26 April 2002

The End of the Beginning

No Good Idea Goes Unpunished ... Cold Lead and Hot Sheep ... I Warp, Therefore I Am ...

(It has been a long while since I burned out the barrels of a keyboard on anyone. Or anything. And I find that I started to miss it. Few things soothe the soul like loosing a good screed on the masses. And in these times, there is plenty to discuss, debate, and disembowel. So I’ll start with something unimportant, in the global sense; yet as vital as the discovery of Fire to the gaming world. The death, the prolonged Death actually, of a game called Air Warrior.)

I first found Air Warrior in 1987, from an article in MacWorld magazine on the newest and hottest games. I always had a love of World War II equipment. My Dad and I used to watch “Twelve O’Clock High” whenever it came on TV. The current crop of “simulation” games for the Mac at the time was sadly lacking. The graphics were fine. Or as fine as you can get on a 512x384 black and white screen. Which is something like trying to make sandcastles with a bedpan.

The shortcoming was in The Game. The computer-controlled planes were easy to kill, and there was little challenge. Flying against other people, in real-time, was a new concept. There were few real-time games, and fewer still to you could play online in 3D. So I fired up my 300-baud modem, got an account on a thing called “GEnie”, and changed my life forever.

GEnie was General Electric’s (aka “Genital Erectric”) information servers switched to support games during non-business hours. You could only access the system for a reasonable price after 6pm. The interface was arcane, little more than a message board and a text-based menu system. By today’s standards it was a joke. But back in the Days of Reagan, it was hotter than a three-peckered alley-cat.

For any who played Air Warrior (or the games that it spawned) in the 1990’s, the world we played in before was a nightmare. The server held 30 people. For an hour or two. Before crashing. You could see enemy player ID’s at all times and at all ranges. Planes had so much ammo that you usually ran out of fuel first, and the guns shot laser bullets right out of Buck Rogers. The physics model was much like traffic laws in Boston … a nice idea, but generally ignored.

The standard procedure on the initial nose-to-nose pass was: drop flaps, drop gear, chop throttle, bank 90 degrees, crank full elevator. Whoever got their nose around first generally won. There were no vertical tactics as planes had more or less unlimited energy potential. Almost everyone flew the Spitfire and a B-17 could out-turn a Zero.

Some of the peculiarities and bugs were right out of the Twilight Zone. For instance, at 40,000 feet the flight model “wrapped” around and treated the engine like it was aspirating at sea level. This yielded dramatic acceleration. Until the speedometer maxed out, at which point your plane started moving backwards as fast as it had been moving forwards … and kept accelerating. Just finding these bugs was entertaining.

But we played. From 6pm on Friday night to late into the night Sunday. It was our drug, our addiction. It was fun. Despite all its failings, Air Warrior was a fun game … somehow. Maybe it was the shared experience, or the fact that we knew we were doing something that almost no one knew existed yet, or that we knew we were riding the first swells of a tidal wave that was still lurking out in the deep blue.

And it was all new. There were no flight schools, no veterans to learn from, no online resources from which to learn at all, and we didn’t know what books to read. Yet. The books came first. Shaw was The Bible. The process of applying real world tactics to Air Warrior in 1988 was about as effective as putting a telescopic sight on a Blunderbuss. But the game grew to meet the tactics that represented the era. And in time, Air Warrior came closer and closer to the game we all wanted.

Scoring systems came and went. Most had bad effects on the flow of the game, causing people to either fly defensively or doing completely bizarre things to earn points. I didn’t win many campaigns, but found my own path to Glory. One campaign I only scored 73 kills, but I only died once - including a 50:0 streak. That kind of kill ratio was unheard of at the time. One of my favorite campaign wins was a bomber title under the handle of “Phil Latio.” It was a campaign in the old Pacific terrain and I spent most of it in a F/A-26 “Blood Pig” … picking on Zero’s as they launched and using nap-of-the-earth pitch-bombing techniques to close enemy atoll fields. I doubt I ever got higher than 1000 feet all campaign, often landed the bomber on carriers for a quicker turn-around, and it as a totally “unrealistic” win. Best of all, GEnie refused to post the victory announcement because of the nature of my handle. HAR!

And handles were also part of the fun. Since flying an account with a high score stopped being much fun with the scoring systems being used (you risked more points than you gained the better you got), having second or third accounts became typical. Some people used passive handles for the alter egos. I chose more flagrant monikers … just to piss GEnie off if at all possible. “Focke Ewe,” “Hugh G. Reckshun,” “Ben Dover.” “Falcon Icehole,” “Heywood Jablomi,” and “Phil McRevice” are a few I still recall.

Soon there were squadrons and scenarios and conventions. Air Warrior was growing up, and so was the community. The Game, though, was still dominated by personalities. Biggles,. Flush Garden, Airmigan, Anvil, Tango Circus, Cap’n Trips, and a handful of others. The ones who could wade into 4 or 5 other planes and walk away with 4 or 5 scalps. These were the Untouchables. They came by their skills in different ways, and perfected different areas of the game, but each in their way left a mark. Even after the range icons were changed so you couldn’t see enemy ID’s, the world we played in was still small enough that you could tell who was who if you could read their movements. This was part of the fun back then - not knowing who the enemy was, yet knowing him very well if you had fought him often enough.

Then came the mid-90’s. Kesmai was acquired by NewsCorp, and what should have been a new beginning, was really the beginning of the end. Development slowed to a glacial pace. Corporate politics started to invade Kesmai. The first of the games inspired by Air Warrior was launched: WarBirds. This led to both the fracturing of the community, and the highlighting of how far Air Warrior was falling behind technologically. The dominant personalities started to leave, The Game was becoming homogenized. The people who guided the game’s development started moving on to other things as well. And as the player base grew, it became harder and harder to stand out from the crowd. So what few “personalities” remained added color now more than character to the game.

And then EA got hold of it. By this time, it was too late really. The rudder was gone. The compass had been smashed. And there was no more room on a deck already slippery with bile and entrail for a new navigator to find room to work. It was only a matter of time before the fragile hull that had carried it so many years and so many miles would be ripped open on the rocks of The New Economy.

So what was really lost? In the light of present day - to those without knowledge of How or Why - not much. A game with an antiquated 3D engine, and even worse network code, that never really made money, was laid to rest. Happens all the time. But without Air Warrior, there would be no WarBirds, no Aces High, no WW2 Online. Not to mention the countless games that went online because Air Warrior showed The Way. Not in terms of flawless execution, but for showing What Could Be. Like a teenager’s first glimpse of Playboy, for game designers in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Air Warrior showed them that there was a land beyond what they had seen before. And if you were a Gamer, you couldn’t help but get off by the very thought of it.

What couldn’t be destroyed by corporate cretins was the community. Some of my longest friendships have been with people I met playing Air Warrior 15 years ago. I’ve gone into business with some. Seen others move on to marriage, new careers, and lives outside of online gaming.

And that only makes the demise of Air Warrior more tragic. The lack of understanding of online communities within the very companies that create the games is shocking. “Build it and they will come.” Ho ho. They will come, but they won’t stay. But they stayed for Air Warrior. Why? Because the community carried the game well beyond it’s actually technological lifespan. In online multiplayer gaming, the players ARE The Game. The product that they use to play is only the vehicle, the medium of play. Some day a game company will come along that understands this, and the online world will see a second revolution.

But not now.

Now is for lamenting the passing of an old friend. A cantankerous, slow-witted, half-blind mastodon known as Air Warrior. You couldn’t help but love it, even if only for a while. And those who passed through its gates share a bond, however thin, of shared experience … and suffering.

Air Warrior: A Kill Has Been Recorded.