BlueBaron’s Eulogy for Air Warrior

As posted on Usenet newsgroups, Big Week, and elsewhere …

From: “Blue Baron”
Subject: My Eulogy for Air Warrior (Please excuse its extreme length)
Date: Saturday, December 08, 2001 6:52 PM

As you can imagine, it has taken me a couple of days to settle down after the other night. This was the second funeral I’ve attended for Air Warrior, the first being the death of the so-called DOS host in 1995 – the end of the game’s Golden Age, and the end to its uniqueness in the online medium. This was the death of the Air Warrior I knew – the one that inspired Hitech and Killer to go off and create Confirmed Kill, and the one HT doggedly sought, with success, to recapture in Aces High.

Although I remain immensely proud of our subsequent efforts, taking Air Warrior to Windows, to AOL, to DirectX, and Direct3D, all of us have our own Golden Age for online gaming. That is the time of discovery and amazement, of embarrassment and of unexpected acts of kindness. It is the time we first learn how weak mainstream entertainment is, as we realize it was talking down to us all those years. In online, the audience is the medium – it is a narrative, told by the audience. And the quality of that experience is different if this person or that is present, or not – if any one of us is present or not. We discover aspects of ourselves that would lay dormant otherwise, but we are unaware of the profound effect this is having on us until later.

I fit the profile with one exception that I’ll get into later. I grew up obsessed with aircraft. Had my first airplane ride at age 4, going up with my uncle Bob in his Cub. I recall every detail, as he had me climb up on his lap and said, “Johnny, you have to take over.” But my father had to put an end to that. My uncle Bob had been shot down in the Pacific and became a POW. Upon his release he drank steadily for the following 40 years until his death. I would only learn later that, of the POWs held by the Japanese, only ten percent of the pilots survived the war. Not understanding things like torture or alcoholism, every night I’d hold the covers up against my knees, pretending the blanket in front of me was the panel of a cockpit. I figured that if I focused on flying World War I airplanes as I drifted off to sleep, I would dream I was flying them. Occasionally that tactic would work. Disabled at age 17, flying would remain a dream deferred for over twenty years.

Where I did not fit the profile concerns my politics. Liberal is too weak a term to describe them. Treated unfairly due to a disability that, practically speaking, is largely irrelevant, I began to notice all the other irrelevant reasons people are treated badly. For a time I simply drifted. I dropped out of college in 1972 and thumbed my way here and there, stopping when I ran out of money to get whatever minimum wage job I could get. I landed in Boulder, Colorado and, although I cold sit on my hair at the time, I found the counter culture elements more amusing than anything else. I slept in the furnace room of a house to keep my rent down to a month – no easy task given that there was a musician couple upstairs, and they had all-night libidos. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing with my life or why. As I watched Nixon resign on television, some friends of mine from Massachusetts phoned to tell me they had arranged a job for me in as a lab tech at a photo studio – one of the few marketable skills I possessed.

Shortly after returning, I met my first love, settled down….some, went back to school, and found myself focusing on the only two things I could stand that UMass/Boston offered: writing, and Medieval history. It was here I changed, going from someone angry over the way I was treated, to someone angry over the way so many people were treated. I joined the United Slate – an ultra left wing student group composed of expatriates from Latin America, some black kids from poor families, and a couple of bleeding heart white kids – and ran for student office. Having broken up with that gal who’d helped me put my life back together (her parents were Holocaust survivors and didn’t take kindly to their only daughter getting serious about a one legged half-Jew), I’d met this rather dazzling Italian woman who made a sandwich sign promoting my candidacy, and roller skated around the campus. I was the only member of the United Slate elected…amazing, given how completely full of shit I was.

After school I married the gal, and made a meager living as a journalist. The relationship went south, as did I, to become a member of Barney Frank’s Washington staff. This was during the height of the Reagan Revolution. No social programs or reforms were on the agenda. So I left the Hill after a few years and became a freelance writer. If you’re wondering why I’m telling you all this, it will eventually become clear. My apologies to those of you who have fallen asleep 😉

In 1989 I read an ad in Omni Magazine. “You can be dogfighting with people from all over North America tonight!” the ad read. Holy fuck!! I guess there was a good reason why my brother had included an modem with the computer he built for me – up to that time it had served primarily as an expensive bottle of White Out. Somehow I figured out how to logon to GEnie, typed the keyword “Air” and had no clue what to do next. It was all text. One line proclaimed “13 members in flight.” Wow – thirteen….got to get in there….but how? There was a software library, but no notes on how to get started. There was software for computers I’d never heard of – Amiga, Atari, as well as one I had heard of but I thought was silly: the Macintosh. I fired off an angry letter (there was a Feedback item on the menu) and left. I received a nicer than I expected reply that they were working on a version for the IBM PC and would have a beta version available the following year. That sucked.

