Command: Modern Operations developers interview

September 27, 2019 · Posted in Command 

(Originally posted at the MatrixGames CMANO forum.)

The recent announcement of Command: Modern Operations, the direct sequel of one of the most realistic and complex military simulator available for commercial audience – Command: Modern / Air Naval Operations – has been received with praise and joyful surprise. But it raised of course a number of questions about the product and its features.
We had the chance to chat a bit with Dimitris Dranidis from WarfareSims about it.

First of all, thanks a lot for this great opportunity and for answering some questions about your upcoming game Command: Modern Operations. May I start asking to introduce you and the rest of the team briefly for the few that might not know the “Man behind the Work”?

I am Dimitris, co-founder and head of development at WarfareSims. Apart from leading the development team, the job entails a lot of other things – pretty much anything that is not explicitly assigned to someone else on the team falls by default on my shoulders (yes, that means I also have to take care of the pizzas). It can definitely be a wild horse to ride, but the satisfaction can make it worth it.

The rest of the team is distributed literally around the world. We have members and contributors from pretty much the entire NATO and ex-SEATO spectrum. This makes coordination more challenging but does afford us some significant advantages in coverage, responsiveness and diversity.

CMANO has been for several years the most accurate, complex and realistic military simulator around. We know that its full potential has been understood by many Armed Forces around the World, for training and scenario analysis. Having said that, may I ask why and when you decided to move to C:MO and how the development of this title could impact the partnership with the military?

The rallying cry for CMO (or CMANO2 if you will, as it really is “Command 2” in all but name) during its development all these years has been “a better game first, a better simulation second”. Understanding this mindset takes a bit of elaboration.

As you know, we have steadily supported CMANO v1.x for six years now, with a series of major free updates. These updates provided a ton of simulation, mechanics & AI improvement, as well as content; it has been pointed out to us repeatedly that the changes/additions we’ve freely provided to CMANO easily compare to new full-price releases by other companies. However, you wouldn’t know this by comparing a screenshot from Command v1.0 to one from the current public version. Almost all the changes are “under the hood”, so to speak. With this in mind, improving the user interface and gameplay experience became a primary pillar in CMANO2’s development.

At the same time, our market audience composition has shifted. When we initially launched Command, there was only one version, and in that single version we had to pour everything we had in our minds and wanted to share with the world, both from a “game” perspective and a “serious simulation” one. This resulted in a wonderful but slightly bipolar product that sometimes couldn’t decide if it wanted to be above all a mainstream-friendly game or a professional-oriented tool. The branching-off of a dedicated pro-oriented series has liberated us from this conundrum and allowed each path to evolve optimized for its dedicated audience. While the underlying simulation core and various data are similar (and often identical), Command-PE is now firmly a sim-first product loaded to the brim with tools for the professional user, while CMANO and now CMO/CMANO2 are first are foremost (serious) games.

Once this design focus is absorbed, several priorities naturally emerge: The game must be easier on the eyes than before. It must be more visually appealing, without losing its serious foundations. It must be easier to learn, both on the user interface and also on the basic mechanics of modern warfare. It must hold the player’s hand more in the beginning. It must avoid flooding the player with information. It must make it easier for the player to find the one specific bit of information (amongst the sea of data) that he’s actually looking for. It must let the player put together a basic dust-up without too much consideration for geopolitical realism and diplomatic realities. In short, while remaining a top-notch simulation, it must also become a better game.

C:MO appears to be a major step forward from CMANO. A rewritten map engine, new UI, new capabilities, etc. One of the striking new element seems the ability to integrate tools from professional software. I’m talking about mainly the TacView and new map layers. Could you tell us more about them?

The new map layers is one of the features we are particularly proud of, as it has been one of the most persistent requests for years now. In summary, the layers are:

  • BMNGv2, an improved version of NASA’s public “Blue Marble NG” global map:
  • Relief-90, a high resolution overlay optimized to show terrain features
  • Stamen Terrain / Roads / Labels: This global map combines terrain, roads & cities and placenames down to a very high detail level (you can literally zoom down to house level). This map is kindly provided by the fine folks at Stamen (http://maps.stamen.com), whom we heartily recommend for any map-related project.
  • Terrain land-cover. This is a new layer type, necessary for displaying the different land cover type (urban, forest, desert, snow etc.) at any location on the planet. This is tightly related to the improvements we have added to land operations.
  • Sentinel-2 Cloudless: This is the same map that is browsable here: https://s2maps.eu/ . This allows us to provide global satellite imagery to a very good level of detail (it’s detailed enough that you can make out features at airbases, ports etc.), and thus serves as an excellent “baseline” layer for scenario authors to place their objects on, as well as a more immersive environment for players.

