12 November 2007

Worlds of Wonder: Chapter Eight: Look! Up in the Sky!

Graphics I Could Only Dream Of As a Kid. Aces High 2, 2007


Studlands Park
Newmarket, East Anglia, England
October, 1982

The seat on my new candy-apple red Peugeot bicycle bit into my butt. That was no good. I leaned forward and kept my rear off of the seat as much as possible as I pedaled down the leased housing sidewalks outside of Newmarket, England.

The bike was my birthday present. I'd hoped for a computer. Instead I got a bike.

No justice, I tell you. No justice.

I'd smiled and thanked my parents, but, like any selfish teen, I was a little disappointed. Sure, the bike was nice, but the computer, man, that's what I really wanted.

I weaved past a fence and banked down the path next to the tiny river bisecting the housing areas. I leaned down closer to my handlebars and pumped the pedals to build up speed.

My friend Ted had a computer. A Heathkit H89. His father had built it from parts, and Ted had taken to typing in the programs he found in BYTE magazine and running them for fun.

I'd sit with Ted while he did that, but I didn't offer any real help. He was the wizard. I was the guy wondering how he knew so much about this stuff.

Seeing his computer push out programs like a 747 "flight simulator", and even a spaceship flying through "3D" asteroids had set my imagination on fire. Imagine the worlds people could create with those things! Not just books -- though I wanted to be a writer, and a computer would really help -- but worlds where people could interact with the story at hand. Adventures could be something experienced, not just observed.

I slowed my bike and made the right turn towards the British housing area. A woman who looked like a refugee from a Monty Python skit walked her too-pampered poodle along the path. She shot a nasty stare in my direction. Though she didn't make a sound, the words "Bloody American," came through loud and clear.

I just smiled and eased around her. No use starting an argument that neither of us would win.

The one thing I didn't much like about Ted's computer was that it was isolated. Sure, sitting with him while we made a 'descent' into New York City on his flight simulator (represented by numbers updating once every seven seconds in a frame on his screen) was neat, but wouldn't it be cool if we could both be flying separate planes? Or, even better, if other people could fly all at once with us?

It wasn't that crazy a thought. I'd read about something called "Compuserve", which was a massive network of home computer users stateside that could link together. The mention of online games where multiple players could join in at the same time made my jaw drop.

I pedaled harder as I climbed the slight hill that arced around the British housing area. To my left, the sound of traffic on the A20 whistled over the verdant English countryside. To my right there was nothing but the silence of the British homes.

What would I do if I could hook computers together for gaming? Well, have a massive war simulation, of course! But it would have to allow people to do what they wanted. If someone was into ground-pounding, well, let them shoot bad guys. (I envisioned a top-down perspective map, and little characters drawn on a monochrome green screen.)

If someone wanted to command a ship, well, they could do that, too. (I remembered the old "Star Trek"-like game I'd played on the TRS-80, and thought that the system could be applied to surface ships as well.)

Pilots? Well, they'd have to haul those troops to and from ships to battlefields, or even bomb the bad guys. That would have to look pretty good, or it would be boring.

But what would the guys waiting for the drop do? Would they be expected to just sit there and chat while some schmuck at home flew them to and from points in computer space?

What happened if he got shot down, and his entire cargo got killed? How much would that suck?

I crested the hill and started my descent to the other American area. There were some bugs to work out, that was for sure...but I really thought it could be done.

Not yet, though. Naw, we'd have to wait at least ten years for computers to get powerful enough to match what I was imagining.

I snorted. Maybe by then I'd have one of my own...


University of North Dakota
Married Student Housing
September, 1993

"How much?" SpousalGoddess asked.

"Three dollars per hour," I said.

"That's a lot of money," she grumbled. She dipped a tiny spoon into applesauce and slid it into the MonkeyBaby's mouth. He burbled, and the applesauce slid down his chin.

"I know," I said. "I've budgeted it out so I can fly three hours per week."

She shot me a sideways glance. "And how will you keep track of that?" she asked.

"An egg timer," I said. "Other guys do it. I'll just crank it up for that hour and play, but I'll log off the moment it rings."

She sighed. "Okay...but keep an eye on your time."

I leaned over and gave her a kiss. "Thanks, hon," I said.

Inside, I was hopping for joy. Finally! Finally I'd be able to try flying Air Warrior! It was an online flight simulation where hundreds of pilots fought each other in real time while flying painstakingly simulated aircraft. I'd always wanted to try it out, but at $6.00 / hour it was outside of the budget of a poor college student. I wrote it off as a "someday" expense and moved forward.

