SUBSIM
Review
  Mike Jones Interview
Creator of Aces of the Deep
SUBSIM Review Exclusive; October 1998

For every type of media, there comes along a groundbreaker. A work or artist so innovative and striking that it sweeps away all that came before it and catapults the industry to the next level. In literature, it was Salinger, Hemmingway, and Heller. In music, it was Elvis, and then the Beatles. In film, it was Star Wars. In the area of submarine simulations, it was Aces of the Deep. Aces was a huge leap forward in every facet of the submarine sim; graphics, music, gameplay, and most importantly, realism and historical accuracy. It is obvious by the outstanding attention to detail that the design team at Dynamix poured its heart and U-boat soul into Aces. The manual is full of historical information. The sim mirrored reality in numerous details. But perhaps the biggest feature was how the whole package came together to allow the player to suspend reality with little effort and imagine himself stalking the Atlantic in a German underseeboot. No other subsim before or after Aces of the Deep has captured the ambiance and tension quite so well.

Mike Jones was the producer and lead designer for as well as one of the programmers for Aces. We spoke with Mike about the vision and creation of Aces of the Deep.

Mike JonesSUBSIM Review: How about a rundown of your personal history as a game programmer?

Mike Jones: I started programming in computer games in 1985. I was in grad school working on a degree in Industrial Engineering while at the same time doing some programming for a friend, Don Gilman. The first product I worked on was "Orbiter", a space shuttle simulation published by Spectrum Holobyte. After "Orbiter" shipped, the developers (Don, Gordon Walton, Sean Hill, myself) formed a company called Digital Illusions. I helped to develop some of our original titles, namely "Sub Battle Simulator" for Eypx and "PT 109" for Spectrum Holobyte. I also did some ports, most notable were "NFL Challenge" for the Mac and "F15 Strike Eagle" for the Atari ST.

I remember F15 because I started it from scratch 6 months late (not a recommended strategy) and I got to work with Sid Meier’s C64 code (he had his own programming language "Sidtran"). One time I was trying to identify the AI code. I called Sid up and asked him about it. He directed me to this small portion of the code and my response was something like, "this can’t be all there is". He said, "yeah, that was it" and that he would get letters about how the enemy planes would do this maneuver or that trick, things that he knew were not in the code. The imagination is a fine thing.

In 1988, most of us at Digital Illusions went to work for Three-Sixty Pacific developing "Harpoon". I was the lead sim programmer and one of the co-designers on that product. "Harpoon" shipped late ’89 and I left Three-Sixty about a year later, after putting out some patches and a battleset or two. I was burned out and went back to grad school and finished my Master’s degree. My degree was in Industrial Engineering and it was my intention to get a job in that field and NOT go back into game development. However, after graduating, I got a call from Gordon, who had interviewed at Dynamix but wasn’t going to take the job. He recommended that I apply, which I did, and I was offered and took the job at Dynamix. This was in 1992. The position was a Director, which doesn’t involve programming. I only started programming again after a couple of programmers quit halfway through the development of AOD and I didn’t have any immediate replacements. I left Dynamix in 1996 and for the next three years did contract programming, mostly for Dynamix. I have recently been rehired by Dynamix as the Executive Director of their Flight sims brand; no programming this time for sure.

 

SSR: When did you first begin to consider making a submarine simulation for the PC?

Jones: Well, since I had been involved with the development of "Sub Battle Simulator", sub simulations have always been on my mind. When the opportunity came to develop a simulation for Dynamix in 1992, a submarine simulation was one of the possibilities I proposed. Tony Reyneke, the President of Dynamix at the time, was a big subsim fan. So it was an easy call.

We wanted to do the Pacific campaign
or possibly a nuc sub simulation and we
were proceeding along this path.

SSR: What motivated you to design a U-boat simulation?

Jones: While I felt that Silent Service II had done a good job of covering the Pacific sub campaign, I didn’t think that the few titles out that modeled U-boats had come close to doing justice to that side of the war. The Battle of the Atlantic was intense, and our goal was to create a product that could immerse the player in that conflict. Watching "Das Boot" many times probably had something to do with it as well.