Tacview integration is another hotly-requested item for years now. We have been in close contact with Frantz Raia (creator of Tacview) over the years and he has made several additions to the software, upon our request, which have been very useful both to us and to his own professional work (such as the real-time streaming feature). We worked hard together with Frantz on finding a way to make the commercial version of CMANO work well with Tacview (the requirements, priorities and constraints are different than the pro implementation of this feature, which has been available for a while now). 

So what we came up with is an optional ability to stream part of the simulation information to Tacview. Basically the player can select a “3D view” menu option, and if Tacview is installed, a new window pops up which contains the 3D visualization (this requires Tacview Advanced edition in order to work). This window behaves similar to all other secondary windows in Command, so it can be resized, placed anywhere atop the main map window, or parked on another monitor. The player can jump from one unit to another, rotate and plan the camera etc., just like when normally using Tacview as a standalone app. As I said this is an optional feature and Command can run just fine without it.

Any other software you think could be added in the future?

There are a number of different programs we have investigated for possible integration. Some of them are pure visualizers (or “image generators”, to use the defence industry lingo) similar to Tacview, while others are full-fledged simulation and analysis suites. Most of them are really more relevant to the defence industry rather than the commercial wargaming sector (unless there is a hidden untapped market on e.g. radio-frequency spectrum analysis!), but we are certainly open to pointers.

One suggestion that seems to bubble up fairly consistently is possible integration with either F4-BMS or DCS World, with Command acting as the operational/strategic “command and control” layer for these primarily tactical simulations. We haven’t really run the numbers yet to determine whether this would be a worthwhile investment (this would obviously depend on the work required to get things up and running), but it could be something worth considering at some point in the future.

 

Speaking of new terrain types, we noticed that the announcement references improvements in ground operations. We also saw some screenshots with high-res maps with roads and similar infrastructures. Can you elaborate on what’s in store for digital grunts in CMO?

The answer to this first requires, I think, a prologue of sorts. 

People sometimes ask us (or wonder aloud) on public fora “when will CMANO get ground ops”. I think this question starts off on the wrong foot. Who is the arbiter of this? What are the criteria? Command v1.x already has ground ops, limited as they are. Call of Duty has ground ops. Medal of Honor has ground ops. Even Quake and Halo and Unreal Tournament have some basic ground ops (people run on foot or in vehicles and shoot at each other, no?). The point being, ground ops are not a binary “have / don’t have” black-or-white thing. There are shades of gray. There are degrees. 

It’s possible to put together an excellent game centered on ground forces while ignoring huge chunks of what makes ground ops work in real life. Some examples easily spring to mind. Where are logistics, attrition replacements, political factors/events, theater intelligence and TBMs in Armored Brigade? It doesn’t need them, because it’s a tactical game and a superb one. Where is the detailed nuts-and-bolts ground combat in TOAW? It doesn’t need it, because it’s an excellent operational/theater game. So the threshold for considering a game as “having ground ops” is not “it has feature-XYZ that I personally deem essential”, but instead “it has the features necessary to model the aspects of ground warfare that it aims to model”.

Command has always viewed ground forces as another element in joint & cross-domain operations, with a primary focus on how they interact with air, naval & strategic assets. This focus remains dominant in CMO. I know it has become something of a cliche to view ground units in CMANO as “just there for ships and aircraft to shoot at”, but these are nothing like ducks in a shooting gallery: these ducks can wreck your fleet, wipe out your airforce both in the air and on the ground (the old NATO grim joke “the best Russian air superiority fighter is a tank sitting on the runway at Bitburg & Ramstein” is ever so true in Command) and of course also clash among themselves.

Now, to the actual question. The CMANO Mega-FAQ on our site already explains the main features and limitations of the ground ops as modelled in CMANO v1.x, so we don’t need to repeat it here. So instead let’s jump directly to the key improvements we have put together on this aspect in CMO:

