World of Warplanes: Designing for Accessible Yet Deep Experience
There’s a thing about flight combat games—there’s a very fine line between being challenged and being frustrated. And, as long as we want the flight combat to appeal to a wide audience, we’ve studied and researched other flight combat games to make sure we really struck that balance between the accessible and the engaging.
Our high-level goal with World of Warplanes has always been to give players a fun flight combat experience that is easy to play and offers multiple strategic and tactical options. However, it was difficult to reach a common understanding of what that meant in terms of the actual gameplay.
Easy to Learn. Hard to Master
The game’s flight model has been by far the biggest design hurdle we’ve had in the game, and as you know, we’ve been continually modifying and updating it.
On the one hand, we strived to ensure our game controls and interfaces were easy to use so that players spent their time trying to master game mechanics rather than fighting the interface. On the other, we wanted to inject enough depth into the core gameplay, making it a skill-oriented experience rather than a linear shoot-‘em-up game. And finally, we didn’t want to discourage those keen flight enthusiasts that were used to joysticks, dual monitors, and rudder pedals.
Balancing between ease-of-use and gameplay depth caused some interesting tension amongst the developers, who agreed on organized a special team to build alternate flight mechanics. Since then, they’ve been hard at work on the flight model and control systems.
They went through a number of different iterations, some of which were fully implemented and tested, to try to solve playability issues while still keeping the gameplay intact. The team implemented nearly 15 different variants of mouse control algorithms (most of them just didn’t make into the closed beta test). They showcased the results of their endeavors last autumn, and they were nothing short of wonderful. So we directed all of our resources to finalize it.
The re-worked server architecture provided for an accurate and responsive flight model that carefully reproduced aircraft behavior, making three-dimensional battle arenas appear more natural than before. Flying now felt truly exhilarating, thrilling, and heady.
To tell the truth, we could have introduced the new flight model two months ago, but we took the time to apply final touches to all the novelties to ensure they feel polished.
Bigger than BigWorld
Why BigWorld you ask? There is a lot of depth to the engine. It has proved capable of streaming vast amounts of players and data across the world. Once we decided to create our second free-to-play MMO, BigWorld looked like a clear choice.
The new game differs a lot from what we’ve done before. Consider tanks; they are rather sluggish, can hide among trees and bushes, and have massive caterpillar tracks that destroy shacks and hedges easily. Warplanes, in their turn, are agile beasts that require vast spaces. In the skies, enemies are hard to spot and there’s absolutely no time to admire leaves, birds, and lamp poles. Graphics enhancements introduced in World of Tanks were of no use for flight combat, and we had to do a lot of extra work with the renderer. We enlarged map sizes, built low-level terrain that makes sense for warplanes dogfights, worked on clouds and lightening schemes.
World of Warplanes graphics before 0.4.0 and after the update
Graphics enhancement made up the lion’s share of our work at the early stages. As soon as we had built the base, we started adjusting the in-game content to it. Closed beta pilots have already had the chance to compare new visuals with the initial graphics set. Work is still in progress, and since we’ve gathered enough knowledge and necessary expertise, we will keep on refining the rendering engine, hopefully, without major hurdles.
The server component didn’t go unchanged, either. An average tank fires three shells per minute, while the Tier 3 Tsh-3 ground-attack plane has ten ShKAS machine guns that fire a three-hundred-shots volley per second. Imagine if you get under fire from three or five ground-attack planes at once and try thinking of server calculations that stand behind every single shot. Oh boy, that’s a wide room for hand-coding!
In the beginning there were first clouds. Homely and fuzzy as they were, they allowed game designers to tweak camouflage schemes for aircraft, while artists could start working on the lightening.
The first iteration was soon re-worked. New clouds looked times better. Actually, they turned out to be the most eye-candy feature the “undercooked” renderer we had at the time could do. They were screamingly beautiful and clashed with the rest of the scenery. We even had to worsen them a bit to restore visual harmony and started working on another iteration. The third variant gladdened the eye. This time, however, clouds required too much memory and caused graphics lags, especially on older GPUs. What we did was we introduced both variants—the second and the third—into the game client, so that players could choose between the fancy and the fast.
By the way, the two variants covered slightly different parts of the map (we couldn’t secure the 100 per cent graphical compliance of the two). The game logics, however, worked based on the older scheme. So, funny as it sounds, not every cloud could provide pilots with cover.
We’ve polished cloud schemes to the point that allowed us to remove the older variant from the game client. Now it only offers one option: both fancy and fast. The cover effect has been fixed as well. Although we have made a great deal of progress, there are still many things left to implement and fix in the engine.
Let’s back up, though, and go through some of the issues we were encountering with control schemes, and how the final design is intended to resolve them.
The Mouse Challenge and Control Options
In hindsight, our biggest mistake was underestimating the difficulty of switching from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional battle arena. The mouse control algorithm we implemented at the beginning called for three-dimensional spatial skill and felt awkward: the direction the plane was going used to be fixed in the middle of the screen, and every time you turned to the left, the view would shift to the right, and vice versa.
To fix these issues, we focused on two core changes: (1) we untied the direction pointer so that it moves with the aircraft and (2) switched the view outside the cabin. Now when you turn the camera, the aircraft follows.
Ultimately, we developed, implemented, and have been testing a new flight control system, which we’re confident hits all of the desired mechanics.
The new mouse controls offer up experiences that will appeal to players looking for a casual experience. But, if you’re a “difficult to master” type of person, the controls will have their share of complexity, too. The control system of World of Warplanes uses a variety of different input devices, including two mouse options (the default “World of Tanks mouse” and the “Mouse 0.3.5”), keyboard, joystick or a gamepad, depending on what the player prefers.
When players make a move with whatever controller they choose, they send information on what to do, not how to accomplish it: all the complicated parameters like deflections, pitching, and banking angles are calculated by the built-in AI. Every control scheme features two options: Pilot mode and Assault mode, and AI settings for the two differ a lot.
Pilot mode offers great view range and works well for sudden maneuvers and close-air combat. It gives priority to maneuverability—the AI will always bring the aircraft back to the specified course as quickly as possible, using the optimal path, even at the cost of height or speed loss.
Assault mode is preferable for long-range dogfighting, bombing missions, and when flying at low altitude. If you switch to the Assault mode the warplane will automatically fly at a set altitude, allowing you to focus on attacking ground targets. In case of the Assault mode the camera is fixed in a position a little under your warplane, providing a great view for bombing. The plane maneuvers more slowly than with the Pilot mode, because the AI is set to retain maximum height and speed.
Thus, both schemes will allow players who had never touched the controls before to fly and enjoy themselves. And, experienced pilots will still have enough depth and complexity at their fingertips to pull off amazing, aerobatic maneuvers.
Thanks for reading,