SUBSIMS BEYOND 2000
by Neal Stevens
When I was 10 and in my prime as an active kid, reading about the Battle of the Atlantic and dreaming about the new nuclear Nautilus, I constructed a submarine game to fill my need for submarine action. It consisted of two sheets of heavy cardboard, 20 inches wide by three feet. The surface of each sheet was marked off in a grid, each grid identified by a letter/number system. One sheet of cardboard had three panels that served as legs, and it stood astride the other creating a two-dimensional playing field. Two players, one a sub skipper and the other an escort commander, competed against each other for oceanic dominance. The game used surface ship and submarine tokens stolen from my Battleship game. Played in turns, this early analog subsim was very dependant on rules. There were eight sheets of "Turn Outcomes" to follow. Using six dice and two decks of cards as the "computer", the surface player would roll first one dice to determine how many squares to move, and then the rest to determine how many ships would move.
Although I built this "subsim," labeled and hand drew the card suits on the outcome sheets, and devised a set of equitable rules, it didn't see very much gameplay. No one in my household shared my enthusiasm for battlesea warfare, and my friends complained the rules were way too complex and hard to follow. Fair gameplay relied too heavily on the honor system ("I said I dropped charges at 200 feet! What depth were you at?" "Uh ... 300 feet!") to be functional. The point of this stagger through memory lane? Subsims evolve. They are recreated by new companies for new gamers. And they get better each season. My dinosim depended on dice, imagination, and honesty. Now the computer functions as the impartial referee, the random outcome generator, and throws out real time graphics and sounds to boot. And to any speculation that the current bunch of submarine simulations may be the last, I say: study the trend.
By now one should detect a visible trend evident in the field of computer simulations. Since the advent of the personal computer a scant decade ago, inspired companies and individuals have endeavored to reproduce the experience of undersea warfare, whether of the World War II era, Cold War nuclear age, or future battleseas. The early efforts were sound and competent for the technology and coding of their day. But the trend shows us that as each year passes, computers grow faster and more powerful and new simulations are created to harness the new technology. Simulations that provide more visuals, more variety, and more historical accuracy. The current crop of subsims (Silent Hunter Gold and 688(I) Hunter/Killer) represent the state of the art. But despite their graphic and gameplay brilliance, there's no reason to believe they will be the last of their kind. Indeed, the trend indicates that new subsims will emerge over the horizon with time. And what sims they will be, with the power of 500 MHz computers and 64-bit 3D accelerator graphics cards driving them.
New CPUs with faster clock speeds coupled with better graphics cards will return better pictures with more detail. One advantage subsims have over flight sims is there isn't as much continuous object motion required. A destroyer steaming in the periscope view doesn't require as much computing power as six FY-22s, all twisting and turning across the screen. This frees up the computer to handle other chores, such as crew voice responses, engine sounds, and accurate graphics redrawing at a high frame rate. Therefore, a subsim's graphic performance shouldn't drop to a crawl when the action gets thick. As new subsims are coded to take advantage of the increased technology, more details can be addressed. With the coming of DVD (Digital Video Disk), future subsims should have a greater level of reality. Perhaps someday we'll have a submarine bridge view where half the screen doesn't consist of the conning tower wall. The cyberskipper should be able to scan the sky for planes and ships, using the hat switch. Wouldn't it be nice to see seagulls from the bridge when sneaking into a Japanese harbor? How about observing the crew of a torpedoed merchant ship going pell-mell for the life boats? The more detail, the more a simulation approaches reality. And isn't that the objective of a sim?
After putting in the hours I have playing these sims, many improvements and enhancements for future sims come to mind. Among these are:
- Better enemy AI - Although good, many sims have merchant ships that don't appear to notice that U-boat 800 meters off the port bow firing at them with a 105mm gun and their evasive action is too tame. AI for escorts in most sims I've encountered is pretty good but not as good as it could be. True, they're tenacious, but they never try any new tactics. At night they should employ searchlights. In the Battle of the Atlantic, British destroyers would lie to silently, waiting for a U-boat to surface. It should be so in sims.
- Q-ships - I use my deck gun whenever possible to conserve my dud torpedoes. Wouldn't it be terrific if every now and then the helpless tramp steamer I'm shelling would throw off gun covers and return fire, and try to ram me!