  • A major new feature is that now the virtual terrain is not a “global barren desert”: Terrain type (urban, desert, forest, grassland, snow etc.) now critically affect the ground units moving through them. They affect a unit’s movement speed, its vulnerability to different weapon and warhead types, and its detectability to different sensor types. For example thick forests make it much harder to detect a ground unit both visually and by radar, and they also drastically reduce the effective damage radius of explosive and fragmentation warheads (but not napalm and FAEs – and now you realize why these were the archetypal A2G munitions in Vietnam). Urban areas also curtail sensor performance but their excellent road network offers big mobility bonuses. So if you want to hide a ground unit, or park a unit in an area where it can rapidly move around to respond to threats, you can now use the terrain toy your advantage. If you are curious about why and how the Iraqi army was obliterated in the open desert while the Serbian army emerged from the mountainous forests of Kosovo only lightly damaged after NATO threw the kitchen sink at them, Command can now show you.
  • Concurrently, ground forces are now a lot smarter about their navigation. They will intelligently pick the most optimum route to get to their destination as soon as possible, taking into account both terrain slope and terrain type. (To answer a frequent question that has popped up since we published the first screenshots: No, roads are currently only a visible element, they are not recognized and exploited by ground forces. That’s a future addition).
  • The UNREP logics are now also implemented for mobile land units. So now it is possible to load up munitions on supply trucks, and have front-line forces race back to them for resupply if they run low on ammo (fuel is still considered infinite for land forces). This resolves one of the biggest limitations of the CMANo v1.x ground ops and adds an extra dimension to the conduct of battle.   

 

7)      Let’s talk a bit about the naval component. What do you think is the most innovative feature that will be added, or the most significant improvement from CMANO?

One seemingly small thing that we think will be quite liked is how ship icons, in “Directional” display mode, can scale to their actual dimensions when zoomed in. See this example:

Some other useful additions:

  • Patrol missions can now have two different movement styles: The traditional “random movement within defined area”, and a racetrack pattern similar to how support missions are followed. This allows you to define precise patrol coverage patterns.

  • Surface- and underwater-launched missiles now use the same improved pitch kinematics as air-launched missiles (ie. smoother climbs/dives).
  • IR and visual sensors can now generate precise detections only at short ranges.

 

Could you tell us a little more about what do you mean exactly by “realistic submarine comms”?

One of the decisions that we made during CMO’s development was that the handful of features hitherto unlockable only by “Chains Of War” and some of the other DLCs (comms disruption, detailed aircraft damage, cargo/landing/airdrop operations and advanced weapon types) will now be available as standard. This has the dual benefit of freeing scenario designers to use these features without restraint (e.g. no longer necessary to make COW and no-COW versions of a scenario, as we have sometimes observed), and also allowing us to use these mechanics as the foundation for additional simulation features. Realistic submarine communications is such an example, as it builds on top of comms disruption.

When this feature is enabled (it is disabled by default, to avoid breaking existing scenarios), submarines that go deeper than shallow depth go “off grid” and are no longer be visible or accessible to the player. They are still in control of themselves and if appropriately tasked they will pursue their assigned mission to their fullest. 

The player can wait for the subs to rejoin or can deliberately summon them through a “bell-ringer” signal (typically an ELF/VLF transmission in real life) that calls their attention. When/if they come up to shallow or periscope depth (they may remain below in order to avoid hostile encounters), they re-establish communications. At that point they share with their parent side any new contacts they have established and become again under positive control.

 

Beside naval, Air warfare has always been the other major focus in CMANO. Will C:MO players see differences in managing squadrons, targets, aircraft behavior and missions in general?

Mission logic is largely carried over from its present state in CMANO v1.x . There are, however, quite a few new additions in UI and sim mechanics that should prove quite popular. Among them:

  • You can now use the formation editor also for airgroups, and arrange the wingmen to your liking. A suitably managed aircraft formation can defeat both superior weaponry and even higher individual proficiency (no amount of Maverik hotdogging will save you if the enemy lead and wingman cooperate well to nail you)
  • A popular request: Range ring depicting the selected aircraft’s remaining flying range. It is dynamically adjusted based on the current fuel consumption and speed. This can be quite useful in quickly visualizing targets (and recovery airfields) within reach.
  • Numerous tweaks to aircraft flight model, specifically for “combat” conditions. For example, aircraft no longer “wiggle” between headings as they must first roll towards the turn direction before commiting to a turn. This in turn makes roll-rate much more critical to close air combat maneuvers. This is easier to observe in the Tacview window.
  • New radar model factor: Frequency agility. Frequency-agile radars get two major benefits; they are more resistant to noise jamming and they are significantly less affected by doppler notching (see below). Mechanical-scan radars that are frequency agile have this flag on their DB values. (This feature is so important operationally that many “export” radar sets basically comprise of the base model with the frequency-agility functionality disabled or altogether removed.) All PESA and AESA radars are assumed to be frequency-agile. 
  • Doppler notching is now actively used as a maneuver, both for missile avoidance and for general radar detection avoidance. Aircraft can attempt to fly perpendicular to an emitter using doppler filtering in order to hige inside its “blind” velocity gate. The effectiveness of the maneuver varies with crew skill (an “ace” pilot will execute it far more effectively than a novice), to discourage manual micromanagement. Aircraft under missile attack with a doppler radar guiding the missile will also actively try to beam the radar instead of the missile (the geometry of the two axes can vary significantly). The maneuver is ineffective against pulse-only radars and less effective against frequency-agile radars. Players can also deliberately plot courses for aircraft that fly perpendicular to known PD search radars, to reduce the actual detection range. (If you’re a Microprose F-19/F-117 virtual vet this may bring back some memories).
  • Air combat AI improvement: Aircraft now consider approaching fighters/interceptors as imminent threat, not just missiles. This helps AI-controlled aircraft perform more proactive evasive maneuvers against fighters about to perform gun attacks on them (e.g. MiG-17 vs F-105).

