Airland is a new sim that is being developed by the creator of Helicopter Total Realism (HTR), Fred Naar. We talked with Fred about this project and what we can expect from it.
Hi Fred. Thanks for doing this interview. Airland seems like a very interesting project. What is it about?
After I released HTR back in 2010, I always wanted to develop my own flight simulator, free of the constraints you have when you mod an existing game. So, this is how Airland started as an idea, a helicopter game where you will have to perform missions using realistic helicopter physics and systems.
Who’s developing this sim? Do you have a team behind it?
Not yet, I have some very talented developers I am in contact with that have similar interests and are helping me on the terrains, weather effects and shaders. Also, I wanted to make sure I had something viable before asking other people to dedicate time to it, and I believe I now have it, this is why I agreed to finally talk about it.
What is it that you’re using to build it? Any existing game engine or is it your own?
I am using a game engine. I actually tested every major and minor game engine as most of them are not really suited or flexible enough for a flight sim. Then I decided to go for Unity for many technical reasons quite complex to explain, and I am extremely happy with my choice. Unity community is vast, with some very talented developers specializing in specific areas that sell their products in a shop called the Asset Store. If you know what you are doing, you can focus on your project and purchase parts of your game at a very reasonable price, plus people there are really friendly and you always find support when you need it.
Are you trying to compete with other sims out there?
Absolutely not. I see Airland as complementary to them. My game design idea is more similar to older games such as Rise of Flight or Jane’s Longbow. A fully featured flight sim is too big a project, my goal is to make something much smaller, helicopters and also small aircraft, challenging weather, and interesting missions and stories, either civilian or military. I designed Airland to be very modular so using the SDK it should be relatively easy to create a new Airland based game maybe set in a specific period or catering a specific interest.
HTR (Helicopter Total Realism) was a game-changer for helicopters in FSX and P3D. I’m assuming you ported it over to Airland?
Absolutely, ported it and improved it, I believe. I now have full control of the physics and aerodynamics. As soon as the beta is out I will do as I did with HTR, test, get feedback and improve, but with the difference that I know I don’t have the FSX constraints. This also applies to systems, everything is designed to be tweaked and improved using .cfg files very similar to FSX.
So, we can expect helicopters to behave very realistic?
Yes, very realistic aerodynamics and systems. But I really want people to enjoy helicopters so I am making a lot of effort in trying to make the learning curve as smooth as possible. Same will go with small planes. Flying helicopters is not easy, I already have a facilitated checklist that will help you start the helicopter and, as in HTR, sliders to make the physic reactions such as torque more easy to manage.
What’s your goal? Giving people the world to explore or just some areas?
I will focus on iconic and very nice areas with a lot of details with a terrain size 60 to 200 km apart. Quality should be on par with ORBX full terrain or possibly better. I want to have nice terrains to explore, by air or even by foot if you want to land and take some screenshots of the beautiful vistas. For some reason, I love to land and walk around a bit, then go back to the helicopter and fly to another place. It is a really relaxing way to enjoy your free flight.
Why just some areas? Is there some sort of limitation?
Not really, I could do larger areas but with less details but I prefer smaller areas by game design. If you were a rescue pilot in Alaska, you would probably know well your territory flight after flight, and then will be able to perform harder missions or make a better assessment of the situation before you actually take off. I think this adds to realism and involvement, something probably missing from classical flight simulator. Also, creating larger areas is mostly a matter of time and budget, but am very open to go where the community drives the project…
So, in a way, we will have something quite similar to DCS in terms of scenery limitation?
There’s no scenery limitation given by the engine, just by design. One good example is a very successful game made with Unity, is Kerbal Space Program, the size of the world is about the size of the Solar system, but this made completely sense in their game design purpose. In fact, I am also testing a technology that might allow you to fly any place in the world creating real world terrains dynamically at runtime, if it works it might be an add-on to Airland in the future. Airland design goals are more to get you fully immersed in a specific vehicle and knowledge of an area, excel at both, and feel rewarded by this.
What can we expect in terms of systems? Will we be able to startup and shutdown aircraft in a realistic way?
Absolutely, the tech demo already has all the systems in place, with realistic power and fuel usage, batteries, starter engine, piston engine, transmission, rotor clutch, rotor brake… It was quite complex to make them interact all together in a realistic way but now they work in a convincing way. While I know there’s some place for improvements, the foundations are there: Those are so realistic that currently there’s no way you will take off without starting all the systems.