Then the publishers dropped their rate to $3.00 / hour, and I knew I'd have to try. If only SpousalGoddess would let me. After all, we had a son now. Back in those days, $27.00 / month for entertainment wasn't to be sneezed at.

For reasons I still don't quite fathom, Spousal let me try it out. I setup my account, logged in, throttled up...

...and got shot down almost immediately.


I repeated this experience four or five times during the first hour. Nevertheless, when that egg timer went off, I immediately signed off.

I flew Air Warrior a few more times over the next couple of months but, sadly, it never lived up to my expectations. Oh, sure, it was neat to fly against other people...but the problem was that most of the other people were total assholes. I took great delight in shooting them down -- and man, was I happy when I finally landed five kills in one flight -- but the entire experience felt, well, hollow.

I remembered reading about how teams would get together and attack enemy airfields. It sounded positively romantic. The reality was a cold slap in the face. Instead of adventure and excitement, I got a tiny window displaying crude graphics on a 640x480 14" monitor. It didn't feel epic. It felt sad.

I discontinued my membership, and went looking for alternatives. I tried out The Sierra Network's Red Baron Online -- and did pretty well, too -- but the gameplay was too arcadish for my tastes. I did, however, try out something called The Shadows of Yserbius a couple of times, but it was too much of a time sink for my liking. I figured it would be a failure. The entire concept was ridiculous. Heck, even though I loved me my video games, I was still a guy going to college, working full time, writing comic books, and raising a son. How did developers expect me to spend hours leveling up a pixelated character on some game? That was just nuts! I ended up cutting of the membership to that network, too.

In December of that year, while I sat rocking MonkeyBaby over my shoulder, and SpousalGoddess was busy playing "just one more turn" on Civilization, she suddenly stopped and stared at me.

"You really didn't like Air Warrior, huh?"

"Where did that come from?" I asked, surprised.

"It's just that you talked about it even back in Germany," she said. "It must have been dissapointing."

I shrugged. "I have better things to do with my time," I said.

She leaned over and gave me a kiss on the forehead. Then she turned back to her game.


Minneapolis, Minnesota
August, 2001

"I'm running low on fuel," SpousalGoddess said.

I turned to her in the computer room. She held on to her joystick and scanned her monitor intensely. Sure enough, the fuel gauge on her fighter was nearing empty.

"Copy you're low on fuel, AmericanMaid?" AlphaWolf's voice crackled over our headset. The Roger Wilco software we used for team communications allowed us to speak in real-time, but it also resulted in our voices sounding thin and reedy. Which was fine for immersion -- the simulation was ostensibly set in World War II -- but tough on compreshension.

"I think I forgot to fuel up." She sounded embarrassed.

Huh. We'd set up our flights together. Had I remembered?

I glanced at my tank.


"AlphaWolf, be advised that I'm minimum fuel as well," I transmitted.

"Roger, copy that the Tick is minimum fuel as well."

"Guess you guys forgot to plan that," SpousalGoddess' dad chuckled from behind me. Her mother giggled. "Oh, this is so neat," she said.

I laughed. "Yeah, it's fun."

"Makes for a cheap date night," SpousalGoddess said. Then she focused on the task at hand. "I think I can make A20."

I glanced at my map. A20 was a friendly field on the coast of one of the islands of the pacific-themed map in play in Aces High. It was a bit of a stretch, but we should be able to get there with no problems.

"Tick and AmericanMaid are descending into A20 to hot fuel," I transmitted.

"SewerUrchin is fine," MadMartian's voice crackled over our headsets. "I'll press to the IP." I waggled my wings in response, throttled back, and started my descent. SpousalGoddess' plane lurched down next to me, but slowly settled on my wing.

"And these people are your co-workers?" my mother-in-law asked.

I nodded.

It had all started innocently enough. I'd only been with the company for four months, but in that time I'd learned that my Team Lead -- AlphaWolf -- had reached solo status as a Private Pilot. Poor instruction had scared him away, though, so he had never completed his ticket.

That was a shame. AlphaWolf had the right demeanor to be a good pilot.

One day, during a lull at work (which usually occurred on days ending with the letter "y") I pulled screenshots from a flight simulator that I'd reviewed with MadMartian a year before. It was called Aces High, and in many ways had met the promise that Air Warrior had offered years before. MadMartian and I had played for free for two weeks, had had a great time, but in the end couldn't justify the $30.00 / month that the title wanted for a subscription. So we'd walked away with some laughs and fond memories.

The moment AlphaWolf saw the screenshots, he was hooked. Soon GeistX, who worked just across the cube from me, dfl8rms, and others gathered around my screen. To a one their eyes sparkled.

Oh, boy, I thought. What had I done?

"We have to try this!" they said, so we decided to get together as a team on a Wednesday night to play.