 

In the public Feature list, there is a mention on “Aircraft crew G-tolerance”. Could you elaborate this point a bit more?

In CMANO v1.x, one of the limitations of the close air combat model is that similarly-manouverable aircraft may find themselves into an “endless” tight-turning fight (until someone runs out of weapons or fuel first, anyway). In real-world engagements this is not possible because the human body can endure strong G-forces only for a few seconds at most. So we set out to model this with this new feature.

When aircraft now engage in a turning fight, the simulation actually keeps track of the G-strain accumulated on each plane’s crew. When the tolerance limit is exceeded, the crew has to relax their turn in order to avoid losing consciousness and ultimately losing control of the aircraft. This reduces the strain on the crew and after a few seconds it will be able to maneuver hard again. Naturally, this makes the aircraft very vulnerable to attacks in that timespan and further emphasises proper cooperative team tactics.

The tolerance to G-strain varies with proficiency level (practice and experience help a lot), so vets and aces have one more advantage against greener opponents. 

 

On a side topic, could you confirm there are plans to integrate Steam Workshop with C:MO? Will the modding process will be altered in some significant way?

We will most definitely support Steam Workshop, and this time from the first day of launch. The basic mechanism is the same, but we are adding some UI improvements to more clearly delineate between official and community-created content. Unfortunately we will probably be unable to directly hook up to CMANO’s existing rich workshop content, but that may represent an opportunity for interested players to make a clean break from existing material and utilize CMO’s advantages from the get go.

We can assume that AI will play a key role in C: MO, given that multiplayer won’t be added at release. Could you give us more details on how the AI has been improved?

The improvements to the AI in this release have been mostly incremental, in accordance with the “game first” direction. However, there are some new features that are likely to please new and existing players alike:

  • In CMANO v1.x, ships and submarines may sometimes “hug the coast” a bit too tight when plotting their pathfinding routes, which can result in them getting stuck as they ‘surf the beach”. In CMO they now use a far more intelligent cost-based pathfinding algorithm which tries hard to keep them preferably in deeper waters (the tolerances depend on vessel size; small cutters are more willing to close to the coast than supercarriers). This results both in far more life-like navigation patterns and also effectively deals with “stuck on coast” issues.
  • Aircraft have a number of improvements in their close air-combat logics. One of the most important is that now not only missiles but also enemy aircraft are considered threats to actively maneuver against. So for example in a typical Vietnam setup you may have a MiG-19 closing in on an F-105 egressing from a strike. In CMANO v1.x the Thud would not maneuver to avoid (or engage) the MiG even if the latter engaged with guns, as long no missile was launched. Now the Thud will watch out for the gun threat and start maneuvering against it as soon as the MiG gets within gun range.
  • Significant change in unit AI logic: The “evaluate targets” and “evaluate threats” logics are now not performed on every pulse, but instead on regular intervals dictated by the OODA-Targeting (modified by crew proficiency) and OODA-Evasion values respectively. This has two effects:
    • These two OODA values, and crew proficiency, become even more critical to a unit’s effectiveness and survivability.
    • Because these AI parts are called less frequently (and they are among the top CPU-killers), overall sim-core performance in large/complex scenarios is significantly improved.
  • One of the biggest improvements on the AI side is that you can disable it (bet you didn’t see this coming :). Specifically, you can selectively disable numerous AI functions through the Lua API and then implement your own logic to override them. This allows scenario authors to more easily create their own custom AI behaviors. It can also allow much bigger scenarios with lots of neutral/non-active units, since these can be instructed to skip their AI checks altogether, thus radically improving performance. 

 

The amount of information available in CMANO has always been massively daunting. What solutions have been taken in C:MO to help new players in not being overwhelmed?