What other systems will you simulate? ATC? Weather?
Weather, definitely. I will work quite hard on realistic winds for low level flight, so updrafts and downdrafts, topological weather and such. This is actually the next step. Also, pressure altitude will be very important (HTR made a great difference in FSX). For ATC, I believe it would be a great add on, it is really not that difficult to implement, let’s see what the community wants…
What about multi–player and perhaps a voice system?
Those are two things I will definitely add at due time, I already have the architecture in place for multi roles operations within a single aircraft, as well as flying different aircraft. Since by design you start outside the aircraft you will be able to walk to an aircraft and enter in a specific role such as pilot, co- pilot, gunner etc… Regarding voice, Teamspeak has a Unity integration module, I am planning to look into that.
VR is the latest trend and something a lot of simmers are looking very serious into. What can we expect from Airland?
Unity has a strong support and is working in cooperation with virtually any VR device supplier there is. The main issue is actually your computer hardware. Since I want Airland to run very well in a laptop with a mainstream video card, I believe that with a more powerful machine you will be able to run VR quite well. It is definitely there in the project but a bit down the road on my development plan.
Which aircraft will we see in this first version?
I will start with a small helicopter, probably the Robinson 44 as it is “relatively” easier to fly than the R22 or Schweizer, and possibly a small aircraft. For the tech demo, I am using the free Robinson 44 from X-plane but before the beta I plan to have a much nicer model to show. Another helicopter I recently fell in love with is the Guimbal Cabri. I am actually looking for modelers to help me with the project as this is a part I am really not good at…
Third-party content is something that has been incredibly important for sims – FSX turned 10 years old a few days ago and it’s still going very strong. Will it be possible to add content to Airland such as new aircraft and scenery? How easily can a developer do it?
Absolutely, I plan to have several levels of modding, changing textures and config files as in FSX (but much better documented), and a full featured modding using an Airland SDK (a customized version of the Unity Editor). Later down the road I plan to integrate the SDK in the main engine so people might be able to create new scenery and aircrafts from within the game, similar to what Cities Skyline does. I believe the most important part in modding is to provide good documentation and video tutorials, and this will be my priority when the time comes.
Can you import aircraft and scenery from other sims such as X-Plane and FSX?
Absolutely, Unity is a very open engine and I see many ways to do that with the SDK. Ideally I would like to be able to load FSX and X-Plane assets directly, but this requires substantial coding, it would be great if someone from the community helped me on that, or else I will do it at a later time.
What can we expect from Airland in the long-run? What do you foresee for this new sim?
I really depends on the community feedback. My first step is to show what I have achieved so far. I am working on in a very open and humble way. I do this for my own enjoyment, and I believe I have already gotten quite far. I would really like to see it take off as a full featured product including helicopters and other aircraft and hundreds of community generated content.
What are the next steps? An open beta? When should simmers expect to be able to give it a try?
I plan to have a closed beta within a few of months. The graphics for the close beta will be very basic, but they will improve a lot before the open beta, Unity has become an extremely capable engine in the last two years. Depending on the team I can put together the open beta release might require another 3 to 6 months. Then possibly release to Steam before the end of next year.
What are your expectations regarding the community? How do you think users will receive this new sim?
When I released HTR it was far from perfect, but then some very nice people (many real pilots) gave me lots of feedback, and together we improved it as much as we could. I hope the same will happen. On the other hand, I don’t want to give false illusions, creating a full featured flight sim such as FSX or X-Plane is a huge task and it will not happen in the foreseeable future. I just want to create a realistic and enjoyable product with a much smaller scope but possibly open to a wider audience.
What about the price? How much will Airland cost us?
I gave a lot of thought to this, since I want it to have free addons it has to have some price tag to finance improvements and enhancements. Price will probably in the US$20-US$25 range. I will also have a demo system in place so that people can evaluate it before they buy.
Fred, thank you so much for doing this interview. We are very eager to give Airland a try. Any last words?
Even though I am investing a lot of time in Airland, I am doing this for fun and enjoyment, I really hope to find similarly minded people to make this project happen, so every other helisimmer will have a dedicated helicopter simulator no one has yet done, and small planes pilots can get a break from FSX or X-Plane when they want to fly in a different sim.