Interview: DCS A-4E-C Developer Insight w/Heclak
Updated: Nov 3, 2020
When it comes to the currently available mods that DCS:World has there are only a few that have become so feature-rich that at least to me they are at the same level of some of the paid modules out there. One of these is the A-4E-C Community mod which was a collaborative effort between community members from different communities that united to make the Scooter fly in the skies of DCS:World.
One of these developers is Heclak, with which I had the pleasure to have today's interview talking about the Skyhawk's latest update, the difficulty of being a modder for DCS and the possible future of the project. Many thanks to Heclak for letting me have this chat with him!
To start with, could you introduce yourself and the work you have done before entering the A-4E-C mod team.
Hi. I’m Heclak and one of the current developers on the Community A-4E project. Working on the A-4E-C is my first time modding for DCS World. However, I do have prior experience in programming and 3D modelling which I had picked up in my personal time.
For how long have you been a part of the A-4E-C team and how many members does the team have right now?
I’ve been working on the Community A-4E project in an unofficial capacity since it first officially released in November 2018. I started by releasing an unofficial patch for the A-4E-C to add more accurate rocket capabilities and later improving the weapon systems capabilities of the A-4E as a contributor to the project. I was invited to be part of the official developer team at the end of March 2019 and have continued working on the A-4E-C every since.
The A-4E-C currently consists of Plusnine and myself as the official developer team but we would not have been able to accomplish what we have done if not for the support from the community members. Especially the community testers on our discord channel who have been providing valuable feedback and testing before each public release.
Modding in DCS has been a hot topic as of late due to many popular mods that have stopped working due to changes in DCS' way to handle anti-piracy measures. Has this affected the A-4E-C as a project in any way?
Thankfully the A-4E-C had not been affected by the changes, this is due to the A-4E-C being a standalone module and does not require any modifications to the DCS core files nor does it require the use of any files from other modules. One of the key goals for the A-4E-C was to be a fully standalone module so that there are no prerequisites for using it. This would allow anyone to hop into the A-4E-C as the only requirement is DCS World which is free.
Congratulations on the release of v1.4 of the Scooter! What do you consider to be the most relevant improvements made to the mod since its v1.3.1 release?
I have been asked this question a lot and I have always struggled with answering this question as there are simply so many changes in the version 1.4 patch.
The version 1.4 patch is a patch that includes a wide variety of improvements across all aspects of the aircraft. While a number of the changes are not immediately obvious, we feel that version 1.4 provides a layer of polish to the A-4E-C with the upgrades and bug fixes. The visual fixes and upgrades in both the cockpit and external models, especially with the improved lighting, provide a more immersive experience for the pilot.
Various systems such as the electronic countermeasures (ECM) panel and navigation system were further developed. One of my favourite but least visible upgrade is how the underlying hydraulics and electrical system were revisited to better model the intricacies of the system so that we can simulate emergency procedures. You will need to know which subsystems can be powered by the ram air turbine and how to use the emergency systems to land safely on the ground.
How hard has it been to maintain the Scooter flight-worthy in DCS? Were there any moments in which you have been frustrated by the constant fix-break cycle that happens when working in the Open Beta version of DCS?
Maintaining and improving the A-4E-C certainly has its challenges as we have been doing it without official support from Eagle Dynamics. We do not get advance information about changes to the way DCS works, which require us to react after a new version of DCS has been publicly released.
We are affected in a very different manner when compared to the official modules as we use different parts of the DCS system. The A-4E-C uses the Lua application programming interface (API) of DCS World which the official modules have been using much less of in recent years.
A lot of these functions could be considered legacy by Eagle Dynamics and we have had challenges in getting support when a code function is not doing what it is supposed to be doing as it doesn’t affect any of the official modules.
One example is the Standard Flight Model (SFM) system in the DCS World core. I believe the last official aircraft that used it was the C-101 and the Hawk before they had implemented their EFM.