When it did arrive the readme was filled with disdain for IBM….its limited amount of available RAM, poor available graphics, and so forth, along with the name of an obscure sound card manufacturer that made a product capable of playing digital sounds. I downloaded the front end using Xmodem, I believe, and unpacked it. When I ran it there was a picture of a Mustang sitting there on my screen. Er…now what do I do? After some stumbling around I managed to bring up a screen where I was to type ATDT followed by the local GEnie access number. At least there was a script to get me to “Air” (page 870) and get me into the game….sort of.

“You are now in General Conference room 1.” Oh boy – imagine that….now what? People were occasionally coming and going, many with all sorts of strange names and characters surrounding them. Having no idea what to do next, and no idea how to leave, I turned off my computer, logged back in using my regular communication software, and ordered the manual. Therein were reveal many mysteries: type /ros to get a roster, /goto [airfield number] to…well….you know, /p [plane number] to select an airplane, /fly to….fly.

Well, not really. I had to figure out how to start the engine, get up, get the gear up, and master a variety of command sequences. First flight was from Cland in the south on a terrain known for its principle feature, Iron Bottom Sound. Bland was to the west, Aland, with its blue color, was far to the north….must be cold up there. Two enemies were approaching….I guess. Dots became either upside down or right side up Ts or sideways Vs. meant the aircraft was maneuvering in the indicated direction. T meant it was gaining altitude relative to you, and the upside down T meant the opposite. Suddenly these became crude 3D shapes and I saw a little B17 box on the bottom of my screen, along with scrolling numbers to one side. Then came a FW box. I headed for the B17 shape.

As I fired, strange Xs began to sprout from it. Eventually I saw “A kill has been recorded.” This I did not understand. For whom was this kill recorded? It took awhile to realize that I had gotten a kill. It would be weeks until I got another. As I was primarily interested in World War I, I gave myself the handle, Blue Baron. Frustrated by dying all the time, and not understanding why or how, I tried the WWI arena. This was when Fencer first noticed me – as the idiot flying alone in the WWI arena. He told me that no one was there. So back I went to WWII. Frustrated again, I uttered a string of explicatives on channel 1 (I didn’t know about the other channels yet). This brought me to the attention of a DoKtOr GoNzo, and his buddy Vermin. They took me aside and began to show me how to do things. I flew as an observer in Vermin’s Focke Wulf as he and DoK basically ass raped a number of hapless victims.

Some bailed out before Vermin opened fire. This I did not understand. There was a strange scoring system in place called Elo, named after the person who created it to rank chess players. You began with an ELO of 1000. If you killed people with a lower ELO, yours did not improve. To get a higher rank you had to kill folks with a higher ELO. This explained why you’d often see, at the conclusion of a dogfight among high ranking players, the remaining ones bail out immediately to avoid getting killed by a lowly Johnny-come-lately – one of many remaining mysteries to this most mysterious game. There was another scoring system running as well, that gave you mission scores based on a bizarre formula taking in account streaks of successful sorties without dying, whether you kills were scored over friendly or enemy territory, and so forth.

Vermin then took me for a ride as a gunner on a bomber, then as a gunner on a tank. A Pacific Theater had recently been introduced, and you could play havoc from the Jeep shacks if you knew where the bridges were. In the middle of one of these ground sorties, I saw DoK overhead, limping back home in a smoking A26. “How did he survive a dogfight in a bomber?” I asked Verm. “DoK’s been playing a long time,” he replied. The sense of awe I felt for DoK at that moment was indescribable.

Slowly I began to catch on and, although I became a respectable dogfighter, I was never an elite one. I joined DoK’s 4Q squad and promptly received an email from Robert at Kesmai, noting that they were disturbed by my choice. I had sent so much enthusiastic email to Kesmai that they regarded me as one of the good guys. It was not until much later that I learned about the lingering feud between DoK’s crowd and Kesmai.

In 1991, nearly one year after I began playing Air Warrior, I finally summoned up the nerve to post on the boards. Up until that time, I read them avidly, and printed out every word in what eventually became a document as thick as the phone book for Queens. In the spring of that year I arranged to meet the Kesmai crew at the annual GEnie Syscon that was held in nearby Rockville, Maryland. At the table were Kelton, John Taylor, Keith Young (John Gomez – a very good player), Ariel Butler (Anvil – the only player DoK ever said he feared), and Mongoose (Anvil’s long time wingman). Keith, Ariel, and I would eventually end up working at Kesmai. My love of Air Warrior had become an obsession by this time, and I offered to put together the 1991 AW Con in D.C.