Oh boy… where do we start? Providing a more user-friendly experience has been undoubtedly the primary direction in this iteration, and this clearly shows in the number and variety of “things” towards this end. To recap just some of them:

  • Additional unit-level message log: All messages relevant to a specific unit are aggregated on a window specific to this unit and only optionally also shown on the side-level message log. This both declutters the main message log and makes it much easier to quickly examine a unit’s message history.
  • Message balloons: When an event happens on the main map, a “balloon” containing the message pops up for ~10 sec. This makes it immediately obvious where the event described is happening. The balloons appear at a random bearing and semi-random distance from the reported event, to avoid overlapping on top of each other. They stay visible for 5 seconds, then fade out.
    The appearance or not of the balloons is configurable per message type.
  • The side-level message log groups reported messages by type, and highlights the unread ones. This makes it easy to prioritize reading important messages (e.g. weapon engagements, battle damage etc) and quickly catch up on unread traffic:
  • When clicking any of the messages on the interactive message log, the map will auto-center on the message origin location.
  • When used in detached mode, the interactive message log can also switch to the “classic v1” raw-text style and back again, by clicking on the “Switch to [other style]” button: 
https://i.imgur.com/G2Eof7L.png
https://i.imgur.com/H5PBcpu.png
  • UI addition: Keyword search on ORBAT window. This works similarly to web browsers, ie. as you type the desired keyword, entries matching are highlighted:
  • Map/UI addition: Show list of currently selected friendly units grouped by class/type, similar to Homeworld. Example:
    null
  • UI addition: It is now possible to have multiple windows of the DB-viewer open concurrently
  • UI tweak: The throttle/altitude window (aka F2 window) more clearly distinguishes between having selected a waypoint of a unit’s plotted course or the unit itself.

Example with waypoint selected:

Example with the unit itself selected:

Also, by using the white “previous” and “next” arrows next to the unit/waypoint description, it is possible to select the previous/next waypoint or the unit itself without leaving this window.

  • New UI feature: Time-step buttons:

Clicking on any of these (while paused) will advance the simulation time forward by 15 sec, 1 min, 5 mins or 15 mins, and then stop again. This effectively solves the “runaway sim” problem and allows players to play in almost turn-based fashion. The key combinations Alt + 1/2/3/4 are mapped to the 15 sec, 1 min, 5 min and 15 min timesteps respectively. This makes it possible to control time-flow without having the mouse cursor leave the area of interest.

  • Map/UI tweak: When clicking on a stack of units/contacts on the map, a new menu pops up allowing selection of the specific desired unit. Example:

This is designed to avoid the need for extreme close-up on a map location just to select a unit.

  • New UI feature: Hover-info box. If the user holds down the Control key while hovering the cursor over a unit, group or contact, a box pops up with summary information on the object of interest. Example:

This is great for getting an at-a-glance overview of a unit/contact without having to look at the details on the right column.

  • UI tweak: The “contact status” panel now also display’s the contact’s WRA-type information:

This helps to better understand AI decisions on WRA-driven weapon allocations (e.g. “why are my planes shooting 8 instead of 2 Harpoons at this ship contact?”)

  • An expanded series of air, surface and sub-surface tutorials, together with some subject-specific tutorials (e.g. mine warfare). Some of them you have already seen in CMANO v1.x updates, while others are brand new. These provide a smoother learning curve to new players.
  • A wholly re-written manual, which addresses both old and completely new players.

I could go on, but I think you get the gist by now. We play the game too 🙂

 

Is there a feature or mechanic that you would have loved to have at release but had to drop?

A few. I would prefer not to list specifics, but if you browse through some of the posts reacting to our initial announcement (“what, still no XYZ?”) you can easily spot patterns. What I can say is: We hear you, and we want these things too. We’re not holding anything back, in fact we are working harder than any other point in WS history, and the things you want to see one day in Command are very much the same we are daydreaming about. I’d like to think we’ve stood by our players and customers well over the years, so have a little faith in us. 

On the positive side of things, What has pleased you the most so far in developing the game?

Few things are as rewarding as when you add a new feature (particularly on the UI side) and the response from the beta guys is “this is brilliant and makes my life so much easier, wish I had thought to request this earlier”. 

A similar case is when you add a feature or mechanic for a specific purpose, and then you see users turning around and using it in ways you never foresaw (mostly for the better :). It’s almost like watching great artists at work and knowing you previously handed them the tools, completely unsuspecting of what they had in mind.

We are sure that your commitment with this project won’t stop just with the release of C:MO. Any glimpse of future plans? Are you planning a new take with DLCs and expansions?

We already have some very interesting works underway. Some of them cover some theaters and conflicts that you probably expect to see at some point, where others are quite outside our comfort zone and will demand some serious additions – and we welcome the challenge. 

Thanks a lot for your time and keep up the excellent work!

Thank you! We plan to be around and working on Command and related projects for “quite a while” yet.

 

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