 

SSR: There are many features in AOD that stand out, but perhaps none so much as the rolling of the ocean and pitching of the U-boat in response. How early into the development phase did you envision the wave action, and what obstacles did you overcome to get it just right?

Jones: The waves were conceived fairly early, before a development team was assembled. I needed to put together a demo/proof of concept and had the opportunity to work with Tim Gift [Tim is the director of Tribes, a soon-to-be released Dynamix product] on that. He put together a quick demo of the rolling waves by introducing sine wave motion to a grid and texturing it. It looked good, but needed to be speeded up. After the project got underway, another programmer, Peter Lukaszuk, took the concept and developed the waves as you see them in the game. And they hardly take any processor time. The funny thing is that I never asked Peter how he did the waves; I mean the exact method. People would come up to me at shows and asked how we did the waves, and I could honestly reply, "I don’t know".

 

SSR: Give us an example of another AOD feature you are especially proud of.

Jones: I would be hard for me to single out a particular feature at this juncture. I am most proud of the "depths" we went to on all aspects of the game. For instance, for the Leader Board, we meticulously went through the records of all of the U-boat attacks in WWII and developed a week by week account for all of the top U-boat skippers. So when you see your name up there with Prien or Kretschmer, know that you are tracking with their actual tonnage sunk at that moment in the war. Another example is that at any point in the war, while out on patrol, convoys are steaming around the Atlantic when and where they should be including ports of origin and typical makeup and size for that date. We paid a lot of attention to detail in many areas of the game and tried to balance that out with fun elements. That always seems to be the challenge in historical sims, balancing how accurate things are with how fun the game is to play. Now you can’t please everyone, but I think we struck a good balance with AOD.

 

Software development, especially game
development, is still an art.

 

SSR: In addition to a fine piece of software, CAOD included an incredibly generous on-line manual with maps, U-boat history, and video interviews. How did the on-line manual come about?

Jones: I couldn’t honestly say whose idea the on-line manual was. When we were determining what to put in COAD, the on-line manual made a lot of sense. It would add some tremendous value for the player, but it wouldn’t take as much programming time, which is always at a premium. I was really happy with the on-line manual, especially the interviews. After living and breathing this particular piece of history for two year, to be able to go to Germany and interview the likes of Topp, Kretschmer and others was an amazing experience for the team members that went.

 

SSR: Who was responsible for the graphics—the sub interiors, the menu and buttons, cut-away scenes?

Jones: AOD had two art directors, Kyle Miller and Jarrett Jester. Kyle was the first for the project and he came with a background in cartoon type animation. Kyle did a great job considering his lack of experience with simulations. Jarrett, a production artist at that time on the flight sims, then came on the project and finished up, putting more of an edge on things. Beyond that, it would be hard getting into the particulars of which artist did which particular piece of art.

 

SSR: Aces was received with critical acclaim upon its release.

Jones: I still enjoyed playing AOD when we shipped it, which was a good sign. I think most of us had the expectation that this was a good game and that it would do well in the marketplace. So when AOD finally did ship and did do well I think we definitely felt proud, but also relieved.

 

SSR: Were there any features or aspects that you wanted to include but didn’t make it onto the program?

Jones: Although I would have trouble remembering what didn’t make it in, the answer is yes. It would be hard to ship a game of this scope without there being a long list of features, ideas, suggestions, improvements, etc. that didn’t make it in the game. Some things on that list made it into CAOD, such as the deck gun interface, many others didn’t.

 

SSR: At what point was it decided to make the Expansion Pack for the original AOD release?

Jones: As I recall, the Expansion Pack was conceived of prior to the release of AOD. Maybe the projected sell-in of the product helped to make the decision. It also helped that the Expansion Pack was relatively inexpensive. I think also that the Expansion Pack was relatively easy and low stress, which the team needed after shipping AOD. Our goal all along was to create a submarine product line, and expansion/data disks support this.