In the meantime, Air Warrior became part of the rhythm of my life. Sunday mornings featured a small gaggle of early risers, Fubars and a few Warhawks mostly. The Muskies I assumed were too hung over, as they rarely turned up before noon or so. A code of honor existed during those mornings. If I smoked Hoppy or Phoenix, I’d let them go – the battle had been decided, no point in finishing the guy off. Weekend nights featured the principle squadron rivalries. Some of the older squads, such as the DFA and the 4Q were waning. Others, such as the Musketeers, the NME, and the Gunfighters were coming into their own, and some older squads, such as the Fubars and the Damned, kept on going despite time.

The Muskies were formed in 1990 by Doug Barnett, a veteran game designer and a fellow who truly looked the part. The Warhawks reflected the personality of their CO, Fencer (Kenneth Cook) – an enormously kind soul who nonetheless was an excellent role player, with an online persona every bit as blustery as he’d imagined the COs of WWII were. Each country seemed to take on a certain personality. Bland, home of the Gunfighters and the Warhawks, were seen as the anal organized country. Aland had more of the free wheeling aces, which is why the Muskies defected emasse to there. Cland was more the colorful souls. The Fubars, run by the singularly eccentric Volstag, were a goofy but capable bunch, regularly awarding the Croix de Fu to members for usually bizarre reasons. Hoppy and Pho were brothers who, at one time, has actually owned a P38. Hop was a distinguished Psychologist in real life, and Phoenix was a successful businessman. Vol was a teenager. The NME were a rather dark bunch, let by Mullah. There was one unifying code in Cland – you always took off with eggs, and sometimes a Cland squad would win the bombing title having never flown a bomber.

There were certain unwritten laws in the game. One was that you never – I mean NEVER – complained about another player to Kesmai. Lady Jenny of Fubar violated this rule and complained to Kesmai about something Verm said to her. We all thought it had to have been the “C” word but it didn’t matter. Verm was my buddy, DoK was on hiatus, and so I felt the duty fell to me to set things right. I’ll never quite know how, but when I took off the evening afterward, everyone in the arena knew what I’d come to do. I was a Warhawk then, took off from Bland. As I approached the Atoll, Sloth – an Alander said on channel 1, “We won’t stop you, BB.” “Come on, Blander,” Mullah said. I overflew a formation of Cs and dove in. How the hell I knew which one was Jen I’ll never know, but I saddled up on one and blew it away. Jen’s tail number came up as shot down. Mullah pinged me once and said, “Now be on your way, Blander.”

The 1991 AW Con was attended by 36 folks. We had eight computers set up in the flying room. The big PC title that year was Wing Commander II. In the spring of that year, Kelton release Air Warrior version 2, which was the debut of what would be called Strat, along with a new Europe map replacing Iron Bottom sound. And something amazing was in the works.

As Charlottesville was only 2.5 hours from my home at the time, I’d paid a visit before the Con and was shown a project which had been under wraps for the past year. Fujitsu was enamored of Air Warrior and wanted it for their FM Towns computer in Japan (basically a 386/16 with SVGA graphics, a good sound system – for its time – and a CD ROM in one package). What they said, in essence, was, “We want Air Warrior, but we want it to look nice.” Up until this time there were no artists on the Kesmai staff. All cockpit art was created by the players using tools Kesmai provided. Much of it was so-called “cheat art” – art that created slits here and there to help you aim where you shouldn’t be able to. At runtime the front end checked to make sure that at least 80 percent of the prescribed art area was filled. When I saw an Air Warrior with real art and production values higher than anything on the market at the time….well….you can imagine how I felt. In the fall of that year a small group of beta testers were signed up, I amongst them.

It’s difficult to impart to you what a leap this was. There were no SVGA flight sims out there. Suddenly your tracers looked real, the Ts and upside down Ts, and the sideways Vs gave way to plane shapes that grew in complexity as they approached. And the sound effects – all digital, back when most PC titles employed MIDI.

Yet there was something tragic about the 1992 AW Con in LA. By then folks had a good idea what was coming – a box version to be released for Christmas; one that didn’t take a new user months to understand what was happening on his screen. Mullah and GMan hosted the Con that year. Mullah sulked in the hospitality suite. “We won’t matter anymore,” he said, a sentiment echoed elsewhere at the Con as the prospect of this tight little community, where you paid your dues and obeyed the rules, was about to be assaulted by thousands of party crashers. “But we’ll be like god to them!” I said. Though this brought a laugh, it was not entirely true. I too sensed that the Air Warrior I knew was about to come to an end.