- Realistic chart/map views - A chart that shows enemy ships in real time, with wakes, is too much help. At least make it a realism option to have a map view that gets updated only in intervals. Give the player plotting tools to track ship movements and project a ship's course, much as a real life chart would.
- Better sounds - Silent Hunter has terrific shell explosions, okay depth charges, and the best crew's voices. The SubSim2000 would build on this and add conflicting reports from excited crewmen, more boat's noises, devastating explosions for close calls, muffled explosions for torpedo hits, and ambiance sound.
- Damage effects - When the enemy depth charges score damage, the lights should go out and come back on dimmer. Gauges should have cracks, the control room should look messed up, and leaks should appear. Boat performance suffers, and the interior should show it. The player's actions should be briefly interrupted to handle damage control duties. The XO could even spill his coffee on the charts!
- Accelerated time limits - Accelerated time should have a limit during combat encounters, say, of no more than 4 times normal.
- Video quality graphics - It's time to take the next big graphics step, from pixilated ships to the graphics we see in the intro scenes of 688 and Silent Hunter. Enemy surface ships should reflect accurate angle-on-the-bow sightings. Silent Hunter has the best graphics bar none, but with today's mega-mucho CPUs and blazing graphics accelerators, renderings can be more fluid, detailed, and life-like. Airplanes should dive in from steeper angles and the player should be able to scan the sky, not just the horizon. The ocean should have different motions, from rolling to small whitecaps, a la Aces and SH. The control room should have people in it. Is it asking too much to see more of the sub's decks, and perhaps a gun crew?
- Multi-play - All sims should be Internet multi-play capable. They should feature very detailed deck logs that allow virtual fleet score keepers to see who sank whom. The players would be able to submit the deck log files to a scorekeeper, and he would play it back and see which player bailed just before another player's ADCAPs would have bent his boat. Jane's 688(I) has a mission replay and deck log, but it's very limited and can't be saved as a file or e-mailed.
- Details - Enemy crews should be visible from close ranges. They should take to the life boats when their ship is stricken, and the player should view the lifeboats scattered across the ocean. Enemy ports should teem with life. Simulations should borrow a page from Wing Commander, Duke Nukem, and other sims where computerized characters interact with the player. They need not be so sterile. Throw in a little random reality and long term playability goes way up.
- More details - Merchant ships should be flagged according to their nationality. This would cause a player to observe neutrality laws, of catch hell from BdU/CoC. In Seawolf and 688(I), this is pretty common, but in the WWII SubSims, everything afloat is a target.
- Little details (but important) - Tiny, infrequent details should abound. Once in every hundred depth changes or so, the diving officer could blow it and the boat broaches... or dives too deep causing a panic (but not fatally so). The rudder could jam causing the boat to circle for some time. Torpedoes circle back, ask Commander O'Kane. Engines develop trouble. Men fall overboard. Sounds like too much? Welcome to real life.
The growing popularity of Internet multi-player games is the future for sims. Subsims should be compatible with a companion program that allows a friend to play the part of an escort commander. This "Convoy Commander" would be responsible for directing the merchant ships in his convoy and the other escorts. He would have an interface that features active and passive sonar to search for enemy subs. He could have control over his depth charge racks and his guns. He would be receiving information and requests from the other escorts and merchant ships, and transmitting orders in return. No longer would a U-boat commander face a set of algorithms and binary calculations; now he would struggle against another player, equally cunning and anxious to secure a win. This level of engagement and competition will breathe new life in subsims and extend their viability. I know, it sounds a lot like my personal sim project, and if I'm that interested in this type of gaming experience, take it for granted others are as well.
As time passes, along with the onrush of new technology, new gamers enter the field. This will prove to be the key to demand for new subsim programs. Your kid brother will be covetous of a good subsim program himself in a year or two. He isn't going to satisfied with Silent Service II or Wolfpack in the year 2000. And many subsims are no longer commercially available. No matter how good Command Aces of the Deep is or was, it doesn't matter if you can't buy a copy. Currently CAOD is no longer available individually through the manufacturer, but is bundled with a collection Sierra's dinoware flight sims. Once a year or two passes since the release of the last crop of subsims, emerging developers will harness the newer, more powerful hardware available and create new subsims with gripping realism and life-like variety. And new players, along with a few older ones, will be waiting to flood tubes and take sonar bearings.
The SUBSIM I created is offered for your amusement HERE.