A look back at former developers

Dynamix Part III: Desert Fighters and the end of an era

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(1998-2001) Desert Fighters

Following the release of Red Baron II/3D, Dynamix began development on a new era of flight sims. Several different project ideas were put on the drawing board. With the advent of fully 3D accelerated graphics, new games in the genre would be radically different than what had been done before.

In 1999, Dynamix announced their next project, Desert Fighters. Flight sims were experiencing a particular spike in popularity at the end of the millennium. 1998/1999 had European Air War, Jane's WWII Fighters, Combat Flight Simulator and Luftwaffe Commander all being released within a year's time, and that was just the WWII sims! At this point, flight sims (and simulations in general) were immensely popular.

--Advertisement for the new release

Desert Fighters promised to be a unique and different game, not from just Dynamix's previous work, but within the genre as a whole. Desert Fighters was to be set in North Africa, covering the years 1941-43. The game would feature RAF, USAAF, Luftwaffe, and Regia Aeronautica aircraft. Up to 25 flyable planes were planned, with 20 more AI only. Tropicalized 109s, CR.200/202/204s, Spitfires, Kittyhawks and P-38's would be included. AI crew were to be given command of Blenheims, B-25s and Ju52s for the ensuing battles.

New to Dynamix would be advanced modeling of damage, with bullet/cannon damage being dynamically placed on the aircraft surfaces. Parts would be impacted, and systems able to be destroyed. This is typical today, but at the time this was an exciting new feature. Fully 3D cockpits were also a new feature being implemented in this game.

--Bf-109E in game

But, the entire concept of Desert Fighters hinged on one component. Known for their mission and campaign design, Dynamix planned a new dynamic campaign system with some very interesting concepts. The entire North African theater would be dynamically generated, and the job of your pilot was to help your nation's forces destroy the supplies, emplacements, convoys, and units of your foe. You and friendly AI also would be tasked with defending your own similar units to prevent the enemy armies advance.

All pilots would have dynamically generated names, skills levels, and accomplishments in the war. The map was to put forth constantly changing forces, allowing the player and his squadron to randomly encounter patrolling fighters, or tank columns, or friendly forces being harassed by enemy bombers and attack aircraft. Permanent targets (like ports) would be modeled, which could be knocked out (at great cost to the controlling army/nation), and resources were to be modeled that would change with every supply column that arrived (or didn't) at it's destination. A repair system was also planned, allowing each side to slowly rebuild knocked out large targets or damaged tanks and aircraft.

Every campaign generated would be different, and could break from history. With some luck, supply chains disrupted, ports knocked out, and units depleted, the Axis could even win the campaign. Think of it like a board game; all missions flown by each side had the opportunity to allow their side to advance sector by sector across the map. The campaign would end if: 1. The end of 1943 was reached with no decision 2. The Axis captured Alexandria, 3. Allies captured Tunis, or 4. Either side finds itself unable to field operations due to decimated units or men.

--P-40E in game

With this concept, Desert Fighters was an ambitious sim that was truly unique. The game was met with high expectations and hype. The game was progressing well, and screenshots, a marketing trailer (somewhat stylized, see below) and a small multiplayer demo were released over time.

In an sudden and unexpected move, parent company Sierra Entertainment would cancel Desert Fighters in late 1999. The simulation side of the company went quiet with an uncertain future. Sierra would soon be bought by Vivendi Entertainment, and it was announced in 2001 that Dynamix would close. Other project concepts in various stages of development like Aces of the Pacific II and Aces over Korea never saw the light of day.

This abruptly ended the Dynamix era in simulations, a company that had developed some of the first(and finest) flight sims on the PC. The closure made Red Baron 3D the last flight sim the company would ship. Soon most of the industry followed suit. Several other studios disappeared in the same time period, and by 2002 the major players had exited for other game genres.

And to end this series, here is an interview with Daryl Nichols. Among other things, Mr. Nichols worked as the Associate Producer for Desert Fighters.

-Could you give a brief statement on your work with Dynamix, such as naming a few of the games you were involved in?