Kesmai asked me to write the manual for SVGA Air Warrior. With a lump in my throat I gathered up my fat collection of forum print outs. I had to honor these guys, and I spent many hours culling distinctive quotes that could serve as tips for new players. How could this be? How could so much emotion well up in me from this dogfighting game. Why the hell didn’t I know then how much they mattered to me, how much was happening in that arena, night after night. It was more than a game – it was a dream, and not simply my dream of aviation. In that virtual world all that mattered was your conduct, and by your conduct alone were you judged. All those irrelevant reasons people were treated badly in the physical realm, at long last, didn’t matter. This had been the dream of my life, not merely a fanciful notion to fly. But the most important lesson was that the human heart cannot know the difference between emotion felt in the virtual world or the physical one. Thus, this was more than a dream. It was keenly and profoundly real.

Meanwhile Kesmai thought I’d been screwing around with my time. They asked that I come to Charlottesville to finish the manual there. This was my introduction to crunch time, as all of us worked 16 hour days, seven days a week until it shipped. The ten THOUsand dweebs came and, gradually, the old timers left. When Kesmai hired me that fall, I was getting some angry letters regarding the folks I quoted in the manual. Some claimed I made them up or, if they were real, I should not have used them. “We don’t see these guys up,” was the common thread. Didn’t matter. I’d done my duty.

But there was more to do. Figuring that each generation of Air Warriors was just as special to them, as mine were to me, I began a tradition of naming airfields after players. What was now old Europe had names of players who f lew in Campaign One. I knew we’d need fresh terrains, and each would reflect the generation that came just before it. In May of 1994 we were acquired by NewsCorp, however, and thus began a series of challenges that ultimately so compromised development control over Air Warrior as to lead to its demise just two days ago. There would be enormous victories nonetheless, but the key to everything – advancing the medium in which Air Warrior existed – would be blocked at every turn, and MUDs ended up killing the MMO simulation.

What was clear to me at the time was that nuisance realism – by that I mean non-tactical realism – would only lead to attracting an ever narrowing market. It’s the community, stupid, but community formation is serendipitous when thousands, not hundreds, are playing. Micro-community was the key. How do you create a game that makes the griefers and assholes leave in disgust, while accelerating the development of relationships? Stripped bare, the mechanics are simple. You have a managed conflict engine that produces stimulating stress. We cannot alter our reaction to stress anymore than we can alter our fingerprints. Amidst this managed conflict, relationship development is accelerated. We really do get an amazingly accurate picture of who people truly are in short order. There is good stress – the stress of battle on comprehendible terms – and bad stress: acts of griefers and jerk offs. How do you filter for the former, and strain out the latter?

At the time I thought it would come down to one grand experiment. I was told we had an enormous server on loan, and that I should create something that would use it to test the latest version of our host libraries. Thus became the most successful and yet the most obscure experiment in online gaming history: Big Week. No solo player role; group based play only. Come one, come all. The software and online time are free. If you’re not a fighter pilot you can certainly serve as crew on a bomber. No pick a plane and fly. You choose a side, you choose a group, and you hang out with your group during the countdown with your mission on the board. During that time, vets counsel newbees, and all launch together.

Mission after mission they came. Many served on buffs, flying an hour or more praying to god that nothing happened – entertained by suspense, and the chatter of their fellow crew members. In the first missions, all of them died but night after night the same crew would return. In the entire time only one griefer incident comes to mind: a buff gunner shooting at friendly buffs, it’s pilot banking out of the formation before too much damage was done.

And the fights! I recall one evening leading 30 or so RHC Spits while GB lead 40 or so buffs across the Channel. In comes the Luftwaffe and, with them, the most intense air battle I’d ever seen in all my years in AW begins. The sky is filled with tracers coming from all those bombers, the interceptors, the escort. I rtbed with Axeman. “Hey BB, wasn’t that the most amazing thing?” “Nothing like it, Axe.” And the newsgroup remains, albeit with a few moves. Yet this defining experiment meant nothing to those above us. Never having the chance at a clean sheet of paper, never having the money to do more than rev the product, and having the autos screwed up entirely by management, Big Week remains the high point and the nadir of Air Warrior.

In the end, Air Warrior was so far ahead of its time that it never got the recognition it deserved. That went to its imitators. It clearly changed my life and gave me the one career I believe in as strongly now as I did when I realized its importance, writing the SVGA manual in 1992. It taught me what the online medium is, and what potential remains.

Although I’ve been a nomad since I left Kesmai, I will always be from Kesmai, and I will always be an Air Warrior. In the end, I will find a way to move this medium to new levels and larger audiences but I will never understand an audience, down to the bone, the way I’ve understood Air Warriors. I will go to my grave with vivid recollections of the fights, the mirth, the unexpected closeness to people I would never have had the privilege to know otherwise: the one place I have found in my life where only my actions and character mattered: where I realized my most precious of all my dreams.

{Salute}

BB