 

SSR: When Command Aces was released, I began to think AOD would be one of those franchise programs, like Wing Commander. Now it is currently available only as a part of the Aces Collection. Who stopped the music?

Jones: That’s a difficult question to answer. I left Dynamix after the release of CAOD, which was approximately three years ago. We had a good entry into the submarine market and a good game engine if we wanted to do the Pacific campaign or possibly a nuc sub simulation and we were proceeding along this path. I would have liked to see the AOD line continue, but it didn’t. Submarine simulations can sometimes be a hard sell to company execs. Sales people usually don’t get them. They are not exciting like flight sims and although you can get excellent sales from a good sub sim, it won’t rival a good flight sim. So unless there is a product champion, it can sometimes be hard prospect. I can only assume that no one picked up the torch after I left.

 

SSR: These days it seems most games are rushed out the door with readme files that virtually have patches scheduled. What kind of pressure is the game designer/programmer under?

Jones: No matter how much the bean counters would like it to be different, software development, especially game development, is still an art. We can generally say that developing a certain type of game will take a certain amount of time, but when you add in things like changing technologies, having to respond to competition, and just the sheer size of some of the products, it is easy to see how it becomes less certain. That being said, there can at times be tremendous pressure to ship a product, especially if that product is already late, or trying to make the Christmas season. Also, depending on the size of the company, there can be added pressure to ship and make some revenue just to keep the company solvent. That was the case with "Harpoon". Three-Sixty didn’t have much else going and needed to ship Harpoon just to stay afloat. The president of the company was selling paintings out of his house to keep development going. Needless to say, there was some pressure to ship that product. J But to management's credit on that product, they delayed shipping as long as they possible could and still stay in business. I have heard stories such as one company shipping boxes with blank disks in them to meet a deadline for a particular sales deal. Imagine the customer support nightmare on that one!

But don’t get me wrong, deadlines are good things. They help to provide focus, a very necessary ingredient in the process.

When pressure to ship is rearing its head, as a designer, you may find yourself scrambling to figure out how to make the game work without some key feature. As a programmer, you my be cutting corners on how well you code something because you don’t have time to do it right (thereby damaging the reusability aspects of your code base). Many times teams will be in "damage control" mode at the end, basically knowing that they have to rush something out the door and trying to figure out how they can "patch up" the biggest holes. This leaves not only a bad taste in the player mouth, but it is hard to stomach as part of the development team as well.

 

SSR: The interface of AOD is noteworthy, with its assortment of hot keys and buttons. Silent Hunter’s interface and general layout (map view, periscope key, etc.) bore a strong resemblance to AOD. Was there some collaboration or is that an example of "borrowing from the best"?

Jones: There was no collaboration on the products. I am flattered that Silent Hunter has some elements of the AOD interface in it. I would also like to add that I’m sure that some of the AOD interface design came from the numerous other submarine simulations that came before it. When you find something that works, why not stick with it? Ultimately, assuming the interface doesn’t get in the way, the measure of a submarine simulation will be in the depth and challenge for the player.

 

SSR: Certainly you are aware that AOD/CAOD still enjoys considerable popularity with subsim skippers. The clamor for an Aces of the Deep II still lingers. Will there be any subsims in your future?

Jones: I would love for there to be another subsim in my future. The seas are unpredictable and rough though.

 

SSR: The current SUBSIM Review survey of over 400 players indicates that C/AOD holds the number two position in subsim popularity, at around 15% of the total sims played, and 51% of the players report owning it. For a sim that’s over five years old, that’s quite a legacy.

Jones: Working on a product like AOD was labor of love. Our entire development team was immersed in the history of the U-boat campaign for two years. We lived it, breathed it, and had a passion for it. The development process was at times joyous and at other times very painful. AOD, along with Harpoon, stands out as one of those products that I will always be proud to have been a part of.

1998 SUBSIM Review