I was an Associate Producer on multiple titles at Dynamix, Desert Fighters was one of them. I also worked on Tribes II, Trophy Hunting, Trophy Bass titles, Contraptions II and several other minor titles. My last position there was as the Producer on Tribes II. After the studio was closed, a skeleton crew was kept on to finish up a final patch for Tribes II, I lead that team.

Can you give me a short summary of what Desert Fighters was to be about?

The design was very unique in that Axis and Allied teams fought for control of supply points along North Africa. You attacked ground convoys of supplies (who doesn't like strafing and blowing up trucks?) while CAP fighters fought to defend the ground convoys. A lot of aircraft that you don't normally find in flight sims were going to be available. An example of aircraft not found in any other game were the Italian aircraft. By having the objective of the game to capture new airfields and territory which you did by destroying ground convoys, dive bombers and ground attack aircraft had real value in the game. The need to fly cover over your AI controlled convoys and cover your bombers from enemy air added a level of strategy that was different from other flight sims that were mostly fighter on fighter.

Was there any specific reason the deserts of North Africa were chosen as the game's setting?

It was a front that had not really been covered in a combat flight sim before. It was also visually different.

What features or technology did the game include that you think were groundbreaking for the time, or would have made it a unique experience?

The fluid nature of the game map was the biggest feature. Both friendly and enemy AI controlled ground units would be moving within a sector of the map. Axis and Allied players would attack the other sides ground forces, protect their own, fight air to air and after a period of time, which ever side scored the most kills would win the sector and the next sector would open up. The end effect would be the main combat sector moving west to east towards Alexandria if the Axis was winning and moving west if the Allies were winning.

Any interesting stories about the games development?

One of my favorite frustrations of that game was when one of the team found am antique WWII Luftwaffe propaganda book about Axis Air units in North Africa at a garage sale. Our art team scanned the photos and we made plans to use them though out the game. These were some rare color photos.
We didn't get to use them however. The lawyers said there were recognizable faces and we would have to have written permission from the people. Really?! Yep, really. Since there was no realistic way to track down these unnamed German airman, the lawyer's next suggestion was to write a letter asking for permission to the Nazi Luftwaffe HQ address in Berlin listed in front of the book. I tried to convince her that I was really certain, that building was gone and besides it's a government that no longer exists. She would not give ground and we had to pull all the UI art we had created. I have still have the CDs with the scans of those photos. (note: see this post on the forum for some of these photos: Link)

I have attached the photo that started the whole legal flap (see below). We were going to use this photo as the back ground for the mission briefing screen.

My other favorite memory of working on this game was when one of the developers showed me the data for the flight model of aircraft. Looked easy enough to understand and I asked if I could experiment with it. He showed me how. All I did was tweak a few values and planes would no longer fly and would fly sideways, dive straight down, stall. I gave up very quickly. The developer just smiled when I told him I gave up.

--The main image in question

Can you speak on why Sierra specifically pulled the plug on Desert Fighters, and the closure of Dynamix?

The primary reason we were told that the game was cancelled was because the profit projections were less than the minimum that Sierra/Vivendi would accept. We were projected to make a profit, just not enough profit.
I went to lunch late one day for some reason, I don't remember, and when I came back, the building was locked and the parking lot was empty. I had to call the studio director to get back in to get my stuff. I got to stay on for about 2 more months to help shut things down and ship Tribes II. It was a sad day.

How far along would you say Desert Fighters was at cancellation?

If I remember correctly, we were just about, within a month or two at most of being Alpha, Code and Feature Complete. Far enough along that I felt at the time that we could definitely show that we could finish and ship the game.

Can you recall any other sims in some stage of development at Dynamix at the end? I've heard rumors of Aces of the Pacific II, for example.

There was definitely some early work on an Aces of the Pacific II. I remember seeing a developer demoing a ship shooting flack at planes and how the AI tracked attacking aircraft, pretty impressive I remember thinking.

I don't recall any other flight sims in the works at the time.

Mr. Nichols, thank you for your time, photos, and great information.

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Updated Feb-03-2017 at 16:47 by FightingSteel1