There has been an outstanding bug where the nose landing gear sinks into the ground when the aircraft is loaded from specific start scenarios. Since this issue does not affect any of the paid modules, we have been having trouble getting traction for getting it fixed.
There have been several close calls were the A-4E-C would have seen an end-of-life situation due to DCS changes but they were thankfully mitigated. We hope to not encounter such situations in the future as it does give us a heart attack when it happens.
Have the lighting changes in DCS affected the A-4E-C? Could you show us what improvements are being made to accommodate this new lighting system?
There were several changes to the light rendering in the DCS 220.127.116.11726 Open Beta, one of these changes was a change in one of the shader which was often used for warning lights and annunciators.
I have been told by some of the official 3rd-party developers via a reply on a Reddit post that the particular shader has mostly likely been deprecated. Fixing this has involved an updating of the model to use a different shader to render the lighting and it has been looking great again.
Since the light rendering in DCS World 2.5.6 is a moving target, it has also required us to make constant brightness changes to the lighting effects to the cockpit lighting.
Our biggest concern is having to release too many small patches which would trouble the users to make constant manual updates to their installation.
I have taken the opportunity to give the lighting in the cockpit another upgrade with the new shader effects and adding more lighting-related features that are found in the real A-4E.
In an upcoming patch, the dimming wheel on the Angle-of-Attack (AOA) indexer will allow the dimming of the AOA indexer for night flying and some of the annunciators will switch to a dim mode when the cockpit lights are set up for night flights. The lights in their dim state will be more difficult to observe just like the real aircraft. These will more accurately reflect the pilot experience in different lighting conditions.
Do you think that ED's way to handle modding has been flawed? What do you think could be done to improve this situation?
Wow. This is a tough question. I think this topic is far too difficult and complicated to be answered here. This is a multi-tiered situation which requires addressing numerous aspects and it would not be correct to trivialize in a simple reply.
I wouldn’t describe Eagle Dynamic’s approach as flawed as I have always been under the impression that they do not really take a clear stand towards modding so it would not be fair to say if the current situation is flawed or not. I do wish that they would support the creation and use of mods in a more proactive fashion, particularly with a public release of the entire software development kit (SDK)that the official 3rd-parties have access to.
That approach would be in line with the overall flight simulation community but I understand that they also have their business interests to protect. I hope that there can be a mutually beneficial approach in the near future.
Last but not least. Will the A-4E-C continue to be supported in the future as long as you and the team are available to work on it? Are there any features you would personally like to add to the module later on?
Our goal is to keep the project running for as long as we can and one of the things that we have done to work towards that goal is to put the files on a community repository like Github where everyone can see the development progress and contribute if they wish to. We have facilitated the creation of an active community on our discord channel where numerous A-4E users have contributed in many ways from research, testing, mission creation, community-help, and even fixes to the A-4E-C.
We are working with some members of the community to create more liveries and missions for the A-4E-C. We would like to encourage more people to contribute to the project if they can, especially in the development of the module itself so that it can continue to be the community module that it started as. We believe that there are many talented members of the community who can help take the A-4E-C to greater heights and us as the development team can play the role of facilitators for that process.
My most desired feature to add would be radios as that would allow for air-to-air refueling, intercoms and radio communications but that is simply not possible without the SDK, so I have put that goal aside at the moment.
For now, I am just slowly making my way through the different systems as I learn more about the aircraft. There are many sub-systems that can still benefit from more research and improvements and I would like to keep working on them to create a really polished module for the community.
About the interviewer
Santiago "Cubeboy" Cuberos
Longtime aviation fanatic with particular preference towards military aviation and its history. Said interests date back to the early 2000's leading into his livelong dive into civil and combat flight simulators. He has been involved in a few communities but only started being active around the mid 2010's. Joined as a Spanish to English translator in 2017, he has been active as a writer and content manager ever since. Twitter | Discord: Cubeboy #9034