accessible than it currently is.
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Thanks for the comment and the perspective on this. The invisible plane bug is of course a separate issue that we all hope gets fixed soon! Absolutely that it would be good for IL-2 to find a slightly better level of accessibility.
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I saw the comment that War Thunder is better but curious if other sims are any better? Is DCS better with spotting? I always thought it was harder to spot in DCS but I am have limited experience with both. I don’t know what the right balance or solution should be either, but I agree overall with your view.
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It’s a mixed bag. DCS contact rendering at a distance with a narrow field of view works fairly well but go wide angle like in IL-2 and the contact gets lost too.
I’ve had just as many problems spotting aircraft in DCS personally.
I never played War Thunder outside of the arcade mode where icons help to spot other aircraft so I’m really not sure what the experience is like.
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