Cool, my co-workers were into flight sims and online games. What a nice match! I mentioned it to SpousalGoddess when I got home, so she'd know what I was doing in the office until late.

"Oh," she said. She sounded a little disappointed.

"Do you not want me to play?" I asked. "Because I won't." I meant it. The family came first. Period.

"No," she said. "It just sounds like fun."

"Then join us!" I said.

"But I can't fly!" she replied.

"Neither can these guys," I said. "You'll learn along with them."

So we setup a Roger Wilco connection, downloaded the clients, setup our accounts -- which only ran $14.95 per month -- invited MadMartian (because he had to fly my wing again), and hooked up for the first time.

It was a blast.

Oh, we were awful, but it didn't matter. Here we were, getting together for fun, laughing, dogfighting (or, in AlphaWolf's case, bombing with "Captain Morgan" as his co-pilot) and generally making easy targets for ourselves. The next day our corner of the cube farm was alight with tales of FW-190s here, Zeroes there, and missing wings left and right.

It was awesome.

Our team needed a name, though. Something that would reflect the happy-go-lucky nature of the endeavor, along with our relative talent. Then, during a meeting with our company's leadership, the phrase "whirlpool of suck" (used to describe the stock market in general back in August of 2001) floated past.

"Did I just hear that?" my friend BuffyPusher asked.

"Yeah," I said. "That's awesome."

"It would make a great squadron name," GeistX said. "Flying Whirlpools of Suck."

And lo, our squadron was named.

The Flight Whirlpools of Suck (FWOS) met every Wednesday for months. We'd get together, plan out our missions, and go and fight on the living world map that was the game's playspace. Some people tended towards bombers, some towards ground attack aircraft, whereas others like me were all about the dogfighting. Over time we got better -- a lot better, in fact -- and our kill tallies rose impressively on the game's website.

What also rose was the number of ours played. I was stunned to see some of our members log hour upon hour every night in the title. I loved the game too, but man, where did these guys find the time.

"Um...we got bandits," SpousalGoddess said next to me.

I pulled myself back from my reverie and looked back towards the screen. Sure enough, two black dots were moving towards us, at one o'clock low.

"Maybe they're friendly," I said.

Suddenly the dots grew red tags above them. Two enemy P-51Ds, low and slow.

I grinned wolfishly.

"Tick has two bandits, one o'clock low, near the field. Turning to engage."

"Um, we've got no fuel," SpousalGoddess said next to me.

"No worries," I said. "If this gets bad we'll extend towards the airfield and let the flack guns take care of them."

"Uh-huh." She didn't sound convinced.

We closed on the fighters. We had the energy and turning advantage on the Mustangs. Maybe they'd figure that out.

Nope. They pressed towards us.

"Tick is in," I transmitted. Then: "Spoooooon!"

I pitched down and added War Emergency Power (WEP) to the engine. I had to make sure I didn't redline my speed, or I'd rip the wings off as I manuevered. I throttled back slightly, canceled the WEP, and placed the gun's pipper in front of the target.

Shells flashed past my windscreen. They were firing at us, head-on. That was dangerous.

"I'm hit!" SpousalGoddess yelled. "I'm smoking."

"Break off," I said. The Mustangs were growing larger by the second...


I squeezed my second joystick fire button. 20 MM shells leapt from my gun ports. Two quick flashes on the nose of the target registered hits, and then the plane exploded.

AlphaWolf Gets a Kill!

"Splash one!" I yelled. Shooting down another player never got old. My heart pounded and I grinned. "Turning to engage the second target."

"I'm heading for the field," SpousalGoddess said. Her dad had moved next to her to talk her down. He'd been a certified flight instructor for years, so this was old hat. I knew she was in good hands.

I took my plane vertical and looked up. Sure enough, the Mustang -- low on energy and trying to manuever -- was right where I expected him to be. I pulled the nose back, then rolled the plane upright. The pipper bobbed up and I got a range reading to the target.



I squeezed the trigger. The Mustang blossomed into a fireball in front of me.

"Splash two," I said.

"Excellent," AlphaWolf transmitted. Captain Morgan had made him sound even more relaxed than usual.

"You've got two more inbound," SewerUrchin transmitted.

I scanned. Sure enough, two more targets were closing. This time, they were higher and faster.


No point running; they'd catch me. I only had one choice.

"Tick's engaging!" I said, and turned towards. With luck, I'd be able to shoot them down before I ran out of fuel.


SpousalGoddess made it to the field that night, but she crashed on landing.

I shot down both of those other planes, and managed to get one more before I dead-sticked into the field. "An ace in one flight," my father-in-law said, impressed.

A Bomber Driver Meets a Bad End.

