by Richard Sheffield
The Making of Gunship
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The development of Gunship was a long, troubled process, though well worth the wait. Here's how MicroProse's Mike Harrison described the effort in the Gunship Newsletter (reprinted courtesy of MicroProse).
The Idea-March 1985. "A chopper seemed the natural choice for our next simulation," said Andy Hollis, MicroProse software engineer and game designer. "It was high on our list of future development projects and our customers were very interested."
Hollis, who led the Gunship Design team through 1.5 years of initial development, said the previous success of Solo Flight and F-15 Strike Eagle had proven the market for flight simulations.
MicroProse President Bill Stealey, a former USAF jet fighter pilot, was fascinated by the possibilities of a modern helicopter simulation. "Helicopters are today's cavalry," he said. "They're in the thick of the front line action where the danger is always right over the next hill or across the next river. What a great way to give consumers the chance to make real life decisions in a challenging environment!"
The difficulty of simulating a helicopter offered an exciting challenge for MicroProse developers. "But I figured we were the company with the people and the expertise to do it justice," Stealey said.
The First Attempt—Summer 1985. Research and development began in April 1985. Initially, the game was patterned after the Cobra helicopter used by U.S. forces in Vietnam. Stealey had named it Cobra Gunship. The focus soon changed, however, to the Apache AH-64A being developed by McDonnell-Douglas for the U.S. Army. "It was the hottest topic of discussion in the Officer's Club," remarked Stealey, a Major in the USAF reserve. "Military people said the Apache represented the state-of-the-art in the Army's high tech arsenal, so we made the decision to change."
"I was just developing the basic flight characteristics," said Hollis, "so the change wasn't hard to implement. The Apache was appealing because it was newer and more hightech . . . and gave us a little more latitude in game design."
The first version of Gunship was very different from the one that has now been purchased by more than 100,000 computer pilots. With an "almost arcade style," that first design included grid based graphics with missions in mainly urban areas. But that would soon change radically.
Release Cancelled—Fall 1985. By September, MicroProse developers were working feverishly to meet their November deadline. Retailers, distributors, and consumers were eagerly awaiting Gunship. The product had been announced at the 1985 Summer CES show and heavily advertised.
In the meantime, Sid Meier, MicroProse co-founder and game designer, had been working on some ideas for basic 3-D graphics. He took a month, using the speed and graphics capabilities of the Amiga, to produce a simple demo of Gunship using his new graphic ideas.
"It was impressive," said Hollis, "The graphics he showed us were more realistic than the original, almost abstract graphics . . . a tremendous improvement over what we had." At the same time, Stealey was unhappy with the simulation. "It just didn't give you the real feel of piloting a helicopter," he said. "The urban missions weren't realistic for the Apache helicopter and the graphics just weren't doing the job."
MicroProse had already spent a year on development and the expected release date was only two months away. After several days of agonizing decision making, Stealey announced an indefinite postponement of the release date and forced the project back into massive redevelopment. Among industry pundits, Gunship became labelled as "vaporware."
"I've always said that Microprose would produce only quality products and would try not to capitalize on quick development," Stealey retorted. "When I considered the problems with the simulation—it wasn't bad but it wasn't great—and saw the possibilities of Sid's new graphics, I didn't have any other choice. We decided to throw six months of our work away and start over."
Another Year—Oct. 1985-Oct. 1986. It was time to reexamine the development plan for Gunship. Hollis began working on a method to implement Meier's graphics ideas on an 8-bit computer without sacrificing any speed. It took him several months to complete. Meanwhile, a recent addition to MicroProse, noted game designer and history buff Arnold Hendrick, began painstaking research of the AH-64A Apache and the type of mission it would most likely fly.
"The AH-64 was just starting off the McDonnell-Douglas production line at the time," said Hendrick, "and most specific information, like the cockpit configuration, was classified." But advertisements by McDonnell-Douglas and the unclassified material available on the Apache revealed the basic parameters of the weapons it would probably carry.
After researching the weapon systems and operations, he had to weigh game play against reality. "Some things just had to be simplified," Hendrick said. "We knew the arming sequence for the weapons on the real Apache was a complicated procedure . . . it's a safety feature. In our simulation it's only one step. But replicating the complete process would have been pointless complexity and added nothing to the game."
By January 1986, Hollis had finished his work on the 3-D graphics and created the mechanism to include different geographic "worlds" in the simulation. Now he needed real data for the worlds and realistic missions to implement.
Hendrick knew that Europe was considered an "expected field of battle" in military circles with NATO forces combatting the Warsaw Pact nations. He created a "world" using a detailed topographical map of Western Europe as his model. "The Apache helicopter was designed as a day-or-night tank killer," he said, "so it was ideally suited to this region where intensive land battles could occur." Soon, Hendrick had developed a number of missions in Western Europe.
Meanwhile, screen graphic artist Michael Haire was busy designing a cockpit layout, game options, and award screens for Gunship. Michele Mahan executed the artwork. "We designed three versions of the cockpit before we were satisfied," Haire said. "Obviously we had to simplify the actual Apache cockpit and change the sizes of the gauges so they were readable on a computer screen."
The options and awards screen presented special problems. "You'll notice that the awards screens look over the shoulder of the person receiving the medal or only show hands. Our main concern was producing screens that everyone could identify with," Haire said. "We wanted the people who completed a mission to feel that they were personally being rewarded . . . not some mythical character."
Gunship was really taking shape by the spring of 1986. Greg Tavares, using his animation techniques, took Haire's screen designs and made them work with the simulation. He added the pointer used on the selection screens and "polished" the explosion and flak graphics. Later he added the logic for the air-to-air, heat seeking, and laser-guided missiles.
Hendrick continued to research and develop more "worlds" and mission scenarios for Gunship. "We looked at where the U.S. Army was training to fight these days," he said. Using public sources, military acquaintances, books, and magazines, he decided on the Middle East and Central America as two other regions to add to the simulation. "You won't find a book that says that the U.S. is training to fight in a specific region," he said," but you will find parenthetical references. I just extrapolated the two missions from those references."
The Southeast Asia "world" was selected because "it's the only place American helicopters were used in a significant way," said Hendrick. "From a gaming standpoint, Vietnam had a lot to recommend it. One of the problems of Vietnam was seeking out and finding the enemy, and it's difficult in the Vietnam missions in our game also."
The End Result. By the end of the summer, Hollis had worked the new worlds into Gunship. The majority of the simulation was complete; playtesting was well underway. The team started "fine tuning" the simulation, adding the little extras, and removing some small bugs from the code.
With a great sigh of relief, Gunship was released in October 1986—almost one-and-a-half years after it was first announced. MicroProse took some abuse during that year, with the Gunship title appearing on "vaporware" lists throughout the country.
But Stealey had no regrets. "It cost us some money," he said, "and for a while, our credibility probably suffered. But I haven't regretted the decision. Magazine reviews and customer letters unamimously have said that it was worth the wait. In the long run, I'm sure MicroProse's reputation as a quality software developer has been enhanced."
"It's hard for a simulation to be all things to all people," Hollis said, "but I think Gunship comes as close as possible. We put five man-years into development, way above any industry standard, and I think it shows."