AlphaWolf and his bomber group unloaded on an enemy base, but got cut apart extending away from the target. AlphaWold managed to limp back to base, and land a badly-damaged bomber. To this day, that feat impresses me.

Yeah, Folks He Really Landed the Bird Like This. Way to Go, AlphaWolf!

And the fact that I remember the details of that one fight, from August of 2001, nearly six years later, is a testament to exactly how intense Aces High was. By contrast, I can't even really describe any given fight in World of Warcraft. It's just a completely different beast.

Eventually, though, it had to end. The team tended to stay up far later than I could -- my sleep woes were really beginning to show back then -- and I rapidly fell behind in their planning. SpousalGoddess never really got very good at flying her planes, and lost interest. As time wore on fewer and fewer people logged in to fly. By mid 2002 SpousalGoddess and I were done, and making movies instead.

Nevertheless, those months flying in Aces High with my co-workers remain some of my fondest online play memories ever.

Trying to capture lightning in a bottle again. FWOS2 lines up for departure, 2006.

In 2006, AlphaWolf tried to pull the old team together again. It was a valiant effort, but too much time had passed. Though we flew a few missions as FWOS II, in the end other games -- namely World of Warcraft -- beat them out. After all, we could log out at any time from WoW. With FWOS we'd have to find a field, land, and log out, or our online score would suffer. We couldn't have that now, could we?

Nevertheless, Aces High -- now Aces High 2 -- is still alive and kicking in an era of World of Warcraft and Everquest2. It offers a more macho, more nuts-and-bolts approach to massive multiplayer online gaming than the MMORPG alternative. Be warned, though; it's every bit as addictive.


Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
August, 2004

"Why do we do it?" I asked.

Mistress Betty looked up from her mexican dinner. We'd all gone out as family and friends to eat. Inevitably, the conversation had circled back to talking about City of Heroes.

"Do what?" she asked.

"Play online like that?" I took a sip of my diet coke and leaned forward. "We could just play a board game, or get together for movies, or anything else. Why online games?"

"We do that stuff too," she replied. "But this allows us the freedom to play more conveniently."

"And it beats playing alone," SpousalGoddess added.

I nodded. That made sense.


I'm an adult now. A man over forty. A father with a child approaching college. A person with the aches and pain that testify to my years.

More than any other reason, that's why I enjoy these games so much.

Oh, I eat right (shake in the morning, shake for lunch, watch those calories at night, num, num, num!), try to keep active, and I'm fond of personal grooming, but none of those things change the fact that the face I see in the mirror is very different than I remember not five years past. I'm aging, and no amount of diet or exercise will erase those years.

That's okay. I've earned my laugh lines and silver hair. I'm just surprised I got them all so soon.

On the screen, though, well, I can be a man of twenty again. I can be more agile than I've ever been in reality, and face adventures that common sense would have kept me away from in my youth.

Who wouldn't be attracted to that?

But when I see how far we've come from the dreams I had back in the eighties, to the stunning visuals of Everquest2, I'm actually less impressed than you might think.

The games need to change, folks. They need to grow.

But before I go into that, I think maybe I need to talk about some titles that do have me excited.

Next up: Yo-ho-ho: Pirates of the Burning Sea finally scratches a landlubbers itch.


dfl8rms said...

I blame you. I had a life and had successfully resisted online games for over a decade and you had to show us Aces High. Here it is 6 years later and I'm still playing, granted I'm not on nearly like I used to be and I've transitioned to a role that allows me to give back to the flight sim community but I still blame you.

It was pathetic in 2002 when I counted the hours lost to that game. About the only thing I've not done is hit the top 100 in "rank" on the game. I've came close top 225, but I digress.

Avindair said...

Well, consider those hours carefully. If those were truly "entertainment hours" -- i.e. the downtime anyone needs after a hard day at work -- then the time wasn't lost.

Okay, sure, you could have written a book, or painted a watercolor, or watched a TV show, or, okay, hiked or biked miles and miles, but you didn't. The thing that let you unwind was flying AH. And if you unwound then the time spent was well worth it.

Personally, I'm a bit like GeistX these days. I can't sit in front of a TV passively. I tend to play (or write, or edit, or create 3D models) actively, rather than just be a lump. And, ironically enough, I "blame" this desire to keep learning new things partially on the "upward" model of MMOs.

That ain't a bad thing.

And gratz on the top 100. Dude, that sim is hard. Doing what you did is actually impressive.

Of course, tonight I get to try out Pirates of the Burning Sea. Remember that MMO Pirate Game we looked at in my cube back at Acxiom? It's finally being released in January. I'm trying the stress test beta.

Suh-weet. :)